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Survey: We Keep Raising the Age That Children Are Allowed To Play Outside

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A survey of almost 2,000 parents in the U.K. found that most of them won’t let their kids play outside, unsupervised, until age 11, The Guardian reports. This news comes despite the fact that when the parents were kids, they headed out to play around age 9.

Tim Gill, author of Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities and a longtime champion of more freedom for kids, said the study shows “that British children have been subject to a gradual, creeping lockdown over at least a generation.” Thanks to the pandemic, he added, we all know what a lockdown feels like.

So why are we doing this to our kids? The reasons are the usual adult fears of crime and traffic, dovetailing with the fact that electronic entertainment keeps many kids from longing for the outdoors. (Or knowing it exists.)

Of course, our desire to keep kids safe makes sense. What is hard to keep in mind when worrying about the dangers of letting them leave the house is that there are dangers to not letting them leave the house. Gill lists them: “Boredom, isolation, inactivity and poorer mental and physical health. The consequences for the development and wellbeing should not be underestimated.”

In fact, the consequences are pretty clear. After all, the book, Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant, was a standard-issue child development book for parents, published in 1979. Over the course of just 40 years it has become an amazing artifact, a Rosetta Stone from the past, back when, according to the book’s checklist, your average six-year-old entering first grade should have been able to knock off simple milestones including:

  • Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?
  • Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?
  • Can he tell the left hand from right?
  • Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?

Keeping kids under adult supervision until they are almost twice that age—11 instead of 6—is a shocking development. Imagine if we kept kids in diapers till age eight, or didn’t let them start driving until age 32. It’s dizzying to think of how quickly we have come to see kids as helpless instead of spunky.

If the crime rate had soared in the interceding decades, extra caution might make sense. But here in America, where, like Britain, we are also keeping kids under very close tabs for ever-more years, the crime rate is back to what it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Crime was on the increase till the early 1990s but then it started heading back down—way down. So parents who were playing outside in the 1980s or 1990s were allowed out when the crime rate was higher than it is today.

The University of Reading’s Helen Dodd, who lead the study, says, “we can clearly see that there is a trend to be protective and provide less freedom for our children now than in previous generations.” Unfortunately, the older kids are before they get moving, exploring, and playing on their own, the less chance they get to develop “their ability to assess and manage risk independently,” Dodd says.

Our own risk calculations are pretty off when we think we are keeping kids safer by stunting their physical and psychological growth by treating them like babies for eleven long, stifling years.


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