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Playmakers or troublemakers?

Public spaces no longer make children feel at home. Curfews, Asbos and naming and shaming seem disproportionately aimed at youngsters, writes Karen Gold

Boys and girls come out to play - but will they in years to come? Psychologists, academics and human rights campaigners are increasingly worried that children's worlds are shrinking; that changes in the way society perceives and treats children may result in them being ever more confined and controlled.

"Children spend more time indoors because parents are worried about their safety," says Dr Madeleine Portwood, dyspraxia expert and senior educational psychologist for Durham local education authority. "Parents are less keen for their children to be running around in the back streets, they are less keen on them walking.

"I think there's a big fear of traffic and of strangers. We have wonderful playgrounds in the North East. You go to them and they are empty."

The result, she says, is an epidemic among very young children of weak motor skills, poor co-ordination and concentration, and slowness in comprehension and expression. A vicious circle arises: with poorly developed physical play skills, children become less likely to enjoy activity. Their obesity and inactivity increases; they fail to develop the social skills - collaboration and turn-taking - which stem from outdoor play. And this in turn makes them less acceptable in public spaces.

Virtual experiences for children are replacing real experiences, she and others say. Schools become wary of taking children out on visits, showing them videos instead. Adventurous activity becomes legally risky, so schools cancel trips. Meanwhile electronic toys, "where you press a button and get immediate gratification", increase inactivity and solitariness, and "they too have an effect on social development".

If children are not frequently seen outside playing on the streets, people may be taken aback by their childishness when they are. It is only a small step to thinking that perhaps they shouldn't be.

Carolyne Willow, national co-ordinator of the Children's Rights Alliance for England, says she was recently asked in a radio interview why people should be disturbed on the streets by children. Her reply was that children are people too: "The chief constable of West Midlands police recently said his force gets thousands of complaints a year about rowdy children, when in fact these children are just walking down the street, just existing."

Campaigners argue that public hostility to children on the streets has been underpinned and encouraged by politicians. Laws in 1998 and 2003 have introduced anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), curfews on under-16s and powers for the police to disperse groups of two or more children if they believe members of the public have been "intimidated, alarmed or distressed". With no crime committed, they can move children on and escort them to their homes.

More than half of all Asbos since 1998 have been imposed on children. These have included bans on wearing "hoodies", on visiting grandparents, on using the child's own front door. No unaccompanied under-16 year-old is now allowed in London's West End after 9pm; a 14-year-old with backing from rights group Liberty is challenging the curfew that keeps him and all other under-16s out of the centre of Richmond in west London.

Critics of the government say these and other laws impose responsibilities upon children without giving them concomitant rights. They point to the age of criminal responsibility (10 in England, eight in Scotland) as the lowest in Europe. Yet children subject to Asbos have no right to privacy; their pictures are published on supermarket noticeboards and in local papers.

Since breach of an Asbo is a criminal offence carrying a sentence of up to five years imprisonment (Asbos themselves are imposed by civil courts, with a lower standard of proof than criminal proceedings) the child risks being recognised and blamed for causing distress simply by being out on the street. Eighty-one of the 6,000-plus children in custody in England from 2000-2002 were imprisoned for breaching an Asbo.

The pattern of physical constraint extends far beyond those ever likely to risk an Asbo, say campaigners. Schools are being encouraged to keep children in at lunchtime, to provide an extended day. Parents can buy tracker devices to attach to school bags and mobile phones.

Under the Children Act 2004, all information about children can be shared and kept on electronic databases, a breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that has gone almost unnoticed compared with the outcry about adult ID cards. Children can be searched at random for drugs, a power not extended to police powers to breathalyse adults. The group Action on Rights for Children is challenging a Metropolitan police proposal to allow strip-scan machines in schools where staff are anxious about weapons being brought on to the premises.

"These machines display people's genitals," says the group's co-ordinator Terri Dowty. "United States immigration won't use them, but we are saying it may be all right to use them on children with parental consent."

No political party promises to protect children's future rights and freedom, she says, because children have no vote.

A Home Office spokesman said: "The aim of dispersal orders is to prevent people from feeling frightened by groups hanging around. The powers can only be used where an officer is satisfied that the presence of a group or an individual is likely to cause harassment or alarm.

"These powers are not directed specifically towards children: communities can be blighted by people of any age. We have said the presumption should be in favour of naming and shaming for Asbo recipients because the public has a right to know, so they can report if someone is breaching their Asbo conditions."

"Children have always made a noise," says Carolyne Willow of the Children's Rights Alliance for England. "Children have always gone around in groups.

You have to ask whether young people are being squeezed out of public space, whether people are beginning to see the streets as belonging to adults rather than a place for potentially noisy children to hang out too."

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