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Protection racket

Children are losing their freedom in a world adults see as full of danger. Mayer Hillman argues that this damaging trend needs to be reversed.

All political parties put education high on their agendas, if not in top place. New Labour, with its oft-repeated mantra, "education, education, education", has indicated that it wants to be especially remembered for having raised standards in schools during its term of office.

Governments have always seen formal education in school as the key to a child's development. However, many of the skills needed if children are to make the transition from childhood to the competence and independence of adulthood are not acquired in school. The importance of the three-quarters of children's waking hours (holidays included) which they spend outside school is increasingly overlooked.

Of course, children learn a great deal at home, through interaction with parents, siblings and the extended family. However the local neighbourhood should provide another vital informal environment in which they learn and develop.

Children who are out and about in their neighbourhoods do not have the same security and reassurance they find at home. But they do have opportunities, crucial to their maturation, for giving rein to their instinctive desire to enlarge their geographical boundaries and to develop their physical and social skills.

The neighbourhood - just outside the home for young children, and further afield as they grow older - is the place where this process can flourish without overt adult surveillance. It provides a unique locus for learning how to cope in the real world through direct experience - which can be far more effective than being taught.

Regrettably, however, access to this experience has been steadily and almost insidiously diminished because parents want to protect children from harm, be it from traffic or molesting strangers. A rising proportion of children's waking hours is spent under adult supervision, and in many areas there are fewer children on the streets.

Our studies over the past 25 years have revealed a marked increase in the restrictions imposed on children's freedom to be out on their own. More and more of them are escorted by adults on their school and leisure journeys - and this continues until an ever-later age.

Most children own a bicycle, but few are allowed to use it as a means of transport, in spite of the fact that it is the ideal way to make them mobile and fit.

The increasing circumscription of the lives of children may be well-intentioned, but it is also damaging. This generation of children are increasingly being denied opportunities for learning how to make their own decisions, how to act responsibly and how to assess the motives of those they do not know.

They are prevented from having adventures, extending personal frontiers, being mischievous, taking risks, and making mistakes and suffering the consequences. They cannot gain the self-esteem and self-confidence that comes from contributing to family and community life by shopping, visiting or running errands for old people. These are all basic elements of growing up best learned when children are on their own.

More restrictions come from parents choosing schools that may advance their children's academic prospects, but are often far from home. Children are chauffeured by car rather than being able to travel independently .

This has many ill-effects. Other children living nearer the chosen school may lose a place there, and they too will have to travel further to school. Friendships have to be based on formal arrangements, and are very different to the spontaneous friendships that thrive when children go to school in their own neighbourhood and are free to drop in on each other casually.

The dependence on car travel can limit children's participation in their school's extra-curricular activities. And the twice-daily school runs affect all the people living along the route.

There are other serious consequences of children's loss of independent mobility over the past few decades. Research suggests that their declining fitness is attributable to the fact that they walk and cycle far less and, confined to their homes, lead an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

That does not bode well for their future health. In 20 or 30 years the incidence of heart disease may rise sharply owing to children having had insufficient exercise during the critical early years.

Some attention has been paid to the declining number of children walking or cycling to school. This has led to welcome initiatives, such as the Safe Routes to School projects.

Laudable though these are, they too reflect the view that children's lives are largely orientated on school, and that the proper response to the dangers of traffic lies in making their journey to school safer. But children make many more journeys in their free time than they do to school. Why not Safe Routes for Children?

The psychological benefits for children of being allowed to get out and about independently are fairly intangible and therefore difficult to measure. But it is obvious that the appropriation of streets for traffic and parking has led to children's loss of independence, and of their rights to outdoor public spaces.

It is now widely acknowledged that the quality of a school's environment has an important influence on children's academic attainment. It stands to reason that lowering the quality of the out-of-school environment, with increasing danger from traffic, and the loss of the street as a milieu for social and recreational activity, should also be seen as damaging to their personal and social development.

Is it not time to rethink policy for our children so that it embraces the full spectrum of their lives, rather than focusing so heavily on their formal education? They should be able to spend far more of their time outdoors, on their own, as we did when we were their age.

Now that we have evidence of the deleterious effects of the growing restrictions on their autonomy, it is difficult to believe that a civilised society will not wish to try to reverse the process which has brought that about. If the Government is truly committed to children's quality of life, it could do far more to enable them to "reclaim the streets".

Can the Department of Transport have this wider remit of catering for children's welfare, or does it need the appointment of a minister with responsibility for children?

Dr Hillman is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute and was a speaker at The Kids Aren't Alright conference on children's health-related fitness organised by St Edmundsbury Borough Council and held in London last week.

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