A right to play

A few years ago, in my home town of Trondheim, a five-year-old girl called Silje was beaten up by three boys of her own age, knocked unconscious and left to freeze to death in the snow. People were shocked. Teachers and childcare officers were not alone in wanting to know where the adults had been when this happened. The children, it transpired, had been playing outdoors unsupervised.

Which isn’t surprising, as that’s what most children do in Norway. Long before I even started school, I was free to roam unsupervised. We played on building sites, climbed trees and explored the woods. We created our own fantasy worlds—sometimes scaring each other near to death, and having experiences that would never have happened in the presence of adults.

Silje’s death could easily have prompted a change of heart, but it didn’t. Norwegians decided that the occasional rare accident or tragedy is a price worth paying for allowing children to experience the riches of a world roamed freely.

In Britain, unfortunately, parents have taken the opposite view. In recent years, they have become not so much wary about letting their children go out unsupervised as plain terrified. In the early 1970s, 80 per cent of seven-to-eight year olds were allowed to travel to school on their own or with other children. By 1990, only 9 per cent did. And in 1995, a survey by Barnado’s found only 30 per cent of children over 9 years old walked to school on their own. Over that twenty-year period, the proportion of children described by the
parents as “outdoor children” fell from 60 per cent to 23 per cent.

And coming right up to date, only this month a survey carried out for the Children’s Society and the Children’s Play Council, British charities that promote play, found that almost 80 per cent of parents say the main reason they stop their children from playing outdoors is fear of strangers. This despite the fact that the chance of a child being killed by a stranger is no greater now than it was in the 1950s: less than 1 in a million.

Even in school playgrounds, the unsupervised interactions of children with their peers are being limited. Partly because of fears about bullying and security, there is an increasing anxiety about school breaktimes.

Clearly, we need to ask some serious questions about what this relentless supervision is doing to kids. Unsupervised play isn’t just a childhood luxury we can do without, it’s vital. Study after study has shown that it helps to develop children’s ability to negotiate social rules and to create their own. In short, taking risks in childhood goes hand in hand with developing new skills: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In Norway, a childhood with no broken bones is said to be “no good childhood”. In the town of Skudeneshavn, local headmaster Asbjørn Flemmen has taken this philosophy to its logical conclusion by building a school playground that positively encourages potentially dangerous thrill-seeking. The children whiz around in the “jungle” dangling from ropes at great heights. Adults are told to back off. The children’s improved social skills have stunned their parents and teachers.

It takes a brave parent to grant children this kind of freedom. But unless we do, we may stunt the social development of a generation. And that’s not a risk worth taking.

Published by New Scientist, 4 September 1999.