Am I wrong to let my four year-old play out?
‘Laid-back’ mother Maria Lally is part of a growing movement of parents who are reclaiming childhood
Last Saturday I was clearing out my wardrobe, making a pile of clothes for the charity shop. My husband, Dan, was in the garden chopping a hedge, and our two daughters, Sophia and Rosie, were out the front, playing with a neighbourhood friend. So far, so normal for a Saturday. Except Sophia and Rosie have just turned seven and four. This might seem shocking to some and we’ve had friends and family ask (very politely) whether the girls will be OK, when they charge out of the door excitedly after a friend knocks for them.
I’ve always been fairly laid-back with parenting. By two, they’d ditched the baby swings for the bigger ones, and these days they’re often found at the top of a tree or heading into the woods that wrap around our local park to build camps. Occasionally, I’ll wander after them to check they’re OK and usually find them carrying logs twice their height. But rather than being overly lax, I could be onto something. This week we heard that 500 communities across the UK have signed up to the Playing Out initiative, which encourages local councils to temporarily close roads each week so children can play outside. The University of Bristol found the scheme led to increased happiness; cycling and road skills improved and the children’s activity levels soared fivefold.
“We know time spent outdoors is related to greater daily physical activity and reduced risk of obesity,” says Professor Angie Page from the university. Because, while NHS guidelines suggest children aged five and over need a minimum of 60 minutes physical activity a day, only 21 per cent of boys and 16 per cent of girls actually manage this.
But Tim Gill, researcher and author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society says there’s more to the “calling for you culture” than fitness.
“Children who regularly play out learn to socialise and hone handy life skills, like responsibility and problem solving,” he says. “And unusually for children today, who are often in a goldfish bowl with adults ready to leap in, they’re in control. They’re trying on freedom for size, safe in the knowledge that help is close by.”
Dr Sam Wass, a child developmental psychologist from the University of East London and one of the presenters of The Secret Life of 4 Year-olds agrees. “There’s now a tendency to ‘overparent’ and children are leading fairly isolating lives as a result,” he says. “But studies show that when children play alongside, and feel supported by, the community around them, their emotional wellbeing improves.”
Where we live is a huge factor in my approach to parenting. Four years ago, we lived on a busy road in south London, and I wouldn’t have let the girls play out so young there.
But now we’re one of four houses circling a tiny green in Surrey and only a handful of cars go by every hour. When Sophia was six, I started sending her next door to ask for sugar (and the rest). She loved the freedom and responsibility and pretty soon Rosie, then three, wanted a slice of it too, so they went together.
Soon after, neighbourhood children began knocking to see if Sophia could play on the green opposite – and with a deep breath I let her. And this spring, when Rosie turned four, I let her out too, provided Sophia was there. I can see them from the house and leave the front door ajar, so they often run in and out, gathering toys and snacks.
When I asked friends if they’d do the same, the replies were split. Nadia, who lives in southwest London, says the thought of her nine year-old twin boys playing outside or walking to school, a four-minute walk down her road, makes her “blood run cold”.
However, my friend Becky, who lives in London, lets her eight and six year-old daughters play out and go around the block. “I pretend to be relaxed, but I get twitchy if I haven’t heard them for a couple of minutes,” she admits.
Marianne, who lives in Kent, let her sons – now 13 and 16 – walk to school on their own from Year 5. She says: “It was quite a walk and much of it along a narrow country footpath.
“Meeting up with friends I’ve always been fine with, too, and the boys would often go into town with pals before they left primary school. I just warned them to be home when I said and not ignore me if I rang their mobile. I think they need to socialise
If one of us fell off our bike, another would rush to alert the closest parent
on their own from a young age, like I did. My mum didn’t see me in the summer holidays as I’d be off with my mates on the back field. But
I had to be home on time or there’d be trouble.”
The only thing all the friends I spoke to have in common is that they played out unsupervised at their own children’s ages. “I grew up in Hertfordshire and our garden backed onto a field,” says Nadia. “I crawled through the hedge and played with friends until dinnertime. My mum had no idea where I was.”
I had a similar childhood and played out almost constantly with my older brother and our friends. If one of us fell off our bike, another would rush to alert the closest parent. And by the end of primary school, we were all walking home together.
According to a study from the University of Westminster, in 1971 86 per cent of primary school children travelled home alone, compared with 25 per cent today.
Gill says the parenting shift in the past 30 years is due to wider social changes. “Top among those is traffic growth,” he says. “Children also travel further to school nowadays and may not be classmates with their neighbours. There’s also less green space, more childcare and more technology. Plus a whole industry built around safety equipment, like toddler knee-pads. Parents today are generally more fearful.”
Tomorrow will be 15 years since the murders of 10 year-olds Holly Chapman and Jessica Wells in Soham, Cambridgeshire. Two years previously, in July 2000, eight year-old Sarah Payne was snatched from a country lane and murdered, and in 2007 three year-old Madeleine Mccann made headlines worldwide when she went missing in Portugal after her parents left her unattended in their holiday apartment.
“High-profile cases like this are the sum of all our fears as parents,” says Gill. “Evidence shows there is no greater threat from paedophiles now than 40 years ago. But statistics don’t help fearful parents.”
Gill believes we’re at a turning point, however. “Parents are coming together to say they want their children to play out again and have freedom.”
Rachel Jenkins, from Charlton in south-east London, one of the residents of the road trialling the Playing Out scheme, says: “I recently went back to the street where I grew up for my mother’s funeral and I had this flashback of playing out in the road with all the neighbourhood children.
“There was this little wall that we turned into a shop counter and we put piles of berries and leaves on it to sell to each other. We were out there for hours. It was such an amazing childhood. It’s sad the majority of children don’t have this now.”
Child’s play: Maria Lally lets her daughters Sophia, seven, and Rosie, four, (main picture) play out on their own; Maria and her husband Dan with the girls, below