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

The Daily Telegraph - - Family features -

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

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