Children in the UK are being held back from playing outside unsupervised, new research has suggested.
Parents told researchers that on average they were allowed out alone before the age of nine, but the current generation of primary school children are not given the same independence until they are nearly 11.
Experts have warned not enough adventurous play could affect children’s long-term physical and mental health.
“In the largest study of play in Britain, we can clearly see that there is a trend to be protective and to provide less freedom for our children now than in previous generations,” said Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, who led the study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research into Public Health.
“The concerns we have from this report are twofold. First, we are seeing children getting towards the end of their primary school years without having had enough opportunities to develop their ability to assess and manage risk independently.
"Second, if children are getting less time to play outdoors in an adventurous way, this may have an impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing.”
The British Children’s Play Survey, conducted in April 2020, asked 1,919 parents about the play habits of their children aged five to 11.
Anita Grant, chair of Play England, has concerns about the impact of the lack of freedom reported in the survey.
“Play outdoors is fundamentally important for children to develop a sense of self and a relationship with the world around them," she explained.
"Adults' protective instincts are not helpful when they restrict and control exploration, creativity and a child’s natural instinct to engage with their environment freely.
"Children need to learn how to risk assess and make good decisions. Play is the way that children grow and develop, building experiences and skills that will make them resilient and for this they need time, space and freedom.”
Watch: Ed Balls backs children to get COVID vaccine.
After a year of coronavirus restrictions we should all be able to sympathise with how such limits affect children, according to Dr Tim Gill, independent scholar, and global advocate for children's play and mobility.
"Thanks to the pandemic, we all know what lockdown feels like," he said. "This groundbreaking study shows that British children have been subject to a gradual, creeping lockdown over at least a generation."
Dr Gill said there will be many reasons behind parents' decisions to restrict unsupervised play, with social changes, safety fears, technology and traffic growth all arguably playing a part.
"However, the end result for all too many children is the same: boredom, isolation, inactivity, and poorer mental and physical health," he explains.
"The consequences for their development and well-being should not be underestimated."
Dr Amanda Gummer, psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide, believes there are many benefits to children playing out independently.
"Children learn a huge amount about their local environment and form friendships with a wider range of people, outside their immediate family and class if they play out locally," she explained.
"They also learn vital skills such as risk assessment and self-regulation."
Dr Gummer believes there are several reasons children are being held back from playing outside alone.
"First, the media focus on abductions has created a fearful society," she explained. "Statistically, the Victorian era is believed to be the most dangerous for children but the horror scenarios that every parent plays through in their head whenever their child is not where they expect them to be or is a few minutes late home feeds into this perception of the world being a dangerous place.
"The irony being that the more children (and adults) are out in their community, the safer it is for everyone."
The second fear, according to Dr Gummer, is that there is more traffic on the roads and that people drive faster.
"It’s not wise to let children under the age of about eight cross a road alone (due to their ability to accurately judge how fast a car is approaching and the level of risk that is present), so opportunities for children to play outside with minimal supervision are limited," she explained.
Finally, Dr Gummer believes there has also been a lack of investment in play spaces over the last 20 years.
"A lot of the playgrounds that were installed in the 1990s are coming to the end of their useful life and are not being well used, which in turn leads to councils closing them down and reducing further the opportunities for children to play in their community," she added.
Are children more at risk playing outside alone now?
This is a tricky question to answer according to Liat Hughes Joshi, the author of five parenting books, including New Old-fashioned Parenting, which examines how and why parenting has changed over the last generation or two
"It’s easy to wear rose-tinted glasses and think that the 1970s and 80s were a glorious safe time for children to ‘play out’ and that now the world is going to hell in a hand cart," she said.
"We are made much more aware of dangers now with constantly 'on' news media. If there is a significant missing child case or worse, we hear about it on rolling news channels.
"That was simply not the case a generation ago and so I think we’ve become hyper-aware of the dangers and sometimes these combine with our parental protective instincts to get blown out of proportion."
Tips and advice for parents when allowing children to play independently
"If you know you can be a bit over-protective as a parent, try to challenge yourself," advises Hughes Joshi. "Try to allow your children a little bit more (sensible) freedom as that is how they will learn to be streetwise.
"Children need to learn to be out in the world in measured ways gradually," she added.
"Being over-protective feels like you’re looking after them in the best way possible, but actually in the long term, not allowing them to develop the skills they need to be independent can be worse."
In order to help parents feel less anxious about their children playing outside alone, she suggests talking in a balanced way to your child about what they should do if they encounter dangers, but without frightening the life out of them.
"Say things like ’this is very, very unlikely to happen but if X occurs, what will you do?’ and guide them, create a set of rules together," she said.
Most parents will agree that mobile phones can be both a blessing and a curse, but overall Hughes Joshi believes they can be useful for kids going out alone.
"Don’t be afraid to use the ‘find a friend’ type function with your child’s phone," she said. "I don’t recommend they have a super-flash new top of the range phone – just something with the basic functionality they need."