A new survey reveals that today’s children are missing out on pursuits such as cycling and swimming enjoyed by past generations of youngsters, with experts blaming the findings on their parents being too afraid to let them play outside. Rather than go out and ride their bikes, the survey says that today’s kids are more likely to be engrossed in electronic gadgets such as mobile phones and computer games consoles, watching TV or surfing the internet.
The survey of 1,500 children aged between six and 15 was commissioned by Tata Steel, sponsor of Kids of Steel, which seeks to introduce children to the sport of triathlon. It found that 15% were unable to swim, one in ten could not ride a bike, and a quarter had never run more than 400 metres, reports Wales Online.
One third of those surveyed said they didn’t own a bike – but two thirds have a mobile phone, and three in four a games console. When it came to deciding how to spend their free time, youngsters were twice as likely to watch TV as to take part in sports. Surfing the internet, playing video games and using online social networks were undertaken by half of the children surveyed in their free time.
Tim Gill, an expert on children’s play and free time who has regularly written on the subject for The Guardian in the past, said that the survey’s results regarding use and ownership of bicycles were particularly troubling.
His views will resonate with anyone old enough to remember when a bicycle, rather than a games console or mobile phone, was the most expensive thing you owned while growing up and who enjoyed the taste of freedom it allowed.
“The findings on cycling and cycle ownership paint a worrying picture, not just about children’s exercise but also about their everyday freedoms,” he told Wales Online.
“Not so many years ago, kids both burnt up calories and built up their self-confidence by cycling around their neighbourhoods. It looks like parents today feel the roads are too dangerous for that.
“There’s a message here for politicians; make streets safe enough so that parents can feel confident about letting their kids cycle as part of their daily lives.”
Gill Evans, at children’s play charity Play Wales agreed that fear among some parents of letting their children play outside was also an issue.
“There is a culture among some people which means they think that their children cannot go outside and play,” she explained.
“From when I was young, it seems that the number of cars on the roads has increased, and there are many roads where cars travel faster. But children need to learn to be resilient and things like learning to ride a bike are amazing life skills in the same way as reading and writing.”
“What we need to be doing is nurturing kids who are confident to go outside.”
Ms Evans highlighted the fact that the rise of technology had caused a shift in habits, but maintained that ways need to be found of ensuring that time spent in front of computer screens is compensated for by adequate exercise.
“Things like computer games are being pushed at children and they are being used as child care,” she insisted.
“In our environment there is more emphasis on doing things on screens, and finding that balance with the time children might spend on Facebook and computer games is just different from when I was younger. We need to find a way of navigating through that.”
According to Ms Evans, it is not the children themselves who are electing to spend so much time indoors in front of the TV or computer.
“The studies that we and other organisations have done show that children prefer to play outside. It’s actually the environment that we as parents and adults create that pushes them inside,” she explained.
“Swimming and riding bikes all add to the whole richness of childhood, growing up and getting out with your friends, and therefore it is something we need to invest some time and effort into. Children can do a lot more than we expect they can as a society.
“In terms of children’s health, children riding a bike and swimming is really important. Children would love to swim if given the opportunity to do so,” she concluded.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.