A new study reveals a dramatic loss of children’s independence outside the home over the last 40 years.
Only 25 per cent of primary school children in England are allowed to travel home from school alone compared with 86 per cent in 1971, and the study from the University of Westminster also found that primary school children in England have far less freedom than they do in Germany.
Ben Watson, Research Fellow at the Policy Studies Institute (and one of the authors of the report) said: “Independent mobility has been shown to be good for children’s wellbeing and development, yet our research shows it has dropped significantly in the past four decades.
"The experience from Germany shows that this drop is not an inevitable result of modern life.
"If we care about the future health of our children, action should be taken to enable them to regain the right to a safe outdoor environment without the need for adult supervision.”
In 1971, 86 per cent of the parents of primary school children surveyed said that their children were allowed to travel home from school alone. By 1990, this had dropped markedly to 35 per cent, and there was a further drop to 25 per cent being allowed to do so in 2010.
Modes of transport also changed; there was a shift away from walking and cycling between 1990 and 2010 in the surveyed schools. Use of public transport and school buses increased 15 percentage points (from 49 per cent in 1990 to 64 per cent in 2010). Car travel also increased (from 9 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2010).
The study also reviewed attitudes towards cycling as a mode of transport:
[It] found that walking and cycling are perceived by children and young people as less convenient, pleasant and safe than travelling by car. However, it also highlighted that this perception may relate to cultural or preference‐related influences as much as to structural factors.
Low preference for walking and cycling may relate to perceptions of low status of these modes. However, children and especially young children are more positive than their parents about walking and cycling. One may draw from this that, while parents may have legitimate safety concerns about letting their children out alone, there are also important cultural pressures, leading parents to take their children to places by car for reasons other than safety.
The full report is available to read here.
Sustrans Chief Executive Malcolm Shepherd said: “It’s a tragedy that so many of our children are failing to meet recommended physical activity levels but little wonder when parents don’t feel that their local streets are safe.
“We urgently need to make our communities safer if we’re to get kids active by walking and cycling to school and playing outdoors.
“Parents want to see safer streets - the Government must change the standard speed limit to 20mph on the streets where we live, work and play.”
Cath Prisk, Director of Play England, said: “Parents who want to buck this worrying trend should think about giving their kids the gift of independence at home, on the doorstep, in their neighbourhood and further afield."
After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.