The other environment for learning

All political parties see education as the domain of public policy deserving a high if not top place on their agendas. New Labour, with its oft-repeated mantra of the last few months of ‘Education, Education, Education’ as its priority, has indicated that it looks forward to being especially remembered for having markedly raised standards in schools during its term of office.

Governments have always seen formal education in school as the key to a child’s development. However, all the skills needed for the transition from the limited capabilities of childhood to the widely embracing competence and prospective independence of adulthood are not acquired in school. What seems to be increasingly overlooked is the complementary role played during the period of over three-quarters of children’s waking hours (holidays included) which is spent outside school.

The home is of course where the process can best flourish, through family interaction – with parents, siblings and the extended family. However, the local neighbourhood also provides another informal environment. Whilst children in it do not enjoy similar levels of security to the home, and the reassurance stemming from that, it does contain an element crucial to children’s maturation, namely opportunities for giving rein to their instinctive desires to enlarge their geographical boundaries and to develop their physical and social skills.

The neighbourhood – just outside the home for young children, and further and further afield as they grow older – is the place where this process can flourish without overt adult surveillance. It provides a unique locus for learning how to cope in the real world through direct experience that can be far more effective than being instructed. Regrettably, however, access to it has been steadily and almost insidiously diminished in the narrow pursuit of protecting children from harm, be it from traffic or molesting strangers. Certainly, a rising proportion of children’s waking hours is spent under adult supervision and it is a common observation that there are fewer children on the streets.

Our studies over the last 25 years have revealed a marked increase in the restrictions imposed on children’s freedom to be out and about on their own. More and more of them are escorted on their school and leisure journeys – and at an ever-later age in their childhood. Most own a bicycle but few are allowed to use it as a means of transport in spite of the fact that, given safe provision for it, it is the ideal means not only for their independent mobility but also for promoting their fitness. The effect of this limitation is all the more apparent since, compared with walking, the bicycle extends geographical opportunities 10 to 15-fold.

The circumscription of the lives of children, albeit with the aim of reducing their risk of injury in a traffic collision, may be well-intentioned but the outcome of this policy initiative is damaging in other ways. Another is the exercise of parental choice with regard to the school their child attends. This may advance academic prospects, but it can lead to the selection of a more distant school, making chauffeuring by car rather than independent travel a logical outcome – with all the other ill-effects for people along the route then taken twice daily, and the loss of a place in the school for a child living nearby who may then have to travel further as a consequence. Dependence on car travel also tends to result in limits on participation in extra curricular activities, and friendship patterns having to be more formally arranged – a very different character to the more spontaneous ones that can thrive when children are free to casually drop in on each other.

Children’s loss of independent mobility is not the only largely unnoticed consequence of changes over the last few decades in our evolving car-dependent patterns of activity. A growing body of research suggests that their declining fitness is attributable to the fact that they walk and cycle far less and, owing to greater confinement to the home, lead an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. That does not bode well for their future health: we may have a time bomb on our hands which will explode in 20 or 30 years when the incidence of heart disease rises sharply owing to the insufficiency of daily exercise during the critical years of childhood.

The psychological benefits for children of being allowed to get about independently are fairly intangible and therefore difficult to measure. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the appropriation of streets for traffic and parking has led to children’s loss of rights to outdoor public spaces. This generation of children are increasingly being denied opportunities for learning how to make their own decisions, how to act responsibly and how to assess the motives of those they do not know, of having adventures, extending personal frontiers, being mischievous, taking undue risks and making mistakes and suffering the consequences, gaining self-esteem and self-confidence from contributing to family and community life by shopping, visiting or running errands for old people. These are all basic elements of growing up best learned when on their own.

One of the few aspects of children’s lives outside school that has received attention during the last few years stems from concern about the declining number of children walking or cycling to school. This has led to welcome initiatives, such as the Safe Routes to School projects. Laudable though these are, they too reflect the conventional view that children’s lives are largely school-oriented and that therefore the proper response to the greater danger to which children are now exposed from the growing volume of traffic and rising vehicle speed and acceleration lies largely in making the school journey safer. This overlooks the fact that children make many more journeys to destinations in their free time than they do to school. Why not Safe Routes for Children?

It is now widely acknowledged that the quality of a school’s environment is highly influential on children’s academic attainment. It stands to reason that lowering the quality of the out-of-school environment, particularly in terms of danger from traffic, and loss of the street as a milieu for social and recreational activity, should also be seen as damaging to their attainment in this complementary sphere of their development.

Is it not time to rethink policy for our children so that it embraces the full spectrum of their lives rather than being so heavily focused on their formal education? They should be able to spend far more of their time on their own in the outdoor environment – as we did at their age. Now that we have evidence of the deleterious effects of growing restrictions on their autonomy, it is difficult to believe that a civilised society will not wish to reverse the process that has brought that about. For the government to demonstrate that it is truly committed to children’s quality of life, it could do far more to enable them to ‘reclaim the streets’. Can the Department of Transport have this wider remit of catering for their welfare in this respect, or does it need the appointment of a Minister of State with responsibility for children?


Published under the title Protection Racket in the Times Educational Supplement, 20 June 1997.

Dr. Hillman is Senior Fellow Emeritus at Policy Studies Institute and was a speaker at The Kids Aren’t Alright conference on children’s health-related fitness organised by St. Edmundsbury Borough Council and held in London on 11 June 1997.

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