Are we developing battery-reared or free-range children?

Keynote paper for seminar in Perth, Western Australia, organised by WAPAC.

A very good morning to you! I must say at the outset that it is very strange for me to be making this presentation without even knowing what the weather is like outside or how many of you there are out there. Strange too to realise that as you hear me, I am on the other side of the planet just after midnight, hopefully fast asleep!

Today’s children are more fortunate in many respects than children in previous generations. Witness the rising numbers who now have access to a bedroom with the characteristics of a mini-‘bed-sit’; television — for many, one of their own — with its wide range of entertainment; computer games for mental recreation; a family car or two, providing safe and effortless parent-chauffeured means of daily travel and weekend and holiday visits to ever more distant destinations and mix of activities; and in the last year or two, a mobile phone to maintain contact with friends at all times and in all places.

However, there has been, and continues to be, a downside for children to these seemingly attractive, and certainly much appreciated, benefits of material affluence. First and foremost, a steady albeit unwitting erosion of their rights to a safe environment beyond the boundaries of their home. Compared with their parents and, even more so, their grandparents when they were children, our studies have recorded their lives being much more circumscribed[1]. In pursuit of an understandable wish to minimise exposure to risk of road injury, bullying by other children or molestation by strangers — its frequency often much exaggerated by media over-reporting — parents have been denying their children independence in their local surroundings until a later stage in their childhood.

Though unintended, a disturbing outcome of this process is that children’s lives have been evolving in ways that, in some key respects, mirror life in prison., Criminals too have a roof over their heads, regular meals, licensed entertainment — but most of their waking hours are spent under surveillance and they are not allowed out on their own. Their enforced detention, and restrictions on how they spend their time, are intended to — and do — seriously diminish the quality of their lives. The removal of such a basic freedom is generally justified in their case but not in that of children. Its relevance to children’s development is no less important simply because it has been so widely overlooked — and for so long.

Prohibiting their independent mobility outside the home has been promoted on grounds of safety. As the volume and speed of vehicles have risen — and their ability to accelerate — exposure to danger has risen and people have had to exercise greater vigilance to avoid injury. For children, this has led to them being restricted from doing anything outside the home on their own. The benefits of that freedom — being able to go to and from school and in their leisure time unaccompanied — have been largely forgotten.

Parental fears and the perceived need to accompany children on their journeys wherever possible have grown markedly, and this has been translated into withdrawing children from the increased danger and into instilling in them the need to show deference to its source — the traffic. The alternative strategy of adopting policies of withdrawing danger from children to reflect their rights to a safe environment outside their home has not been seriously contemplated other than on the school journey, for instance with the development of Safe Routes to School projects Though representing progress, it is important to bear in mind that these journeys only account for a third of all children’s journeys and for only one in ten of their road fatalities in the UK and probably other countries too. At the same time, a view has become increasingly prevalent that parents who do not escort their children are irresponsible.

With travel by the non-motorised modes more likely to lead to death or injury than by car or bus, walking and cycling are becoming far less common. The change is most obvious in children’s travel patterns as they .are of course totally reliant on walking or cycling to get about on their own. In the UK in the last 15 years alone, the proportion of their journeys which are made on foot has fallen by a quarter, and twice as many of them are taken to school by car. Cycling, which used to feature as an ideal form of independent travel for them — and still does so in countries such as Denmark or the Netherlands which have made safe provision for it — hardly registers in surveys of children’s travel. As a result, they are getting less regular exercise leading to considerable concern about their rising levels of overweight and obesity and about the longer-term implications of this for their health.

Growth in traffic has also encouraged the view that streets are exclusively for traffic. And in parallel with the wider adoption of car-oriented patterns of travel, they have become depopulated. There are fewer people out and about on foot to provide the ‘hands-off’ form of social control of children which used to allow for relatively harmless mischievous behaviour because intervention was possible through verbal reprimand or physical restraint where it was leading to unruly-social activity. Indeed, the social function of the street has been almost totally overlooked other than in specially designated places such as pedestrian precincts. The street, together with adjacent open spaces used to act as children’s outdoor classroom where what they had learned in school and at home could put into practice. However, it is very apparent that there are now fewer opportunities for children to extend their physical competence and capabilities and to give rein to their instinctive desires to enlarge their geographical boundaries.

Parents’ instinctive fears about their children’s competence and safety when on their own outside the home have been heightened by the measures adopted to protect them. Even the apparently laudable initiative of Safe Routes to Schoolsimplies that children have no independent leisure lives outside the home. The fact is that young people make many more journeys to destinations in their free time than they do to and from school, and only a small minority of child fatalities occur on the journey to and from school combined. Why not Safe Routes to Leisure Sites and Amenities or, better still, Safe Routes for Children?

Another widely shared view is that, in light of the extended distance that children have to travel when their parents are free to choose the school they attend, the school bus should be the preferred option. From a road congestion and environmental viewpoint, the consequent reduction in car traffic may be welcome, and therefore can be seen as an appropriate strategy to promote. However, it is important to note that, from a child’s perspective, this strategy has a number of disadvantages that need to be taken into account.

Travel in school buses tends to be very time-consuming owing to their slower speed compared with the door-to-door convenience of cars. The buses also have to follow circuitous routes and stop at intervals to pick up and drop off their passengers. Most of the journey represents wasted time which children could otherwise spend in more rewarding ways. The buses have to run at prescribed times, precluding flexibility to allow for children’s after-school activity. In the case of the more economical-to-run larger coaches, there can be difficulties in negotiating narrower streets and in finding parking locations sufficiently close to the schools they serve. This can make it necessary for supervising adults to accompany younger children from the bus to the school and vice-versa. And a substantial cost is entailed: current calculations suggest that it is unlikely that a charge for this service can be lower than £45 a week. Finally, as noted earlier, where children travel by bus, as by car, they do not benefit from the regular daily exercise that walking (or cycling) allows which is so conducive to promoting their health.

Restrictions on travelling on their own and spending their time out of doors can have a range of undesirable outcomes: first and foremost, it takes away from children a basic right. It is almost as if there has been a conspiracy to lower the quality of the lives of children and to make more difficult their transition into responsible members of society. Indeed, setting ever tighter constraints on their freedoms, resentful of the control that parents can exercise over them, and making them distrustful of adults they do not know, could be seen as disturbingly effective ways of inducing alienation, disaffection and anti-social behaviour.

There are clear dangers stemming from aiming for an increasingly ideal world that the public hankers after which is risk-free and in which children act like responsible adults. That world does not exist. It is an approach running counter to the progressive one that parents need to adopt of giving their children more and more licence as they grow older. Children should not be expected to behave civilly at all times and only in games or relationships where it is being directed or has been sanctioned by an adult. Nor should they be expected not to engage in mischievous behaviour. Simply hanging about the streets is a very reasonable social activity that children should be free to initiate and enjoy.

Limiting children’s exposure to the outside world unless accompanied by an adult also affects the development of their social and emotional skills. It takes some of the excitement out of their lives as well — one has only to see the thrill they enjoy when they are first allowed to do things on their own. Their day has become increasingly structured by adults and they are less able to be spontaneous and to initiate their own socialising. Their detention also inculcates in their impressionable minds a grossly misleading perception that we, as responsible parents, consider that they should distrust people they do not know. It also reflects a feeling that their locality may contain within it elements of danger to which they should not be exposed. The natural consequence of this is that children are told not speak to ‘strangers’, a practice which should be a key element in the nurturing of community life. And, as a corollary to this, the ‘strangers’, that’s us, are fearful of talking to children we do not know either because we fear that our motives may be misconstrued or because the media have encouraged us to anticipate rude behaviour from them.

The effects on their social and emotional development of limiting their exposure to the outside world may represent too a high a price for them to pay — and may be counterproductive. In the same way that the school and home environment are highly influential on a child’s progress, so too is a stimulating environment. There is insufficient recognition of the fact that, in the same way that resistance to germs is promoted by exposure to mild levels of infection, so too is coping with bullying, intimidation and so on, best promoted by developing defensive mechanisms based on personal experience as well as sound advice. Reducing exposure to risk can make children more vulnerable. They need to take risks to gain experience in coping with them and to find where their personal and the public’s boundaries lie, and when to exercise caution. In any case, it may be questioned whether society should be aiming to eliminate risk from their environment. It could be observed that taking risks has been a key element in evolution. How else are children going to learn how to deal with the outside world on their own and be encouraged to think for themselves laterally and originally. A sanitised world free of risk is not one where these desirable attributes are likely to flourish.

What can now be done to reverse this process which appears to be so obviously damaging to children? Given the breadth of domains of policy which are affected, a strategy could be proposed which embraces the full spectrum of children’s life — including its quality. In order to arrive at a resolution of often conflicting objectives surrounding policy affecting children, it requires consideration being given to and a weighing in the balance of all the advantages and disadvantages of policy changes in each specific domain affecting children’s lives.

At this point in the proceedings of today’s seminar, may I put forward a few key questions that could be considered during its course:


  • Should an attempt be made to alter attitudes to children so that they are treated far less as second class citizens?
  • And should society be more accepting of mild misbehaviour by children or should it adopt a zero tolerance approach?
  • Could a measure of improvement be that children are spending more rather than less of their leisure time outside the home on their own or with friends?

Health and education

  • Should we be encouraging rather than discouraging interaction between children and adult ‘strangers’ in order to nurture neighbourliness and community welfare?
  • Should more effort be put into educating the public about the substantial health benefits for children of walking and cycling on a daily basis?

Transport and safety

  • Should more road space and resources be allocated to create safe networks for walking and cycling and to serve its former social function?
  • Should road danger be measured in a more comprehensive way than casualty statistics alone — overlooking that any reduction in their number can be explained, for instance, by danger increasing thereby resulting in fewer children being allowed out on their own?


  • How important is it that the local neighbourhood provides a safe environment in which children can develop their basic physical and social skills without adult supervision, as it used to?
  • And does the practice of land-use planning reflect its traffic implications sufficiently to ensure that transport policy objectives, not least in relation to children, are being given due consideration in decision-making?

Policies which reflect an informed discussion on questions such as these could lead to a reversal of the process which has so seriously diminished the quality of life of children. The success of such policies is likely to be seen in many beneficial forms — a generally more relaxed and friendly community, with more people on the streets and less crime, and with more children getting about on their own, more of them becoming ‘streetwise’ andmixing with ‘strangers’, and, not least, developing faster physically and mentally into coping adolescence and adulthood.

May I wish you well in your deliberations today. I hope they will lead to the adoption of policies providing an improved quality of life for Australian children.

Relevant publications by the author

‘Unfreedom Road’ (on children’s mobility), New Society, 3 May l973, Vol.24, No.552, pp.234-236, (also published in Transport Sociology: Social Aspects of Transport Planning, (ed. by E. de Boer), Pergamon Press, 1986, pp.159-168).

‘Is the Car Cheating Your Child? (with Anne Whalley), WHERE (Journal of the Advisory Centre for Education), April 1975, No.103, pp.94-97.

Fair Play for All: a study of access for sport and informal recreation (with Anne Whalley), Political and Economic Planning, 1977.

Walking is Transport (with Anne Whalley), Policy Studies Institute, 1979.

Danger on the Road: the needless scourge (with Stephen Plowden), Policy Studies Institute, 1984.

‘Foul Play for Children: a Price of Mobility’, Town and Country Planning, December 1988.

‘Traffic Threat to Children’,Childright, (Journal of the Young People’s Legal Centre), May 1989.

One False Move … a study of young people’s independent mobility (with John Adams and John Whitelegg), PSI, 1991.

Cycling: Towards Health and Safety, A British Medical Association report, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Children, Transport and the Quality of Life (editor and contributor), PSI, 1993.

‘Protection Racket’ (on the subject of the loss of children’s independence outside the home), Times Educational Supplement, 20 June 1997.

‘Children, Transport and the Quality of Urban Life’ in Growing up in a changing urban landscape (ed. R. Camstra), Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Company, 1997.

‘Curbing children’s social and emotional development: an unrecognised outcome of parental fears’, The Journal of Contemporary Health, Issue 8, Winter, 1999/2000.

1. Mayer Hillman, John Adams and John Whitelegg, One False Move: a study of children’s independent mobility, Policy Studies Institute, 1991.

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