The New Endangered Species: The Free-Range Child

02/06/2011 12:09 | Updated 22 May 2015
The new endangered species: The free-range childRex

How many have you spotted today? If you are lucky, you might see one escape from a car and scuttle into the nearest building. You will rarely see one on its own, walking the streets or playing in the countryside. There is a new endangered species - the free range child.

We might choose free range eggs and meat, appreciating their benefits - but do we allow our children to roam? No, is the simple answer.

According to the National Travel Survey, the number of children aged seven to eight years who travel to school without an adult has fallen from 80 today - and today's figure includes children up to the age of 10.

Furthermore, seven out of 10 children used to play in their streets - now it is fewer than two in 10.

Parents report that traffic is their main concern - yet one in five of journeys at 9am and 4pm are the school run - when the average distance to primary school is a little over a mile.

It's not simply the fact that today's children are fatter and less fit than ever which should worry us - it is also the fact that being ferried everywhere encourages children to grow up risk averse, according to Sustrans, a national charity based in Bristol which encourages people to be environmentally and health aware when it comes to travelling. They recently aunched their Free Range Children campaign day with the backing of psychologists.

If children are always ferried everywhere they miss out on making important decisions, and developing "street-wise" antennae. So the very concerns that parents have about child safety are more likely to become a reality. A survey five years ago by the Children's Society revealed that nearly half of all adults thought that children should be over 14 before they were allowed out unsupervised. What a long way we have come from my parents' days when most children left school for work at 14.

As parents we often have rosy-coloured memories of our own childhoods when we played outside, but think today's world is a more dangerous place. I remember spending days with friends at The Bogs - a large expanse of meadows, woodland and streams, a mile from my home. I was warned not to talk to strangers, but that was it. No mobile phone to call home, just hours and hours of looking for tiddlers or, when I was older, talking about boys.

Yet the evidence shows our fears are unfounded. The number of children's road deaths has fallen from 668 in 1976 to 166 in 2004. The average number of children's murders by a stranger has remained constant for decades: fewer than one a year. Each one a tragedy, yes, but compare that to the 10 people a day who are killed on the roads.


Tim Gill, author of "No fear. Growing up in a risk averse society" explains, "We can't bubble wrap kids forever. Everyday adventures like walking to school on their own, or with friends, give children the chance to be responsible, and help them feel a basic connection with the people and places around them"


Only two per cent of children cycle to school. Sally lives in a village near Cambridge and has always encouraged her children to cycle. She admits, "Even though I brought them up to be traffic aware when cycling, it was still hard to let them start cycling on their own. I made my son carry a homemade ID card with our contact details on." But Sally is adamant that cycling is good for children. She thinks her daughter is, "less likely to be approached than someone walking", and that cycling alone has contributed to them being "self-reliant, confident children".

It's all about letting go - and balancing the risks and benefits. As a self-confessed over-protective mum, my heart was in my mouth all day, every day, while my teenage son cycled the thousand miles from Land's End to John O Groats. It's a cliché - but he set off as a boy, and came back that much closer to being a man. It made his half mile walk to primary school insignificant. So go on - let them roam.

What do you think?

Are we over protective of our children?

At what age do you, or would you, let your children out by themselves?

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