Until I had my son Isaac, two, I didn't think any kids lived on our street. It was so quiet, the only time we saw our neighbours was when they got home from work or washed their car. But when I brought home my bundle of joy back in November 2008, half the street came out of the woodwork and admitted to having children under eight. So where were they?
Growing up in a new town in Essex in the 1980s, I was rarely in the house. Our road was always jam-packed with children as young as three and as old as 16, cycling or playing tag. We all knew each other, and our parents all talked to each other. As I grew older my boundaries grew wider - the end of the street, the main road... by the time I was 10 the whole town was my oyster; my bike my chariot opening up the fields and river round the edge to me. Skip forward 25 years, and unless you happen to be out in the street between 3.10pm and 4.45pm, you'd think we were living in the apocalyptic world of Children Of Men.
So when a friend invited me, Isaac, and his new little bro, Eli, to a 'playing out' day last week, I was quite excited. Walking down a street packed with laughing children and gossiping parents I felt elated - there was a real sense of fun, of community. Then I saw them... the cordons, the road signs, the high vis vests. It wasn't the spontaneous outdoor play I remembered from my own childhood, it was an event organised by nostalgic adults. Don't get me wrong, the move by Bristol City Council to allow residents to apply more frequently for road closures for 'playing events' is a step in the right direction. But it is another stark reminder of how we 'police' childhood in the 21st century.
I believe we create 'safe' spaces for kids at their peril. We kettle them into fenced in parks and soft play, lulling ourselves and the public into a false sense of security. When I drive into my road, it's not at five mile an hour because I'm worried the lads on the corner might be playing jacks. I drive at the full 20; safe in the knowledge the only thing on the tarmac will be an agile cat. Yet when I was a kid, come 5pm, you'd hear a chorus of 'car' called up the street as the neighbours filtered home, driving slowly because they knew we'd be there. After all, we always were.
Over a period of two decades we've become our own worst enemy, using safety as an excuse to erode the freedoms that made our own childhoods so special. It seems to me that only by getting our kids back outside - without traffic diversions and marshals - will we change this cotton wool culture we've created. That's what the Sustrans Free Range Kids campaign is all about - giving the streets back to children so it becomes the norm again to play outside and ride a bike.
I'd like my kids to play in a concrete jungle they own, creating games with their imagination from the limited resources available. By giving them everything, we've spoiled our kids into being subjective. These days, childhood is something that happens to you, when really, it should be something you create.
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