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Children In The UK Are Being Held Back From Play Independently Outside Until Later Childhood

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Children in the UK are being held back from play independently outside until later childhood, new research has found.

The British Children’s Play Survey, conducted in April 2020 is the largest study of its kind. Researchers asked 1919 parents about the play of children aged 5 to 11. While parents said that on average they were allowed out alone to play before the age of nine, the current generation of primary school children are not given the same independence until they were nearly 11.

Play Independently Outside – The Study Paper

The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research into Public Health (https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/8/4334) today (Tuesday 20 April), found that the average age that a child was allowed to play outside alone was just before their 11th birthday (an average of 10.74 years). The authors note that 6% of parents (108 participants) said that they would not allow their child to play independently before 11. In comparison, parents themselves said they were allowed out before their 9th birthday (an average of 8.91 years).

Furthermore, parents who took part in the study were relatively risk adverse in relation to their children’s play, and these attitudes corresponded with the age children were allowed out to play independently and the amount of ‘adventurous’ play that children were engaging in. Adventurous play involves some element of risk (e.g. climbing trees, riding a bike fast down hill etc.) and its believed that engaging in adventurous play may help to prevent anxiety in children.

University Of Reading Research

Prof Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading who led the study said:

“In the largest study of play in Britain, we can clearly see that there is a trend to be protective and to provide less freedom for our children now than in previous generations. As this is the largest study of its kind, it gives us the data to back up what many have observed is happening. The reasons for this shift are complex but likely due, at least in part, to concerns about stranger danger and the increase in traffic in the neighbourhoods where children live and play.

“The concerns we have from this report are twofold. First, we are seeing children getting towards the end of their primary school years without having had enough opportunities to develop their ability to assess and manage risk independently.  Second, if children are getting less time to play outdoors in an adventurous way, this may have an impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing.”

Primary school children are also, on average, getting just three hours of play a day over the course of a year, with around half of play taking place outside. The findings matched previous studies which suggest that children play less as they get older.

The team of child psychologists from the University of Reading are looking at the relationship between risk-taking in play and the benefits for children’s mental health. Their findings suggest that although children are spending a reasonable amount of time outside, they may be missing out on many of the freedoms, particularly to explore and play in an adventurous way, that previous generations enjoyed.  

Professor Helen Dodd said:

“We can see that playgrounds and green areas are critical spaces for children’s play, particularly outdoor, adventurous play. It is therefore crucial that all children have access to spaces like these for their development and wellbeing. Providing the spaces is not enough though, urban planning must take into account how children and families will travel to and access these spaces and they need to be engaging and interesting places for children’s play.”

Dr Tim Gill, independent scholar, global advocate for children’s play and mobility and author of Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities, said:

“Thanks to the pandemic, we all know what lockdown feels like. This groundbreaking study shows that British children have been subject to a gradual, creeping lockdown over at least a generation. The reasons are different, with social changes, safety fears, technology and traffic growth all arguably playing a part. However, the end result for all too many children is the same: boredom, isolation, inactivity, and poorer mental and physical health. The consequences for their development and well-being should not be underestimated.”

Anita Grant, chair of Play England said:

“Play outdoors is fundamentally important for children to develop a sense of self and a relationship with the world around them. Adults protective instincts are not helpful when they restrict and control exploration, creativity and a child’s natural instinct to engage with their environment freely. Children need to learn how to risk assess and make good decisions. Play is the way that children grow and develop, building experiences and skills that will make them resilient and for this they need time, space and freedom.”