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How Our Love of Cars Impacts on Children’s Freedom and What we can do About it

posted this in Childhood, Community, Free Play, Traffic on 06/09/2013

I had thought about writing an article linking the recent ‘news’ that children in the UK are stuck indoors too much with the research published earlier this year demonstrating children’s loss of ‘independent mobility’ (a jargonny but very accurate term for their freedom to get about their neighbourhood under their own steam), mainly because of the traffic dominating our streets.

It seems fairly evident to me that there a link between these two things, but I realised I am probably not qualified to draw any definite conclusions so I decided to write about my own experience of parenting in the city instead, and the effect that traffic has on my own and my children’s ‘choices’.

Whenever child obesity is in the news the finger is pointed at crisps and fizzy drinks, and children’s ‘preference’ for watching tv over being outside and active. Whilst children themselves are demonised as lazy and screen-addicted, most of the blame seems to be placed on parents, which I take issue with. For whilst there are some things we can do to prevent our kids from getting fat and unhealthy – if we have the time and means, we can take them to the park or to sports’ clubs for example – I would argue that as a society we have made it extremely difficult for children to be outdoors and active on a daily basis and this is the core of the problem.

Traffic – A Big Barrier to Playing Out

From as soon as my eldest was walking I keenly felt the impact of traffic on her life. It was impossible to leave the house without ensuring I had some means of containing or restraining her. When walking to the shops or nursery, the idea of letting her ‘free range’ even a few metres from me felt impossible with nothing but a permeable wall of parked cars between her and almost certain death under the wheels of one of their fast-moving brethren.

I remember thinking that if any other lethal hazard existed in such close proximity to our daily lives (for some reason I imagined an archer firing a constant stream of arrows along the road) we probably just wouldn’t go outside.

As my kids got older and gained more ‘road sense’ I gradually gave them more free rein but any parent knows it is quite simply stressful navigating busy roads with one or more small children who, however well-trained, are just not programmed to walk in straight lines at a consistent speed and stop dead at every junction or hidden driveway.

I would bet that most of us have at some point yelled at our offspring for not stopping or listening or ‘messing around’ (i.e. playing) near the road. I certainly have – many times, even though I know it is the cars, and not them, who are the cause of the danger. Every time I do it I feel terrible – then I feel angry.

The Problem With Some Drivers

It is normal and healthy for young children to be carefree, thoughtless and a little bit wild – what is far more of a problem is that many adult drivers are equally unpredictable. I have experienced cars mounting the pavement right in front of where my kids are walking, cutting in front of them without indicating as they are about to cross a side-road or a turning into a car-park, failing to stop at zebra crossings and red traffic lights where my children are waiting to cross and honking at us as we cycle slowly and considerately along a quiet residential street.

As well as this, the socially accepted norm of driving at 30mph (or slightly faster) in residential areas makes crossing most roads a hazard even for a fully road-trained adult like myself, let alone for a child.

All this means it is not easy to let our 8 or 9-year olds independently walk to school, to the park, or even call on friends across the street as we did at their age.

For me, this is absolutely the main reason they are stuck in front of the telly instead of being outdoors and active. Media-hyped ‘stranger danger’ may be a factor but I think this is overblown and it side-steps the issue none of us really wants to face – we all drive too much, too fast and without enough consideration for other ‘road users’ (i.e. people).

How Can We Personally Change Things?

Whilst I strongly believe that government and councils need to take a lead on making our streets more liveable, I have also realised that all of us can do something to turn things around and give children back the freedom they want and need.

For starters, we can all decide NOT to drive above 20mph in residential areas, even where the speed limit is higher, as this is a far more reasonable way to behave in streets where people live and allows children time to navigate crossing the road safely.

We can stop to allow pedestrians to cross at junctions. We can drive as if a child might run out in front of us at any time. We can use our cars less.  Someone tweeted me recently saying something like ‘parents love their cars until it is their child who is run over’ and unfortunately they are right. There is no point bewailing the loss of our children’s freedom whilst at the same time contributing to the problem as soon as we get behind the wheel.

Those of us who want to reclaim our children’s right to roam and play out need to lead by example, think twice before jumping in the car and remember that our streets are for sharing.

This post was first published in Outdoor Nation.

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