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How playing out helps to build children’s independence

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing, Community, Play Streets on 29/09/2022

Building confidence for the move to secondary school

Recently I’ve noticed that one of the main topics of conversation amongst friends and parents I meet who have pre-teens, is how we go about giving them more independence as they prepare to transition to secondary school and go out into the big wide world on their own!

Most parents and carers expect children to make their own way to and from secondary school when they start Year 7 – a huge leap in responsibility for them from their journeys to primary school where most children are accompanied by an adult every day, some right up to the end of year 6. According to the University of Westminster, in 1971 86% of primary school children walked home alone compared to 25% in 2013.

Laying the foundation in the early years

We all want children to be safe and to feel confident when they start travelling to school or running errands alone, and while reflecting on this I have thought about how we have worked up to my daughter walking to secondary school. I was surprised to remember that her first steps to independently running errands began at about age 4 when we used to get her to deliver parcels and cards to our neighbours. These small, independent errands now seem like they were the vital first steps and gave us both confidence in letting her explore the world outside on her own.

I was happy to let our 4 year old on the street to knock on doors because a neighbour and I had started holding regular play street sessions. This had an immediate positive impact for us as a family. We knew who lived where, felt part of the street community and our street felt a safer and nicer place to live. The play street sessions also meant our young child was confident navigating the geography of our (very quiet) street and being road safe. As she grew older, a regular activity was ‘how to cross a road safely’.

After a year or so of regular play street sessions, children from the street were definitely out playing more regularly and not just when the road was closed – both supervised and, for short periods, independently. I felt confident letting my daughter play out with her friends and so did other parents. There was a ‘safety in numbers’. She would often go to the local corner shop (literally around the corner) on her own from about age 7 – although she does always remind me that I did follow her from a distance the first time!

Tim Gill, author and expert on childhood and play, states that ‘The ability to play independently in the street is a first step towards greater independent mobility around the neighbourhood – to visit friends, go to the park or walk to school.”

Developing independent mobility

In order to build confidence travelling to school, from Year 4 she would occasionally walk the last 5 or 10 minutes on her own. Then when we moved further away in Year 5 she was confident getting a bus alone (after a few practice runs). During Covid and Year 6 she met her best friend for regular walks around a local park and the area around their primary school. All of these things meant that when it came to walking to secondary school (½ hour each way) with another child who lives on our street, it was a really easy step.

I’m sure that there will be hiccups along the way, but we have done the ground work and had lots of chats about how to deal with any situations she may encounter. It is of course a lot different than when I was a teenager; she has a phone! But I’m sure that this, so far, smooth transition to independent travel has been easier because her first experience of being out in the world was on our own street, where she knew people, it was safe, and we built up confidence one step at a time.

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