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School’s Out: Why Freedom for Children Matters

The summer holidays are here and that – potentially – means one important, wonderful thing for children: freedom! Something that still carries more value than ever after everything children went through during the pandemic  – trapped indoors, isolated and inactive.

I remember freedom from my childhood – a whole body memory! – and I always wanted it for my children. As they got older, I learnt how hard it is to get now, and just why it’s still so important.

Old School Freedom: 1970s Nottingham

As a little girl, nearly all my time outside of school felt free. I played in the house with my sister, alone, with teddies and toys, making things, making believe. And when the call came – an internal one or a familiar face at the door – I headed outside to join the raggle-taggle group of children that lived on our close, all ages, sizes and characters.1970s-Kids-on-Bikes

Did I like them? Were they nice? Did we have fun? Er… dunno… says my 8-year-old self, because those are the wrong questions. The truth is, it was bigger and more complex than that: every day was different, full of skies, talking, grass, dares, allegiances, falling out, brilliant ideas, practicing things, bikes and boredom and nearly every other emotion. It was the miniature world of ants and daisies, and the biggest world of adventures where we were anything we wanted to be.

Together we chose – no, we invented and created – everything we did. Adults were almost irrelevant and home was a kind of pit stop for food, drink and plasters; a quiet place to return to if we fell out or got tired and bored. Which we did, a lot.

Freedom for Children Now

Skip forward several decades to when my children are 5 and 8. We are living in our busy residential street in Bristol and I am already feeling quite sad and frustrated at the lack of freedom in their lives. I look around me, and this is what I see:

At school, nearly all learning takes place inside and is very driven by targets and outcomes. Out of school, there’s playing in tiny gardens – for those that have them – and plenty of playing inside, where screens are an easy option. But hardly any young children play out together anymore, because it doesn’t feel safe or possible. Instead, there are family trips out, tons of organised clubs and activities if you can pay, get there or stay at school, and lots of pre-arranged visits to friends’ houses.

But what if, when Tuesday comes around, you don’t really want to play with Sam or Jane between 4 and 6pm? And with little freedom in their lives, what are children missing?

The Importance of Freedom

The answer – and I learnt it myself through watching my own children have it and not have it at different times – is that they’re missing a great deal. And there’s plenty of research that says the same.

Free, unstructured, outdoor play, with adults at a safe distance (the distance depending on the age and the place) allows for possibility, invention, choice, decision making, risk taking, problem solving and interacting with others. And in this great, creative mix, children discover and learn a huge amount: about their environment, working with others and mostly about themselves – their limits, ideas, values and passions, and how to make things happen in life.Playing Out - Willoughby Road

By the time my children were 13 and 15, there’s no way they’d had the easy, constant freedom I had. But I was determined to give them what I could, and that meant pockets of freedom, seized when and wherever possible, with other children that were around: in our tiny garden and over the fence into the builders’ yard at the back (shhh!). On the pavement, or small patch of green around the church opposite. In parks, green areas and other public spaces where I could let them roam. Building up routes alone to the park, shop, friend’s houses and school. And every year, a summer holiday down the road in Somerset that I’ve written about elsewhere, where for two weeks – from babies to  young adults – they lived as freely as I did. And it’s still the best place in the world according to them.

Such freedom, when you can get it, brings with it a certain richness and joy to life that I remember in my bones, and that I’ve seen in my children’s faces.  Something important enough to work hard for, even to fight for. And now I’ve seen just how much that freedom pays off as children move into adulthood.

It’s why I wrote my children’s story, which is equally for adults.  And it’s why I’ve been involved in Playing Out since the beginning, because all of us together just might be able to bring about this change for children.

Playing Out’s vision is that children across the UK are able to play safely in the streets where they live. For practical ways to make this happen where you live, see Playing Out in 4 Simple Steps.

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