Which country excels at giving kids freedom?
By the age of seven
Most children in this country can already travel to places within walking distance or cycle to places alone.
By the age of eight
Most can cross main roads, travel home from school and go out after dark alone.
By the time they reach nine
Most can cycle on main roads alone. And by 10, most children in this country can travel on local buses alone.
Who gives their kids this much freedom?
If you are a big believer in child freedom and outdoor play, you probably have a good idea. But even if you can’t name the country, you can probably tell that it’s not the UK! (Scroll to the bottom for the answer.)
Here at The Wild Network we started looking at how children get around (their ‘mobilities’) after hearing the terrible story about the abduction in Oxford of a teenage girl on her way to school. Our mission is to get more kids outside, getting more nature, more often, and we wondered how to respond.
Stats & facts do nothing to lessen an emotional response
Stats and facts (eg about how rare abduction is compared to other crimes against children) might make sense intellectually, but we know from experience that this does nothing to lessen the raw emotional response. We shared stories about times when our own children have disappeared from sight (a five-year-old trotted out of a library unseen; a two-year-old wandered down a beach while her parents were buying ice-creams; a three-year-old hid in the a swimming pool locker…) The anecdotes continue to stop our hearts, years later.
So rather than talk about the fact that cars are more dangerous, that most sex crimes are perpetuated by people that children know, that the media is a devil for fanning anxiety, we decided to look at the positives of independent travel (including walking to school).
This is what the Policy Studies Institute (which looked at 16 countries) has to say about it recently:
Children who travel independently learn how to take responsibility, make decisions, plan their time, make arrangements, communicate.
They learn how to anticipate danger, judge risk and keep themselves safe, how to cross roads. Posters and leaflets about safety are all well and good, but nothing beats learning to cross a road than actually crossing a road.
Walking and cycling are really good exercise. End of.
Reduce risk of obesity
As we know, that’s a fast track to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer etc. and all the other risks of a sedentary lifestyle. (Goodness knows they do enough sitting at school!)
Children learn how to deal with each other and with other pedestrians. Bumping into a fellow pupil could be the start of a life-long friendship. They may need to give directions, give comfort, call for help. All important life skills, which they won’t learn if they’re in a car or accompanied every step of the way.
From tying shoelaces to fixing a bag strap, anticipating rain to adjusting their pace, children who travel independently learn a ton of skills from acting independently.
The PSI report also found that children’s wellbeing and education attainment is higher in countries where they have the freedom to travel and play without adult supervision.
In short, the decline of independent mobility is bad for children’s health and for their physical, social and mental development.
One of the most dangerous things children can do is not walk to school.
There are other things we can do, too. We can stop tolerating unsafe environments for children. We can call for safer roads, child-friendly cities, 'not-car' routes and maps, for more children on bikes and scooters and skateboards. We can take the plunge and force ourselves to let the children walk home from school at least part of the way, if not all the way. And we can stop imprisoning our children in cars.
Or we could move to…. Finland! (Did you guess right?)
By Tamsin Constable for The Wild Network team
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