New PSI research reveals the erosion of children's independence

  • Unique study covering the last 40-years reveals a dramatic loss of children's independence outside the home.
  • Only 25 per cent of primary school children in England are allowed to travel home from school alone compared with 86 per cent in 1971.
  • Primary school children in England have far less freedom than they do in Germany.

Read a two-page briefing summarising key findings

Read the full report

Research that has just been released shows that, over the past four decades, primary-school children in England have lost much of their freedom to get about in their local neighbourhood without adult supervision. This loss of independence applies to their leisure and recreational activities as well as to their travel to and from school. Only 25 per cent of primary-school children in England are allowed to travel home from school alone, compared with 86 per cent in 1971.

The research, which was led by Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster, used a unique dataset collected by the Institute in 1971, 1990 and 2010. It found a large reduction in primary-school children's independent mobility : the extent to which parents allow their children to play and travel around in their local area without any grown-ups.

Ben Watson, Research Fellow at the Policy Studies Institute (and one of the authors of the report) said: ‘Independent mobility has been shown to be good for children's wellbeing and development, yet our research shows it has dropped significantly in the past four decades. The experience from Germany shows that this drop is not an inevitable result of modern life. If we care about the future health of our children, action should be taken to enable them to regain the right to a safe outdoor environment without the need for adult supervision.’

The study also found that English primary-school children have far less independence to get about alone when compared to German children of the same age. Teenagers from 11 to 15 years old have also been facing greater restrictions on their independence.

Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute, who directed the first two studies in 1971 and 1990 and has been involved in coordinating and analysing the findings covering the 40-year period up to the 2010 surveys, said: ‘It is highly regrettable that so little attention has been paid to the damage caused by this erosion of children's freedoms and decline in their quality of life. Far more effort needs to be invested in reversing the process that has had such an unfortunate outcome.â’

Campaigning group Sustrans has recently launched a campaign for ‘Free Range Kids’ to make it easier for children to travel independently, play outdoors and explore their local community, and have the skills, opportunities and support to do so safely. Sustrans Chief Executive Malcolm Shepherd said: ‘It's a tragedy that so many of our children are failing to meet recommended physical activity levels but little wonder when parents don't feel that their local streets are safe. We urgently need to make our communities safer if we're to get kids active by walking and cycling to school and playing outdoors. Parents want to see safer streets - the government must change the standard speed limit to 20mph on the streets where we live, work and play.’

Ben Shaw, Head of the Environment Group at the Policy Studies Institute said: ‘Our research has highlighted a large drop in independent mobility since 1971. It is also clear that children benefit from independent mobility. If children are to regain the freedoms and benefits of independent mobility they once had, a concerted programme of action will be needed to create a road environment that parents feel is safe for children. Our follow-up research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will explore how this could be done - drawing on case studies of international best practice.â’

The researchers are currently conducting a follow-on study of children's independent mobility in 16 countries around the world, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The results will be published towards the end of this year.

Cath Prisk, Director of Play England, said: ‘This study confirms our own research that there are more barriers to playing out and travelling independently for children today than for previous generations.  Interestingly, the research shows that children in other countries, such as Germany, are able to enjoy this basic right far more than their English peers.’

‘Parents who want to buck this worrying trend should think about giving their kids the gift of independence at home, on the doorstep, in their neighbourhood and further afield. Play England wants to see communities take control of their own neighbourhoods to ensure that children can play out like they used to. If we want our children and young people to have independence, resilience and everyday adventures they need to start young : it is everyone's responsibility to make this happen.’


Read a two-page briefing summarising key findings

Read the full report

Creative Commons License
Children’s independent mobility: a comparative study in England and Germany (1971-2010) by Ben Shaw, Ben Watson, Bjorn Frauendienst, Andreas Redecker, Tim Jones, with Mayer Hillman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

For further information please contact:
Sarah Evans-Toyne, Lianne Robinson or Chiara Barreca
Broadgate Mainland
Telephone: +44(0) 20 7726 6111

The researchers are also available for comment:

Ben Watson :
Ben Shaw -

Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster

Notes to Editors:


1. The surveys of children and their parents were conducted in 1971, 1990 and 2010 in ten schools (five primary and five secondary) in five geographically distinct areas of England:  Islington, Nottingham, Stevenage, Winchester and rural Oxfordshire. In Germany, Koln Innenstadt, Witten, Koln Chorweiler, Wuppertal-Langerfeld and Bochum were the locations surveyed. The study is not nationally representative or randomly sampled. Instead, it offers a ‘˜cross-section' of each country.

2. The children were surveyed on whether they were allowed to cross main roads alone, uses buses and bicycles without an adult, come home from school alone, travel to other places on their own or with friends, and to go out after dark alone.

3. The research was funded by organisations in both the UK and Germany. The funders in the UK were the former Department for Children, Families and Schools, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Rees Jeffreys Road Fund. In Germany, the research was funded by the DeutscherVerkehrssicherheitsrat (German Road Safety Council).

4. The report was a collaboration between researchers at Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster, Oxford Brookes University and the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany.

Policy Studies Institute

Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster is one of Britain’s leading policy-focused research institutes, conducting social research to promote economic well-being and improve the population's quality of life. PSI enjoys a reputation for the rigorous and impartial evaluation of policy in the UK and Europe, and the publication and dissemination of research findings is central to its ethos.

University of Westminster

The University of Westminster boasts a vibrant learning environment attracting more than 20,000 students from over 150 nations and we continue to invest in our future with new developments, research projects and new ideas.

We offer highly attractive practice-based courses which are independently rated as excellent, many with international recognition. Our distinguished 170-year history has meant we lead the way in many areas of research, particularly politics, media, music, art and design, architecture and biomedical sciences, and our position in the City of London allows us to continue to build on our close connections with leading figures and organisations in these areas as well as in the worlds of business, information technology, politics and law.

Our commitment to educating graduates for the needs of professional life attracts high quality students from within the UK and around the globe. Internationalism, employability and sustainability are key elements in the University of Westminster's vision for the future and we strive to ensure the very highest standards are met and maintained.

Play England

Play England is part of the leading national children’s charity NCB, and campaigns for all children to have the freedom and space to play throughout childhood. As the national organisation for children's play, Play England works with all those who have an impact on children’s lives to support and champion play as an essential part of childhood. For further information visit


Sustrans is the charity that’s enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys we make every day. It’s time we all began making smarter travel choices. Make your move and support Sustrans today.