The PSI Blog

The decline of children's independent mobility in the UK
Ben Fagan-Watson

The fondest memories adults often have of their childhood are the times when they had adventures with friends, and experienced the world free from any grown-up interference. My colleagues and I were interested in finding out whether children nowadays had the same sorts of adventures, or if the nature of childhood had completely changed in recent years.

Policy Studies Institute is fortunate enough to have some previous experience of doing research into children's independent mobility - the freedom of children to get about in their local neighbourhood without adult supervision. In 1990, PSI researcher Mayer Hillman, along with John Adams and John Whitelegg, released the seminal study One False Move: A Study of Children's Independent Mobility, which documented a dramatic drop in the extent to which children were allowed out of the house on their own. We returned to this research 20 years on, to see how children's freedom and independence had changed. We went back to the same primary and secondary schools that had been surveyed by researchers from PSI in 1971 and 1990. The children and their parents were surveyed in five areas in both England and Germany, chosen to give a cross-sectional snapshot of each country.

We found 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. For example. 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 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. While nearly a third of German primary-school children that we surveyed were allowed to use local buses alone, only 12 per cent of English children were allowed to do so. And 75 per cent of German primary school children were allowed to come home from school alone, compared to only 25 per cent of English children.

Why does this matter? As part of the research we conducted a literature review of other, related research, which found that children's independence is linked to having a healthy, active lifestyle, and children who are allowed some independence develop better social and coping skills. There are also additional benefits from having kids playing outside, including greater feelings of neighbourliness and community.

As Cath Prisk, Director of Play England, noted in response to our research: “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.”

Fortunately, there are things we can do about this huge social change. The National Trust is doing important work on giving our children a 'Natural Childhood', including releasing some excellent new research. And campaigning organisation Sustrans is enabling neighbourhoods to create play-friendly areas as part of its Free Range Kids work. The German survey results clearly show that restricting our children is a choice, not an inevitable result of Western industrial development. If parents, schools and policymakers can be convinced that these trends in children's independence will have negative consequences in the long-term, then perhaps we can start to reverse this trend.

We 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. You can find out more here.

Ben Fagan-Watson is a research fellow at PSI. This is an edited version of an article first published on the National Trust’s Outdoor Nation blog.

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