Independent Mobility as a Critical Aspect of Children's Development and Quality Of Life

Funded by: Department for Education; Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Rees Jeffreys Road Fund


October 2009 to January 2013

PSI researchers:

Ben Shaw

Ben Fagan-Watson

Background, summary and aims

Background, Scope and Aims

How free are our children to travel about independently, and spend time safely in their local neighbourhood away from the supervision of adults? What factors affect this, and what are the implications of reducing or enhancing the degree of freedom children have to get about by themselves? What actions from policy makers could be used to affect children’s independence outside the home for the better?

This project explored the issues surrounding children’s independent mobility – that is the degree to which children of different ages are allowed to travel and play outside unaccompanied by adults. How has children’s independent mobility changed over time, what are the causes of these changes and their implications for children’s personal and physical development and policy?

In 1990 PSI published, One False Move… A Study of Children’s Independent Mobility. This documented a significant drop in children’s independent mobility between 1971 and 1990. In 1971, 80 per cent of 7 and 8-year old children surveyed got to school unaccompanied by an adult but, by 1990, this proportion had fallen to 9 per cent. Over the same period the number of road accidents involving children dropped significantly, leading to claims that roads had become much safer. The research revealed that the decline in road accidents involving children had not reduced because roads had become safer, but rather because children were being removed from the source of danger.

The previous research also found clear evidence that restrictions on children’s independent mobility were a direct result of the fears of parents. In addition, it was found that parents had steadily increased the amount of time they spent escorting their children which further contributed to traffic congestions and danger on the roads

Project Design

In 2010, we repeated the surveys of children and their parents conducted in 1971 and 1990 in ten schools (five primary and five secondary) in five geographically distinct areas of England.

The results from these surveys were analysed and compared with the previous work to:

  • Document changes over time in England in the ages at which children are permitted particular forms of independence outside the home;
  • Identify the causes of these changes and differences, and understand their consequences for children; and
  • Consider the policy implications of the research’s findings.

The surveys were accompanied by a research review identifying other relevant work in this area including trends in independent mobility, explanatory factors for these trends and the implications for children’s well being, health and development of reduced or enhanced independent mobility.

In 1990 parallel surveys were also conducted in five similar areas in Germany. These surveys have also been repeated to allow a cultural comparison in the analysis.

Further surveys have been conducted on the same basis in additional countries in Europe. These are being analysed as part of the project. (See Independent mobility as a critical aspect of children's development and quality of life - an international comparative study

Importance of Research

The research creates an important longitudinal dataset on children’s independent mobility extending over 40 years in England and 20 years in Germany. Its findings inform public debate of changes in children’s independence and the wider consequences of these changes, and pose some challenging questions for policy-makers and society as whole, as to how we can create a better environments for children’s physical and social development, their health prospects, and the quality of their lives.


Read a two-page briefing summarising key findings

Order a hard copy of the full report

Press release launching the report

Related publications / project outputs

Children's independent mobility: a comparative study in England and Germany (1971-2010)