Playing out our fears
Let children enjoy the great outdoors, says Kate Moorcock, and tell the panic-mongers to go play in the traffic
We are now approaching the best time of year to play the game which unites all the family - even the entire community. Cheap to play and increasingly popular, the game is called 'guess the summer holiday kiddie panic'. Last year it was paedophiles released from prison without adequate supervision. This year it could be the threat of car accidents, pollution or strangers, or even the dire consequences of raising 'battery-reared' children. Round and round the anxiety goes, where it will stop nobody knows...
At a time when more and more parents can afford bicycles, skateboards, rollerskates and 'real leather footballs', when girls are finally allowed to get properly muddy, when ripping your trousers does not result in the sort of parental rage it did some years ago, when grass stains wash out, when yo-yos speak and skipping ropes sing, and trainers light up and let children run faster...Just at the time when being a child could really get interesting, we lock them up for no apparent reason.
The fact that letting children out of your sight is no more risky than it has ever been does little to stop the panic-merchants worrying themselves, and worrying parents. Even the knowledge of the fun, and the developmental opportunity, that lies outside the front door does not put them off. They do not weigh up the facts or the knowledge - they weigh up the fear. 'Which is more terrible', they ask, 'the fear that children will not get an adequate range of experiences to be able to turn themselves into balanced individuals, or the fear that they might be run over and killed by a car?'.
Parents know how much pleasure children get from 'just playing out' with their friends, but they also know they will face not only their own fear but the fear of their neighbours and other parents if they let their children out unsupervised. A 1997 study showed that although parents are still letting their children out, they are not allowing them to roam nearly so far, so that the independent range allowed to today's nine-year olds has shrunk to about 10 percent of the range allowed in 1972.
Some of the facts about child safety are well known. We often read that strangers only kill about seven children a year. However, parents are also vulnerable to some scary 'information' from various safety organisations and government agencies. We are told there are 60 000 playground accidents per year; we are told that without safety surfacing on playgrounds our children are at risk of serious injury; we seem somehow to be under the impression that more children are killed on roads.
What we are not told is that only three percent of all outdoor play (including playground) injuries result in even the briefest visit to hospital, the majority being minor cuts and bruises. We are not told that playground safety surfacing is only designed to prevent serious head injuries and that children very rarely fall in such a way as to risk a serious head injury. We are not told that serious pedestrian road injuries and deaths have halved in the past 15 years, or that minor pedestrian road injuries have fallen at a much slower rate than serious ones, suggesting that children are crossing roads but that they are not being so seriously hurt when they do so.
The potential for providing children with a wide variety of enjoyable and stimulating experiences has never been so great. Our understanding of the benefits of playing out has grown over the past 30 years, so that if we wanted, we could provide children with much better childhood experiences than we had ourselves. Better understanding of child development coupled with new materials and methods of production have revolutionised the potential for providing safe, durable and exciting outdoor play space and equipment. Yet many of today's 'state of the art' play areas are completely boring for anybody over three-and-a-half years old. Swings don't swing so high, roundabouts don't spin so fast, and some pieces of equipment, like Witch's Hats, have disappeared completely. All in the name of safety. All at the expense of fun.
But playing out is not just about fun. It is necessary to develop the sorts of attributes that we adults take for granted in ourselves. Learning independence does not just mean the practical ability to look after yourself: it also means being independent-minded. Children learn how to become individuals who can make judgements and take decisions for themselves through playing out with other children. This very basic concept is the keystone in being able to develop a wide variety of skills.
In an anxious age, anxiety about some of the most vulnerable members of our society, children, is understandable. But that doesn't stop it being a problem. Precisely because they are vulnerable and naive, children need adults to sort fact from fiction and to make rational decisions on their behalf. Children can be forgiven fears about bogeymen and invisible threats hiding in the shadows. Adults need to show them how 'getting a grip' is done.
Friends of LM can buy Kate Moorcock's Swings and Roundabouts: The Danger of Safety in outdoor play environments at a reduced price. Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999