OPINION: Why I'm terrified of letting my children play outside
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Recently, I found myself sitting on my front doorstep and crouching beside my car trying to remain inconspicuous as I slurped a hot cup of tea.
I’m aware this is a strange place to enjoy a brew, as it is certainly not my usual spot of choice, but I couldn’t bring myself to move from there.
For the first time in my primary-aged boys’ lives, I was allowing them to play outside with their friends at the end of our cul-de-sac, just metres away from our home.
I was absolutely petrified.
Before they ventured out, I told them to stay on the pavement in case of fast cars, reminded them about social distancing, told them again to stay on the pavement, asked them not to be too noisy, and for a third time told them to stay on the goddamn pavement.
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The excitement on their faces was adorable and they remained oblivious to my internal anxiety monster rattling deep inside the very core of my maternal heart.
To put some perspective on this, I am the type of mother who panics. I have often worried if it is possible for my children to drown in the toilet should they fall into it headfirst. I nervously ramble with other parents when the boys start new clubs, watching until they looked settled or tell me to go away. And when I pack them up for an afternoon with their grandparents, I basically send everything bar the kitchen sink.
So I was not really that surprised when I read a report stating primary-aged children were losing out on the freedom of independent play.
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The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research into Public Health, was led by professor of child psychology Helen Dodd. It highlighted youngsters are not allowed out to play outside on their own until two years older than their parents' generation.
More than 1,900 parents of five to 11-year-olds were asked about their children’s play for the British Children’s Play Survey – the largest study of its kind. They found that children averaged three hours of play a day over the course of a year, around half of which took place outside. And the average age a child was allowed to play outside alone was 10.7 years, while their parents recalled being allowed out before their ninth birthday (8.9 years on average).
On one hand, it was nice to discover I wasn’t alone, but on the other, it was also quite sad. As I hid on my doorstep, I could hear the delighted laughs and screams of joy coming from my children. I grew up in a remote village and never had the option to play with friends, but I do remember often taking my bike out for long cycle rides by myself.
I know it is best not to project my (perfectly normal?) fears onto my boys but aside from my irrational thoughts of every worst-case scenario conceivable, I do have genuine fears which echo those of other parents.
Can you trust drivers to be responsible? Will someone snatch my child when I’m not looking? Having 24/7 news can instill a perfectly reasonable level of fear within us all. It is a tricky situation and carries with it a fine balance of probabilities. Location is a huge factor, as is the individual child. While many of my boys’ friends are already pretty streetwise, mine are still naive to the dangers surrounding them.
But, if we allow children more access outside it can give them other skills too, such as how to risk-assess, as well as boosting their creativity, critical thinking, physical skills, and cognitive development. Our reception-aged children already follow a curriculum which is learning through play, and they need these skills to learn and develop.
It is a personal decision that only you as a parent/guardian/carer can make but to help, I would recommend making your children aware of this checklist: Road safety, safe houses to ask for help in an emergency (like falling off a bike), and the physical boundaries of play locations. Also, there is nothing wrong with discreetly enjoying your cup of tea outside at the same time.