The holiday season is underway and millions of children are looking forward to a school-free summer. But research reveals a dramatic loss of children’s independence with many parents worried about the dangers of allowing them to play outside unsupervised.

In 1971, The Policy Studies Institute began a survey of children and found that just under 50% of seven year olds had the freedom to travel around their local neighbourhoods unsupervised. Forty years later they found that less than 10% of seven year olds enjoy that same level of independence.

According to campaign group Play England, the main barriers to parents allowing their kids to play out unsupervised are volume and speed of traffic and lack of ‘neighbourliness’. Simply not knowing the other kids and parents on our street makes us more concerned about letting our own children out of our sight.

So is the world a more dangerous place today? Or are we just more aware of the risks?

To establish the size of the gulf between imagined and real risk, Tonight commissioned a survey of 2000 parents of children aged 5-16. We found that 43% of parents thought that the number of violent offences had increased between 1995 and 2014. It has, in fact, fallen. 43% of parents thought that that since 1995 the number of road accidents involving children had risen. This number has also fallen. And 46% of adults thought that children today faced a greater risk than when they were children.

But if our awareness of the risk is greater, is the reduction in incidences down to the fact that we’re more protective of our children?

“You can only persuade certain parents with statistics, I am more interested in saying to parents, what happens if you don’t let them out."

Tim Gill, writer and founder, Rethinking Childhood

Many experts believe that parents should be teaching their children to manage and assess risk rather than avoid it altogether. Lord Digby Jones co-authored a report called Cotton Wool Kids which explored the importance of managing risk.

Lord Digby Jones Credit: ITV / Tonight

“What worries me hugely is we are having sports days where there are no winners; we’re actually having exams you can’t fail, we’re having teachers saying you have to put goggles on if you want to play conkers."

Lord Digby Jones

The report outlined that wrapping children in cotton wool is actually bad for society, the economy and young people’s preparation for adulthood. Experts believe that not allowing children to play independently is inhibiting them in later life.

“You end up with a society that doesn’t actually understand risk, how to accommodate it, how to defy it, accept it and deal with it, exploit it and turn it to advantage. And what happens then of course is that you don't actually have successful business, you don't have reformed public sector because people are terrified of change, because they are not equipped to deal with it."

Lord Digby Jones

Adventurer Bear Grylls told us that children should be given the opportunity to learn about risk, and that the outdoors is the place to do it.

Bear Grylls Credit: ITV / Tonight

“When you take kids outside and you get them to have a few adventures, the key skills they learn are positivity, courage, determination, resourcefulness. And those sorts of things don't just apply to surviving in a jungle they actually apply to life."

Bear Grylls

“I think with kids if you teach them that there is no risk in life you are actually doing them a disservice. If you want to empower kids, you teach them how to manage risk, and do risk but do risk safely."

Bear Grylls

Parents recognise the value of outdoor play, but with an increase in volume and speed of traffic over the years, children are rarely allowed the freedom to play outside their homes unsupervised. But in the last few years more than 20 local authorities across the country have launched their own “play streets”, which allows families to regularly close their roads to traffic and allowing children to play out right outside their homes.

One mum from a Bristol play street told us there are more advantages than just a chance to play out once a week.

“There are playing out sessions but also in between those sessions the kids knock on each other’s doors. You build up trust knowing people in the street and having something in common with them - that just breaks the ice."

Emma, Bristol play street steward
Playing out in Bristol Credit: ITV / Tonight

Play streets are increasing in popularity as a growing number of parents see the value of safe outdoor play: this street in Bristol is the city’s 50th. With more children being given this opportunity and parents gaining the confidence to get their kids outdoors, outdoor play may soon become a normal part of city life once again.

Tonight: Do You Let Your Kids Play Out? is on ITV at 7.30pm

Useful Links:

Rethinking Childhood

The HTI’s Cotton Wool Kids report from 2007

Playing Out

Play England


Judith Hackitt is Chair of the HSE, read her blog here