During the half-term holiday, I saw something that stood out. At the top of the hill near our house was a group of boys on bicycles. Aged about 10 or 11, they were clearly having some kind of adventure. Despite the busy traffic on nearby roads, it was great to see kids enjoying outside play.
This was a notable sight because you just don’t see kids on bikes where we live. Although the road we live on is quiet, there’s simply too much traffic on surrounding roads. You just wouldn’t allow your kids out to play on them.
This goes beyond simply riding bikes and our neighbourhood. Mrs Adams tells me that when she was a kid, she played in the alleys behind her childhood home near Glasgow with all her friends.
Her mother still lives in the same property and so we make frequents visits. Goodness knows where the kids go for outside play, but you won’t find them in the alleys behind their houses.
It was different for me as a child. Only now do I appreciate quite how much freedom I was able to experience. I had a rural upbringing so was outside all the time, climbing trees, exploring the countryside, riding bikes on public roads and sailing dinghies on the local river with friends.
When I became a dad, I was realistic. I knew my kids, who were born in the London suburbs, wouldn’t have the freedoms I did, but I assumed they’d make friends with kids in the local area and play outside in the street with them. Not all the time, granted, but I thought at weekends or on the occasional summer evening, this is what they’d want to do.
Sure, they’ve made friends with kids on surrounding streets, but they never meet up. I never see kids playing outside in this way and when I quiz other mums and dads as to why they don’t let their kids outside the confines of their house and garden, I get the same answer every time; “because of the traffic.”
Not one person I’ve spoken to has ever raised concerns about kidnap or kids fighting with each other or anything like that. It’s cars, lorries, narrow pavements and concerns about kids crossing roads safely.
I find it desperately sad traffic concerns have this impact on kids’ ability to enjoy outside play. Unfortunately, however, I share these concerns and can’t disagree.
Being a bit geeky, I couldn’t resist doing a bit of digging around for some facts. Are we all worrying about nothing or are the roads ridiculously busy compared to our youth? I guessed what the answer would be before I went looking for statistics, and unfortunately the facts speak for themselves.
In 1951, there were 4.2 million licensed vehicles on the road driving 37 billion miles (far higher than I thought, as it happens). By 2014, this had grown to 35.6 million licensed vehicles driving 311 billion miles.
Interestingly, however, the number of fatalities on Britain’s roads dropped by 46% between 2005 and 2015 while serious injuries fell by 24% in the same period. Even so, would you let your child out to play among all those cars and lorries? No, me neither.
My eldest daughter Helen has asked me when she might be able to go cycling on the surrounding roads. I’ve told her it simply won’t happen, certainly not while we live in this house.
I know computer games and screens have a part to play in all this. If suburban streets weren’t full of cars slaloming in and out of parked vehicles and kids could play outside safely with friends, would screen time have quite the same appeal? Would kids want to go out and meet their nearby friends?
I’ll be interested to see what happens when we move to our new house. Although slightly further out of London, the journey into the city is easier. Even so, it is quieter and while not as rural as my upbringing, it is in the countryside.
There’s a shop about a hundred metres away. There’s a pavement leading straight to it and only the one quiet, residential road to cross. Much to Mrs Adams’ horror, I’ve already declared Helen will be able to go to that shop and buy us the Sunday newspapers. After years of being in the suburbs, it’ll be nice to live somewhere where there is less traffic and we can give the kids such freedoms.
Do you agree with my fears about traffic? Do you worry about your children playing on the streets? If you’re a town or city dweller, what freedoms do you give your kids? Feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts.