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Page last updated at 03:43 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

How stranger danger changed the way children play

Children playing in the street 1960s

Closeted in the home or watched over by 'helicopter' parents, children lack much of the freedom they had only 50 years ago. What changed? Steve Humphries, who has made a new TV series on the way young people play, charts the rise of stranger danger.

British children's play has been transformed in the last 100 years. Up to the 1960s there were few children who didn't spend much of their free time outdoors, playing in the fields, parks, streets, back alleys, old bombsites and local beauty spots.

This play was unsupervised by mum or dad and children were free to go on adventures far from home. Sadly this world of independent child's play has today largely vanished. One of the important reasons for this decline is the inexorable rise of stranger danger and child abduction in modern Britain.

Hop, Skip and Jump: The Story of Children's Play begins on BBC Four at 2100 GMT, Tuesday 8 December

It was in the mid 1960s that this new threat to children's freedom really took hold of the popular imagination. Child murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley helped change the nation's attitude towards children's outdoors play. Their sadistic crimes became one of the most sensational television news stories of the 60s.

The impact this had on children's play is vividly recalled by many growing at the time.

"I still remember the feelings of terror at seeing Myra Hindley's face on the news, there was a kind of loss of innocence, you didn't feel safe after that," says Lancashire boy Steve Wakefield, born in 1955. "Up until then parents didn't worry too much about where you went and what time you came home. But afterwards they wanted to keep you in the street and if you weren't home by the time it was getting dark they were really concerned and you got into trouble with them."

The fear that it was unwise to allow children to play outdoors without parental supervision was heightened by some other major social changes that were increasing dangers on the streets. A huge rise in car ownership and road traffic proved a big threat to children's safety and to the way working class communities used their street as a playground.

Houses for high-rises

From the late '50s onwards traffic accidents involving children playing ball games in their street increased steadily. Slum clearance and housing improvement schemes inadvertently added to the loss of a safe outdoor play space for children. They swept away many thousands of Victorian terraced streets where children had once played, to replace them with high-rise estates.

Children playing in the street 1960s
Toy cars in the street... seen off by the real thing

For generations neighbours and extended family members had kept an eye on children playing in the streets, stopping them from getting into serious trouble and checking on any strangers passing by. Modern high-rise estates broke up extended families and made this kind of informal policing of children's play virtually impossible. With no adult supervision the opportunities for child molesters and paedophiles increased.

There are few reliable statistics on stranger danger and the increase in child molestation and abduction. It can be said with certainty though that the number of reported cases remained extremely small. A much greater threat to children's lives was road traffic accidents - made worse by the increasing number of parents who began driving their children to and from school in order to protect them from the dangers of the outside world.

In parents' minds however child abduction often appears a greater and more insidious threat. The flasher at the school gates and sexually motivated attacks on children are nothing new, but in the television age these fears have been fuelled by intense media coverage of stories of child sexual abuse, abduction and murder.

The James Bulger case in 1993, the abduction and murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham village in 2002, and the Madeleine McCann disappearance in 2007 are three of the most dramatic examples. All had a huge impact on attitudes of parents, making them more inclined to keep children indoors and to carefully monitor their children's outdoor activities.

Fat, angry, isolated

There is little doubt that parental fears of stranger danger have been an important factor that has helped drive a generation of children indoors. Recent surveys show that most children spend much more of their free time playing indoors than outdoors - a complete reversal of the play habits of children in the 1950s and before.

If you were losing you'd go in to Mum but she had no sympathy and say sort it out yourself - 10 minutes later you'd be out on the streets again
Laura Hopkins

Growing affluence and the child-centred society has certainly not brought with it a richer outdoor play experience for children. The physical and psychological consequences of this lost world of children's play are now beginning to be felt, most obviously with the well documented increase in child obesity, child aggression and the isolation of children who now spend most of their free time indoors.

Quite apart from the health benefits of children spending free time playing running, chasing and hiding games in the streets and fields, independent play also taught them important social skills. There were inevitably disagreements and upsets over who were the winners and losers of all the games, but resolving them without parental interference helped the children grow up.

As Laura Hopkins, 60, from Manchester remembers: "If you were losing you'd go in and complain to Mum but she had no sympathy for you because she'd know it was just a bit of a disagreement, she'd say sort it out yourself. So 10 minutes later you'd be out on the streets again and you learned a lesson from that."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Increased traffic was undoubtedly the biggest cause of children coming off the streets... the so-called 'rise in child molestation' and 'stranger danger' was never a factor. I still have plenty of kids playing in the road where I live because it is a no-through road with minimal amounts of traffic. Please let's not rewrite history with modern political correctness about paedophilia. Another important cause of indoor play is the personal computer and games consoles. These things did not exist when I was growing up in the 60s, so I spent my time in the garden making go-karts with my brother, climbing trees and exploring the nearby fields and woods.
Jonathan Wheeler, Reading, UK

We can't let our children play out where we live due to neighbours complaining all the time. My kids aren't aggressive, noisy or anything like that, but certain neighbours don't like ball games in the cul-de-sac. So much so, one even sent a letter to all the neighbours stating it was illegal to do so. What can you do?
Laura, Sheffield

High rise blocks are not a problem - there are cities in Europe dominated by them where children play outside in all weather. Key difference: they have playgrounds - in the UK they don't. If there is nowhere to go and nothing to do, then high rises mean social problems and high crime. When developers in UK cities are forced by law to plan for families every time they build a high rise, then we might see functional inner-city communities and children playing outside. Far from isolating people, high rises can be a safe place to be, if the older generation is there to look after the young. A bigger problem is lack of cohesion between generations in the UK, as generations of families live far apart. There is not a community in may places where a child can run round the corner to their grandma's or aunt's, so being alone in the street is truly being alone. Stranger danger is a lot less of a danger when people around you are not strangers.
Polina, Manchester, UK

My children, who are now teenagers, always played in our street. We live in a cul-de-sac with very little traffic & everybody knew everyone else. All the children in the street played together, approx 8 children ages ranging from 5 to 12. My children say their childhood was great in that respect. The only reason they stopped was neighbours would whinge about potential damage to their cars from footballs - these neighbours whose own children played the same games in the street when they were younger.
Helen, Swansea

I grew up in Bradford in the 80s, and played out, even after people like Peter Sutcliff were around. There are some young lads who play out on the road near me now, much to the annoyance of the rat run drivers. I think also kids playing out are demonised as thugs/hoodies when kicking a ball is probably the only exercise they get.
Chris H, Sheffield

"Stranger danger" fears were not the primary factors in the decline of children playing on streets. Growing up in West Derby, Liverpool and later Sale, Cheshire, I well remember playing on the neighbourhood Roads with other children in the 1950s. We even had street parties too. What changed? The advent of a car or two for every household, at least one of which was generally parked on the road. If you played on the street you ran at least two risks - your ball might hit a car or a car might hit you. Many families I knew also had grandmothers living in the family home, who also kept an eye out for children. Eagle eyed grandmothers in residence tended to cease when more homes were built in the 60s and 70s and grannies had their own house again. Come to think of it, around that stage neighbourhood linkage also became weaker, as people dashed from their front door to their cars, without speaking to neighbours. Having raised my children in California and Vancouver, Canada, children still play on the streets. Often kitchen windows face the streets, where mums, childsitters and others all keep an eye on children, who still play ball games or roller skate. In winter they toboggan and build snowmen etc.
Pat van der Veer (Robinson), Wallasey, Merseyside

As a new parent, I am extremely nervous of the years ahead of letting my kids go outside and run as freely as I did in my childhood years. I personally have extremely fond memories of running around the street(s) playing hide and seek, tig and many, many more simple games. There used to be 7 or 8 of us local kids getting up to so many activities that, yes, the main thing it taught us was our early social skills. However, knowing how much I enjoyed and benefitted from playing from dusk 'til dawn, I view today's world as a totally different world. There have always been strangers out there, but the media have scared us all into this view of a "dangerous" world we live in.
Jimmy, Falkirk

I grew up in an incredibly middle class suburb outside Portsmouth during the 1980s. The road was a cul-du-sac with a wood at the end and I spent many years from the age of 6-12 playing in the road and the wood completely unsupervised. I also walked to and from school. When I go back now all the pavements are covered in moss - clearly so few people use them they are going green. In my day we spent all day every day walking running and biking up and down them, now everything is overgrown. I also never see a single child about. There are many reasons for this, perhaps like my mother many of the people who moved in when the estate was built are still there and the children like me grew up and moved away, but I find every return incredibly depressing, as if my happy childhood home is being eaten up by moss like disused Victorian mine.
Nich Hill, Portsmouth

I grew up in the 1950s, we played out from morning until night. Often only coming home to grab something to eat and then fly off out again. We played Fairy Footsteps, Kick Can, Hide and Seek, Can we cross your Golden River and many more. Skipping ropes were tied to the lamppost and we skipped until we were too tired. There was the marble season, the conker season, we would go fishing for stickle backs and scrumping for apples and pears. How sad that children stay in these days, and miss out on all the fun we had.
Sheila Banks, Sale, Cheshire

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