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Last Updated: Monday, 4 June 2007, 21:16 GMT 22:16 UK
Analysis: Rearing children in captivity
By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

Child jumping in mud
Some children are now too anxious to play in mud
At the school gates of Birchington Primary School, on the Kent coast, a group of mothers chat about their childhood.

"I used to go to the woods and build a den," said one.

"I would always go to the park on my own, just so long as I was back before dark," said a second.

The other mums nodded.

All remembered the adventures of their youth - long days spent out of sight of their parents. "Happy days," they said.

So do they let their own children enjoy the same freedoms?

"That would be irresponsible," replied one. The rest agreed.

The furthest they would allow their youngsters to roam alone was to the garden gate.

Walking to school

What has happened in the last 30 years or so?

The risk of abduction remains tiny. In Britain, there are now half as many children killed every year in road accidents as there were in 1922 - despite a more than 25-fold increase in traffic.

In 1970, 80% of primary school-age children made the journey from home to school on their own. It was what you did.

You might get kidnapped or taken by a stranger
Jojo Roberts, age eight

Today the figure is under 9%. Escorting children is now the norm.

We are rearing our children in captivity - their habitat shrinking almost daily.

In 1970 the average nine-year-old girl would have been free to wander 840 metres from her front door. By 1997 it was 280 metres.

Now the limit appears to have come down to the front doorstep.

Childhood adventures?

In a garden in Birchington, best friends Holly Prentice and Jojo Roberts, both aged eight, make daisy chains.

The picket fence marks the limit of their play area. They wouldn't dare venture beyond it.

"You might get kidnapped or taken by a stranger," says Jojo.

"In the park you might get raped," agrees Holly.

Don't they yearn to go off to the woods, to climb trees and get muddy?

No, they tell me. The woods are scary. Climbing trees is dangerous. Muddy clothes get you in trouble.

One wonders what they think of Just William, Swallows And Amazons or The Famous Five - fictional tales of strange children from another time, an age of adventures where parents apparently allowed their offspring to be out all day and didn't worry about a bit of mud.

There is increasing concern that today's "cotton-wool kids" are having their development hampered.

Children whose early friendships are full of shared imaginative play develop a sensibility by discussing moral dilemmas
Professor Judith Dunn

They are likely to be risk-averse, stifled by fears which are more phobic than real.

Their lack of unsupervised play may also reduce the opportunity to form deep friendships in early years.

Evidence presented to the Children's Society's Good Childhood Inquiry suggested the number of teenagers who don't have a best friend has risen from one in eight 20 years ago to one in five today.

Professor Judith Dunn, from the Institute of Psychiatry, chairs the Good Childhood Inquiry and believes that friendships are vital for a child's social and emotional development.

"Children whose early friendships are full of shared imaginative play develop a sensibility by discussing moral dilemmas and learning to understand the feelings, welfare and relationships of other children," she argues.

A lack of close friendships among British children may be reflected in a recent Unicef report which revealed that the UK ranks at the bottom for peer relationships in international tables.

In Birchington, the beach is busy with kids. But on closer observation they are almost all under the watchful eye of a parent or guardian.

And the horrifying story of four-year-old Madeleine McCann, apparently abducted from her bed in Portugal while her parents ate a meal in a nearby restaurant, is likely to mean British parents pull their children even closer to them.

Young 'not allowed out to play'
04 Jun 07 |  Education
Tests 'stopping children playing'
05 Apr 07 |  Education
Adults 'stop children playing'
06 Aug 03 |  West Yorkshire
Fears 'keep children indoors'
02 Aug 01 |  Education

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