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Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Monday, 5 July 2010 13:47 UK

Letting children off the leash

Child playing

Complaints that a risk-averse culture of health and safety damages childhood have become familiar. But what steps do parents actually take to remove the cotton wool?

It is an observation that has become commonplace: children are missing out on normal stages of growing up because red tape, tabloid scare stories and the threat of litigation are deterring parents and teachers from exposing them to risk.

In the latest case to hit the headlines, a couple in south London were threatened with a visit from social services after they let their children cycle unsupervised to school.

Parents and experts have found ways to challenge this perceived trend - sometimes in ways that seem bizarre - but also by allowing their offspring to behave in a manner that would have seemed perfectly ordinary a generation previously.

Either way, it is an exercise that Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at University of Kent, believes is necessary.

"Today, every childhood experience comes with a health warning," he says. "We need to get past this. Overcoming risk is an essential part of developing our personalities."

Here are some approaches that have been considered rather unorthodox by some.


Oliver and Gillian Schonrock were told by school authorities that they could be reported to social services for letting their daughter, aged eight, and son, five, cycle the mile-long journey from their home in Dulwich, south London, to school unsupervised.

But in interviews, the couple said they simply wanted their youngsters to enjoy the same childhood freedoms they themselves had experienced.

"Like everybody else our age, we spent a lot more time with our friends playing in the streets or parks without parental supervision and without our parents becoming unduly worried," said Mr Schonrock.

Jumping boy
Critics complain that children lack the freedom of previous generations

His wife added that their children were "well adjusted, mature and independent for their respective ages".

Their headmaster told a Sunday newspaper the school had an obligation to consider the children's safety.

But the couple were backed by no less an authority than London Mayor Boris Johnson, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "Instead of hounding the Schonrocks we should be doing everything we can to make their dream come true."


In a conscious effort to instil toddlers with a sense of independence, Nottingham Nursery School offers its two-to-five-year-olds a range of hands-on activities - including swinging on hanging tyres, making mud pies and woodwork classes.

"The kids love the woodwork - they love banging the nails in and rubbing down the wood," says head teacher Jill Robey.

"Obviously, they are properly supervised. But it's all about encouraging a can-do attitude."

Lessons are, of course, structured and only two children are allowed to get their hands on the timber at any one time.

"The parents are all very supportive," adds Ms Robey. "The problem is that we've been in a suing culture for too long."

In agreement are judges in the Go4It awards, set up by the Heads, Teachers and Industry group. The nursery has been nominated for an accolade at the event, designed to promote the teaching of practical skills.


Anti-bullying campaigns and strategies have proliferated in response to a phenomenon that can make young lives a misery.

But writer and consultant Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up In A Risk-Averse Society and a former government adviser, believes that bullying is too often "misdiagnosed" and children should be encouraged to stand up for themselves before parents step in.

Mr Gill describes an incident in which his daughter, then aged six or seven, complained that she was being "bullied" after three younger boys teased her about a game she was playing in the park.

"It was a trivial incident - I told her to try and sort it out for herself first of all, and she did," he says. "What interested me was that she'd been taught to regard something like this as 'bullying'.

"It's not about ignoring genuine bullying or victimisation, and children should always know that adults are there to back them up. But I think saying 'try and sort it out yourself first, and if you can't I'll back you up" is a pretty good mantra."


The New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy unleashed a media frenzy when she wrote about deliberately leaving her her nine-year-old son in central New York and letting him take the subway home alone.

Her boy, whose idea the expedition had been, was happy with the experience.

New York Subway
Would you let your nine-year-old ride the New York Subway alone?

But Ms Skenazy's actions landed her in an almighty row. Although many came out to support her, she was labelled "America's Worst Mom" by others.

"My son had not climbed Mt Fuji in flip-flops," she wrote subsequently. "He did not decode his own DNA. He'd simply done what most people my age had done routinely when they were his age: gone somewhere on his own, without a security detail."

She now runs a blog called Free Range Kids, which advocates encouraging independence in children.


In her 1975 book The Continuum Concept, American author Jean Liedloff proposes a system of child-rearing that exposes infants to their parents' everyday lives as much as possible.

This includes mothers carrying their babies at all times, and the child sleeping in the parental bed.

More controversially, it also says toddlers should be given knives to cut up cucumbers and fruit.

The idea is that children need to learn for themselves how to deal with dangers and not have our fears thrust on them.

Advocates say that, properly supervised, this system is perfectly safe. Others may find that handing a blade to a small child to play with is one breach of the maternal or paternal instinct too far.

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Daily Express Children should be allowed to bike it - 15 hrs ago
Mail Online UK Now No10 backs couple under fire for letting their small children cycle to school on their own - 19 hrs ago
ABC Online Parents under fire for letting kids cycle to school - 22 hrs ago
Telegraph Would you let your child cycle alone? - 22 hrs ago
The Independent The nursery that teaches its pupils to boldly go - 45 hrs ago

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