On Your Bike

14th September 2018

It’s time to give our children greater independence, suggests Lisa Botwright…

When my children were younger, school holidays were spent hanging out with friends… long days in the park or at each other’s houses. There was plenty of fresh air, plenty of energy expended, plenty of self-directed play. Now I’m employed full-time, and my two teenagers are required to fend for themselves over the holidays – and their choice of how to spend their free time couldn’t be further from those long, lazy sunlit days of my memory.

While my daughter, at 16, is pretty self-sufficient – happy to jump on a bus to meet up with friends, for example – my son, 13, will, if left un-nagged, spend all his time in a darkened bedroom killing digital zombies via his prized PS4. One day I came back from work and heard him chatting animatedly in his room. I was thrilled that he’d brought some friends home, only to find that he was hooked up to his gaming buddies and speaking to them via a microphone attached to his headphones. This is in direct contrast to his sister; she does invite friends round, but sometimes the entire group sit in silence, interacting via their phones. It’s both spooky and baffling.

As a family, we’ve negotiated ground rules around online activity, but the point is that even for a child brought up to be active and sociable, the lure of the screen is so strong that my son would prefer to spend one of the hottest summers on record indoors, rather than out and about with his friends.

My concern around this is echoed by some 75 per cent of parents, who believe their children spend less time outdoors than they themselves did when they were young. A report commissioned by multi-sports retailer Decathlon questioned 2,000 parents and found the average 6-16-year-old spends fewer than seven hours a week outdoors – including weekends.

‘’Today’s generation of children have more things than ever before to encourage them to stay inside,” says Chris Allen, Decathlon’s UK Mountain Sports Manager, “and it seems these gadgets are keeping them from enjoying the great outdoors. With games such as Fortnite taking over the lives of many young children, they would prefer to stay indoors than kick a football around with friends or wander through the woods.”

This is having a serious impact on children’s physical and mental health, with obesity and anxiety, among other worrying issues, significantly on the rise. The number of obese 10- and 11-year-olds is the highest since children began being routinely weighed and measured in 2006. Back then 17.5% of Year 6 pupils were found to be obese; last year it was 19.8% – that’s nearly one in five Year 6 children. And according to the charity Young Minds, one in ten children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – the equivalent of roughly three children in every classroom – and almost one in four children and young people show some evidence of mental ill health, mainly anxiety and depression.

Take another study, recently published by ukactive, a not-for-profit group of organisations that campaigns for better health, which looked at children’s fitness levels before and after the school holidays. The youngsters they reviewed were found to be ‘measurably less fit by the end of the summer holidays’. While the report indicated that this was more apparent in children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it nonetheless found plenty of evidence of a decline in activity across all socio-economic groups. Half of British seven year olds, for example, do not meet government recommended physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes activity every day.

This is pretty shocking. It’s clear that the generation gap between us and our screen-obsessed offspring has never been greater – while technology isn’t always a negative thing, of course, today’s teens (even today’s toddlers) have a symbiotic relationship with their phones that we’re unable to fathom. But how much have the older generation – we, the parents – contributed to the unhealthy extent of this dependence?

I try to get my son to spend more time outside with his friends, but I’m usually met with a brick wall of indifference. Since he can chat with his mates at any time online, why would he want to just ‘hang out’? … To meet up for a walk or a bike ride; to play football. When I posted my fustration on an online parenting forum (oh, the irony), some shared my concern, but others were indifferent, even supportive of the indoor lifestyle. One said. “Well, at least I know where he is; it’s better than having him hanging around on street corners.”

But is it?

At the youngest end of the scale, parenting experts are warning that increasing numbers of children are starting school unable to hold a pencil and lacking other basic fine motor skills, because they have spent so much time using touch screen technology. “The current generation is hunched over screens from an early age and the iPhone has become the dummy of today’s society,” says Steven Ward of ukactive.

For frazzled and sometimes isolated parents, digital devices are an easy way to pacify their little ones – and as children get older, this reliance on technology is reinforced. How often have we begun the day with the intention of encouraging only healthy, creative free play – only to give in and proffer the iPad when the cries of ‘I’m bored’ become deafening?

Much as I adore my offspring, my experience as a parent has led me to believe that adults and older children – primary age and beyond – shouldn’t necessarily spend all their time together. You can’t foster independence when you keep them close. Moreover play, so essential for healthy development, is messy and noisy when it’s underfoot. Our parents and our grandparents knew this; that’s why children were ushered out of the house and sent off to amuse themselves on their own. But a series of high profile abduction cases (names we’re all familiar with: Sarah Payne, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, Milly Dowling, April Jones) has led us to believe that children are safer in the home. And screen play is clean play.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, the former Paralympian and chair of ukactive, argues that this means children are being reared like ‘battery hens’: “We have built a world which suppresses our children’s natural instinct to be active, replacing it with sedentary lifestyles and screen addiction. The holidays should be spent playing with friends but for many children it has become an unhealthy, unstimulating and even lonely time – damaging their physical and mental wellbeing.”

The opposite of a battery existence, is, of course, a free range one. But many parents are reluctant to allow their offspring the same freedom they enjoyed at the same age.

In Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children, Lenore Skenazy – or ‘America’s worst mum’ as she’s been derided in the press – argues that the level of over-protectiveness that would have been considered ‘neurotic’ three decades ago, is now seen as the norm. And with the ‘echo chamber’ that’s social media reinforcing these watchful values, common sense is being eroded. “Parents today are really bad at assessing risk,” she writes. “They see no difference between letting their children walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range,” she continues, her tongue only a little in her cheek. “Any risk is seen as too much risk. A crazy, not-to-be-taken, see-you-on-the-local-news risk. And the only thing these parents don’t seem to realise is that the greatest risk of all just might be trying to raise a child who never encounters any risks.”

Because while protecting our children from possible danger outdoors, we’re exposing them to real danger to their health and well-being when they stay indoors.

Futurist Mark Stevenson (author, broadcaster and expert on global trends and innovation) has predicted children might find themselves unable to develop certain aspects of innovative thinking and creativity because of an absence of ‘free play’, which he identifies as unscheduled screen-free playtime. “From our neurological development through to our ability to handle complexity and change, play is a foundation that, if taken away, severely limits our abilities and potential,” he says.

Lenore Skenazy earned her ‘worst mum’ accolade by allowing her child to ride the New York subway alone when he was just nine. When this hit the headlines she ended up on a series of talk shows defending her decision. “It’s extremely, even statistically safe,” she argued. “About one hour and one subway and one bus ride after we parted, Izzy was back home proud as a peacock. It made him feel grown up.”

While this is an extreme example that I’ll admit makes me pale at the thought, it’s surprising how many 11- and 12-year-olds aren’t even allowed to go to the local park by themselves. Lenore believed she was doing the right thing by her child, by trusting his innate capability and the importance of building up his resilience and self-esteem.

Sometimes it’s hard to get children outside, but I think that’s in no small part because we’ve stopped making it a priority. And this only gets worse as children themselves get out of practice. We need to allow children more freedom when they’re young in order to make playing outside an exciting option again. As free-range parenting champion Lenore says, “Millions of mums and dads now see the world so fraught with danger that they can’t possibly let their children explore it… but play is crucial to child health… it gets everything going: the mind, the body… the will to live.”

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