My blog post about the low rates of cycling to school in Auckland sparked off a series of awesome comments from readers about posters’ memories of walking and cycling to school.
A lot of them emphasize that one of the things they valued most about cycling or walking to school was the relative freedom it gave them. I certainly agree with this, given my own happy memories of walking home from primary school and catching the bus home from high school. Those 25 minutes on the bus when we had no parental or teacher supervision (except the poor bus driver) were the social highlight of the day!
It’s sobering to think that freedom to roam is an experience modern children often miss out on.
There have been a few studies published lately looking at how much children’s freedom of movement has diminished over time. They did a study in England where they interviewed 4 generations of a family.
They found that children’s range of movement diminished from roughly 10 kilometres in 1926, down to 1.6 kms in the 1950s, down to 800 metres in the 1980s, and just 300 metres today.
If you’ve ever read old fashioned books like the Just William books or old fashioned New Zealand books like Year of the Shining Cuckoo you notice this is a real theme. Children were allowed to spend the entire day out, running around in the local patch of bush, and their parents didn’t even worry unless they didn’t come home for dinner.
It’s hard to imagine a parent in Auckland today who wouldn’t blink if their child left the house at 9 and didn’t get back until 5 pm. Maybe some farm children in NZ still experience that freedom to roam but they’d be a tiny minority.
Obviously, of course, in some books like the Famous Five or Swallows and Amazons you have to assume that the children’s freedom has been exaggerated by the authors (either that or the parents possibly should have been arrested for neglect – “But of course you can go to Europe on a horse riding holiday for 4 weeks darling. Don’t call us!”).
But, it’s not just a handy plot device – there is a reason why children’s books often include scenarios where children are free of their parents. It is because children want to experience risk and adventure alone – as many of the commentators on this blog pointed out that was one of the main attractions of cycling to school.
Surveys of children (PDF) in NZ show that they would prefer to walk or cycle to school than be driven.
What does it mean for children?
Health professionals and psychologists are disturbed by modern children’s lack of freedom to roam because it has implication for children’s physical health (less activity means a greater risk of diabetes, obesity etc) and mental health.
Many studies have shown that exposure to nature (trees, grass) makes children more resilient to life stress, reduces anxiety and improves academic performance.
What does it mean for parents?
I’m not trying to blame parents at all in this blog post – I am sure I would be just the same. But I do think it is a minor tragedy that we have created an environment where most parents don’t feel safe to let their kids walk further than the end of the street alone.
From a feminist perspective,Â I’ve never seen any research on this but I suspect children’s lack of freedom to travel also has implications for child carers in NZ – who are still mainly women. Because if you can’t let your child walk or cycle outside or play alone in the local park, then that means you have to be with them all the time.
Either that or you put them into organized activities (Tai Chi for Tots) which can also stress kids out. Little wonder that parents today (who also often work) might find child rearing more demanding than William’s mother did in the Just William books (she seemed hardly to see her son except at meal times).
What does it mean for the rest of us?
Children’s lack of freedom of movement has wider societal implications as well. The most obvious is that they get driven everywhere which creates significant congestion – 40% of traffic in the morning peak in Auckland is caused by trips to school. But there’s also issues around air pollution, costs to the health system from diabetes etc…
A self-reinforcing problem
So how can we change this? Well, unfortunately like a lot of transport issues, it is really self-reinforcing. Parents don’t feel safe letting their kids walk or cycle on our streets because of heavy traffic and stranger danger. This means there are virtually no walking or cycling bodies on our streets (only cars) which makes our streets feel even less safe.
When I was quite young I lived in Bangkok for a year. I don’t want to romanticize the city – there are definitely parts of Bangkok that are not safe. But in my own neighbourhood and many other places I could walk down a street at 11 oclock at night and, even as a young, foreign woman alone, I could feel safe. There are very few parts of Auckland (except maybe Queen Street) I could say the same of today.
I felt safe because there were just so many people on the street in Bangkok, even at night. Any assault would have had ten witnesses.
So, perhaps the solution to increasing children’s freedom to roam is not just better street design around schools (wider footpaths, more pedestrian crossings, more cycle paths, more cycle racks at schools, less parking spaces near school gates). Perhaps it is also linked to increasing the number of people on our streets.
Walking School Buses and Cycle Buses may be useful in this regard. While they might not help with increasing children’s freedom to roam in weekends and public holidays, at least if there were enough of them on the street providing passive surveillance during the morning peak, they might make parents feel safe to let their kids walk/cycle to school.
Higher population density would probably also help, although debate is raging about whether we want a denser Auckland right now in the Herald. But that’s a topic for another post!