Parked cars and helicopter parents: Barriers to children’s independent outdoor play and mobility?

Post by Dr. Jemima Stockton, THSG UK Executive Committee

A couple of weeks ago, my 5-year-old son A. and his 4-year-old friend M. had just had their Thursday swimming lesson. A. and I, and M. and her mum, were walking back to their house for our regular post-swim dinner of pesto pasta. As we arrived, A. and M. clocked a lush carpet of dandelions on the four by ten metre communal front garden, an overgrown lawn partly bordered by bushes and partly open to the street. This, they said, was where they wanted to play whilst dinner was cooked.

Why was it, then, that after a few seconds’ deliberation, M.’s mum and I chivvied the children indoors to play in the living room? Why deny them the independent outdoor play they craved and that we had ourselves enjoyed as children a generation ago? The reason wasn’t stranger danger; random kidnapping by a person unknown to the victim is mercifully uncommon in London. And we weren’t especially concerned that A. and M. would come to harm if left unsupervised for half an hour. Sure, there were steps to trip down, walls to fall off, stones to hurl at each other and tempers to boil over unchecked. But none of these things was the deciding factor.

M. and her family live in a flat within a Victorian terraced house in Kentish Town, North London. Average traffic volume on her street, like on many others in the borough of Camden, is very low. So, mostly, is the speed, thanks to the 20 mile per hour limit set on all the local council-managed roads. In fact, in Camden this speed limit has recently been rolled out even on some of the Transport for London-managed red routes – the city’s most heavily trafficked roads – in line with London Mayor Sadiq Kahn’s Vision Zero policy, which aims to reduce the rates of serious injury and death on the capital’s roads to zero by 2041. Had either child strayed from the garden onto the usually very quiet street beyond – to chase a cat or a squirrel or a ball or just out of curiosity – you would think they’d most probably be fine. But most probably isn’t a great statistic when a possible outcome is serious injury or death.

On M.’s road, as on many others, the danger posed by the moving cars is amplified by the wall of parked ones that mean you can’t see things coming. Even if drivers observe the speed limit, the consequences of a child darting out from a tiny gap between two parked cars into the middle of the carriageway at just the wrong moment are unthinkable. This likely helps explain the finding of a recent YouGov poll of parents commissioned by UK walking charity, Living Streets, that 60% of primary school children never play out on their local street. In London, I reckon the figure is higher; I only see children playing on residential streets on the rare occasions they are repurposed as ‘play streets’. (A play street is the temporary opening of a street for play and community, and closure to through traffic, agreed and arranged by neighbours and endorsed by the local council.)

A typical street, full of parked cars © J. Stockton

Thinking again about the incident that prompted these reflections, it’s notable that A. and M. didn’t ask to play on the street, only in the communal garden. The idea of playing in the street itself would not have occurred to them, which is hardly surprising: it’s not something they ever see kids doing. In fact, A.’s school – where the catchment area is tiny (in 2022, the furthest child accepted lived 280 metres away, as the crow flies) – won’t allow children to walk to school alone until they are in Year 3 (7 or 8 years old). Yet when I was at primary school in the 1980s, children younger than this walked further to school alone and we played out in our neighbourhoods until dusk. My own parents recall even more freedom as children of the 1950s.

Just as evidence confirms a decline in children’s independent play and mobility over the last seventy years, so other studies point to the mental and physical health benefits, as well as the improvement in social development and well-being enjoyed by children who are left to explore their neighbourhood unsupervised. Yet in 2019 to 2020, less than half of five- to eighteen-year-olds in England met the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of an hour of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per day. Physical activity has been found to be higher among children with unrestricted independent outdoor play than among those whose play is restricted.

Adding to the evidence in favour of unsupervised play, Norwegian researchers have theorised that risky play serves an evolutionary purpose in child development. Very young children have a natural inhibition of situations they are developmentally unable to handle which protects them from danger. As they grow, they are drawn to the thrill of risky play which, aside from being fun, has an anti-phobic effect in allowing them to master challenges that are now age appropriate and no longer dangerous for them. The skills that children develop through play with emotional, social and physical risk are proposed to be lifelong, equipping them to tackle psychosocial and physical tasks later as adults. If this theory is correct, surely risky outdoor play should be encouraged.

Kids now spend a scary amount of their lives parked inside our homes, as do cars outside them. This is no coincidence. The transformation of residential street from play space in the 1950s to child-repellent informal car park in the 2020s reflects the rise in the household car access rate in Great Britain over this period, from just over one in ten with at least one car to almost eight in ten now. In London, where population density is fifteen times higher than the rest of England, 58% of households have at least one car and the average car spends 95% of the time stationary, 80% of this outside its owners’ home. That equals a lot of cars, occupying a lot of residential street space, for a lot of time.

Another street full of parked cars. © J. Stockton

The almost total displacement of playing children on our streets by parked cars, over only a couple of generations, is alarming. Equally alarming is society’s apparent lack of alarm. This may be, in part, due to the rise in helicopter parenting – the overprotection of a child by a parent “hovering” above, ready to swoop down and rescue them at the first sign of danger – driven by social media-fuelled anxieties over traffic and crime. Risk-averse, helicopter parents likely welcome restrictions on children’s independent play and mobility. After school clubs and classes, and parent-policed playdates are deemed safe; unsupervised street play is not.

Research indicates that the absence of children playing exacerbates the real and perceived domination of space by vehicular traffic, creating a kind of snowball effect in the transition from kids to cars. It has been observed that children playing on pavements act as “mental speed bumps” and are more effective than conventional, non-fleshy speed bumps and line markings at calming traffic, and that the degree to which residents have retreated from their street governs traffic speed. So, defying social norms may be key to rejecting the status quo. But it takes brave parents to deploy their children as traffic calming measures in an attempt to make motorists more careful and streets more attractive for others to play on. And anyway, whilst this might make roads safer, such efforts would not rid them of parked cars. Who wants to play football when the ball keeps getting trapped underneath the chassis of next door’s SUV?

So, let’s go back to the real culprits: parked cars. As I mentioned, the average car in London spends most of its time motionless, with less than 5% served as transport, its raison d’être. That’s a total of around one hour a day in motion. The goddess of de-cluttering, M. Kondo, says that “if you can’t find a place for something in your home, and you don’t use it often, then you don’t need it”. So how can we justify the mass storage of under-used private vehicles in the public realm? We can’t. But until we confront this injustice – by incentivizing car sharing, restricting parking permits and, crucially, investing adequately in public transport – I’m afraid A. and M., along with millions of other children without private gardens, are not free to go out and play.

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