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Let’s stop wrapping our children in cotton wool

As questions are now being raised about the consequences of having shut playgrounds during lockdown, Joanna Williams says that we need to let kids be kids

One of the saddest visual images of lockdown was of padlocked, taped-off children’s playgrounds. It didn’t matter that young children were never at serious risk from coronavirus or that the chance of outdoors transmission, even among adult supervisors, was — and remains — minimal. Government advisors labelled playgrounds risky. And so they were closed.

It was a decision no doubt driven by the same abundance of precaution that has characterised all lockdown restrictions. But for children who lived in tower blocks or homes without gardens, children who were kept out of school and away from friends, or just had an excess of energy and a desperate need to let off steam, closing playgrounds was a devastating blow.

During this year of Covid, a zero-risk approach to policies involving children has been taken to such extremes that it may have backfired entirely. Measures such as closing schools and playgrounds could have longer term consequences for children’s education and development. However, this safety-first, precautionary approach to childhood did not just emerge with Covid-19.

There is little new in our obsessive desire to protect children from even negligible risks

Sadly, there is little new in our obsessive desire to protect children from even negligible risks. Decades before playgrounds closed over Covid-fears, they were redesigned with safety in mind. Whether through fear of accidents or litigious parents, local councils have for many years been replacing high slides, long swings and vertiginous climbing frames with safer alternatives set into soft, sprung floors. This has led some researchers to ask if playgrounds have now become too safe and whether children miss important benefits from testing themselves against more challenging play equipment.

But it is not just playgrounds that have changed: parents have too. Research published last week notes that today’s children are not allowed to play outside unsupervised until they are a full two years older than their parents were when granted the same freedom. The British Children’s Play Survey, the largest of its kind, found that today’s adults, now in their 30s and 40s, don’t let their own children play alone outdoors until they are, on average, 11 years old.

As Professor Helen Dodd, who led the study, notes, this stems from “a trend to be protective”. One expert told The Guardian the findings showed that British children had been subject to “a gradual, creeping lockdown over at least a generation”.

This matters because independent and unsupervised play is crucial for child development. As Helene Guldberg, author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear notes: “Children need to be given space away from adults’ watchful eyes — in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts.”

Schools have been quietly reducing playtime since 2006

Play not only keeps children physically fit but, according to research by psychologist Edward Fisher, it can “enhance early development by anything from 33 per cent to 67 per cent by increasing adjustment, improving language skills and reducing social and emotional problems”. Arriving at adolescence — a time when spontaneous play begins to fall away — without having had these experiences makes the lessons to be learned even more difficult to accrue. Yet there is one thing even more important to children than all the instrumental benefits of play that can be enumerated: it’s called fun.

It is tempting to take parents to task for not allowing children more freedom. And as yesteryear’s helicopter and snowplough mums are joined by millennials — already derided as generation snowflake — now venturing into parenthood for the first time, parents become an easy target. But it’s worth remembering the broader cultural context that comes with raising children today.

It’s not just parents that don’t let children out to play unsupervised; schools have also been cutting back on playtime. Whether it’s to shorten the school day, free up more time for classroom instruction, save money on playground supervisors, or to prevent bullying, schools have been quietly reducing playtime since 2006. As already noted, over the course of this year the government has been at it too, issuing guidance ordering the police to disperse young reprobatesfor making snowmen, sledging, or kicking a ball around in the park.

What’s more, mothers and fathers today are bombarded with the message that their child’s life chances are fundamentally determined by the quality and quantity of their parenting. As Dr Jan Macvarish points out in Neuroparenting, The Expert Invasion of Family Life, it is now widely assumed that all parents need training, particularly in how their babies’ brains develop. Even the Duchess of Cambridge now offers parents lectures on the importance of shaping their child’s brain development through positive physical, emotional, and cognitive interaction.

Questions are now being raised about the consequences of having shut playgrounds during lockdown

When parenting is seen as a skill to be carefully and consciously applied, and your child’s future development is entirely dependent upon your actions, then sending children out onto the street to play unsupervised seems negligent at best — and downright dangerous at worst. This view meets our culture of safetyism where every risk that a child might encounter needs to be anticipated in advance and thoroughly neutralised before any harm can be done. In this context, it is a wonder that children are even allowed out to play aged 11.

Thankfully, questions are now being raised about the consequences of having shut playgrounds during lockdown and preventing unsupervised play more broadly. But while we’re at it, we should also consider the impact demands for closer supervision of children have on parents, especially mothers. We already know that working mothers found it more difficult to combine employment with home education during lockdown.

A recent Atlantic article suggests intensive parenting comes at the cost of parents’ own hobbies, interests and friendships. Women, it often seems, have been freed to enter the labour market on the same terms as men, and liberated from much domestic drudgery by technology, only to find they are now tied to the constant demands of their children. This is to the benefit of no one.

It is hard for even the most ardent lockdown advocate to argue that the benefits of keeping children at home, shutting schools, closing playgrounds, and preventing them from playing with friends in the street, outweighed the risks coronavirus posed to the young. When we can look back on this period with some dispassion, we must also ask what the seemingly casual imposition of restrictions on children tells us about the way childhood and children were already perceived. This summer, we need to set children free to play. But lifting lockdown restrictions is just the first step in making this happen.

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