Jane Bradley: Childhood is no longer a picnic

Over-protective parenting has denied the next generation the happy adventures of roaming free, says Jane Bradley

The Secret Seven may have spent most of their time playing outside but todays youngsters are more likely to have their free time curtailed by parents worried about stranger danger

Our house is currently filled with talk of ginger beer picnics, secret societies and cries of “it’s all very peculiar!”

My four-year-old daughter has discovered Enid Blyton.

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She clamours every night for the next instalment of whatever Secret Seven or Five Find Outers tome we are reading.

She loves them. The mysteries, the excitement, the intrigue. She comes up with her own predictions of what might actually have happened and how - and is often amazingly accurate.

However, there is one thing which puzzles her on a daily basis: how are these children, some of them not really that much older than her, allowed out so much on their own?

They get buses to neighbouring villages to stalk out possible suspects. They spend most of their time hanging out alone by riverbanks or going off on long bicycle excursions to track down more clues.

Their beaming mothers pack them huge lunches of pies and lemonade and send them off for the day, telling them under no circumstances should they be back until teatime.

These books were written between the 1940s and 1960s - a period when youngsters enjoyed a higher level of freedom than we perhaps give our offspring now.

A study released this week by families.co.uk claimed that the average parent does not allow their children to “play out” until they are ten - almost at an age where playing, particularly in modern times, is replaced by more sedentary, grown-up pursuits such as gaming.

The reasons, parents claim, is that they are concerned about “stranger danger” and abduction attempts.

Some parents bandy around this fear, while others dismiss it out of hand. But just how likely is it that a youngster is actually abducted?

Police figures obtained by a Freedom of Information request in 2016 show that 44 abductions, attempted abductions or instances of “child stealing” in Scotland were recorded between 2013 and 2014. Just under half of those crimes – 19 – were carried out by a stranger.

Twelve cases were carried out by a relation of the child, and nine by someone known to the family but not related. In four of the cases the relationship to the victim was not known.

This compares to just 33 UK-wide recorded by the Home Office in 1971 - including parental abductions, those relating to other family members, known but not related and random abductions by strangers. However, experts are quick to point out that police reporting processes have changed hugely over that time period, suggesting that any rise may not be as straightforward - or as extreme - as it first appears.

It should be remembered that there are 854,000 children aged under 15 in Scotland, according to the 2011 census - meaning that just 0.002 per cent of Scottish children are affected by stranger abductions in a typical year.

Even without taking into account police reporting changes, official figures show that the UK population of children aged 15 and under in 1971 was 14.3 million, meaning that 0.0002 per cent of youngsters were abducted - a rise, but still a relatively small one.

My friend, the mother of a nine-year-old, tells me she has sensibly and gradually increased her daughter’s freedoms since she was a toddler, allowing her to roam further from home for increased periods of time.

A couple of years ago, she provided her daughter with a watch and gives her strict times to check in at home.

“The watch is vital and she knows if she ever forgets or doesn’t get home, the watch is taken away and she would only be allowed in the front garden,” my friend explains. “I have had to do this once when she was seven - never again since.”

Yet for the previous generation - those of us who are now parents ourselves - we were, the survey claims, allowed to play outside three years earlier than is common now - at around seven.

I remember riding my bike around the cul-de-sac behind my house at a fairly young age in the 1980s. My mum was probably watching out of the kitchen window. When we moved to a small village, when I was eight, I walked to school with my friends, a parent ensuring we crossed a busy road safely - and over the next few years, regularly explored the village, with its parks, nooks and crannies, on my bike with my friends and neighbours.

Another friend, a mother of three living in rural Perthshire, says she can’t recall at what age she was allowed to spend time outside with her peers, but cannot imagine allowing her two younger children to go further than the next room without harming themselves.

“Freedom and being trusted as a child is so important, but I can’t remember from what age my lovely memories are from,” she says. “My six-year-old I might allow to go further with older cousins but she’s very sensible. The boys, no way.”

Another, who now lives in the centre of a European capital city, says she misses the freedom her seven-year-old son can have when visiting his grandparents in small town northern England.

“It’s something I miss him being able to do at home, but it’s just not feasible in a city, plus he’s the only child on our block,” she explains. “We do, however, regularly set up a base in the park, from which he and his friends have an increasingly larger circle to roam whilst we parents sit and chat or read or drink. Not the same, but it teaches him about trust and responsibilty whilst giving him a confidence boost.”

Marguerite Hunter Blair, chief executive of Play Scotland, points out to me that in the past, children of different ages would have all played together - while now, older children and young teenagers are more likely to spend their time inside, on tablets or games consoles.

“You would have previously found children playing across the age ranges and the older ones would have looked after the younger ones,” she says. “But that doesn’t seem to happen as much.”

And our over-protective instincts have serious consequences. The recent Play in Balance report commissioned by Persil found that three-quarters of youngsters spend less time outdoors than a typical prison inmate at 30 minutes or less a day – while one in five youngsters does not play outside at all.

It is obviously important to keep our children safe, but we do need perspective. They need fresh air and exercise to thrive and keeping them cooped up inside is only storing up problems for the future.

Let’s grab the ginger beer and let them go off for a jolly picnic that would make Enid proud.