The childhood we create for our children

I’m sitting across the table from a worried father. He’s talking about the fears for his child walking to school. He’s telling me about the dangerous drivers and the increase in traffic. A mother chimes in to explain that she needs to drop her child off early at school, on the way to work. And another tells me of a news report on stranger danger in the area.

I hear a lot about fear in my line of work. Particularly when I’m speaking with parents in the workshops I facilitate. I’m an advocate for children’s independent travel, the freedom of walking and cycling, and I’m used to hearing the concerns of parents.

When we sit in the sessions and I talk about the various ways children can travel to school or around their neighbourhood, without adults to accompany them, there is a cloud of fear that descends and envelops us. Nearly every time.

I feel the weight of the adult concerns. I understand the instincts to protect our children.

But lately, as I sit and listen, I find one question keeps bubbling to the surface. After putting forward all the statistics that show how many Australian children are driven most days of the week – the physical and environmental impacts that result – I want to stop and ask:

What sort of childhood are we creating for our children?


* * *

I hear a knock at the front door, and then a voice calls out, “Can you come out to play?”

I grab my bike that lies on the driveway, and the heat hits us as we pedal to the top of the hill. Our fort that’s made of bricks, planks and anything we can find, leans to the left as it rests on the gum tree. It’s early morning; we have our bikes and a day’s adventure ahead.

* * *

The recent discussions with parents have me wondering about the ever-growing restrictions being placed on children’s play and freedom of movement. How, over time, the tight bonds of our collective fear are suffocating our children.

A black and white picture of a girl and boy running along a path through the woods. We see the back of the children as they are mid-running along a dirt path covered in fallen leaves. The girl has dark hair in a ponytail and is wearing a light t-shirt, spotted leggings and shoes. The boy is younger and wears a cap, light t-shirt and pair of shorts.There is a term called ‘children’s independent mobility’. It’s about the freedom for children to move around in public spaces without adult accompaniment.  It’s play, in non-structured activities; it’s travelling to school or other places by walking or cycling.

But, it’s not only the physical it’s also the nurturing of independence, a child’s sense of identity, confidence and social skills. It’s about resilience and managing risk.

It’s about that time when you learned that riding down a steep hill with busted brakes meant ending up in a ditch with bleeding knees. It’s dreading the undiluted Dettol on a cotton wool pad to clean the wound. Yes, it stung and made your eyes water, but wasn’t it also the most exhilarating ride down that hill and the best story to tell your friends?

* * *

“How did you get to school as a child?” I ask the concerned father.

He pauses and says, “I used to walk, with my best friend.” He looks off into the distance and lands on a memory. “Yeah, there was this one time when this dog – big Doberman – scared the daylights out of my friend.” He pauses. “We walked past a fence, and the dog let out a loud bark that startled him so much he fell over.” We all laugh.

It’s not easy to help parents loosen the grip.

But, a childhood experience to roam freely, with adventure and wonder, carries much importance too.

It’s a childhood free to explore the paths on foot to school, and cycle to the local shop with best friends for an ice cream on a sunny summer’s day.