Finding new ways to promote adventurous play

From school playgrounds adding more risk to traffic stops, how can we give children the freedom they need?
15 August 2022

Interview with 

Tim Gill


One of the topics that keeps on coming up again and again is the idea that children are now growing up in a gilded cage. We protect them, but we're doing that at their cost. So what sort of damage are we potentially doing to children by doing this? Chris asked Tim Gill, an independent researcher and writer, and a global advocate for children’s play. He’s the author of Urban Playground: How Child Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities...

Tim - I think what's happening is that well-meaning attempts by adults - parents and others - to protect children from all possible harm is actually depriving children of the kind of experiences that, in reality, help them to learn how to cope and to get along in an uncertain world. And I think that there's always a balancing act here, but for some decades I would say, culturally there's been a shift towards what I sometimes call a philosophy of protection and that we need instead to remind ourselves of the value of allowing children to find out for themselves how to get along, how to deal with challenges and how to cope with tricky situations.

Chris - Indeed, one of our other producers on the programme said that when she was little, she used to go out and play on the street and it wasn't until 10 o'clock at night and Mum would call out the window time to come in and everyone would come in. You just don't see that sort of behaviour anymore.

Tim - Yes. I think I talk in my work about the shrinking horizons of childhood and that in children's everyday lives have become more and more constrained and more watched over by adults. That's really a longstanding trend which goes back generations as you've hinted and there are complex reasons for that. I actually think that the physical qualities of neighbourhoods are one of the factors; traffic is a real and present danger for children in many neighbourhoods, and in many neighbourhoods has been growing. But I think there is also this cultural shift that we've just talked about around an overprotective mindset with children. And those two things come together and children are the ones who lose out.

Chris - Andrea was saying at the beginning that this is most marked in terms of physical ill health and mental ill health amongst the poorest communities. Does that apply necessarily here though? Because is it that the kids with better off parents are more likely to have a cushioned life and therefore may be more at risk of having their horizons blunted in the way you're describing?

Tim - Well, it's certainly true that the everyday freedoms that children have vary from place-to-place and with different children, and ages. Also girls have much less freedom than boys and that I think is significant. We don't know enough about some of the social class aspects of this. It'd be easy to turn to stereotypes. My hunch is that - if I could put it this way - outdoor play culture is more resilient in some pockets of towns and cities than others, perhaps for a combination of reasons. Partly because of the physical properties of those neighbourhoods, maybe traffic isn't such an issue, or there are good green spaces nearby, maybe also partly for cultural and social reasons to do with the level of trust and the kind of contact between families. I wouldn't want to make any wider generalisations than that.

Chris - It sounds like the sort of growing up equivalent of the champions of the hygiene hypothesis, who say, we all need to play in dirt more because that's why we're seeing loads of allergies. Our obsession with sterility is giving our immune system nothing to do. This seems like the behavioural equivalent of that. So what sort of solutions can you foresee that would be easily implementable to row back onto this corner we've painted ourselves into?

Tim - I think that's quite a good analogy by the way, and I'd say a couple of things, especially there are opportunities in schools for instance, to open up school break times and lunch times to bring in a bit more adventurous and challenging free play. There are actually hundreds of schools across the UK now that are doing things like bringing in scrap materials and junk; something that's not a million miles away from that adventure playground scene that we heard earlier. And teachers and school leaders are seeing amazing results in terms of children's behaviour and enjoying their school life more. So that's one side. I think there's also really interesting work and I'm promoting some of it in my own work around making neighbourhoods more child friendly. Tackling traffic, opening up green spaces, making it easier to walk and cycle around neighbourhoods, even simple things like having sessions maybe once a week where the through traffic in a street or through traffic outside a school is stopped for a few hours simply so that children can come out and play. It's a model that's been promoted by a charity called Playing Out based in Bristol. And again, that's been taken up by communities across the UK and beyond. So I think there are promising green shoots about how at different levels; parents, communities, decision makers and councils; can make a difference here.

Chris - It's good that we've recognised that there is a problem, and perhaps we are at a turning point. Tim Gill, thank you.


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