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Worried parents in England restrict child freedom new research reveals

11 August 2015

New international research by Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster has revealed that parents in England are more restrictive than those in other European countries, granting their children less freedom to travel and play in their local neighbourhood unaccompanied by adults.

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, compares children’s independent mobility in 16 countries around the world based on a survey of over 18,000 children aged seven to 15 from 2010-2012. The study found that children’s independent mobility – their ability to travel and play in their local area unsupervised by adults - varies widely across the 16 countries. Significant restrictions are placed on children in nearly all the countries surveyed with the research revealing that fear of traffic was the biggest factor influencing their decision.

England’s aggregate rank placed it in seventh place behind top performing countries including Finland and Germany. Overall, Finnish parents allowed their children more freedom for almost every independent mobility indicator in this study. The degree of independent mobility granted to children in Finland is striking, with a majority of children aged eight allowed to cross main roads, travel home from school and go out after dark alone.

Going out alone after dark is the most withheld indicator of independent mobility. Children of any age are allowed to go out after dark in only a handful of countries – Finland, Sweden, Japan and Denmark.

England needs to develop its policies in order to improve children’s independent mobility, with the report outlining seven recommendations on how to achieve this. These include reducing car dependency and adopting Daylight Saving Time to allow children to utilise daylight hours and reducing road casualties. Previous work by PSI in this area of social policy has highlighted a continuing sharp decline in independent mobility with significant impacts on child development.

Ben Shaw, Director of Policy Studies Institute, said: “Allowing children the freedom to get about in their local area unaccompanied by adults has been found to be important for their health and physical, mental and social development. Yet we have found that children around the world have significant restrictions placed on their freedom to get about – to go to school, to visit friends, and get to places to play.

“Children’s freedom of movement has declined in recent decades and danger from traffic is the main reason parents give for not letting their children out by themselves. We are struck by how this significant danger and major restriction on children, is routinely accepted given the health and developmental benefits independent mobility has been shown to result in.”

“While restrictions on children’s freedom have increased, our research has looked at how this situation can be turned around. We have found some shining examples of cities such as Rotterdam and Vancouver which have been inspired to place children at the centre of their development; on the basis that if a city works for children it works for everyone. However, if the benefits of these approaches are to be enjoyed in the UK, the needs of children must be given much greater priority by decision makers working in the policy areas of planning, development and transport.”

Country ranking for children’s independent mobility - (highest to lowest)
     1. Finland
     2. Germany
     3. Norway
     4. Sweden
     5. Japan
     6. Denmark
     7. England
     8. France
     9. Israel
     10. Sri Lanka
     11. Brazil
     12. Ireland
     13. Australia
     14= Portugal
     14= Italy
     16. South Africa

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