Where do the children play? ‘Annoyed Resident’ letter sparks debate
We don’t see enough of the unsupervised play that is key to children’s development
Unsupervised play: Research shows independent play and being free to roam has a positive impact on children’s wellbeing and development. Photograph: Getty
Letter sent from “Annoyed Resident” about children’s play that was hotly debated on social media this week
Anna Hodson and her son Lucas (6)
Do you always know where your children are? And – perhaps more importantly – should you?
A debate which ran online this week over a letter uploaded to Twitter, which had been sent by an “annoyed resident” of Ailesbury Lawn in Dundrum, South Dublin, highlighted the divergence in people’s attitudes towards children playing outside.
With the school summer holidays in full swing, the letter writer complained about “the complete lack of concern for other residents of the area some of whom have expressed dismay at the noise of screaming kids and bouncing balls for hours on end”. The letter also warned that “inevitably some child will be involved in a traffic accident due to your ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude”.
The letter also included comments such as, “This is not a working class area”, and sparked lively discussions.
The recipient of the letter did not wish to be interviewed but Sue Burke, who also lives in the neighbourhood, strongly disagrees with the annoyed resident letter-writer. She describes the area as “a lovely, leafy suburb with a great community spirit.”
“This is not a case of neglected children running wild and causing trouble and it doesn’t seem fair to criticise children for playing. Nor does it seem right to force kids to always play on a green area which is actually located a 15-minute walk away from the road. Sometimes kids just want to play near their own houses, it’s quite safe here so why shouldn’t they?”
Burke says if the letter writer had concerns then they should have taken a mature approach and spoken to either the children or the parents to negotiate the appropriate noise level.
“We build communities by speaking to each other and figuring out how to live together happily. Writing a letter like that just creates a sourness and sense of division and animosity. It’s such a pity because it really is a friendly area.”
Children’s play is a divisive subject and, for some, the phrase “unsupervised children” is akin to “feral children” despite the fact that research by Bristol-based charity Play England shows independent play and being free to roam has a positive impact on children’s wellbeing and development. Has the time come for us to be more proactive in promoting children’s rights to play?
Research shows that a child’s 'radius of activity' is usually quite close to the parents or caregivers until the child is seven or so
Anna Hudson, who lives in Castleknock, Co Dublin, with her six-year-old son Lucas, has noticed huge changes in attitudes towards parenting and children in recent years. Hudson remembers her own childhood fondly. “When I was a kid we used to have lovely days out exploring the neighbourhood and the local racecourse. It was magical.” Life is quite different for Lucas – there are no children his age playing on the street and so it falls to his mother to be more creative and find opportunities for free play.
“We’re very lucky because there is a private after-school operating in Lucas’s school where the supervision is light and the emphasis is on child-led play. The kids there range from five years old up to 12 and I think that’s great. I believe it’s bad for the children’s emotional development to have every moment supervised. If the play is led by the adults then the child is just following the rules and so they soon become bored. Kids need to organise their own play to make it special.”
She seldom sees young children playing freely or unsupervised in the general locality. “If there were kids Lucas’s age out there, he’d be out there with them and I’d be thrilled. But the kids I see outside are mostly older kids. My guess is that most of the younger kids around are like ourselves – the parents are working and so the children are being looked after by someone else. It’s only now that Lucas is nearly seven that I’ve noticed that he is beginning to need to spread his wings beyond the garden.”
‘Radius of activity’
Research published in the UK National Trust’s Natural Childhood Report shows that a child’s “radius of activity” is usually quite close to the parents or caregivers until the child is seven or so but then, as they grow older, this radius moves beyond that and play begins to become more independent and child-led. By the time children are about 10, most have developed the confidence and curiosity to motivate them to move beyond their estate and to begin exploring their wider environment. If children at that age are forced to remain within the confines of their immediate area they often become bored and are likely to relieve that boredom looking at tablet screens or by engaging in more toxic behaviour.
Playing outside often instils confidence and a sense of belonging in children
Many parents note that their children are not as adventurous as they were at their age and the reason for this is that many children these days are simply unused to playing out alone. Hudson is bothered by the judgmental attitude shown towards children playing “unsupervised”.
“There is an obsession that children should be supervised – it has become very unusual to see a kid unsupervised and if you do, you automatically look around for the ‘owner’. This belief that ‘if they’re unsupervised that means they’re neglected’ has become a new refrain but it’s all wrong because kids lose quite a lot with all this emphasis on supervision,” she says.
“I’ve seen it in teenagers who I have taught over the years. Some kids are unable to cope with social situations because they literally have had no experience in dealing with their peers without an involved adult weighing in to ensure everyone plays nicely. These kids have never had the chance to develop the necessary skills to handle difficult situations,” Hudson adds.
The Ailesbury Lawn letter-writer was particularly ridiculed online for declaring that, “This is not a working class area”, and yet there might be something in this. Hudson works as a teacher in a Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) and has noticed that in the school’s locality the children spend more time playing on the street.
“In Clondalkin, where I work, the children are more likely to have a parent or grandparent at home with them full-time and so the kids seem to come and go as they please. They’re also not rushing off to constant activities or scheduled playdates. I often think that they’re better off as a result.”
Anne Hoctor, who lives in Birr, Co Offaly, with her daughter Amelia (8), was once the neighbour who was doubtful about children playing freely and unsupervised. “I was that angry neighbour, listening to the incessant thump of balls against my garden wall, and answering the door half a dozen times a day to fetch balls that had come over,” she says.
Initially, the prospect of raising her child on an estate intimidated Hoctor but she has since come around to the idea. “I wasn’t a council-estate kid when I was growing up – we were too posh – but we weren’t of the professional class either – we were too poor – and so I never felt like I fitted in. When I had my own child, I was terrified at the prospect of raising Amelia on a busy council estate where, if rumours were to be believed, children were allowed to run ‘feral’.
“I thought I was doing the right thing when I put so much effort into creating our garden as the perfect safe-space where she could have her friends come to play. But as Amelia grew older, anxiety reared its ugly head, and it was then I realised that providing the garden as a safe space to play for a child who lacked confidence wasn’t actually doing her any favours.”
Playing outside often instils confidence and a sense of belonging in children and Hoctor couldn’t help but notice that the adults who had been the council estate kids from her own childhood had formed lasting bonds that were still strong 40 years on.
“Their friends are their family and I realised that I wanted this for my only child who was never going to have the support of the big extended family. And so I learned to let go of the reins, and as a result, I have watched Amelia become a much happier and more confident eight year old.”
Hoctor has to keep her own anxiety in check as her daughter begins to expand the boundaries of her play. “I watch her examine my expression as she asks ‘Can I go as far as . . ?’ and see her happiness as I try to nonchalantly say ‘sure’. Then a few hours later she barrels in the door, beaming and full of chat about her adventures. Our garden still gets huge use but always with an open gate to let them come and go as they please. I have a happier child now and I am a happier mum as a result.
It is fully accepted in many European countries that children need to have opportunities to play freely
“It took a lot of learning and taking the time to get to know the kids around to build up a rapport and I eventually realised that I didn’t have to be butting heads with the kids who were kicking their ball over my wall all the time. If you’re going to live on an estate, whether through choice or not, you need to learn how to live in a community and there is a lot of worth in that,” she says.
Negotiating how to live among our neighbours is a fine art. It’s not easy, of course; unpleasant behaviour and bullying are a constant challenge but should we keep our children indoors out of fear of them meeting someone disagreeable? If parents are always nearby, available and ready to help out when called upon, does that allow children to develop social skills? Many play experts argue that the lighter touch works better because when adults intervene too soon it can create more trouble than it solves.
Although it might seem unquantifiable, the happiness level of the residents of an area can actually be measured and Dutch cities have been identified in a Unicef report as the happiest cities for children. It is fully accepted in many European countries that children need to have opportunities to play freely and unsupervised if they are to develop into happy and healthy functioning adults and so provision is given to children’s play areas where traffic is restricted to improve safety. The vast, soulless expanses of green with the few wimpy-looking trees in the corner that are found in most estates in Ireland are no match for the inventiveness of the cleverly thought-out designs of the children’s play areas in many European countries.
It’s time we realised this emphasis on children being supervised while playing is missing the whole point about play. And we should acknowledge the need to encourage children to roam freely so they can develop appropriately. If parents have the courage to withstand the naysayers and “annoyed residents” and seek to provide children with the once-in-a-lifetime gift of a free and easy childhood, it could have lifelong benefits.
Stella O’Malley is a counsellor and author of two books on parenting: Cotton Wool Kids and Bully-Proof Kids