Why children need space

We need to halt childrens retreat from public spaces and improve the quality of their relationships with their peers and elders, says David Willetts, the shadow secretary of state for education 

Something is wrong with childhood in Britain today. Obesity in children rose by roughly 60 percent in the past ten years, and roughly 18 percent of children are now obese. Mental health problems have risen dramatically: 17 percent of 16-year-olds have behavioural problems compared with 12 percent in 1986.

UNICEF published a report last February showing that, compared with the rest of the developed world, children in the UK have the poorest relationships with their family and friends and lower well-being.

They are also more prone to behaviour such as underage sex and getting drunk. We are the only country covered by the UNICEF report where less than half of children find their peers kind and helpful, and four in 10 of our youngsters have had sex by the age of 15.

The right way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and to deal with it in a more comprehensive manner. The last thing parents need is more advice from the government about how to raise their children. The majority of parents are doing their best, spending more time with their children than ever before. Today, they spend on average 99 minutes a day with their children, compared with 25 minutes a day in 1975. But, thanks to the proliferation of good parenting guides, parents feel more pressure than ever before to prove they are doing the right thing to bring up their children.

My concern is not with parents or schools, but with the space in between. One of the central reasons why children are so unhappy is that the space to simply be a child has deteriorated. Children need outdoor space to play and explore to keep physically active, develop social skills and achieve mental well-being. But the public space we leave for children is often not safe and appealing. Crime, bullying and traffic are all real and growing dangers.

Between 1998/99 and 2005/06, the number of injuries resulting from gun crime increased by 342 percent, and 43 percent of gangs say they hang around playgrounds. Similarly, 50 percent of bullying takes place outside school. And over-regulated playgrounds, providing no real challenge to children, mean cyberspace rather than public space is the preferred choice.

So our children have retreated from public space. Only two in 10 children play out in the streets and spaces near where they live, compared with eight in 10 a generation ago. This most affects those from the poorest families, since it is they who are most reliant on public space for play and recreation.

A recent study showed that 32 percent of children from the most deprived areas are watching television every Sunday afternoon, compared with 7 percent of those from the most affluent areas. A lack of good, quality public space to play is opening up a new social divide, as softer, non-cognitive skills acquired in the playground are much more important for success in a service-based economy.

Instead of lecturing parents, I want to help them by creating more child-friendly public spaces. In those countries that performed well in the UNICEF league table, children were seen and heard whether it be in restaurants or parks. To make spaces safer, adult supervision is needed. That means more police officers on the streets rather than in the office, street stewards who can stop bullying and parents who coordinate walking buses to schools.

For children to participate in outdoor activity, adults need to be more involved to ensure safe and exciting experiences. Outdoor trips, however, are in decline because teachers and volunteers fear mischievous litigation if children have accidents. This is why I believe we need to change the law to ensure that teachers and volunteers feel confident about organising trips, safe in the knowledge they would only be liable for accidents if they behaved recklessly.

Childrens happiness is also affected by the quality of their relationships, which is why intra- and inter-generational relationships need to be strengthened.

Recognising in law the right of children from broken homes to be looked after by grandparents would be a step forward in strengthening the ties between the generations. And giving headteachers the ultimate power to expel pupils who persistently bully would help reduce the damaging effects of bullying on peer-to-peer relations. Providing more activities where children of different ages mix would, research confirms, be another positive change.

We need to use this evidence to develop a framework for implementing policies that make Britain the most child-friendly society in the developed world. The main tasks, I believe, are to create spaces for children to play safely, and to improve their relationships with their peers and elders.