Reined in

Children tell Sarah Wellard what keeps them from playing out and
learning independence.

Going out to play is important to children everywhere. It
provides them and their parents with relief from each other’s
company, and gives children a space to spread their wings – to
negotiate friendships and start to find their place in the public
sphere, the world outside the family. Yet for some children growing
up in cities, the freedom to get out of their homes to play is
restricted by fears about traffic, crime and bullying by older
children. Four children from an east London neighbourhood spoke to
0-19 about going out, the freedom and constraints imposed by
parents and their own safety concerns.

Michael is a confident and gregarious 12 year old. He likes to
spend his free time out with his friends, playing football or at an
internet café in the high street. He tends to push at the
boundaries set by his parents, often coming home later than they
have asked him to. “Sometimes it’s not fair that they
don’t let me stay out later after school,” he says. “They
start moaning if I get back after six. If my friends are still out,
I’d like to stay out a bit later.”

Michael would also like to be allowed to go further afield – he
mentions the shopping centre further up the high street, where
groups of young people hang out at the weekend.

But he’s cautious. He wants more freedom but he also finds
groups of teenagers intimidating. “When there’s a big group
of kids that’s older than me, I would kind of avoid them if I
was on my own. Sometimes they look like they aren’t doing
anything and they’re just waiting for trouble.”

Michael’s father was recently mugged on the doorstep of
their house. Although the family was planning to move house anyway,
the incident has coloured the way they feel about the
neighbourhood. Michael explains: “My mum and dad don’t
particularly like me being out when it’s dark, like after
football. Just the fact of walking home – I walk part of the way
with other people and then I have to come the last bit on my

For Joe, aged 10, speeding cars and heavy traffic are the main
constraint on playing outside. He wishes he could ride his bike
near his home, but says the roads are too dangerous. “Sometimes,
like when my ball goes out into the road, I feel a bit scared. I
think my ball is going to get popped.”

Joe is allowed to go by himself to play with a friend who lives
about half a mile a way, but says he always has to ring his mum to
say he’s arrived safely. Like Michael, he is quite confident
out on his own but has had unpleasant experiences with older
children. He says: “Once, a group of kids came up to me and one of
them said, ‘I’m going to stab you.’ I knew he
didn’t have a knife, but I would have been scared if I
didn’t know my mum was coming.”

Eleven-year-old Lucy says she has been allowed to play out in
the local park for several years and is also expected to keep an
eye on her nine-year-old brother. She enjoys being out by herself
and has clear boundaries of where she is allowed to go – to two
neighbouring parks and to friends but not to the high street. Even
so, she feels safer when parents are in the park with younger
children. “I like it best if the mums are there. [The teenagers]
cause trouble. It’s quite dangerous if they have a big

Lucy has relatives who live in Lowestoft and she relishes the
extra freedoms she has when she visits them. “In the summer
holidays we go to Lowestoft to see my nan. If I want to I can go
down the beach with my oldest cousin. It’s safer there than
in London. Me and my cousin Laura go bike riding. We can quickly go
away if anyone starts. We cycle in the alleyway and there’s
no weird people.”

Like the boys, Lucy regards teenagers as a potential threat. She
says: “Most of the [older] girls hang round the swings. If we want
to play on the swings we just wait until they get off. They get
nasty and rude. They say, ‘Don’t give me dirty

Stacey, also 11, adds: “I think my sister will look at them. I
hit her if she stares at them because I think she’ll cause
trouble on me.” She finds it reassuring if her friend Leon is
around. “If anyone starts on me, Leon will stop them. If feels
safer when he plays out too.”

The girls also mention speeding cars as a danger. Sometimes Lucy
has to cross the main road to buy take-away chicken. She says: “If
you’re crossing the road and speeding cars come along you
feel really scared. There’s a zebra crossing but most cars
don’t even stop.” Neither of the girls travel by car often
because their mothers, who are lone parents, do not drive.

Lucy is playing a game on her mobile while she talks. She says
that she likes to carry her phone with her so she can keep in touch
with her mother when she is out. “I always ring her up and tell her
where I am. I keep it hidden so no one can see it.” However, Stacey
is keenly aware that carrying a mobile can makes you vulnerable to
attack. “Down the market a boy got stabbed. It was near where my
cousin works. She was at work when that boy got stabbed. He
didn’t hand over his phone – they stabbed him and took the

Lucy is worried now too. “If your mum wants to get in touch,
you’re scared of getting out your phone. Then you can’t
get in touch and something might happen to you.”

Stacey starts talking about the danger of being attacked by an
adult. “Sometimes we get scared when it’s just the two of us.
Like what happened to Holly and Jessica [killed in or near Soham,
Cambridgeshire last year]. We just talk to people we know who used
to go to our [primary] school. We get the boys we know to walk us
home.” Given the very limited nature of Stacey’s independent
activity, her anxiety is striking. The distance from the park to
her house is less than a quarter of the mile. Neither of the girls
is allowed out when it is dark, there are no main roads to cross
and in good weather there are usually lots of other children

Stacey feels intimidated by people she describes as “weirdos” –
people who seem drunk or drugged or are behaving oddly. They tend
to hang around the high street, away from residential streets but
sometimes wander down to the park. She says: “There’s loads
of trees behind the park and you don’t know who might be
there. There’s lots of weirdos – people who are all drugged.”
She adds: “If there were no weirdos around you could have more
freedom. Sometimes you stay indoors and get bored because
there’s not much to do. But if you go out you’re

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