Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Celebrating children's right to play - as long as they're wrapped in cotton wool

Today is Playday 2008, an annual celebration of children's right to play, and it will be marked locally with a programme of play events free for all children at Hove Park from 10am (courtesy of the council) - one of thousands of locally organised events for children, young people and communities taking place across the UK this summer. Similar events, boasting games, art, fun and even music and drama performances, are happening at Queen's Park every Friday until August 22nd, also from 10am.

Organised events like these are great: lots of fun for kids and a breath of summer holiday fresh air for parents too. I'll certainly be taking my little boy, and taking my hat off to the council for organising the sessions (though I wonder why they have missed out swathes of children and families in Moulsecoomb and Whitehawk from their provision...)

But far more shocking than the fact that Brighton and Hove Tories don't like providing services in the more deprived areas of the city (hardly news) is a major new study by Play England, released to coincide with Playday, which found that children's development is suffering from their being denied the chance to play outdoors and without adult supervision.

The study found that half of all children have been stopped from climbing trees, 21 per cent have been banned from playing conkers and 17 per cent have been told they cannot take part in games of tag or chase. Some parents are going to such extreme lengths to protect their children from danger that they have even said no to hide-and-seek.

Of course, there are all sorts of dangers out there now which make it difficult for parents to give their children the freedom they need, but we have to get these into perspective, for our kids' sake.

Yes, some children are abused - physically or psychologically, and sometimes even sexually. Of course this is inexcusable, and we should never increase the risks of our children falling victim. But the tragic truth is that these terrible crimes are usually carried out by a child's parents themselves, or a church leader or someone else known to the child. Most children who are abducted are taken by a parent or relative. In reality, stranger danger is overstated.

When it comes to the safety of the games children play if left alone, again, the figures show we've been getting a little wrong. Last year, almost three times as many children were admitted to hospital after falling out of bed as those who had fallen from a tree. Both of these figures were overshadowed by the numbers treated for obesity brought on by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

But there is one area in which the risk faced by unsupervised children, especially in urban areas, has increased dramatically: the risk of being hit and injured or killed by a car.

I think we should be doing something about that, and not keeping our children indoors: campaigning for better road safety measures and slower speed limits and, when we're behind the wheel of a car, slowing down and paying more attention. Twenty is plenty, and I think Brighton and Hove should follow Portsmouth's example and reduce all urban speed limits to 20 MPH, with the exception of major routes into and out of the city. The bottom line is speed kills, and reducing speed will mean fewer children die on our roads.

Now that really would be a step forward in terms of delivering children the right to play.

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