What ever happened to playing outside as a kid?

Will our children taste freedom again? asks Lollie Barr.

Remember back in the day when kids roamed like free-range chickens, gathering in flocks all over their neighbourhoods? In the seventies, when I was seven, I lived in Randwick, a suburb in Sydney, high up in a flat on the 11th floor of one of three large blocks of units, which looked out over Wedding Cake Island and backed onto a pocket of two hectares of untouched coastal bushland, which we called The Gully.

My mum didn't want us underfoot in a small flat, so my brothers and I, and all the neighbouring kids from the blocks of flats, would congregate down in the Gully where we'd explore with free abandon, building dens, climbing trees and making mud pies without an adult in sight. Now known as the Fred Hollows Reserve, if I saw a gaggle of five and seven-year-olds hanging out there alone, I'd probably call the cops!

My parents eventually saved up enough to buy a house in Picnic Point, where I was lucky enough to have another nearby bushland paradise to roam about in.

Children on bikes.
Children in the 70s would roam the streets from dusk until dawn. Source: Getty, file photo

If you're young, this is the boring old story anyone over 45 will tell when kids were not seen or heard. We'd be out of the house all day on our bikes until the streetlights came on, and we had to go home for dinner.


However, I wasn't afraid of the dark. At 13, I used to ride my bike in the early morning for 20 minutes to the newsagent in Revesby to begin my weekend paper round at 6am.

It wasn't just nearby suburbs. Sydney was our playground. My still best friend Lisa and I were out and about from a very young age all over Sydney, watching the Bulldogs play in Penrith, taking the train to the beach in Cronulla and going to Luna Park in North Sydney for fits and giggles without our folks.

As a 14-year-old, we took the red rattler from Revesby into "town" as we called central Sydney to see David Bowie at the Sydney Showgrounds, without a mum and dad in sight. After a mind-blowing concert where we'd weaselled ourselves into the front row, we took the last train back to the burbs.

Children's freedoms have vanished over generations

Those freedoms we enjoyed as kids have been long since curtailed. In fact, according to the latest figures from the Safe Gates Week Report from D&D Technologies, 23 per cent of people said they would never let their children freely explore even their neighbourhoods.

This map from the UK demonstrates just how much has changed over the generations.

A map shared on Peddit shows the different areas that children have been allowed to roam in different generations. Source: Reddit.
A map shared on Reddit shows the different areas where children have been allowed to roam in different generations. Photo: Reddit

Now, instead of being free-range chickens, kids are like battery hens cooped up indoors under artificial light and henpecked by helicopter parents. Of course, there is a myriad of reasons for this: a hyper-awareness of stranger danger, as the worst imaginable fear for any parent is your children being abducted.

Or, there's the fact that some kids don't want to leave their bedrooms, let alone the house. Under the sway of big tech, kids seem more connected than ever when it comes to online but are disconnected in real life. One study found that children aged five to 16 spend, on average, six and a half hours a day in front of a screen—factoring in school

While parents think they're keeping their kids safe, cooped-up kids have an increased chance of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, lower bone mineral density and mental health issues. A study in the Journal of Pediatrics theorised that the decline in play and independence could be one reason children and teens have reported skyrocketing levels of anxiety, depression, and sadness in recent years.

Getting to know your community is key

Former twice premiership-winning rugby league great Ben Hannant, who is the ambassador for the Safegates campaign, grew up on the Gold Coast, says he is all for his four sons and four daughters getting out amongst it as he wants them to experience some of the freedoms he had in his childhood. "I am one of eleven kids, and we had little property in Mudgeeraba on the Gold Coast. Some of the greatest times of my childhood were out exploring with my mates, building cubby houses, swimming in the dam, and playing footie at the footie field. It was how we learned life skills. But in today's society, unfortunately, things are changing. Still, I'd like to get our kids to have the same sort of childhood that we did by exploring in their local neighbourhoods.'

While we'll never go back to the unparalleled freedoms of seven-year-olds hanging out in the bush (which is probably a good thing), wouldn't it be nice to feel comfortable letting kids have some independence around our neighbourhoods? "The one way to build that safety in our community is by building your community and getting to know one another," said Hannant.

Yet the Safegates Report found only a third of those surveyed claim to know their neighbours well. Over half of the families surveyed revealed they only occasionally interact with their neighbours. According to Hannant, if people knew their neighbours, they'd feel safer to allow their kids to explore more in their neighbourhood. “Building these relationships makes for a safer, fun and trustworthy neighbourhood,” he said.

Children running on the street.
These days you won't see children playing outside as often. Source: Getty, file photo

While any kids are connected with their friends online, Hannant would like to see kids build connections offline. “They communicate via text, gaming, apps, and photos,” he said.

“So, getting out there, getting dirty and learning new things, playing footy in the backyard, shooting hoops, working on the motor skills and learning how to win, learning how to lose, all those things we did when we were kids, set us up for life.”


Hannant says he knows five or six neighbours in his street and is part of a community Facebook page. "There are so many people around you who want to help, and if you're willing to help them as well, it can make you feel like you're connected to something bigger than yourself," he said.

"I'd recommend exchanging phone numbers. If something happens or you want to build on that relationship, you can contact one another. But also, if anything dodgy is going on, you are all looking out for each other. As parents, we want to let them explore and have a good time, but it’s reassuring when you know your neighbours around you.”

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