The “roaming range” of successive generations of children in one family (source: via Daily Mail)

The exhibit is an oldie but it’s a perennial social media favourite. It’s from a report in the Daily Mail showing how the roaming range of 8-year old children in one UK family narrowed over four generations, from 1919 to 2007 (How children lost the right to roam in four generations).

It’s only one family and I can’t find the report the story’s based on, but I accept the general idea that on average young children are much less independent now than their grandparents and great grandparents were. They don’t walk or cycle by themselves nearly as much or as far.

Why is the ‘roaming range’ of today’s generation of young children so much more constrained than that of generations past? Could it be that children today:

  1. Are innately less adventurous?
  2. Live in suburbs where there are fewer interesting places to go?
  3. Have fewer playmates in the immediate neighbourhood?
  4. Have parents who are far more coddling than previous generations?
  5. Have more ways of spending their time at home?

I don’t think there’s much to the first two hypotheses. The third could have some effect e.g. more children in the same street who go to different schools and hence are less likely to play together. I doubt it’s a key explanation though, as in almost all neighbourhoods most children still attend the same primary school.

Number 4 – the idea that parents excessively cocoon their offspring – provides a much more convincing account. Increasing traffic levels and heightened awareness of “stranger danger” are the key reasons cited in the Daily Mail’s report. A related factor is that parent’s tolerance of risk – in line with the broader community’s – has fallen precipitously with rising incomes and education.

I suspect though that the fifth hypothesis is just as important, perhaps more so. With each generation, children have gotten more home-based options for recreation. Great grandad got radio, grandad got TV, dad got game consoles, and now children have smartphone-based games and social networks.

Computer games and simulations are highly immersive; they’re the sort of thing that older generations could only have dreamed about. For many, social media is richer and more involving than playing with one or two friends or wandering alone by the creek. In other words, children of today have extraordinarily rich options that weren’t available to their forebears.

I was consumed by Ultima Underworld 2 and Microprose Grand Prix when I discovered them as an adult! If I’d gotten entry to these “worlds” when I was of primary school age it would’ve been like going to heaven. My local playmates would’ve either joined me at the home computer or been forgotten.

The Daily Mail frames the change as children losing “the right to roam”; I think it’s at least as much a case of today’s children finding other things to do – at home – that they prefer to roaming. In fact, I suspect contemporary parents tolerate their children hanging around the house because they’ve got things to keep them occupied and out from under the grown up’s feet. Both sides like the deal.

But whatever the reason, aren’t children today worse off? Aren’t they less fit, less socially developed, less independent, and less connected to nature because they roam less?

I don’t think it’s obvious that pre adolescent children today are worse than previous generations on any of those criteria, much less that there’s a causal relationship with roaming distance. An alternative way of looking at it is that children now have different experiences from their immediate ancestors, not necessarily worse ones.

Each succeeding generation has roamed less, but they’ve also gotten more of other things e.g. more after-school activities, more school excursions, more school camps, more family travel (including overseas holidays), more shows, more concerts.

Moreover, the activities that keep them at home aren’t valueless compared to “great grandfather George walking six miles in 1919 to go fishing”. I suspect my son learned at least as much, albeit different things, from long hours playing Morrowind when he was at primary school as he would’ve if he’d instead played with a mate down by the river.

There’s an important caveat: gender. Back in the day when I was at primary school, I roamed far and wide, but my twin sister didn’t. She walked to and from school, but her roaming range – and as I recollect she wasn’t atypical compared to other girls – was more circumscribed than mine, whether by choice or by parental decree. In the Daily Mail’s map, three of the four generations are represented by boys, including the two when children roamed farthest.

I’d want to see a careful accounting of how each generation spent their days before I’d uncritically accept that today’s children are on balance worse off because they roam less. I’d want to see how they now spend the time their grandparents spent wandering freely. My gut feeling that children have lost interest in roaming is at least as important an explanation as they’ve “lost the right”. And despite suffering helicopter parents, they’re better off than their forebears.