Levelling Up Play

In December 2024 the Government launched an inquiry entitled: Children, young people and the built environment. This inquiry is investigating how improving planning, building and urban design could improve the health and wellbeing of children, and also benefit the whole population.

“It will look at how children and young people can use outside public spaces and move around their neighbourhoods: how they can be active and visibly part of their communities – whether it is their street, housing development, estate, town centre, village, public square or park. And it will look at what role the Government may have in making the built environment work in the best way possible.”

Naomi Fisher, Our Strategic Lead, submitted ROAM’s evidence to the inquiry:

Since ROAM first started with its first project pilot in late 2017, we have immersed ourselves in
the research regarding children’s declining independence and occupation of the public realm.
We have also carried out our own research with families whose children come to our sessions
to determine what barriers prevent them giving their children independence. Over 500 children
have attended our sessions. Below, we summarise our key findings and observations:

Children’s occupation of and independence in the public realm has changed significantly in the
last fifty years. The age at which a child is allowed to walk or play without adult supervision
increased by 3 years in just one generation; people who grew up in the 1980s were typically
allowed to play or go on short trips without adults from the age of 7.5 years old. For today’s
children this age is 10.5. This shift has taken place over the same time period across North
America, Ireland, the UK and Australia. In the same time period, modes of travel to primary
school in these countries has also shifted considerably with the number of children walking and
cycling to school dropping significantly and many more children being driven to school. Conversely, in many northern European countries, both active travel to school and the age of
independence in the public realm has seen much less change.

As children’s independence in the public realm has become less common, it is perceived as
more risky and has become less normalised. Parents also tell us that they fear how their
parenting is judged by others who may consider them irresponsible.

A significant proportion of parents reported to us that the only time their children have had
freedom to play without adult supervision in the public realm has been at campsites and at
festivals. The two factors that are common in these situations are no car dominance and the
normalisation of children’s independent play.

With the majority of our sessions taking place in a public park, one of the key benefits we have
observed has been the positive impact this has on the children and the community. Children
feel a greater sense of custodianship of their local spaces, and other adults using the park
have remarked that they feel safer due to the presence of children. We do not discourage
interaction between children and other adults (dog walkers, runners) as long as they are
following the rules of being in groups and never alone in a hidden place with an adult.

Because children build a vocabulary of what typical adult behaviour looks like in the
park, they are much more likely to identify concerning or dangerous behaviour by an
These are skills that they can develop in the relatively safe setting of our sessions
that they will invariably need to rely on as they approach their teenage years and are given
much greater freedom. Local community leaders have commented that our sessions are
invaluable in this way as there is an issue that many children in our community have not
experienced any unsupervised time in their local neighbourhood before secondary school age,
and then, can find themselves in quite vulnerable situations as they are not equipped with the
tools to judge risks; whether they be physical risks or concerning other adults or children who
may be seeking to harm them.

Many children have never experienced unsupervised play before attending our sessions; some
with very little experience of playing in nature. We have seen the most stark progress in
children who have joined our sessions as part of a partnership with a local primary school;
children whose parents would be highly unlikely to bring their children to one of our sessions.
At first, many of these children had very little idea how to explore green space independently.
Some of the children had underdeveloped gross motor skills, which affected their balance (e.g.
easily falling over when walking on logs or on a grassy slope) or ability to judge their body’s
capacity to engage in healthy risks (e.g. climbing a tree, jumping across a stream). Over the
course of the weekly sessions, children’s confidence in nature and in their own ability improved
dramatically and they began to feel a much stronger sense of ownership and custodianship of
their local park. They also worked collaboratively to help each other, with adults being absent.

It is through first-hand observation of our sessions that we have become even more convinced
of the benefits of children’s play, independence and occupation of public spaces.