Everybody Needs an Active Childhood.

Image from Get Cycling Disability

So why did these inspiring stories make me depressed?

Last Friday I watched part of the BBC’s “Children in Need” charity marathon. One of the many great stories was about a seriously disabled boy who had been helped by a specially adapted tricycle and there was a happy video of him out cycling with his pals. His family were thrilled that he was being physically active and enjoying the outdoors with other children.

Children in Need support several charities doing this work including Power Please Trust in Wolverhampton, Pedal Power in Cardiff, Tameside Titans in greater Manchester and Achieve Potentials in Hull. So why was I depressed by all this?

It’s simple. In Britain the great majority of children are denied the freedom to get out in the open air and have physical fun with their friends because our myopic, car-obsessed culture has created a traffic monster. Parents have become so scared that they will not let youngsters out on their own, they drive them to school even though the distance would be an easy walk or cycle ride.

If they want to use their shiny Christmas bikes it usually involves driving miles to an off-road leisure cycling trail on the occasional Sunday if the weather is OK. Those disabled kids with their adapted trikes are stuck in the same trap.


Leisure trails are OK for the occasional Sunday but they don’t spell independence for kids and these guys might not like it if large number of exuberant youngsters were going along there at typical Dutch cycling speeds.
Image thanks to Disabled Ramblers

When I was a boy in the 1950s we used to run, cycle or scoot to the nearby park to dam the stream or play cowboys and indians, if we had more time we would walk about a mile up the road and head out across the moors or down into the woods. When I was seven I used to walk to the main road and catch the bus to school on my own and my mother was happy to send me to the local shops.

Most importantly I and my friends could go off mucking about for as long as we liked and our parents were perfectly relaxed. Some of my best memories are of wandering home from choir practice on a summer evening with a couple of friends, just messing about.

It’s a commonplace that most families in Britain today prefer their kids to stay safe at home, even though they understand very well that they need the social and physical growth that comes with “playing out”. Who can blame them with the torrent of traffic at the end of the street, especially now that the roads are just as jammed at weekends. What’s really sad is that other countries have solved this problem while our politicians are stuck in a 1960s timewarp.

UNICEF have a method of rating childrens’ wellbeing and consistently it shows that some countries are way ahead of the rest of us and the UK doesn’t do well. What is striking about this list is that the comparable countries at the top are also tend to have the best environment for cycling, where young people are free to travel around on their own by bike. The Netherlands is consistently at the top and it’s pretty clear that the physical and social freedom of children there is hugely ahead of most countries, with children from the age of seven or eight being able to go where they want, on their own.


I had a vivid illustration of this a few years back while cycling in the Dutch city of Delft during the morning rush hour. There’s a broad cycle track around the ancient city centre (of course you can ride through the city as well) and ahead of me were three kids on their way to school, a small boy and his bigger sisters. All three were tearing along at a terrific rate, showing their fitness, but the little boy in particular was taking advantage of every little side track and deviation to add interest to his route and pulling a few stunts as well.


Obesity in developed countries, four of the top 5 European countries shown (Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium & Germany) actively promote cycling for everyday transport, sadly the UK is well behind.
Source: Statistics Netherlands

In Britain this sort of high-spirited behaviour would probably be condemned as threatening to pedestrians, partly because kids have nowhere to muck about on their bikes away from pedestrians. Back in Sheffield around that time I remember seeing a mother shuttling her two kids to nursery, strapped in the back of the family car in front of individual video screens. In Delft those kids would have gone to nursery on the backs of their parent’s bikes. Habits start young.


Photo from Boston Globe, click on the photo for a great video on how they do the detailed work to prevent cycling accidents in the Netherlands

If you want to see this in action have a look at the View from the Cycle Path blog or the Campaign for Childhood Freedom website, run by a British couple who moved to the Netherlands to give their children a better start in life. Here in Sheffield the local newspaper has published a great article by Matt Turner of Cycle Sheffield asking us all to reclaim childrens’ freedom.

There are a lot of debates about cycling, often polarising around conflict between adult cyclists and adult motorists, maybe it’s time to remember the huge number of young people who are being denied a proper childhood full of physical and social development while we squabble.

3 Responses to “Everybody Needs an Active Childhood.”

  1. Nigel Says:

    Via social media sites I’ve stumbled on old school friends, some I met in 1971, we then we shared photos of the streets we grew up, compare then with with now, the car ownership is an order of magnitude higher, then the kids were playing outside their houses, on the street and everywhere. Now it is a lethal deathtrap immediately outside many homes. School runs are an example, “its not safe to walk” so everyone is driven, making it not safe to walk. Road building has added many more obstacles. We had once a fuel blockage due to objection to prices (prices are higher now than then so its comfort-factor, not actual price) and for about 3 days no-one used their cars, and school runs were perfectly ok, convoys of parents could cross the roads with barely any car being stopped.

    I think the issue is general higher disposable income over the decades, the notion you need a car promoted culturally from government through TV and film, the weather and then they combine to scare off those who would prefer to bike and walk.

    In a recent UK visit, I was pleased to see far higher bike use – amongst adults, that will trickle down.

  2. chrisrust Says:

    Higher income is clearly an issue but the Dutch decided to challenge the assumption that we’ll all drive more and more and it worked.

  3. Dave H (@BCCletts) Says:

    Far better to discover that showing off and speeding with as vehicle will end in a crash, when the end result is a few bruises and scratches, than wait until the vehicle you have can kill and maim.

    Then there is the ‘other’ experience of social intercourse. When I was 10 I used to get the Tube train all over London, by 12 I was riding all over the Home Counties over ever increasing distances. Plane spotting and train spotting also appeared to retain some ‘sad’ characters, and amongst the kids who went to Heathrow the Queens Building was known as the Queers Building, due to the presence of a few types who would occasionally make a lewd remark of expose themselves. Part of the drop’em in and get them swimming style of growing up was that we learned how to deal with this sort of problem rather than have parental panic about us being vulnerable.

    I see this widely as I travel, and observe. New students at university have to be taught how to catch a bus! I met a ‘lost’ young woman who would have had a disasterous trip on her first ever trip by train, simply because her entire travel experience had been in the family car, and possibly a few years of independent driving.

    My general travels by road and rail around the UK mean that I rarely use a map, much to the horror of one ex girlfriend, accompanying me on a trip to the South Coast from Scotland “Well this is Didcot so we’ll head towards Andover now”…

    The big danger is the naieve way that some then enter dangerous situations – the girl bought up in a village who thought nothing of walking a couple of miles home alone at 2 am in her glad rags through the local red light district – fortunately her innocence must have sent the appropriate signals out and nothing untoward happened. But how many young people have learned strategies to be aware of potential threats and deal with unwelcome situations as they develop. Knowing when to walk away, and not to respond to irritation seems to be a skill lacking, as evidenced by the ease with which fights can be sparked off.

    What can we do? Well I’ve observed that although the peak time congestion and traffic seems to grow the cut-off to empty roads gets ever sharper. I do most of my driving overnight and in the past few years I’ve seen less and less other traffic. Now I can drive 50 miles and not see another vehicle going in may direction and less than a dozen coming the other way. At 18.30 in town (local car ownership <35% of households) I can stand in the middle of a road which was jammed solid an hour earlier, and not see a single moving vehicle. let's take back some of that space so inefficiently used. A few groups are applying for private temporary street closures and transform their neighbourhood, albeit briefly, back to a network of streets as social places. Some places start with once a month, then every other weekend, and steadily win back their streets. Just as Janet Sadiq-Khan has transformed New York City by using simple and initially temporary measures the wonderfully insidious pedestrians and cyclists are leaking out to fill the spaces that are won back from the motor vehicle and the incredibly wasteful detail – that on average a private car in the UK sits idle for 96% of the time filling up space – often public space which coudl be put to much better use.

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