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'Children are being reared in captivity', claims childhood expert

Article By: Sue Learner

For the last two generations, childhood has been characterised by adult control and shrinking freedoms, with childhood play expert Tim Gill, claiming that children now are “effectively being reared in captivity”.

Credit: Daniel Jedzura,

Mr Gill spoke at the Childcare Expo, revealing how the fear of children being harmed is causing them to grow up in a cotton wool world where “their horizons are shrinking”.

“A model of parenting that has emerged in the last 20-30 years is one which says the best parent is the controlling parent. Effectively, children are being reared in captivity,” he said.

This form of parenting often referred to as ‘helicopter parenting’ can mean children end up being less resilient when faced with a challenge. Experts are now worried that children whose time is structured with adult-supervised activities and scheduled playdates won’t learn to be autonomous.

A study from Florida State University last year found students with parents who allowed them more freedom reported higher life satisfaction, physical health and self-efficacy, which is the ability to handle tougher life tasks and decisions. However, students with a so-called helicopter parent were more likely to report low levels of self-efficacy.

Parental fear

This parental fear has seeped into the culture of our nurseries and schools, leading to some schools banning playground games such as bulldogs and ‘tag’ because they could cause accidents.

Similarly, some nurseries have banned toilet roll tubes and egg boxes for junk modelling due to a fear of infection. Other nurseries have adopted stringent safeguarding measures meaning simple things such as cuddling a child if they are crying is no longer allowed, due to concerns it could be misconstrued or misinterpreted as paedophilia.

Yet it is this fear of harm that is “taking children away from having the kind of childhood that helps them to learn and grow,” according to Mr Gill, who is a former director of the Children’s Play Council, now known as Play England.

He describes childhood as a kind of journey and says: “At the beginning, children are dependent on adults and child development is characterised by who is in charge of the risks with responsibility gradually being handed from the adult to the child.”

It is often said that children are growing up faster nowadays, with one of the big trends in childhood today being the immersion in adult culture. However Mr Gill says: “Children have certainly become more media literate but when it comes to their everyday freedom nothing could be further from the truth.

Memories of adventure and freedom

“But if you think back to your childhood, it is the memories of adventure and freedom that are so resonant and important.”

Credit: FamVeld,

Interestingly, play areas in parks have undergone fundamental changes as society has become increasingly fearful and safety conscious. Black rubber flooring became ubiquitous with play areas surrounded by fencing filled with brightly-coloured metal play equipment.

“Fear of litigation and the emphasis on safety led to the design of playgrounds going through a long period where they were sterile places. Yet statistics show that children are 20-40 times more likely to end up in A&E from playing football or rugby than from playing in a playground.

“For a while, playgrounds were seen as good if they were zero risk playgrounds where nothing bad happens. The problem is removing all risks means they are unable to learn from their mistakes,” said Mr Gill.

Now the desire to give children back that taste of adventure has led to a growing number of parks having ‘natural’ play areas with wobbly wooden bridges, sandpits and large wooden structures with places to hide.

Philosophy of resilience

“They have moved away from a philosophy of protection to a philosophy of resilience and are creating playgrounds that embrace risk and challenge.” Likewise, a growing number of nurseries and schools are doing their best to enable children to experience risk and adventure by setting up forest schools, where children can get muddy, climb trees and make dens.

When Tim Gill said at the Childcare Expo, “children are effectively being brought up in captivity” he asked the nursery practitioners present “what does that mean about the children who are in our care?”

He added: “Of course we have a duty of care but we shouldn’t be doing conventional risk assessments. We should be doing risk benefit assessments. It is now seen as good for children to have meaningful opportunities to engage with uncertainty.

“There is even a statement on the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) website about the importance of children experiencing risk. People now are starting to realise that the benefits of doing risky play outweigh the risks involved.”

His advice to nurseries is “if you are going to do a risk benefit assessment in your setting, you need to ask, does it really convey enabling children to grapple with uncertainty and to taste adventure.”

“The whole point of adventure is you don’t know where you are going to end up. You need to have conversations about risks and anxiety with children and with the practitioners. Great things never come from comfort zones.”

Hazel Davis, early years advisor for National Day Nurseries Association, is a big advocate for risky play.

She would like to see all nurseries having a risky play strategy.

Ms Davis, who also spoke at the Childcare Expo, said: “It is important in our early years settings that we offer children risky experiences. Risky play allows children to feel in control of their actions and takes them away from their day to day lives which are being scheduled more and more by adults.”

She believes we are “failing children if we don’t excite them and ignite them to take risks from an early age”.

“Risky play can be thrilling and exciting and involves a risk of physical injury. You can do risky play with just the things around you. You don’t need lots of equipment. But you do need open ended resources such as tyres and long bits of wood.

“A risk assessment shouldn’t stop you doing an activity. It should be about identifying the hazards so you can still do the activity.”

As Roald Dahl said “the more risks you allow your children to take the better they learn to look after themselves”.

To find out more about Tim Gill and read his blog posts, go to


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