When I talk to my elderly neighbours, or read interviews with people from earlier eras, one of the things that most comes through about their childhoods, and seems dramatically different than the way children are raised today, is how far and freely they roamed. Unlike most modern children, they did not spend most of their time indoors watching television or playing video games, or following one adult-led activity after another.

Rather, most described roaming several miles from home in a day, exploring the far corners of their world. They ambled over fields and mountains, woods and bogs, climbing trees, swimming in streams and ponds, and drying their clothes on branches. They searched in the hedges for birds’ nests, through the underbrush for mushrooms and snails, let millipedes and ladybirds crawl on their hands, and peered in the holes of hedgehogs and badgers. By their recollections, they spend nearly all day in some vital physical activity, and learned to be creative, solve problems and find our way out of trouble.

Of course, some children in earlier eras inevitably got into mischief; I have on my shelf a 19th-century garden book that lists among the many garden pests, between boll weevils and butterflies, “boys.” If your garden has an infestation of boys, it notes drily, some aggressive dogs might be just the thing.

 “The only rule was to be home by dinner time,” Tracy Gillett wrote of her father’s upbringing. “My Grandma rarely knew exactly where her kids were. They were off building forts, making bows and arrows, collecting bruises and bloody knees and having the time of their lives. They were immersed in childhood.”

Writer Tom Purcell remembers that when he was growing up in Pittsburgh, they “collected scrap wood and built shacks. We damned up the creek and caught minnows and crayfish. One summer, we built a motorized go-cart with some scrap items from a junked riding mower and a couple of two-by-fours. It was one of the great engineering feats in my neighbourhood’s history. Occasionally, we’d fib to our mothers and ride our bikes 20 miles farther than we said we would … There was only one major rule a kid had to abide by: you’d better be home in time for supper.”

Until now. A recent UK study chronicled the loss of childhood freedom over four generations — from children in the 1920s who roamed an estimated radius of six miles from home, to their great-grandchildren who rarely see the outdoors. The report’s author said that keeping children indoors and away from Nature injures their long term mental health in ways we can’t always foresee.

According to one study in the U.K., while 80% of third-graders were allowed to walk to school in 1971, that number had dropped to just 9% in 1990, and is even lower today. Parents started prohibiting their children from walking or riding their bike to and from school by themselves out of the fear that they might be kidnapped along the way.

Yet abductions are exceedingly rare, and no more common now than they were several decades ago. Further, a child has a 40-times greater risk of dying as a passenger in a car than being kidnapped or killed by a stranger.

I see this with my own daughter, who rode her bicycle to school – about three kilometres away – for years. Now that she is in secondary school, she still sometimes goes to the bus stop herself – the same distance – and then to school, or to somewhere else on weekends. To our surprise, though, almost no other children did this. I understand the concern about traffic — Irish roads rarely have bike lanes and often have sharp bends – but I never saw any children on the empty side roads either.

Right now, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of mental disabilities and neuroses in modern children, and obesity is becoming a major health concern. If we are to raise our children to be as confident, self-sufficient and capable, we have to let them roam a bit. If you understand that free-range chickens live happier and healthier than those in a tiny cage, and that free-range cows are better off than those that spend their lives in a pen, then let’s consider treating our own species with the same respect, and raising a generation of free-range humans.

 
Photo of my daughter on the Burren some years ago; she doesn’t often let me take pictures of her anymore.