What Happens When Kids Can’t Play

Hello, Readers! We have another guest post today, this one from developmental psychologist Dr. Helene Guldberg, a founder of the wonderful, British, on-line current affairs blog, Spiked (www.spiked-online.com). fidhntthnf
She’s also author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear. The thing I found most shocking in this post is that you can’t even take photos of any kid other than yours at a birthday party in England anymore.  It’s considered tantamount to porn. Oy.

 By Helene Guldberg

Growing up on the outskirts of Bergen, in Norway, I was given a lot of freedom to roam outside from a very early age. Norwegians have a unique, maybe rather obsessive, love of outdoor pursuits and therefore, whether in sunshine, sleet or snow, we were always building dens, playing on building sites, and having all kinds of adventures in the woods or by the fjord.

As Free-Range Kids readers are well aware, children are today losing out on many childhood experiences that we took for granted. In Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear I show how important unsupervised play is for all aspects of children’s development – their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Children need to be given space away from adults’ watchful eyes – in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts. Today, they are increasingly denied these opportunities.

But the blame for this steady erosion of unsupervised play should not be pinned on parents. The root of the problem is not their fears but the fact that parents are continually discouraged from entrusting their children to other adults. In the UK, it is a crime to work with children without first being vetted by the authorities. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, passed into law in 2006, requires that millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children must undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks. The message this gives to parents and children is to be suspicious of any adult who comes into contact with young people.

Also, it is almost impossible in Britain today to take photos of one’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews in public places if they are surrounded by other children. The rules governing the use of cameras and camera-phones in swimming pools, parks, at children’s parties, school sports days and any other place where children might be present are ubiquitous and strictly enforced. The kind of photos that have traditionally appeared in many a family album are now treated as being akin to potential child pornography.

Ultimately parents will only give children the independence they need if they have sufficient trust in other adults – trust in them not to harm their children, but to look out for them. When we grew up our parents assumed that if we got into trouble, other adults – often strangers – would help out. Today that trust does not exist – or, at least, it has been seriously damaged by government policy, media debate and a rising culture of suspicion towards adults’ motives.

Only by challenging the safety-obsessed culture that depicts every adult as a potential threat can we start to build a better future – and present — for our children and ourselves.
Dr Helene Guldberg’s book, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, is available on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/d2sxgm

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20 Responses to What Happens When Kids Can’t Play

  1. suzannerevy April 7, 2009 at 4:46 am #

    As a photographer, I find the British rules regarding photography to be beyond inane. It doesn’t make anyone safer to ban photography. They have ridiculous rules about photographing in public places as well, which, I daresay, doesn’t make anyone safer from a terrorist act either. It simply means parents won’t have snapshots of their kids.

    It’s an odd dichotomy in this world that so many people put so much of their private information onto the internet via facebook and myspace, but have become suspicious of photography.

  2. The Mother April 7, 2009 at 5:00 am #

    They will have to pry my naked baby pictures out of my cold, dead hands.

    But a teenage girl apparently can’t even take a picture of herself in her bra.

    Something’s wrong with society. At least a few people are starting to speak up.

  3. Leah April 7, 2009 at 6:11 am #

    Um. It’s not actually *true* that it is “almost impossible in Britain today to take photos of one’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews in public places if they are surrounded by other children. The rules governing the use of cameras and camera-phones in swimming pools, parks, at children’s parties, school sports days and any other place where children might be present are ubiquitous and strictly enforced.”

    If you believe the tabloid press, yes. And the freedom to take photos is certainly more constrained than it once was.

    But (for example) just last summer my then 3yo was one of a group of children frolicking naked or semi-naked in a fountain at a nature reserve near us while parents happily took photos — there must have been a dozen or so families there and no one objected (although I think most parents were trying to keep other people’s naked children out of their photos, or at least were making an effort to be seen to be trying to keep them out, because they were aware there was a potential issue).

    We regularly take pictures at the park. At the last sports day virtually every parent had a camera. Everyone takes photographs at children’s parties. The local soft play centre has a no-photography “rule” but I’ve never seen it enforced and there are always plenty of parents with cameras.

  4. Carla April 7, 2009 at 6:30 am #

    This has more to do with other parents helping out than the photo issue. I have 3 kids under 3. When at playgroup or public settings, I usually end up telling a parent or 2 that if my child needs redirected, PLEASE DO SO. I will do my best to keep an eye on all my children, but I may not see all interactions. I do not mind other parents intervening if needed if my child needs some direction. I let them know I will not be offended. I don’t want someone smacking my child, but verbal redirection or picking them up/removing them from a situation if they are physically fighting with another is okay. I think it catches some people by surprise. I can see that some parents get bent out of shape if one is redirecting a child that is not their own. I think it takes a community to raise children and I depend on others a great deal. We should not feel that have to do it ALL alone. I think it is sad that people feel this way.

  5. DJ April 7, 2009 at 10:03 am #

    My father-in-law was directed at Sea World San Antonio that he couldn’t take “scenery” photos — all photos had to have some of his family members in them.

    I almost ran into an issue last Halloween without even realizing it. My 7 year-old son wanted to be Captain Underpants. I got him new white briefs and made him a red cape with black polka dots. We scheduled to have photos taken at the local Target with the studio manager, who asked what the costumes were. My 5 yo daughter was Scooby Doo. She went dressed in her costume and he had his stuff ready. They both had toys and books for extra props.

    When we arrived at the studio and went in, I said who they were and my son started getting down to his underwear. The photographer looked a little uncomfortable and turned and asked the manager “Can we do this?” The manager said “yes, it’s a Halloween costume, so that’s okay.”

    Later, when selecting pictures, I talked some more with the manager. She said she thought it was great that he got to be Captain Underpants. She said she thought about it when I scheduled the shoot and decided that if I was willing to let him be that, that she was willing to fight to make sure he could have an official picture taken.

    He also had a great Halloween night trick-or-treating the neighborhood — he even tucked extra underwear in his waistband for ammo. My husband and I followed the kids around (staying on the sidewalk by the street) and watched the reactions. None were negative. The best was a group of teenagers — one of the boys got into a conversation with my son, saying “Dude! I loved Captain Underpants, too.” Instant bonding among the ages.

    And I didn’t even think about the possible child porn issues — I just wanted my son to be free to be who he wanted for Halloween and I love pics of them in their costumes (we send them out instead of Christmas cards/Christmas pics, so I like the studio stuff).

  6. AmyAnne April 7, 2009 at 10:37 am #

    I see what you are saying, Helene. This issue has more to do with the tone we are setting for our children and society and general. When we set a tone of fear with our laws or even our ‘understandings’ of certain situations we begin to create an atmosphere that is almost suffocating. Then, to attempt to break from this sort of oppression we are already poised to defend our position whether or not we have to, which in turn contributes to the overall tone of fear and mistrust.

    We do need to start trusting again. Trusting that the neighbor will run out of his house to protect someone else’s kid from a stranger in the neighborhood. Trust that our kids do have the knowledge and ability to reach out to whoever they need to. We need to be able to hire a teenage babysitter without asking that she be fingerprinted and filed and therefore charges $15 an hour.

    Thanks again for a discussion provoking post. I’ll send it around.

  7. Neil Jones April 7, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    Leah, you are lucky not to get challenged for taking photos. At my nephew’s school, they halted the nativity play to confiscate video cameras. Sends a great message to the kids, eh?

  8. Scott April 7, 2009 at 10:10 pm #

    This is great! You might find this article from the recent Orion magazine interesting: do children have a right to play outside?


  9. Sandra April 8, 2009 at 12:49 am #

    Ugh. I can’t even begin to express the amount of ugly hate mail I’ve received, along with blogs devoted to my parenting skills (yes, you read that right), blatantly attacking me because my daughter started going into the backyard (6′ fence, crime-free community, for those curious) alone to play when she could ably walk – around 18 months or so. The fact that I’m inside at the kitchen table, 10 feet away (but with a screen door between us – gasp!) doesn’t make what I did safe or what a good parent does. Really – I’ve received mail telling me my children would be better off dead than with me as a mom!

    Now what kind of society has bred coldhearted women who would express theories like this? “Expert” advice and the scaremongering media. Period. If we could turn off the evening news and throw away parenting books, life would be much happier for our children – and us too.

  10. Wendy April 8, 2009 at 3:40 am #

    I live in England and i am unaware of this rule.

  11. Ralph Bevan April 8, 2009 at 8:46 pm #

    A great post.I have an article on my blog called ‘Where Have All The Bicycles Gone?’ it’s very simular and questions the same topic as here.

  12. baby carriers backpacks April 9, 2009 at 1:40 am #

    Loved It!! 🙂


  13. Kate April 10, 2009 at 2:44 am #

    It’s not actually illegal in the UK to photograph children. The trend has come from parents themselves objecting to their children being photographed. As an amateur photographer I’ve photographed children as part of landscape scenes but many male friends with the same hobby have been shouted/sworn at for the same thing.

  14. laura julius April 11, 2009 at 12:51 am #

    lets not go nuts here – i live in england and it was my daughter’s 6th birthday last week. i took photos of the party and posted them on facebook for the other mums to see – and they thanked me.

    i’m not the only one who does this and so far none of us has been arrested.

  15. Gipsy April 16, 2009 at 5:21 am #

    Don’t believe this tripe.

    I live in the UK. I have never had any problems taking photos at parties, including parties in parks, at a indoor family fun place, or at a leisure center. I have stacks of photos taken in playgrounds!

    In soft play type places, there is a restriction on taking photos, and yes in swimming pools too. There are exceptions made for parties though, so that you can take plenty of pictures in the party area at a liesure centre’s soft play for example (I’ve been to quite a few parties in these venues, and it is always the same). At a party held in a swimming pool, we took quite a few photos of the party group – this was perfectly acceptable, while general photography was not. This is not to do with pornography, but with privacy. In soft play venues, and in children’s playgrounds here, adults are not allowed unless they’re with a child.

    Next, school plays. Photography and videotaping are usually banned at these events by the school but again it isn’t to do with pornography fears. It is so that the school kids aren’t faced the entire time with a wall of flashes or just about as unnerving, a wall of lenses instead of friendly familiar faces, and some schools allow the taking of photos for a set time at the beginning or end of the play when the whole cast was on stage so that parents could get their photo. It is also a fundraising tool. The school will tape the event themselves and sell the tapes to parents (who can order as many copies as they want for grandparents etc). My daughter’s school used to raise their money for the Year 6 camp this way. Incidentally, her school banned flash photography entirely because one of her classmates was epileptic, but parent’s may not have known this as the school didn’t send out an official notice announcing her medical condition to all the parents. Just that it was for the consideration of the children.

  16. Jerry Johnson May 5, 2009 at 11:26 am #

    Wow! I thought California had some ridiculous rules. What are the irresponsible tourists supposed to do when visiting? Dare they take out there cameras and snap a few pics for memories. Amazing.

  17. Heather Cushman-Dowdee May 12, 2009 at 12:35 am #

    I did a comic about this sort of thing a while back…I was at a playground in Santa Monica and witnessed a play structure that had more adults on it than children.

    My husband also had an ‘unsettling’ experience when he was in a playground pushing our youngest on a swing, a group of daycare kids came to the playground to play and one little girl asked my husband if he was Gwynnie’s daddy. He said yes. and then immediately a woman with a clip board came over and asked my husband if he knew the little girl and what he had said to her. she wrote everything down and even asked for his name. Apparently if a child under her care speaks to anyone it has to be written down for the parents to see. It’s a sad world when every man is suspect.

  18. Jacey July 19, 2011 at 1:27 am #

    I live in England and while I have been prevented from taking photos of my kids occasionally in public places it most certainly isn’t the problem Dr Helena Guldberg is making it out to be. Surely all she has achieved here is “over- dramatizing” a situation, the very same thing she seems to be criticizing in her book.


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