London's empty childhoods

London Essays – Issue 3: Green

London's empty childhoods

The urban explorer behind the proposal for the world’s first National Park City goes in search of that increasingly rare species, children in the wild.

By Daniel Raven-Ellison

From an early age I had the freedom to go exploring. Along with my brothers and friends, I would play well-organised games of ‘hide and seek’, ‘forty-forty’ or ‘capture the flag’ over large areas of woodland. I was good at it, too. While some of my friends would hide behind a log wearing bright clothing, I would camouflage myself with soil and old branches and position myself in the one place hardly anyone looks, on a branch high up in the trees. I would imagine myself as a lynx, a shadow in the woodland’s canopy, quietly watching as people passed below without noticing me. In the heat and excitement of the games, I used these quiet moments to tune into the wild around me. I might watch a woodlouse navigate an archipelago of moss, a woodpecker feeding its young, a family of deer observing my friends trying to find me.

At the age of 10, we made the most incredible camps. Once, taking advantage of a fallen tree, we managed to make a den that was only accessible if you climbed over and through a thick wall of rhododendron bushes. When it rained we would take shelter and make important decisions about the order in which we would eat our pick’n’mix. I don’t remember the sweets, but I do remember the smell of damp earth, the comfort of being protected from the elements, the relief of being adult-free and a great sense of achievement. The woods felt as though they were ours.

I am a child not of the countryside but of suburbia. I was able to play in woodlands because of the freedoms my parents allowed me. I was given clear geographic limits within which I was allowed to play. As I grew, so did the time and space in which I was allowed to roam. At the age of 10, if I was with friends, I was allowed to stay out until I was hungry and frequently went on adventures two or three kilometres away from home. The majority of my childhood experiences with nature were not in remote wilds, but in and beside the towns and cities where I grew up.

We should not see childhood just as a period of time; we should see it as a place.

I had a big childhood, with the space I needed to play, develop, learn, grow and be active. As a father of a 12-year-old, I appreciate more than ever the importance of what my parents created for me. Back in the 90s and before, this kind of parenting was perfectly normal. Not any more.

London is full of empty childhoods. Tim Gill, an expert on childhood in London, has described children as an indicator species of the health of a community. 1 Inspired by this idea, I decided to go child-spotting in one of London’s woodlands. According to Forestry Commission England, taking into acc­ount all its street trees, London is the world’s largest urban forest, 2 with hundreds of woodlands that collectively cover 22,500 hectares. 3 I wanted to pick just one, where I was likely to find just a few of London’s 1.6 million children playing.

Heat map of children and their proximity to parks

I decided to visit Summerhouse Hill Woods, an ancient woodland in the middle of Beckenham Place Park. The park is big (the size of Greenwich Park); is free to visit; is surrounded by housing; is accessible and has mature deciduous trees, which create great spaces for play. According to census data, more than 2000 children aged 5–12 live within a 10-minute walk of the park. It sounds like the ideal place to find children playing outdoors – so how many would I be able to spot?

Taller than foxes, noisier than deer, clumsier than squirrels and slower than parakeets, children are usually fairly easy to see (unless they are camouflaged and hiding up trees). My not-so-scientific strategy was simply to walk around the woods for eight hours looking for human beings and, especially, children.

I arrived at Summerhouse Hill Woods at 10am on a warm and sunny Saturday: perfect timing and weather conditions for seeing people outdoors. The wood felt impressive. Oak, ash, beech and hornbeam contribute to the canopy, which, in many places, blocks out direct sunlight with a bright green ceiling of leaves. By international standards, it’s only a small wood but it’s big enough that you could temporarily feel lost in it. Looking at my map, I could see that it was about 700m from north to south and an average of 200m wide, bound to the east by a fenced-off railway line, to the west by a golf-course and to the north and south by roads: all strong geographic features that mark the limits of the woodland and make it very hard to be lost.

According to GiGL (Greenspace Information for Greater London) there are approximately 13,000 species of wildlife in London. 4 Within five minutes of being in the wood I had managed to spot 23, including 13 species of species of bird and my first two children. Both children were under 10 and were taking their dog for a walk with their parents. Over the following eight hours I saw just seven more children in the woods, all with their parents, all walking dogs, all looking like they were aged nine or under, all white and none of them playing freely. I did not see one young person between 10 and 18 either with or without their parents. Not one. All I could find were traces of play – the decaying remnants of two dens that had been built weeks or even months earlier. Summerhouse Hill Woods is not an isolated case. Last year, I walked across London from Croydon to High Barnet, staying in as many woodland areas as I could. During this long transect from south to north London I did not see any children in any of the woodlands, despite the fact that it was a warm day during the school holidays.

One in seven London families have not visited a green space of any kind in the previous year, double the national average. 5 Clearly, 6 in 7 are visiting green spaces, but possibly only once. The reasons that parents give for not getting out into green space are complex. Each family, home, street, community and child is different and there is no one reason. Demands on time are important, as is the competition from technology. Some parents think that parks are too far away or too expensive, even when they are free and just around the corner. Many are understandably afraid that their children will be hurt in an accident or abused by an adult, although headlines in the media often distort our ability to assess real levels of danger and risk.

It seems to me that many parents are making decisions akin to taking out backwards insurance policies. By not letting children play outdoors, parents reduce the already low risk of their child having a serious accident or being abducted. But, in the process, this increases the chances of their child being inactive, obese and depressed. Indeed, they literally shrink their child’s childhood by depriving them of important learning and life experiences that will increase their chances of flourishing.

We know that 22% of London’s 11-year-olds are at risk of becoming obese, 6 a figure higher than anywhere else in England. Children who live close to park playgrounds are five times as likely to be a healthy weight as children who don’t 7 – yet, in spite of having some of the best access to green space in London, children in the Lewisham wards that cover most of Beckenham Place Park have even higher childhood obesity rates of 26% and 28%. This is in part due to diet, in part due to access and, I should imagine, also has a lot to do with opportunity.

Eventually, I found 23 children playing in Beckenham Place Park. All were below the age of 10 and being watched over by adults; all were playing on ageing metal play equipment, confined by a metal fence that marked the playground boundary. In the north-east corner of the park, the playground is only a few minutes’ walk from the wood. I spoke with some of the parents and asked if they would let their children play in the woods on their own when they were 10 or older. None said they would. The fear of strangers and worries that their children would not be able to cope if they had an accident were cited as reasons. These are very real and important worries, but could they be overcome with some simple rules, such as staying in a group, having mobile phones and staying within geographic limits, within earshot, or being out only for a set period of time?

In his book Feral, George Monbiot describes a condition called Shifting Baseline Syndrome. This is the idea that each generation sees the quantity and diversity of wildlife of their own time as the norm, failing to realise that populations of hedgehogs may have plummeted or that of parakeets rocketed. An effect of the Shifting Baseline Syndrome can be that people assume that everything is OK – that the species are thriving and normal, even if they are not. They don’t realise there should be flocks of starlings or house sparrows overhead. The data may be telling us that things are going wrong, yet we can still have the sense that everything is all right.

While Monbiot is referring to wildlife ecology, I think many of us are currently experiencing or suffering from a childhood Shifting Baseline Syndrome. We see children in our parks or in the woods with their parents and assume everything is OK. The reality is that while we do see children playing outdoors, we don’t see enough of them. Too many are trapped indoors and, when they are allowed out, they are overly supervised and protected. Unless we have a step-change in our culture, the syndrome could be magnified. When the current generation of children become parents, many will have acquired an even more restricted and distorted view of what a healthy childhood looks like, which will further limit their own children’s childhoods.

The good news is that there are many groups who are working hard to turn things around. Wide Horizon’s Outdoor Education Trust brings children into Summerhouse Hill Woods. Phoenix Community Housing is working to encourage more families to use the park. Plans to invest in and transform Beckenham Place Park may also help to turn it into a more appealing destination for more families. Citywide, the Sowing the Seeds network, Scouts, Guides, the John Muir Trust, Duke of Edinburgh Award, City Farms, London Wildlife Trust and many other organisations are doing incredible work in creating opportunities for thousands of London’s children to explore, play and learn outdoors – and of course Sport England, along with football, rugby and other sports clubs, does a fantastic job with tens of thousands of children.

An empty wood – nearly 3000 children cooped up

Natural Thinkers, an innovative and successful Lambeth-based project, works to help schools integrate outdoor learning into the curriculum and trains teachers and parents. It offers a powerful example of how nature-based learning can help children with maths, science and other subjects while enabling them to benefit from real-world learning and being outdoors. For far too many schools, this way of learning is extraordinary, but it should become the norm, with every school establishing strong outdoor learning policies and practices across the curriculum, recognising not only the educational benefits, but also the effects on health, wellbeing and happiness.

Formal provision is important, but it is not enough. We need to find a way to reach a turning point so that playing outdoors becomes the norm and keeping your child indoors is seen as unusual and even neglectful. All children should have the opportunity and freedom to play outdoors. London-wide, what if parents and carers came together to map where children of different ages should be allowed to freely roam and play within their local areas? This would be an opportunity for communities to analyse data, make informed decisions about local risks, collectively agonise and create community childhood maps. The mapping could then be used to start conversations and create a culture in which all children have the opportunity to be active, play, explore and learn outdoors. Such meetings could be organised by Parent Teacher Associations or other community groups. While in some cases communities may need to intervene to create the right conditions for outdoor play, in others the solution will simply be for parents jointly to agree to let their children play out.

There is something even bigger and bolder that can be done. I am part of a growing movement to make London the world’s first National Park City. This is a big idea for the capital that properly recognises the importance of its extraordinary natural heritage. The proposal sets out a vision for radically improving quality of life in London by making the city physically, psychologically, commercially, culturally and technologically greener. One of its core aims is to connect 100% of London’s children with nature.

Making London a National Park City would create an atmosphere in which parents, carers and schools could rethink children’s freedoms and opportunities to benefit from playing, learning and being active outdoors.

It would also spark a wave of nature-related activities that will not only help children, but will have the potential to improve London’s biodiversity, widen the capital’s offer to tourists, strengthen communities and make the city more resilient to flood and atmos­pheric hazards.

London is full of great childhoods, so let’s let children out to enjoy them.

  • 1 Gill, T. (2011). Sowing the Seeds: Reconnecting children with nature. London Sustainable Development Commission,
  • 2 Lean, G. (2011). ‘Leafy London gets official ‘forest’ status’, The Independent, 17 September.
  • 3 Green Space Information for Greater London (2015).
  • 4 Green Space Information for Greater London (2015).
  • 5 Gill, T., ibid.
  • 6 Childhood Obesity in London, GLA Intelligence Unit (2011).
  • 7 Ward Atlas, Greater London Authority (2015).