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Children's unsupervised outdoor activity: managing risk and encouraging independence

Julie Rudner

Julie Rudner is a lecturer in the Community Planning and Development Program at La Trobe University, Bendigo campus. Email: j.rudner@latrobe.edu.au.

Children have less unsupervised outdoor activity than in the past, and less physical activity overall. Children go to fewer places, travel shorter distances, and are less likely to walk or ride to school on their own (Hillman et al 1990, Peddie & Somerville 2005, Tranter & Pawson 2001). The decline in unsupervised activity reflects, in part, parents' anxiety about risks such as traffic accidents, stranger danger and bullying, but parental concerns themselves could be seen to reflect a more general shift in thinking at the level of public policy.

In mid-2006, I conducted research on the impact that changing conceptions of risk have had on children's independent mobility (CIM), defined as the use of public space by children under 18 years of age who are not accompanied by an adult. I wanted to discover how parents and local government officers conceived risk, and how these conceptions affected CIM for children aged 9–12. The present article describes some findings from this research, examined against the background of relevant literature, and considers implications for schools and educators.

The role of unsupervised activity in child development

A number of ecological and social psychologists have stressed the role of active discovery and movement in helping humans to learn about their environments. Psychologists have pointed out that children who lack direct access to their environments have difficulty in learning the necessary spatial, physical, psychological, social and analytical skills required to negotiate urban settings (Kyttä 2004, Prezza et al 2005, Spencer & Woolley 2000).

Vytgosky & Bronfenbrenner (1979), whose views have been influential in contemporary pedagogy, emphasise that active discovery is an important element of overall child development. Chawla & Heft (2002) emphasise that children's competence in managing their urban settings is important not just for their own development but for longer term goals of urban sustainability in itself. 

Gill (2007) and Furedi (2008) have both observed that children's need for independent outdoor experience receives little or no recognition in legislation, workplace policies and record-keeping systems, or in the expert commentary that inform them. While effective regulation is needed to ensure child safety, most policy unduly emphasises worst case scenarios over the mundane events that children manage every day. Furedi argues that preoccupation with risk has progressively eroded professionals' confidence and sense of authority when dealing with children, and has narrowed the scope for professional discretion. Expert commentary also impacts on parents. Expert knowledge is promoted as more legitimate than lay knowledge of children and their families, and non-compliance with professional standards is interpreted as incompetence on the part of parents.

The current research

The study I undertook in 2006 offered a chance for a fresh examination of these issues. My fieldwork was conducted in the Brimbank local government area in Melbourne's outer north-west. The research included surveys of 160 parents and 15 local government officers, interviews with three general managers, and a thematic analysis of 237 policy documents from multiple levels of government in Australia. The study was conducted for my PhD in urban planning.

Policy documents

The documents (listed with the references below) covered the fields of planning, urban design, landcare, transport, community development, community safety, health, environment and corporate management.

Analyses of the documents tend to bear out the concerns of Gill and Furedi. The documents rarely recognised any form of unsupervised activity by children. When education and recreation policy documents recognised learning outside the classroom, it tended to be understood in terms of events supervised by adults, such as family outings or organised sports activities. Transport policy documents recognised that children cross roads near schools during school pick-up and drop-off, but did not consider the general traffic environment of children's whole journey to and from school. The overall sense from the documents was that children are vulnerable, passive and open to harm, and belong in institutional settings.

Survey responses

The survey asked parents to evaluate their urban environments (physical, social and traffic) as well as different aspects of risk. The survey included questions such as: 'What is the probability of the following situations happening when your child goes out alone?', 'What level of skills does your child have to deal with the following situations?', 'If your child experiences the following situations, how long will the effects last?', 'How much do you worry when your child goes out alone?'. The situations that parents evaluated included: children getting lost, encountering traffic hazards, making bad friends, being bullied, meeting bad adults or seeing bad things, not being able to handle situations, and misbehaving. Multiple regression analyses and structural equation modelling were used to analyse the data.

The pattern of responses suggested that parents acknowledged children as having some competence to deal with adverse situations they may encounter when they go places on their own. Parents also recognised that children's relationship to the environment changes with age, maturity and experience.

Nevertheless, only 32% of parents indicated that they allowed their own children to walk to or from school unsupervised, even though most lived within two kilometres of their children's school. Parents' anxiety may reflect the influence of policy statements and expert commentary, which often highlight worst case scenarios and which do not make a sharp distinction between relatively rare dangers to children, such as seeing bad things or encountering 'stranger danger', and more common, familiar challenges such as coping with traffic hazards.

Local government officers completed a similar survey to the one given to parents. Their responses indicated that they had less positive views of the urban environment than parents. On the other hand they distinguished more clearly than parents between relatively rare dangers to children and more common, familiar challenges. Most local government officers believed that children aged 9–12 should be allowed to go places on their own.

Interviews with the Brimbank general managers

When responding to questions as individuals, outside their official roles, all three general managers recognised children's agency and competence in dealing with their environment. One noted: 'I think that builds resiliency and, you know, children that are able to navigate successfully their own environments, and new environments as well …'

However, in their professional roles as developers and implementers of policy, their central concern was to evaluate potential hazards to children and to determine appropriate regulations or educational interventions in response. In these roles they need an understanding of how child safety measures can be introduced and implemented, with measureable goals established. This approach took their focus away from children's agency and how children's competence varies according to circumstance.

Like parents, they also displayed an understanding of how children's relationship to the environment changes with age, maturity and experience. When asked if there was a 'magic age' when children should be allowed out on their own, one general manager suggested: 'If it's a safe environment, not on a busy road, or near a busy road, you know, it could be five or six. In other circumstances it could be older'.

However, the interviewees also recognised that the culture of parenting and childhood freedoms is changing, as indicated by the following observation:

… the notion of actually having children playing out … in the streets, being allowed to walk down to the shop unsupervised. I mean that really flies in the face of this highly … managed … legislative sort of environment that we are creating.

One general manager reflected that CIM was influenced by urban planning: '… some communities feel safe enough to do that [permit CIM]. There might be a good sort of traffic treatment arrangement in place in the street that better facilitates that. But I guess that's part of the issue around how we design our streets'.

In their responses, the general managers seemed to be making an effort to balance the approach taken in policy documentation, their own views, and their understandings of parents' concerns and cultural norms in the community.

Implications for educators

Children's unsupervised outdoor activity poses multiple and at times conflicting demands on teachers and school leaders. Educators are simultaneously responsible for promoting children's social development and ensuring their safety in the school environment. They must accommodate parental and community expectations, comply with regulations, and follow policies and programs developed by other professionals at a higher level of the expert hierarchy. Educators must also manage changing perceptions of risk involved in events on the boundaries of schools' responsibilities, such as arrangements surrounding school pick-up and drop-off, and the age and geographical boundaries of care for children who walk or cycle to and from school on their own.

To balance these demands effectively, educators need scope to exercise professional discretion. They also need community support when they make efforts to develop children's capacities for independent activity. At the same time, policymakers and other senior decision makers need to be aware that policies designed to protect children can have a negative impact on their development if they are excessively cautious. A rebalanced concept of risk will help parents, professionals and policymakers to protect children while also encouraging them to learn, become environmentally capable, and develop a sense of efficacy within an urban setting.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Chawla, L., & Heft, H. (2002). Children's competence and the ecology of communities: A functional approach to the evaluation of participation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22, 201–216.

Furedi, F. (2008). Paranoid parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child (Third ed.). Wiltshire: Cromwell Press.

Gill, T. (2007). No fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Hillman, M., Adams, J., & Whitelegg, J. (1990). One false move ... A study of children's independent mobility. London: Policy Studies Institute.

Kyttä, M. (2004). The extent of children's independent mobility and the number of actualized affordances as criteria for child-friendly environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24 (2), 179–198.

Peddie, B., & Somerville, C. (2005). The ghost of TOD's past: Schools reconnecting. Paper presented at the Transit Oriented Development Conference.

Prezza, M., Alparone, F. R., Cristallo, C., & Luigi, S. (2005). Parental perception of social risk and of positive potentiality of outdoor autonomy for children: The development of two instruments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25 (4), 437–453.

Spencer, C., & Woolley, H. (2000). Children and the city: A summary of recent environmental psychology research. Child: Care, Health and Development, 26 (3), 181.

Tranter, P., & Pawson, E. (2001). Children's access to local environments: A case-study of Christchurch, New Zealand. Local Environment, 6 (1), 27.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Policy documents examined

The Allen Consulting Group (2008). Inverting the pyramid: Enhancing systems to protect children. Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Perth: Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth.

Brimbank City Council (2004). Brimbank Children's Plan for Children Aged Between 0 and 11 Years. Brimbank: Brimbank City Council.

Child Safety Commissioner (2006). A guide for creating a child-safe organisation. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Child Safety Commissioner (2006). Information for parents: Things to look at when selecting child-safe activities or services for your child. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (2008). Blueprint for early childhood development and school reform: An overview. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Department of Education and Training (2006). Safe schools are effective schools: A strategy for parents. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (2006). Enhancing youth pathways: Helping young people stay in education. Barton: Commonwealth of Australia.

Department of Human Services (2001). Protecting children: Protocol between child protection, Department of Human Services and Victorian schools. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Department of Human Services (2001). Safe from harm: The role of professionals in protecting children and young children. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Department of Human Services and Department of Education and Training (2005). Best start in action: Project guidelines. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Department of Human Services and Department of Education and Training (2003). School focused youth service: program guidelines. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Education Victoria (1998). Framework for student support services in Victorian government schools. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Education Victoria and Department of Human Services (2001). Evaluation of the school focused youth service: Literature review. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Office for Children and Victorian Government Department of Human Services (2005). Protecting children: The next steps. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Premier's Children's Advisory Committee (2004). Joining the dots. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Prime Minister's Youth Pathways Action Plan Taskforce (2001). Footprints to the future: Report from the Prime Minister's youth pathways action plan taskforce. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

State Government of Victoria (2004). Putting children first ... The next steps. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Student Wellbeing Branch Office of School Education (2006). Safe schools are effective schools: A resource for developing safe and supportive school environments. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria.

Julie Rudner has started a blog about issues of risk and children: http://letmykidsdowhat.wordpress.com.


Subject Headings

School and community
Risk management
Duty of care
Child development