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Don't let fear rob the joy of freedom from SA's children

Opinion

Overblown fear about "stranger danger" in South Australia has taken away the freedom of a generation of children. It's time to let our children find the magic that only comes from encountering nature, writes Malcolm King.

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Storm water roars down Brownhill Creek as we charge along the ridge, past the Goodwood orphanage where the witches live, across the slippery stobie pole bridge, crashing through the bamboo and fennel, an invincible gang of six-year-olds, armed with jars of trap door spiders.

That’s a childhood memory of mine. What’s your happiest childhood memory? I bet it wasn’t spent indoors. This story is about freedom and freedom denied.

We live in nature’s best garden, bound by hills and sea, yet Adelaide children are corralled inside by fearful parents, robbing them of wild time in unsupervised play.

Lets expose a fraud that has hammered fear in to parents for more than 30 years. Since the Truro murders and the kidnapping of Kirste Gordon and Joanne Ratcliffe in the 1970s at the Adelaide Oval, the tabloid media have depicted Adelaide brimming with pedophiles. The facts don’t support this.

There were 169 cases of substantiated child sexual assault in South Australia in 2015, according to an Australian Institute of Family Studies report. That’s 169 cases too many but as there are about 300,000 kids aged 1-14 years of age in SA, it’s almost 20,000 times more likely a child will be admitted to hospital due to a fall at home than a serious sexual assault.

The stranger danger furphy is further exaggerated as 90 per cent of child sexual assaults are perpetrated by a family member or friend, according to the same report. It’s a wily uncle or the dodgy mate one has to watch out for. Stranger assaults are very rare.

The real threats to children, such as reversing over them in the drive or failing to vaccinate them, are under-reported.

The relentless media assault has falsely branded the City of Churches as the rape and murder capital of the nation. In an ironic twist, we praise the state’s natural beauty while barring our children from playing in it unsupervised. Let’s take an Apprehended Violence Order out on the media’s prurient interest in sexual assault.

Freedom may be frightening – even terrifying for parents – but it’s liberating for children.

Back in 2008, New York columnist Lenore Skenazy was lampooned in the media as America’s “worst mom” when she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son travel on the subway alone. Skenazy went on to write a book called Free Range Kids, based on her belief that children today are overprotected and over-parented.

“American statistics show that if you left your children on the side of the road, you would have to wait 750,000 years before they were kidnapped by a stranger,” Skenazy wrote.

Adelaide’s streets are childless, as over-protective parents cocoon them inside, giving in to technology as entertainment. If kids do leave the house, they’re driven everywhere.

Research suggests that children’s “roaming radius” from home has shrunk by 90 per cent since the 1970s, according to Britain’s heritage body, the National Trust. The figures are comparable to urban Australia.

Children need to climb trees, study ants and spiders and know the unfenced horizon of hours, as captured by the poet ee cummings in his poem (In Just-).

Freedom may be frightening – even terrifying for parents – but it’s liberating for children. They must find a working relationship with risk or they won’t “seize the day”. The one thing that makes kids safe is the competence and skills they learn in meeting the unpredictability of life. When we deprive children of free play, we make them less resilient.

Only 40 years ago, a second income for a family was a luxury. Now it is a necessity, making childcare a necessity too. Unfortunately, many centres equate fake grass with nature.

Three Melbourne childcare centres were recently granted exemptions from national regulations to provide every child with at least seven square metres of outdoor space. That’s about the size of a single car park.

They have instead created “simulated outdoor environments” of synthetic grass, murals of forests and clouds, sand pits in plastic shells and fake trees made out of concrete pillars.

One centre manager said specialists ensured kids were hitting their milestones. Milestones? Maybe he meant miles walked, trees climbed, dares done, villains defeated, creeks crossed, pacts made, kites flown. Some childcare companies brand themselves as “early learning centres”. Early for what? A place at Harvard?

We have taken the garten out of kindergarten, creating an empty word and an empty world for kids.

As Jay Griffiths wrote in her book, Kith, The Riddle of the Childscape: “Our culture insidiously demands that children must always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn… The risk-averse society creates a docility and loss of autonomy, which has a horrible political shadow. A populace malleable, commandable and obedient.”

Children’s adult-free play with friends provides qualities that form character. There are tests of truthfulness, making bargains, giving, taking, “bagging” or “finders keepers”. There are claims of precedence, vows of keeping secrets (“cross my heart and hope to die”), honour codes and truce terms (“barleys”). There is magic too.

When I was seven, I walked through a Mount Gambier forest at night holding a small, flickering candle. “Follow the fireflies,” my mother said. Scores of other children carried candles, which looked like fireflies, as we made our way to a brightly lit stage, deep in the forest. There stood the Tintookies, large martinets who sang, danced and told stories.

One hour later, as I made my way back to the caravan, I had changed. Magic had found me. Such is the power of primary experience and of woods and imagination.

It’s important not to let nostalgia for a childhood Arcadia gloss over the less salubrious aspects of growing up. Kids are not little democrats. They can be Adolf Hitler in shorts and Lucrezia Borgia in pigtails one minute and Botticelli angels the next. Even so, they need to know they are a part of nature. Not an adjunct to it.

We have taken the garten out of kindergarten, creating an empty word and an empty world for kids. There’s an organisation called Nature Play SA, which is helping kids return to nature again. That might be a place to start.

Children need love and protection but they must roam.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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