Country & Garden: Danger: children at play

From Enid Blyton on, we've thought of the countryside as an idealised children's playground. Not any more.
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The Independent Culture
A NEW study may have shown that childhood mortality due to accidents has halved, and that children are twice as likely to be killed in accidents in France as they are in Britain, but in spite of this good news the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) advises parents to supervise their children as much as possible.

Most parents hardly need telling. Our children have far less freedom than previous generations, and while this is especially true in cities, today's country children are equally restricted. A carefree existence, spending the holidays bicycling, camping and swimming in rivers, has vanished.

"We never let them out of our sight," a mother of three told me. "They have bicycles but they are never used except on holiday. The traffic is just too dangerous." She takes her children to Tresco in the Scilly Isles where there are no cars, and her sons aged eight and 11 can cycle where they like. But places like Tresco apart, the country is not all that safe for young cyclists. The lane outside our house in rural Herefordshire carries little traffic but has several blind corners and people drive along it very fast. A visiting London mother would not let her nine-year- old cycle there - and she is not alone in her concern. The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) are campaigning to have the speed limit on country lanes reduced from 60 to 40mph. Ten times more people are killed on rural roads than motorways and 65 per cent of those surveyed by CPRE feel threatened by traffic in lanes. Peter Bradley, chair of the rural group of Labour MPs, has tabled an early day motion on the subject and Helen Brinton MP is promoting a private members bill. "Walkers, cyclists and horse riders are being driven off country lanes," says the CPRE's Paul Hamblin.

My friend also vetoed my letting the girls camp in our garden. She remembered the dreadful story of the children abducted in North Wales. I felt that on this she was being unreasonable, as statistics show that "stranger danger" is exaggerated; but it is the factor which most concerns many parents. "I worry about my boys and strange men," says one London-based mother. "They set off to meet some friends but ended up wandering round Clapham Common for ages - with the mobile they had been given for security turned off!" She feels that the country is safer in this respect but in my own experience this is not so, and never was.

Letting children play or help on the farm is no longer safe. Modern farms are not suitable adventure playgrounds. Since 1986, 71 children have been killed on farms and many more injured. It is a place of work, no different to a factory. Grain silos, chemicals, tractors and even fierce Welsh collies are all potentially hazardous - as for swimming in rivers and lakes, it is the activity which RoSPA dreads most in warm weather.

The idea that being in the country means you can allow your children to make their own amusement is no longer true: modern country mothers spend a great deal of time ferrying their children to the same sort of organised activities as their urban counterparts - they just drive farther to do it.

I think that those in small towns and suburbs have the best of it. My friend Clare lives on the edge of Ludlow. Her children have friends in walking distance, take their bikes to the shops, Roller-blade on the pavements and are opposite common land where they can walk their dogs without fear of trespassing.

Keep Your Children Safe

1 Keep your children under supervision when they are swimming, and swim in pools or on beaches - not lakes and rivers, however tempting they look.

2 As most children under 11 are accompanied to school or driven, they often have little road sense when they are finally allowed to walk to school alone. RoSPA recommends that parents train them in child-pedestrian skills and to be aware of their surroundings.

3 RoSPA recommends anything that makes child cyclists and pedestrians more visible, including conspicuous clothing, and wants to see helmets used more often.

4 Know where your children are or should be at all times. Give them a mobile, and make sure they leave it switched on. Pagers, too, work well, are considered cool and therefore used.

5 Never let your children play on farms unsupervised, or allow them on machinery or off-road vehicles such as quad bikes.

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