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Should we let children run wild?

When Sophie Radice found a small boy wandering alone and barefoot, she swiftly returned him home. But the surprising reaction of his parents caused her to question her own attitudes to children and safety

A few years ago I found a small, cold, barefoot child on Hampstead Heath early on a Sunday morning. It was a forlorn sight, as he picked his way across the gravel path, and other dogwalkers turned to look at him because it was so unusual to see such a small child alone. I decided to go up to him and saw that he was wet and shivering and had obviously been swimming in the pond.

After I had convinced him to zip up his jacket, he told me he was six years old, nearly seven, and he was not lost and that his parents had gone on ahead. I didn't want to leave him and he agreed to my accompanying him home. I was expecting huge relief from his parents and perhaps a little anger – "Where were you? We've been so worried!" – so was surprised to be told by his father that it was none of my business and that "we were just ahead and he is allowed to wander home freely". I worried about him to my friends and thought it interesting that while most of them thought I was being ridiculously overanxious, others encouraged me to call the police, one person saying that "the middle-classes think they can get away with any sort of treatment of their children without the social services getting involved".

I convinced myself that allowing him to make the short walk home on his own wasn't a sign of neglect, but the incident stayed with me (and inspired a novel I've written, which opens with the finding of a child). I thought a great deal about my own attitudes towards my children's freedom and protection, and about our attitude in general and in both cases there seems to be a great deal of confusion and tension. A report earlier this month from the charity Play England said that one in five children never goes out to play, and that a third have never climbed a tree or built a den and one in 10 cannot ride a bike. Compounded by recent results from the Children's Society's Good Childhood report, saying that half a million UK children from eight to 16 had a "low sense of well-being", government ministers and journalists were quick to blame over-protective parents who "cotton-wool wrap" their children, keeping them inside and glued to a screen rather than letting them play outdoors.

Yet parents who do let their children do the kinds of things we did in our own childhoods (get the bus from an early age, go to the shops, play on the streets, go to the park on your own, "come back when it gets dark") risk being judged by other parents, their childrens' school and even by the social services. Oliver and Gillan Schonrock of Dulwich let their five- and eight-year-old children cycle a mile to school every day and were soon contacted by the headmaster, who said that if they persisted then the local social services would have to get involved. The case made the news, and the couple were quoted as saying that all they had wanted to do was to "recreate the simple freedom of our own childhoods".

Lenore Skenazy recently wrote for The New York Sun about letting her nine-year-old son ride on the subway alone and found herself either being lauded as refreshingly progressive or being castigated as "the world's worst mother" (this was her title when she appeared on Fox News a couple of days after the article was published). Her response was to write a book, start a website and then something of a parenting movement promoting the "free-range lifestyle" for children. Psychologists such a Michael Ungar, author of Too Safe for Their Own Good, back up Skenazy's parenting instincts by saying that a lack of unsupervised risk-taking seriously impedes children's ability to be fully formed, independent adults, and furthermore, not seeing children playing on the streets is indicative of our society's "lack of community resilience" and greater inability to handle a crisis such as the economic downturn.

There are no laws or official guidelines about all this – that's why it is so difficult for parents to decide what is the right thing. Chris Cloke, NSPCC head of child protection awareness, says: "In most situations children under eight shouldn't be out on their own. Some 10-year-olds are old enough to look after themselves in situations such as walking to school alone. However, not all 10-years-olds are the same."

My own attitudes towards allowing my children freedoms while protecting their safety are also inconsistent and guided by personal fear and my own childhood experiences. I didn't let my kids play out on our street, even though they wanted to, didn't let them walk or take the bus to school until they were 10 (and some parents thought this was far too early) and can't sleep until my 17-year-old is safely home, but felt strongly that my kids should have outdoor adventures despite being brought up in London.

This has not always turned out well. I decided that we should all walk home "the cliff-top way" in southern Spain. Hours later, as we were still clambering over rocks, night suddenly fell in a black blanket and I made them all stop and sit on a flat stone. I was in a bikini and thankfully the children were wearing a bit more. My then husband heroically found us but we had to spend the night there, clasping the kids to us in an attempt to keep them warm, and reassure them about the creeping animal sounds.

We also sailed round an island in a small hired boat in Greece and ran out of petrol as a storm brewed up and I have never seen my husband as frightened. I also made my kids and two friends swim around a bay and they got exhausted and I had to have the two youngest on my back. When we were all caught up in the Asian tsunami, which admittedly was not my fault, my dad uncharacteristically shouted at me and said: "That's it. That's enough. You have kids. Time to be safe and boring."

I think this need to force my children to have adventures and take risks came from my mum, who was very gung-ho and used to dare us to swim in the Irish sea in winter, ride unruly ponies bareback and sail my baby brother round a lake in a dinghy.

I also had a grandmother who flew airplanes and sneered at any kind of health and safety. There was also the fact that everyone else was letting their children ride on the top of cars down country lanes, skate across ponds, cycle round the South Coast for a week with another 14-year-old (yes, Mum, you did let us do this), sleeping in Youth Hostels and fields and even a city park.

Although these emergencies (apart from the tsunami) are among my children's favourite memories and they are both quite into thrill-seeking, I do remember that on one holiday, the family we went with were very watchful of their children, worrying about water-carrying diseases and germs (something I would never think about). My son seemed to want to be restricted and refused to come white-water rafting with us, preferring to play chess inside.

So perhaps in his case a bit more protection and a bit less forced adventure would have built up his independence and confidence. In trying to balance the freedoms and necessary restrictions, we are all haunted by our own experiences and expectations of what we think an ideal childhood should be.

'The Henry Experiment' by Sophie Radice is available from February linenpressbooks.com £11.99