Protective parents stop kids walking to school

Children more worried about dogs than traffic

Irish children are less likely to walk or cycle to school as parents are more protective than in most other countries.

Research on Irish children’s mobility shows that they are more worried about dogs, or even kidnapping, than about traffic.

But rural children in particular are more likely to be driven to school or other activities, while city children are allowed to cross main roads, cycle and use public transport at a younger age.

The findings in a report being published today at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick reflect the views of more than 2,200 children aged seven to 15 in Ireland, north and south.

“Children on the island of Ireland enjoy considerably less mobility and independence than did children a generation ago.

“While thankfully deaths and injuries due to traffic incidents have declined, children’s health, welfare and development have been compromised,” wrote authors Alanna O’Beirne and Brendan O’Keeffe.

Almost two-thirds of the 1,695 parents who were also surveyed walked to school when they were 10 and just one-in-six got there by car, but the figures are almost exactly reversed now.

Just 18% of today’s Irish students walk and 54% get a lift, perhaps influenced by the fact one-in-three do not attend their nearest school.

But over 45% of children said they would like to walk or cycle to school, and children also responded positively to the option of travelling on public transport. That openness contrasts with the more anxious attitudes and protective behaviour or parents, say the authors.

“Parents’ perceptions of their local environment differ considerably from those of their children, and parents’ main fears do not necessarily transpose themselves onto their children,” says the report.

“Among parents, the most frequently-cited barrier to preventing their children from making journeys on their own is a fear of traffic accidents. And somewhat ironically, this is the reason most parents give for collecting their child from school,” it says.

Protective parents stop kids walking to school

Ms O’Beirne is a health promotion officer for primary schools who works with the college’s curriculum development unit and the HSE, and Mr O’Keeffe is a geography lecturer there.

They carried out the survey work in 2011 as part of a London institute’s research across 16 countries, with Irish kids ranking 12th in their overall mobility scores.

Girls are more likely than boys to have restricted mobility, while some disquiet was expressed among children about travelling into some public spaces because of fears of dogs, strangers and crime.

“Addressing these fears require that communities and public bodies recolonise spaces that have been abandoned or neglected by private interests. The onus on them to do so has been made particularly urgent by the collapse of the construction sector, which has led to a number of abandoned sites and ‘ghost estates’ on the Irish landscape,” the study says.

The findings suggest adequate provision of footpaths and public lighting, as well as access to spaces other than private gardens — formal and informal — are important in determining levels of children’s mobility and their activities.

Mr O’Keeffe said the results on how young people travel to school do not differ widely from results on similar transport questions in the 2006 Census, suggesting the inter-generational slide may at least have halted.

“Where we’re doing well is with schools that have active travel and green flags, and communities with high social capital like strong GAA clubs. They are all promoting mobility, but it is official Ireland that is letting us down.”

He said the strongly rural nature of Irish schools was not a big factor in the comparatively high numbers going to school by car, as more mobile countries like Finland and Sweden have even more dispersed populations but better roads and public transport.

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