SU Walker remembers her childhood fondly.
Playing out until it was time for a bath, rummaging at the tip, making dens and creating aromatic concoctions from her nextdoor neighbour’s roses – Su’s early years were innocent and carefree.
But now, as a mother of two children – an 11-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy – Su feels today’s childhood isn’t as fun, healthy and character-building as that of her own.
The mass emergence social media, round-the-clock TV channels and formal testing at school from as early as six means that many children spend their spare time glaring at a computer or television screen.
Su, aged 51, worries that children don’t play out enough.
“I was never in when I was a kid. I had the most fantastic childhood and although we were playing we were always learning. Even if we were building a den together we were constructing something and working with other people. We knew about different plants – like dock leaves and would make up our own little worlds. I worry that children don’t play enough.”
And she’s not alone in her concerns.
A group of 200 academics, teachers, parents, charity leaders, scientists and authors – including Philip Pullman and Oxford University neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield – have signed a petition urging government to take action to tackle the nationwide problem of the erosion of childhood.
Contributors to the petition wrote: “Our children are subjected to increasing commercial pressures, they begin formal education earlier than the European norm, and they spend ever more time indoors with screen-based technology, rather than in outdoor activity. The time has come to move from awareness to action.”
The petition also highlighted the dangers of a consumerist and screen-based lifestyle and children’s developmental needs. And, like Su, experts also stressed the need to encourage children to have outdoor play.
Sheffield mum Kerry Goding, 34, says the sedentary, computer-based lifestyles children lead mean they are less physically fit and rely on expensive material things.
“Kids have so much these days. We were wondering what to buy our son last Christmas because he already has everything yet he’s only seven. We didn’t have the stuff that kids have now – we’d make mud pies and roll down the hill. It was really silly but really good fun.”
Now, Kerry says, children have too much homework. “My boy’s only seven and gets so much homework – me and my friends don’t remember getting anywhere near that amount of work to do at that age. We’d get home from school and were straight out.”
Kerry, from Handsworth, said: “There were quite a few of us – it was great.”
But Professor Allison James, from Sheffield University’s Department of Sociological Studies, who specialises in childhood studies, believes that today’s childhood isn’t all that bad.
“The biggest difference between today’s childhood and that of the older generation is the advent of computers but children are a lot more knowledgeable now. When I was a child we only had Encyclopedia Britannica and that was that. But now children are learning in a much more global context.”
But it’s not only the increasing reliance on computers that’s keeping children indoors, as Professor James explains.
“There’s also the issue of over- protectiveness from adults.”
Indeed, when Su and Kerry were growing up there were few restrictions as to where they played. “We went all over,” says Su. “We’d go in the fields and off exploring on proper adventures, we were like the Famous Five.”
For Su and Kerry, the erosion of childhood is very real.
“I look back at how we were and think to myself ‘we do treat children as if they are older than they are.’