Thoughts on teaching, technology, learning and life in an era of change.
How far did you roam as a child?
August 17th, 2008

Recently Bill Kerr wrote a thoughtful post on the Cotton wool culture. This is a culture in which children are mollycoddled by society and kept out of harm’s way. His post was inspired by an article in the Guardian, ‘Kids need the adventure of risky play‘ [print]. I commented on Bill’s post and he responded with a selection of related links which I have listed at the foot of this post.

The article in the Mail online, ‘How children lost the right to roam in four generations‘, is particularly telling. It sets out quite clearly how from one generation to the next children are not roaming as far as their parents and grandparents. The article also mentions how walking through parks and gardens can reduce stress levels. It mentions that adding plants to your environment can also reduce stress. Recently, news that the German government plans to ban the Kinder Surprise chocolate egg as they pose a health risk to children has also generated comment regarding the cotton wool culture.

The view from our home in Bellambi looking towards the Pacific Ocean back in the 1960s.

Now, when I was seven our family moved house to a place called Bellambi. Between us and the ocean were open areas and an old rifle range that was rarely used. There were beaches, creeks, rock platforms, bush tracks and large sandhills.

The same stretch of road in 2008. Open space replaced with houses.

It has been turned into a suburb now. One end of our street was actually a dirt road back then. All that free space has largely disappeared. This Google map shows the area today.

Where I roamed as a young boy. Click on the map to view a larger map with a scale and labels.

As kids we would roam around the area. There was so much to do and so much to explore. We would go fishing, swimming, sliding down the sandhills on cardboard or sheets of masonite, look for bullet shells, let off fire crackers, search for geckoes, build massive sand-castles and so on. We would be gone all day, returning home at dusk. No worries, no fears. [We even smoked cigarettes at times, something I never took up thank goodness. You could buy a packet of Rothman's Tens for 21 cents. We would look for empty drink bottles. The bottles were worth three cents each. Seven bottles could buy us a packet of cigarettes. We even smoked at primary school in Year 6 at St Columbkille's when we were on incinerator duty.]

When I was eleven years of age I began riding my brother’s bike around the area. Peter had recently resurrected his old bike and I was keen to learn how to ride the old thing. When I turned twelve I received a Speedwell bike for my birthday and the area in which I roamed with my siblings and friends extended regularly to seven or more kilometres. I remember riding up the hills of Corrimal to the home of my good friend, Robert.

Even before that I used to ride my Cyclops scooter to the home of my friend Peter in Corrimal. At the age of 10 a group of us climbed Brokers’ Nose, on the escarpment west of the Illawarra. My sister and I rode our bikes from primary school on the highway in Corrimal all the way home to Bellambi. Sometimes we even walked home, a journey of several kilometres, if we missed the school bus. We were aged 10 or so at the time.

Things have certainly changed. How far did you roam as a child? How far did your parents and grandparents roam? Would be happy to read your own stories…

Perhaps this could be a meme, How far I roamed as a child… Would you like to help me get it started?

Addendum: Today I was interviewed by ABC radio here in the Illawarra. One of their interns discovered this blog post yesterday and arranged for an interview with Nick Rheinberger during the ‘Mornings‘ show. The interview went live to air as I was teaching my Year Eleven Ancient History class. The interview covered such points as real versus perceived dangers, the degree of violence in the world, the role of the media, taking risks, and the debate over to what extent one should allow children to freely roam. At the conclusion of the interview I returned to teaching. There was a talkback session on the topic with the general public on the radio afterwards. I am hoping to secure a recording of that as I was not able to listen. I shall add links and audio as they come to hand. I added some more links below.


Bill Kerr ~ Cotton wool culture; just the facts about online youth victimisation; 5 or 6 dangerous things you should let your children do [inspired by..]

Ted Talks ~ Gever Tully: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do

The Guardian ~ Kids need the adventure of ‘risky’ play

Waraku Education ~ Playing with stuff

Sydney Morning Herald ~ Charlie Brooker: Egg the youngsters on so that life tastes better

Sydney Morning Herald ~ Surprise ruled bad for health

BBC ~ Analysis: Rearing children in captivity

Times Online: Children who have everything, except freedom to play outside

Mail Online: Children who play unsupervised, turn out fitter and more sociable, study says

Spiked: Don’t blame parents for ‘Cotton wool kids’

Times Online: Help! How afraid should I be of stranger danger?

Lenore Skenazy: Free Range Kids

Times Online: Let ‘cotton-wool kids’ hang out on the streets

Times Online: Our cotton-wool kids ~ The danger from our ‘cotton wool kids’ ~ Get a life and take sensible risks, says safety chief ~ Cotton wool revolution: Instilling resilience in children is a vital lesson but only makes sense in a supportive society

UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis  ~ The Capable Project 

UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis  ~ Children who play unsupervised are fitter

Babies online ~ Unsupervised Play is Good for Children

HTI ~ Cotton Wool Kids

Times Online ~ ‘Bring back the conker fight to re-educate cottonwool kids

Spiked ~ Unwrapping the ‘cotton wool’ kids

11 Responses to “How far did you roam as a child?”

  1. Ken Allan Says:

    Kia ora John!

    Been there, done that, with links to the maps.

    Seriously though, in May this year, I posted such a story to illustrate the similarity between the matrix of link roads in Fife, Scotland and a proximate area in the blogosphere. Here’s the link to the post. I think I was about 11 years.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  2. Linda Says:

    I roamed within what my parents called reason – and apart from walking or to school on my own from about age 9 (we lived on a multi-lane highway), I was pretty well supervised throughout primary school.
    It was in high school that I took my bike and started exploring – anything up to 50km a day. My brothers would go out with their mates within several kilometres of home, but Mum always knew where we were going and what time we’d be home.
    We were also the kind of kids who played with campfires, built cubbyhouses up trees and fossicked in the garage with Dad’s tools.
    My kids have been raised similarly. They ride bikes, go down the street with friends, complete burn offs and work around the farm. I have had a lot of trouble letting my son go out on his bike – although I did allow it, I hated it; my brother was killed on his bicycle at 17, so as a parent I never had the luxury of the “it can’t happen to us” feeling that I so enjoyed in my childhood.
    I do get really annoyed with that awful email that gets sent around every so often – found it here: I’m all for freedom and learning for yourself, but I’m immensely grateful for lead-free paint, seat belts and bike helmets.

  3. John Larkin Says:

    Ken and Linda,

    Thank you for your comments. Ken, it is always exciting to see beyond that corner and over the other side of that hill. I wonder which will be the next curve that we negotiate with our blogging.

    Linda, thoughtful reflections and I am saddened to read of your brother. 50km ~ now that is amazing. It is good for kids to explore their world and broaden their horizons. It equips them with strategies to deal with similar challenges as adults.

    Cheers, John.

  4. nori murphy Says:

    A post by Clay Burrell inspired my wandering memories- I created a map and hope this link works. I wandered a lot in pre-terrorist Europe. We were American kids in the ’70′s in Brussels and the world was still a pretty safe place.

  5. John Larkin Says:

    Thank you Nori, I am impressed with your labelled map and the story that it reveals. It must have been such an excellent experience living in a foreign country at a young age. I must take the time to create such a map in Google earth as well.
    I am going to hop over to Clay’s blog now.
    Cheers, John.
    PS. I abbreviated your url so that it would fit in the comment field. I shall have to fix the template and make sure long urls do not break it in the future.

  6. Tony Searl Says:

    Hi John
    Memories of roamings of our last 3 generations flooded back after reading this.

    Dad rode Brokers Nose, a bit before your era I suspect. His mob regularly roamed as far as Sydney on pushbike as teens in the late 1930′s and prior to enlistment in 1943. The family lived at Corimal and later Wollongong and Dad explored all the escarpments along the Illawarra coast. Gee he must have been fit to ride up the goat track that was Mount Keira, up to the scout camp with all his jamboree gear packed on. Dad nver stopped roaming for the next 60 years as his job took him just about everywhere. A eulogy said his favourite quote was ‘I wonder whats over the next hill’ and he instilled in us his passion for exploration, just because its there

    Grandy, Stan Searl, roamed the seas off Wollongong in the auxilliary volunteer coast watch during WW2, as a late 40 something. He earlier roamed the Williams River region of Raymond Terrace to Clarencetown on foot,bicycle,horseback and steamer prior to his service in France in WW1.

    My own humble roamings consisted more of cubbies, crackers, bike stacks, tree climbing, mangrove swamps, catching live stuff, farm wanderings on holidays and exploring a 10km radius on foot and pushie from our Sydney home. I also remember roaming the hills of Unanderra in the 1960′s and early 70′s, up above the Public School before the Farmborough Heights suburb was built. The creeks and rivers of St Georges Basin were also our summer backyard as we roamed around in tinnies as far as Wandandian and Sussex Inlet. As a 12 year old alone in a boat, I never thought of the dangers as there were few in fact. My own 14 year old now roams further than I did as we again live in the country with accesst to national parks and pristine lakes and rivers. Sunup to sunset he is gone fishing, crabbing, riding, geocaching and gigging in bands at the youth hall. Always connected via the safety line of technology, just in case.
    As a fellow history buff I suspect I’ll be back John.

  7. John Larkin Says:

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for the reflections. Your dad’s story is particularly intriguing. Where did he see service? My own dad, Frank, was in the 2/19th Battalion and saw service in Malaya before being captured. My first full time job in the ANZ Bank took me all over the place as I made myself fully mobile… Wee Waa, Coraki, Trundle, Tullamore, Lismore, Raymond Terrace, Stroud, Wellington, Cootamundra, Byron Bay, eyc… 60 branches in 5 years.

    I went ‘outside’ a few times but did I ever get so sea sick. Dad used to take us kids down to Wallaga Lake and Bermagui. We also fished at a lake somewhere near Cobargo. As an older bloke my friends, Craig and Evan and I used to take their boat around Sussex Inlet and once we went up Wandandian Creek and I am sure, after moving branches, etc we almost reached the Princes Highway. My older brother Frank took me up Farmborough heights to photograph steam trains chuffing up the hill to Summit Tank and beyond.

    Great to hear that you son has access to such incredible areas to roam. Thanks for the great memories Tony,

    Cheers, John.

  8. Tony Searl Says:

    I had a good read of your wonderful work on your fathers WW2 service.
    Dad started his metallurgy apprencticeship with BHP as a 15 yr old in 1940 at Wollongong after finishing school at Maitland Boys and Wollongong High. Enlisted RAAF 11th September 1943 as an 18yr old, trained Deniliquin and later in Canada, gradutated as Pilot Officer on his 20th birthday in Feb 1945. He was returning to Australia, for attachment to a squadron, crossing the Pacific when HBombs were dropped in Japan. Demobbed from RAAF Sept 1945 and then did a BSc at Sydney Uni whilst staying active in RAAF reserves. (air training corp)

    Dad then moved around the world for the next 60 years working as a geologist for the BMR Canberra, then onto Ok Tedi,Mary Kathleen,Cloncurry,Rum Jungle,Ranger, Bouganville, Fiji, Singapore, Mt Tom Price, Shebani in Rhodesia(where my sister was born) USA, Arnham Land, Phillipines and Thailand. So we were a travelling group from day one.

    We used to fish outside at Stanwell Tops motoring down from Port Hacking or go north to Port Stephens for a fish at Broughton island for the weekend. Dad called me the token human burley bucket as a kid, open swells and I did not agree. I actually did my year 12 Biology major study on Wandanian creek so I spent many days testing water and collecting samples right up to the P highway.
    Grandy retired to the basin so thats why we spent so much time their from the 1960′s to the 1990′s.

    Love your history site, will dig out some links from my wiki page when we edit it down.

  9. Far From Home « Edumacation Of Moi Says:

    [...] So I read today in a blog I just found, about how far one roamed as a child.  The bloggers (John Larkin and Clay Burell)who wrote the original posts are probably in the 30-40 age range, solidly marking [...]

  10. Web2.0 is real, people. | Sliced Bread Says:

    [...] ready wiki and are now favouritising John. You go learners, whatever works, do it and learn. His “How far did you roam as a child” post really struck a chord with me. Great stuff. Alerting me to Posterous was also helpful as a [...]

  11. Stilgherrian · Links for 22 October 2009 through 27 October 2009 Says:

    [...] How far did you roam as a child? | Watershed: Educator John Larkin continues the thoughts about wrapping our kids in cotton wool. [...]