A few years back, I was privileged to visit new-build schools across Scotland. Most had all-weather sports pitches, many of them floodlit. I was puzzled why pupils rarely used them during breaks and after school. Headteachers often explained it was down to lack of supervision. They feared injury during an unsupervised interval or lunchtime kickabout could lead to litigation.

Fair enough I suppose, but I couldn’t help thinking back to my own school days. At breaks, every corner of the playground became an imaginary Pittodrie or Hampden. We picked our own teams and organised our own little leagues. There was a strict hierarchy. The juniors got the scrubbiest corners of the playground. The seniors claimed the flat areas, relatively free from broken glass and dog mess. I don’t remember the headteacher fretting over our safety.

The sight of youngsters kicking a ball around a playground or a piece of waste ground has become a rarity. Set in its wider context, it’s symptomatic of changing adult attitudes to play and childhood in general. We are obsessed with perceived risks to youngsters’ safety. Sure, the roads are much busier, but childhood is no riskier than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The likelihood of abduction for example is virtually non–existent.

My mother accompanied me on my first day at primary school. Thereafter, I was on my own, even though the school was more than a mile away, across several main roads. As recently as the 1970s, around 80% of seven and eight-year-olds made their own way to school. It’s now less than 10%. Our local primary is not untypical. Most children are delivered and collected by hordes of anxious parents. The youngsters are at far more risk from the 4x4s double parked on the yellow zig zags than they are from would-be abductors.

I don’t want to make it sound as if I had an unfit mother. All my childhood pals had mothers with the same attitude to play. It was invariably outdoor, in all weathers, organised by ourselves and often involving an element of risk. My mother once spotted me near the top of a largeish tree. Her response was pretty sanguine; “Don’t come running to me if you fall and break your leg.”

On the occasional sunny day in the north-east, my pals and I would saddle up and cycle the ten miles along the A90 to Balmedie beach. It was often getting dark before we returned, none the worse for our adventure. In truth, we were free-range kids, going home only to eat and sleep. Over the years, childhood and play have been inverted. Almost imperceptibly, childhood has become an indoor phase, during which youngsters are under house arrest. Interaction with screens has replaced extended face-to-face contact with their peers.

Parents are the worst culprits, obsessionally micro-managing their children’s leisure time. They wrongly believe being good parents means mapping out every activity. I’m exhausted just listening to the schedule of adult-driven sport, dance, drama, swimming, piano etc, etc, inflicted on children. The unfortunate youngsters don’t even make their own way. Adult delivery and collection are essential.

Many of those parents live their lives through their children. Enjoyment is obligatory. I once heard a dad say to his son “Aren’t we having a great time, Archie?” I suspect he was fooling only himself.

There’s a serious point here. Depriving our children of the opportunity for free play means they miss out on valuable learning and developmental experiences. It’s through playing with pals, planning adventures, inventing, and organising their own games, that social and life skills are learned. Interacting with others, negotiating, compromising, coping with disappointment and failure, to name only a few.

In the US, Lenore Skenazy co-founded the Let Grow Project, aiming to re-establish free play. She likens the control freakery of supervised play to processed food “drained of most of its value.” Her message for adults is clear. Stop suffocating our youngsters; give them back the freedom to organise and learn from their own play.