What do you remember most from your childhood?
Straight after breakfast, I would get on my bike and ride out into the country lanes around our home. My bike, of course, had the prerequisite cigarette cards attached to the spokes so that it made a fantastic clicking sound as it whizzed by.
As a child I lived close to the River Crouch and so many a day was spent biking up and down the lanes, swinging on a well-worn tyre over the riverbank or making dens for pirates to hole up in. In hot, sunny weather I would be out for most of the day, occasionally returning home to grab a bite of lunch and then back out and about until the sun set.
Falling over was of course an occupational hazard and I was a very clumsy child. Covered in bumps and bruises and rescued, blood spattered, by many a kindly stranger, I was quite the tom-boy. Of course, wearing my round ‘John Lennon’ National Health glasses might have helped but I so hated them!
My mum had very few rules: we had to tell her where we were and agree to be back home on time for tea or there would be trouble. We should watch the road and definitely not talk to strangers or accept lifts in cars. If in doubt, a policeman would be the person to ask for help. If we didn’t want mum to know what we were doing we probably shouldn’t even think about doing it!
And what did we do all day? We had adventures, thrills and spills. Running round getting filthy enough to justify bathtime. Learning new skills. Rehearsing new stories to share with our playmates. We got in and out of scrapes. We had a ball! We survived – actually we thrived! Life was very simple. Was it really so much safer? I doubt it.
These days, children have very little opportunity to play freely in the fresh air, away from their carer. Today’s children play outside less than a tenth of the time that their parents enjoyed. As a nation we have become incredibly risk averse and protective of our offspring, even wrapping them in the cotton wool of car journeys to school and eschewing the daily walk. Gardens, when available, are often adult fashion statements rather than wild spaces and helicopter parenting is often practised well into teenage years.
I really do not fear that things have become so much more dangerous in the big wide world although granted there are far more cars today. Instead I believe that we have systematically deskilled our youngsters from facing risk and making appropriate decisions about their own safety. My mum was happy for her kids to roam more as we got older because she had invested time teaching us how to manage ourselves safely. Besides- everyone else’s children were outside too and there was always safety in numbers!
I think it could be a positively good thing for children to be away from direct adult supervision for extended periods of time – age and stage appropriate of course – as they get increasingly able to self manage. It builds character, confidence, courage and resilience – what a legacy!
How can children, who never even walk to their primary by themselves be expected to transition smoothly to using public transport for secondary school with confidence? How do we expect young people to live successfully alone at university if they have never stayed a night away from home as teenagers?
Many parents delude themselves that they are protecting their children from danger by keeping them close and indoors. Today’s child is, however, more at risk from the hidden stranger within the internet at home and the impending legacy of a couch-potato lifestyle than ever I was when let out alone in my sleepy little village.
The management of risk is undertaken in this country on an industrial scale. All this has done, however, is to diminish the opportunity for enterprise, thrill and experience and replace it with inertia, passivity and inactivity.
So, as this holiday stretches before your youngsters, switch that TV off. Limit computer time and suggest that the greatest adventures are to be found outside the back door. Children don’t shrink in the wet. Cold or inclement weather can provide a wonderful backdrop to a new game so you don’t even have wait for the sun to shine as long as they have a warm, waterproof coat. Let’s face it, in Britain you could be waiting for weeks!
Go on – inject a little wildness and freedom into playtime – I dare you!