The Unreliable Guide To… Childhood Play
Undirected or child-driven play, where kids get to run amok and have fun without adult interference, is so important to their development that it has been recognised by the United Nations as a human right. According to paediatrician Kenneth R. Ginsburg, “Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practising adult roles.” Many parents, perhaps due to media scaremongering, don’t believe kids are safe out by themselves. Most kids have next to no time for free play; they’re either busy attending organised activities or passively staring at screens. I interviewed a varied group of over 40s – that last generation to grow up without 24/7 tech – to see what childhood was like for them.
“By today’s standards we were a large family, there were six of us and I was in the middle so I always had someone to play with. We had an enormous sense of freedom. Our property was a fair way from the local town so we mucked about like galahs from dawn till dusk – all the kids did. We knew everyone nearby so there was always someone you could ask for help if one of the littlies fell in the creek or something. Mum expected us home for our dinner, the rest of the time she’d have spat the dummy if we stayed at home, getting under her feet.”
Suburban United Kingdom
“Ours was a small family, just me and my brother, but we made up for that by linking up with the rest of the kids in our street. The road was ours most of the time, games of hopscotch or cricket only paused to let a car go by. When that got boring we’d head over to the local park and explore, or scrump apples from neighbours’ gardens. We had to be home before dark, that was it. We were aware of the possibility of ‘bad men’, there was a weirdo in the park who sometimes flashed his willy, but he was no more scary than the mad dog that lived at the end of the street. We just laughed at him and ran away.”
“We were a large family, but not by the standards of the day. Five of us and I was the youngest. We were on a farm, so there was plenty of work to do and all the kids were expected to chip in to the family coffers. You’ve not got a great earning potential at seven, but sometimes tourists would pay us for pictures of the donkey and all that money went to our Ma. But that sounds like it was hard and it wasn’t. We had great craic, so much freedom. Everyone in the village knew everyone else, so there was always someone to keep an eye out for you or clip you round the ear for misbehaving.”
“We had a large family, there were five of us in a large ramshackle house near the harbour. We knew most of the kids in our street and Mum actively encouraged us to be out of the house during daylight hours so she could get some peace and quiet. We used to catch the ferry sometimes into the city and just wander around. No one seemed to care. If you did that now I think people would probably stop you and ask where your parents were.”
Finally, The Unreliable Guide wonders if the world really is scarier now than when we were kids? Or are we overprotecting our children, letting them slide away into a virtual world that could be far more dangerous than the physical one? What do you think?