Sunday, 10 May 2009

Places Children Love 1/3

If you’re observant you can spot the places children love. Look for a dirt path disappearing into the bushes. The remains of a rope swing. My seven year old daughter and her friends love a particular tangle of laurels that borders a tennis court in our south Bristol park, and they vanish among them most days on the way home from school, ignoring parental pleas to come out. Threats that ‘there won’t be time to go to the playground’ fall on deaf ears.

As parents we forget the places we loved as children. Tim Gill, for many years director of the Children’s Play Council and now a consultant, encourages adults to remember their childhood haunts and finds that most people recollect with great pleasure a nest in long grass or a perch in a tree or a den in the bushes. These places, Gill notes, tend to offer adventure and possibility. They are social places, where friendships can blossom. And they are out of sight of adults.

There’s a feeling these days that something isn’t quite right in the world of childhood. Obesity is constantly in the news. Kids seem to be spending too much time in front of the TV. Depression, of all things, appears to be rife among primary school children. At the same time it seems that children’s scope for adventurous, independent play has diminished. Might there be a connection?

In the mid 1970s American geographer and psychologist Roger Hart spent two years in a small Vermont town, interviewing at length every child aged between four and twelve. By cultivating the children’s trust, listening carefully and walking with them, he gained access to their secret haunts. He visited their hideouts and dens and documented the building of mud-and-stick airports and forts, and allowed adults – including a documentary team from the BBC – a glimpse into the secret outdoor world of children.

Thirty years later he went back to the same town. Three quarters of his original interviewees still lived locally and he launched a new research project, due to be finished next year. This time he has been talking with his now grown-up kids about their experience as parents, and conducting interviews with the children now living in the town. The experience so far has been revealing. For one thing, twenty-first century parents want to come along when he walks and talks with the children. And the children themselves are much less certain about their place in the outdoors, and less independent. One child, when asked where his secret places were, had to ask his mother for help.

It isn’t surprising to find that children have lost a degree of independence, but there is growing disquiet in official circles – even government circles – about the effects of this loss.

Roger Hart believes that, "Changes in the degree of children's freedom, in space and in time, to direct their own activities must surely have important implications for their development and for society."

Tim Gill agrees. “It is absolutely crucial to remember,” he says, “That children need some time and space away from the adult gaze. In their secret places, all kind of imaginative processes come into play. At the same time they are experiencing their first taste of independence – trying out autonomy for size.”

So we find ourselves with a dilemma. Children need time away from us, but we don’t want them to be in danger. What should we do?


Originally published in Junior Magazine

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