One of the best aspects of being a Mum is reading to my kids. As a family project, we decided to read some ‘classics’ together (well, I read to my children). The books we chose were from bygone days, timeless in their description of the human condition. To my surprise (as a now adult), I discovered the tales were also beautifully illustrative of a life that, to today’s child, is almost as alien living on Mars! The more books we read, the more I reflected on the differences between generations, in the way children entertain themselves.
I Can Jump Puddles, an Australian classic by Alan Marshall, was a fictionalised autobiography of the author’s early life. Alan lived on a property in the western districts of Victorian Australia , and contracted polio in 1908 when he was 6 years old. He describes in vivid detail his refusal to see himself at a disadvantage, eventually teaching himself to ride a horse during his lunch breaks at school (and unbeknownst to his parents!). For my child and me, it was an inspiring read – beautiful illustrating optimism, persistence and resilience.
My children and I devoured To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960), a beloved classic worldwide. We lived the world of plucky little 7-year-old Scout as she innocently addressed the racism inherent in her community.
The Contrast – the Play of Today, with the Play of Yesteryear
As I travelled along the fictional and biographical road of these characters, I could not help but contrast the childhood these stories depicted, with the childhood of today. In particular, I wondered about their world of play. Though the novels were set in different states and countries, and over a span of 80-odd years, I was struck by the similar way the children entertained themselves.
In these books, the children spent most of their time outdoors. Alan Marshall crawled his way up a dormant volcano. Scout spent her days, from dawn to dusk, playing with her brother outside.
With my parent educator hat on, I wondered at the confidence, the resilience, and the sense of mastery that such a childhood would bestow these children. That is – if they survived!! With my parent hat on, I shuddered at each new adventure. I’d quietly asked myself “would I let my children do that?”
Why is play so different today for our young people? Are they safer? According to an article by parenting specialist Maggie Dent, children are ‘missing out’ because, as a society, we’ve become risk averse. Ironically, she quotes research where children are actually hurt at a higher rate on today’s playgrounds than older, ‘riskier’ playgrounds.
Maggie’s article “In Praise of a Dangerous, Dirty Childhood” describes the physical changes now seen in children – “poor eyesight, weak shoulder girdles, weak wrists and poor grip for lack of climbing”. She summarises the advantages, as she sees them, for outdoor play – for nature play. These include opportunities for creativity, brain development, and social skills such as problem solving.
So which way should I lean? Safe play versus risky play? I’m torn. Now, thanks to the authors of previous decades who so realistically captured life in word images as vivid as film, I am more aware of the environment in which my children play. I am taking steps to influence us, as a family. We’re ticking off the list of 51 things to do before you’re 12. And we are going walking in the bush more often – surprisingly, sometimes even at the request of my child!