There’s a playground in Wales in the UK called The Land, where kids are encouraged to light fires in tin drums and their parents are discouraged from its vicinity. It’s a place in the country where what looks like a big, muddy rubbish dump has been purposely set in the middle of a field as a wild place for children to explore, climb, carry big sticks and enjoy the smoke spiralling from their fires.
I first read about this wonderfully un-twenty-first century place in a riveting article, and it set me thinking all over again at how life has changed for our kids in the last forty years. I say all over again because of course ‘the overprotected kid’, as the author of the article, Hanna Rosin, calls her essay, has become a much-discussed topic. Reading it came on the back of watching the fascinating ABC series Life at … (9, last year), and their episode on independence. The children taking part are asked whether they’d be comfortable walking to the nearest corner shop on their own; they are aghast at the idea. They are persuaded to try it out with cameras strapped to their heads (could be an incentive!) and sent off to buy an ice cream, with the camera crew following discreetly behind to check they don’t run out in front of any cars. Having completed their mission, every child is hugely chuffed. In a world that values self-esteem, you can see theirs has rocketed with that walk.
I felt a kind of wistful longing for my own boys when I read articles like Rosin’s: we live in the city and, I’m afraid, my seven-year-old would not want to walk to the corner shop on his own either. (I’ve asked him. He looked daunted. And intrigued, as if ‘Wow, would she really let me?’) There are many compelling, disconcerting theories and discussions about how and why we have become so protective, so around our children, so very near them, for such a big proportion of their younger lives. (Many in Rosin’s article. Some in this percipient piece) We do our best, we know the arguments against helicoptering, against stifling their independence, how to instil them with resilience (as I metaphorically rap myself on the wrist for using the ‘c’ word to my sons: ‘NOT CLEVER, no, I mean, you tried really hard. Well done for trying so hard.’). But there’s no getting away from the fact that we don’t send them off to explore for hours on end while we kick back at home – we can’t in a city. Well, actually, we could – but most of us don’t. Recently I heard the marvellous writer Helen MacDonald speaking on her book H is for Hawk. Helen is an academic and a falconer (course). Her book was described by the New Yorker as ‘Coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year’ and the New York Times said ‘[It] is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative. . . . [An] instant classic’. In her talk she described her childhood in rural England, most of it alone, though she wasn’t lonely, searching for woodlice under stones, burying her head in grass to find small bugs and mooching around English hedgerows looking for unfamiliar flowers.
Listening, I was thrown back to doing the same with my sister – roaming for hours around the countryside where we lived, inventing pirate games round a pond, back home pressing flowers we’d found, peering at the bees zooming around wild flowers. We even used to get the lambs to suck our fingers in springtime. That morning I’d spend an exasperating few hours in the city, in a queue, with a lot of other parents as we all waited, with our children, to get a book signed for them. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s fantastic that our kids love a book so much that they are desperate to catch a glimpse of its author. Yet a voice in my head was muttering, ‘What on earth [or not on earth, actually] are we doing here?’ Of course, what I was doing there was hoping that by our very presence I would somehow stamp harder this love of books and reading on my children, when in fact I’m sure I’d have been better off taking them home and reading to them on the sofa, or dragging them off on a hike. It is such a funny world we live in now: by trying so hard to engage our kids, to ‘improve’ them, perhaps instead of enriching their childhood, we sometimes just clutter it.
Anyway, afterwards, when I thought back to The Land, and then considered what Helen had described about her childhood, and her adulthood as a voracious reader who trains hawks and watches birds, and reads to make sense of her life, of life, it seemed she had neatly encapsulated two crucial components of what we want for our children. We want them to understand the world, both the natural and the man-made, and have the confidence to engage with it profoundly as they grow up. Perhaps I should persuade the local council to host a playground like the one in Wales (good luck with that, I hear you say!), and while they’re at it they could build a mobile library beside it for the kids to retire to when they’re exhausted from marauding around, and in which we parents can wait for them. At a distance.