Message from an older generation
As a child growing up in the terraced flats of urban Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1950s, I played out every evening, exploring building sites, jumping puddles, playing football and ‘Knocky Nine Doors’. My mum tells me that the most effective sanction she could use to ensure my good behaviour was to threaten to keep me indoors.
Of course, in those days there were few cars in our area and less awareness of the ‘stranger danger’ that worries parents nowadays. In addition, it seemed that the neighbours didn’t mind us occasionally knocking on their door and running away or kicking our ball into their backyard and climbing over their wall to retrieve it. I often reflect on the good fortune that enabled me, with friends, to build an igloo that half covered the road and stayed there for a good few weeks one winter, and that gave me parents who allowed me to roam increasingly further from home as I grew more confident in my ability to find my way back.
It wasn’t until I had my own child that I realised just how lucky I had been. While he was young, I could take him to parks to play, accompany him on trips to the school playground in the evening to practice riding his bike and let him play in the back yard and lane with friends. It wasn’t until he reached those middle years of childhood, when he wanted to roam further afield, that I noted the changes in society that were putting up barriers for his play.
Living on a busy road, with the nearest park some distance away, and the local youth clubs closed due to funding cuts, he and his friends took to playing in the nearby cemetery where there was a large expanse of grass surrounded by tall trees. Unfortunately, the cemetery was overlooked by flats several storeys high, enabling an elderly resident to spot the young lads and report them. Soon the police were called, and my son returned home, barred from playing in the cemetery again.
Undeterred, he and his friends extended their search to play and found a very large, derelict house which they started exploring in the evenings. I didn’t know where he was playing, but he always came home (almost) on time, a bit mucky but quite happy. One day, he told me he’d been playing in a derelict empty house which seemed to be used by the local homeless for drinking sessions, as there were signs of fires having been lit on the floorboards and empty cans lying around, and my parental instinct to panic took over. Fortunately, I thought before I spoke, and this is what I thought: he could be in danger there, but he’s now 12 and should be able to look after himself. He’s told me what he’s doing, and that means he trusts me, so I shouldn’t betray that trust or I may never get it back. The house presumably belongs to someone, but it’s not boarded up and it seems easy to gain access, so the owners can’t be checking on it very regularly. He’s not going to maintain an interest in going there much longer, as he’s growing up and his thoughts will turn to other things. I used to play on building sites which were also private ground, but I never got caught or perhaps no-one cared. He’s been honest enough to admit that he’s been going somewhere that he knows he shouldn’t.
Having gone through this thought process, my first words to him were, ‘I understand your need to play, I used to do similar things when I was your age, but if the police bring you home one evening I’m going to deny all knowledge of you going there, look shocked and promise to them that I’ll ground you for a week.’ He didn’t fall through a ceiling or get caught by the police, and in a few days made his own decision to find somewhere else to hang out with his friends.
So what’s the point of the story? The world is a different place now – neighbours used to keep a friendly, informal eye on children in their streets, playing out was a natural and frequent occurrence which people didn’t seem to mind and, unless there was damage done, the police were rarely involved. We should remember this as we get older and dismiss our inclination to grumble at the shrieks and giggles of children outside our windows. We need to recognise that, inherent in children’s play, is the need to explore which often leads children to go places that aren’t so child-friendly, where perhaps they should not be. But this is all part of growing up, a vital contribution to children’s development which far outweighs the occasional dangers they encounter and, as parents and grand-parents, we should recognise that those shrieks and yells are signs of the younger generation learning the skills they need to survive in today’s society while having the fun that all children should experience.
Lesli Godfrey is Strategic Lead for Playwork and the Children’s Workforce at SkillsActive