‘How can a bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing?’
Leila Berg the children’s author who died recently wrote Look at Kids in 1972, a book full of bitter sweet stories about the pain of growing up and the prejudice and often hostility of adults towards children. How in our everyday actions we ignore or belittle children’s curiosity, their natural awe of the world, their absorption in play. Children chided and scolded, told off for simply being children. Forty years on we are still a deeply conflicted society in our attitudes towards children. For some, children playing out on the street or in their local neighbourhood are seen as part of a healthy, vibrant community. For others the sight or sound of children playing out is considered a nuisance.
On Wednesday the Daily Mail reported on a ‘Concorde pilot who can’t stand the noise of happy children bids to close down local playground that severely disrupts his life’. The case is being brought before the Reading Magistrates Court as a private prosecution under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The playground opened in May last year attracts hundreds of children and families. Not all the residents are opposed. One said it was a good place to socialise with other parents and it was ‘nice to hear children enjoying themselves’.
The playground includes a sandpit, zip wire and swings but it was the water fountains that provoked squeals of delight to
77 decibels. Less, it was pointed out in the court case, than by the average vacuum cleaner. But this story appears to have less to do with environmental health and more to do with the attitude towards children.
Last year the German government passed legislation that exempts children from their normally strict noise pollution laws to clamp down on similar complaints. The new regulation makes it clear that ‘the level of noise from child care facilities and playgrounds and similar facilities are, as a rule, not damaging to the surrounding environment’.
Germany’s Environment Minister Norbert Rottgen said, ‘We are setting a clear legislative signal for a child friendly society with this law giving privileged status to children’s noise’. The Netherlands passed similar legislation in 2010. Dutch Environment Minister Jacqueline Cramer said, ‘Children should be able to yell and shout when they are outside’.
In 2011 UNICEF reported that British children are likely to be the least happy in the developed world. The report concluded that in other European countries ‘family time is more protected’ and children ‘have greater access to activities’.
Taking children to the park or local playground is one way parents spend more time with their children. In recent years there has been a growing interest in the quality of children’s play spaces. The investment and improvements in design are a direct consequence of the involvement of parents. But the success of the play area at the centre of the recent court case and others depends on the tolerance and acceptance of children by adults in the community.
As Leila Berg’s Look at Kids concludes ‘is it really so much a child needs – the right to have space, time for exploration, so that they can grow and become part of society in a natural way…to live lives that are their own and not someone else’s…the right to have happy parents, whom society accepts and values?’ Over to you.