Sunday, 14 November 2010

A History of Play

Something that I had wanted to blog about a week or two ago - children and play.  I put up a post yesterday that contained the following:
  • Computer-obsessed children who spend too long indoors and over-anxious parents who slap on excessive sunscreen are contributing to a sharp rise in cases of the bone disease rickets, doctors are warning.
That line of 'too long indoors' sounds hollow to me.  I mentioned in yesterday's post that I had spent plenty of time indoors on my computer for the best part of a decade and we didn't have the mobile entertainment available to today's kids....bar a copy of Donkey Kong on an LCD console that I picked up in about 1987!  I remember grand/parents at the time telling me and my mates how we didn't "play outside enough" - and that "kids of today have it easy/are more violent/don't know they're born".  You know the score.

Steve Roud is an interesting author - rooting around deep within English culture to pull out traditions and rituals that are bizarre and curious to say the least (I have a copy of his hugely entertaining book The English Year which contains some astounding English cultural practices).  Roud has spent the last few years documenting children's games.  In this article for The Guardian, he opens with this line:
  • "Children are forgetting how to play. To realise this one has only to watch the pupils in recreation time with their disappointed amusements, their unrelated racings and shoutings, their perfunctory attempts at leapfrog and kindred sports"
When do you think this line was written?  2000?  1990?  Nope, 1903!  He goes on:
  • This bleak assessment of the state of play in Britain would not seem out of place in any modern newspaper, but these words come from a magazine article dating from 1903 and the same complaint has been made over and over again for at least 100 years. In every generation the plaintive cry has gone up "Children don't play properly any more!", and the only thing that changes is the reason given for this sad state of affairs. Around 1900 it was penny dreadfuls, urbanisation and compulsory schooling that were at fault. Between the wars it was the baleful influence of the cinema and the wireless. In the 1960s and 1970s it was television. Then it was video games, and now iPods and computers. But, whatever the reason, the pessimists have always been vocal in their condemnation of the current crop of children, and have always assumed that their own time was the golden age of childhood and play.
The important thing for me in this article is that sometimes we look back on our own childhood with rose tinted spectacles and in doing so, can put a real downer on our kids' childhood at present.  We are heavily guiding and directing our kids through life anyway ("do this" or "don't do that"), the last thing we need to be doing is criticising them for the one intuitive thing they are doing (and getting right); play.  We should trust them to follow their instincts at times and encourage their own interpretation/expression of how this should unfold.

It is terrible that such apparent bias has crept in to explanation of a medical condition (Rickets).  The real problem of Rickets is inappropriate sun-creaming and sun-avoidance/hysteria/paranoia.

Oh yeah - and the next time you read something with a tutting "kids nowadays" tone, you might want to reflect on Roud's comments above.  However, if it comes packaged with generic medical advice, you may want to ignore it all together.

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