Stop popping the balloons. Forget the dew on the grass. Bring back the conkers and the yo-yos. And ditch those hi-vis jackets that make every child look like Bob the Builder. It’s time, says the chief inspector of schools, to blast the bugles, sound the trumpets and chuck out the cotton wool. It’s time, in fact, to set the children of this nation free.
Perhaps she didn’t mention bugles, but at the weekend, Amanda Spielman did mention the “dew on the grass” that had led to a cancelled sports day, and the conkers, yo-yos and the potentially too dangerous balloons that were being snatched from children’s childhoods, along, she implied, with their human rights. There had, she said, been “an over-zealous approach to health and safety” in schools and it was time to bring in a bit of balance. It was time to distinguish between “real and imagined risk”; time for children to develop a bit of “resilience” and “grit”.
Well, three cheers for that. It wouldn’t be so bad if the hi-vis children marching down our streets were actually being trained as builders, in preparation for some future referendum that might, for example, affect the supply of labour to one of our biggest industries, but they’re not. It isn’t always clear what they are being trained for. Chip-comparison websites? Transforming green spaces into art installations that look very much like giant rubbish tips? Instagram stardom? Can an entire nation forge a future in digital marketing?
When I was a child, I always vowed I would never say: “When I was a child, it was all different.” But I am not a child and so I will. When I was a child, it was all different. We didn’t wear special clothes for it, but we did learn a fair bit about building. Half the estate I grew up on was still being built, and we treated it like a giant playground. We balanced on giant piles of teetering bricks. We climbed up half-finished staircases and chased one another across floors that suddenly stopped. I have no idea whether any of this built “resilience” or “grit”, but it certainly kept us fit.
We played in the street. Yes, the car had been invented, but we still played in the street. In the morning, we were practically shoved out of the door. My brother played ball games with the neighbours. I played with my best friend, Monique. For one of our favourite games, you had to pile up chairs and tables in the garden and cover them in blankets and then yell “there’s a storm coming” and yank the blankets off. Goodness only knows why, but then I’ve met people who spent chunks of their childhood washing grass and hanging it on a line to dry. I once interviewed someone who had jumped off a climbing frame, thinking he could fly. He broke both his ankles when he discovered he could not.
Perhaps our parents were too relaxed. Perhaps they should have made us learn the flute and Mandarin. Perhaps we would have been spared a few stitches and bruises if they had. And let’s be clear. We weren’t wolf children. We went to school, did our homework and went on nice trips to National Trust houses. But we had a lot of time to read, and dream, and roam. And we learned that if you were bored, it wasn’t anyone else’s fault.
We were lucky; so, so lucky. We didn’t have the whole world at our fingertips, at the tap of a screen, so we had to focus on the world around us, and on the world in our heads. We had flesh-and-blood friends to play with. We didn’t have to “curate” careful pictures of our dazzling lives. We thought that in photos you were actually meant to smile.
It isn’t too late to give our children a taste of what so many of us once had. (I don’t have any, so I’ll have to borrow yours.) Sure, we can’t wipe out the internet any more than we can wipe out the sky. We are all swimming in a new medium. It isn’t air and it isn’t water, though it certainly has its clouds. It isn’t like wine, a nice treat some of us indulge in a bit too much. It’s more like food. It’s something you need to function in this weird, new world, but something that can also turn into a drug.
We need to teach our children how to use it safely. We need to give them a taste of the pleasures that await if they put their phones down and allow them to get out and about and take a few risks. And we need to help them up, or stick on a plaster, when they fall down. Schools should play their part, but this is a job for us all. Most of all, we all need to show the nation’s children that a screen is a servant, not a master. Not least so that they can show us.
BY Christina Patterson - freelance writer
Source: The Guardian