I lost my six-year old over the weekend. I saw him playing in the front garden then next thing I knew there was no sign of him.
I looked up and down my street and the only evidence was his scooter awkwardly straddling a flowerbed further up.
I asked my two-year-old daughter who just shrugged and went back to pulling books off the shelf.
No sign of him.
I called my nearest neighbour – had she seen him? No.
I tried another – she said she had briefly seen him hooting and hollering as he rode past.
Was I worried? Not really.
Should I have been?
I finally tracked him down on the third phone call – he was happily swimming in a neighbour’s pool.
Now I have noticed one of two reactions to this. The first? People are ready to condemn my irresponsible parenting.
Those who smile at the thought that that’s how things were when WE WERE KIDS.
You see it turns out that my street is unusual in that we let out kids roam up and down and into each other’s houses.
It has been pointed out (with one of those grimaced smiles) that this lack of pre-ordained play dates and supervised play is frowned upon in other areas. That it is “unusual” and that “mothers these days were usually more careful”.
There’s even talk of children on my street “running wild”.
Yes, seriously. “Running wild.”
Is that what you think? Is it irresponsible of me to let my children “roam” the neighborhood?
Is it careless to let them knock on friends’ doors and ask if they can come out to play?
To let them build cubby houses out of branches on the side of the street and play with random boys and girls of all ages? To let them ride their bikes in gangs along the footpaths? To let them have impromptu dinners of sausages and white bread by the side of a neighbour’s pool? To let them fall into bed exhausted after a day of unplanned, (partly) unsupervised play?
Because I think it’s delightful.
Judge if you wish.
So it was with relief that I read an article in the UK Independent calling for a return to the “golden days of play”.
The author, Dr Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology writes of his childhood – in the 1950’s in the US, where:
We went to school, but it wasn’t the big deal it is today. School days were six hours long, but (in primary school) we had half-hour recesses in the morning and afternoon, and an hour at lunch. Teachers may or may not have watched us, from a distance, but if they did, they rarely intervened. We wrestled on the school grounds, climbed trees in the adjacent woods, played with knives and had snowball wars in winter – none of which would be allowed today at any state-run school I know of.
He cites a correlation between increasingly structured leisure time for children and mental health.
Consider this, he writes, “over the past 50 to 60 years, we have been continuously decreasing the opportunities for our own children to play. School became more onerous, as breaks were reduced, homework piled up… Outside school, adult-directed sports (which are not truly play) began to replace impromptu games (which are play). Children began to take classes out of school, rather than pursue hobbies on their own. ‘Play dates’, with adults present, replaced unsupervised neighbourhood play, and adults began to feel it was their duty to intervene rather than let children solve their own problems.”