“Children…at the end of the nineteenth century… had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children.”
– A.S. Byatt
The first house I ever lived in was magical. It was an old Victorian house situated in the middle of a long narrow drive, with peeling white paint, a very large chimney and a porch which was useful for housing naughty children who were not inclined to eat their tea. Inside the house was cold and smelled of coal, velvet upholstery and Imperial Leather soap. My parents scraped together all their pennies to afford the house. Pudding at times was a luxury and so we made do with buttered toast and jam. But it was a house that was warm with memories, a house that deserved to be in the pages of a children’s book.
The house was surrounded by a magnificent garden. It was long, stretching to just under an acre and had an orchard with apple, plum, and crabapple trees which produced the most beautiful blossom in spring. The grass in the orchard was knee height and I remember the sound of it as you walked through it- like the sound of shoelaces being snapped. The long grass attracted butterflies and insects and it hummed in summer. At night as we lay dreaming in our beds, foxes and owls and badgers came out to play and so did the stars, in their hundreds, enjoying the vastness of the sky, breathing eternity.
We played for hours in that garden. The pampas grass bush was always a favourite, even though dad tried his best to keep us away from it. We liked pulling out the long stalks and waving the feathery ends in the air, like we were royalty, or challenging each other to a duel. Then there were the trees. Trees we were allowed to climb: the funghi covered tree stump, which sat like an island in the middle of the garden, and trees we weren’t: the gloriously tall horse-chestnut tree, with a view across the border from Wales to England.
Beyond the garden was a horse field on one side and a cornfield on the other, where our play extended. We were not allowed to walk on the cornfield before it was harvested, but we were allowed to scamper about on the hay bales with the field mice afterwards. We made paper boats and took them through the field, past the small barn with open rafters to the pond just out of view of the house. There we sailed our boats across the ripples, or watched them capsize and sink to their watery graves. In winter sometimes this pond froze over and we laughingly slid around its edges. And then every week when we got our 20p pocket money we trundled along the dirt mud lane behind the house, past the chicken farm (which stank), out on the open road (with no pavement) to the petrol station to buy penny sweets.
Although I was born in the 1980s, not 1890s, most of my memories of play do not involve parents. They were only involved when play had come to a sudden, abrupt end with a fight- when one of us ran inside to tell mum a point by point account of everything that had happened. There was no-one standing there beadily watching everything we were getting up to. Even my brother taught me to ride my bike. He held on as I clambered onto its frame and then just let go, watching me gathering speed and momentum down the long lane. I swerved and swivelled on that bike and remember falling into a big patch of nettles. But I wonder how much I will be able to give my children that same freedom? The trust and confidence to discover things for themselves? Will they know how to roam, to explore, to get lost and find themselves again? Will they be able to navigate the land? Will they know the joy it brings them? I hope so.
At the moment, my youngest is two and will quite happily walk out of the door onto the road. I’ve seen her try. But my four year old is wiser, an explorer, curious. We go on walks to the woods, to the sea. We’ve been camping, foraging, have swam in lochs. But one day I’ll have to let them do all those things on their own. It is not easy to do and I don’t think society encourages us or gives us the confidence to allow our children this freedom. We are taught to keep our children on a lead. To not let them out of our sight. To not trust anyone. To be wary of our neighbour. To forgo community. The news is alarming. The media too. We have to be hawk-eyed, vigilant and if we are not, we’re irresponsible, careless. If children are outside it’s often enclosed, organised play: a gated park, football, netball, an after-school club. And if they are inside, they are often entertained with a screen.
Last year a poll by the Dirt is Good campaign, found that a fifth of UK children aged 5-12 did not go outside at all on an average day. And a few years ago, the TV channel Eden, did a survey amongst 8-12 year olds which found that 43% of adults think that children should not play outside without adult supervision until they are 14. The distance kids stray from home on their own has shrunk too- by 90% since the 1970s. More children are now admitted hospitals in the UK for injuries incurred from falling out of bed, rather than out of a tree. And about 1 in 5 kids have never actually climbed a tree. Ironically, nature programmes are as popular as ever- the opening episode of Planet Earth II, was watched by just over nine million people. While that’s encouraging and shows a desire to know about the natural world, watching nature on a screen is no substitute for the real thing. And government advice to give our kids Vitamin D tablets if they don’t get enough sunlight and to make sure they don’t get obese is not good enough. Better access to green spaces for rich and poor alike and giving teachers in schools confidence, finance and support to do more outdoor learning and play would be much better. Evidence has shown that children benefit in a number of ways from being outdoors- they have greater self-esteem, better emotional and physical health, can problem-solve more easily and are more creative. In developing a love of nature and being outdoors, they will also learn to look after it too.
Being a parent is exhausting, but I hope that by sometimes overcoming that and deciding to take our kids to the woods to cook food on the fire, or do rock-pooling on the beach, that they will develop a life-long adoration of the outdoors. And when my girls are a bit older, I hope they go off with their friends and make campfires, wade through rivers, climb trees, roam the land- enjoying the freedom and the company of each other – with no parent in sight.