Children and Play – past, present - and future?

Larissa Dann   posted  February 19, 2015 (updated September 2016)

One of the best aspects of being a parent is reading to my kids. As a family project, we decided to  read some ‘classics’ together.  Which meant me reading out loud to my children.  The books we chose were from bygone days, timeless in their description of the human condition.  To my surprise, I discovered the tales were also beautifully illustrative of a life that, to today’s child, is almost as alien living on Mars! This set me to reflecting on the differences in the way our children play today, compared to the way children occupied themselves in the not-so-distant past.

Reading these stories to my children was my chance to: 1) introduce them to the amazing worlds created by treasured and skilled authors; 2) enhance our relationship by giving us something to share and discuss; 3) help them love and cherish reading and books and the stories they tell; 4) educate myself with classic books I wish I’d read (but hadn’t); and 5) indulge myself by revisiting my favourite childhood fictional haunts.

A classic I had missed reading as a child was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) by Mark Twain. Here, my child and I discovered the story of a young boy (age 10) brought up by his aunt in a country town situated along the Mississippi River.  We tracked along with Tom on his adventures and enterprises, and felt the anguish of Tom's aunt and Tom as a result of his escapades. We were intrigued by his open adoration of Becky. 

I Can Jump Puddles, an Australian classic by Alan Marshall, was a fictionalised autobiography of the author’s early life.  Alan lived on a property in the western districts of Victorian Australia , and contracted polio in 1908 when he was 6 years old.  He describes in vivid detail his refusal to see himself at a disadvantage, eventually teaching himself to ride a horse during his lunch breaks at school (and unbeknownst to his parents!).  For my child and me, it was an inspiring read – beautiful illustrating optimism, persistence and resilience.

My children and I devoured To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960), a beloved classic worldwide.  We lived the world of plucky little 7-year-old Scout as she innocently addressed the racism inherent in her community.

My self-indulgence was re-reading the series of books by Mary O’Hara – My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and The Green Grass of Wyoming (1941 -1947).  These books revolve around 10 year old Ken McLaughlin and his family - his mother, father and his brother.  The McLaughlins live on a ranch in Wyoming, and Ken becomes the owner of a young filly, Flicka – against the wishes of his father.  The books depict landscape, adventure, empathy, overcoming difficulties, perseverance, and the intricacies of relationships – between Ken and his horse, and Ken and each member of his family.

As I read my way through these books, I rediscovered the emotional power of transforming the written word to the spoken language.  This was especially so with the Flicka series.  The stories of horses, life (and death) on the land, a young boy’s journey – constantly moved me to tears.  At first, my child was concerned for my wellbeing.  But after the first couple of times, as soon as my voice began to choke and the words slowly croaked out, I’d hear an exasperated sigh.  My emotion was getting in the way of a good story!! 

My reactions reminded me of the power that stories have in engaging empathy.  On more than one occasion, I've seen my children with tears in their eyes as they read a moving passage in their current novel.

The Contrast – the Play of Today, with the Play of Yesteryear

As I travelled along the fictional and biographical road of these characters, I could not help but contrast the childhood these stories depicted, with the childhood of today.  In particular, I wondered about their world of play.  Though the novels were set in different states and countries, and over a span of 80-odd years, I was struck by the similar way the children entertained themselves.

In each of the seven books, the children spent most of their time outdoors.  Tom Sawyer swam across the Mississippi.  Ken McLaughlin jumped on his horse and rode off to shoot rabbits near cougar territory.  Alan Marshall crawled his way up a dormant volcano, then rolled (accidently) into the centre of the vegetated crater, before hauling his way out again.  Scout spent her days, from dawn to dusk, playing with her brother in the yard, or along the street. 

With my parent educator hat on, I wondered at the confidence, the resilience, and the sense of mastery that such a childhood would bestow on these children.  That is – if they survived!!  With my parent hat on, I shuddered at each new adventure.  I’d quietly ask myself “would I let my children do that?”  Usually, the answer would be “No”.   How can things have changed so greatly over the 55 years from Lee Harper’s description of the life for a child, to our world of 2015?

Why is play so different today for our young people?  Are they safer?  According to an article by  parenting specialist Maggie Dent, children are ‘missing out’ because, as a society, we’ve become risk averse.  Ironically, she quotes research where children are actually hurt at a higher rate on today’s playgrounds than older, ‘riskier’ playgrounds. 

Maggie’s article “In Praise of a Dangerous, Dirty Childhood” describes the physical changes now seen in children – “poor eyesight, weak shoulder girdles, weak wrists and poor grip for lack of climbing”.  She summarises the advantages, as she sees them, for outdoor play – for nature play.  These include opportunities for creativity, brain development, and social skills such as problem solving.  A recent study by the Cancer Council of Australia has examined the low levels of physical activity of our teenagers, and the detrimental effect this may have on their adult health.

So which way should I lean?  Safe play versus risky play?  I’m torn.  Now, thanks to the authors of previous decades who so realistically captured life in word images as vivid as film, I am more aware of the environment in which my children play. I am taking steps to influence us, as a family.  I’m asking my children to limit their screen time (using evidence such as the studies above).  We’re ticking off the list of '51 things to do before you’re 12'.  And we are going walking in the bush more often – surprisingly, sometimes even at the request of my child!

Further resources.

Nature Play SA

Free Range Kids

Five Ways Kids Can Benefit From Being Outside This Summer Break.

What is physical activity in early childhood, and is it really that important? The  Conversation. September 2016

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved.

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