Why is it so important that children play out near their homes?
Why do we live so much of our lives indoors, not knowing the people who live closest to us?
How are these connected and what can we do to change?
I’ve been thinking about all of these lately, especially during the twice-weekly sessions we run in the courtyard-like green and tarmac space on a local housing estate.
I took some notes during Thursday’s session, with the intention of creating a snapshot of play.
They are arriving now, eager and out of breath, in twos and threes and fours. They are climbing up brick walls to reach the green and sighing, throwing their shoulders in frustration if they can’t make the climb and are forced to walk around. Once there the older boys rig up a rope swing, stuffing the wet tire with bright wads of tissue paper, while two girls spread out the tarpaulin and begin making paper flowers. One small boy, seen for once without his older sister, flits between them and the swing. Other small boys arrive, aged 5 or 6, and converge from different corners around a small red ball.
The amazing thing for me is how few of them knew one another before we started coming.
We bring very little with us but by being there we change the dynamic of the place. On more than one occasion we have arrived to see little faces pressed up against kitchen windows, the children waiting for us to arrive before they are allowed out. The children we have met (and their friends whom we haven’t) are kept indoors for a variety of reasons – extra studies, fear of strangers, dogs or traffic, even something as common as the rain. Some are still not allowed out, but wave to us through the glass.
Children’s social links have dissolved dramatically over recent years. If children don’t play out they rarely meet – even if they were all born on a small estate, lived there all their lives and attend local schools. If a child has few friends nearby, they are even less likely to be allowed out to play, and less likely to want to. The thing is, their parents are in the same position.
Part of the reason why children used to be allowed out to play is that their parents led more public lives than their contemporary counterparts, chatting over fences and keeping an eye on children collectively, rather than individually. Just as a person with a number of friends is more likely to go out, more likely to make new social connections through old ones, so the reverse is true. Isolation breeds isolation, in children and adults. Parents who tell children not to talk to strangers find themselves stuck, now that everyone is a stranger.
I wonder sometimes how we function within the public space of the estate, coming onto each quiet-seeming site with our bags of kit and bright yellow jackets. Sometimes they have used us as a handy excuse to be a little sillier in their play than they might otherwise be, to test themselves physically and know that they are being overseen, to perhaps open themselves up to physical and social unknowns a little more than they otherwise might. I have watched children meet one another at our session and begin the complex process of making friends. We are useful outsiders in this process, demonstrating that sometimes the shortest distance between two points is via a third. Even so, it saddens me that it takes strangers to help people use the grass in front of their homes, as happy as I am to be able to do it.
That said, I am acutely aware of my own hypocrisy. I live in East London too, and don’t know the name of a single one of my neighbors. I don’t have children of my own, but if I did would almost certainly battle the same neuroses and terrors that any parent might. The temptation to keep your children safe at any cost must be enormous – even if you know how very high that cost is, to the child’s physical, social and mental health, to their future development and current happiness.
I don’t have the answers on how the direction of this spiral might be altered, but I believe that these play sessions could be a start.