On play deprivation and our fear of one another

It was a whirlwind few days in Bogota, spent almost entirely giving interviews.  I felt peculiarly popular and also rather isolated – not speaking Spanish, there were times when the only conversations I could join in were when someone asked me a question (via my translator) and I answered as best I could.  

That said, there were some questions asked of me that I’ll be chewing over for a long time to come.  

A reporter, who is also a single mother of one young daughter, asked me what I thought the greatest barriers to children’s outdoor play were in the US and UK.  

“Well,” I said.  “This is going to be a generalization, of course.  But I think it’s a combination of factors.  There’s definitely a sense that adult-organized activities are more worthwhile, and parents are certainly worried about dirt and mess.  But I think the biggest factor is a general fear of public space and strangers.  There’s a sense that “outdoors” is really dangerous for children, and that terrible things will happen to them there.”

She stared at me, confused and fascinated.

“Really?  That’s true, in the US?  Because here in Colombia, we absolutely feel that way.  There’s this idea that we’re still a country at war – and in some places, we still are, so there’s that – but to hear that people in the US feel that way too…”  She shook her head and we talked a little bit more.  Were we looking at a constant level of generalized anxiety and mistrust, present in both countries?  Based on our own experiences, do people in more violent areas feel more afraid of public space?  Or less?  What is that fear based on, if not an accurate assessment of the risks?  The reporter asked, quietly, whether this fear might be a “modern” problem, shared internationally.

After we said goodbye I kept coming back to the warning not to talk to strangers.  As a child I heard it from my parents, from my teachers, even from a inappropriately cheerful Social Skills Puppet that visited schools to speak on such subjects as bullying and kidnapping.  This warning has joined a whole host of other helpful advice lodged at the back of my brain, such as to chew with my mouth closed, sit with my legs crossed, and eat my vegetables first.  The problem is though, increasingly, everyone I meet is a stranger.  

It seems that this is true for a lot of people, in the US and the UK and in Colombia.  The reporter had told me a story that felt very familiar.  She left a hometown a short distance away, coming to the capital for work.  Her mother wanted to help with the daughter but wasn’t always available, and city apartments don’t have a lot of space for three generations to live together (this said with a wry smile).  She worked long hours and her child was in what we might call wraparound care.  Where were her community networks?  When her daughter is older, who will be keeping that distanced eye that makes playing out possible?

The Forum itself was astonishing, bringing together a range of speakers who looked at the issue of children’s outdoor play from angles of physical health, human rights and cognitive development.  Unfortunately, I missed a great deal because of not speaking Spanish – but when I went up to speak I saw something else very familiar – the room was about 98% women, the vast majority of them parents as well as professionals.  Mothers are blamed for an awful lot, but I do wonder whether it’s harder for women to trust public space and the strangers there.  There are good reasons for that, and it’s understandable that we might find it hard to encourage our children to take chances that we have been warned off of ourselves.

My last interview was with a radio journalist, who asked me my favorite question of the bunch.  

“This is in two parts,” he said.  “Firstly, do you agree that these issues which affect children, such as obesity and technological lifestyle changes, are passed along from industrialized nations such as your own?  And secondly, if you agree with this, why should we listen to you for the solution?”

What could I say to that?  I agreed with the first part, and as for the second said that we had been working within the US and UK and that people in Colombia had contacted us, not the other way around.  People all over the world are concerned that their children don’t play out – they want to do something about it, but aren’t always sure what that “something” might be.  That I didn’t think I had all the answers, but that I could share some ideas and that I hoped this might be a trade for the problems he had listed – that these vast changes in how we live might allow us to share our stories more easily with one another, might help us to feel less alone.

The funny thing is, I’ve been part of the problem too.  I’ve been the sort of hypocrite who travels to a job in community outreach then gone home to an apartment where my neighbors were just names on envelopes in the hall.  I’ve stayed at home on lonely nights and watched TV shows about busy groups of friends.  And it’s because of those experiences that I suspect that our fear of one another is very likely a “modern” problem, stemming from the loss of social networks that renders everyone a stranger.  And it’s also why I suspect that, for children as well as for myself, an over-reliance on high-tech fun is more a symptom of this situation than a cause.

Given the chance, children are our most sociable citizens.  Their outdoor play is both indicator and catalyst for strong local networks.  This is something that can be helped from above, with the sympathetic design of public space, traffic calming measures and so on, but fundamentally it’s a change we need to make ourselves.  Going out and meeting one another, trying to make new friends at any age can be scary, but it’s essential if we’re going to be improving opportunities for children’s play, and for our own.  It’s up to us to be the change we wish to see – but the happy news is, going from the various studies and statistics, most people feel just the same.

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