This is part of a series of posts on the realities of 21st Century street play.
A couple of years ago, we relaid the paving in our back garden. For my two small children (2yo and 4yo at the time), the thought of digging up the old paving and being able to trash the garden as much as they liked for a week or so was particularly compelling. Once they got bored of trashing the garden, they took full advantage of the fact that the back gate was always open in order to pile up the old paving, and took to the street to play. This often occurred during weekday daytimes with few other children around.
On numerous occasions over that summer, with my children near my house but often out of sight for moments (and sometimes minutes!) at a time, I was asked by concerned and friendly-meaning neighbours if I knew that my children were round the corner. Yes, I replied, I did. Surely if I didn’t I would be worrying, right? I remember one occasion when my then 2yo had headed around the corner to a car parking area. I couldn’t see him, but I was pretty sure he was there and, as it was fenced off, that he couldn’t go any further. Again, a neighbour asked me if I knew where he was. Yes, I replied. Surely if I didn’t I would be worrying. Is he ok? Oh yes, he’s fine.
A more paranoid or risk averse parent might take this constant questioning as a sign that it wasn’t appropriate to leave their children on their own. They may decide to bring their children inside as a signal that they had taken the hint and that they would properly look after their children in private, afraid that the friendly neighbour may be considering calling social services. After all, why else, when a child is perfectly fine and happy, would someone feel the need to question the parent about their decision making?
On that occasion, the questioning from the neighbour, albeit confirming to me that my son was indeed fine, led me to go round the corner and ‘check’ on him. And do you know what? He was fine. Happily digging the dirt from the corner of the car park. It’s fair to say, if I’d have seen him doing that in the first place, I might have tried to stop him, due to a variety of societal influences telling me that it’s not really ok for children to be sitting in corners of car parks digging dirt. A benefit of giving children independence just out of your sight. As it was, I let him carry on. Digging up our garden had clearly inspired him to carry on with the rest of the estate.
A year or so later, a walk home from nursery and school with my now 3yo and 5yo, led to another neighbourly encounter. Only a few hundred meters from home, my 5yo had cycled on ahead heading for the house. As he went out of sight, my 3yo then proceeded to fall off his bike and then head into a major meltdown. Finding it impossible to carry both him and his bike, we had to wait it out, all the while hoping that my 5yo had indeed gone home. About five minutes later, once things had calmed down and we headed onto our street, I saw my 5yo crying and being looked after by one of the afore-mentioned friendly neighbours. This time, he wasn’t so ok. He’d fallen off his bike too, had a bit of a bump and she had helped him out. I was grateful to her for this, of course.
After we said our thank yous, we parted ways and I wondered if it was reasonable to rely on a passing adult or neighbour to help your child out? Of course, years ago this was the norm. But now, does someone taking on that role feel they are taking on an unwanted obligation? Are they thinking that it shouldn’t be their job to be helping someone else’s child out, because the parent can’t be bothered or isn’t very good at controlling their children? Are they thinking that you’re a poor or lazy parent?
These anecdotes are some of the realities of street play for me in the 21st century, and the hidden moral dilemmas that go along with it. These unseen social influences are always underlying and can surface in a parent’s mind when they’re least expecting it, or when a well meaning friend or neighbour prompts them to consider their actions. How mindsets are changed is critical, in my view, in encouraging more freedom for children on streets and in public spaces.