As Josie Long discovered, the idea of daring, unstructured children’s play is in decline. Can we revive it before its too late?Our mollycoddled children need to learn to live dangerously
Are children today too coddled and risk-averse? The Imperilled Adventures of the Adventure Playground (Monday, Radio 4FM), presented by comedian Josie Long, argued that, sadly, that might be so.
But this was a positive programme full of solutions, as well as the squeals of children joyfully flinging themselves into puddles and climbing into treehouses. It was a celebration of children’s play, and of the scrappy and determined adults behind the adventure playground movement. Long, the mother of a young daughter, articulated the benefits that come with allowing children to play bravely and adventurously; to learn how to assess dangers for themselves rather than relying on over-anxious parents to steer them away from risk at all times. And it was inspiring stuff.
“I always describe it as a parent’s worst nightmare and a kid’s dream,” said Courtney, one of the staff working at a holiday play scheme at Baltic Street Adventure Playground in the East End of Glasgow, where much of the show was recorded. It was built in 2013 as an arts project by the design collective Assemble, winners of the 2015 Turner Prize. The original plan had been for a sculpture at the site, but during the consultation process, it was decided instead that a space for children to play was what this area – which is not a wealthy community – needed more.ADVERTISING
“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit” was the quoted maxim in a recorded interview with Lady Marjory Allen, the landscape architect who campaigned for children’s rights from the 1930s until her death in the 1970s, spearheading the adventure playground movement and devoting her life to projects that protected children’s spaces. By the 1970s, there were 500 adventure playgrounds throughout the UK. Now, with council maintenance budgets squeezed and more public space given over to cars, they’re a dying breed.
There was insightful input from the children’s writer Michael Rosen, author of the Book of Play. He argued that we have begun to lose the great 1970s philosophy that anything becomes a toy as soon as a child plays with it, and that there’s too much focus now on highly structured adult-led activities which children are ferried to and from by car. A tyre, a rope and a muddy bank are enough to make a good starter adventure playground, where children can test their physical abilities, work together to build dens and imaginative games, and find out more about what materials feel like, what they can become, and the possibilities of the world around them.
Back in Glasgow, Long spoke to one mother whose son loves playing with the mud and sticks of what he calls “the dirty park”. She said that anywhere else in the city she wouldn’t let him out of her sight, but here he had freedom.
Happily, Long’s programme found that there’s a small army of resolute grandparents who grew up playing independently in the bomb sites of the Second World War, and parents who grew up playing away from adults in the 1970s and 1980s, who know the fundamental human value of free play for children and are fighting to keep it alive, protecting and rebuilding spaces for the next generation. In Long’s words, these devotees of children’s happiness represent “the best of us”.
Exploring the outdoors has endless benefits for grown-ups, too, and it was a liberating feeling to set off down the river in Song of the Thames (Thursday, Radio 4FM). The presenter, Sam Lee, introduced himself as a “song collector, river pilgrim, and your map-maker.” He led a 215-mile “secular pilgrimage” down the river from source to mouth. Lee, a musician and singer, is another regular voice on Radio 4 as well as Radio 3, where he has sung to nightingales and gone on the trail of folk songs about turtle doves. His music and voice seem to weave effortlessly into the British natural landscape. And here he met a coracle-maker, a Thames lighterman, members of the charity Thames21 who work to protect the river, and those with their own spiritual connection to the water.
It was billed as a secular pilgrimage, but this was a strongly religious programme; even unfashionably so. During Lee’s journey, he spent time thinking about different faiths’ relationships to the river. Rivers are places of Christian baptism, sacred Hindu rites (we heard how practising Hindus in England sometimes substitute the Thames for the Ganges), and a broad elemental spirituality: a sense that rivers are the water of life on which we all depend.
Lee’s Song of the Thames was cooling and meditative, an invitation to get onto the water, follow meandering trails and find where they lead.