Battle in Print: comments on Sue Palmer’s ‘Out to Play’

The modern world is damaging children. They are cooped up inside – impassive and apathetic, and unable to create their own fun and entertainment. Their imagination is dulled by too many hours watching the TV and playing on sedentary computer games. Their minds are corrupted by commerce and advertising. They are traumatised by testing.

So we are increasingly led to believe.

Investigations into the state of contemporary childhood are often steeped in nostalgia. Interpretations of social, economic and lifestyle changes – and their effect on children’s lives – are easily clouded by reseachers’ own experiences and feelings. I am not exempting myself here. I’m sure I have a rather romanticised view of my own childhood. But we should at least try to look at social changes a little more objectively.

Sue Palmer bemoans children being ‘lured away from Stevenson’s “grassy places” to some sort of virtual unreality’. As someone who spent most waking hours of my early childhood playing outdoors – catching grasshoppers with my bare hands, climbing to the tops of trees, building dens and exploring the woods – I appreciate how nature’s many wonders can capture a child’s imagination. But there is little evidence that it is screen-based entertainment that is restricting children’s outdoor play.

I do not believe computer games, the internet and mobile phones are ‘a seductive alternative’ to ‘real’ play, in the way Palmer argues. Instead, it is more likely that new technologies are attractive to kids precisely because they provide them with the opportunity to mess around with their friends – something they rarely get the chance to do outdoors due to our overprotective culture. As Wendy Earle has argued in the online publication spiked, research indicates that young people use new technologies to do what they have always done – that is, socialise, mess around and play games with each other. To me, the key problem – which Palmer also recognises, of course – is adults’ over-anxious desire to remove children from any potential danger, thereby restricting their freedom to play and explore the world unsupervised.

Many of the problems thrown into the pot when discussing the state of contemporary childhood are not – as closer scrutiny indicates – issues we should be obsessing about. Children today may have lost out on some things we had as children, but they also have many opportunities we never had. In fact, children’s lives have improved immensely over the years.

If we look further back in time, prior to the twentieth century children barely even had a childhood. They did not have the same prolonged period of freedom from responsibility. In the nineteenth century many children, as young as six, would have to work long and arduous hours in atrocious working conditions. They often contracted debilitating diseases and suffered terrible injuries. Accidental amputations were common in factories when children – who were small enough to reach into the factory machinery – would attempt to clean the parts or clear obstructions. Young chimney sweepers suffered from chronic breathing problems and often broken and deformed limbs.

Thankfully today childhood fatalities are rare. The major cause of death in children under 15 years of age is no longer malnutrition or disease, but accidental injury. Yet despite this, child mortality from accidental injury is declining. National statistics show that not only are roads safer, but accidents in the home are also declining.

The fact that most children today – in the developed world anyway – do not have to work for a living, and have some freedom to play and mess about, as well being given an extended education, should be celebrated. So we are far from going to hell in a handbasket. But there are also some changes in children’s lives we should be concerned about. We do need to ask ourselves whether society may have moved too far down the road of what Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, calls the infantilisation of children.

Children do need to be given the chance to grow up. The world renowned French chemist and biologist, Louis Pasteur, once said: ‘When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments; tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become. But childhood prolonged, cannot remain a fairyland. It becomes a hell.’ It is the responsibility of adults to prepare children for a full and independent life, not to protect them from every conceivable risk in the wider world. That means giving children gradually more freedom and responsibility.

Also, as Palmer argues, children do need to be given more freedom to play outdoors unsupervised. The reason for this is that play challenges children’s existing levels of competence and, through taking risks, develops new skills. A wealth of research has shown that play aids children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. It helps children control their emotions, satisfy their desires, make sense of their world, and much more. It also provides children with endless hours of fun.

But according to research by Play England, a campaign group sponsored by the National Children’s Bureau which calls for kids to have access to good and free local play space, in 2003 67 per cent of 8- to 10-year-olds and 24 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds had never been to the park or the shops on their own. A Child’s Place, a report by the think-tank Demos and the Green Alliance in 2004, found that children would like to spend more time out of the house but are often too frightened to do so – associating being outdoors with danger.

But by arguing for the benefits of unsupervised play we need to be careful not to give ammunition to those who are attacking formal education. Like play, adults can through instruction and guidance propel children beyond what they are capable of in the here and now. The eminent Russian developmental psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky shows, through the development of his concept the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), how children need both play and formal education.

At the core of the concept of ZPD is the need to provide children with constant challenges, but challenges that are manageable. Play can create such a ZPD for the child. Vygotsky argued that: ‘a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.’

Play is important, but so is adult directed teaching and learning. New Labour’s target-driven approach to education is indeed an anathema to creative teaching, but that does not mean that academics and testing per se are problems. A good teacher, according to Vygotsky, should expect more of the child than what they are capable of today without adult guidance.

Children should be given more freedom to play and mess around. But let’s not let others use that as an excuse to undermine the need for a formal education. To me, the key concern is the possibility that today’s safety-obsessed culture, and low expectation of what they are capable of, will end up holding back children’s development.

First published by Battle of Ideas, 15 October 2007