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In praise of summer mischief

Children

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Kids' pocket money has been rising for years, but as schools break up for the summer holidays in a climate of economic uncertainty, belts may have to be tightened. So what can children learn from previous, less affluent generations?

Six weeks is a long holiday. There are few adults, excluding heirs and lottery winners, who ever worry about having to fill so much free time with diverting activity.

Today's children have boredom-fighting devices that their ancestors could only dream of, with the mobile phone and the modern games console foremost among them.

Pocket money has risen stratospherically over the last two decades, from an average of £1.13 in 1987, according to an annual survey by Halifax, to £8.01 last year.

But this boom period may falter this summer, with holidaying children struggling to buy new games and phone credit, and forced to fill their time with pastimes that are cheap or free.

In those days you went out in the morning and didn't come back all day
Ray Heard
Secretary of Just William society

And these straitened circumstances come at a time when campaigners are repeatedly drawing attention to the restricted lives that many children are forced to live, with many traditional activities deemed dangerous.

For all the exaggerated stories of conkers-in-goggles and bans on the sack race, there are few who would disagree with the assertion that children have lost an important part of their right to roam.

Today's adults look back to a golden age of long summer holidays of "playing out". Through the hazy prism they see endless days of bike odysseys, camping in the back garden, building dens in the woods and plopping off homemade rope swings.

And the patron saint of playing out is William Brown, the hero of the Just William books. William represents an age when children were largely left to their own devices on the assumption that they would both be safe and not excessively mischievous.

Adventures

His daily repertoire might include "damming streams, walking in forbidden woods, somewhere he shouldn't be, lighting fires and cooking, and fishing", says Ray Heard, secretary of the Just William society.

The key for William was exploring.

"William's main pastime was to walk in the countryside," says Mr Heard. "Adventures came to him as he wandered along. William was always looking for the daredevil, climbing trees and so forth."

Children playing pooh sticks
Pooh sticks is free

His own childhood was not dissimilar, says Heard, 61.

"In those days you went out in the morning and didn't come back all day. I could spend eight or nine hours away from home. You wouldn't dream of doing it now. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a place like William with rivers and valleys."

Of course, since the first Just William book was written in 1921 Britain has changed. Recent decades have seen intense house-building. There can hardly be a person in the UK who has not seen a treasured child play site turned into executive homes.

This summer's credit crunch will bring a respite on this front. With the fortunes of house builders and other developers in freefall, many sites designated to be concreted over have earned a reprieve until the property market recovers. Children should be taking advantage of their lucky break.

And there are campaigners who want to encourage children into a more adventurous summer holiday. On 6 August, the campaign group Play England will stage Playday to advocate a more adventurous life for the nation's children. They are arguing for "the need for children to experience challenging play to ensure they are better equipped to manage risk in their daily lives".

Kidnap

After removing the "cotton wool" from around kids, they want them nudged towards classic "free play" activities, and the list would probably meet with approval from William.

They say children should go on cycle trips, not to the end of the street but far afield, they should fish and swim in ponds and streams, build dens and camp, set up hanging swings and aerial slides, climb trees, construct bike ramps, make their own fires for barbequeing sausages, and most of all, explore.

There are many parents, who consider themselves rational people, whose first thought on looking at that list would be of the risk of drowning, spinal injury, serious burns or even kidnap. Their second thought might very well be how much that list sums up their own childhood.

It was like Blue Peter on the cheap
Ben Slade
Ex-Why Don't You presenter

The classic exhortation to children of previous generations to be adventurous during their holiday was carried in the BBC television show Why Don't You?, subtitled Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead.

Broadcast between the early-70s and the mid-90s, the show featured gangs of children demonstrating activities that had been suggested by peers, everything from making a banana split to a home-made rocket. Ben Slade was one of the longest-serving child presenters of the show.

"People used to think we had made up the items… but we hadn't, we really did get thousands of letters from kids," he says. "Very little of what we did on the show was at a cost. It was like Blue Peter on the cheap. It really was yoghurt pots and pieces of string, a lot of strange things in the kitchen, very basic science."

Now a headmaster in Cambridge, his teaching career has given him an insight into the changes in children's leisure time. He concedes that many children's imaginations are now in a state of "not being particularly active - it is the computer or the PlayStation or hanging around with friends".

Children with hoop and stick
The hoop and stick has been replaced by Grand Theft Auto

Fanned by the media, there has been massively inflated concern over paedophiles and, among some parents, an unrealistic evaluation of the dangers of traffic. Some parents will not even let their children camp in the back garden.

"Parents, even in challenging areas, don't want their sons and daughters to be out and about even in the day time," he says. "In the whole time I've been teaching I've never been aware of kids being taught how to play and how to play safely."

Of course the summer holidays of yesteryear were not just about adventure, there was the collecting of football stickers, and before those cigarette cards. There was a trading system for marbles, the complications of which would leave even a modern derivatives trader scratching their head.

There were ice lollies made from juice or squash, apparently endless fun with mud, and internecine conflicts fought only with water-based munitions, either balloon or pistol.

Child wearing boxing gloves
Many children are easily bored

For those with a biological bent, there was the collecting of newt and frog spawn, something that would probably raise ecologist eyebrows these days.

Now there is a big market in instructions for children's activities, although it is as much aimed at the nostalgia of adults as it is at genuinely stimulating children.

To take one example, the Boys' Book: How To be The Best at Everything, and its female equivalent the Girls' Book, outline activities as varied as proper hopscotch, making a campfire, daisy chains and how to suck an egg inside a bottle. The implication is that adults wanting a nostalgia fix need to get it from a book, rather than by simply watching their own children.

Or course, once their pocket money is reduced, children may come looking for more old-fashioned ideas, says Liz Scoggins, one of the editors of the Boys' Book.

"In a credit crunch if they want PlayStation 3 they might be in trouble. They might have to resort to a piece of string," she says.

But, says Ray Heard, the spirit of the childhood of yesteryear lives on.

"I'm 61 and I consider myself young. I still, if I see a tree, look at it and think I could climb that. Once I look and think I can't climb it, I will be old."


Below is a selection of your comments.

My parents used to read the William Brown stories to my sister and I when we were little, and we were inspired to be "Outlaws". I'm in my 30's now and today William's activities; gate-crashing parties, breaking windows and hanging about getting into scrapes, would probably land him with an ASBO. Perhaps he was the original hoodie - albeit a middle-class, rather decent one!
Polly, Swansea

Round here (a blue collar area of Bristol) the kids still go out and play. They usually go out at about lunchtime and come back in at dusk. From the age of about seven upwards. The children are in and out of each others' houses, they generally keep parents informed of where they are, minor injuries obtained by tree climbing and bicycle accidents are dealt with by whichever parent is closest to hand. They trade toys, make mud pies, have water fights, get dirty and have fun. Cricket occurs sometimes, football, as do makeshift bicycle ramps. It's all very sane and civilised. Not all of the UK is completely neurotic yet.
Penny T, Bristol Uk

It is a shame that what should be six weeks of freedom becomes a constant battle for parents to provide and entertain. And if there are parents who allow their children the spirit of adventure, they must find another like minded parent and child to share it with. Kids are becoming lazy and restricted by a paranoid media, where everything has become a danger or threat. What a joyous time they will have!
Farouk Shabal, Bristol

At 60 I look back on an urban childhood of zoos, museums, parks, and long walks. Learning to garden in window-boxes, to sew doll's clothing from patterns, and to cook were rainy-day activities. Better-off children had roller skates and bicycles, but we ran, skipped rope, played with balls. Of course, we weren't dating in pre-school, so we had plenty of time to be children!
Kathleen, New York, NY, USA

Don't forget the old Ginger Beer Plant! The responsibility of feeding it every day for a week (seemed like ages) the anticipation of bottling it up and putting it in the garage to brew (seemed like ages) the fear and excitement when the bottles exploded in the middle of the night, the heady rush of finally drinking the Ginger Beer and the joy of splitting the plant and sharing it with a friend before starting all over again!
Bob, High Wycombe

As a Scout Leader, I spend most of my spare time showing young people how to free-play. While it always takes some getting used to, for both the younger Scouts and their parents, the loose structure of Scout activities provides the opportunity to play outdoors while providing some reassurance to fretful parents. I hope that these boys and girls get the chance to spend their summer playing out and that they show their parents that they know how to look after themselves without causing a dent in the family finances.
Andrew Bonavia, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

I grew up in Hertfordshire through the late 70s and early 80s. I would be out with friends from breakfast till bedtime most days. Riding our bikes, playing in the woods, playing football, playing "war", and then going away with parents for two weeks to the Essex/Norfolk coast most years. I wish my kids now would do that. My 13 year old wouldn't even know how to play outside for more than an hour and she gets TEN weeks of school vacation here in the USA. She's already been out of school four weeks and is bored, she has 6 more to go. As parents we can't let our kids play out without supervision, even here in relatively "sleepy" Maine USA. You can't blame PS3 and TV; I had TV and "television games" back in the 80s but it didn't stop me. We're just a less social society now, we don't trust our neighbourhoods any more to look after playing kids. And kids grow up too fast. At 13 my daughter would consider playing out in the street "lame and boring" anyway...
Owen Fish, Bath, Maine USA (ex-Hertfordshire)


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