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Children and Play: Back to the future? 

Larissa Dann

Nature Play. I was excited to read Her Canberra’s article on this new ACT government program.

For some years now, I’ve been pondering the difference in our children’s childhood, and that of our forebears. For me, the contrasts in child play were most clearly illustrated through some classic stories that I read to my children.

The books were from bygone days, timeless in their description of the human condition.  To my surprise (as a now adult), I discovered the tales were also beautifully illustrative of a life that, to today’s child, is almost as alien living on Mars! The more books we read, the more I reflected on the differences between generations, in the way children entertain themselves.

We joined The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) by Mark Twain, where we discovered the story of a young boy (age 10) brought up by his aunt in a country town situated along the Mississippi River. I Can Jump Puddles, an Australian classic by Alan Marshall, who contracted polio in 1908 (when he was six years old), inspired us. We devoured To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960), where we immersed ourselves in the world of plucky little seven-year-old Scout, as she innocently addressed the racism inherent in her community.

A special treat (for me) was to re-read the My Friend Flicka series of books by Mary O’Hara. Her powerful words brought to life landscape, adventure, empathy, overcoming difficulties, perseverance, and the intricacies of relationships – between 10-year-old Ken McLaughlin and his horse, and Ken and each member of his family.

As I travelled along the fictional and biographical road of these characters, I could not help but contrast the childhood theses stories depicted, with the childhood of today. In particular, I wondered about their world of play. Though the novels were set in different states and countries, and over a span of 80-odd years, I was struck by the similarities of the ways the children entertained themselves.

In each of the seven books, the children spent most of their time outdoors. Tom Sawyer swam across the Mississippi. Ken McLaughlin jumped on his horse and rode off to shoot rabbits near cougar territory. Alan Marshall crawled his way up a dormant volcano, and then rolled (accidently) into the centre of the vegetated crater, before hauling his way out again. Scout spent her days, from dawn to dusk, playing with her brother in the yard, or along the street.

With my parent educator hat on, I wondered at the confidence, the resilience, and the sense of competence and mastery that such a childhood would bestow these children.

That is – if they survived!! With my parent hat on, I shuddered at each new adventure. I’d quietly asked myself “would I let my children do that?” Often, the answer would be “No”.

Why is play so different today for our young people? Are they safer? According to childhood specialist Maggie Dent, children are ‘missing out’ because, as a society, we’ve become risk averse. Ironically, she quotes research where children are actually hurt at a higher rate on today’s playgrounds than older, ‘riskier’ playgrounds.

In her article “In Praise of a Dangerous, Dirty Childhood”, Maggie describes the physical changes now seen in children – “poor eyesight, weak shoulder girdles, weak wrists and poor grip for lack of climbing”. She summarises the advantages, as she sees them, for outdoor play – for nature play. These include opportunities for creativity, brain development, and social skills such as problem-solving.

So which way should I lean? Safe play versus risky play? I’m torn. Perhaps I can find a middle way?

Thanks to the authors of previous decades who so realistically captured life in word images as vivid as film, I am more aware of the environment in which my children play. I am taking steps to influence us, as a family.

I’m asking my children to limit their screen time. We’re ticking off the list of 51 things to do before you’re 12 (applicable for any age group, I think). And we are going walking in the bush more often – surprisingly, sometimes even at the request of my children!

Condensed from the original article ‘Children and Play – Past, Present – and Future?

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Larissa Dann

Larissa is a parent who, many years ago, attended a parenting course. The skills and approach of that program influenced her life so profoundly that she became a parent educator. She is now an experienced instructor of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), having taught over 1000 people, including parents, teachers and practitioners. Larissa uses the skills everyday, endeavouring to ‘practice what she preaches’. She is an accredited P.E.T. facilitator, group leader, and counsellor. She feels privileged each time she teaches, as she observes the communication skills empower children, parents and carers in a relationship of respect. Larissa is now enjoying dabbling in the area of written reflections, otherwise known as blogs at www.parentskills.com.au/blogs/larissa More about the Author

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