Children in glass bubbles...

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Sue Townsend made a small fortune by being extremely funny about Adrian Mole's growing pains. But she actually thinks that being a child of the Nineties is a very unamusing experience.

When asked to contribute to a book of playground memories she replied: "Like many people of my generation I grew up in paradise. There were gardens to play in and woods and fields nearby. It was hot in the summer and in the winter it snowed ... Nowadays there is no such seasonal certainty and most children live indoors, protected by double-glazing from the elements and potential abduction. "

It's a sentiment that many who grew up in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties share. And because it is expressed so often one sometimes wonders whether it is overdone. We may wish that our children could spend more time chasing butterflies, playing hopscotch, and falling into bushes and out of trees. But children will often tell you that only "sad" cases think that way, and that they are perfectly happy with their Nintendo Game Boys and Tamagotchis, thank you very much. Why, back in the olden days we didn't have trainers, decent bikes, music systems, or even real hamburgers. We were poor.

And certainly we should acknowledge that the present generation of baseball-cap wearers are infinitely better off - and not just materially - than most children in the history of the world. As recently as the 1880s British children could still be incarcerated in adult prisons for throwing stones, bathing in a canal, trespassing or playing pitch and toss.

Even so, there is undoubtedly some substance to our misgivings about contemporary childhood. In Glasgow, whose tenement backyards used to resound with the singing chants of children's games, the city authorities are beginning to replace vandalised swing parks with glass-walled indoor centres with computer rooms, soft-play areas, a games hall, water and air slides ... and adult supervision. Also from Scotland we hear that disadvantaged 11-year-olds are having to be taught stress management and relaxation techniques to help them cope with the pressures of exams, schoolwork and family break-up.

These are signs-of-the-times developments and they are worrying in this summer of remedial literacy schools and Government talk of extra homework and 20 minutes of compulsory reading with mother or father. Blake was, as ever, being unduly romantic when he wrote: But to go to school in a summer morn, O! it drives all joy away ...

How can the bird that is born for joy Sit in a cage and sing?

Nevertheless, it is clear that the current focus on educational standards will have to be matched with due attention to children's - and teachers' - recreational needs. It is reassuring that Anna Lubelska, director of the Children's Play Council, believes that the importance of children's play is at last being acknowledged (page 8). It is also heartening to discover that 200,000 children took part in the 10th national Playday on Wednesday. But as long as children are having to play in glass bubbles we will have to remain seriously concerned about how they get their fun.

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