Dreams of Arcadia

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Why does the countryside have such a hold over children? Cedric Cullingford explains

"There would be more places to play in and things like that in the countryside" (Boy, 8)

Children share firmly held views about the contrasts between towns and the countryside, as if one were symbolic of darkness and the other of light.

Most children are brought up in or near towns and are accustomed to their conveniences as well as to the traffic. They know that towns include playgrounds as well as shops; spaces to play as well as crowds. But the townscapes they talk about have three distinct features that are to them important. The first is the association of towns with pollution. They have experienced the effects of traffic as well as being taught about the environment. The second is the sense of danger from the traffic; the fear of crossing roads. The third is the association with towns of a sense of danger; of being burgled or approached by beggars or drunks.

Towns are viewed by all children with some distaste, occasionally in a theoretical way, but usually with a strong sense of personal experience: "We've got the highest record of polluting the atmosphere with cars and things. This country might get overcrowded. 'Cos it's quite a small country and there are lots of people living here" (Boy, 8) "There was a busy road and you had to cross quite a few roads and there were drunks there, too, that lived across the road ... we always get woken up by the noise of drilling and things" (Girl, 8) Partly as a result of these attitudes, the children look on the countryside with romantic eyes; it seems to possess all the attributes for which they long.

There is a tradition in Britain of a longing for the pastoral and a belief that crowded cities are in some ways blighted. One of the odd results of this has been the spread of the suburbs, with each neighbour holding on to his or her own piece of 'countryside'. It is clear from my conversations with children about where they live that the dream of the countryside begins very young.

The question is, why should children have such a positive image of the pastoral? It cannot be explained purely as a contrast to their experiences, or knowledge about living in towns. Their picture of the countryside is very positive and clearly worked out.

One clear association children have is with peacefulness. Out there in the country, one can be undisturbed and unthreatened.

"In the countryside. I like it. It's peaceful. There's no traffic or anything" (Boy, 8)

"I wish that I could live in a place that was peaceful and I could experience rest" (Girl, 10)

This association between the countryside and peace is reinforced by a practical realisation that in the countryside there is space. Having enough space at home or outside is a recurring theme in children's minds. One of the major factors in quarrels between siblings is lack of space.

They associate space with wealth. The fact that there is more space in the countryside means that they then associate money with the pastoral: "I think it's where you get all those posh houses and all that lot" (Girl, 9)

"In little villages they've got really nice big houses ... I've been there in my Dad's car ... a very big house with a really nice garden" (Boy, 8) When children speculate about what they would most like if they had money, space - in the form of a big house and many bedrooms (no sharing), with a huge garden - is their first priority. This, they assume, would be in the country.

There are, therefore, pragmatic reasons for liking the countryside. But children also have more general, more disinterested reasons for admiring scenery. They are not just interested in the countryside that is close at hand. They admire the pictures they receive, or the experiences they have of other places and other countries.

"They've got lots of roses . . . and there's all sorts of bits of flowers" (Boy, 7)

"It's got all these rivers and I like playing in the rivers which we're allowed to do when we go up to Scotland. And, um, they've got lots of woodland and lots of creatures that I, kind of, like, like wild rabbits. And I like animals. I like wildlife. And that's why I'd like to live there" (Girl, 9)

Holding together all the associations that children have with the countryside - peacefulness, space, freedom - is a very clear imagery. They make it sound as if they are dreaming of a country cottage, surrounded by woods filled with wild animals, and roses on the wall.

In the end, the children might be driven to appreciate the country for strong pragmatic reasons. But the way they think about the countryside does seem like a romantic image, as if the solution to problems is living in a cottage.

"In a cottage, in the countryside, it's nice and quiet and all the homes are nice. They've been nicely built. They're nice and the right shape. And they're all comfy inside. And the seats are comfy. I'd like to change the world ... into small houses, like cottages" (Girl, 8)

Perhaps it was that vision of the perfect world that caused the suburban idyll.

Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield. He is researching children's opinions about where they live for a book on culture and identity

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