Playtime's restricted for Daleks and children

17th August 2007 at 01:00
"Ex-ter-min-ate!" My nephew's been given a Dalek toy for his birthday and is chasing me around the kitchen pretending to kill me. I smile and tell him about his dad, who also had a Dalek on one birthday and terrified me by pushing it at me until I hid and cried behind the sofa. That one was sturdy grey metal; this one is flimsy brown plastic. I give it a week to live. Still, it's good to know some things about childhood haven't changed in a generation. Or have they?

The nephew tells me about Beavers, asking if I was ever one. For a while, I am confused as he describes their sweatshirt, then realise he's not referring to a furry animal but to the younger form of Cubs. In the name of gender equality both girls and boys can join Beavers.

In my day, we were strictly segregated: girls in Brownies, boys in Cubs. Our tasks were equally gender-divided. Boys climbed trees, went camping and were physically active; we sat indoors knitting squares to turn into blankets, and danced around a fairy ring. I led a strike we downed knitting needles and was dismissed for being disruptive, my chances of joining the Girl Guides dashed. Now it's just Guides, not Girl Guides. It's a pity I didn't join as they learn such valuable skills as being able to name 10 countries in Europe, assemble flat-pack furniture, master Microsoft Word and stand up to boys. I can only do the last one of those. I wonder what the arm badge for that skill looks like?

I decide to introduce my nephews to the other children in my street so they can play together. Then I realise that apart from my neighbours' I don't know any children in my street. It's full of families, but I never see any children. They don't ride their bikes, play ball or decapitate their Barbies (I was a troubled child). The summer streets are not echoing to the sound of their voices. Sometimes one or two emerge when the ice-cream van comes, but an adult can be seen keeping a watchful eye.

How things have changed from my youth, when playing in the community was what we all did. Yet the situation in my neighbourhood seems to be the norm. A poll for Play England found that only 21 per cent of children now play regularly in the streets near their home, compared with 71 per cent of adults who did when they were young. The Victorian idea of children being seen but not heard has shifted so that now we don't even see them.

Of those children who are on the streets, four out of 10 are "bored" and hanging around because they have nothing to do, according to a year-long study of more than 16,000 children for the Make Space Youth Review. They are the ones of which we seem so afraid, that we see as troublesome, something to be moved on and reported.

When the holidays are over, I will ask my pupils what they did. "Nuthin'... was boring, Miss. Just hung around" is likely to be a common response. Some things that change between generations, I realise sadly, are not always for the good.

Julie Greenhough teaches English in a London secondary school

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