We are too frightened to let kids play

24th January 2003 at 00:00
listening to the headline "Would you mind terribly if I threw a snowball at you?" provided a moment's amusement before the rush of the day.

On the radio, the Norfolk headteacher whose playground advice inspired the headline was saying that he had not suffered a bout of political correctness. He had told the children to make sure that everyone who was included in their snowball fight wanted to play and reminded them to respect the feelings of those who did not like being targets for snowballs.

His advice was so sensible that the interviewer, who attempted to present him as a crank, became sympathetic.

I was sympathetic too. Usually, playground interviews are with heads who are trying to ban something for fear of lawyers. It was refreshing to hear one who valued playground life. Not long ago schools ignored their playgrounds. Parents and teachers alike regarded them as areas to be observed from afar. Today that sounds like neglect but it was an attitude which acknowledged that children needed time and space to themselves, engrossed in their own activities and culture and learning how to deal with others."Learning by doing" and emotional intelligence were present in the playground long before anyone tried harnessing them to 5-14 outcomes.

This attitude was consistent with a time when school was for highly disciplined, formal learning. There was a clear division. Work was for the classroom, play was for playgrounds, streets, swing parks and building sites, in daylight and - even better - in darkness. Hours were spent in the imaginary worlds of Davy Crocket, Long John Silver and Hopalong Cassidy.

For a time, I believed myself to be a red double-decker bus whose hair-raising route climbed a one in two gradient. Now, in a world over-anxious about safety and with bogeymen around every corner, adults have stamped down on children's play and freedom so the children become obese and lose the skills of playing with others.

Lawyers have to take their share of the responsibility. "Where there's blame, there's a claim" runs the slogan of a firm of accident specialists, well known for turning up at people's doors in search of playground trips or falls that can be turned into cash.

It's not surprising that schools look over their shoulders for the lawyer's looming shadow but you would expect them to behave responsibly and not resort to some of the more ludicrous playground bans. No daisy chains, you might pick up germs; no handstands, you could break a wrist; don't climb, you might fall; no conkers, you might hit someone or yourself; no balls, no skipping ropes, no tig, no British bulldog because . . . well, you get the idea.

We salve our consciences with adult-approved substitutes. We teach "traditional" games like the poshly named hopscotch or we build "safe" adventure areas. They don't succeed because they are imposed by controlling adults and don't belong to the children. In restricting our children from normal interaction we destroy the traditions that pass from one generation to the next.

Are the days of the school playground numbered? I think, yes. We are too frightened to allow children to play. In 10 years there will still be grass around our newer schools but it will be as in Cambridge colleges - attractive settings where we are forbidden to tread.

In The Time Machine, H G Wells describes a future where all problems are solved and a "perfect" world is achieved. With no challenges remaining, people are puny in mind, in body and in relationships. When they are faced with adversity, they have lost the ability to cope and can offer no defence. When we deprive children of the freedom to overcome obstacles and to develop healthy relationships in the school playground, we stunt their emotional and physical growth and present them with future mental problems.

Is that what teachers should be doing?

Brian Toner is head of St John's primary in Perth.

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