“Playing” fields should be at the heart of the nation
Sally Goddard Blythe
Viewpoint in response to Liz Jones’ article “Kids need mean, vibrant city streets – not fields to play in”.
“Children don’t need fields! What are they puppies? They need stimulation and action and culture. There is no culture in the countryside” “Forget the pastoral scenes at the Opening Ceremony, it’s the mean streets of London that house the talent”. Thus wrote Liz Jones in a tongue in cheek article for the Mail last Sunday (29th July 2012).
Sadly, the humorous vein of her article is the one that is fast becoming a prevailing view of ignorance amongst many about the fundamental needs and rights of children. Actually, children as members of the species of mammal, are not dissimilar from puppies, and in the early years of life develop and grow best in an environment of physical interaction with the natural world and social engagement with others. This involves space and opportunity to explore the physical properties of the world: to run in fields, roll down grassy banks and to feel the wind in their hair; to climb and swing from trees; to play in the mud, to fall and learn how not to fall again, and to wonder at an empty sky. This is how physical competence in space, sensory awareness, imagination and creativity develop. Rough and tumble play is an essential part of development in all young mammals as through rough and tumble play they learn how to act and adapt socially.
The type of “stimulation, action and culture” Liz Jones referred to is all provided by others, to occupy, educate or amuse. Yes, these activities are also important, but so also, time and space not directed by others can be the mother of invention. Increasingly, children’s free time is taken up not playing in the real world with other children but in a virtual world fashioned by others in which actions do not have real consequences. The spectacle of the Olympic Opening Ceremony was wonderful as a fantasy, but heaven help us if it represented the real world. Understanding of cause and effect, rights and responsibilities develop from the nursery of real experience, one of the reasons why children who have experienced neglect or abuse in the early years find it difficult to learn alternative ways of behaving. The infant and child brain is shaped by experience.
When lecturing in the east of end of London a head teacher told me that when children were told to draw pictures of “outside” in her school, they all drew variations on Canary Wharf, tower blocks and trains. When asked where milk came from, nearly all said from a plastic bottle. The Duke of Cambridge is spearheading a campaign to save and increase playing fields and open spaces for children. Such spaces are not redundant areas just waiting to be built over by prospectors and to make more money for the city. They are the oxygen which feed not only the atmosphere of our cities but the brains and future of our children. The Olympic Park is a great development, but if we really want to build on this opportunity we should bring countryside back in to every city, to revive a part of our heritage in future planning not shown in the Olympic opening ceremony – the cities which grew under the patronage and foresight of philanthropists, architects and designers – who wove parks, open spaces and squares into the design of some of the great cities like London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol. The “mean, vibrant city streets” which Liz Jones referred to, could do so much more if “playing” fields were brought back into the heart of the nation.