A lot has changed in just a generation. But one of the biggest changes to affect children’s growth and development is the amount of restriction they face, compared with the freedoms earlier generations enjoyed.
Generations ago, parents didn’t feel the need to take on the role of ‘entertainer’. Once clothed and fed, children were expected to leave the house and entertain themselves. They went off to nearby meadows, suburban parks or the street outside, sometimes for hours at a time, and just… played with whatever they could find. And it was a vital part of growing up.
Toys were not obligatory. What was needed was imagination, a sense of adventure and a certain amount of resilience. They learnt how to take risks, solve problems, play with others, come up with great ideas, deal with failure, success and responsibility. It was a great preparation for life.
So how can you give your children that sense of freedom and independence in a more complex, and in some ways more threatening society, while still keeping them safe? Here are 10 age-appropriate ideas:
1. Find a friendly local shop – perhaps have a word with the counter assistant beforehand – and let your child go in alone to spend their pocket money while you sit outside. (5 years+).
2. Pitch a tent in your back garden in the summer, equip your child and friends/siblings with torches, sleeping bags and teddies, and let them get on with it. Smaller ones may only spend an hour out there before coming in for bed, but being able to see the stars, hear the birdsong and feel the night air will be a huge adventure. (4 years+).
3. Take them somewhere where it’s ok – even expected – that they will get dirty. Put them in old clothes, give them buckets and wellies, and just let them mess about in the mud. The dirtier the better! (2 years+).
4. Take them to the cinema with a couple of friends, and let them sit on a different row to you, with them in front so you can keep an eye out and help with toilet visits. Maybe follow up with a visit to a family-friendly restaurant which will let you sit on separate tables. (6 years+).
5. Set up some neighbourhood street play. Some smaller streets agree a date when the street will be used for old-fashioned play, sometimes closing it off to traffic, and letting the children kick balls around, skip, play hopscotch etc. Or gang together and take several families to a local field or park. The idea is to give children space and permission to play – no set activities are needed, instead encourage them to be resourceful. See Play England’s www.loveoutdoorplay.net for ideas. (4 years +).
6. Go on a night hike. For under fives, this could be early evening. Look at the stars, explore the local landscape, ask them to tell you what looks, sounds and feels different at night time. (4 years+).
7. Take them fruit picking – wild, or at farm shops and centres. Let them taste the fruit, get messy, and drip juice down their chin! (Any age).
8. Go fishing, and teach them how to put bait on the hook and deal with whatever they catch. Don’t be squeamish, teach them to be capable and patient. For younger ones, go pond dipping with a net and a bucket and see what creatures you can find. (2 years+).
9. Build a den - let them create their own space. Once a child has invested in making a den themselves, they are much more likely to spend hours playing in it than they would a ready-made expensive plastic one. (3 years +).
10. Finally, don’t forget the simple pleasure of doing nothing – or at least, not much. Go cloud watching, puddle jumping, or make snow angels or daisy chains. Stare at nothing. Staring is good – it creates space in a child’s head for the magic of imagination. (Newborn to old age!).