Sunday, 24 April 2011

No playing in the playground.

Remember the old schoolyard, the scabbed knees and rough games of a ‘free range childhood?’ Then you’re probably over thirty, anyone younger will have rather more tepid memories involving staying in a staring at a screen when they should have been outside having fun.

According to a survey conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) childhood games such as conkers, British Bulldog and even, heaven help us leapfrog are rapidly vanishing from playgrounds in the UK. Out of the 653 teachers questioned 29% said that British Bulldog had been banned in their school, 14% said that conkers were playground contraband in their school and 9% that there was a moratorium on playing leapfrog.

‘Apparently the main problem with conkers is that nut allergy sufferers are increasingly allergic to them’, said one of the respondents. Really? Obviously they must play an extreme version of conkers in that particular school, one where the loser has to eat the shattered remains of his conker.

The survey highlights the extent to which risk averse policies have taken hold in British schools and how they are changing the nature of playground games as a result. According to the findings of the survey 57% of the teachers questioned said that the trend towards avoiding risk at all costs was growing and as a result 15% fewer traditional games were being played by the children in their care than just three years ago.

Forgive me if I sound like a warmed up editorial from the Daily Mail but it is hard not to connect this wholesale flight away from healthy activity with a corresponding decline on pupil behaviour. Another survey published this week claimed this week that in the experience of most teachers the behaviour of girls was now no better than that of the boys in their classes; meaning pretty bad alas.

Hardly a surprise really, when the boundless energy with which children are blessed is contained for too long without access to a suitably organised outlet it will inevitably translate itself into naughtiness or worse. Even the kids who don’t act out are liable to be diminished by being wrapped in cotton wool during their formative years. As one Welsh secondary school teacher who took part in the ATL survey put it ‘Pupils need to learn their own limitations, which they can’t in they don’t encounter risk.’

Surprisingly for a self confessed ‘pinko liberal’ I have never had a problem with children taking part in either informal playground games or properly organised competitive sports, in fact I’d say it’s a good thing. Not just because it provides a much needed release valve for youthful energy, it also teaches important lessons about life, such as that if everyone gets a prize then winning isn’t worth anything and that the best response to defeat is to try harder next time.

There is also the small matter of the risk averse culture that seems to have a death grip on the school system being grounded in a truly poisonous form of hypocrisy. The same people who worry themselves silly about little Johnny or Susie falling over and getting a scraped knee are happy to plonk them down in front of the TV or internet for hours on end, even though it means exposing them to a tsunami of violent and sexualised images in the name of commerce.

At the same time they hit the young in general with the double whammy of drilling their minds into dullness with endless testing only to tell them the ten GCSE’s they’ve gained aren’t worth anything because the exams keep getting easier. Is any of this better or healthier than letting them spend a little time climbing trees and playing British Bulldog?

The next couple of decades aren’t going to be easy for anyone, but they will be particularly hard for the young. They will need guts and intelligence just to make their way in the world, never mind trying to sort out a failed political and economic system; revolutions, even polite parliamentary ones aren’t led by milksops. If we really want to see a million flowers bloom, then it might be a good idea to let the kids climb a few trees first.

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