Friday, 30 March 2012

Let’s Play! by Emma Barnes

Last weekend I went to see Swallows and Amazons. It’s a musical version, currently touring theatres across the country, and probably the best children’s show I’ve ever seen.

As well as being funny, clever and moving, having a great story and songs which are still going round and round my head, it was also thought-provoking. John, Susan, Titty and Roger are – wait for it – twelve, eleven, nine and seven (and the seven-year-old can’t swim) when they are set loose on their yacht, unaccompanied, to sail and camp around a Cumbrian lake.

Better drowned than duffers
if not duffers won't drown

is their father’s famous rationale for this decision!

As it happens, the children I was with were roughly these ages. I imagined waving them off from the jetty with their sleeping bags, compasses and pen knifes – and a couple of hours later the police arriving on my door. I’m not sure which precise law forbids you from sending kids afloat, alone, in the Lake District. But there must be one.

Maybe even in the 1930s that scenario was a tad unrealistic. But now it has become utterly incredible – and something has been lost as a result. In fact Play England made this very point in the show's programme. Children thrive on outdoor freedom and the chance for imaginative play.

I’m already well aware of this issue. I write books for children which are set in the here-and –now. I write about mischievous, curious characters having everyday adventures. And what a lot of problems that gives me with the action, in today’s constrained world.

If I want my young character Martha Bones to run away from home – as she does – where is she to go? Her 1930s equivalent My Naughty Little Sister struck out for the middle of town. (She also took trains unaccompanied- as a pre-schooler!) In the twenty-first century that’s just an impossible dream.

Martha ends up camping out in Next Door’s garden instead.

Children in 2012 can’t ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, jump on a bus, explore the woods or camp out alone. Just William would have surely exploded from the pressures of staying home all day. Or would he just have been glued to an x-box instead?

The imagination, however, is still its own realm. Like many authors, I’ve been on the road this last month, visiting the many schools who have been having their annual Book Week. (Why do they all choose March? But that’s another issue.)

It’s fascinating to come into contact with young readers, and to see their imaginations at work. In the workshops that I do, I try to give them the freedom to roam, to play around with their own ideas, without the preoccupation with planning, spelling and punctuation which is often inevitable in school hours.

Their imagination takes them all kinds of places – OK, sometimes rather gorey places for my taste – but also to funny and exotic worlds of their own imaginings, as they invent their own “naughty characters” and record their exploits.

It's this playfulness that we need to nourish - in school, at home and maybe even on the waters of Lake Windermere...

Emma's latest book is How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good
Emma's website


Cameron said...

Interestingly Kate Adie (yes the frontline reporter) was on "I've Never Seen Star Wars" BBC Radio 4 yesterday evening reading exactly this book.

She remarked, and I agree with her, that it was, even back then, a fantasy to which children were meant to aspire and that even having such adventures in their minds was the liberation needed.

I grew up in the country a long time ago and had some of the Swallows and Amazons freedom. I feel so sorry for youngsters today who cannot go anywhere alone or be given their longed-for autonomy.

catdownunder said...

I grew up first in the country, then in the city and then back to the country. Even as pre-schoolers we roamed in the country. (I lived in what you in the UK would call a "village". Everyone knew us. The traffic was light enough not to be a danger. I pedalled everywhere on my tricycle. Even in the city I pedalled my way to and from school and around the local district. My brother and I went to the beach alone - allowed to go into the water as high as our knees. Back in the country we would disappear at daybreak with sandwiches and bottles of water (and often a book) and come back when it was dark. All the local children did the same thing.
We liked Elinor Lyon's books more than Arthur Ransome's though - her children were much more like us!

Stroppy Author said...

My kids grew up on the outskirts of Cambridge. They had a boat, and were allowed to go on adventures on the river as long as I was in the rough vicinity. They cycled to friends' houses alone. This is in the early years of this century - it's still possible. It's parental fear rather than real danger that hobbles children. In fact, mobile phones should help to allay those fears. My kids could take their boat out because I was up-river with a phone. They could cycle to friends' houses because they could phone when they got there.

Richie Brown said...

It's true that children's lives are but a shadow of what they used to be. I think this is mainly due to the ridiculous tabloid hysteria surrounding alleged paedophiles some ten years ago - and that was mainly to sell newspapers.

I used to walk into town unaccompanied all the time from the age of 8 to pick up my Beano (about 10p in those days, not a couple of quid like now) and back - and, even if I had been offered a sweetie or the chance to go to see some puppies back at the house of a moustached man in an Austin Allegro, I would have known not to thanks to a ginger cat voiced by Kenny Everett!

madwippitt said...

I also was lucky enough to have lots of freedom. I remember wandering round Belfast by myself, visiting the libary, the newly opened Museum, and my favourite bookshop in the town centre at the age of 10 or 11. If you got lost you just asked someone to tell you the way. More often than not they'd take you all the way there.

And I suspect that a modern day Just William would either be in care or Borstal.

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, and apologies that a virus on my computer led to such a long delay in replying.

Some lovely memories of country childhoods! Cat - was Elinor Lyon "The Children Who Lived in a Barn" - I remember that, although I preferred Enid Blyton's Secret Island - the Barn children did too much (very realistic) scrubbing and cooking for my escapist tastes.

Stroppy and Richie - I agree a lot of the dangers are in people's heads, but traffic isn't, unfortunately. And it's probably more of a blight on country roads - cars racing down winding lanes are a real danger to child cyclists - than it is even in towns. But yes, children should be allowed to take more risks...only it's hard when the whole culture now is so set against it.

Penny Dolan said...

Lots of good points here, Emma!

I recall smiling a while back when I kept glimpsing the happy word PLAY everywhere . . .

. . . and then my heart plunging when I suddenly realised it now meant "Pay money for a very vague chance of winning the National Lottery." The look on the faces of many people lining up for their slips is NOT that of PLAY!

That word was plain stolen, imo.