I don’t know about you but I loved walking home alone, going into the woods alone, playing around the house with my friends, being allowed to cycle to the shop on the other side of the village to buy my own sweets. The idea of a childhood where I could not push the boundaries and take some time on my own to do things that, frankly, were of no interest to dults, is disturbing. In addition one of my first profound experiences of God came from play. I was riding my bike as fast as I possibly could and must have been about 7 years old when I was suddenly intensely aware that God was enjoying my enjoyment and my joy. Pushing my physical boundaries and the sheer happiness I felt in engaging with other children was very important to God and I have never forgotten that moment.
Yet is has emerged, as part of The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Inquiry, that many parents are denying their children freedom to play and explore on their own due to fears about their safety. Children have said that having lots of friends and being able to play with them were central to experiencing a good childhood, but whereas in 1970 the average nine-year-old girl would have been allowed 840 metres from her front door. By 1997 it was 280 metres. It’s difficult to make friends when you don’t go to the places where you can make friends, it’s difficult to play when you aren’t allowed to go to those spaces where you can play.
Part of the purpose of play is to find your identity to self-actualise and scientists agree that play is not simply a release for children, it is how they learn and part of how they come to be who they are. Not only that but is part of that play to put themselves in dangerous and uncontrolled situations,
“Our major new functional hypothesis is that play enables animals to develop flexible kinetic and emotional responses to unexpected events in which they experience a sudden loss of control…To obtain “training for the unexpected” we suggest that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play through self-handicapping: that is, deliberately relaxing control over their movements or actively putting themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations”
Marek Spinka, Ruth C Newberry and Marc Bekoff, The Quarterly Review of Biology, Volume 76, Number 2 June 2001
I would also say that it is essential to the spiritual development of a person to learn both how to play and how to play well. If a child only plays in circumstances where they are in control how do they learn the art of living with others on their terms? How can we enable minds that can imagine and participate in the creativity and mischievousness of God if those minds’ play time is restricted and their ability to create new worlds and push boundaries is severely curtailed?
So we are saying that play is part of the human condition the necessary circumstances in which we come to be yet our society is actively restricting the play of its children and so could therefore be restricting not only their ability to make friends and socialise but also to deal with the risks and situations that life will inevitably throw at them.
Yet most parents would rather have an obese and fearful child than a dead one – how can we create environments for our children to experience genuine freedom, and so begin the journey into what God wants them to be, without exposing ourselves to the horror of what is happening to the parents of Madeleine McCann?