If you’re the parent of a young child, I’ve got things to tell you now I’m out the other side. Yesterday my son Joe was playing out and today, he’s travelling in Africa for three months. Or that is how it seems.
Partly it seems like this because with children, time does something strange. I remember women looking into the buggy and saying with a happy-sad smile, ‘make the most of it! It goes so quickly!’ They were right (and I’m becoming one of them…).
Partly it’s because my son has gone with his childhood friend Tom, so it seems like a continuation of all their escapades.
But mainly, it’s because there really is a direct line from Joe’s travels now right back through all the mini play adventures and growing outside freedom he ever had. And I can see clearly now what he got from it and what I got from it too. So here’s what I learnt but first, how it happened – in snapshots.
Joe age 7, climbing over the garden fence into the alley-way of common ground, full of dumped building materials. He made a den from planks and would go and sit in it, sometimes in the rain.
Joe age 8, asking to play out in front of the church on our road with some other children. I crossed him over and then sat by the upstairs window so I could see when he wanted to come back (our road is a busy rat run).
Joe age 9, asking to play out in the little park round the corner on his own as he knew some older boys there. There was one road to cross. I followed him that first quiet Sunday afternoon (seriously – he didn’t know!), making sure he got there, then waited nervously at home for him to come back.
Joe age 10 (year 5) walking to school on his own for the first time. So many roads to cross! I started by helping him over the tricky busy one then letting him walk ahead, pretending he didn’t know us. Soon he was meeting friends, safety in numbers, crossing every street.
By Year 6 (and – too late for him – the beginnings of Playing Out) Joe was off to the further away big park alone. And then (speeding up now…) onwards to secondary school, walking to local clubs and activities and, later, walking, cycling or bussing around Bristol to skate parks, cinemas and people’s houses.
And throughout all of this time, on holiday too every year with friends – which I’ve written about elsewhere – the (safer) circle of freedom got bigger, and also later. Eventually the gang of children came in long after I was in bed.
Finally, of course, on to the teenage stuff: ‘gatherings’, parties, walking into town and eventually part-time work and pubs. And all the other things that come with that part of the journey.
As a parent, each one of these stages – however small or early on – involved a letting go, taking a risk, holding the nerve and trusting.
And doing that because – fired by my own growing up – I knew the gains were important, rich and valuable.
At the time, these gains were in the moment. But now I realise that all along they were building towards something else.
Because now, inspired by his school’s partnership with an African school, Joe is travelling in Africa with his friend: a journey saved for and plotted over months of work, planning and determination. And whilst I can’t know how the trip will be, what I find I hope for – beyond the unrealistic ‘no difficulties at all’ and come home soon! – is this:
That he can get himself around; that he can problem solve; that he can use good judgement and instinct about people, places and situations; and that he is equipped with enough life and people skills to manage… because he is going to need ALL of that as he goes along.
And where will he have learnt any of it? Where DO children learn these skills? Not in a book, on a screen, or at an organised club or activity with adults hovering by, that’s for sure.
No, they learn it – starting very, very small – through every bit of outside space and freedom we give them to encounter and manage things in their lives without us around.
Letting my son play out and have freedom in different places has without doubt fed into his sense of adventure that has in turn led him to want to go to Africa. Bit by bit, it has also gradually been equipping him to attempt such a thing, and to deal with life on his own.
And bit by bit – though I didn’t realise it at the time – it’s also been teaching me how to let him go and do it. This is the moment, ladies and gentlemen…! And I can tell you for future reference that all the freedom you ever give them will help you both.