Snow swept across my school overnight and left it closed today, lying under a blanket of white. Living alone on site, I’ve had plenty of time to gaze out of my classroom window and reflect on snow-covered days spent in my garden in the 1970s. We built a full-size igloo once; it lasted for days. I hope very much that my students are all at home in their gardens doing the same and playing freely. After all, there is no homework set for them today, as the treadmill lies tantalisingly still for a brief moment in time.
Days like today remind us of the true value of home, family and most of all, play.
Free play, of the kind I experienced as a child, seems to be on the decline, replaced as it has been by purposeful, often target-driven activities that result in something – a music certificate, a karate belt, a winning goal or a coveted pass in a school pre-test or 11+ exam. The intended aim is clear and it drives the activity. Apparently children respond to targets.
I spent my school nights and weekends riding up and down the street with the kids in my neighbourhood, or digging holes at the bottom of the garden, or building futuristic modes of transport out of Lego. Yes, I played rugby for my local club and I worked hard for my badges in Scouts, but I spent just as much time battling boredom at home with invented games that pushed my imagination outwards.
Of course, such anecdotes are branded nostalgic now. They make me seem old – a misty-eyed romantic, perhaps even naïve. Children don’t have time to play idly these days, there is much to do! They need to be kept busy! And playing outside is so dangerous. (Perhaps it seems dangerous because no one else is playing outside).
I praised a child in class recently for producing two pages of creative writing in double-speed during a short lesson. He replied, ‘Well, you see life’s short, so you have to get on with, Sir.’
Whilst I admire his industry, this troubles me. Who dropped that little thought into his head? Who gave him the impression, already, that life’s not a rehearsal and you have to seize the day and ‘get it right’. God willing, life is long but childhood is short and to hurry children through it seems criminal. The cruel irony is that the most fulfilled adulthood is built on a childhood freed from the pressing need to prepare for being a grown up.
I’ve always battled with a contradiction: I think school plays too significant a role in children’s lives, and yet I’m so very passionate about the value of school. Though none of us intended it, the language of learning in school – achieving, succeeding and making progress – has seeped into children’s leisure time too.
But time has not sped up. Minutes and hours are the same length that they were when I was a child. We are still given the same amount, God willing. It only seems like time is in short supply because now we have to account for each minute and an afternoon of playing needs to result in something. But I fear this is how childhood melts away.
Most of the ‘results’ of my leisure activities as a child were hidden from view. They were qualities like resilience, resourcefulness and friendship. They were roots that grew beneath the surface, or foundations upon which I would build an adulthood. I didn’t know that I was preparing for my grown up life when I was struggling and failing to make the Lego model I had in my mind, or trying hard to stay friends with the difficult boy next door, or digging for hours in the garden and finding nothing.
Just like snow, childhood is fleeting. It was never intended to be here forever. I worry for the adults of the future whose childhood was diarised and micro-managed. They may not be so rooted in resilience and resourcefulness now. They not be as happy.
But school can, and should, be a champion for childhood. We can reassure children and their anxious parents that time spent playing is okay; in fact it’s essential. And you don’t always have to account for it; the impact will be seen later.
I hope it’s snowing again tomorrow. I’ll go outside and make a snow-angel.