50s-kidsSome days I was Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest; the day I leapt from a tree I was Tarzan; I don’t ever remember the Lord of the Jungle limping away from a landing like I did that day, but I tried my best not to show it; my foot was killing me, though my cousin whose appearance from a distance provoked the flight from the branch had no inkling of this fact. Boys don’t cry. Another day, I was the Six Million Dollar Man, engaging in one more bionic jump from a great height, this time the platform held up by scaffolding on the first floor of a partially built house on my parents’ new estate; I hit a mountain of what I reckoned was sand (though it was probably unmixed concrete) and bust my lip. Again, I soldiered on through the pain barrier because that’s the way things were.

At school, when an audience for death-defying feats was all-but guaranteed, the pressure not to revert to a cry baby was even greater. Children see everything placed before them as a challenge to be conquered and, left to their own devices, they test the limits of their physical and mental strength, preparing them for far greater challenges poised to come their way in the future, when climbing frames and fisticuffs are superseded by less simplistic solutions to a problem. To use a frightfully old-fashioned term, such obstacles and how one handles them are ‘character-building’. It’s as necessary a part of learning what it is to be human as picking up language from the adults surrounding us as we gaze out of our cribs, absorbing the ambience at the beginning of life’s learning curve. Put the brakes on any of these formative educational elements and one risks raising an inept generation scared of their own shadows and incapable of independent thought, let alone taking a risk. Perhaps that’s part of the plan.

A couple of weeks after it was announced by one school that they were encouraging a form of rugby during games lessons that excluded tackling, it was announced by another this week that they had banned that traditional playground pastime, tig. Reminiscent of the conkers-with-goggles concept pioneered by another school built from cotton wool a few years back, these latest curbs on the right of children to experience the rough & tumble chime with the general frowning upon notions of competition. We all participated in sports days, even those of us not of a sporty bent; my best performance was coming third in the 1974 sack race. I got a little certificate, but my final position was clearly marked upon it. Everyone wasn’t a winner because that’s life. Where would the Olympics be if every athlete to take part in an event was awarded gold?

How the teaching profession expects 16-17-year-olds to emerge from education capable of competing for jobs is beyond me. They will leave school utterly unequipped to deal with rejection, whereas those of us who were the last to be picked for the football team learnt that lesson early on – which is how it should be. The ramifications of shielding children from the harsh realities of the big bad world is evident now in the foot-stamping students who cannot accept an opinion that contradicts their own and therefore require safe spaces to suck their thumbs. This isn’t what mummy and daddy told them life outside of school would be like, for mummy and daddy are as complicit in their children’s arrested development as the teaching staff advised to treat all their charges as though they belonged to a world coloured in the same reassuring shades as a Ladybird book.

No one is suggesting the ideal model for modern schooling should be Dotheboys Hall from ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, with spank-happy Wackford Squeers laying down the law, nor are they suggesting children should spend their childhoods being repeatedly told they’re useless and will never amount to anything. But like so many areas of twenty-first century life (particularly Law), the balance has been tilted from one extreme to another, bypassing the middle ground whereby some form of realistic equilibrium can be achieved. Removing physical contact between children, whether on the rugby pitch or in the playground, is not preparing them for life outside of the school gates anymore than pretending everyone they meet there will have the cheery constitution of Rod, Jane and Freddie.

I sometimes feel as though all activities in school today must be preceded by a warning akin to those issued by BBC announcers: ‘We’d like to warn pupils that the following lesson contains scenes of grazed knees and scuffed shoes’, with an accompanying helpline to ring at the end, just in case some kids were traumatised by the experience of playing. If children are made of china rather than flesh-and-blood, why not take a leaf out of the country that produced such pottery and bind their feet before they can walk – or better still, bind their entire bodies? Each able-bodied child could also be provided with a mobility-scooter to preclude the prospect of injury, perhaps with a drip attached that can pump breast-milk into their delicate frames.

The only adults that jump from trees or buildings are those who indulge in it as a hobby – the so-called ‘dangerous sports’ brigade, addicted to keeping their adrenalin pumping; most avoid doing so because they did all that as kids, which is when it should be done. Deny kids that necessity and you deny them a brief and vital episode of fun before their absorption into the machine that renders them commodities and financial investments for parents, management and government. Mind you, if they have too much fun they might begin to question the system lying in wait for them, and we can’t have that.

© The Editor


  1. Being a decade or so earlier, our childhood games consisted almost entirely of re-playing the Second World War with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, where we were all Eighth Army and the Germans were all imaginary, largely because no-one ever wanted to start on the losing side. Occasional variations into cowboy-country usually reverted back to El Alamein and D-Day after a while acting as the Lone Ranger (when no-one wanted to be Tonto either, such was the level of in-bred racism).

    Despite the fact that you’re now starting to sound like a Tory pensioner, you are also absolutely right. The breadth of life-skills and learning acquired through such unsupervised and unchoreographed play taught our generation of kids about taking knocks, both physical and emotional, working in teams, looking after yourself and your mates, winning and losing (and treating those two imposters just the same), being responsible for your own safety, making and keeping promises, getting back home in home for tea, how to handle bullying (giving or receiving), who you could trust, etc.
    I fear that the cotton-wool generation are in for one helluva shock as they arrive in adult workplaces to meet grown-up versions of all those same challenges for the first time and try to navigate their way through them without Mummy or a counsellor on hand at every turn – tears before bedtime would seem to be inevitable.
    I am somewhat relieved that I no longer have to manage large groups of such precious flowers, as I fear my natural managerial response to their inherent delicacy would now bring a degree of industrial strife in the workplace, probably on a daily basis.

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  2. I did the whole ‘leaping off of buildings into piles of sand on a half-finished estate’ thing too! Without the busted lip, though. Wish I was still up to it – these days if a step from the kerb is mistimed the aches & pains need a month to disappear… Bah!

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