Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wild Play

I'm very interested in the issue of wild play blogged about recently here and here. It's hard being a children's writer in this day and age where kids are so heavily supervised. People don't go to the country to convalesce with a well-meaning but abstract and vague aunt. Kids don't go camping by themselves or sail off for a summer or get abandoned in the woods. It's hard getting your child characters away from those interfering, prescriptive, restrictive grown ups and into adventures.

With my cousins, or Zoe, or other childhood friends, I wandered wild and free, not just over the bush suburb I grew up in, but also the inner suburban streets of North Hobart or Dynnyrne. Did we take risks? Yes. Did we ever get badly hurt? No (though both Zoe and I broke our arms, we both did it when at school or on a school excursion). The suburb I lived in had urban worries ('stranger danger', busy roads, bullies, roaming dogs) and bush worries (lack of footpaths, snakes, spiders, ponds, large tracts of bush, bushfires). We made up stories about people we saw or ourselves. We doorknocked for charity, for walkathons or looking for our escaped invisible pet mice. We roamed around the local university grounds as they were then (when the art school and conservatorium were down the road. We walked the 3 or so kilometres up to the signal station where we could see all over Hobart. Zoe and I often got up before anyone else was awake and took ourselves off to the park. We dug possum traps and bee traps, rode our bikes around the new subdivision, befriended ducks and all the time we were playing - a wild, unstructured kind of play, where every sentence began with 'Let's Say' or Let's Pretend'.

I loved my freedom more than anything. It was my most valued possession, my most precious gift. No barbie, no playstation, no toy, no equipment, could ever come close to that treasure - freedom.

I just wish I knew how, in the climate of fear and protectiveness we live in now I can pass this gift on. Is it a matter of moving out of the tightly held restrictions of the inner city? Is it a geographical problem? Perhaps it's partly a matter of teaching myself to reclaim my own wildness, of negating at times my adult status - can I make myself disappear for the girls, can I be a kid again? Can I take them places they can run wild and then let them run? Let them really run, without warnings or reprimand? I don't think it works like that. I wish it did. In a dream world we would have the money to buy the kind of big, unruly and dangerous house that could lend itself to wild play in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne. In real life...I take heart that there are enough parents around me thinking about the same issues that maybe my kids will be able to roam free after all...without anyone ringing children's services. One of the other things we'll do to help encourage this kind of play is take them camping. We recently bought a tent. It makes me uneasy (more becuase I want my holidays to be relaxing!) but I think it will be great for all of us.

Because one day they will be free. They need to learn to trust themselves and we need to learn to trust them. They need to learn the world is a place in which to play, not to fear. They need to learn to love the trees and forests and birds and creeks of the world. Or they will continue to subdivide, to inhabit, they will become insular and disconnected. We can't supervise them forever. For me, Fred and Una own their bodies, own their childhood. I can guide them. I can offer them boundaries, support structures and a safe place to call home. But they need to find the girls, the women, they want to be, and I wish for each of them wildness, in their hearts and minds.


  1. I don't have much to add here, as I commented on both Em's and Janet's posts on this subjects, but I did want to say thank you for that fabulous other link.

    (When we lived in the inner city, my best friend and I would regularly take our children - 7 between us, god how did that happen - to CERES in Brunswick. We'd spend an hour or so there, then wander out the gates and end up spending another two or three hours on the banks of the Merri Creek, lying on a picnic rug while our chilren roamed up and down, damning the creek, playing, exploring, hiding, building cubbies etc).

    (It seems I did have something to say, after all. What a surprise).

  2. Loved this entry. Nodded in agreement in so many places. I remember having the same freedom and wonderful opportunities to explore life around me as a child.

    I think in today's society it does have a lot to do with geography. Molly had that same wonderful freedom and wild child play in Weipa. She came alive after so many years of being so restricted. Being able to go off and explore and create other worlds.

    When we came here she really mourned the loss of her 'childhood'. Not only was she a teenager but she had to 'be' one as well. There were no kids in the street to make up dances and plays and build cubby houses and go off swimming and exploring. Instead there were girls obsessed with makeup, boys and shopping. It was a huge adjustment for her, one also fuelled with hormones, but a lot had to do with losing that wild child too.

  3. Wild play resonates with me too Pen; my childhood memories are full of the freedom of living on our "sea of grass", on the margin of the world. But I remember that my mind made great glorious other worlds in indoor places too, not just when we were playing in the bush. I see the boys doing the same. A corner of their room (under their bed) becomes a ship; their chest of drawers is transformed into a film set; the pavement cracks become an ice crevasse... and even though I am just around the corner, for minutes or hours they forget my presence and explore this other world on their own, without me. I comfort myself that their minds will find the wild places if I am careful to let them destroy the couch cushions and climb the wheelie bin.

    We went to the beach on the weekend, what a wonderful wild place that was. At 3, it seems that you are a lone adventurer on the beach, even when your mother is not far in adult terms. Thomas grew 10 feet tall when my friend took him boogie boarding in the shallow surf :) He's a surfer now you know ;)

    I'm glad that the boys still see with their own eyes; Thomas picks me wildflowers from our garden quite often, he brings them to me to place on my special spot on the shelf. Recently he brought some in and said sadly that Tessa (sophisticated 5yo next door) said that they were only weeds, so we talked about the duality of weediness. And how I hope he always brings me weed flowers b/c to me they are the colour of love.

    Bit from my adult perspective, it seems that the opportunities my children have are far less wild than those I had, far less than their ragamuffin cousins who live in my childhood home. But on another level the freedom/wildness is not about the external, it's an internal thing.

    I've been reading/flicking through "Women Who Run with the Wolves" over the last few months and it talks about the wildness within us; if you can bear the metaphors and the wordiness, it has some good stuff. I'll be giving it to my niece one day :)

  4. I had a similar upbringing though in a more isolated area, and like you, it's important to me to give the girls that sort of freedom as well. I'm lucky that at 'home' we have Mum's place still where there is bush to explore, huge trees to climb, lots of nooks and crannies to roam.

    We also (now) get out a lot, to national parks, beaches etc. and let the girls explore. The weather is warming up and I'm determined to loosen up about mess, the girls latest 'game' is making rivers and ponds in the sandpit, (= mega mess) but we have a hose to hose them down afterward .. :)

  5. Thanks for the link. I love reading your take on this as a writer because so many of my favorite children's books take place outside the presence of adults (or at least parents). I treasured my freedom too - but I don't think I knew how much I treasure it until I was grown up and had children of my own...

  6. That was confusing (two umm em's) so I changed my username :) But it won't change in the original post so I'll leave that as it is ;) xxx

  7. I think you're definitely right about the internal/external thing Emmjay. Fred has a very colourful imaginative life of which I am sure we only see 10%. Even though we have a brick courtyard with a few big garden beds and a wide path down the side of the house, for Fred the big plants are a jungle, the side path is the size of a road...

    Ceres is great for not feeling like I have to follow Fred around. It has all the convenience of a play centre (lattes and seats), without that muted, indoor, pre-fab feel. But it still feels a bit artificial somehow, a bit deliberate. I love that it's there though. There was nothing like that when I was living in the eastern suburbs...which initially felt more likely to lend itself to wildplay - more treesy and so forth. But in the end it was not conducive to it at all.

  8. Anonymous10:05 PM

    The more I read about this subject, the more passionate I find myself becoming about the whole subject of Wild Play(thanks for that link BTW). It's interesting I think that there seems to be a generational aspect to it, noticeable in what other commenters are saying, in the wild play link and indeed in the book I am reading (Swallowdale is taking on a whole new meaning as an adult I can tell you). My mother felt really strongly that my sister and I should have those opportunities and I imagine probably championed them, at the risk of appearing negligent.

    While I think that the imaginary world is really important, I do also think that some form of physical freedom, and some risk, is necesary too. How can our children learn to be safe and independent as adults, not to mention creative and curious and adaptable if they don't engage with their world in this way as children? Just as I was watching Grace splish splosh around the bath, I heard the Maccas add on telly telling kids to get active but in organised sport. Which is all very well in it's place, but hardly a subsitute for long rambling expeditions or climbing trees. I think camping is an excellent thing to do (we're hoping to do some this summer) but I also think that kids need the chance to build a realtionship with one particular place. I'm turning over in my head how this might possibly happen. Possibly two week bursts at a friends place in the country, if that's still an option in the future.

    I like CERES too, especially as a mothers group or lunch venue but it's not endless in possibility like marginal or wild places. Gees I'm getting worked up on this. Phew.

    Also Penni, I thought your comment on media changing our view on the safety or otherwise of our world was spot on. I made a decision a couple of years ago to stop watching Law & Order and SVU & the ilk as I found it was distorting my view of such things.

  9. Anonymous7:41 PM

    Hello Penni - I found your blog through Lili's and have been reading with interest!

    I think the wild play thing is interesting - even though I don't have children myself I've noticed how many parents I know seem to think the risks of life are so much greater now than they were previously.

    When we were kids generally our wild play was in our suburban garden, or yards of friends. My sisters and I were also lucky enough to have country friends too with creeks and bush and stuff but I don't know if that was necessary. Our yards felt wild to us. Like Em said it was probably more of an internal thing. I think the lack of adult involvement was the key to the feeling of freedom we had - some days we'd pop in for lunch and dinner and that was about it. In retrospect mum was probably keeping an eye on us but we were the ones creating the stories and deciding what to do.

  10. I feel that my son (now 6!! eek) is missing out on being able to run wild. It's funny that you have written about this as I dreamt about Dynnyrne the other night and the things I did as a child (this is either sleep deprivation dredging up happier childhood memories, or the fact of having another baby in the house has finally kicked my subconcious is telling me my childhood is now
    We were saying the other day with water restrictions, my children will never know the sheer joy of playing under a sprinkler on a hot summers day.
    The world changes, and we just have to adapt and make the most of what we can.