Taking the risk out of child-play

I recently took my seven year-old grandson (well, six and three-quarters year-old, to be precise) to the children’s playground in Mulcahy Park.

I recently took my seven year-old grandson (well, six and three-quarters year-old, to be precise) to the children’s playground in Mulcahy Park.

It was my first visit and I found there a wonderland. He, and his grandmother, had great fun, and we laughed a good hour, or so, away.

There were swings and slides, big and small, climbing frames, whirligigs, swing-boats and contraptions that were capable of moving up and down and round-about, all at the same time. All set in a beautiful place. All protected by a security fence. All sited on a spongey base which gave the maximum protection in the event of a fall.

The only provision attached to the playground was that children should be accompanied and supervised. Mammies and daddies, aunties and uncles, bigger cousins and nice neighbours (and this grandmother) did their supervising, all with smiles on their faces.

Citizens, like me, do not often say a gracious word about our local authorities, but, for the provision of these playground facilities, it needs to be said: Well done Borough Council of Clonmel.

Seats were provided and as I took a breather from pushing a swing and hovering over a climbing-frame, I found myself wondering if we haven’t taken the risk, the imagination, the self-regulation, out of child-play. Don’t get me wrong, as they say!

Playgrounds, like this municipal playground in Clonmel are an essential in any Irish town, where traffic density is such that street-play is no longer possible, and where society has now reached the stage where computer games, played in isolation, have replaced the age-old street-gmaes, with their attached rhymes and formulae, which were played in co-operation, and often in negotiation with other children.

From where I sat, briefly, in the playground, it seemed to me that child-play there was a solo activity. With the exception of the swing-boats, no child had to play in co-operation with another child and in many ways supervising parents arranged the ordered use of the equipment.

And while I marvelled at the quality and range of that equipment, I wondered if, in fact, children were not losing out on the learned experiences of having to take their “turn,” of waiting and of sharing, all of which were negotiable features of child-play as I remembered it in the streets of Clonmel. You had to take your turn at the make-shift swing around the lamp-post. You had to take your turn in the skipping game. You had to take your turn in the betchel - hopscotch - game.

And if you cheated, and were identified as a cheat, you were excluded and there was the impatient waiting around until somehow you wrangled your way back into the game.

Then there was the preparation for any game: the tying of the rope around the lamp-post; the picking of who was “off” and who was “on” in skipping; the drawing in chalk of the betchel (hopscotch) “beds.” This was a ritual - writing numbers on the footpath, deciding on the location of the “rest bed.” The playground has a permanently marked hopscotch bed, but in my grandmotherly way, it seemed to me that the preparations for the game contributed to the fun and sense of achievement.

And in that same grumpy old grandmotherly retrospective way I concluded, there in the playground, that we the children of a generation, now perceived as deprived in the context of modern society, were learning a lesson for life.

We were learning that we had to co-operate. That we could not have everything on demand. That we had to await our turn. It was a practical lesson in socialisation.

The playground has been designed to be as safe as possible. In this excessively litigious age it has to be, especially when public money is invested. But, as I recall, much of child-play when I was growing up had elements of risk taking and daring. Scaling a masonry wall was a calculated activity, though not consciously. The next handhold had to be assessed before transferring from the last foothold.

And the most exciting challenge of all was climbing a tree. There was the thrill of being up there above terra firma, locating the next weight-bearng branch. If it didn’t weight-bear, there was a crash to the ground. The scars were sometimes life-long. (I still have an ankle injury which returns to annoy me whenever the weather changes!) Scabby knees were a badge of honour, a medal of achievement, the evidence of a daring miscalculated risk.

But since risk is a recurring decimal in any sort of lived life, did we learn something in child-play about calculating risk? And, by taking away any element of risk, have we deprived children of a worthwhile learning experience? While the Borough Council has an obligation to make its playgrounds safe places, in the climate of fear, fueled by the reports of child abuse, is there now a parental tendency to over-protect their children?

When last did you see a group of unsupervised children fishing for brickeens in a stream? Or climbing rocks in the “Wildies” (The Wilderness Gorge?) Or black-berrying and picnicing in the hills for a whole day in summer?

I left the playground with my grandson, telling myself that I would not trade that mechanised wonderland for the freedom and imagination of my own childhood, deprived though it was of any expensive mechanical aids.

Well, what else would you expect a curmudgeonly old grandmother to say?