“Kids don’t play football in the streets anymore”

Margaret Rossiter

Margaret Rossiter

In one of his gloomy predictions about the future of Ireland’s soccer prospects, Eamon Dunphy said that he saw no emerging talent because “young fellows don’t kick a ball around the streets anymore”.

In an equally similar acknowledgement of the importance of play in the nurturing of talent, Keith Duggan (Irish Times June 16) wrote about the persistence of Roy Keane as he played football as a child in the streets of Mayfield in Cork city.

He wrote that Keane would have been “quicker and craftier and tougher than the rest”....but there must have been one or two other kids who had just as much moxie as he did but maybe not the cold single-minded ambition and opportunism to keep on improving after the crowd had gone indoors to watch television”.

Some years ago the admirable Adlerian Network of Ireland included a session in their summer school (annually held in Clonmel) on the importance of play, particularly free-play, in the development of children. It is a comment on the age in which we live, that it is necessary for psychologists to now tell us what countless generations have know, instinctively.

Many of us, fortunately born before our streets became filled with dangerous traffic and noxious fumes, will have experienced long summer days, filled with healthy fun, in the street-play of our neighbourhoods. Any expensive gym activity was unnecessary and non-existent. Any prospect of childhood-obesity so obscure as to be laughable.

We were playing games that must have been as old as time. Ours were a twentieth century image of the street scenes painted by the Pieter Brughels (father and son) in the sixteenth century.

In those scenes, children kicked a ball, rolled hoops, skipped with ropes, played marbles and hopscotch (betchel in Clonmel), raced each other in games of tag. If pictures had attached sound, these would probably echo the rhymes and songs with which later generations accompanied their games.

Street-games, although spontaneous, had rules and regulations. There was a certain order to play, which carried its own sanctions. You cheated and were excluded, and had to negotiate your way back into the game. You took your place in the queue. There was an unspoken acceptance of fairness.

In “my day”, boys would play contiguous to the girls but not with them. They played ball-games, and provided the ball was kept low and did not break windows, it was accepted as the normal activity of a neighbourhood.

And children’s street-play was essentially about neighbourhood and community, where neighbours would keep an occasional “eye” and report you to your mother if you were “bold”. And in contrast with the defensiveness of many modern parents, your mother would listen, and you would have to answer to her.

From a long-distance perspective, it would not now require psychologists (who often speak of play-therapy) to tell us that, apart from the fun and healthy exercise, street-games had a function in the socialisation of children.

Playing-by-the-rules, being accommodating and inclusive, negotiating disputes, learning to live with each other, were all useful life-skills, unconsciously learned on the streets.

And while children may have many advantages nowadays in extra curricular school activities, dancing and riding and coaching, there is still something to be said for the play that had to be self-organised within earshot of their own homes and within their own communities. Arrival on the world stage of international soccer had to start, as Eamonn Dunphy said, somewhere, and it had to start long before the amateur team, and long, long before the professional.

And if, as in the vast, vast majority of people, no such connection is ever ultimately made, think of the fun that children made for themselves in old street-games.

The street can no longer be the location for these games, but most housing estates, built within the past half century, do have large open green spaces, ideal, one would think, for child-play. But, looking around such areas, one rarely sees a child skipping or a small group playing tag or kicking a ball.

Instead, people, living in some neighbourhoods, will whisper that they are plagued by rowdy teenagers who hold drinking parties behind the shrubbery-patch and they will advocate the removal of the shrubbery. Some years ago the gardai even suggested that estates should be built in straight lines, no curves or cul-de-sacs as these made supervision more difficult. Sacrificing the visual amenity, the pleasant aspect, was seen as the solution to re-locating the anti-social.

Could it be instead that the energy and discipline honed in children’s street-games established long term patterns of behaviour antipathetic to the misuse of energy in teenage thuggery? That, irrespective of world soccer, there is still something to be said for Eamon Dunphy’s lament at the disappearance of children kicking a ball in the streets.