children

Ready, Steady, Go!

Natalia Giorgobiani
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Society is often fearful about a range of threats. Every individual cares about them, but parents are even more focused on safety because they are not only responsible for themselves, but for their children too. This is absolutely natural. However, as a result, the collocation "happy childhood" has, in time, become somewhat out of touch. Parents control the timetables of their children; every activity is pre-planned and no free time is left – even when it is, it is often placed in the hands of parents. Rearing a child is such a personal issue that certain concrete rules and habits are useless, perhaps even senseless. I think, however, that there should be a sphere in which parents give freedom to their children. Psychologists regularly argue that such a sphere is necessary for the comprehensive formation and physical, social and psychological development of children.

This is something that everyone, especially parents, is more or less aware of. But what about the threats in this sphere, those things that parents are wary of, but which are necessary and attractive for children? The main objective for any child is to become familiar with and adapt to his/her environment. To this end, a child needs independence and new discoveries, senses, adventures, risks and even threats. At a certain stage, when children have become familiar with the environment of their own homes, their parents take them outside to a playground. The playground now becomes the place where a child spends much of his/her time. At first glance, a playground is a place for a child to have fun, to spend his/her excess energy; in reality, however, it is a place of much higher importance. In some sense, it is where a child gets his/her first impressions about the outer world.

One can walk about Tbilisi's streets and look into the inner courtyards where, as a rule, such playgrounds are arranged. In every district, street and courtyard across the city we will see a similar picture: several swings, a small or sometimes larger slide, and a see-saw or two. One can say that these are the traditional playground equipment in both Tbilisi and elsewhere – much the same picture can be seen in countries worldwide. These seemingly plainly arranged playgrounds are, in reality, created in accordance with international standards and again serve the interests of parents: the key thing being safety. Children rarely get something new from these playgrounds; they do not adequately satisfy the curiosity of children. Looking at them from the standpoint of, for example, the development of social, physical or mental processes, the only area on which such playgrounds might have a certain impact is the physical component, although these do not really contribute to children's physical development, merely serving to tire them out.

I think that parents like such playgrounds not only because of the considerations of safety, but also because they resemble the home environment in the sense that everything in the playground is prearranged. Nothing will happen there that will make parents anxious or will particularly impress the children. These are not places where children can act independently or create anything. Indeed, the chances of this occurring becomes even slimmer bearing in mind that parents constantly monitor their children when the latter are playing and do not allow them to make mistakes.

The constant monitoring from parents causes children to develop a sense of being continuously controlled. They gradually become so used to the sense of safety that they make even simple decisions according to the reactions of their parents. Generally, it is difficult for a person to be his/her own self when he/she realizes that he/she is being watched. This holds true for children too. Under constant control, children cannot develop the foundations that will contribute to their formation. Moreover, risk is necessary for children. However, in such environments created by parents, there is no risk, no adventure. In short, there is nothing which bears the element of surprise.

The total opposite to these common playgrounds are adventure playgrounds, for example, that of The Land in North Wales. The first idea for the need of such playgrounds came to Lady Marjory Allen, a British landscape architect and children's advocate. She wanted to create a free atmosphere for children to play under as few observers as possible. The Land playground was constructed in accordance with Allen's idea. This is a free, experimental space, close to nature. It totally ignores standard safety norms. The atmosphere there is different. Even though it was only created a few years ago, when looking at it one might think that the playground could have easily existed 50 years ago. There are car tyres and old rusty pipes scattered around the playground, wooden cabins, old carriages, narrow paths, broken bridges, broken bicycles, and lot of other stuff. The walls and fences are all covered with graffiti.

Everything on this adventure playground is arranged in such a manner that they can be altered and moved from one place to another – this is the most important element because it dispels the sense of pre-arrangement and control. No one will call in the fire service if the children make a fire. They can play in the rain, snow and mud. They can build, destroy, and hide. Of course, the playground has an observer, but he/she does not interfere in the children's play unless it is necessary to do so.

This is the most radical protest against the established system of rearing children. This playground does not care for safety or cleanliness. Many parents will probably say that this is a stupid and irresponsible initiative because children are not protected in this space. Any such a reaction from parents would be caused by an incorrect understanding of the notion of risk. They often perceive risk as danger. However, it is not at all necessary for children to put themselves in peril in order to gain experience. The key for children is to experience a sense of threat.

The Welsh playground model seems a better option for children as compared to the typical, traditional playgrounds that are seen worldwide. At least, that is how those parents who try to create a free and natural environment for their children will probably think. However, I think that the Welsh model is not sufficiently free either. Its creators undertook great efforts to make the space look natural but, in my view, they went too far and it looks rather unnatural. Another weakness is that a child there does not have to think about what to change, only about how to change. And finally, no matter how passive the observer is, everyone knows that he/she exists and the sense of being controlled does not totally disappear.

No matter how much we change playgrounds – make them of a radical type or come up with some other combination – the true cultural shift must probably occur from among the parents. The transformation of playgrounds is not a big achievement. The fear of parents – be it of danger or of mistakes – has a greater impact on children because they mirror their parents' emotions. Parents must learn to distinguish between avoiding a serious threat and solving any problem for their children and thus creating the illusion that they are assisting their children. Constant fear, care and tension will soon make us desert even those playgrounds we have today – we will all move into a virtual world. That would be much safer.

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