Looking through my family photographs set me thinking about the differences between my childhood, many years ago, and the play experiences of children today.
When I was young, in the 1950s, there was far more freedom for children. Many women still had the jobs they’d taken on during the second world war when there was a shortage of men, so they were not stay-at-home mums. The term latchkey children was in common use then, and I was one of those children.
At the age of five when I first started school, I wore our front door key around my neck, so I could let myself in the house when school finished. My brother, older by two years, was supposed to watch out for me, but often got distracted by his friends wanting to play with marbles. At that young age, I often made my own way home, including crossing a busy road which was one of the main arteries from the city centre to the outskirts. Apart from dodging the traffic, you also had to be careful you didn’t trip on the tram lines. For trams were the mode of public transport in those days.
Some schools provided after school clubs and my brother and I enrolled in one that wasn’t too far away. Usually, quite a few activities were held at the same time and you could just join in a game or leave at any time. One day, I made a ‘plaster plaque of a country cottage and painted it with the paints provided. At other times I played draughts, chess, or hoopla. Then there were the team games held in the large assembly hall. You know the type of game I mean, the one where everyone stands in a line and passes a large ball between their legs. When it reaches the last child, they run to the front of the line. The first team to finish is the winner.
They even held a film show on Fridays. You had to sit on the floor as no chairs were provided, but we didn’t mind. I experienced my first kiss from a boy at the film show. We were only about six and, after he’d kissed me, I wiped my lips with the back of my hand. I’m not sure I liked it then.
During school holidays, we were left to our own devices for most of the day as both my mum and dad worked full-time. The days were long but, somehow, we managed to occupy ourselves.
Often we took a bottle of water to the park with some jam sandwiches. We called them ‘corporation pop’ and ‘jam butties’. We made them ourselves as we were quite independent. We’d spend all day there, playing games. Sometimes we’d watch people rowing the boats they hired, or stare in amazement at the fish some men managed to catch in the lake. After that we’d head to the smaller lake and watch the men controlling perfect model boats by remote controls. Our public parks in Liverpool were really fantastic then.
Street games were hugely popular in those days. Girls often played alone with two balls against a wall, or in a group using a skipping rope, chanting as they skipped.
Another street game was a type of hide and seek but, Instead of finding a place to hide, the person hiding could move about evading the seeker. You weren’t confined to one street, either, but could use several streets. This game did last for hours sometimes. We called it Alalleyo, but other areas had different names for it and often had slightly different variations on the rules.
One advantage of the freedom was that we learned early on to share, to fit in, and to respect others. Children who spend a great deal of their time indoors on computer games are often late in learning these social skills. However, we also faced danger.
On more than one occasion I found myself in risky situations. Sometimes they were my own doing, but at other times It was someone else who posed the threat.
One time I was walking on top of a high circular wall surrounding a monument. There was a circular bench around most of the inner curve and we could stand on that and climb onto the top of the wall. As I walked around the top I noticed half of the curve overhung the River Mersey, but I fearlessly carried on my balancing act all the way around it. When I think of it now and how I could have easily toppled into the water, I feel quite sick.
On a couple of occasions when I was still quite young, I stumbled into the vicinity of unsavoury men. One ran a printing shop and some children dared me to ask if he had any paper off-cuts for drawing on. I had no idea he had a reputation with children. When I entered the shop, I did notice a poster with the letters of the alphabet all formed with nude figures. As soon as I saw it, I legged it out of the shop without asking for the paper.
Another time, I was in the park with my friend. It wasn’t a park for swings and slides, but rather a horticultural park, with a boating lake and a fishing lake. A huge drive ran all around it. We were near the drive on our way home when a car stopped near us. Winding down his window, the driver called us over. Hesitantly, we went a few steps closer but, as we neared, he opened an x-rated magazine, pointed to an indecent, nude picture of a woman and told us he was looking for her. Of course we turned and ran away as fast as could. Thankfully, he didn’t follow.
The third incident I encountered was far more dangerous. When I was aged nine, I was walking home from the swimming baths with a friend. It was winter and the daylight had faded in the late afternoon when we left the baths. A shortcut, through a small parcel of wasteland always shortened our journey. Houses had formerly stood on that plot, but they’d been bombed down a few years earlier. The explosions had reduced the ground to rubble, broken glass, and bits of roof slate, but over time, grass had struggled to intermingle with the wreckage. Suddenly, we were thrown to the ground by two young men aged about eighteen or nineteen. The one sitting on me and pinning me down, held a knife to my throat. I had no idea what he intended, but I had a strong feeling it was wrong. He was demanding I remove my knickers. Although I couldn’t see because of the dim light and the position I was in, I knew the same thing was happening to my friend as I could hear her pleading with the other man to get off her.
Out of the gloom, not too far away, I could see another figure approaching us. Although I didn’t believe it and was just playing for time, I told our attackers it was my dad who had come looking for us. Miraculously, as the figure drew closer, I saw it was my dad. I could hardly believe it. He did manage to grab one of our assailants and drag him to the park watchman’s hut, where he was held until the police came. My dad was advised to take me to our doctor’s surgery and I do remember going there. Amazingly, the doctor told my dad I hadn’t been touched. He advised him to take me home and tell me about the fact of life.
I have no idea what happened to the man who my dad caught, and as the incident was many years ago, I began to wonder if I’d remembered it accurately. More than fifty years after the event, I mentioned it to my dad, asking him if that really happened and he agreed it had.
So you see, I’m all for children being protected more nowadays. We do need to keep them safe. However, we need to find more creative ways to teach them the social skills needed for later life. Don’t you agree?