The shadow of William Blake passed over my local playground on the final afternoon of the summer term. A large group of parents congregated in the park after school ended at lunch time. Unchained children, aged five to eleven, were free to roam in a pack, while the adults sheltered in a patch of shade on the brow of the hill – almost out of sight. I sat from two until five, only seeing my daughter to supply her water, or snacks, or nag her about sun cream. By five o’clock, there were only four mothers left, a pile of wrappers and two hot, tired, grizzling babies. We stood up, collected the debris and moved threateningly towards our happy remaining children. ‘The only problem now is peeling them away,’ someone said. We smiled and rolled our eyes; I thought I heard Blake cough.
In ‘Songs of Innocence’ Blake delights in the ‘echoing green’. In ‘Nurse’s Song’, pleading children are allowed to roam free until dark – “The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d/ And all the hills ecchoed.” But the nurse of ‘Songs of Experience’ is ‘green and pale’, possibly jealous of the children, or weary; she says, “Your spring & your day are wasted in play,/ And your winter and night in disguise.”
We – the mothers hovering by the zip wire – shouted ‘five more minutes…’, ‘one more go’, ‘I have to make dinner’, ‘don’t push in!’ while our children did their best to ignore the intrusion. I became both of Blake’s nurses at once. I was weary from sitting in the heat and hungry; I knew my daughter would be instantly ‘too tired to walk’ on the uphill journey home. But I was also loath to drag her off, take away freedom, end the fun.
We control our children’s freedom to play; we all contain both of Blake’s nurses. But we – like our children – have lost the ‘echoing green’: we are separated from nature. In a 2012 report for The National Trust, Stephen Moss (nature writer, broadcaster and wildlife television producer) borrows a phrase from Richard Louv in order to describe what is happening to our minds and bodies as a result of separation from nature – “Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”
I feel this to be true for myself and for my children: when we are cut off from the natural world, it is more difficult for us to find joy. Our natural physical existence is a true source of joy: the sound of the wind, grass underfoot. Summer holidays are a chance for us to find such joy – packs of children charging around campsites, adults sitting for hours around barbecues, outdoor swimming pools jammed full of bodies.
For me, the nurse of Innocence usually wins: I want my daughter to play outside unfettered. But I am left with a problem – how can I make that possible? Someone has to cook dinner and I will need to work again (when the baby is older). I can’t always sit in the park for three hours of an afternoon and I don’t always feel like spending half of my day with other parents making small talk. So it is difficult to find the time in an average day to enable her to play outside.
It also feels important that she is allowed to play without me breathing down her neck, which is even harder to manage. Relatively few children in England are ever allowed to play outside without adult supervision; the percentage of those allowed out alone is even lower for girls. A report commissioned by Natural England, conducted in association with Kings College London, found that “boys were slightly more likely than girls to take visits to the natural environment with no adults present (24% compared to 20%).” (Natural England, 2016, p.27)
Stephen Moss argues that it is important for children to play without excessive interference. Moss says that, “In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%”. He links the decline in freedom to “declining emotional resilience and the declining ability to assess risk, both vital life-skills in the development of which outdoor experience is vital.” Children need to be in control of their own decisions and their own experience; it is not enough just to take them to feed the ducks.
At a time when the mass media controls our children’s perception, and social media pressures them to conform, they need emotional resilience and they need to be able to make their own choices. Girls, especially, are in desperate need of self-confidence and self-reliance. I imagine that freedom to play outside would give my daughter space to develop away from the glare of a screen, and would give her time to enjoy her body without worrying about how she looks. I say ‘imagine’ because she doesn’t play outside alone yet, unless we go camping. She is only six, but I don’t know how I will let her go out alone when she is older.
At the moment, I read to her about playing outside alone. The experience of childhood freedom has been immortalised by countless writers who remember it. They may idealise, but the idealisation is beautiful. Lucy M. Boston, for example, in her series of children’s books from the 50’s:
“The sun had not yet pierced the haze of morning. The water was like a looking-glass with a faint mist of breath drying off it. The children felt it so bewitching that without even a discussion they turned downstream, drifting silently along, willing to become part of the river if they could.” (The River at Green Knowe, 1959)
But reading about life is not the same as living.
Children’s ability to delight in being their natural selves is what Blake values so highly. Blake’s nurse of Experience believes that our “winter and night” is wasted in “disguise”. Could the tablets and the smartphones and the TV be a kind of disguise – a place for our children to forget themselves? Perhaps the mental stress many teenagers experience is made worse by their never having learnt to notice and enjoy themselves and the natural world.
When children are lucky enough to have a playground, their play is fenced in and their parents stand around checking the time on their phones. And our hills echo only with the sound of motorways.