Someone to Play With

One hears so much about the vast numbers of under-fives and about crowded housing that it is hard to believe finding children to play with could possibly be a problem. Yet it certainly is a problem, and one which is becoming more difficult as time and progress march on. Families become smaller and brothers and sisters are not necessarily compatible playmates. The extended family is lost to most children so relatives of the same age are just not there any more. Where housing units are crowded together and there are vast numbers of children the homes are often too small for a group of children to play successfully and gardens may be non-existent. Where there is more space houses are often separated by fast-moving traffic, so that children cannot be allowed out alone and must wait for their mothers to take them to see each other. The natural situation where children can play, squabble, run back to their mothers and then come back again is impossible. Having invited a child to play for the afternoon one can hardly take him home again ten minutes after he has arrived because there is an argument. The safety valve of strategic withdrawal is lost.

Even this situation with its built-in drawback presupposes that mothers know each other well enough to invite each other’s children and this is all too rarely the case. Because families are much more mobile, particularly families with young children where the father is less likely to have settled for good in one area, the neighbour link may never develop. Mothers of young children are restricted in what they can do, therefore who they can meet, and one can see why children often have no one to play with. This is why Mother and Toddler Clubs and One O’Clock Clubs axe so useful. They provide a communal no-man’s land which is valuable in itself and also leads to closer links between individual families. Welfare clinics, if they can provide a comfortable, relaxed setting where mothers can talk and babies get used to each other, may do as much good socially as they do medically. All too often they have to operate in cramped conditions reminiscent of the doctor’s waiting room where mothers do no more than’shush’ their child if he should make any noise.

Parks are pleasant for summer use but may not have anywhere to sit, no windbreak even where there are seats for mothers to use, no path on which to ride a tricycle or wheel a dolls’ pram, no interesting equipment and surfaces on which to play and, most important, no lavatories. The usual reasons given are that if equipment was provided it would only lead to vandalism by older children after school hours and during holidays, and often this view is the result of depressing experience. Perhaps if these older ‘vandals’ had somewhere more attractive to play they would not need to do this. Perhaps if they, as toddlers, had had a pleasant play space they might have learned to play less destructively.

Not every park is so barren and some authorities go to a great deal of trouble and expense. It is possible in the middle of London to find a small Thames-side park with a hedged-off gated area for toddlers, a huge sandpit, plenty of protected seating, a large shallow pool, a shady riverside walk, plenty of grass, many trees and flowers, clean and well-kept lavatories, an adventure playground for older children nearby, tennis courts, bowling green, even an open-air theatre and small snack bar – the only thing it lacks is a legitimate cycling track for older children and perhaps a swimming pool. The cost of upkeep must be frightening, but in terms of the usage it gets and the pleasure it gives to every age group in the largely flat-dwelling community it serves, it is far better value than some of the much larger open spaces within a five-mile radius of it.

The problems of finding other children of the same age to play with is one of the most usual reasons for mothers taking their child to a nursery group. Sometimes there is no choice in a neighbourhood but it is always worth finding out if a group really provides what the mother is looking for and if it would suit a particular child.Not all privategroupsare as well equipped, well staffed, stimulating and individual-orientated as one might wish – but then nor are all state nursery classes. Some groups of mothers in particular areas seem to take more care and time in choosing a pair of shoes for their child than they spend in choosing a nursery group. Sometimes a group which appears poor in comparison with those in a different area may be better than the nothing which is the alternative or it may serve the needs of the local mothers and children better than its well-organized, affluent neighbour. It could be so poor that a child is better off at home. The answer is to go and see and, as a quick check, the group which does not welcome this sensible interest on the part of a mother for her child as an individual is unlikely to be the right one for either of them.