Somewhere to Play

For each age group, although their needs differ, the space they use must be safe, comfortable, adequate in size and not too inconvenient for the rest of the family. Even if the home can provide a special room set aside as a children’s playroom, it is not much use unless there is a nanny in the family or a mother can spend time there with her children. In the early years an adult’s presence is both desired and indeed desirable for most of the time a child is awake even if she is only there in the background. A large family with older children where the little ones can ‘tag along with the big ones’ is not as common as it was and there can be drawbacks for both age groups if busy mothers have to rely too much on the baby-minding capacity of the older brothers and sisters. 4Our children need space to play in’ is all too common a plea, in some situations virtually a battle cry. This is usually taken to mean outdoor play space but in fact any mother living in crowded living conditions knows that this is a problem even with a young baby. May not take up much space but if he is to have theadequate changing viewpoint of what is going on, from which so much learning takes place, the pram, carrycot, perhaps a playpen or high chair for short periods, do take up space. Babies who can crawl use the whole floor space and this involves taking great care with plugs, open fires, and dangerous objects which have been dropped or left about, trying to stop some of the inevitable draughts that sweep across any floor, and keeping an eye open for the baby pulling objects down on top of him. One can understand, if not approve, why so many children at this stage are left cooped up for too long in a playpen. A large playpen which gives more space is less easy to move to various positions in a living room, whereas those small enough and light enough to move easily are more like cages. Fortunately this stage does not usually last long but while it does perhaps there could be one period in the day just after the floor has been cleaned when the crawling child can be let loose. It is at this stage that safety gates become useful.

Toddlers tend to play wherever they happen to be, which is usually where some other member of the family is. Thus they do not need a special area though if they can be given a child-size chair and table they will be more comfortable and less nuisance than when they have to use family furniture to play on. However, most of their play activities are carried out sitting on the floor. Outside space is only useful to this age group if it is accessible, safe and easy for the mother to supervise. Blocks of flats do not have to be high-rise before they cause problems for young children – to be just one storey removed from ground level and a mother’s watchful eye can mean that a communal garden or playground is only useful when the mother can spare time to stay with her child. Some mothers have found a part-solution to this by sharing child-watching with other mothers. Once playing outside involves special arrangements, however, the natural spontaneous play of a child who can run in and out of doors at will is inhibited.

As children grow older and can concentrate for longer they do need a corner of their own to play in, where they can be within the family group and yet have undisputed space to play with their toys and play materials. It may be inconvenient to have to give up this space in a living room but there is the advantage that the inevitable clutter can be reasonably confined. One of the most common battles in a home is’ picking everything up before bedtime/father comes home/going out to the shops’. This is good training of course but can be overdone. There are many occasions when projects become too ambitious to be carried out within a restricted time, with the limited span of concentration and ideas that a two-and-a-half-year-old can muster. If the materials can be left out he may go back to this activity and get a little further with it during a second try. This can apply to activities such as jigsaw puzzles which do have a point at which they are finished, and also to open-ended games such as building with blocks and bricks. The jigsaw problem can be solved by providing a tray to do it on so that it can be put away at any stage of completion. Leaving out an arrangement of bricks which covers a wide floor area overnight is not so easy. Nevertheless it is worth making some compromise occasionally – after all if a mother had to pull out uncompleted knitting or had to take an as yet unfinished garment to pieces every time she put the materials away, she would at least become depressed and at worst develop an aversion to the whole project.

Most mothers I have talked to seem to have adopted the same flexible approach without actually sitting down to plan it or even think about it very much. Their children are allowed a certain irreducible minimum of space but there are areas they are allowed to use in addition to this as and when convenient for the rest of the household. These same mothers are quick to point out that it is equally reasonable to expect children to learn and accept that parents have rights too, and that there are some areas in which the children are not allowed to play either for reasons of safety (e.g. near the cooker) or simply because parents need that space. One has visions of imaginary barriers moving back and forth during the day, indeed quite often areas such as ‘to the edge of the carpet, as far as that chair’ are mentioned. This sort of ruling and regulating is very valuable, incorporating as it does one of the basic facts of life which occurs at every level and in every sphere. What is mine, what has to be shared, what I must never encroach on applies to space, property, human relationships and privacy in any culture.

There can be no adequate answer for children who live in really cramped conditions, who are never able to have property of their own or a space of their own – except to get the children out of that situation as soon as possible. It is doubtful if the inevitable sharing aspect of the temporary relief which nursery groups can offer touches the root of the problem. However, the child who goes to a nursery group should find space and freedom, and the adults in charge of a group have to be very careful about how they utilize their space and time, how they plan activities. It is all too easy even in this child-centred situation to try to cram in too many children, too much furniture and equipment, too much organized group work, for the children to be really ‘free’ to develop at their own pace.