CHILDREN / Kids just want to have fun: Children today rush from one worthy activity to the next, but they've no time to mess about.

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The Independent Culture
IT CAN be pretty exhausting being a child nowadays. Not for them the freedom to run wild that William Brown and his friends had. Today's child is not even allowed to walk to a friend's house unescorted because parents believe that beyond the front door lies the most hostile environment for children since the Pleistocene Age.

But spontaneity is being squeezed out of children's lives by more than simply the need for adult protection. Children increasingly find that their free time is full of organised activities: they are rushed from basketball practice to drum lesson with little choice about what they do or any flexibility about when. If it's Tuesday, it must be pottery.

Of course, if children can no longer play outside safely, alternatives have to be found. But another, perhaps crucial reason that children are whisked from one activity to another is that working parents, trapped in the office, like to feel their child is happily occupied after school instead of being bored and lonely at home.

'Children do have a lot happening to them and being imposed on them,' observes Dr Cary Cooper, Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester and an expert on stress. 'The majority family is a working family and parents probably feel guilty about not being at home. They have two incomes and therefore more disposable income, so they can probably afford all these lessons and perhaps think that will compensate. Also, if you're busy, as a woman or a man, the chances are that your child will be kept busy too.

'You're not necessarily inhibiting creativity,' Dr Cooper points out. 'Learning to play the piano, going riding, these are creative activities. But you can only do one or two things really well. Doing too many may damage the child's ability to do one thing well.'

It's not only the number of after-school activities that stifles a child's self-expression, but the curious fact that while adults spend their free time doing something they enjoy, children's leisure hours often involve quite arduous tuition.

But Esther Freud, whose novel Hideous Kinky describes a distinctly disorganised childhood, feels the freedom to run wild may be overrated. 'I was brought up in the country and we were always being told to go out and play and moaning that we were bored. But then we would go and build a camp or re-name the streams or something, which was very creative.

'But was it more creative than karate classes? I live in London and all the children I see are shuffled around to various things, which always seems rather wonderful. We had more control over how we spent our time, but there was less to choose from.'

Children's spontaneity can be crushed not only by the plethora of activities their zealous parents lay on for them, but because parents are often stubborn if the child wants to drop something. Penelope Leach, the guru of child development, acknowledges that parents often hesitate to let children quit.

'You hear parents saying: 'Well, I've paid for this course' and it's like: 'The child must finish what's on her plate because I've paid for the food', when it's more of a waste for her to eat it reluctantly than to leave it or give it to the cat.

'If a child goes to swimming classes and finds she's not enjoying it, it seems counter- productive to make her go. She could be doing something else instead. And I think it's one of the jobs of childhood, and one of the pleasant tasks of parents, to find out what is available and to try things.'

Dr David Weeks, a clinical psychologist at the Royal Edinburgh hospital who has researched creativity in children, argues that forcing children to learn something against their will can put them off for life.

'For something to be successful, it has to be enjoyed. If it becomes negatively reinforced, people will be constrained to the point where they won't be able to come back to it for enjoyment later on in life, when perhaps they want to. It will always have negative associations.'

Penelope Leach suggests a reasonable compromise between teaching children self- discipline and boring them silly.

'You can explain what dropping out might mean. Say you join a karate class: if half of the children drop out, the places will have to be filled with newcomers who are just starting, so any feeling of progression in the class may be ruined. Equally, a child should understand the need for commitment where other children are involved, say with a football team or a theatrical production. Perhaps the child could be given three sessions to see if she likes it before she starts on a course.'

For many parents, the unfettered fictional childhoods depicted in Swallows and Amazons or even the Famous Five stories remain a powerful influence. Lisa Jardine, Professor of English at Queen Mary College, London, and mother of three, believes that for a long time to come, 'the romance of free play in the open air' will drive parents to try to supply some semblance of it for their children. 'Parents like myself make time at least once each weekend to go to a park where the children can go off.

'We find ingenious ways of building that freedom back into our children's lives. We continue to artificially reproduce those circumstances out of our own daydreams. The dream governs where we take them at the weekend and where we go on holiday - summer holidays are planned around a situation where there will be that illusion of physical freedom.'

But weekends and summer holidays alone cannot restore spontaneity and creativity to children's lives. There is another way parents can ensure their children enjoy a stretch of freedom: they can ease up, and allow them some time each day to do nothing, to stare into space, simply to mess about with friends or to daydream in a world of their own.

Penelope Leach understands how hard this can be: 'People are terrified of having a bored child because a bored child is boring to have around. But if you never leave your children alone, there's an increasing chance that if they find themselves with nothing arranged, they won't know what to do with their time.

'It's an awful pity if children always have to be doing something. Quite often they tell me that's why they watch television, because it's the only thing they can do without interruption. If they just hang around, adults tend to say 'Haven't you got something to do?'

'So they lose out on just mucking about with friends, and perhaps a bit of time to stand and stare, too. When you think how much play goes on inside people's heads] All the adult can see is that they're wandering desultorily around, but they may be terribly busy inside.'

Dr Weeks argues that leaving children free to amuse themselves 'is fundamentally important, because recent findings from the University of Chicago show that the people who seem to be most psychologically healthy are those who use their solitude constructively. So it's helpful for children to have free time on their own and learn how to fill it for themselves. And it gives them a chance to try out novel or unorthodox ideas - the key part of creativity - free from an adult's critical eye.'

'Parents are trying to do their best and there is this drive within them for the children to achieve all the time,' adds Emilia Dowling, a consultant child psychologist at the Tavistock Institute's child and family department. 'But they have to be let off the hook a bit. Some structure is important, but not too much. There has to be room for fantasy and creativity.

'If children were allowed to go to the park or the woods on their own, there would be scope for creative play. But if they can't have the freedom to wander off outside, it's important that their minds can wander off a bit.'

(Photograph omitted)

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