We've just returned from spending the first week of the school holidays at Lake Tekapo. We were fortunate to have snow falling for most of the week and in all our times at Tekapo we've never experienced snow like that before. It was a fun and full house with our son, two of his friends, two nieces, twin nephew babies and us three adults.
On one of the first nights, we had the TV on to watch the weather. The presenter talked about how a southerly was making its way up the country bringing snow and she commented how she felt for all the parents who had their children home for the holidays.
I notice this sort of sentiment often over the school holidays. The message to parents seems to be that it's a chore to be home with your children and that it's up to the parents to entertain and keep the children from getting bored - this is often followed up by recommendations on activities to do which usually cost money.
I grew up in a small town in Canada, surrounded by forest and ocean. Like most adults in my generation, my childhood days were spent outside, in unstructured activities, with my friends, usually doing dumb and slightly dangerous things but with no parents around to supervise or control us. If you talk to people in my generation about their childhood and what they enjoyed doing, it almost always involves friends, outside play, slightly risky activities and no parents - and we loved it. But how many of our children are experiencing the same sort of childhood?
I wonder how, as a whole generation, we've been taught to raise our children in a way that we were not raised. How did that change? Is it fear - that the random and rare occurrences we hear about through the media are actually the norm and we need to be on constant high alert to protect? Is it urbanisation - the move to cities and the inherent fear we feel about living with so many unknown people? Is it a change in message about our role as parents - that we are solely responsible in delivering our children safely into adulthood with all the skills and experiences they need and that good parenting is ensuring they get to all the lessons and activities they need to develop these skills? That anything other than that is slack parenting and a failure on our part?
One of the things I love about our holidays at Lake Tekapo is that it feels similar to how I experienced my childhood and I am more able to trust our son and his friends with getting out and exploring like I used to. I often say to him when we're down there, 'get out and pretend you're a child in the 80s'. At first it seemed difficult for them to venture too far - they'd always be back within a short time saying they were bored. Often now they'll disappear for hours - exploring trails and getting to know the surrounding area.
The snow brought a different feel to our time there. At the start of the week it was difficult to get some of them off the couches and off their devices but by the end of the week they were off having snowball fights, building snowmen and forts, sledding and going for night walks. When they were inside they were playing strategy games, board games and doing puzzles together. Inevitably two of them would also have the twin babies - bouncing them on their knees as they played together.
They had the opportunity to explore spaces that were familiar to them but which looked and felt very different covered in snow. This return to familiar places, to see seasonal change and to have the opportunity to experience the space differently is what connects us to a place.
On one of the walks we did as a group, I let the children lead and it was interesting to see what caught their attention and which activities they wanted to spend their time doing. When they were testing the ice on the ponds (which I knew to be shallow) it was difficult not to yell out advice based on my experiences of getting wet, cold socks but is keeping their feet dry more important than not letting them experience that for themselves?
Even amidst the quiet setting, the feeling of fear, which has been drilled into us, is hard to get away from. One morning I took my nieces to a steep hill at the end of our neighbourhood for some sledding. I left them there to make their own way home. As I looked back I could see the two of them playing happily together but there was a voice inside my head saying I was being irresponsible leaving them alone when they were in my care. Fortunately, the other voice was there saying that they'd have more fun as sisters alone than they would with their aunt hovering over them and that even the walk back through the neighbourhood, something they wouldn't usually do alone, would be good for them to do together.
The challenge, now we're back in the city, is to bring that sense of being able to 'let down the guard' and let the more rational voice drown out the one who is always catastrophising and limiting the learning opportunities. As more and more children are spending their childhoods in cities now, how do we ensure they experience the freedom and opportunity to play in unstructured ways?