For the last few weeks (or do we count in phases now?) of lockdown, our garden has looked more than a bit like one of those junk yard play spaces that sprang up in the aftermath of the Second World War on empty bomb sites. We have an exotic mixture of wooden pallets, mud, tyres, sharp things, rusty things, heavy long metal things and long spiky things, along with some bike-scorched grass and a very rickety climbing frame. Unlike the Danish founders of junk yard adventure playgrounds who deliberately provided spaces to allow children to explore, our collection is just because the tip has been shut.
It didn’t take long for the neatly stacked parts from the disassembled trampoline to be raked through and creatively repurposed, along with the tyres and pallets and other things of danger. The children have taken over and made their own play space: over lockdown they’ve built dens, rafts, obstacle courses, speedboats, assorted machines, various factories, a Viking ship, a ‘secret’ bunker and a theatre with backstage ‘electrics’. Sometimes they are film props or settings for imaginative play, and sometimes it’s purely for the fun and challenge of building.
It’s also often risky – which is obviously part of the fun. It’s glorious to watch them creating and playing and working out the balance of risk and skill that fits their mood, and I’m happy for them to take risks like this because I can see it’s good for them. Lessons have been learned about things like why you need to be careful about dropping bricks when you’re not wearing shoes, how to get a splinter out and what happens when you clonk your brother with one of the long heavy things – but we have not (yet) had to visit A&E.
From the 1950s on, research around junk playgrounds showed the developmental importance of risky play – one of the positive outcomes being adults who can judge risk appropriately. Well, my childhood was quite high on junk and rusty bits, but it’s exactly this balance of risk versus benefit that I’m currently finding impossible.
Since lockdown has begun to be lifted and the risk-benefit judgements are increasingly handed over to individuals, the decisions have become endless. Venturing outside our garden, the array of risks we have to navigate has become a muddled cocktail.
While we were fully locked down, we knew what we were meant to do. One risk – of catching or passing on Covid-19 – surpassed all others. But now… There’s the risk of contravening increasingly complex (and sometimes arbitrary?) guidelines; the risk of offending people because you want to socialise with them but don’t want to break the rules; the risk of upsetting people because they think you don’t want to socialise with them; the risk of having forgotten how to socialise; the risk of bothering people by socialising in the wrong way; the risk of not socialising on your children’s well-being; the risk of socialising on your children’s health; the risk of returning FOMO; the risk of needing a pee when the public toilets are shut.
Plus, to paraphrase Nicola Sturgeon, surely our memories are not so short that we’ve forgotten how devastating this virus has been, and can still be. My memory of being low-risk but still ending up not having a very good time, is fresh. So add that subjective, experienced-based risk filter. And then add that small children are physiologically unable to maintain a 2m distance from anyone or anything, and in fact prefer to kiss/touch/lick/cuddle/sneeze on all things at all times. Throw all that into your risk-benefit matrix and… lockdown was lonely, but it was way less confusing.
So if the risks are many and baffling, intertwined and weighted with different benefits and probabilities – what to do? Eliminate? Mitigate? Embrace it? Find a new way of living with risk?
There’s apparently now a children’s playground designed to be infection-free in a time of pandemic: Rimbin keeps children in separate playpods. It’s completely risk and lick-free – and looks fairly funless. And of course that’s the thing: if we live fully, we live with risk all the time. And quite often risky is fun or the fun is risky; I know that’s the case in our garden. Until I can again make peace with the risks and find the fun, I might build a den.