But tell me, where do the children play? The words of this song by Yusuf Islam — or as we knew him, Cat Stevens — have been in my head recently. Many of you know the wistfulness of the lyrics in their longing for children to be able to play in spaces unfettered by industry, development and technology. It’s more relevant now than ever. It represents the yearning for a return to nature for children in a somewhat sullied world.
I’m grateful my sisters and I had a childhood in homes with gardens. The freedom we grew up with meant we were also allowed to play in wider spaces, beyond the front gates. I think I’ve written in a previous column about playing in the veld around the Epworth area as junior-school kids. (We left our home there when I was in standard three, so I was pretty young.) We’d set off with our friends from the neighbourhood and ride our bikes, or walk, into the veld far away from the houses, where massive concrete pipes lay abandoned. We’d spend afternoons drawing on them with shale and playing in the dry veld nearby. We sat inside them and hatched our play plans, spoke about the mysteries of life, the latest saga with our siblings or teachers perhaps, and what we really wanted for Christmas.
I remember being very thirsty there and knowing home was too far away to dash to for a hurried drink of water. And of course, cellphones were just a figment of sci-fi writers’ imaginations. We were alone, away from adults, out of shouting distance. Ah, the sweet freedom.
I remember walking to school with my sisters or often all alone. One time, two other schoolgirls and I sneaked a short-cut home from school through someone’s yard. The other girls did it often. The woman of the house caught us and yelled at us, saying that her husband was cross that our polished school shoes were making scuff marks on their white wall as we clambered over. I have never been so terrified. Then after we moved to the Blackridge house, my mom would kick us girls out of the house early each day in the school holidays. She brooked no excuses except rain. Winter was no justification for staying indoors either. She made us ponchos out of rough blankets to keep warm, but out we were sent. I remember feasting on ice from the bird bath. (I shudder at the thought of that manky water being eagerly shlurped up now.) That’s how cold it was and how used to being outside we were.
I spoke in my column last week about the wistful memories, nostalgia and sense of wildness that the words “over the bridge” have for me and that’s what prompted this column. Over the wooden bridge straddling the stream was where we went to play spies and build forts. We’d put our books, Marie biscuits and Oros in juice bottles into plastic Liberty Liquors bags and head off, only to reappear hours later. Over the bridge meant freedom and the sacred bonds between sisters. We’d act out scenes from songs and books. We’d become the Famous Five or Secret Seven. Followed by the dogs (Shep, Sheba and Attila) and an occasional cat (Carmen, Rubbish or Pudding), we tramped the paths through the grassland and indigenous forest, freaking out when we found the disembowelled corpses of our beautiful, bright white homing pigeons as they were picked off one by one by a resident raptor who found them easy prey.
Then later, when boyfriends arrived on the scene, over the bridge was where we went to get away from prying sisters and our parents’ disapproving eyes. It became a place of romance and stolen kisses and long talks as we shyly got to know each other. When the sun started sinking, my mother would stand on the lawn in front of the house and yell: “Stephaaaaanie! Stephaaaaaanie! You need to come inside now!” The longer she called, the more frantic her voice would get. I learnt not to make her wait too long. Over the bridge and fading light were not allowed when boys were around.
But now, increasing crime rates, and unspeakable crimes against children flighted in the media mean we are far more protective of our kids. And if this wasn’t limiting enough, they’ve had to be cut off from their friends because of Covid-19. We watch them more, we keep them closer. But what does this mean for children?
Are they not allowed to be wild and free, away from the safe bubble of their home environment in the ways we were? That’s how we learnt self-reliance and resourcefulness. My tango with trespassing taught me lessons — I never did it again — and getting thirsty in the veld in Epworth taught me I needed that bottle of juice in Blackridge. I learnt about life and death, as I picked up delicate eggshells (treasure!) under nests in the forested area and conducted solemn funerals for the pigeons. (We always dug the graves too shallow and would freak out all over again when Attila brought them back in his mouth time and again.)
When I caught two busses to school, I learnt my way around the city. I learnt to make new friends on the route so I had someone to chat to.
I found new and stimulating things in the forest and the veld, like a hive of bees in a hollow log, a grumpy crab in the stream. We discovered secret hiding places so no one knew where we were for hours on end. What effect will not doing these things have on children, who text too much and are glued to screens inside, instead of freedom outside? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know we need to think about them.
• Stephanie Saville is editor of The Witness.