In Tonga my kids are lucky; they are never really short of stuff to do and indeed have an unusual amount of free time, freedom to roam, explore and play. Besides, a bit of boredom is good for us at times. Research has found that boredom signals to the mind that you’re in need of fresh ideas, and spurs creative thinking. Yes, from boredom comes inspiration! On finally giving up asking for a screen fix to alleviate uncomfortable boredom the kids have found more creative ways of playing.
I think we live in a time of excessive parenting. I’m sure we don’t care any more or less than our parents in the 70’s but there is a lot more pressure on parents of today to be doing the ‘right thing’. So often now every part of a child’s day is neatly planned and portioned; school, after school clubs, and ‘play dates’. Fewer and fewer kids have the chance to just kick about outside, head off and explore, or simply get bored. This is partly in response to greater urbanisation, partly as there are now more perceived dangers, but mainly because of this bizarre pressure and guilt that has crept in on all of us parents – we should be maximising our child’s developmental chances to give them a good start in life. Of course we should. But. Giving your child freedom, exposing them to dangers (within reason) and trusting them, does help with healthy happy development of self.
In England I grew more and more concerned that my kids had no where nearby they were free to roam. We were very fortunate with a large garden to play in, the chance to build fires and make dens, but there was no where they could explore alone at a young age. We were hemmed in by farmers fields we weren’t allowed to walk in, tiny lanes with no pavements, and a busy dual carriage way. There was a piece of disused scrubby woodland just over the wall, and I wondered how long it would take them to discover it. I longed to feel they were adventuring more away from me and discovering their own secrets. I had so many secret spots I would go to as a kid, special places of imaginary games, or quiet refuge that I treasured. I would stop at some of them on my way home from school, as I often walked home alone.
Research by the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster found only 24% of primary school children are allowed to walk home from school alone in 2013 compared with 86% in 1971, and they also found a large reduction in the youngsters independent mobility in those years. I found a good illustration on how our movements have changed so rapidly over the last few generations in..oh dear..the Daily Mail.
See it here: loosing the right to roam
It’s a neat image showing the extreme change from Great-Grandfather, aged 8, allowed to walk 6 miles alone, to child now, aged 8, allowed to walk just to the end of his street.
Here on Fofoa we the adults have more limited mobility (with no boat) but the kids have much greater independence than I was able to give them at home. This time in Tonga is a unique experience for all of us, but particularly different for the kids. Here they have an unprecedented amount of freedom. When we first arrived it took some adjusting, not so much for them, but for me; I was missing the kids! Unless we suggested doing something together they were gone, out and up to something with the boys.
It’s such a privilege to be in a place with no roads or cars to worry about, no dangerous snakes or mammals, and no strong waves and currents. We are removed from so many of the ‘normal’ worries a parent has for their child. They can explore the jungle and the beaches of the entire island and they can swim in the lagoon whenever they like. Already strong swimmers they are now gaining more and more confidence in the water. This is the first time we’ve ever been in the situation where they don’t have to ask each time they want to go swimming and I don’t have to watch anxiously from the shore.
They sometimes head out for a snorkel and come back with tales of weird critters they’ve seen, or bring in fascinating things to look at. They now know where the lion fish live, the small octopus in the pipe, the shimmering cuttlefish, and ‘Big Bill’ the huge sting ray. Marlon loves to spend hours poking about in rock pools looking for sea snakes or eels. He’s learnt to make himself a hand line and will head out and fish off a kayak or the white boat. They have found odd camouflaged crabs, dangerous blue bottles, been delighted by sea stars, rescued birds, met the mysterious sea hare, and many more fabulous creatures.
It is amazing to think of Karyn’s boys having their entire childhood here.This almost constant emersion in nature, in incredible nature, is something I’ve always wished for for my kids. I am aware that we are incredibly lucky to be here and have such easy access too and abundance of the wild. It is something I do not take for granted, and hope my children will not forget, and this experience has strengthened my resolve to continue to find nature and to be outdoors wherever we are. It is not always (sadly!) possible for us to experience ‘paradise’ and reality is often a lot more grey and grimey but we can look for beauty everywhere and avoid domestic suffocation.
My last two jobs back in England were very much focused on enabling kids to connect to nature with all the positive emotional and mental affects that has. We found nature in the heart of London, looking at bees at work, growing veg in a small city space, or foraging along the canal side. In his seminal book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ (coining the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder) Richard Louv talks about how children’s experience of nature has radically changed from intimate to abstract.
He says; “A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”
Hopefully this has already begun to change, as there has been a gradual awakening to all the health benefits resulting from giving children more time outdoors. Here my kids can be absorbed and intimate with nature as much as they like, and they are away from all the addictive temptations that regular modern life offers – I have it easy for a while!
Maisie and Luca have spent long days recently in a ravine deep in the jungle where they have built a den amongst the roots of a tree. When I finally go and visit I get a detailed tour as they proudly show me how the stair system works (with ‘elevator’), their bunk beds, pantry, clothes hanger, and homemade table and chairs. Each tree outside is named..Zeus, Steve and Caroline are freshly planted in their garden!
With the boys they have developed some really detailed imaginary games, based on Greek or Roman gods (inspired by their history lessons) with the usual amount of boyish bloodthirsty battling thrown in. They also have an ongoing game, as involved as any tv series, using their soft toys as the star players. Interestingly they will sit around for hours and watch whilst one person acts out the story, just as if it were on a screen. Lego remains the current most popular game for all of them if it’s too wet or too hot outside, and often they get so absorbed we have to boot them out, reminding them they have a whole island to play on.
Another welcome change here from our previous life is the lack of worry re human threat. There are so few people on the island, and everyone knows each other. In England I was guilty of inadvertently submersing my kids in bad news – having the radio on constantly in the background or leaving newspapers lying around. There’s a fine line between making your kids worldly wise yet not fearful. Through the constant presence of the media hounding pedophiles, scary headlines, the prevalence of bad news has sadly led to a strong fear of strangers.
Maisie’s first question, when I told her she was safe to freely explore the whole island was, ‘are there any kidnappers here?’
Maisie did have a terrible accident, I wish she had never climbed the heavy pole from which she fell off and fractured her skull, but this could have happened anywhere. It was more nerve wracking here as the medical services are more limited but as it turned out she was very well looked after. We whizzed into town on the speed boat (25 minutes as opposed to the usual 90) and stayed in with the lovely doctor overnight for observation, whilst Kian had the insurance medical emergency services on stand by just in case. This time, thankfully, we were lucky.
The hardest thing for Maisie after the accident was being told to be gentle on herself for 3 weeks – no jumping off boats, no diving or climbing trees. I know it felt like a very very long time for her! The hardest thing for me is I became a more nervous parent, flinching and wincing at escapades I would normally easily allow.