Peter Hoffmann: Kids are losing the skills for amusing themselves

How can things be better, yet worse?

Children could and did get out and about without adult supervision
Children could and did get out and about without adult supervision

Sitting out reading in the cottage garden for the first time this year on an unusually still and soft St Valentine’s Day afternoon I watched as a couple of Strathpeffer schoolboys stopped by the gate to the Jamestown Woods. They were out on their bikes on a wee after-school adventure, cycling along the mountain trails that surround our hamlet.

They stopped to enjoy a small picnic – just a hot drink from a flask and a snack to eat.

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They’re no different to their city contemporaries in spending too much time in front of either their iPhones or computer screens, but here in the Highlands it’s also not unusual to see kids out with their pals throughout the four seasons of the year either on foot, on two wheels – pedal as well as the small motorised versions and occasionally on a four-wheeled bike too.

It made me reflect on the cultural changes over the past half century. At a similar age, once out of Hunters Tryst Primary School, we’d squeeze the last bit of light available at this time of the year to play football, go jumping the burn or searching for the White Lady ghost up at the old Comiston Farm.

On my regular visits to Edinburgh and to Oxgangs where I grew up, you never really see any children out playing. It’s like a ghost town.

However, there are many positive things to be seen too. On a miserable Sunday morning in January I spent ten minutes watching AC Oxgangs FC. At 9:30am the coaches were putting the kids through their paces in a seven-a-side game. Back in 1971 that opportunity wasn’t available to us. The kids were loving playing and the coaches were so positive too – if one of the players didn’t quite manage to pull something off, they recognised what they were trying to do and applauded them for it.

However it also reminded me how much of the activity that children take nowadays is prescriptive and adult-organised. While it’s great to see them enjoy all the benefits which emanate from games and parents encouraging their offspring to participate, there’s something lost too.

One weekend in March 1971 a group of five of us set out from Oxgangs. We took the bus to Edinburgh Castle, we walked down the Royal Mile, visited shops and took in the majesty of Holyrood Palace before climbing up high over Arthur’s Seat, at one stage getting dangerously close to the edge.

We were vaguely lost, but saw Duddingston Loch, walked the few miles toward Portobello, turning up unannounced at our grandparents’ door where we were given scones before being given a lift home.

Playing footie is wonderful fun and provides opportunities for exercise, confidence-building and teamwork, but wouldn’t it also be great to see kids undertake some adventures on their own too?

Our Spring adventure gave us independence; inter-dependence and the self-
reliance that comes from being on an open-ended adventure where you set off feeling that anything could happen.

In the age of the mobile phone where parents and kids can be in immediate contact with each other, it would be good to see kids take part in some Spring adventures of their own.

Peter Hoffmann worked in local government in education, culture and sport and is a former international athlete. He lives in Strathpeffer.