Celebrating ordinary magic and everyday adventures

'Witness Board' by Jane Millar

'Witness Board', Jane Millar

If we reflect on how we think about risk in our day-to-day lives, many would agree that we tend to focus too much on the negatives – the what ifs, the worst case scenarios, the horror stories – and not enough on the positives. We know that nothing grabs our attention quite like fear. (So does the media, of course.) This bias makes it very hard for us to take a balanced approach to risk. Here’s one reason why.

When things go wrong – an accident or a crime – it is easy to see. It is also easy to count. And we do count them – in accident statistics, incident reports and all the rest. When things go right – say a child climbs to the top of a climbing frame – it can be harder to see, and even harder to count.

Unless we pay more attention to the positives, we will always be overly influenced by bad news stories. So how can we make the upside of risk more visible?

One thing we can do is simply to become more aware of those moments of ordinary magic in our lives, when children – or for that matter adults – get the chance to experience, to explore, to have everyday adventures and to enjoy a taste of freedom.

Sharon Mehan, Early Childhood Adviser of C & K and one of the people responsible for getting me out to Australia for a month-long working visit, recently emailed me with a fine example of just such a moment. Sharon explained that she often takes her young children down to a nearby beach. She takes up the story:

“The kids and I were sitting up the back of the beach in the shade, making sandcastle homes for the crabs. Three young boys (aged about eight or nine years of age) raced past us, stripped off their shirts and dumped their towels where they lay, as they raced each other to see who could be first in the water.  The waves were reasonably deep, and they splashed about just on the wave break for about 45 minutes.

“They didn’t have adult supervision and they stuck together the whole time. As I played with my kids I kept an eye out for them to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. Then I started to notice other adults doing the same thing.

“I saw three elderly ladies keep a watch out as they walked along the beach together. I saw another mum with young kids do the same thing. And I saw a dad swimming with his two sons look across for them every now and again, especially after a set of big waves.

“What struck me was that there was a whole community of complete strangers supervising these boys.  And it really was not an unusual thing.

“The boys were totally oblivious.  To them the only thing that consumed them was what they were experiencing. One of the three boys was more nervous than the other two in the water, so he didn’t go out very deep. I watched his friends keep an eye on him too.

“What did I glean from having watched the boys that afternoon? Two things. First, children still love being outside in nature. Natural environments like the seaside still give children the chance to experience powerful, exhilerating emotions and have a taste of freedom and camaraderie. Second, the kindness of strangers and sense of community is alive and well. You just have to take the time to look for it.”

Like Sharon, I take two things from this story. The first is, just as she says, the value of trust and simple acts of kindness, which are often the key to creating the possibility of outdoor play or exploration. The second is that, if we only paid more attention to these moments – if we could make them visible, and add them up – then we would truly appreciate how much they contribute to our lives. We would also build up a powerful antidote to fear mongering and bad news – including all the stories that go ‘people today just don’t care about kids they don’t know any more’.

I’m inviting you to join me in making such moments more visible. What stories of ordinary magic and everyday adventures do you have to share?

'Witness Board' by Jane Millar

'Witness Board', Jane Millar (detail)

Acknowledgements: My thinking on the asymmetry of risk draws on the work of my long-time collaborator Prof David Ball. David, Bernard Spiegal and I co-wrote Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide – the idea is explored on p.49. Thanks to Sharon Mehan for telling me her story, and for allowing me to share it. Thanks also to artist and friend Jane Millar for allowing me to use her piece ‘Witness Board’ to accompany this post. Jane is curating Curious, a site-specific art trail in West Norwood Cemetary, South London, from June 22 to July 20.

11 responses to “Celebrating ordinary magic and everyday adventures

  1. Perhaps we need to create “benefit reports” along with the “incident reports”. Much more subjective as you suggest but a powerful way to see the balance between positive and negative experiences. In most cases I think it would be skewed to the happy!

  2. Thanks for this Tim, it’s a lovely take on the everyday things that work, a counter to the panics about, and focus on, the aberrant or the potential for calamity. Ann Masten’s concept of ‘ordinary magic’ sums it up perfectly. Stuart Lester and I used this as the basis for ‘Play for a Change’ and the way that emergent and unstructured play can help to build all those things Ann Masten says constitute resilience.

    My own story goes back to when my children were little but I remember it to this day because it was an example of the kindness of strangers – Ann Masten’s idea of contact with other competent adults – that served, for me, as an antidote to the messages being given to young children in nursery then (over 20 years ago) about stranger danger. My son, young enough to still be in a buggy, dropped his very special teddy in a shopping centre. A security officer noticed this, picked it up and followed us, but was waylaid by something and unable to catch us up before my son had noticed teddy was missing. Of course my son was very distressed and I started to retrace our steps to look for teddy, meeting the security officer on the way. He squatted down, with teddy just peeping over the top of his pocket, and asked my son why he was crying. He understood so perfectly how serious the matter was, told my son that he had found teddy, and that teddy had told him how he had fallen out of a buggy and had all sorts of adventures. My son was captivated and of course overjoyed to be reunited with teddy.

    Sharing stories would be a good way to shift this focus – as long as it doesn’t then become reified into technical interventions (resilience classes or assessments quantifying the number of resilience factors in children’s lives)! This is less about doing things to children and much more about creating conditions that support them to do this by themselves.

    • Thanks for this Wendy – as you imply, Ann Masten’s work is full of insight and value for advocates for play and everyday freedom. That’s a delightful story, and a reminder that security people are human too.

  3. Great post, Tim and very pertinent timing. The concept of ‘the kindness of strangers’ is alive and well and is the main reason why the wonderful Green across the road from my house is almost always in use by the children that live around it; all the homes face onto the Green and all the parents washing up, cleaning their cars, gardening, chatting to neighbours etc. are also keeping a watchful eye on what is occurring on the Green. Not to be nosy, not to inhibit activity but to truly enable children’s play. If my children get up to mischief, I’d expect one of these watchful adults to intervene; if a child is hurt of distressed, ditto. And I would do the same for any other child.

    This is a completely ‘unspoken’ understanding between all of us (by which I mean adults and children), that live around or close to the Green. Not all of the adults have school age children themselves, but there is something magical about watching children play so freely and joyfully outdoors and on weekends and sunny evening when the Green is stuffed with people of all ages there is a palpable feeling of community. It’s a pretty diverse community in terms of age, too: elderly residents in bungalows and family houses of all sizes. One of the older ladies around the corner often tells me how much she loved climbing trees as a child and how important it is that children still do it. I suspect she’d be up there now given half a chance. She and her neighbours also keep an eye out whilst our children ride their bikes up and down their street (it’s popular with young bike riders as there is less traffic since the homes are all occupied by over 50s and mainly have one or no car per household).

    I really do appreciate how special the place I live is, but I am definitely a ‘glass half full’ person and I am all for promoting the ordinary magic and the positive outcomes of play. One way we can do this is to ensure that when horrible stories are published in the media, and generate equally appalling comments from readers (I’m thinking of the depressing Daily Mail readers’ response to the Nutbrown review in particular), we are all ready with robust but respectful rebuttals and positive stories of how children’s freedom to play is NOT moribund.

    • Thanks for this – sounds like you have a green space and neighbourhood to treasure, and it’s great to hear that there appears to be such a positive stance about children playing out.

  4. Lovely stories – and I think it’s absolutely essential that children experience interaction with all people, to understand what is appropriate interaction and what is not, rather than just being blanket scared by the concept of stranger danger. Sadly, I sense that more adults live in fear than children do. But then, we also have to determine what is appropriate fear which keeps us safe and what is scaremongering. I suspect most parents scaremonger!

  5. Thanks for this article. My young son is home educated, so I have the benefit of supervising exactly as much or as little as I think the situation warrants- for him, on that day, with whoever is present. I am very conscious of the line I tread between protecting him from risk and encouraging him to explore the world with a confident attitude. I was very saddened to see at a martial arts class recently that the children were being taught to immediately say “No, sorry” to anything a stranger said to them. How does this protect a child from someone really intent on doing them harm? What it does do is cut them off from a whole raft of friendly “Hello”s and interesting conversations, such as the one we struck up with some barge dwellers on our local canal yesterday. I’ve always taught my son that a trustworthy adult will not expect or ask him to go or do anything with them without expecting that he checks it’s ok with his parents first. Until he’s old enough to remember and follow that rule, he goes about with me, and chats to friendly strangers every day.
    Our local home ed community has children from birth to teenage, and I also delight in the times when another adult steps in to answer a question, tie a shoelace, lift up a fallen child or give a stern word to stop dangerous behaviour. Even better, the children do this for each other.
    When my son was very small we lived on a cul-de-sac, and a parent would always be outside pottering around to keep an eye on the kids from many families playing. But I noticed if we were unobtrusive, and the kids did not realise they were being supervised, they were especially vigilant, and if any one heard an engine they would shout “car” and all jump onto the pavement. This sort of long range supervision mentioned in a few comments allows the kids to be responsible for themselves, but allows adults to step in if things are getting out of hand.
    I think oases of community and care for each other exist where people begin to act in a trusting way toward others. It took a single family moving into our estate who let their kids “play out” for other families to follow, and luckily by the time our son came along there was a crowd to join in with.

  6. Pingback: More ordinary magic | Rethinking Childhood

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