In case you missed it, last week’s everyday childhood news flurry featured a ten-year-old girl, a street hopscotch game and an over-zealous police officer. Having threatened the child with criminal damage, the officer found himself the target of screenfuls of righteous media anger, led by the Sun newspaper. It is easy to slip into “ain’t it awful” mode with stories like this. But while I am not about to defend the police’s actions, I do want to offer a more positive twist on the tale.
Here is one fact that should not go uncelebrated: the story is hard evidence that children do still play hopscotch – a truly global game whose history goes back at least 300 years and was possibly played by Roman soldiers. What is more, they sometimes still play it in the street. One recent market research survey [pdf link] found that at least a third of children had played the game. As I have noted, this proves that statements about the imminent death of traditional outdoor games like hopscotch are somewhat premature.
The extent of the media outcry was surely good news too. It shows that we still have some appreciation of simple childhood pastimes, and some shared sense of children’s claim on the streets where they live and play.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the episode was the stance of the Kent Police. Even in the initial news report (at least the first one I read, in the Telegraph), the force was sounding somewhat defensive, implicitly questioning the truth of the story. By the next day, according to the BBC website, it was in full apology mode, stating that it was going to say sorry to the girl and her family. Kent’s Assistant Chief Constable Paul Brandon stated that the officer’s response had been wrong, over-zealous and disappointing.
Welsh Children’s Commissioner Keith Towler spoke about the case at this week’s Spirit of Adventure Play conference in Cardiff. He pointed out that while the police admitted that talk of ‘criminal damage’ was wrong, they still claimed that drawing hopscotch games was a legitimate police matter, and that the officer was right to ‘have a word.’ Towler begged to differ, and I agree with him.
Nonetheless, there is a telling contrast between this case and some previous occasions (discussed in my book No Fear) when chalk-wielding children have found themselves up before the law. In an incident from 2006, West Midlands police asked parents to remove chalk markings, and defended its actions by emphasising the need to tackle what it called “low-level crime”, on the grounds that it could prevent more serious problems developing. Likewise in 2007 North Wales police went so far as to issue £80 fines to two girls who were caught drawing flowers and rainbows on the pavement. A police spokesperson was unapologetic, stating that “chalk graffiti has been a persistent problem in upper Bangor for quite some time.” Even though the fine was subsequently waived after the local mayor stepped in, the police continued to stand by its actions.
This contrast suggests that perhaps, official attitudes to children and young people simply enjoying themselves in the open air are beginning to change. That said, there is still a long way to go before we create a climate that properly values children’s claim on streets and public spaces. Compare our culture with two international examples.
In 2008 the Canadian city of Kingston, Ontario passed a law that allows the playing of street hockey – a national institution, but also a source of conflict and official head-scratching – in streets across the municipality. And in 2010, Germany’s capital and largest city formally recognised children’s right to make a noise when they play, exempting them from Berlin’s strict laws on noise pollution.
Now that truly is good news for everyday childhood freedoms.