A Mum at the school gate asked me when my five-year-old son would be free for a “play date.” Neither of us had a free slot until Christmas Eve. I headed off thinking “how and when did play time become so complicated?” When did a run-around in the fresh air after school or playing Lego with a friend require the formality of a diary consultation between parents? All the more baffling in this case because my son and his friend are in the same class at school and see each other every day. It’s a sad indictment of the hamster-wheel, busy lifestyle of many families today that some children don’t get to play spontaneously with friends. Play without planning that usually involves phone calls, texts, dates being punched into electronic diaries and lists of dietary requirements exchanged between parents. It starts early. Ante-natal groups often continue meeting for a long time after the babies arrive, not just as a sociable, support group for Mums but invariably for the infants to have some fellow infants to look at (children often just play alongside rather than with each other until they’re around two.) Then there’s the plethora of baby massage classes, baby music, baby gym, playgroups, all strictly scheduled for a fixed duration. Fun can only be had in half-hour slots once a week it seems! First-time Mums appear particularly keen to take their children to these activities not just to relieve the tedium and domestic drudgery of new parenthood but to get to know other parents with an eye on potential “play dates” for their little ones. “Play dates” – who invented them? When did children cease to simply play and started having dates fixed in order to engage in activity of the playing kind? As families increasingly live away from the communities where they grew up, “play dates” have become a fairly routine but in many cases necessary fixture in the modern-day family’s planner. “When else are the children going to get a chance to play with their friends?” I hear some parents wail in despair at the thought that outside this strictly scheduled slot, their children would be incapable of amusing themselves spontaneously with other children, say, in the park of an afternoon. Of course the idea of structured play time for children would have seemed laughable not that long ago, when it was fairly normal for children to come home from school and be told to “run off and play now until tea time, then it’s homework.” Weekends weren’t so crammed full of activities that couples would spend their entire time dragging exhausted children from one structured activity to the next with hardly any time for either parents or children to draw breath. How many children do we know whose weekends routinely start with a music lesson, followed by sport or swimming followed by a birthday party – sometimes two – and maybe a family activity like a visit to a local attraction all squeezed into the same day? I’ve often seen their pale, tired, little faces peering out from the back of a car being ferried back and forth with a look of weary resignation rather than excitement. I frequently ask myself “when do these children get to play?” I might ask one or two of them to join my son and his school friend on Christmas Eve while I’m preparing the turkey stuffing. “Run along and play now” I’ll say to my young guests in the hope that they know how.
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