First and foremost I’ve long wanted Luca to have a space he feels is his. For a good while he was a bit non-plussed by the whole thing, but that changed the moment we put the doors on. And it changed even more when I fitted a lock and gave him a key.
Children often lack any great degree of control over their lives. They’re told what to do by their parents, by their teachers, indeed by pretty much any adult they come into contact with. Their possessions mean a great deal to them. The whole sense of owning something strikes me as being linked to their control of their environment and because that control is so limited anything over which they have control assumes much greater significance than it would to an adult.
These days children seem so much more controlled than when I was growing up in here in the Sussex Weald. My childhood memories are of trying to ride on sheep and pigs (it was pointed out to us that pigs is quite dangerous under the wrong circumstances) and of throwing apples at bullocks and running hell-for-leather to try to avoid getting trampled. We ran riot in the woods. We sawed down trees (also very dangerous). We flattened cornfields (and made cross farmers very dangerous). We fought small wars, built small camps, played out small cricket matches, wore out small pairs of boots. It was the British Empire writ small.
These days parents and their children seem to be held captive by anxiety. Our roads are full of cars. Our streets and cyberspace are full of child abusers. Our televisions are full of adverts designed by unscrupulous adults to exploit the very young. We start to worry about how they’ll find a job, afford a home and fund a pension before they’ve started school.
There’s a fantastic line from Swallows and Amazons when the Swallows write to their father in Malta to ask permission to sail to an island and camp and he replies by telegram: “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS, IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.” He added the second half to comfort their mother! I love the attitude. The motto of the state of New Hampshire comes from a quote by General John Stark, a toast he sent in his absence to a reunion of revolutionary war veterans in 1809: Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils. Life is to be lived. Risk is part of that. Too many of us simply exist.
There are many, many upsides to a world in which it’s rare for a child not to live through to adulthood. Once parents were steeled to the possibility that one or more of their children might not survive – taken by illness or accident. Now, though they’re safer than ever, we cling to them tighter than ever so unthinkable is it that something bad might happen.
So, though I may find it very hard to practice what I’m advocating, I’d like Luca to have all the freedoms I had as a child and, agonisingly, that means a degree of freedom to come to harm. However I suspect the harm that comes from running around the woods and camping out in a treehouse is less than the harm that comes from spending life on the sofa glued to the TV or a games console.
Play stimulates the imagination. Play allows us to practice confronting life’s challenges in a secure environment. Television and video games may be stimulating but they also leave us far more passive. Much of the imagining has been done for us already.
That’s why sticks and mud and sandpits and the magical landscape we live in are so powerful. They are whatever we want them to be – not what someone else has already decided they should be. That’s also why books and radio score over telly – because we supply the pictures and (in the case of books) the voices as well.
As for me – I’d be less that truthful if I said I hadn’t enjoyed building the treehouse. It’s been occasionally frustrating and often challenging. It’s been quite a lot of work. But I look at it and my heart sings. I am very proud of it. It’s almost exactly as I had visualised it. I took an idea, a thought, a small dream, and I made it real.
There’s still a fair amount to do – I need to finish a few window frames, insulate the roof and floor, put in some rudimentary electrics, make a small mezzanine and a ladder. I also need to suspend the gable end from the upper branches to take some of the weight off the main frame. But the end is in sight and I hope that spring will see it complete.
Then, when Mr. Luca is not at home, I’ll be sneaking up there to write. It’s a fantastic place to fire the imagination; his, and mine.