Sarah Todd: Why our children have lost the art of amusing themselves

Sarah Todd argues that children should be encouraged to make their own entertainment during the long summer holidays.
Sarah Todd argues that children should be encouraged to make their own entertainment during the long summer holidays.
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Parents are mad to spend a fortune on giving children an expensive trip or a treat every day of the school holidays.

WHEN did we become a nation that started to throw money at keeping children occupied during the summer holidays?

A study by the hotel chain Travelodge has shown that the average family spends around £1,500 entertaining their offspring during the long break from school. As a result we have a younger generation that are a) spoilt and b) don’t know how to amuse themselves.

If I had a pound for every child that has come to play and said, “What are we going to do next?” I would be able to pay for the seemingly obligatory jaunt to Legoland. They shouldn’t be looking to adults to come up with a timetable of activities; they should be able to amuse themselves.

Being bored is the answer. Not just a bit bored; but that really frustrating mind-numbing boredom. The lives of modern children are so scheduled that very few seem to have ever experienced being properly, seriously bored.

A clinical study could be done of the condition. There seems to be a pretty exact point of boredom when – if no adult intervenes with a “why don’t we?” – they actually come up with something to do themselves.

Weeding the driveway was, in this correspondent’s 1970s childhood, the antidote to boredom. If we stood around saying we were bored long enough our father would set us to work on pulling weeds out of the gravel. We soon learnt to not hang around complaining of being bored.

History repeated itself the other day when our children were mooching around a bit badly-done-to-looking and they were told there was some stone picking to do.

Just like those weeds of 30-odd years ago, they suddenly found lots of their own tasks that couldn’t be put off a second longer.

Before anybody else says it, we live in the countryside. Some will insist it’s both easier and safer for children to find their own amusement. Maybe it is.

The sad thing though is that there is next to nobody for them to hang around with. That’s the biggest difference to more urban childhoods.

When we were young villages like the one we live in now were full of children on bikes, just larking around and being bored together.

Now so many country villages are barren, childless places. Property prices have driven young families away; the homes they would have lived in are now occupied by early-retireds, young professional commuters or used as holiday homes.

We have a little campsite and it’s interesting how so many families have every day of their stay organised.

They’re out spending money at some attraction or other. Our visitors’ book is testament to those all-too-rare days when our guests have had nothing to do. The days they stay local and end up going for a walk or – here’s another 1970s throwback – don’t shift out of the field and get the old Swingball set out seem to supersede all the expensive excursions.

During the first week of the summer holidays our children were at – don’t laugh – Pony Club camp.

Putting preconceptions about Thelwell-esque happenings to one side, it was interesting to see how much they enjoyed having to make their own entertainment – rounders one night, sliding down a soapy piece of plastic sheeting the next.

Mobile phones were banned and, for those who had smuggled them in, reception was neither nowt nor summat.

Hard work also played its part. Riding, mucking out, tack cleaning and doing duties like washing up left them tired and less awkward about their free-time.

It was also interesting to watch how the girls’ vanity took a refreshing dip after a day or three without hair straighteners and only one tiny mirror between them.

It’s no exaggeration to say they became much more likeable without their mobile phones. They actually passed the time of day; rather than sitting slack-jawed as they stabbed at a little screen.

There has also been a scout camp for the most junior member of our family. There was no cost for this, just a contribution of a few burgers for the barbecue.

Trips to the beach, making ice lollies, strawberry picking, cleaning bikes, bathing the dog. Yes, it all sounds a bit Darling Buds of May, but is there really the need to have a destination – a treat – every day of the holidays?

My gran used to run a bowl of soapy water and we’d spend hours blowing bubbles.

Rose-tinted? Probably. And, of course, the sun always seemed to shine in the school holidays of yesteryear.

Yet today we are bombarded with adverts and pointless “three for two” type vouchers for monstrous places. The march for our cash starts just before Easter, building to a money-grabbing stampede in these long summer holidays.

Just as important as being bored is having a rest. The institution of school is tiring. Up early every morning, homework, remembering books. Having nothing to do and nowhere to go is surely a much-needed tonic to all that academic organisation.

I am not talking about laziness – remember those still stones need picking – but leaving children alone just long enough to find their own ways to fill the time and fire their own imaginations.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.