(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – June 2022)
(Header image from ‘Stuff Dutch People Like’ website.)
Growing up throughout the 1960s and ’70s my brothers and I were free-range children, unencumbered by the pressures of an adult world. There were only two grown-up rules: don’t talk to strangers and be home in time for tea.
Running barefoot through seemingly endless hot Virginia summers, climbing trees with skinned knees, riding our bikes and make-believe, we played-out our childhoods in the limitless landscape of our imaginations. We were free to negotiate and establish our own play rules with our friends. Through the liberty of play we took risks, established our own boundaries, solved problems and developed social, emotional and physical skills: life skills. We didn’t know it at the time but we were the lucky ones.
On rainy days, Mom would tell me to ‘go play’ which opened up countless possibilities: making paper dolls from old magazines; dressing-up; playing make-believe as I flew into space inside an upturned kitchen stool (this was, after-all, the Space Age of Apollo 11). After school clubs and activities didn’t exist and the notion of ‘quality time’ hadn’t been invented yet: my brothers and I were rich in our parents love and our family life. We ate dinner together and talked to each other.
My parents read, told stories and sang to us but pretty much left us alone to play. If I said, “I’m bored!” Mom would say, “Good! Children should be bored at least once a day. Use your imagination.” Without a PC, tablet, mobile phone or social media, I had to look inside myself for adventures.
I made mud pies for my dolls; sat on the driveway and burst tar bubbles in the searing heat with a stick and watched the tar ooze; made a jewellery box for my mother with matchsticks; sailed the high seas from a sail boat in the dining-room with two chairs and an old sheet. I did cart-wheels, handstands and backflips; played ‘tag’ with my friends; looked for fairies in the pine glades and inhabited the Magic Faraway Tree. I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, clicking my heels together three times before rolling down a grass bank to go ‘home’ to Kansas.
My bed served as a covered wagon where I’d sit with my feet hitched on the footboard and “gee-up” my team of horses as I headed west across the great prairies in search of gold. Wearing an imaginary calico dress and bonnet, I fought off wild critters including howling coyotes and Grizzly ‘bahrs’ with my bare hands and sang songs beneath the stars around a campfire in the middle of my bedroom floor. Why – there wasn’t a more feared hunter in all the west!
In 1970 when I was ten, my family left behind my small-town American childhood idyll and moved to Birmingham, West Midlands where I encountered not only a strange new dialogue called Brummie but a wholly new culture to draw from in my playground games: ‘tag’ became ‘tig’; ‘British Bulldog’ replaced ‘King of the Hill’; ‘Red-Light, Green-Light’ became ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf’ and ‘Conkers’ became a playground favourite. Suddenly I was thrust into a Betjeman-esque land of 1930s suburban streets, cul-de-sacs, alleyways and gulleys to explore with my new best friends Denise and Becky.
Mom used to say that ‘if a child isn’t filthy by teatime, they haven’t had a good day’ and we didn’t disappoint; revelling in street games, making dens, clapping rhymes, ‘Dolly Bobbin’, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, ‘French Skipping’ and rhymes:
‘George, Paul, Ringo, John
Next-door neighbour follow on…’
as we skipped in and out of a large rope.
‘Mother’s in the kitchen, doing a bit of stitching
In comes a burglar and out she runs
We quickly established ‘The Gang’ with neighbourhood kids whose overriding mission was to own our own ponies. I asked my beleaguered dad every day if I could have a pony and scoured the livestock ads of Pony Magazine. I entered the annual WH Smith ‘Win a Pony Competition’ regardless of the fact that we lived in a semi with a small back garden. (I did once win a runner-up mention when I designed a sew-on badge in a competition. It said, “An apple a day keeps the vet away” with a picture of a horse’s head. ) Becky and I both kept grooming kits under our beds “just in case.”
When one of the girls in The Gang, Sam, really did get a pony, we became obsessed with trying to get a free ride. An hour’s riding lesson was £1.50 in 1972 and my pocket money was 25 new pence per week. Sam finally allowed us to sit on her pony Jet – “Just sit, mind!” – and we were thrilled.
Becky and I made horse jumps in my back garden out of old orange crates and bits of wood and held gymkhanas on our space hoppers, which took on the names and personalities of our favourite ponies.
Mine was ‘Fred’ (in real life a bony old grey pony who took a shine to nibbling my jumper) and Becky rode ‘Firefly’ – a strawberry roan mare with a shaggy mane. Becky’s mum made us ribbon rosettes and as we flew over our jumps against the clock, we imagined we heard the roar of the crowd at the Horse of the Year Show. We cantered around the ring for a victory lap before our glory faded as mum hauled me indoors to do my homework and Becky had to go home. I watched through the net curtains as she bounced away down the grass verge, before tackling my History project on Neanderthal Man.
At weekends The Gang would take to the Clent Hills on our bikes; our saddlebags stuffed with cheese spread sandwiches and beakers of orange squash which leaked. We were gone all day without phones (imagine), safety helmets or a care in the world. Our parents had no idea where we were but trusted us to be home in time for tea.
I played with dolls until I was at least twelve or thirteen (imagine kids today taking time out from their devices to play with dolls). I had a doll house my dad made me which absorbed my imagination for hours-on-end; baby dolls, ‘Barbie’ dolls and a ‘Tressy’ doll whose hair grew out of the top of her head and could be pulled back in a chord on her back. Our dog chewed her hair off on Christmas Eve.
I even had a go at making a ‘Sindy’ doll settee from a cereal box and sticky-back plastic as seen on Blue Peter; along with an Advent candle holder from two wire coat hangers and a bit of tinsel; neither of which were successful but kept me occupied on those long boring wet weekends.
Young people today wouldn’t believe it; attached to their virtual worlds and virtual friends, where gratification is instant and the pressure is on to grow up too quickly. I told you we were the lucky ones.
(Copyright Andrea Burn – June 2022)