The number of hours spent by Danish children in front of the TV or computer, or playing with the i-Pad or mobile phone, was reported by the news the other day. It was really a lot. To tell the truth, I was not entirely unaware of the substantial amount of time kids in Denmark – my home country – devote to playing with these devices. Last week, I was at a seven-year birthday party, and while the kids did stay at the table for chocolate and birthday cake, they soon afterwards bunkered down in front of the TV where they played x-box games on-line, presumably with opponent players as far away as Russia and the US – it’s of course not only in Denmark that kids are spending many hours in front of the high-tech screens of our time. So how many hours was it, more exactly? The news reported an average figure of 5 hours per kid per day. In other words, after school many kids are not out playing football and the like. No, they retreat to the room and go on-line – and it’s applauded! This figure and the experience at the birthday party made my thoughts wander to the kids of Nepal.
How do Nepali kids play where most of them grow up: out in the villages? From all that we’ve seen, they don’t hang out much inside if they can find a way to avoid it. Instead, unless the rain is pouring down, they are playing around the farm or on the open grounds of the village. If there is a pond or river nearby, check out those stretches where it’s good for swimming – if the weather is fairly nice, chances are that many kids will be hanging out there as much as they can. Indeed, once we met a group of kids along the Naranyani river down in Chitwan. They were not entirely without inspiration from modern media: they loved Hindi movies which they watched in the local cinema. But that aside, they were usually playing outside, and down by the river they were busy that day re-enacting scenes from the movies. It sure were action movies and the kids knew the moves, too! Check out the slide show below – all the photos show scenes from the river bank on an ordinary afternoon, a little outside Narayanghat. Those local children have, perhaps, one of the best playgrounds a kid could ever wish for, I think. What kid would not just love to play there all day?
Well, I have come to realise: not all kids. Perhaps I’m just too influenced by my own childhood. As a kid, I played down by a river too, always eager to be outside even when a drizzle could have made staying inside and watch television sound more tempting. Who cared about a bit of rain back then. Growing up in the countryside, most of us local kids couldn’t wait to hear the last ring of the school bell and head out fishing, making small dams, and do other stuff – all of it being outdoors! Indeed, when I met another gang of kids in a village outside Pokhara, so many years later, seeing them running barefoot and climbing tall trees as easily as walking, my memories once again travelled back to my own childhood village. We did much of that too, although we surely were lesser experts at tree climbing. In fact, I felt these kids were even more fortunate than we had been: what a forest they had; what a view of the lake; how much fun they would have running about the farms on the slope. These kids, I felt, surely have one of the best playgrounds in the world: a village playground!
But I now realise, stunned by the numbers of the recent Danish statistics, that not all kids in my country would agree. Nowadays, many kids in Denmark would not envy a Nepali village kid at all. In fact, some Danish kids can be hard to attract outside the door in general. Surprisingly, at least to adults like me, it is not uncommon to hear a child say that going for a walk in the forest is boring, not to mention climbing a tree or spending time on a farm. Many will often start longing for the computer game instantly, the online friends, the TV series, or the chat-log on their mobile phone. In other words, how different the playgrounds and the favourite games of kids in such two countries can indeed be. One could wonder if one type of playground is better than the other, in absolute terms? To be sure, kids everywhere probably play the games that help them learn how to navigate in their environment and to acquire some of the skills they might need as adults. Take the game of playing “family” or “doctor and patient” which are just two classical examples. Indeed, if the adults spend a lot of time in front of TVs and computer screens, their children are likely to emulate them. But is that a great outcome? Well, I might be old-fashioned, but it strikes me as better for a kid in many ways to play outdoors like Nepali village kids do, as opposed to inside in front of a screen.
Outside seems better for developing physical strength and agility, acquiring real social skills, as opposed to those in “cyberspace”, and so much more. The kids in a village won’t learn how to handle a joystick or chat with other kids on-line. But they’ll learn a lot which is preciously real and true and good, I think, as opposed to made-up stuff inside a world of computer animation. It is true that not all Danish kids are hooked to the TV screen and mobile phones, just as not all Nepali kids are unfamiliar with high-tech gear and x-box games. It is also obvious that one can combine the two type of playgrounds. But if the playground behind the screen takes over, I – for one – would hesitate to applaud it. Village kids are perhaps supposed to emulate western children and become as modern and developed as them technology-wise. How else will they make by in the modern world as adults, some will ask. That could be true. But I wonder if Danish children could benefit from trying to play like Nepali village kids a bit too? As I heard the statistics on the time spent in front of the screen, and saw the children at the birthday party playing x-box games for hours on end, I felt something like that. In fact, I longed for my childhood and the Nepali village on their behalf. Some might say, “what a grumpy old man”. Maybe so. But let this just be, then, a tribute to the village playground!
PS: This spring we are heading down to meet the children who played on the banks of Naranyani river. It’s been five years since we met them. So check out our update later: although they didn’t play with modern high-tech as kids, how are they doing now – have they been able to use computers and mobile phones, can they cope in high-school, are they looking for jobs? We’ll ask them soon!