Saturday, January 21, 2012

Leaving Hobbit-Land

Before our move, I trawled the Internet for emigrant stories. One theme came up quite regularly amongst those with children - emigrants from the UK and North America tended to be shocked by how different New Zealand attitudes were to health and safety. Reading them, I decided that the North Americans and Brits were probably a bit namby-pamby, and that the New Zealand attitude of teaching children to manage risk safely was a wiser one. This, I now realise, was about as sensible of me as deciding to move to New Zealand in the hope of catching sight of some Hobbits.

When I saw the school grounds, I realised what these whingy emigrants had been talking about. Huge open gateways at either end, leading out of the school. Trees, bushes, copses. Four large climbing frames, in different areas. A large slide halfway down the hill. You couldn't keep an eye on all these children at playtime unless you employed an army (or got dinner ladies who really enjoyed scrambling through bushes). Half of me said "What an amazing landscape. This is Lord of the Rings country. My children will learn to frolic and adventure in the open countryside like Frodo and his friends." The other half said "Oh my GOD! I have children with no sense of danger! This is like sending them to Mordor!" The school reassured me that they spent an awful lot of time teaching children to play safely and stay in school. "Although, ha ha, there was that incident this year where some five year olds decided to play down the road instead because school was too busy," the Head said, rolling her eyes humorously as if it was the funniest thing that had happened all year. I laugh along with her, and pretend I think that's totally, like, normal, like children get lost from school all the TIME in the UK, yeah, we're so cool about that kind of thing...
But then New Zealand never had Dunblane, and the fenced-in, lockdown school culture that followed. What has resulted I guess is a kind of Hobbit-land, safe and tidy where nothing ever happens. Whereas New Zealand school playground designers, are clearly interested in replicating those glorious scenes from Lord of the Rings, you know, where loads of people get killed but you don't really care because the scenery is so awesome.

I spend a few days mulling over how I and the school will train my little kamikaze pilots to learn a little safety and stranger awareness. A the moment, they have neither, and would probably run up to Sauran and his minions with open arms, if they were temporarily distracted from leaping from unsuitably high surfaces that is: and I am just deciding that it will be FINE, I am just paranoid, my kids are going to be AWESOME here, when in a fit of wild optimism I take them to the local Botanical Gardens for the afternoon.

And here I learn two things. One is that New Zealand really, really, really believes that children and natural hazards are a good combination. The child's area of the Botanical gardens has cute little water features, and ponds, and is next to a very large enticing lake. I only realise this AFTER I have let the younger two out of the double buggy. I spend several minutes running between the three of them, urging them not to go swimming in the nice splashy pond and persuading them that really they want to run in the children's pine-forested area. I imagine it as rather like the Elves' Lothlorien, a place of retreat from the sun and my fears of imminent death by pond-jumping. When we get there, I realise that there are no fences - your children can run out of sight in a few paces, and could end up anywhere in the huge gardens. Plus there are mazes to have fun in and hide from Mummy. This is all doubly exciting if Mummy is getting worried and cross, and muttering under her breath that sod Lothlorian, this is all getting like the Mines of Moria.

The first time my middle son runs off, I manage to find him, within about five minutes. He is still in the children's area, hiding in some bushes, giggling. Of course I then have to round up the other two, who have wandered off to find that nice water stuff, drawn to danger with the single-minded certainty of Gollum and his Ring. My middle son has clearly got a quest of his own, to get away from me. He is clearly getting a taste for freedom - this is the problem with this big open country, if you keep your childrne locked up in a matchbox they never get the idea that it would be a good idea to roam - the second time he belts, he heads straight out of the children's garden and towards the lake. Suicide mission time. I pelt after him, toddler under one arm. Actually, pelt is the wrong word. I totter, trying not to drop the little one, rather like an energetic overweight Ent.

A group of teenagers watch me with interest. I yell at them to stop the runaway - they do so, he is horrified by being touched and conveniently runs back, roaring, in my direction. He looks like an extremely angry Dwarf. I try to manhandle a two year old and a yelling four year old back to the buggy whilst wondering what my kamikaze seven-year-old is up to. Fortunately, he is still safe, but the experience reminds me that I must not be too ambitious, that the boys are still too unpredictable for too much freedom, and that GREAT as all this open space and teaching children the idea of freedom and personal responsibility and safety training is, it has downsides if your children aren't the sort that can learn that kind of stuff, at least not yet.

I need Gandalf to turn up and guide me. But Gandalf was great at doom-mongering and not so good at hatching a practical plan. I need someone a little more prosaic and hands-on, who won't mutter about the coming Doom but will show me how to manage this safety issue properly, giving my sons enough fun and adventure whilst keeping them safe from harm. There isn't anyone, of course, and I fall back on prayer, running through the forest after my children I pray both to Jesus and - don't tell my bishop - Tane Mahuta, Maori god of the forest. I don't intend to, but it just slips out, as if I am invoking a local saint. Your mind plays funny tricks on you when you are frightened. I don't want to take the children back to Hobbitland, to keep them inside, away from the open landscape. I want them to discover the forest world of Tane Mahuta, at school and in the botanical gardens and out of town. But for the time being, the botanical gardens are out of bounds for us, because I have realised it is just too risky to try to take them there on my own.

I am caught between joy at the opportunities here and frustration at what we cannot yet do. It's all very well being in one of the most beautiful countries in the world but it's going to be a right waste of time if I can't let them out of the car to play. Inclusion can sometimes mean fences need to be built. I wonder what on earth mothers like me do here, when your kids just don't GET that water is dangerous, for now.


  1. Interesting post.

    Switzerland is similar in that they have a casual relationship to the old 'Elf and Safety (and how on earth could you let that pun opportunity pass you by?)

    Saying that, I had a phonecall this week to say that my 7yo and ran out in front of a car to retrieve a ball - or that is what I understood from the lunchtime supervisor. Turns out he had left the playground to retrieve a ball and crossed the road, having looked both ways. Sure, not allowed, but her overreaction was a bit odd.

    Not sure what you can do, other than introduce them slowly to the idea of freedom. Are there any groups there with parents of SN kids who you could ask how they did it?

  2. Our school has grassy banks, trees, cut trunks to jump off. When a ball goes over the fence they jump over to retrieve it from the gardens beside the school! Its just the way things are in Ireland I suppose. There are 600 children in the school

  3. That's very interesting, Mme Lindor and Mum-of-All-Trades. In that case perhaps it is less that NZ are unusually lax, than that the US Canada and Britain are unusually careful!

  4. What an amazing playground that sounds like though. And what a nightmare for you.

  5. I think the US & UK have both become very - overly - cautious, to the point of paranoia almost, and I (and many other parents in the US) worry about raising a generation of children who don't get enough opportunity to take risks. Here, even the parks & zoos cut low branches off trees so it's hard for children to climb them, and of course schools are mostly fenced in (that I'm not so worried about - mine were in 70s & 80s Britain, at least until senior school age).

    I think a lot of what you need to do is take some time - as you get it, doesn't have to be done overnight - to explore your area with & without the children (get Mr C to help too) and work out places that are safe /not in different ways for trips, You'll gradually build up to riskier locations as you & the boys get used to the place, learn the rules etc, but it won't happen overnight, and it doesn't need to. It can be a gradual process. :)

  6. I think that LM is right and you need to walk before you can run. But it sounds absolutely incredibly brilliant and I wish we would be much more like that and much less big girls' blouses about letting children play.

    You must be losing some of your British elf & safety mania (and I agree, how did you miss THAT one?) if you yelled at a group of teenagers to stop your child. In the UK that would never happen, right?

    I used to get it in the neck a lot when I let my girls go to the playpark - alone - where my parents live in a small village adjoinng a huge city. They know all the drills because they learned them here (admittedly a tiny village nowhere near anything resembling a city) but those little freedoms mean that now as young teenagers I can let them off to the big cities for the day (together) without worrying. Too much.

  7. Hi, it's Violet5 from MN, just spotted a comment you'd left about my blog on a thread, thank you :-)

    I have added your blog to my blog roll, hope you don't mind. I think your blog is brilliant (glad i spotted your link) and will be visiting often.

    Best Wishes, Jo (thoughtsfromthekitchensink.wordpress)

  8. I think though, LM, that the 'gradual process' implies learning that works for most kids but not the same for children with the special needs C's have.

    As everyone's said, it does sound wonderful though. But I would postpone visiting Rotorua in the foreseeable future. There are no barriers around much of it.

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