Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The building that my primary school used to occupy was, if my memory serves me right, old, dark and had cracked walls due to the high level of humidity. It was on two levels: ground and first floor. The classrooms were small with students (usually more than thirty per class) huddling together as best as we could. Concrete would be a good way to describe my previous surroundings. There was a little, tiny, teeny, weenie mini-garden down on the ground floor, but, blink! and you could miss it. I think that the school was on the grounds of what used to be an old colonial house because each classroom looked like a bedroom.

By the way, I’m not slagging my old primary school off, just in case you’re getting that impression. I’m merely warming you up for today’s post.

Despite these inconveniences I spent some of the better years of my life in that building. From reception to Year 5 (I did my Year 6 in a different school) I was encouraged to try my best. Especially when it came to reading, writing, dancing and singing. Sadly, this bias towards the belles lettres brought unwelcome consequences: from an early age I carried the label of “not good at maths”.

But I digress. Overall, my experience at school was a positive one and this was due in great part to my teachers. However, there’s another detail that I remember very clearly. We all used to do our PE lessons in the local park and had a rota for each year group. There was hardly any space in the school to do physical education. We had what you could possibly call a patio but it was – that word, again – concrete. We did have our assemblies there; at some of which I sang songs and recited poems. But other than the little, tiny, teeny, weenie, mini-garden I described above there was no other greenery in the school.

That was the norm for most urban schools in Havana. And that probably explains why we – or I, rather, as a city type of person – have always had a funny relationship with the countryside, gardening and the environment.

Recently on one of my Facebook pages, an acquaintance and dance student of mine asked fellow FBers why in Cuba, with such fertile soil as we’ve always had, there weren’t more people taking advantage of it. I’m not quoting her exact question, but it was along those lines. I remember commenting on her thread but I’m afraid to say that my initial response was too laconic. Her enquiry did leave me thinking why, when I was a boy, I don’t recall my neighbours being very enthusiastic about using their balconies, nooks and crannies to grow more fruit’n’veg.

Fast forward many years later and here I am in good ol’ Blighty and my lifestyle is very different, even if my surroundings are still rather urban. Although I’ve yet to visit New York, Madrid, Mexico City, Paris, Rome or any other large metropolis, I can safely say that London is probably the city with most parks and green spaces in the world. What this has done is encourage me, city boy, to enjoy the outdoors a lot more. It has motivated me to take walks in my local park (or parks, there are many near where I live), woods and immerse myself even more in what many of my fellow British readers and fellow bloggers will recognise as an intrinsic part of life in this country. This picture of green spaces in urban settings didn't come out of the ether. Inner-city playgrounds have slowly been transforming their equipment, making it look more rustic. Metal climbing frames are being substituted for wooden ones. Rural motifs are springing up here and there, in many parts of London.

However a word of caution here. Parallel to this fascination for the countryside, there’s also an objectification and commodification of it, in my opinion. Many packets of crisps, for instance, carry a label nowadays that reads “handmade by farmers in…”. Food, whose provenance is unknown, doesn’t get the same attention as products sourced organically. One could say that this is the result of a more conscientious attitude on the part of consumers, but it could also be nothing but a new food fad.

If it’s the latter, then that would probably throw some light on another problem: that of children playing outdoors. Or not playing enough. A couple of articles recently made me think of my own childhood and how active I was. Because, despite having been born and raised in downtown Havana, bang in the midst of the hustle-bustle, I did lead a very active life, climbing trees, playing baseball and chasing a football in the local – concrete – park. George Monbiot, who’s one of the UK’s foremost environmentalists, wrote a few days ago in one of his regular columns that “Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.” So, whilst we worry about where Kettle Chips come from, we (that’s a journalistic “we”) limit our children’s physical activities outside the home and stymy their interaction with nature.

Oh, what I would give to be a child again and play with the equipment I see in so many parks and playgrounds here in the UK! That’s why when my children were younger and I took them to the park, I ended up hoisting myself up on to the rustic-looking, wooden climbing frame (don’t worry, I stopped doing it when I realised I was embarrassing my offspring). But I also have to put my hand up and blame myself for not doing more to educate my son and daughter on the importance of playing outside. Yes, we have gone camping many times with the Woodcraft Folk and on our own and try to look after the environment. But the grazes and bruises we all acquired when we were little (especially if you’re of a certain age like me) and which we showed off to all and sundry like medals won in combat, are almost invisible in children’s limbs nowadays.

In the case of schools that don’t encourage outdoor learning, part of the problem is fear of reprisal by parents and/or carers. Health and safety regulation has become so powerful that if little Jimmy or Susan gets a cut on his/her knee whilst doing PE, parents sometimes threaten the school with litigation. Therefore many educational institutions become overcautious and overprotective. There’s also too much emphasis on the school curriculum and targets -and less on all-round education. And thirdly, there’s a shift away from humanities and arts towards more numeracy-focused content.

These reasons differ from what I witnessed as a boy back in Havana. This, by the way, is also my answer to my fellow FBer. In the Cuban capital anything remotely suggesting countryside in the 70s and 80s was usually derided and mocked. The word “guajiro” (peasant), though neutral, can be pejorative depending on the context. No one, as far as I can remember, wanted to be a “guajiro” when they grew up. No one wanted to work in the countryside or till the land. This situation changed radically in the 90s as soon as the economic crisis kicked in. Suddenly four of my neighbours began to grow vegetables and raise animals such as chickens, pigs and ducks. The tables had been turned. Now peasants mattered and fruit’n’veg was not a distant concept.

Maybe a similar scenario is unfolding in the UK, food fads notwithstanding. Perhaps the optimist in me would like to believe that we’re seeing a renaissance of a greener lifestyle, more environment-friendly. Who knows, this might even lead to a revival of outdoor learning. After all, most schools in the UK, even if they are located in urban areas, look like the one at which I work: they have a large field and occasionally they abut on a park. Not a little, tiny, teeny, weenie mini-garden, but a proper park. The opportunity is there, let’s just seize it.

For the second part of today’s post I will leave you with a clip of one of the most original jazz composers there’s been in the last sixty years, who sadly died a few days ago. Rest In Peace, maestro Brubeck!

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 12th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Image taken from the National Trust website.


21 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing. It was very lovely to read. I remember attending a Catholic elementary school in the city that had a small area of concret for the playground and a little mound of grass. Hopelessly clumsy, I scraped my knees every week on that concrete. However, it was at that grammar school that I developed my love for writing and reading.

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  2. Many thanks for your comment, CS Severe.

    What a beautiful Sunday I've had so far. Woke up late and had a full English (minus the bacon and mushrooms). My children and I had a lovely conversation about Christmas and the presents they want to get their mum. Then, I did the ironing, as I usually do, in front of the telly. Caught up with Never Mind the Buzzcocks (it was great) and Have I Got News For You (just OK this time). And then, one of the highlights of my day: Led Zeppelin's 2010 concert Celebration Day. It was on the BBC iPlayer, so I watched the whole 60 minutes of it. After that I was in high spirits, so I went out for a run. And what a run it was! Halfway through it, part of the sky clouded over whilst the other half was still exhibiting the early dusk rainbow of purples, violets and light crimsons. Evenings like this make me glad I live in London. All of a sudden my run got even better. Coupled with the spectacle in fron of me, Boz Scaggs' Loan Me a Dime came on and for about a quarter of an hour I wasn't running, but flying.

    I hope you all have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

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  3. Here in Oz, all my schools from kindergarten up, had a large, grassy play area. And play we did. And a short bike ride from home there was a lake I could (and did) swim in, and trees to climb.
    In that aspect I had a very, very good childhood - and my time outside was completely unsupervised outside of school hours. Blessed.
    And yes, Vale Dave Brubeck - a master.

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  4. ah thanks for the jazz...i think it would be really cool to do PE in the park...the primary school i went to is still in existence...and luckily they still have a huge greenspace right behind it to play in...not many trees, except by the creek and we used to go there for science some times...i think the liability probably keeps them in...but i do think a park of education should be outside and not stuck in the room...

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  5. I'm delighted to report that my children's primary school has a large tarmac play area, a very large grass area (undoubtedly a field once) and no end of high, dangerous things to climb on, swing on and generally injure yourself with, usually made the head teacher and various volunteer parents. I know we're very unusual, and I take my hat off to that Head who genuinely believes that risk-taking is part of children's growth. Of course, it's a small school (90-odd) and there has to be a general consensus, part historical and part cultural, I think, amongst the parents that this is OK.

    But you can understand teachers who fear (possibly unreasonably, but that does not make the fear less real) ramifications if things go wrong and the proper risk assessment was not performed. Hence the dearth of school trips for many pupils too. And yes, it is a great shame.

    Loved Brubeck, thank you.

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  6. This is a lovely and nice post.
    Make me think and remember many things:)
    Like CS I was my first 6 years in a catholic school with nuns:( and many time after I knew they were german so I understand many things sigh!
    I think you grow and learned in a such lovely place, you really enjoyed.
    We dont have ANY green not trees, nothing, only concrete, I can shut my eyes and remember all the place.
    Anyway I go after to a public school that was amazing, I loved, nice teachers, I learned a lot and have a lovely Lybrary that I was many times, I love to smell books :) Really enjoyed.
    Love the music, just lovely, Gloria

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  7. I love Led Zeppelin of course:)

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  8. great post I get my kids out to a park or in our garden daily I love playing outside with them

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  9. You're so right, of course. Seems strange that schools don't use those parks more!

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  10. very interesting article..i live in a rather small town with still lots of green spaces around (but funny enough, we had a concrete playground too..) and when we were kids, we spent all afternoon outside..things have changed a lot and in some cities it became dangerous to let the kids play outside on their own..sad..

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  11. A very interesting post indeed. Ah, wouldn't we all like to be children again and play on some of that delightful playground equipment that abounds. Luckily I have an excuse to 'play' on it sometime despite having left childhood long behind. I take my granddaughter and use her as a good excuse. Ha!! Have a good day.

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  12. Hey Cuban!! You're singing my song, I've been complaining forever about how kids are inside too much and PE is all but eradicated in school Once a week? Yikes! And then they complain the kids can't sit still in class. The outdoors is where I spent most of my childhood, so happy to know you were out there with your kids:-) Excellent write-really enjoyed it! Wrote a Cuban family flavored poem today-enjoy! :-)

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  13. It is so true-children today are too sedentary-electronic media has made it all too easy to just sit and park. The younger generations do not have the memories that we have of being so physically active. Which is good for the mind and the body. No wonder we have rampant depression and sleep disorders today!
    Thought provoking post as usual!
    And now (at age 58), I am off to go get ready for my once a week ballet class.

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  14. I'm rolling on the floor at some of your replies! :-) Or should that be ROTFLMAO! :-)

    It looks as if we could teach the younger generation a thing or two about leading an active lifestyle. Actually, I can't complain that much. Both my children are quite active, but I also know that if it weren't for me and my wife they would rather sit in front of the telly most of the time.

    Many thanks for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.

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  15. Nice to do the PE in the park where they can play with the tree bark haha and a relaxing Sunday is sure the way to be plus nice to get all jazzy.

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  16. now that sounds like a beautiful day!

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  17. You raise some pertinent isses: the decrease in available play space for one. And this extends beyond childhood. In my early teens - and even before I cycled everywhere, was touring by the time I was 14, either by myself, more often with a friend. I couldn't let a child of mine do that today, the roads and traffic being what they are. Health and safety , you are right, is another big issue. Health involves a modicum of danger in my view.

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  18. Sadly, yes. And that loss is not restricted to children ... I live in sunny SOuth Africa and get into the sun so rarely I was recently diagnosed with a "critical" VItamin D deficiency (partly because I'm vegetarian, but mainly because I don't have time to go out into the sun!) What a shocker that was ... living in SUNNY South Africa and short on the sunshine vitamin.

    How much worse must it be for the children who, like me, spend their lives in a technological age that has us gasping in wonder at the pictures of nature on our screens, and forgetting that the source of that beauty (and sun!) is ours to breathe and live in, if only we'd spend more time outdoors.

    Great post. Will tweet it!

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  19. I hadn't given the subject much thought before reading this, but there has been a real decrease in play space for our children in recent years, hasn't there?
    I suppose the authorities would argue that in this technological age most children prefer to be indoors playing computer games. But surely it would be much better if they were given more encouragement to play outside.
    Then, of course, there is the big issue of health and safety...and so the argument goes on...

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  20. Kids just don't go out as much anymore! The Summer Kitchen girls lived on a farm...so there was always something "exciting" to do...we remember our cousins coming over from the big city & they were always so bored...nothing to do here ~ ha!! Presently I live across from a park...there are children over ~ most with their parents. I think that one problem is that parents don't want their kids out in places by themselves due to the kidnappings.....a thought! I know that I hated to leave my kids go by themselves...I'd rather them be out in our own backyard playing.
    Enjoy the rest of your week!

    By the way...great Brubeck clip...one of my favorites!

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  21. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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