“Stilo?! Stilo?! Madame, stilo s’il vous plait?!”
This is the cry that will greet me for the next couple of weeks during my stay at a retreat where I will increase my abilities as a Pilates teacher, as well as enjoying the delights of a fairly remote Berber village some 45 minutes distance south of Marrakech.
I have been coming to this place for many years and it is very special. The local people seem to tolerate the intrusion of clumsy westerners with good grace, and an understanding of the benefit of employment, whilst having the cultural strength to welcome us with seemingly little impact on their traditional day to day lives.
During my stay, my greatest joy is to look out of my window onto the mistiest of mornings and duskiest of evenings to witness the sounds and visions of the goatherds taking their flocks to and from their grazing.
Yes, the children in the street will ask you for a pen - a pen! (It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that if they happened to catch a visitor in front of one of the minimal kiosks in the village that they wouldn't try to tap you for a sweetie - but this is never the first ask). Can you imagine a child in any cotswold village running up to you and holding their hands out whilst endearingly begging you for a crayon?
The regulars bring packages that we deliver to the local infant school, and it touches us that it really is the pens, papers, stickers and other more luxurious pieces of stationery that our children take for granted that these children treasure - it makes so much more of an impact that any sugary snack they could sweet talk an adult to procure for them.
But it’s not the begging that sticks with me, it’s the sense of community. The village is fairly remote, there is very little vehicular traffic, and the children have the freedom to wander where they want, at will.
There is something very special about the learning that children achieve when they are left alone in a naturally occurring group, being free to establish their own societal rules away from adult intervention.
And then I saw this image in a recent edition of The Guardian:
One of the little boys in the picture - obviously now a grown man - said:
‘It is slightly shocking to see my six-year-old self out by myself; none of the other boys are my friends. But back then life was played out more in the streets: I think it made us more self-reliant and sociable than kids today.’
It brought back memories of my own childhood in the sixties. The perennial question, “Can I go out and play?” And the usual answer, “Yes, as long as you’re back before dark.”
I vividly recall spending long days cycling along canal paths, or climbing trees, acting out stories and racing around with the other children growing up in my street. I learned so much about how to communicate with my peers, how to negotiate, how to compromise. More than this, I continually learned about myself and my place within my peer group - my immediate society - so much that would stand me in good stead as I matured and grew into a fully fledged adult.
I count myself lucky that I grew up in such times, it’s rare these days to see children creating and learning through their own communities in the local outdoors to their homes. Sure they can play out power struggles and emotional wrangling in the school playground, but it’s not quite the same, it doesn't offer the same choices as the street play of old.
So how do we measure our progress? We have gained much, and our technological advances have also made their way to tiny Moroccan hamlets. But their children are still free to make their own social rules in a way less violent than our own gang-ridden urban youngsters have been forced to.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves how much benefit we are really gaining from supposedly keeping our children safe and off the streets? And more importantly, how can we give them opportunities to engage in that vital social learning, away from adult eyes, whilst not putting them at risk?