When we became parents for the first time we tried to attend our local church on Sundays in an effort to get our eldest on a good ‘moral track’ from day one. However, small children aren’t quiet and like to roam about which involves a fair bit of ‘child pulpit retrieval’. We would get ‘looks’ and ‘tuts’ from one or two congregation members and consequently we stopped going to church entirely. As a result neither of our children attend church, I dare say our youngest hasn’t even been in one since his Christening (aside from school harvest festival visits). Ours are still good children but that’s future church congregation numbers down for generations at a time when the future of local churches is in doubt.
I mention this story because a similar trend appears to be happening at some of our allotments. Consider a recent tale I heard of a plot turned into a ‘children’s garden’. Young mothers would attend with their little ones to sow and grow together, make mud pies etc – fantastic for the health of all concerned (physically and mentally). The mothers erected a small slide to keep the children amused (anybody who ever took children to an allotment knows they need some distractions after 30 minutes), but the local council official demanded the slide’s removal because it was ‘a structure’ and on this particular site structures are forbidden (sheds, greenhouses etc). It was suggested that the mothers go elsewhere if they want a child friendly growing area with a slide on it. Another slide at a different allotment site was deemed ‘the wrong type of structure’ and ‘not what allotments are about’ then taped off with police tape and notice posted of its pending removal. Ironically in both these instances the removal of the slide serves only to take away a distraction for the children during their ‘bored’ moments, making them more likely to irritate neighbouring plot holders.
These are but two examples, I have also seen many mentions on Facebook allotment forums of neighbouring plot holders complaining to councils and committees of ‘noisy children next door’ and letters then being sent out to plot holders warning them NOT to take children to their allotments or risk eviction. This is very upsetting for socially isolated parents who desperately want to get out of the house and do something physical whilst tied to little ones. On a related horticultural topic I can also recall a trip to Sissinghurst with our children two years ago to hear a middle aged couple say quietly ‘Why do people have to bring children to these places, it spoils my photography’ – I was very tempted to interject in that conversation… but bit my tongue to maintain my dignity and the tranquility of the place!
I accept that for older generations allotments may well be the stuff of formally planted vegetable lines, cancer inducing pest control and village summer shows. I also accept that for many people the allotment can be an escape into a peaceful world of nature. However I cannot help but draw comparisons between the church and allotment stories I describe. Less tolerant people make their dislike of noisy children known, and consequently interest in that activity declines among the young. Many allotments are under threat from housing demand and (to use a Whitney Houston line) children are our future.
Not only does this issue affect allotments, or public gardens but potentially our entire planet. Children need an understanding of the cycle of life, food production, nature’s role in pollination, the importance of environment. This is especially true at a time when technology is in the ascendance and children know more about the 802 different types of Pokemon than they do butterflies or vegetables. Green spaces are proven to improve productivity and learning capacity (in humans of all ages), there are known mental health benefits and calming outcomes, exercise reduces childhood obesity and in turn reliance on future health care budgets. I could go on… especially after recently attending a Thrive course on designing healing and restorative gardens.
Ultimately perhaps all we need do is revise section 22 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 to include a mention of children (yes really we are governed largely by laws written over 100 years ago):
- The use of a plot as a leisure garden – There is no legal restraint on using part of the plot as a leisure garden for recreation or for growing flowers or crops that take longer than twelve months to mature
It would seem to me that a ‘leisure garden’ already allows for a ‘children’s allotment’ style plot (which may surprise some people) but perhaps an amendment to the 1908 act should confirm the place of children if we are to secure the future of our allotments and the well-being of future generations. This does not mean we should ignore reckless behaviour in older children (vandalism etc.) or remove responsibility for bad behaviour from plot holding parents; allotments can also be dangerous places. We should not however take steps that might exclude respectful children from discovering an activity many of us love with a passion that we ourselves discovered as children.