The individual and a “happy” childhood

Children and adults have different attitudes to what games and activities are interesting, pleasant, exciting. Their attitudes are decisive for their understanding of what constitutes a “happy childhood” - if, indeed, there is such a thing as the paradise of childhood. Despite this fact, parents and children indulge in many, many forms of activities together as play and being together, as listed in Steenhold (1993,d).

There are clear differences between the activities parents and children indulge in together which depend on the psycho-social constitution of the individuals involved, whether they are boys or girls, how old they are and the degree of difficulty of the activities. Furthermore, in the interviews parents and children referred to the significance of the duration of the activities.




-     girl

-     boy

-     woman

-     man

-     age

-     position within the family unit

-     no. of siblings


Many of the parents elucidated the question about the duration of their activities by adding a comment about what was most significant about the game or how intensive it was, its quality and the degree to which the parent felt he/she had really concentrated on the game (whether he/she had participated 100% in the activity).

In their responses during the interviews and their answers to the questionnaire’s open questions, most parents’ accounts were related to play and play situations from their own childhood.

They have fond memories of their childhood and these memories are experiences for life. A number of parents spent a great deal of time in day care institutions when they were children. In most cases, however, their most vivid play experiences did not take place in a day care institution but together with parents, siblings or playmates in an environment which was not intended specifically for play.

These environments are typically described as housing estates, streets/roads or backyards, gardens or areas in the immediate vicinity of a farm, construction sites, fields/woods/parks - seldom play areas.




-     wages and earnings

-     “living from hand to mouth”

-     social economic determination

-     long-term poverty or recently acquired wealth

-     investments and long term ambitions


The so-called “happy” childhood is, therefore, conditional upon play and being together with others. It is also dependent on whether the immediate surroundings contain these conditional factors and are influenced by freedom of action and a variety of attitudes which are sources of inspiration for play in everyday life. The most significant element is, therefore, parents’ willingness or ability to play with their children.




-     fashion and various stylistic influences

-     chance meetings and trends

-     spontaneous group relationships

-     spontaneous impulses


The child’s perspective

In her open research on this subject, Ulla Fasting (1989) describes children’s and adults’ ideas about childhood on the basis of responses to an open question “What constitutes a happy childhood?”. She does not take into account the general preconditions or background of the respondents.

On the basis of their responses, Fasting describes how children think differently than adults, their parents.

Children think in terms of fantasies, images, senses and feelings while describing experiences in a concrete way. For children, a happy childhood is made up of sensory motor experiences, moving and expressing oneself - being active.

In the child’s mind, “happiness” appears to be intoxication and infatuation. In the adult mind, happiness is synonymous with stability and affection.

These philosophies are explained by parents’/adults’ ability to see life’s different perspectives while children tend to live for today.

Classified in accordance with this book’s play classification system, the typical responses of the child respondents in Fasting’s research supplement the information contained in the tables:


Ways of being together:

- being allowed to play without adult intervention

- being on holiday with grandparents

- going camping or skiing with Mum and Dad

- having good friends to play with

- when the adults have time to talk

- when the adults play ball or cards or something like that with us

- when they play around and mess about

- when Mum and Dad are happy



- acquiring or looking after an animal (puppy or kitten)

- breaking my horse in



- reading an interesting book

- the adults work on something practical with us



- playing football

- being at scout camp



- lots of space for running around and hiding in

- having your own den

- making dams in the stream

- riding in the woods or on the beach

- lying in the tall grass looking at the sky


No-one mentioned things like watching TV, playing with computers, going to kindergarten, after-school club activities or school. When asked why, they replied that these things have absolutely nothing to do with a happy childhood!!

School and child day care are not part of what the children see as happy experiences (as many of the parents who had spent time in child day care institutions in their own childhood could relate). School and child day care institutions were most clearly rejected as a possible basis for a happy childhood even though the majority liked school and day care and agreed that school can be fun - but schools, clubs and child day care centres are not for adults.

The responses cannot be described as dependent upon any particular life pattern or lifestyle because this was not the aim of Fasting’s research. However, the tables in sections 6.4 and 6.5 of Steenhold (1993,d) give an indication of the conditions for these.

It is impossible to define a specific life pattern or lifestyle which would ensure children a happy childhood or a good play life.

This is due to the complexity and immense variety of assumptions and conditions which would have to be included in the “recipe” for what makes a happy childhood and a good play life.

However, characteristic of the majority of the responses in both Fasting’s and Steenhold’s (1993,d) research is that:

“we are dealing with emotional and sensory motor experiences, with environment and situations which facilitate movement and self-expression together with or alongside their parents and with play, fantasy and ”joie de vivre” which contribute to the “experience of joy” - feeling loved and “belonging””. Fasting (1989:20).

The adult perspective

In Fasting’s research, the adult respondents gave the following replies to the same question about “a happy childhood”. These responses are classified in accordance with the play classification model and included in general only ways of being together and experiencing of Nature:


Ways of being together:

- having a family

- being part of a family

- being wanted and loved

- when we played together in the street one Spring evening



- having tall trees to climb in and fall out of

- physical activities in a free environment


Other responses from the adults were, however, more abstract:

  • Securityand trust
  • Growing up in freedom
  • If Mum and Dad get on well, children are happy and trusting.
  • We must stop demanding that kids have to be clever and instead give them praise when they do exactly what we and their surroundings expect of them.
  • Children who are asked to spend the rest of their lives pleasing others because Mum and Dad emphasised certain specific patterns of behaviour will never be happy.
  • Never give a child a surrogate for what he/she really wants.

Like their children, the adults do not mention TV or time spent at school or in day care when they talk about ensuring a happy childhood. Furthermore, the adults connect the term “happy” with emotional experiences but do not place the same degree of emphasis on movement, experiences, play and imagination as children do.

The focal terms in both children’s and adults’ responses were “joie de vivre” and “freedom” and feeling loved and a sense of belonging and children gave the same clear signals The optimum conditions and backdrop for a “happy” childhood - factors which encourage human development - are having plenty of time, security, togetherness, having sufficient natural space and opportunities for moving and experiencing things.

The following questions arise:

  • How far can these signalsbe attributed to a specific life pattern and lifestyle?
    • or to how certain groups regard children?
    • or to any specified understandingof the requirements for a happy childhood?
    • or to an adult’s special ability to remember especially clearly the experiences and situations of his/her own childhood?


  • Is there a general human need for togetherness, securityand common experiences in an atmosphere of trust?

Fasting (1989:20) concludes that:

“children describe situations and sensory motor experiences more often than adults”

and adults tend instead to mention security and demands on parents, the atmosphere and environment in which children can express themselves.

The reason for this, Fasting concludes, is that: “it could well be that we in general have concentrated so one-sidedly on children’s intellectual development and social adaptation that we have failed to give enough space for happiness, desire, play, fantasy and sensory motor expression.”

Play between the generations (children - parents - grandparents, younger and older children) has, however, always been the means by which the younger generation - through ordinary and contemporary play and games - has acquired knowledge about, skills for and attitudes to life while the older generation (children and adults) have been able to enjoy seeing their own childhood from a mature perspective.

This is probably another factor which has contributed to the myth of childhood as a “lost paradise”.



Table of Contents