Rough enough

When I lived in Japan for a year, I saw many marvellous things. A photo booth in Osaka that could merge two faces to show you what your offspring might look like.A vending machine selling hot coffee on the top of Mt Fuji. Shops that sold sock glue. Students that wore thick white ruched socks held halfway up their legs with sock glue.

But the white wrappings that made me gawk the most were the actual cotton-wool blankets attached around tender young trees in the local public gardens to keep them warm. It was, the gardener told me, a mystery.

They kept them snug and blanketed every winter until they were 3 years old and should be well-rooted enough to survive.

And then the poor trees mostly went and died in their fourth winter. Perhaps they should be kept wrapped up longer?

At the time I was amused and a little bit amazed as well, that people would take so much care over baby trees.

But then I suppose my attitude to gardening has always been plant, water, leave, hope. Looking back at it now, I see those tentative shoots smothered in love as a completely transplantable example for not mollycoddling our children too much lest they turn into spineless weaklings themselves. A literal metaphor, no less.

At intermediate, my journey to school was 10 miles (16km) on the public bus and a dash across a main road on a blind corner balancing a viola, a lunch box, my games kit and a stuffed book bag. Geek that I am. It was fine.

I learned a lot. I spent a disproportionate amount of time in physics lessons calculating how to avoid the bully girls, who had a knack of turning the potential energy of bunsen burner edges into very kinetic pains in my knuckles. That was not so fine. Nor games lessons where the same girls ruled.

No amount of cotton wool could have helped me with them. Hiding in corners wasn't so smart, either. It's way more fun for them when they find you.

My best place of escape was on a (literal, metaphorical) level playing field: bullrush. Race around an open space, yell your lungs off and so what if you lose? Losers get to join the winning team. Pile on!

I wish that I had to struggle to understand why bullrush has been banned in so many places, but sadly I can see it all too well. We're treating our children like the honourable Japanese trees. A

ll it takes is one article in the British Medical Journal saying bullrush ''can be as dangerous as rugby football'', written on the basis of one spinal injury case in 1985, which is a ludicrously low risk rate considering bullrush has been played in thousands of schools over a good hundred years, though it might be scarcer than the Ebola virus right now in its traditional territories.

Still, last time I looked we were all definitely still playing ''rugby football''. But not climbing trees or running particularly free.

What might the merged offspring of cushioning and anxiety look like in that crazy Osaka photo booth? I'm picking pretty weak.

Every so often, there's a little media ripple as one school or another is brave enough to raise their head above the Health and Safety parapet and reveal that their students play bullrush and enjoy it and they're fine. But even then they all reassure the public that the teachers are, of course, actively supervising. And that's just not the same.

Organised sports are great. But semi-organised deadly serious mob games are the stuff of childhood pride. You wear your gravel-filled big-kid-inflicted graze with a sense of achievement; you nonchalantly pick out little stones while everyone's singing Morning has Broken in assembly. Or at least I did.

It's a theme in young adult novels, right? Making sense of lawless youth mayhem in worlds where adults are conveniently vaporised or otherwise defunct. But kids should get to do more than read about it.

I think perhaps, as adults, we could make ourselves absent more often. Plant, water, leave, hope. Although I'm a sucker myself for constructing elaborate parental trellis safety nets. I just try to keep them at a respectful distance, so as not to choke the seedlings. And to lay off the cotton wool.

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