Whilst talking with a school LSA (learning support assistant) — and also mother — recently, I stopped her in mid-flow and said, ‘Hold on — let me get my dictaphone. This is interesting stuff!’ This is interesting stuff: this rant, this perspective on play from inside the school playground! It reads to me as what can happen when an LSA’s school colleagues over-react. It’s also pleasing for me to see some playwork thinking taking place on the school playground.
This interview is written up as it came out, swearing and all, because there’s nothing like a good ‘give it all you’ve got’ when you’re really worked up about something! I recorded more than is transcribed here, but I stopped typing at a point where, I trust, this LSA’s thinking process is made clear enough. She is, for reasons that will become apparent, made anonymous, and she gives her permission to publish here.
My day, oh dear here we go. Crispy lovely sensory tactile fucking leaves! But do you know what? You know what? You’re not allowed to fucking touch them! I work in a primary school. We’ve got about 140, 150 children in this school. They’ve got one concrete playground, and one quiet area. Quiet, outdoor area, where it’s a nice soft playground texture environment, where — in theory — you should be able to hurtle at each other and land safely, but no, they’ve named it the fucking quiet area . . .
Do I put ‘fucking’ all over the place?
Yes, you can fuck away because I’m really fucking annoyed. The fucking quiet area, where, if you’re deemed to be noisy, aggressive, energetic, happy — you have to get out of said quiet area and hurtle around the concrete area.
Today I was unfortunate to sit in on a staff meeting where we air our concerns, and one of the concerns was ‘playground time’. Hmm.
Playground time. Now the staff have brought it up that, actually, they deemed the leaves to be ‘dangerous’, and ‘what are we going to do about the leaves at play time?’ So I listened for a while, and the ideas were being bandied around that, actually, the children, how dare they, were touching the leaves. Touching, I say! [Laughs] How dare they touch the leaves. So I listened for a bit longer. The main crux of the problem seems to be that the children have discovered that this wonderful environment of wind has now given them an opportunity to play, and these adults who are supposed to be caring for them are coming along saying: ‘Don’t touch the leaves; how dare you play with them.’
All the 150 children have is a bag of balls between them, maybe five or six balls. Probably about twenty children, usually the older boys, charge around the majority of the concrete playground playing football. The other children then have to walk round the edges or play ‘quiet games’; they’re not allowed to have toys from home, because they might get damaged; they’re allowed a ball — they can play a game.
What annoys me is the ‘quiet area’ is adjacent to the younger children’s (‘Reception’ age) area — is separated by just a small see-through, lovely pencil fence, which is all colourful and lovely . . . so, when they’re outside in their ‘class time’ (this is Reception children, we’re talking four to four and a half year olds, starting age at the school), they’re allowed to play in the sand pit, encouraged to play in the sand pit, to dig — in lesson time — this is in the normal curriculum part of the day, ‘free play’, this is to build up their experiences of learning to play with things, sharing, working alongside someone, you know, and we stand there with clipboards and say, ‘Yes, little Johnny can play with little Johnnyette; yes he can stack bricks on top of each other’, and we’re observing how much he can do and what boxes we can tick. Outside there’s water to play with, a big tank of water; there’s a big sand pit they can charge around in (if, of course, they’re wearing their welly boots) — Hmm not allowed in without your welly boots. Or bare feet. No, no, no! That could be a risk: there could be something sharp in there. Must wear their welly boots. They have a garden area, like a raised bed; they can dig away, they put their little dinosaurs in, they can plant things, they can dig things, they can make towers out of stones, they can do really, really lovely stuff in mud. They could actually make mud pies, because they could take a bit of water from there . . . they’ve got chalk, they’re allowed to scribble on the floor, they can do all these things . . . in lesson time.
Then the bell goes and it’s, ‘Now, children off you go and play . . . but DO NOT TOUCH THE LEAVES’ [laughs]. They’re not allowed to play with any leaves, they’re not allowed to pick up sticks, they’re not allowed to make rock piles, they’re not allowed to do anything. They have an area, which is a lovely soft surface, which would absorb bumps and scrapes if they knocked into each other, but they’re not allowed to run in this area because it is the ‘quiet area’! They’re encouraged to charge around the concrete hard surface, the bigger surface. In theory, there’s more space for them to run around, and 150 children do not want to be quiet in the quiet area — you might get two or three wanting to just sit and chill, which is fine, that’s where they sit. So you could have a couple of children following ‘the rules’ and being quiet, whereas the majority of the school, anything up to 140 children, are charging around the concrete area because they don’t want to sit and be quiet . . .
Today I had a meeting and it was brought up, ‘What are we going to do about these leaves?’ And after a while I said, ‘What do you mean what are we going to do about these leaves?’ There was my head teacher, the SENCO (special educational needs co-ordinator), the lunchtime supervisor, which I am on a Friday, but not the rest of the week, and the other LSAs, the other teaching assistants. It was brought up that ‘What are the children going to do? These leaves are becoming bothersome!’ I don’t understand the problem. It was mentioned that the children were building them up into towers [in the ‘quiet area’] and then, dare I say it, running into said tower, knocking leaves flying!
Now, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen an accident regarding a flying leaf! [Laughs]. I can understand it if these leaves were piled up on top of rocks, or wood chips, or anything that’s slightly harder than a leaf . . . but there was nothing there. So, these children are now told, ‘Actually, you’re not allowed to stack and kick; you’re not allowed to make piles.’ I actually observed the other day that this child had made a lovely little design out of leaves, just sat there quite quietly, quite ‘nicely’, and made a little picture out of leaves, and for some reason that wasn’t frowned upon! But it’s not encouraged either — no-one came along and said it was wonderful and beautiful, apart from myself: I seem to be in the minority. So all these children want to do is play with leaves.
Incidentally, today the only incident that happened at dinner time . . . I allowed, I turned a blind eye, I didn’t stop them from playing with leaves – so all these children, on my watch, were hurtling around throwing leaves, kicking leaves, rolling in leaves, scrunching leaves in their fingers, making patterns, lining them up on top of the wooden bench area and selling them to each other; I saw a little shop go on, a little leaf shop . . . the only incident that happened, when I was distracted by allowing the leaf play, was that these two lads had a ‘domestic’ over whose game of football it was, they got into a bit of argy-bargy and then accidental heads started to occur! And it was accidental. Nevertheless, a mass nose-bleed occurred for the next ten minutes, where I was then taken off and had to do a bit of ‘paramedic work’ with the child. When I came back out, lots of glum children mooching around . . . I was literally out for the last minutes of ‘play’ [time] and found that the supervisor of the day had decided, indeed, that leaves were too dangerous to play with, and we must stop immediately playing with these leaves, and we must come away from these wet dangerous leaves!
At the moment, the head teacher is helping out in the playground. So, when he came out today, I was, like, ‘What’s going on here? Why’s everyone out of the quiet area?’ And his response was, interestingly, ‘They were playing with the leaves, and it was getting dangerous.’ The adults had removed the children from the quiet area, and the leaves, because it was becoming dangerous.
So, annoyingly, this quiet area is literally the other side of the fence to where the Reception children are — these four year olds who, for two hours in the morning, are allowed to dig and play and muck around with everything, and when the whistle blows for ‘play time’, they have to go the other side of the fence and not touch anything!
So also, at the meeting, I was told, ‘Of course, you have a kit.’ A kit. Remind me of my kit. Go back a couple of years, where we had an inset day, where we had to make ‘games’, an activity kit — namely: these are the rules of a parachute game; these are the rules of Bulldog; these are the rules of various other playground games that children have developed over the years, but we specifically had to write down the rules, take a picture of them, laminate it. It then became a little pack.
And I’m, like, I don’t understand that concept because it’s not about me wanting . . . they get that in PE. That’s what PE’s for, isn’t it? That’s encouraging team playing, and games of that . . . if a parachute’s available, which incidentally it’s not because it’s not play time equipment, therefore this pack’s a bit of an oddity in itself . . .
So, you’ve got a kit . . .?
We’ve got a kit. With laminates . . .
To show you how to play games, but you can’t have the stuff . . .?
No, the stuff is in the shed . . .
Which the children can’t have for themselves because it needs to be supervised by someone?
Exactly. And if we said, ‘Oh, we’ll get the parachute out’, do you know what, we can’t because we have to put it in the quiet area and then there’s leaves on the floor and they’re dangerous! So, we’ve got this ‘kit’, to encourage play, and OK, let’s assume that there’s no leaves, no dangerous great big spiky leaves on the floor, or anything anyone’s going to injure themselves on, and the adult — namely me — gets the parachute out . . . that wouldn’t be enough for the school. The school wants me to encourage a game within this: that they must put the ball in, they must tip it, they must . . .
What’s the reason for that?
Because ‘that’s what they need to know’; they need to know games, so they’ve got an idea of play!
Why do they need to know games?
Because the school can’t perceive that the children have a notion of making their own bloody game up! The school think the children are incapable of having an idea of what they want to play.
When you say ‘the school’, is this the head teacher, the whole teaching staff, the TAs, the governors, the parents, or all of the above?
I think they’re not brave enough to let the children make the decision that they can play for themselves, and the head is ultimately responsible for the school, and he’s actively encouraging us, the adults, to supervise play activities . . . yeh, I’m quite happy to watch these dangerous leaves being flicked around, and I can monitor the sharp edges, and suchlike, but I’m damn well not going to get a parachute out and tell the children that, during the thirty minutes of their play time, I’m going to tell them what game they’re going to play. Yeh, if they sat wrapping each other up and choking each other, it’s probably not a good idea because it’s my head on the block . . . but, if they want to go ‘This parachute will make a really good boat,’ and sit on it — cool! Let’s go for it. If they want to change the bloody game, let them change the bloody game!
You need to be a playworker!
I’m just, so, getting itchy about being there and doing this . . . those children, during the course of the day — because we’re the same dinner staff as we are academic staff — so, we’re going ‘You must sit down and do your maths, you must do your English, you’re going to follow my direction . . .’ and at play time, they’re like little robots because they come out and they think, ‘Oh, we’re not allowed to do that because she’s watching; oh, we’re not allowed to do that because they’re watching us . . .’ And they’re, like, they expect you to say ‘no’. They hear ‘no’ all the time, they’re just expecting it. So, you know, I just want to turn it on its head; I just want to find . . .
Friday, I’m the supervisor, I’m in charge . . . take the power to my head! I’ve got loads of, like, dressing up . . . the only thing I can think of taking in which isn’t going to get me into too much trouble, and to break it to the head teacher gently that there are opportunities out there . . . I’m going to take all my dressing up clothes in a big old bag, and put the bag in the ‘quiet area’, and just leave it. And see what happens.
And what do you think will happen?
I would predict, and hope, that it will be explored, and used, in some way. And I wouldn’t tell them how to use it [the clothes]. The only things I would be slightly concerned about, which perhaps I wouldn’t even include, would be the ropes to tie up the gowns. I might leave them out, just . . . not because I’ve got a problem with it, but if something goes wrong at that moment, I will never get this back into the school again. Let’s just . . . And I wouldn’t put swords and guns in, because I don’t hold with that, and I don’t think a Christian school would either. But I’ve got plenty of dressing up kit, and they can charge around and I don’t care if they get mucky — they can go in the washing machine, can’t they?! They’re fabric. You know, they wash. And I am quite happy to take that on and do that myself, and I’m bloody well going to do it.
And then, once they see children playing, like children should — not little fucking robots — then, maybe . . . we can move on from there!