A message to adult readers: children’s play is not about you. Really. Children’s play is their play. Playworkers are unique amongst adults who work with children: true playworkers are focused on play — not on educational outcomes (as teachers will be), on preparation or foundation for future years (as early years workers will be), on law and order and fitting in with rules and regulations (as, say, police community support officers will be). Playworkers work with the child’s agenda, not with the adult’s agenda.
There are so many adults, for one reason or another, who can’t or won’t get this though. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told that children ‘have to respect the rules, because I have to’; that children ‘should conform to society, because we all have to’; that children should ‘play the way I want them to, because I don’t like noise or mess or anything I think is too risky for them.’ Adults — it’s not about you.
So, I reply to them with a question: Why can’t children choose to do what they want to do? There’s usually a direct and quick response, along the lines of, ‘Well, then there’d be anarchy, wouldn’t there? We can’t have that.’ This shows me two things: (i) that the adult in question doesn’t understand what ‘anarchy’ is really about (but that’s another story); (ii) the adult in question is a product of the system that this country, the UK, is unfortunately churning out, i.e. you must conform to the way things are.
So, children’s self-expressions, making noise, making mess, rough and tumbling, engaging in risky play, etc, are becoming more and more frowned upon: regarded as ‘abnormal’, ‘anti-social’, ‘undesirable’ because these behaviours don’t fit with the dominant adult desire to have things their own way — the adult need to control. Why do adults control? Perhaps adults feel controlled themselves, powerless themselves, and need to control and have power over others to balance things up.
Children, and by extension their play, are easy targets. However, children’s play should not be treated with such contempt. I imagine a bunch of adults standing around, each with a handful of marbles — one adult grabs the marbles of another and announces, ‘Now, that’s mine.’ I imagine a bunch of adults standing around, each with a handful of children’s play . . .
Children’s play is not about you. It’s not about what you want. Children’s play belongs to the children.
What do adults want from children’s play? What are the adult agendas? They want children to learn information; to learn how to do things; to learn how to be (or how the adults want them to be) with other people; to run around so they don’t get fat; to not try things out because they think they, the adults, have a better way of doing it; to not slip or fall or hurt themselves in any way. On the face of it, most of these things have a place in care or education environments. This isn’t to suggest that playworkers don’t ‘care’: of course they do. Playworkers care greatly. Perhaps that’s why we get so worked up about these sorts of conversations. Playworkers care about the play of children (and, of course, the children themselves), and play is more important than I can say in just a few lines.
As a playworker, I’ve observed children’s play for many years, and I’ve learnt a great deal. I can only be an absolute authority on my own play though. When I played, as a child, I didn’t go into that play — consciously — in order to learn factual information, or how to make something, or how to share, or how not to be obese, or how to prove that adults were right, or how to carry out personal risk assessments. I might have got a lot of information out of my play as a result of playing, but why did I play? Why did I go into my play?
I played in the woods because they were interesting and dark and wet and close and sunlit and just down the road.
I played on top of the old bungalow because there was an overgrown garden full of somebody else’s eggs and brown sauce and flour, and so I used them to trash the place.
I played on my bike, going round and round the block, just because I wanted to make it to a hundred circuits.
I played by putting snails in empty drinks cans and putting them in the middle of the road, then sitting under the bridge to watch, because I was curious.
I played in the stream by the lake, scooping along in the shallows, because I liked the feel of the water on me and the breeze in my hair.
I played football up against someone else’s house because that was where I found myself when I decided that I needed to play football; because the wall was a good sized wall; because there was a bit of a slope that bounced the ball back at me at unexpected angles.
I played by ‘selling’ comics to other children on my front door step because I had comics and because the hallway made a good shop and because other children were interested in my comics.
I played football with other children because I liked football.
I played by standing at the end of the street with the children from that end, and we talked about our dreams because I was fascinated that other children had had the same dreams as me (or, they said they did!)
I played by sliding down the stairs in a sleeping bag because the sleeping bag was slippery and because the stairs made you go fast.
I played on top of the living room table because that was the best way, at the time, to get from one part of the room to another without touching the floor.
I played with my sister and brother by communicating through the central heating grills, each of us in different rooms, because I thought this was a good way to communicate, and because I imagined this to be our own secret way of communicating: a way that the adults couldn’t hear!
I played by standing on the edge of the parapet above the garage, maybe a twenty feet drop to the road, because this was a drop that needed looking down on from the edge . . .
In my play, I wasn’t thinking about conquering my fears, or developing my confidence or self-esteem, about sharing with others, about learning how to pedal or how to kick a ball coming at me at unexpected angles. I wasn’t thinking about my fine or gross motor skills, about my cognitive awareness, or the developmental outcomes of any kind. I wasn’t thinking about the feelings of other people inside the houses around me, or about the feelings of the other children I played with: if they didn’t like me that day, or if they didn’t like what I was doing, they told me; so, I went off and played on my own. That’s life.
My play was my play. It wasn’t the construct of adults: it wasn’t adult-directed, or shaped, or suggested to me. It wasn’t about the adults.
Children’s play, my fellow adults, is not — or should not be — about you. If it is, it isn’t children’s play.