It was during a recent long and sprawling conversation with Rich Driffield at White City Adventure Playground that the term ‘uncommon sense’ came back to me about the things we were talking about. I say ‘came back to me’ because I don’t claim ownership of that term, of course (a quick Google search shows up a 1945 science fiction short story, a different 2004 book of the same name, and other web material). In the context of the conversation I was having about children’s play though, I was sure I’d heard or read the phrase ‘uncommon sense’ in playwork circles somewhere before.
I still don’t know that source. It doesn’t so much matter. Rich and I were talking around ideas on playwork ideology, the necessity to please many people in many quarters to ultimately create a better deal for the children, children’s risky play, how we feel about that, and this thing we often refer to as ‘common sense’.
Common sense though is just that: common. It’s the pop-culture perspective; it’s the fashionable, the usual, the ‘play it by the book’. So, it’s ‘common sense’ to stop children climbing on things, moving quickly without safety gear, exploring sharp or hot things. Everybody knows the consequences of falling, of insufficient padding, of touching sharp or hot things: it’s common knowledge. This is the problem though: everybody knows the received wisdom of what they’ve been told. They absorb that knowledge without question: children will fall and hurt themselves at height; children will fall and hurt themselves, at speed, without safety gear; children will hurt themselves on sharp and hot things.
It’s ‘uncommon sense’ that we should have. Uncommon sense tells us to question the playwork literature, perhaps; or to trust the child at height, or at speed, or in exploring objects; to know when to stay clear or when to be right there. Uncommon sense is not the ‘play it by the book’ mentality, or the ‘learned from the pages of the playwork literature’ thinking, or the ‘understood by rote learning’ approach. It’s not the pop-culture, fashionable, usual way of things.
So, when children are waving their sticks or pool cues around, uncommon sense tells us that this is a dance, or that this space is not appreciated by the child in their dance, or by the child outside that dance. When children are climbing, uncommon sense tells us that this child is weighing it all up, is alert or not, is worried or excited or reckless. When children are flying around, seven feet off the ground on narrow platforms, over wobbly bridges, narrowly missing one another, not slipping off and under the single chain link barrier, uncommon sense tells us that these children are like bats using sonar to navigate!
I told the story a couple of times this week about how, last week on the playground, I sat observing quietly and saw, suddenly, that a child was waving an axe around. It wasn’t common sense that made me jump up and remove the axe; it was uncommon sense. Common sense tells us that children and axes (just like children and fire, or children and power drills, or children and the tops of trees) don’t mix; uncommon sense tells us that this child may well have known how to chop wood, but that he was in a state of play, that he didn’t fully appreciate the unintended harm he could have done because he wasn’t focused on that.
When the children were tumbling around playfighting, and when that playfighting was on the very edge of all of our adult comfort levels, uncommon sense told me that (give or take twenty seconds), here was the tipping point coming. Be ready, but even then be wary that maybe things won’t need an adult input. Common sense wouldn’t have ‘let’ the children playfight in the first place. Common sense, if distracted and coming into realising that playfighting was going on, would have stopped it as soon as it had been seen. Common sense, you see, understands that children might get hurt if they playfight.
In many ways, perhaps, playwork is uncommon sense in itself (despite some areas of the literature being questioned in some quarters). Common sense is just what everybody else has: the common, majority approach. Playwork takes the uncommon, path least trodden, view.