The other day I met a fine arts student, and her ‘art world’ and my ‘play world’ came together in the conversation. She told me that she’d recently attended a lecture in which the subject of play (in order for art to become) was prominent. This was interesting in itself to me (I said I wish I could have sat in on that); however, she also said she thought that ‘playing gets taught out of you.’ She’s twenty. This all triggered my thinking.
The subject of creativity in education has been tackled before, but I’m going to touch on it from perspectives of a fictional near future and an actual distant past. Let’s imagine that, here in the UK, the current Coalition government has morphed — in x Parliaments’ time — into a full-on post-Govian shock to the system: ‘back to basics’ learning by rote, no-one gets out without heavily ink-stained fingers and their twenty-five times tables weighing down their blazer pockets. I am fictionalising, you understand; yet, here, where is the love in play and the art of finding out?
This is not going to be a post about teacher bashing (though there will be some teacher bashing involved). There are good teachers out there. I know this. I also have friends who are teachers, family in teaching, and I’m a teacher too (albeit an adult education teacher, but I still teach). This is going to be a post that directs to the ‘love’ and the ‘art’ of play.
In the actual distant past (way back in a land that time forgot, i.e. the 1970s and into the 80s — yes, I know some of you readers are even longer in the educational tooth, but bear with me here), I learned maybe three ‘academic’ things in my school life. I often like to joke about this, but I think I could be right. I learned how to read, how to write, and how to use a calculator (including the ability to add up in the head first to check that the calculator would be roughly in the same ball park). That’s it. Really. I may have had some good teachers (by which I mean ‘good people’), but I don’t remember them teaching me anything useful apart from these things. There were a lot more teachers, and the contents of their possibly coffee-stained lesson plans, who completely passed me by:
I remember coming away from classes run by endless nameless supply teachers (we were the guinea pig class) with my prune-skinned fingers stained black-purple: the fault of splodgy fountain pens which we were chain-ganged into squelching out repetitions and repetitions of the same cursive lines with. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote.
I remember sitting at, for then, hi-tech desks with (if memory serves me right) individual clunky big cassette slots, in which I watched units the size of whole Betamax machines spool round as I lip-synched any old rubbish that sounded vaguely French, sitting there with my enormous elephantine headphones on (the kind that would probably pass as ‘fashionable’ these days). Je suis m’appelle a la vive le une banane et un baguette, s’il vous plait. Or something like that. It was the style of French teaching back in the day, you understand.
I remember some old guy with white hair and a white coat droning on about . . . something, but it was broadly labelled as ‘physics’ and it seemed to involve a lot of wheeled contraptions which could have smashed into one another to prove something, but I don’t remember that they ever did.
I didn’t see the point of endless repetition (I already knew how to write), French (with the best will in the world to those who do see the point of this), and with no apologies to anyone, the dull grey world of early 80s physics. Throwing things ‘up’ invariably ended up in things coming ‘down’: that was all I ever needed to know on the subject.
So, from the nameless and the forgotten to the good. Dear Mrs McCoombe. I loved her very much. She was old (well, I was five, and everyone’s old when you’re five). She may now be sixty, or she may be ninety, or she may no longer be with us. I don’t remember a thing she taught me, but I do remember I could play with clay, and I do remember being ruthlessly turfed out of her class (not by her), my little tray of worldly belongings in my hand, sent packing across the playground to find somewhere else to exist, one year. It probably didn’t happen exactly like that in reality, but it’s how a five-year-old’s memory is stored. She was my favourite because she cared.
I do remember, at the age of seventeen and at college, I was having a tough time. I stood in the corridor and my tutor looked me in the eye with that almost Buddha-like calm he had, and he smiled. He said: ‘You can do anything.’ I don’t remember anything he taught in class. Thanks, Trevor, wherever you are now.
I do remember good old Mr Lodge. He was tall, very tall (everyone’s tall when you’re short) and he had enormous hands. I saw him on TV a few years back. He was on one of those public forum studio shows. He’d made it to head teacher, and he still had huge hands. I have no idea what he taught me, but once he promoted me to the school football team’s A-team. I got to wear the home yellow, instead of the red with blue shorts of the B-team (which I never felt quite worked as a football kit!) We played our local rivals. We lost 6-0 and, whilst trying to clear the ball in the heroic last minute, I managed to score an inglorious yet spectacular overhead own-goal from a good inch and a half out. I don’t remember playing for the A-team again, but I played once and Mr. L didn’t make me feel bad.
So, we come to the slush pile. Unlike the good I’ll protect their identities, because I’m decent like that . . .
There were teachers like the biology teacher who gave me my first detention for the slight misdemeanour of failing to hand in my (pointless) homework: she watched me diligently do my antiquated lines; naïve as I was, because I handed them to her fully expecting her to read them, or something, anything but just rip them up like she did and throw them away, dismissing me as she did so. Witch. What’s the point of cutting up frogs anyway?
There were teachers like the stereotypical PE teacher, sadist as he was (we’ve all had them, right?), who used to stand there with his hands on his hips, whistle round his neck, skinny t-shirt pulled over his six-pack whilst we shivered in the bleating winter’s indifference, on the ice-cold, rock-hard rugby/hockey/pointless all-sports field, him saying: ‘So, you lot who want to play football [barely controlling his contempt], over there . . . those who are real men, over here for rugby!’ I chose football, partly because the man was clearly a moron, and partly because rugby was pointless.
It’s a good job I spent a lot of my non-school time out in the fields, in the woods, in the streams and lakes, up on roofs, burrowing through hedges, hurtling down hills, etc. Without the freedom to play, I’d have been caught in a world that could have turned me into a repetitive drone, a non-thinking yes-man, half-heartedly blathering along to pointless things I didn’t ever believe in in the first place. Skip forward several decades and into a fictionalised future . . .
I worry about the possibility of what could come. That is, in a fictionalised future where children’s play space (space to play) is frittered away, replaced by ‘don’t think, just learn’, playing could well and truly be taught out of them; creativity gets redefined as the ability to say ‘yes, sir’ in a slightly unacceptable manner. Of course, I’m going too far . . . perhaps.
So, finally: one of my nephews is two years old. Some of his ‘things’ at the moment are spinning around till he falls over, and licking people! I’d be sad to see his playing get taught out of him when he reaches ‘schoolable’ age, just two years from now. His is the art of play, a love with which he plays and with which his play is seen. Play is art in itself, and you can’t teach it. Let’s not teach playing out of them.