plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Archive for April, 2013

Disorder as the natural tendency

Sometimes my writing for this blog comes about by way of thinking on recent media interest around children or their play, and then dropping into that thinking other ideas . . . this week I drop ‘entropy’ into the mix.

Entropy, according to a recent BBC News Science and Environment report, can be explained in terms of ‘the Universe tends, in general, to a more disordered state’.

What’s doing the rounds at the moment is Conservative MP Liz Truss and her condemnation of nurseries (whose children, she says, are ‘running around with no sense of purpose’). This playworker doesn’t think of the ideas of ‘manners’ and ‘discipline’, as Ms Truss seems to think; this playworker thinks of the ideas of ‘disorder’ and ‘entropy’ when he thinks about ‘running around with no sense of purpose’.

That the Universe itself can be seen as something that is inevitably marching headlong into a state of ultimate disorder is reassuring, in a way. The BBC report also adds a side-note (linked to the laws of thermodynamics) that ‘everything, everywhere, is at least a little bit disordered’. Everything heads that way.

A variable in this thinking is the amount of time things might take. Systems go from order to ultimate disorder, eventually or quickly. If we consider that ‘putting energy’ into a system can create order, we should also consider the idea that everything can be affected by something else; therefore, that ‘affecting of the system’ isn’t ordering it at all. Let’s put this into context:

I know full well, from experience of doing and from observing, that a group of children (I’ll use this as an idea of a ‘system’) can be affected both by leaving it to its own devices (hence the inevitable tendency towards disorder) and by imposing too much on it (trying to create some order, but in effect just affecting that march towards disorder in other ways). By ‘disorder’ I don’t mean to colour that word with negative connotations; though, admittedly, the word ‘order’ is more coloured in such ways.

‘Order’, in the context of this thinking, is the word used for the aimed-for state when attempting the action of control. It can also be seen as the dead, lifeless zone. What happens, at a simplistic level, whenever someone wants to impose too much control on someone else? There’s some degree of rebellion, perhaps. It might take years, or it might take a lot less time, but attempts at control are bound to affect individuals. Some people defer completely to being controlled. It’s the easy route, but it’s also the way that’s been imposed on them and they know no different. Being controlled may well result in more attempted controllers. There is a subsequent potential lack in thinking.

To think we need positions or perspectives to think from. The BBC report (which is titled ‘Entropy law linked to intelligence’) suggests the following:

The simplistic model considers a number of examples, such as a pendulum hanging from a moving cart. Simulations of the . . . entropy idea show that the pendulum ends up pointing upward — an unstable situation, but one from which the pendulum can explore a wider variety of positions.

Further simulations showed how the same idea could drive the development of tool use, social network formation, and co-operation . . .

We already know that play functions as a way of finding out, as a way of providing the player with the possibility of more options. Play is fundamentally disordered in process. If we see order as basically static, disorder is dynamic. Everything tends towards disorder and everything, everywhere, is at least a little bit disordered. In this way of thinking, not only is ‘order’ impossible but it’s also pointless trying to impose it (because it’s impossible). The only reason to try to impose it must be in attempting to control, and the only reason for this must be in attempting to create some purpose for the self.

Why do children need manners? Because that’s what society demands; because society is what I have to live in; because if I have to have manners so do others; if others haven’t got manners, and I have, and I have to live in a society that demands manners, then I should instruct others how to have manners; because now I have a purpose; because If I have no purpose, what is the point of me?

I don’t think like this personally, I hasten to add. I have other, different, traits which I won’t bore you with now!

Liz Truss, apparently, does not like children running around without a sense of purpose. Perhaps, with purpose, they would then be ‘useful members’ of society, able to aid that society in its own purpose: the instruction of others in how to act. ‘Order’ would be achieved, and with it a deficit in thinking (because what thought do we need when everything, like morality, is decided for us?), and with it a lack of potential wider variety of positions from which to think from (positions which have, in the past, driven us to explore tool use, social network formation, and co-operation) . . .

The argument could go on and on and round and round (at least this would be a dynamic situation though, one in which ideas and exchanges could flow, rather than a static acceptance: a dead state of being).

In short, and in summary, it is the huge expanse of children’s play ‘disorder’ that should be recognised in our society, of expression and creation, of trial and error and running around without purpose, rather than the aim of ‘order’ by manners and so forth. Ideas such as how to respond to others, right and wrong, and suchlike can be explored through the child’s play (as opposed to being told, and blindly following, these ways of acting by others). Over-zealous attempts at order can create unhealthy minds.

Disorder is the natural tendency.


On swearing to tell the truth

Language use — and in particular, some children’s use of certain language — tends to cause all sorts of ruffled feathers in the ‘right thinking’ sensibilities of many adults. In the doctrines stuck to by those adults (educationalists, some parents, maybe, etc.) when children are around, hearing swearing sets off instant reprimand reflexes. Yet, when the children are gone and the adults are in the company of each other, fuck . . .

If there are words that aren’t understood, I agree with the principle of a certain playwork writer who advocates the buying of a dictionary. So I want to know what certain words mean, or use to mean . . . so I go to the dictionary. In the spirit of another certain playwork writer, who advocates ‘proper deskwork’ research (i.e. those things we used to have, back in the day: books), I pulled out my two huge 1979 edition Oxford English Dictionary (OED) volumes. Now, what do these words I hear mean, or what did they once mean?

First though, a preamble: I come to this subject area to write on because it’s been rumbling around in the back of my mind for the best part of the week. Bits and pieces of conversations, reading of others’ writing, reflecting on the things I heard on the playground in London recently all comes to the typing fingertips.

There was a time, I admit, when I also engaged my instant reprimand reflex on hearing children saying certain things that didn’t fit the ‘moral compass’ I’d had instilled into me. It was something I’d absorbed from my colleagues at the time, and from the set-up of the places I was working in. I wasn’t advanced enough in myself to question the doctrine, so I just went along with it.

I remember back a good few years (it’s funny now I think of it from this playwork perspective) when I was in the staff toilet, washing my hands. Next door, in their own toilet room, I could hear two younger boys, about five years old, talking with each other. They were the sweetest little things, ordinarily. You can guess what’s coming! I suppose they didn’t think they could be overheard. Out came a stream of various ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ and so forth. My instant reaction/reflex was wrong: it was a ‘I hope I didn’t hear what I just heard’ comment (albeit playful in itself).

Really, though, what does it matter? Like I say, we swear, and children swear and will continue to swear when they become adults. They’re only words. Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we have to pay attention to the intent of those words: there’s a difference between saying: ‘Fuck off, I don’t believe you!’ and ‘Fuck off’. We’re adults and we should be able to read this stuff here without the emotional baggage; hence I write it like this.

Appreciating the intent of a set of words, there are two arguments for ignoring them that immediately spring to mind. Firstly, we all grow up in a certain culture (by which I mean our family and the environment in which we and our family live). That culture is a complex organism and our use of language is embedded within it. So we accept that we have different cultural backgrounds. Secondly, even if the intent is aggressive, we are emotional animals and emotions will out. I don’t like being told to fuck off, just as you may well not like it, but it’s how I choose to deal with it — rather than trying to make the other person not say it — that’s important and more productive.

Playworkers don’t live in a moral vacuum but we also try not to enforce our own views on the children. This is a point that many adults can’t fathom: it is, perhaps, because of that ‘reprimand reflex’, which they blindly believe in. I don’t know why.

So, to the proper deskwork research! It’s a little disappointing that the OED (or my copy of it, at least) doesn’t make reference to ‘fuck’ or any other such words that are guaranteed to offend many adults. A quick search engine quest does throw up a variety of ideas on the source of the meaning of the word; however, as with many things on the great and vast interweb, you take your chances there in believing any of it. So, to the books, which despite not giving a fuck about fuck, do give a fuck about ‘arse’, ‘bastard’, ‘piss’, ‘shit/shite’ and ‘twat’ (which I find somewhat amusing in itself!) A choice selection of cuts therefore, for your amusement, curiosity, and delectation:

Arse: the fundament, buttocks, posterior, or rump of an animal; heavy arse: a lazy fellow; to hang the arse: to hold back, be reluctant or tardy; arse upwards: in good luck; arsed: having an arse; arseling: backwards.

1530: What up, heavy arse, cannest thou nat aryse.
1711 Swift: Do you think I have nothing else to do but to mend and repair after your Arse? [i.e. behind you, in your rear]
1768 Ross: Then Lindy to stand up began to try; but he fell arselins back.

Bastard: one begotten and born out of wedlock; a sweet kind of Spanish wine; a kind of cloth; a kind of war-vessel, a variety of galley; a large sail used in the Mediterranean when there is little wind; a particular size of paper; an impure coarse brown sugar, made from the refuse sugar of previous boilings; of abnormal shape or irregular size.

1677 Moxon: The Bastard-tooth’d file is to take out of your work the deep cuts.
1695: Covered with an Arch of Bastard Marble.
1859 Darwin: The ‘bastard-wing’ [set of three or four quill-like feathers placed at a small joint in the middle of a bird’s wing] may safely be considered as a rudimentary digit.

Piss: probably onomatopoeic; to discharge urine.

c. 1386 Chaucer: How Xantippa caste pisse up-on his heed.
1600: [an] intolerable stench of pisse and goates dung.

Shit/shite/shote: excrement from the bowels, dung; to void as excrement.

c.1400 Lanfranc’s Cirurg: If he may not schite oones a day, helpe him perto . . .
1484 Caxton: The wulf shote thyres by the waye . . .

Twat: erroneously used by Browning under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.

1660 Browning: They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat, They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.

The last of these being, of course, my favourite of the found OED quotations! Context is as important as intent when using words, and modern usage has shifted older versions into newer versions; however, the point here is that words good enough for Darwin and Chaucer and Swift, etc., can be good enough in playful context too. What was that rhyme I used to sing in playing games with other children when I was maybe seven or eight or nine years old . . .?

Ip-dip dog shit, fucking bastard, silly git, O-U-T spells out, so out you must go. Or something like that. I didn’t know what the words meant: they just rhymed and scanned well. I just knew that the rhyme was the rhyme for finding who was out. It was no big deal.

Comparisons of some early twentieth- and early twenty-first century thinking about children

I have been reading about A. S. Neill recently (he of Summerhill School, more of which later). This is largely independent to my last post (consciously, at least), which was kick-started by a chance conversation about the possibility of playing being taught out of children. However, chance has a habit of bringing strands together and recent newspaper articles have been brought to my attention because of that kick-start. I feed in Neill to the thinking, though I haven’t yet read enough to form a full opinion on his work and philosophy.

This post will largely be an exercise in copying and pasting with a few editorial comments to glue it all together. It will be lengthy, but you’ll read it all if you want to. What needs to be said has already been said, you see. Why reinvent the wheel? Uncomfortable as I often am in the murky world of Politics [sic: deliberate capital P], what I would like to do is to develop a route from last week’s post, through the whole Govian national curriculum debate (via UK teachers’ current Trade Union activity and lack of confidence in Gove), add in a large dash of Alexander Sutherland Neill, and with a small leap land at the feet of play. Ta da.

So, last week I somewhat focused on my own education to highlight some good teachers, some frankly uninspiring (forgotten) teachers, and some teachers who had left an entirely distasteful mark. It was a means of trying to emphasise that play balanced me out. Maybe I came across as too ‘teacher bashing’. I say this because, of course, a major fault lies in whoever’s dictating the national curriculum. As I type, the education secretary is Michael Gove MP. I write this because I’m a playworker, and this playworker has found some common ground here with plenty of teachers — for a change.

Gove’s education plans are fixed squarely on the attainment of knowledge rather than the ability to learn to learn, as I read it. It’s his way of redressing the balance of a lack of ‘rigour’, core learning, no doubt afflicted on the children of today by the previous government. When the Tories are ousted, the see-saw of education policy will dip the other way again. Don’t the children ever get a say? That’s another story.

Michael Rosen, poet and former Children’s Laureate, recently wrote an article (which has been doing the rounds on social media) entitled Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent. Rosen refers to Gove’s apparent appearance on a recent BBC Question Time programme, and writes, addressing Gove:

You posed a dichotomy between knowledge and creativity, and made the assertion that you can’t be creative unless you have knowledge. If you watch a baby playing with a ball, say, you can see something going on that is quite different from your description: the baby is acquiring knowledge through creativity. The baby thinks up things to do with the ball, does them, and learns about what a ball does.

Rosen might well be jumping on the Gove-bashing wagon (and why not?), but from an educational/developmental point of view he has a point about play. He adds:

Once again, you repeated the word ‘rigour’ on the programme . . . I’m totally in favour of rigour when it comes to the work I do in schools: helping the children listen to poetry, recite it, write it and perform it, but whenever you talk about it, you seem to be referring to some of the worst kinds of education I had in the 1950s: learning without understanding, learning motivated by test-scores, learning lists of facts that the minister of education approves of, rather than learning how to ask questions, how to find things out, how to interpret and evaluate, how to be a learner.

Learning lists or play? I know what most children would prefer, and many parents too — if they’re truly reflecting on the power of play. However, this is all still couched in the whole argument that play is ‘for’ some purpose, i.e. playing creates learning. Sure, children get a lot out of their play, but the playwork thinking isn’t here necessarily: play for play’s sake; play for now; play is the very process of being.

Teachers’ trade union activity recently resulted in the Association of Teachers and Lecturers issuing a motion of no confidence in Michael Gove. Not having been party to the debates I can only speculate as to the reasons for the motion: they may range from fear of targets needing to be met, performance related pay, being over-worked and, I would hope, a genuine anxiety about the children. This playworker also has a genuine anxiety about children. The fear isn’t for their formal education, necessarily; rather, it is for their play lives (their spiritual, or maybe, immanent health, perhaps?): it is for their process of being.

Whilst appreciating that I’m reducing Gove’s national curriculum to a simple phrase unrepresentative of the whole, ‘list building, information absorption, and information retention’ isn’t becoming of the process of being. (It’s ironic, thinking about it, that I can reduce my understanding of Gove’s curriculum ideas to a mere list!) In another recent article, In Michael Gove’s world who needs teachers?, Peter Wilby writes:

Gove demands painstaking attention to spelling, handwriting and grammar, and lists the grammatical terms, such as ‘modal verbs’, that children must learn. He expects five- to seven-year-olds to grasp concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament or democracy. If children are presented with material that runs ahead of their mental development, only one teaching method is possible: learning by rote.

In my experience, children of this age get more out of spinning around till they feel sick, throwing themselves off things, sticking themselves to things or things to themselves, poking at things, climbing things, taking things apart, using things in odd ways, creating things from only a room full of thin air, a reel of cellotape, a cardboard box and a plastic thing that used to be something else but nobody really knows quite what: yes, play.

So we come to A. S. Neill. Summerhill School was set up in 1921 as a new way forward for education. It’s still going. As I understand it, children are treated with respect, given the opportunity to vote on school matters (on a par with the teachers’ votes), and the children don’t have to attend lessons if they don’t want to. There were cries of ‘anarchy’ and an upsetting of the conventional wisdom of adult-child relationships, i.e. power dynamics. The school was threatened with closure in 2000, but it came through this to receive a favourable Ofsted report in 2007. Neill was not against children learning, but he put a huge emphasis on play and children’s own direction. In Summerhill – a radical approach to child rearing (A. S. Neill), 1960 (extracted on A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, General Policy Statements), he wrote:

All that any child needs is the three Rs: the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom.

It’s always been a small annoyance of mine that — ironically — ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ are collectively known as the Three Rs, but that’s a small aside. I wonder if this Neill quote unwittingly plays into Gove’s hands: on the face of it, it does; yet, in reality, Neill’s thinking appears to have been far richer.

I will write more on Neill, no doubt, when I’ve finished the biography of him that I’m currently reading. Until then, I’d like to share some quotes from the extract cited above:

[Questions] so often asked by teachers are the unimportant ones, the ones about French or ancient history or what not when these subjects don’t matter a jot compared to the larger questions of life’s fulfilment – of man’s inner happiness.

Even the Montessori system, well known as a system of directed play, is an artificial way of making the child learn by doing. It has nothing creative about it.

Children, like adults, learn what they want to learn.

Most of the school work that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play . . .

When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge . . . For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel.

I am not decrying learning. But learning should come after play.

I have seen a girl weep nightly over her geometry. Her mother wanted her to go to university, but the girl’s whole soul was artistic.

The notion that unless a child is learning something the child is wasting his time is nothing less than [a] curse . . .

In all countries, capitalist, socialist or communist, elaborate schools are built to educate the young. But all the wonderful labs and workshops do nothing to help Jane or Peter or Ivan surmount the emotional damage and the social evils bred by the pressure on him from his parents, his schoolteachers and the pressure of the coercive quality of our civilisation.

The function of the child is to live his own life, not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.

We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had – a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. Since 1921 this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered: it rather has become a final faith.

In 2007, Jessica Shepherd wrote an article based on the above mentioned Ofsted acceptance of Summerhill — So, kids, anyone for double physics? (But no worries if you don’t fancy it). In that article, Ofsted are quoted as reporting:

‘The democratic process used to manage the running of the school provides pupils with outstanding opportunities for personal development.’

Shepherd goes on to quote the head teacher, Zoe Redhead, Neill’s daughter:

‘There is a growing movement towards child-participatory types of education. [Ofsted’s] words pave the way for others to copy our model. It’s a recognition that it works. On the other hand, just as you think education is getting more humanised, a government minister will say it’s all about ‘performance, performance, performance’. I’ll always view them with deep suspicion.’

The head teacher’s suspicions have proved correct: Gove’s curriculum is a dark cloud looming (although, as Peter Wilby also reports, ‘academies and free schools . . . bizarrely, are exempt from the national curriculum’).

So, to conclude, and to repeat Neill:

. . . we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had — a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being.

Perhaps we can also see some playwork thinking here. In play children have their being and their becoming, not in Gove’s world of list building, information absorption, and information retention.

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