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

Archive for May, 2013

What’s in the observation of play?

In the observation of play, what is it that we feel? Or rather, why is it that we feel the way we do about that play? I ask these questions of myself, this week, but I also ask them of others in passing: there often seems to be a mutual adult appreciation of children’s play. Call it ‘appreciation’, ‘wonder’, ‘awe’, or any other word. Why is that?

Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t always apply. When children’s play becomes just a little too ‘beyond the edges’ of coping of any given adult, there’s no such appreciation. These adult edges are individual to each adult but often seem to have common themes: children’s physically risky play, play that involves a minor or major subversion of the norm or ‘the rules’, children swearing, children throwing things around, not sharing things, or any other sort of ‘not doing what’s generally seen as agreeable’. Just the other day I was walking down the street, in my own world, when I saw a couple of children playing out in the cul-de-sac. A woman soon appeared, shoving a pushchair up the road (presumably the mother), and she yelled at the children to stop jumping around. One child told her, without whining, just matter-of-factly, that they were dancing. The two children carried on dancing, much to the woman’s annoyance.

I hadn’t registered that they were dancing; I hadn’t stopped; I hadn’t even had a chance to consciously recognise that this was play here in front of me. I had, however, and on reflection, unconsciously recognised that something unusually usual was taking place here.

Take your children to the swimming pool and pay attention to what happens: you see adults diligently doing lengths, up and down, up and down, plodding away joylessly, and presumably with some self-improving goal in mind; turn your attention back to the children and there’s a bag of eels slopping around in all sorts of unpredictable configurations, in and out of the water, over the floats, and in and out of the pool.

Observing the play of children is like trying to keep track of the eddies and flow of a stream: you try to see where it all begins, or where it’s going, or how patterns might be forming in the flow, and it doesn’t matter how long you do that for because you’ll never find it. When we observe play, we can get hypnotised. What are we looking for in it all?

In playwork observation we know we observe for various reasons: to learn about play more than we know about it now; to try to understand about the use of various resources and environments; to inform our reflections on how we can best work to support and respond to the play. There’s something more to it too though: whisper it quietly because, although we know (or we should know) that children’s play is not about us, that we’re in service to the play . . . there is a small part of us that’s fascinated by the play that we’re seeing. It’s not just confined to the playworkers of the world: if it’s play that a non-playworker can accept as being play, then there’s that same appreciation, wonder, awe on their faces.

It might be wrapped up in phrases such as ‘that’s nice’, ‘how lovely’, or the like, but the core of it’s still along the lines of wonder. Why is that? Perhaps the whole ‘unplayed-out material’ thing (as Gordon Sturrock has it) does come into force here: that adults have an appreciation of their own child-play, deep down, and maybe there’s a need for it to be reignited again (even if only briefly). Some adults take this to the extreme, of course, and impact on the play of the children to such a degree that the children don’t get a look in. Do all adults have a certain degree of unplayed-out material?

Perhaps there’s a deep-seated need in all of us to escape the confines of what we call the real world. We escape sometimes by way of our own adult play; sometimes by impinging on the play of children to the extent of ruining it all for them; sometimes by observation of the possibilities of those ‘infinite variabilities’ of play. That we’re somewhat locked in to largely inflexible patterns in our adult lives (or so we might feel), may well lead us to those dopey-eyed expressions of wonder in the observation of children’s play. We’re troubled because we feel contained, and we’ve lost our naiveties. That naivety will never come back, so all we can do is envy and admire those who are more advanced in their fantasy creations than we are.

This notion of unpredictability might also come into the reckoning: it’s somewhat ironic to think that many adults seem to like the idea of a well-ordered, structured society in which everything ticks along for the good of everyone, yet in some deeper realm might they be in desperate personal need of a little of the opposite? In the seemingly chaotic scheme of things — under the control of the child player — unpredictability is embraced and tackled as it comes (not feared and shunned, as it tends to be in the adult world).

If we dare to delve just a little deeper, might we find a lurking desire to be in contact with all that is a subversion of the ‘norm’? That is, ticking along is all well and good and suits many people, but isn’t it all a little . . . dull? Subversion is exciting and full of life. Play is a rebellion in itself. How much do we each have a desire to rebel?

We might observe in order to learn about play, and to understand the use of resources and environments, but we might also be in a state of wonder, awe, appreciation because we have our rebellious streaks; because we envy the ability to embrace the unpredictable; because we admire the creative impulses; because we’re still driven — at least in part, even as adults — by the innate need to play, or at least to be in visual contact with it. Knowing how not to let our own play drives obliterate, or even slightly deflect the play of children, is key here though.

This week I made observations of a student for her playwork studies at the play setting where she works. As we were talking, and over her shoulder, my attention was caught by the sight of one of the younger boys as he grappled with some large Jenga blocks. He was building with them, but then he started skidding them along the floor. I don’t know why. He was soon joined by some other children. I don’t know what I was looking for when I observed this, nor do I know where or how it all shifted or where it was going. I just know that the play took my attention.

I spent a good part of this afternoon sat in the sun, up on the decking at the top of the garden and sat at the wooden table: a two year old and a four year old were flipping mounds of little plastic counters around, before they graduated to poking them through the holes in the boards, and then the youngest got up onto the table to scatter the whole array of coloured counters, buttons, various plastic pegs and paper and tin foil plates and boxes across the table and benches and onto the ground. He looked greatly pleased with himself, as a baby dinosaur might do if munching his way through a herd of weaker, smaller mammals not destined to evolve. I felt fine in returning the play cues, being part of the whole scheme of things at the children’s behest . . . and then there was just one moment of quite consciously needing things not to get poked into holes (though I really don’t know why) before the moment evaporated. Many more things got scattered and thrown around and poked into holes and slots between the boards. Que sera sera . . .

I was part of it, of course, but I was also able to watch on from a short distance: it was a small incidence of rebellion; of unpredictability; of admiration of the creative impulse in the development of the play frame (and in the destructive); of a need to be in visual contact with that play. The play wasn’t about me, but the observation of the play did affect me, and I have a need to know why this is and why it seems to affect many adults in similar ways.


Of the importance of thinking

Lately I’ve been wearing many hats. I lose track of myself some weeks: sometimes trainer, sometimes trainee, sometimes playworker, sometimes independent learner. I work with children and with adults; I play with family. In amongst it all there’s a thread of thinking about what I’m doing whenever I wear any one of these hats (sometimes the hats are worn at the same time, and this can be confusing). So I’m thinking about thinking . . .

It occurred to me, earlier in the week, that some trainees just blindly follow what they’ve been told by the trainer. I’m a trainer myself and so I know what might go on in the minds of those doing the training: I find, despite myself, if I’m undertaking training, I’m often also paying attention to how the trainer works — not just what they say; I find I start questioning the ‘how they work’ and that then leads me to questioning the content. Of course I’m not perfect when I’m being the trainer myself, so there are things I can learn in doing that too, but after a while you do get to work out when the trainer’s blagging it, being evasive, not entirely sure, etc. because . . . well, let’s just say I’ve been there too!

It’s the questioning of what’s being presented, or taught, that I want to focus on here though. Sitting there nodding your head, moving the pen across the paper dutifully, or absorbing everything totally without it bothering your brain is all very well (and it might be just what some trainers want), but it won’t help you — the trainee — really. Sure, the trainer gets their evaluation form filled out with ticks in agreeable places, and they don’t have to deal with any awkward questions, but has anything really been gained here?

Co-incidentally, in the process of thinking this all out in my head, I received a message from one of my current playwork learners: she questioned my feedback to her, and put forward strong arguments for why she was doing this. Excellent! I thought. Now, there’s a brain that’s starting to think about children and play and playwork and reflective practice. This questioning also gets me thinking about what I’m saying to those I’m giving playwork information to: is what I’m saying actually playwork? Does what I’m saying tally with the ‘real world’? Am I just regurgitating other playwork writers’ ideas? Do we need to re-define what playwork actually is?

A fair amount of taking on board (I won’t necessarily say ‘learning’ because there’s an active element to this) what’s being taught could easily have something to do with the ‘believing in’ of the person who’s doing the teaching or training. The same can be said for the things that ‘playwork people’ are saying, out and about, online, in journals, etc. When someone becomes un-believed in, all their thinking might well become un-believed as well. There are some playwork people who I believe in a lot; there are some I struggle to believe in because of what they say or do.

As in other fields of work, playworkers can become sucked into the whole ‘this is the way it is’ scheme of thinking: so-and-so says or writes such-and-such, therefore it must be true. There needs to be more thinking done all round. I don’t just limit this to playwork: anyone who works with or around children should be thinking more about what they, the adults, do and about what the children are doing. Why? Children deserve consideration.

Here’s an interesting viewpoint I picked up on recently from the ‘field’ (that is, people I know out there in playwork-land): it’s something I’ve kind of known about for a while, but I feed it in here as an example. Writing about children from an ex-teacher’s point of view, John Taylor Gatto is of the opinion that:

The ordinary citizen in command of an active imagination is dangerous. Realising this makes it easier to understand why so many great philosophers and theologians — dependent for their bread, butter, and status on selling useful advice to rulers — recommended mass schooling of the young as the best way to weaken imagination and make subject populations manageable.

Socialising imagination is the most important job mass schooling does in the interests of those who value social stability over individual development.

For school to do its work, it must centre itself around obedience, deference, competition, routines, and memory, but those are only minor parts of an education.

Almost nothing school offers is educational in the fundamental sense that it offers understanding and hard-nosed skills. When you emerge from school, can you build a house, make clothing, grow food, repair a machine? Do you know the ways of the human heart so well it would be hard to fool you? Can you concentrate? Can you associate skilfully in any kind of human situation? Are you self-reliant, resourceful, strategic or tactical at your own discretion? Do you trust your judgment or do you subordinate yourself to ‘experts’?

Will you be able to steer your own ship through the years of your life, or have you only been trained to be crew on someone else’s ship, and to listen to a stranger as your captain?

Strong stuff. Are children given the scope to be able to think for themselves (in their own play, at home, at school, in play settings, out and about)? By the same token, are playwork trainees being encouraged to think enough, to question the received wisdom of the ‘great and the good’, to say ‘hang on, that’s not what happens in my experience’?

If adults and children aren’t in positions where they’re free to really think, and really question things, then isn’t there something very, very wrong going on? So, I put it to you — whether you’re a playwork learner on a course or not, or if you’re someone who works with or around children in other ways, or if these children are your own children or part of your family — question what you see and hear and what you’re taught or what someone you believe in tells you: ultimately, children deserve that consideration, that process of your thinking.

Exploring the idea of children and boundaries

‘Do you think that children need boundaries, Bob?’
‘Perhaps you’re asking the wrong question.’

Private conversation with Bob Hughes, 2012
I’ve been troubled by the idea of ‘control’ for quite a while. It doesn’t sit easily. There was a time, a way back, when I first worked with children and I admit — though the heart was in the right place — there was a lot of adult need in the practice. It could be said that, in some or even many who work with children, there’s still an adult need (though that’s a story for another time). The need I’m looking to investigate further here is the control need.

This is a recurring theme in my thinking and writing, I realise. What is it that troubles me so much? After all, in our adult lives we often try to impose requirements on others: pay me my dues, abide by the laws we tend to all subscribe to, treat me as you’d expect to be treated yourself, etc. Is this a form of attempting soft control?

We have in-built interpretations of ‘what is fair’. That is, we’re settled if we (the centre of our own universes) are roughly in balance. When someone or some organisation or some situation unsettles that equilibrium, we are ‘unfairly’ treated. Is attempting such soft control on other adults justifiable because of ‘fairness’? On the other hand, what right have any of us to impose upon another? Perhaps the ‘right’ can be activated after others have unfairly treated us. I don’t know for sure.

When it comes to the idea of ‘boundaries’, I find myself tying in these concepts of ‘fair’, ‘rights’ and ‘control’. If a child plays in a certain way (expressing themselves loudly, say, or throwing things around to see what will happen), causing the adult’s system to be imposed upon, is it justifiable that the adult then impose upon that child? If we look at it carefully, the playing child is unsettling the ‘centre of the universe’ that is the attendant adult; the adult feels out of control; the adult imposes some (let’s call it) ‘boundary’ in order to regain the feeling that ‘fairness’ to him or her has been restored.

Is it right to impose a boundary on a playing child just because the adult feels unsettled?

This word ‘boundary’ has troubled me for a long time: it’s the idea of trying to fix someone else into our way of things that bothers me. You can read here and agree or disagree with whatever’s said, but I can’t make you do things ‘my way’ if we don’t see eye to eye. I write this blog to open a window onto the things I’ve experienced and continue to experience. I can be opinionated or subtle, but you choose your own way.

Do children need adults’ boundaries? Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. If we are to use the ‘boundary’ word, what boundaries do children need? I’ve had these conversations many times. Often, top of the replies list is ‘boundaries for their own safety’; or ‘for learning how to get by in the world’; or ‘to respect others’.

Regarding safety, there are many times when children can work things out for themselves, though there are many other times when they’re just blind to what’s going on around them. Tagging along with Gack (you have to read back in the archives here too!), who’s three, as he peddles along down the gradual slope on his bike with stabilisers but no brakes, he stops at each road, like we talk about. We come to the crossroads next to the bus stop. ‘Anything coming?’ I ask. ‘Nope,’ he says without looking, attempting to push out into the road. ‘Yeh right,’ I say. ‘You haven’t even looked.’ He can hear a wood pigeon on a roof from fifty yards, and he can see an ant on a black surface from six feet away, but he doesn’t see or hear the bus walloping around the corner towards us.

I’m more comfortable with the word ‘guidance’ here. Maybe it’s just a word, but it feels more positive than ‘boundary’ and ‘control’. Am I controlling this road safety scenario?

At the park, Gack talks loudly about the man who’s just come in to the ‘outdoor fitness area’ (they rip up the children’s play area to slot in a series of gym devices which hardly get used, but that again is another story). Gack likes to come in here, I guess, because it’s a smooth surface to ride his bike on. He uses the equipment in unusual ways too. The man comes in and Gack talks about him as if he, the adult, can’t hear: ‘Why is that man here? What’s he doing now?’ The man soon leaves and we go on flicking elastic bands around. I have no intention of imposing a ‘boundary’ on Gack so he can ‘learn how to treat others’, ‘respect them’, or generally just not unsettle them. There’s no ‘guidance’ I can, or want, to offer here either.

In the garden, another day, Gack’s cousin (who’s two) pokes around the pond, which is a deep green ooze. He can’t get in easily, though I wouldn’t put it past him to try. He bides his time before playing in other ways: an ornamental duck is dropped into the murk. Later, he finds another duck and I know what he’s going to do only at about the time he gets just far enough ahead of me not to be able to reach him. He runs across the patio, duck by the neck. Plop. He watches it sink. I stand there and just consider the fact that what has been done has been done. The duck is already sunk.

What would be the point of imposing a ‘no’ or any other rebuke? The duck has already been dunked. There are other ornaments that might like to go for a swim. What do you do when you have such trouble with the concept of ‘control because the adult doesn’t like the action’? It’s time to put money where the mouth is: I try to make play of the situation. I don’t know if I get it right, though no more ducks are harmed in the course of the afternoon. What would be the problem if they were though?

So, what ‘boundaries’ do children ‘need’? It’s been my contention for quite a while now that it’s not children who need boundaries, but adults. Adults need ways of balancing their own systems, comfort levels, sense of being central; children need other things. If a ‘play need’ is essentially gaining access to some play opportunity that their environment (including the human environment) doesn’t provide them, then maybe children’s other needs are a result of other deficiencies. So, for example, maybe they have a need (as opposed to a preference) for guidance in road awareness, sometimes (because of a current deficiency in understanding about the impact of buses, say); maybe they have a need for initial ‘assistance’ in tools use in their play; maybe they have a need for adult understanding. Maybe these aren’t children’s needs at all . . .

There’s a difference between what a child needs and what an adult wants of them. In the latter, it’s the adult who’s at the centre of things and it’s the adult who then becomes settled because of the ‘boundary setting’. If we’re imposing ‘boundaries’, instead of attempting to understand what and how the child is playing, are we really thinking of the child at all?

Jam and snot, or the Montessoribots?

Still on my theme of A. S. Neill’s work, from around the 1920s, I move from thoughts on education and parenting to a more general idea of ‘connectivity between generations’. I find there are links between some of my long-held own beliefs and ideas, and what I’m discovering as I read. So, in writing, I explore this further . . .

Whilst Neill was writing for The New Era: an International Quarterly Journal for the Promotion of Reconstruction in Education, in the early 1920s (a bit of a mouthful of a magazine title, admittedly!), he went out and about visiting and reporting on various establishments. One of these places was the Montessori Department of the Brackenhill Theosophical Home School in Kent. Maria Montessori had come to England in 1919, and interest in her methods was just starting to spread. I was interested to read of Neill’s observation and opinion on his visit to this particular school:

‘I spoke not a word. In five minutes the insets and long stairs [presumably forms of ‘didactic apparatus’, as named by Montessori] were lying neglected in the middle of the floor, and the [children] were scrambling over me. I felt very guilty, for I feared that if Montessori herself were to walk in she would be indignant. I cannot explain why I affect [children] in this way. It may be that intuitively they know that I do not inspire fear or respect; it may be that they unconsciously recognise the baby in me.’

What Neill seems to have experienced here is something I’ve also known for a long time, but never been able to pin down the exact reasons for either. Countless times I’ve visited a school or playscheme or some other play provision (and I’d never met those children before), and when I do I often try to keep out of the way, and before long, almost without fail, I find a paintbrush being poked in my ear, or I’ve become co-opted into a play-fight-dance, or I’m being told life histories by five year olds, and one way or another all form of previous structure and order breaks down in the immediate area around me.

It happens when I least expect it to (though I should be used to this sort of thing by now). Even just the other day, out at the park, attendant three year old leading the way, we ended up in the fixed equipment area, on the tarmac mound, and before long we were surrounded by a small group of other younger children. Admittedly we were in the middle of a form of crazy golf play (with proper golf clubs and fluorescent yellow balls), but I wasn’t doing anything really: just rolling the balls back uphill, then sitting down in the sun on the slope. The children slowly gravitated over. I did a quick sweep round for the parents the children had brought along, but no-one showed any signs of ‘man in the playground, panic!’ so I talked when talked to by the children, listened, got the balls if need be. That part of the playground became the crazy golf place (not what ‘normally’ happens in such a fenced-off designated area for designated play). After a while, one of the girls took custody of the least favoured golf club, another girl took a golf ball under her wing, and the play just scattered to other parts of the space.

Sure, on the face of it, there’s the obvious unusual occurrence of golf clubs here, but there’s also the unusual occurrence of someone being at eye height and actually listening and talking and taking notice. I’ve always wondered if there was something more to it too though. Back to this again after a swing back around Maria Montessori.

Neill notes, with some degree of concern, that Montessori’s term ‘didactic apparatus frightens me’, and that education is ‘more than matching colours and fitting cylinders into holes’. This is not a post about education, but it is about play. I’ve always had similar reservations about Montessori children’s play. A while back I was visiting students in a Montessori nursery school (I was working in the field of pre-school at the time). I was shocked, frankly, by the robotic nature of the three year olds there who, without any adult prompting, would float over to a bland pale wooden shelf, pick up a bland pale wooden object on a tray, and come back to a table, sitting down with it. The child would neatly stack blocks from one place to another on the tray, or pour water from a jug into a cup and then back again, and repeat it over and over. Then they’d put it back on the shelf.

This was not the world of three year olds smeared in jam and snot that I knew, or some years later, the three year old playing crazy golf in the fixed equipment park, shouting at the ducks to wake them up, or walking along the High Street blowing bubbles into chocolate milkshake, laughing at the newly discovered sound, smeared in saliva, snot and sun cream!

For the sake of noting some small degree of pro-Montessori methodology, I did learn a rather neat way for younger children to put their own coats on (by putting the coats on the floor, outsides downwards, arms spread out; the child then stands at the head end, slots their arms in, bends down and flips the whole coat over and on!) That, though, is the sum total of my pro-Montessori leanings.

We shouldn’t foster robotic children, and we shouldn’t foster children fearful of adults or what those adults might say to or about them. Why do children gravitate over to some adults? Of course, the physical level of the adult helps, as does the listening and the talking with the child, if wanted by that child (talking ‘with’, I’ve always felt, rather than ‘talking to’ and definitely rather than ‘talking at’); I have, for a long time, held the belief that children ‘see’ the play awareness of certain adults.

I observe good playworkers I sometimes work with, and some excellent parents, and other adults who are neither or both of these, and I watch the way that children seem to appreciate them, ‘see’ them, ‘know’ them, ‘get’ them. It’s this ‘gettingness’ that has fascinated me for a while.

The adult who tries too hard will soon be found out by the child; the adult who’s playful, up to a point, before adult sensibilities kick back in again, will be found out and discarded; the adult who just doesn’t ‘get’ play won’t even be tolerated. There are deeper reasons why some children ‘get’ some adults, perhaps: the possible unconventional looks and ways of the adult, as compared to the child’s forming stereotype, can be part of it; there may be attachment needs not served by other adults in the child’s life; there may be a raw but developing comprehension that a rebellious or unusual streak is the ‘play way’, and should be embraced when found in any other person; there may be other, more indefinable reasons.

I don’t know, but it’s an ongoing process of trying to find out. If I’m ‘in tune’ (and some days I’m not, for whatever reason), I can be minding my own business on the bus, concentrating on collecting golf balls, sitting talking with other adults in a play space and giving no outward signs that ‘I’m playing now’, and before long I have tongues stuck out at me; or I have children gravitating around, without words, not always with a need for the play objects themselves; or I find glue and glitter being surreptitiously spread up my arm.

Like Neill, I can’t fully explain the reasons for these sorts of things; I do know though that I hope children don’t become robots, and that they do just express themselves in their play. Why? Imagine a world full of robotic people unable to connect with one another at all.

On the education of adults about children

[A board should be set up] to enquire into the upbringing of children. We might call it the Board of Parental Control. It would bring parents before it and examine them. Parents convicted of stupidity would be ordered to hand over their children to a Play-Yard School.

A. S. Neill, A Dominie Dismissed, 1917
Of course, I use this quote as a deliberate provocation. I find it amusing, though there is a hint of seriousness within the tongue-in-cheek writing of the author. I’m gradually working my way through a biography of the pioneering educationalist A. S. Neill and I find myself amazed by what I’m discovering. Neill’s thinking, writing and practice when working with children (going back to the very start of the 20th century) is shot through with respect for the child. I write it this way because I’m aware of the context of the times in which he first practised.

Now, I am not a teacher of children or a parent. That’s my first disclaimer. My next is that I know some excellent parents who truly respect and recognise the freedom taken and needed by their children. My playwork experience in my current thinking is linked with my family experience, and my early years and youth work experience, amongst other things I’ve done and learned. It’s taken a good few years to get to here. I still have things to learn. I also still have some personal concerns about ideas on ‘children’s ways of being’: that is, my ideas on children, their freedom to play, their play, and adults who I might see as trying to control those children, versus the thought that is ‘who am I to tell someone else how to lead a life?’

In juggling these thoughts, I can only bring it back to this: these are my ideas, which I keep testing and refining; who else is coming along with that flow? A. S. Neill’s ideas and experiences are starting to reinforce, and maybe justify, some of my own; or rather, the ideas I have learned, tested, accepted and taken on as a way to be believed in. By extension, some of Neill’s own influences are being thrown into the mix.

In 1917, Neill met an American likemind by the name of Homer Lane. Lane is described (by Jonathan Croall, in Neill of Summerhill: the Permanent Rebel) as a former teacher and Superintendent of Playgrounds in Detroit. Lane came to England and set up what he called ‘the Little Commonwealth’: a self-governed community for so-called delinquent boys and girls, based on a farm in Dorset. Neill, apparently, was greatly impressed by what he saw there.

He later wrote that Lane was ‘the first man who simply said, we don’t know a damn thing about children, let’s observe them, and not force our personalities on them.’

In the hundred years or so since then, there’s still the dominant adult desire to force our personalities, morality, ideas and ways of being onto the children around us. In adults’ care for children, in their love and upholding of children’s ‘best interests’, those adults seem to want to develop those children in their own image. Or, at least, they seem to want to develop them in the image of ‘society’s view of ‘the child’. We are all a part of society. Why are children so often not given the opportunity to be themselves?

I’ve had conversations like these many times before. I was teaching adults once and was shocked to be confronted by a learner whose views took on increasingly agitated and spiteful tones. He accused me of trying to preach ‘liberal, hippy 1970s views’ which were out of tune with how society was or should be. I tried to protest. I said that I didn’t make this stuff up myself, that I was teaching here from the playwork literature. He wouldn’t have it. It knocked me sideways somewhat. I still think about that a few years on. Are some individuals just so ingrained in ‘the way things ought to be’ that children become secondary to it all?

In 1916, Neill wrote (whilst still in a more traditional teaching position): ‘I feel that I am merely pouring water into a sieve. I almost feel that to meddle with education is to begin at the wrong end. I may have an ideal, but I cannot carry it out because I am up against all the forces of society.’ I sometimes feel the same way with regards to playwork practice.

His biographer, Croall, goes on to write: ‘In particular, he found that he was having to come into conflict with parents who still believed in the traditional way of training and punishing a child.’ Neill is quoted as reporting: ‘Many a night I feel disheartened. I feel that I am on the side of the bairns.’

This reminds me of a job I once had in which I was required to undergo a yearly review with the manager of the setting. I worked with children there and I think I was regarded as a bit of an oddity, but tolerated. The manager (who I had a lot of time for, and who is now sadly not with us), would always conclude the meeting with the idea that I was more comfortable in the presence and in the service of the children. It was a backhanded compliment and a way of suggesting I ought to try harder with my colleagues. Her heart was in the right place though! I was, and always have been and always will be, like Neill, on the side of the bairns (that is, the children).

I’m not a teacher of children, and I don’t know if I ever could be (I sometimes imagine what that classroom might look and feel like!), but I have my reservations about some teachers I’ve seen at work: are they truly on the side of the bairns? Like my earlier disclaimer about not being a parent and knowing some good parents, I have also (truly) met some excellent teachers in my time. However, I wonder what teaching might look like if thinking such as Homer Lane’s were to be the norm. Croall writes:

Lane argued forcibly that the traditional form of education based on fear should be abolished. Teachers must stand down from their position of authority, and let children resolve their own difficulties in an atmosphere of encouragement and freedom. ‘Freedom cannot be given,’ he stated. ‘It is taken by the children . . .’

Of course, the fear that was evident in early twentieth century UK classrooms (physical punishment and all) is not seen today. However, I would argue (from my own observation and discussions with some children) that the fear-factor of authority does sometimes play a part. What does this do, potentially, to the children? Authority, taught Homer Lane, is the fundamental problem of society. Liberal, hippy 1970s views? Liberal, hippy pre-1920s views?

When all is said and done, we adults should be taking a good long hard look at ourselves. In balancing up ‘these are my ideas and understanding from experience and reading’ versus ‘who am I to tell others how to be?’, I err on the side of the former here. We adults (whether we’re parents, non-parents, teachers, any of us who know or could have influence over children), are part of our society — as indeed are those children, let’s not forget. If we cannot, or will not, respect the child and the children around us for who they are, then we are the ones who ought really to undergo some education, not the children.

‘Adults’, writes Croall of Homer Lane, ‘should both trust and revere the nature of children.’

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