Children who play any way they like are going to grow up not appreciating others, respecting others or generally able to get along, right? No, of course not! Regular readers of this blog know the way I tend to think by now! To those who aren’t regular readers (as well as you regular lot) I ask: how do you feel about that opening statement?
I’ve been wrestling with ideas on ‘playing children’ and ‘playing adults’; or rather, on trying to marry up this primary instinct I have that children can pretty much do no wrong in their play (there’s a caveat to that, which I’ll come on to) with how adults who also play can, conversely, do plenty of wrong to others. Surely play is play no matter if it’s a child engaged in it or an adult? Many adults won’t call their play by this name (because they don’t realise that it is, or because our society tends to frown on such ‘frivolity’ in adulthood); some adults do call their play by this name. No matter what we call it, play does affect others. I don’t see how it can be any other way.
When we advocate for play and we fight the good fight for children expressing themselves in that play, we don’t accept that causing harm to others is legitimate. I was reminded recently (not that I’d forgotten, but it was timely correspondence) of the atrocities inflicted on a certain young child a number of years ago by two boys whose identities subsequently had to be changed. That these children could ‘play in their own way’ by doing what they did was surely not accepted by anyone anywhere. So this is an extreme case, but coming back down the spectrum to children’s general and often ‘do as they like’ play, I’ve lost count of the times other adults have expressed concern about this to me.
They seem to equate examples of children in ‘this play is all about what I want’ mode as some degenerate selfish catastrophe that must be averted at all costs. What will happen, they say, is these children will grow into the very epitome of all that is bad in society, i.e. realistically, that they won’t slot neatly into the world that makes the adult expressing these views comfortable. There’s an inherent irony in that adult selfishness. After all, do they (those adults) always hold doors open for strangers, say their please- and thank yous at every opportunity, politely respect their elders at all times, or refrain from even the mildest of occasional swearing? Is there such a person as the whitest of the white? What a boring world that would be if we were all like this.
That said, this brings me back round to the idea that (adults’) play affects others. The mischievous or malicious intentions of one person will inevitably impact on another. I suspect that, contrary to my opening statement, children who don’t play any way they like are going to grow up not appreciating others, respecting others or generally able to get along. This isn’t such new thinking because others have been writing about the possible detrimental effects of an impoverished playhood for a while now. However, it’s something I come to this week in trying to untangle thoughts on personal interactions between myself and various generations.
With children in my family, when they tip the playable contents of the house and garden upside down in individual manifestations of ‘do as I like’, I’m pretty much fine with this. That said, I do admit to moments of small anxiety: no, it’s not the idea of having to tidy it all up — that’s time that’s factored in anyway; it is, on reflection, more to do with me forgetting the drama of the moment. At such a young age, these children will often play with something for a few minutes before moving on to something else (often resulting in one thing after another being tipped out, with great delight). It’s all about the doing in the now, and in my moment of minor agitation I forget this. This is my problem, but I know it hangs around sometimes.
When children I’m working with in a play setting do the same (I search through the internal records of my emotions), I find I’m pretty much unperturbed by ‘do as I like-ness’. There’s that same time factored in to tidying up (me, not the children), but there seems to be more of an understanding in me about the drama of the moment. Perhaps it’s because I know that, despite my home being my family children’s home in their play, in the play setting the place is theirs (if not totally, because there is still the lingering adult presence of possible curtailment, then it’s theirs more than it is ours). In many play settings though, this isn’t the case: the place is more about the adult than the child (despite the array of coloured walls, play stuff, and earnest-sounding policy documents proclaiming the child above all else).
When adults I know or meet engage in that ‘do as I like-ness’, the game seems to shift. That is, I wonder how they got this way. Why are they being so anti-other adult here? It’s not the same as the child ‘do as I like’. The child is still working things out (I hesitate to use the word ‘learning’ because too many people associate this with formal adult-led processes of teaching); the child is also suffering the inevitable knock-backs as a result of what they do and its affect on others (and I’m not suggesting that the adult is ‘the finished article’ here because we’re all in a process of ‘working things out’, to a certain extent); the ‘do as I like’ adult, I suggest, hasn’t had such a wide-ranging playhood when they were a child. I realise this is a huge and sweeping statement and that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule, but if you’ve been repressed, aggressively socially indoctrinated, or just plain not given the chance to find out for yourself, you’re going to grow up as someone less able to appreciate or respect others or generally be able to get along: such is your psychopathological state.
So, in my wrestling with the ‘do as I like-ness’ of playing children and of playing adults, I’m of the opinion (today) that an early healthy selfishness generally develops into a healthy social adult; in contrast, a stunted playhood will probably result in malevolent or maladjusted adults. Maybe it’s theoretical justification following the practical experiment (not the best science methodology!) — planting the answer I’m looking for all along; in the absence of any study data though, this is the thinking that feels possible.