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

Archive for September, 2013

The things your child needs

Know that what this child does is play; have respect, have great love; listen carefully; lay down your adult needs to be authoritarian, disciplinarian, bigger; kneel and wash the feet of your child; have humility and when you’re wrong, say ‘I was wrong’; trust that look in your child’s eye.

Earlier in the week I’d found my way to a blog post written by someone else (who I won’t link to here because I’d like to create a sort of amalgam of ‘things found’ here today). That blog post offered up the poster’s various friends’ advice about what new parents should know. I read through that list and thought ‘Hmm. Some of this doesn’t bode well for the child.’ This is not at all scientific, but on that post alone the positive child-focused advice was less than 30% (the rest was negative or bland at best). The passage I’ve written (above, in italics) was just something I had to add to that list. It represents how I feel right now about my interactions with, at a conservative estimate, some couple of thousand children, maybe more, including a handful of family children, over the years (some being long-term and continued playworker/child relationships, some more fleeting but just as significant).

At this point there’s bound to be someone thinking something like: ‘Ah, but being a playworker (whatever that is) isn’t the same as being a parent. Being a parent is the highest and most important form of human achievement.’ I disagree because I’m of the opinion that all adults (parents, playworkers, teachers, the man or the woman in the street, etc.) can do more to appreciate the children around them, see their play as play, respect them, have and be love, listen, relinquish their agendas of control, have humility towards them, trust them, and so on.

It’s a source of constant dismay to hear phrases such as ‘Johnny is such a little sod’, or ‘I need to tell her off’, or ‘She needs to learn to behave/not be naughty’. It’s the disrespect of children and non-appreciation of them, played through the need for adult control, that frustrates me.

So yesterday I went off on a minor research trek: trying to find some positives and some negatives, to give a balanced view from various internet sources, regarding parenting advice. However, though there are some positives out there (some of which I will highlight a little further on), I got somewhat sidetracked by the more frustrating of the comments when unearthing negative attitudes towards children.

From the US blog site that started this research process off, I found the following examples of attitudes/advice for new parents (I reserve the right to change the word ‘kids’ to ‘children’ throughout because the former irritates me no end, and to alter American English to my own flavour):

Always carry a Bible with you whilst you’re in public with your [children]: not to calm yourself down to read it when they act up, but in case you might have to do an exorcism . . . Bad behaviour can be changed in a week if the parents are strong enough to last the seven days of pain the [children] will bring . . . Get a dog . . . Child leashes . . . Give them an iPad and let it raise them . . . Discipline is necessary. [Children] respect the parent who gives their life order.

Sure, there’s jokiness in some of the above, but really I don’t appreciate it because the sentiment that runs beneath all of this shines through. I then went off to open up a small sample of websites offering parenting advice (from the US and the UK): the first ten I found (so no, not at all scientific, but I needed to see what was being said in some sort of testing of the water out there). There’s no attempt here to present an absolutely representative and balanced view of what I found: this post is focusing mainly on negative attitudes towards children that can be found out there. Here’s a sampling, all of which trouble me [and here’s my editorial opinion too]:

Remember: you are in charge, not your children. It’s so easy to forget sometimes . . .

[No comment necessary, other than this sets up the frame of my uneasiness]

The earlier that parents establish this kind of ‘I set the rules and you’re expected to listen or accept the consequences’ standard, the better for everyone.

[Is it better for the children? Or don’t they count as being part of the ‘everyone-ness’?]

If your child continues an unacceptable behaviour [make a chart]. Decide how many times your child can misbehave before a punishment kicks in or how long the proper behaviour must be displayed before it is rewarded . . .  Once this begins to work, praise your child for learning to control misbehaviour . . .

[One man’s ‘misbehaviour’, like one man’s meat, is another’s poison. Or the other way around. Anyway, what I mean is this: if a child’s running around ‘not listening’, for example, are they playing or not exhibiting the ‘proper behaviour’? The ‘proper behaviour’? Learning to control misbehaviour? There’s probably enough material for a sociology student’s thesis in here somewhere]

Failing to set rules because you don’t want to be too tough on your [children] . . . often means parents end up losing control . . .

[Control, control, control . . .]

Why [children] need rules: helping him stick to the rules will make him way more pleasant to have around and be around, and his sense of self-control is a vital skill he can fall back on during his teen years, when making wise decisions may run counter to his desire to rebel.

[Rebel recalcitrant child, rebel, whilst you still can!]

When your crawling baby or roving toddler heads towards an unacceptable or dangerous play object, calmly say ‘No’ and either remove your child from the area or distract him or her with an appropriate activity.

[Umm. It’s a play object, right? Why is that inappropriate?]

Explain to [children] what you expect of them before you punish them for a certain behaviour. For instance, the first time your 3-year-old uses crayons to decorate the living room wall, discuss why that’s not allowed and what will happen if your child does it again (for instance, your child will have to help clean the wall and will not be able to use the crayons for the rest of the day). If the wall gets decorated again a few days later, issue a reminder that crayons are for paper only and then enforce the consequences.

[OK, so I understand the adult frustration here, but really . . . crayons work well on walls, right? They work especially well on the walls of draconian overlords who’re hellbent on schemes of punishment in their ‘corrective facilities’]

When it’s raining and your [children] are insisting on playing the PS3 or XBox again — only allow them to play standing up. You will be amazed at how much energy they burn jumping up and down.

[Where do I start on this one? Maybe I could just say that none of us are made of sugar and that we won’t dissolve in the rain. Or maybe the children could invest some pocket money in good sturdy locks for their bedroom doors]

We have instituted a rule that our 2-year-old daughter only gets three books out from the shelves at a time, then puts them away before getting more out.

[Only three books?? But I like books and I really have an urgent need for as many books as possible . . . Draw your own connections here between things like this and standards of literacy]

Is your child taking control?: planning your strategy; keep your eyes on the prize. It can feel like it’s all about the children’s wishes, and everything you do is a reaction rather than an action.

[Wow. Power-mad or what? Rebel, recalcitrant child, rebel . . .]

Take note of the type of games your child tends to play. If they play lots of games with toy guns and swords it may be a good idea to try to change the balance of their play and introduce a number of calmer pursuits as well.

[OK, I’m getting tired now. Let’s talk ‘play types’, play deprivation, the content and intent of the play should be up to the child; let’s talk evolutionary psychology; let’s talk ‘superhero play’ and defences; let’s talk about the psychological needs of young minds; let’s talk about the power of symbolism . . . let’s just talk]

If you tell your toddler that a timeout is the repercussion for bad behaviour, be sure to enforce it . . . Empty threats undermine your authority.

[What does ‘bad behaviour’ mean? Is that just another phrase for ‘what the adult doesn’t want?’ Also here . . . authority, authority, authority . . .]

If necessary, discipline your teen by taking away certain privileges to reinforce the message that self-control is an important skill.

[Discipline, discipline, discipline . . .]

Protecting your child from playground germs . . .

[Really??! No, I really don’t know what to say to this one!]

On the plus side, and to balance things up just a little bit, I found some moments of love and respect, and snippets to amuse, out there on the world wondrous web:

Stay a child yourself, connect on their level. So, do water fights, build forts, play with Lego, sing out loud, etc . . . Go with the flow and have fun! That’s what I’ve learned most in the last two years with my little one . . . Just be there, make time for them . . . Listen . . . Don’t call your [children] ‘little shits’. It puts bad energy on the child . . . Do all the fun things . . . Nurture their spirit and nurture their interests. Don’t get worried over their obsession with dinosaurs . . .

Sometimes it is easier just to believe that the cat DID draw on the wall . . .

When young children argue, don’t step in immediately. Give them a chance to sort it out for themselves, without you being within sight. You may be pleasantly surprised.

[Listen] is a verb. Listening to your children is different to hearing what they’ve said.

No matter how frustrated you get, and no matter what heinous crimes they’re being blamed for, do not shout at your child’s imaginary friends in public.

To all of which above I add, for what it’s worth:

Know that what this child does is play; have respect, have great love; listen carefully; lay down your adult needs to be authoritarian, disciplinarian, bigger; kneel and wash the feet of your child; have humility and when you’re wrong, say ‘I was wrong’; trust that look in your child’s eye.


Once upon a small space

The boys are quiet. They’re two and a half and three and a half. They’re in the shed, on their own. The door is shut. I’m in the house, looking out on the garden, and I realise that I haven’t heard or seen the children for a while. The last time I took any significant conscious note, there were three children sat quietly in the shed, surrounded by the sand they’d up-ended, sitting on the wooden booster boxes or on top of the empty old keg in there. They were sat around chatting in a way that was a little unusual for this small group of two to four-year-olds: they’re usually bouncing around after one another, some place. Now though, there’s one child of the three indoors, but the boys are quiet some place else: the shed door is shut. I go out to investigate.

When I open the shed door there’s no-one inside. Strange, I think: I could have sworn they were in here. It’s a little dark without windows, and it’s a little musty. This is where all the play stuff lives: though it’s scattered around now and flung into new living places this end of summer. I’m just turning back out of the shed when I hear a small sound. I have no idea where it’s coming from. I listen hard and think I must be hearing things, or the sound is coming from next door’s garden or something. There it is again though. ‘Are you in here, boys?’ I say. There’s no reply. Instead, again after a little while, there’s another small shuffling. I can’t trace it so I look in low places.

There, wedged right in at the back by the wall, nestled on top of a mound of old fabric sheets that some children I once worked with painted several years ago, are the boys. They grin out at me, looking like mice in the process of burrowing. I don’t think they’re hiding from me: I think it’s the other way around — I’ve disturbed something here. ‘Hi,’ I say. It’s all I can say. The boys wait, still grinning, and I don’t know if they expect me to tell them to get out or demand of them what they’re doing in there. I like to think they know me well enough though. ‘So,’ I say. ‘Um, OK. Mind your heads on the wood there, won’t you? It might have some nails in, and it’s dark in there.’ The boys nod. Adults can tend to state the obvious sometimes, can’t they?

‘I’ll, er, leave you to it then,’ I tell them and, as an after-thought — because something in me just tells me I need to get out of there, but also something in me tells me I ought to suggest something also verging on the ‘safer’ side — I add: ‘Can we just leave the door open a bit?’ The boys are OK with this, but I also realise (sort of, at the time) that that’s going to change things. The space no longer has the same potential quality as it did a few minutes before I’d come in: for one, the door is now ajar and there’s more light in there; for another, the ‘just burrowing’ — or whatever it is — now has a tinge of ‘hiding’ about it; for one more thing, a least one adult now knows about the play and the space. None of this in so many words, no doubt, is going through the minds of a two-year-old and a three-year-old, but it goes through mine now as I write.

Caught unawares by the process of creation unfolding (unexpected in that space, at that time, by these particular children, in this way), this adult — though pleasantly surprised — clicked into default adult mode of stating the bloody obvious and looking to modify the ‘safeness’ of the scene. It didn’t really need either. It needed me just not to have got in the way, or having done so accidentally, to get out again soon enough. Why does this matter? Surely it’s just a small thing, this finding of a secret space being created, trying to make sure no-one gets hurt? It’s about trust, of course.

If we extend it out to the idea that adults can, and often do, poke their uninvited way into such secret play repeatedly, the children aren’t going to feel trusted. Secret spaces are important for children. They’re created and owned, or places of escape, or places where all manner of strange imaginings can happen and can only happen there. They’re all of these and more. That we might not be able to see or hear the children will probably be a little disturbing for many adults: we’re conditioned to want to protect, of course, but also increasingly we’re conditioned to impose our own wills on children. Children become the receptacles for our adult ideas, morals, teachings and other wisdoms. Small, dark spaces in slightly musty sheds (albeit full of play stuff, but also home to tools and garden equipment and piled up things) are — adult ‘knowledge’ says — not appropriate places to be ‘hiding’ in.

The boys weren’t hiding, as such; or so I believe. They were ‘burrowing’, or ‘making’, or ‘just seeing’, or whatever it was they were doing. Maybe there was some hiding in it, but maybe they were ‘just hiding’ and not hiding from anyone in particular. I don’t know. This small, dark space in a slightly musty shed — it seems, therefore — was a perfect place to be doing whatever the boys were doing in it. The things we adults seem to have forgotten . . .

In my childhood there were many such spaces as these: in scooped-out gaps in various hedges; in the narrow concrete tunnel tubes that led to the lakes; in the cupboard under the stairs; in the possibility of the central heating system, just big enough to squeeze into (though I never tried); under upturned sofas; in the long grass at the end of the school playing field; in others’ discarded places found in the woods. What things happen in places such as these? It’s not for us adults to know: it’s only for us to remember.

There are times when the boys are quite comfortable with me being around their play, when they actively want me to be a part of it; there are times when they tolerate me or need me to help make something happen; there are times when they tolerate me, but when I really should be leaving them be (times such as when burrowing in old fabric in a dark corner of a slightly musty shed). I’m reminded of how, once, at a setting I worked at, other staff were agitated by the children’s need to climb into the cupboard (which could fit several of them at once); by their need to pull the blackout material across (which I’d stapled there beforehand); by their urgent need for me to find the torches, then shut the door, leave them be. My colleagues said that they couldn’t see the children. I said, ‘So?’ We could hear them banging and gurgling away, or shuffling around. When I checked in, every so often (yes, I disturbed them too and maybe shouldn’t have done), they were keen for me just to close the door again. The smell was ripe enough and I was keen to close that door for them!

Maybe, as adults, we’ll always have this in-built need to ‘check in’ on children (in our settings or in our homes); maybe, if we need to do this, we should find other much more subtle ways to do it: after all, something of the essential quality of that space the children are playing in will, no doubt, be lost if we check in too clumsily. A chipping away of trust will happen if we repeat and repeat our clumsinesses.

The long dark tea-time of the search term (or, backstage at the playwork blog gig)

There’s much to entertain the WordPress blogger backstage of his or her own blog. A few days ago, I found myself leafing through the long list of search engine terms that unknown people had plugged in to their screens, landing eventually on this blog. Really, I recommend the exercise: it’s quite cathartic in its own way! As I read I thought: there’s plenty here for me to write about, albeit something that might end up somewhat lengthy.

So, there follows a selection from backstage. I’ve copied and pasted them word for word — save for a few spelling, punctuation and grammar corrections here and there, because it’s my blog and I have a need to do that! I’ve also reserved the right to re-write ‘children’ where people have written ‘kids’ because children aren’t baby goats, and I’ve long been of the opinion that using this term is somewhat patronising. Likewise you’ll never, ever read or hear me use the words ‘zany’ or ‘whacky’ (at all, except here!) and especially not linked to anything to do with children. I digress.

When reading this backstage list, it struck me that I could pretty much roughly sort things into general categories. So, here goes. We have:

• the top repeated searches;
• the (perceived as) sensible play and playwork questions, in the spirit of reflective thinking;
• the category I’m calling, for now, WTF?;
• the esoteric, that is, the somewhat obscure;
• the dodgy study skills of some playwork learners list (I also teach it, so I know some of the things that are asked of them).

If you’re a regular reader/play and playwork search engine user, and if you’ve entered any of these phrases, I don’t know who you are: so, rest assured (though you know who you are!) It’s not my intention to alienate; I write later in the spirit of playful poke!
The top searches list

A lot of playwork people are looking for one of the following, judging by the search engine terms here on this site: psycholudics and/or the play cycle; the Playwork Principles; Bob Hughes and the Play Types (I deliberately write it like that because it sounds like some sort of Bluegrass quartet to me!); UK age discrimination; that cartoon from Calvin and Hobbes (you know the one, my favourite, Calvin whacking nails into a coffee table!)

I’m not going to write all sections of this post in this way, but this first one gets this treatment for those who are truly looking for the above and who find their way here.

For all things Psycholudics/Play Cycle go to Ludemos to read what Perry Else and Gordon Sturrock say about their own writings.

The Playwork Principles can be found via Play Wales (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, 2005), amongst other places.

Bob Hughes and his infamous play types can be found in various books (though always check anything you find against the source material (i.e. the Taxonomy, listed below, second edition of the 1996 original) because some sources make mistakes in describing some of the play types. The following I know are all good:

A playworker’s taxonomy of play types, 2nd edition: Bob Hughes (2002) — try this connection to Playlink.

The first claim: a framework for playwork quality assessment: Bob Hughes (2001)

Play types: speculations and possibilities: Bob Hughes (2006)

Reflective playwork: Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood (2010)

Or go here re: PlayEducation, a site I’ve just found — though I do know of PlayEd — where Bob’s keeping his head down, judging by the site address! (To paraphrase Bob in a personal communication, about play types, once engaged in with him: ‘I wish I hadn’t written the bloody things’ — or words to that effect!)

As a side note, judging by the search engine terms in this long list backstage, it almost seems as if playwork, as a thing in itself, has been reduced down solely to a rough amalgam of ‘play types, the play cycle (or psycholudics for those who are feeling brave), and a smattering of the Playwork Principles’. There’s more to it than just that. Or, as I’ve often been told when I try to explain what I do to the man in the pub, who stares at me before breaking into a smile of almost comprehension: so, you play with children then?/so you teach children how to play? Right, OK.

As a second side note, I always find it a little disturbing when casting my eye over job adverts for playworkers or playwork managers. They nearly always state that they’re looking for someone to provide for ‘safe, stimulating planned activities for children’, or words like this, then follow that up with a reference to the Playwork Principles. It shows me that the setting in question doesn’t get it.

Of the other two items on the top searches, here’s my take on UK age discrimination, and that cartoon for your amusement and viewing pleasure (and mine) is here.

OK, so with the useful mains now done, we move on. I may come back to the next block sometime for a post of its own, I think; though I’ll make brief comment here for now:
The sensible questions list

Q: Playwork Level 3: you overhear a 7 year old say to another child, go away.
A: So? We’re not here to tell Child A or Child B how to be.

Q: Early years vs playwork debate.
A: There’s a whole blog or three in this one. I’ve worked in both fields. If there are focuses in early years for giving children a good grounding for upcoming years, there are focuses in playwork for the now. It’s much wider than this though.

Q: What it means to be a children’s playworker.
A: The way this is worded suggests to me that I, playworker, belong to the children. It allows me to offer up a favourite quote: ‘I’m here to serve you, but I’m not your servant.’

Q: Children’s effect on adults.
A: You mean ‘affect’? It links to Playwork Principle number 7 and how children really can affect our feelings. ‘Effect’ refers to a result, a change. (Or, maybe, inadvertently, ‘effect’ does come into play, after all).

Q: What is [it] like as a playworker[?]
A: Only you know this if you work with children (see also immediately above).

Q: Role of the adult recapitulative play.
A: Here’s Bob and his Infamous Play Types again! To answer a sort of question with a question in return: What’s the role of an adult in any play?

Q: Physical contact and rough and tumble play towards male playwork practitioners.
A: This is something we all need to talk about more. Children, in my experience and observation, can often interact with male and female playworkers in different ways. Is it OK? Is that the question? Or, is the question more along the lines of: What should we do about it?/How do we avoid it?

Q: Bargaining with a two year old.
A: Yep, good luck! Here’s my take: Negotiating with two year olds, or how to get unstuck from recurring Escher loops.

Q: Playworker teaching children right from wrong.
A: This playworker is not a teacher (of children). I try (though I sometimes fail) not to let my own morals concern the children I work with.

Q: What don’t playworkers do[?]
A: Teach, moralise, control children, plan endless activities, socialise children, etc. Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood have a useful list (p.7 of their book, see above).

Q: What can cause a negative effect on the playworker when planning activities[?]
A: Affect or effect? What can cause a negative affect on the playworker when planning activities? Planning activities.

Q: Adult play places.
A: This rock we all live on . . .

Q: What would you do as a[n] LSA when a child is being aggressive and you felt other children were in danger?
A: I’m not a learning support assistant, but I know some people who are. I’ll find out what they say. In general though, I’d say: do what needs to be done; be dynamic, be playful; don’t be a jobsworth . . . and some other things.

Q: When should a playworker pay extra attention to one child[?]
A: Do you observe the child, the playing child, the playing children, the play in the space, any or none of the above?

Q: Ways in which playworkers plan and prepare spaces for play.
A: With consideration of moments . . .
The WTF? list

Q: Jumping over objects in the sandpit for pre-schoolers.
A: Yes, and the point is? Sandpits also function as playable spaces when used in different spatial/imaginative realms by children.

Q: [Well-known playwork person, name with-held here] master playworker.
A: I’m reminded of Arthur’s blog piece, The craft of playwork #3: mastery of playwork or masters in playwork? (revised). He highlights Malcolm Gladwell who, it appears, builds from the work of Anders Ericsson and the 10,000 hours rule (being that which is needed, apparently, to practice the mastery of something). I’m currently of the opinion that there are plenty out there who might like to see themselves as masters of playwork, but really, do any of us ever reach that perfect point of playwork enlightenment?

Master playworker? No. We all keep cocking up (though we should understand that we do, and how, and why, and so on). The first to say he or she has entered the realm of Playwork Nirvana, or claims mastery of the form, is probably trying to sell you something. Let the children on the playground decide.

Q: I got a job as a playworker . . . but now I want to change my profession; when can I do that[?]
A: I want to be pithy and snide here, but I’ve thought about this more: being a playworker isn’t for everyone. Truly being a playworker takes someone who’s accepting of a lot of emergent play material that manifests around them. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable; often it’s momentous.

Q: Teaching kindergarteners [the] concept of wisdom.
A: Again, good luck! Seriously though, really I don’t get this. It’s contradictory.

Q: I just found a small snake on the pavement in the UK what is it[?]
A: Umm, a small snake, perhaps? Really (think also ‘dodgy study skills list’). This might seem random but this person landed on this blog because of this post.

Q: A playworker is more than a gentlemand oh his knees [sic].
A: I leave this one exactly as I found it because I really don’t know how to edit it! Suffice is to say that, yes, I agree about the ‘playworker and his knees’ conundrum.

Q: Is it dangerous for [children] to play in leaves[?]
A: No. Next question. Or, ask yourself the following additional questions: Is there an adder in the leaves? Are the leaves concealing an open man-hole cover? Do you keep leaf-dwelling crocodiles in your playground? Generally speaking, autumn happens, and children + wind + leaves = play. Observe.

Q: Is the play cycle the same as play cycle[?]
A: Umm, yes. (Think also ‘dodgy study skills list’). Really. Again.

Q: Where did Gordon Sturrock and Perry Else meet[?]
A: Good question. Gordon? Perry? Anyone? Or, why do you need to know?

Q: The psycholudics.
A: Does the definite article (that’s the ‘the’) suggest that this search term is about that as-yet-unsigned punk-rock trio The Psycholudics? (Bob and his Infamous Play Types don’t have much to trouble their market share there).

Q: Can you get bugs from children as a playworker[?]
A: This is the funniest thing I’ve read all week. Really. My answer is: maybe (though I have a theory that some of us have natural immunity due to having been around children for long enough!) My additional question though is: Why? Are you planning a health and safety sting on your employer or something?
The esoteric list

Q: Three guys sitting around drinking coffee.
A: Yes, sometimes coffee happens in playwork. It helps the observation skills, I find (whilst Mars Bars and Lucozade — other stimulants are available — tend to help in lieu of proper food on the playground).

Q: Playworker magic.
A: It is, a kind of, if you get it right.

Q: Adult play with cack.
A: I take ‘cack’ here as referring to the vernacular that is ‘junk, stuff, things left lying around, etc.’ So, yes, why not? Hands up all those who’ve been students and who did the student thing with the traffic cones late at night . . . you know the one . . .

Q: Mystical words to make things happen.
A: Abracadabra? Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy? Meeska Mooska Mickey Mouse? How about: let’s play?

Q: We used to have fart competitions.
A: I salute you, sir or madam. I do!
The dodgy study skills list

Q: What would I do if a child is new to a setting, knows no other children, and sticks to the playworker like glue[?]
A: Methinks this playwork learner has taken the bulk of something they’ve been asked to do and planted it straight into the search engine box because I recognise that glue part from somewhere! The key here is ‘what would I do . . .?’ I don’t know, what would you do? I know what I would do and have done.

Q: Observation at play, which include[s] play types, returns, cue and playworker interaction.
A: Now don’t be so lazy here. Write your own observation of play that you’ve seen. It works better that way.

Q: I’m a playworker: I have to write about a boy in my settings [sic] like what he does there.
A: Go on then, crack on. Don’t expect me to do it for you. If you don’t observe, you won’t see, and if you don’t see you won’t start to feel or understand.

Q: How to write about snow playing.
A: To misquote Morpheus, he of the Matrix: stop trying to write about snow play and write about snow play. Observe. See things.

Q: Own memories of play to use in playwork.
A: Umm . . . no, I’m not even going there.

A child’s journey: the road to normalisation or the dirt track in the forest?

In the week that children go back to school here in the UK, I find myself thinking about going to school for the first time. I’m going to cut to the chase here: if children need to be in school, then starting school at the age of four is just too early. What is it they can possibly learn at such a time in their lives that they can’t get elsewhere? There will be educationalists out there who will be shouting out (with as much fervour as a playworker does about the child’s right to play) that children can only benefit in the area of lifelong learning from an early and solid educational institution start: let’s see.

What I’ve done during the week will find its way into this blog, and what I’ve done in this respect will be work with children or play with family children. Either way, starting from what we’ve seen and experienced will inform what we write down in better ways than just leafing through the papers. This week I spent time with three family pre-schoolers out in the forest.

As the children ran around, chasing each other along the dirt tracks and through the ferns, over the dried up stream beds, the youngest being a dinosaur, the others screaming and taking all sorts of random routes around, I watched on, thinking: next week the eldest will be in school. She might love it, but she might find it a complete shock to the system. What can a four-year-old learn there that can’t be learned out amongst the pine trees, where the sun slops through, the play just taking the children away?

Out in the forest they get to make their own decisions about which way they go, to count if they want to, to see things they haven’t yet got names for, and to find out what those names are, to understand what can and shouldn’t be done in the real world (eat the black berries but not the red ones, said their mum). In school, wrapped into a grey uniform, expected to sit still for lengthier periods than normal (despite, perhaps, a developmental state that bucks against this), expected to conform to others’ bizarre and often unintelligible rules, the lifeblood starts its early drain away from the children.

So, the counter-argument is, I suppose, that school sets in motion the ‘training for life’: the expectancy of society that children ought to get used to. I have said it before and so I repeat it here: things don’t have to be the way that ‘society is’ — things can be different. What can four-year-olds need of learning to wait for teacher to talk to them that those children can’t get in their play with other children? It’s a big world, sure, and we have to work out how to get along with one another, but we all have to do the ‘manning up’ business. If one four-year-old doesn’t want to share his stick/rock/chalk with another four-year-old then ‘manning up’ is the order of the day, not learning to listen to others by means of enforced adult strategies.

I use the examples of stick and rock and chalk deliberately: how do we think our ancestors ever coped on this insignificant little outpost of rock in the middle of space and nowhere? Now though I swing from the harsh right to the more liberal middle: better that we as adults understand and communicate on play terms with our children than we neglect them or forcibly instruct them on ways of interacting ‘for the good of society’? For the good of the Cause, perhaps? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to suggest that, in certain quarters, there’s a tyranny of adults.

It’s interesting to read, in the same week as school starting again for the autumn term, that the UK government proposes that school leavers should carry on studying English and maths up to the age of 18 if they don’t get a grade C GCSE at 16 years of age (Teenagers have to keep studying English and maths). Whilst, on paper, the sentiment to provide young people with the requisite literacy and numeracy skills to get on might be well-meaning, it does all rather strike me as a cynical way of keeping those young people from the jobless figures; or, ultimately, it creates a way for those young adults to ‘fit in’ and so to suitably serve society, the State, the Cause, call it what you will.

In a small leap of the imagination, I imagine pensioners, years down the line, sat at their school desks, still not being allowed to blink out into the sunlight, drained of all their play life and, indeed, their will to live. ‘Just let me pass my GCSE now so I can go crawl under a rock!’ OK, so I exaggerate a little!

Here’s an idea, which isn’t new, but does need repeating again and again by all of us who believe in it: maybe this ‘start school early, leave late (and later)’ isn’t working. In 1972 the school age was eventually raised to 16. This was just a couple of years shy of my entering the system at the other end. I was duly released within the agreed time frame. My acquired study system was to effectively take a visual snapshot of pages of my revision notes, or to rigorously commit tried and tested methods to memory. I memorised my way through my O-levels (yes, younglings, those old-fangled now worthless things, though not as old-fangled as the eleven-plus: your spangly new GCSEs, and whatever the government might want to shove your children’s way soon, will be equally as worthless in the fullness of time). Everything fell out of my head when I left the exam room because I didn’t need it any more. After I was released I really started learning things because I was interested in what I chose to learn.

There is no use in life for quadratic equations, standard deviation, sines, cosines and the other one I’ve forgotten (unless you want to be an engineer: working out what you want to be, more often than not, comes later in life — wanting to be a vet at the age of four, or even fourteen, might well turn into wanting to be a hairdresser the next day). Now, I’m all for the idea of children being able to count and being able to write correctly, but they come to it when they’re ready. In the meantime, running around in a forest for the afternoon with friends or brothers and sisters or cousins, with loving communicative parents and other adults who just ‘get it’, will surely give a child much more than a week sat in a training room (classroom) in the preparation that is ‘the first steps on the long journey of normalisation’.

In a 2007 UNICEF report, Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries, the UK ranked overall 21st out of 21 developed nations regarding six aspects: material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and subjective well-being. There’s plenty to digest in this document but it’s to one part of it that I draw particular attention: in the area of ‘subjective well-being’ (with the UK ranked here as 20th out of 21), the report states — with reference to the most recent Health Behaviour in School-Age Children survey, albeit of 2001 (p.38) — that only 19% of fifteen-hundred cluster-surveyed 11, 13 and 15 year-olds claimed to ‘like school a lot’ (out of this option or ‘I like it a bit’, ‘I don’t like it very much’, or ‘I don’t like it at all’).

Statistics can always be manipulated so you should draw your own conclusions, but it makes for interesting reading for this analyst. Perhaps running around in a forest for a few years longer might have improved those children’s sense of their own self-being: they wouldn’t have had to wear grey if they didn’t want to, sit still for longer than they were able to, or learn some adult’s way of communicating this particular way; they would have worn the dirt of the dried up stream beds on their clothes and in their hair and on their faces, the sunlight sploshing through the pine trees onto their heads and skins; they would have taken their own routes and found their own moments of inspiration and interest, moving or sitting as the whim took them; they would have shouted down the dirt tracks because shouting out loud in forests is what forests sometimes inspire you to do.

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