I’ve done a fair amount of travelling around the past few weeks, and what strikes me is the degree of play ‘out there’. I’ve not got anything particularly new to say here, perhaps (Huizinga did a pretty good job of analysing ‘the play element in culture’ over half a century ago); however, it is worth thinking through again and again, adding in recent perspectives and observations, because it just doesn’t look like this country (UK), at least, is seeing the whole picture. There’s so much adult play going on out there, in the city, but children’s play is marginalised.
The playwork field knows this, yet we’re still seen variously as ‘those bloody hippies’, or lefties, or angsty wannabe revolutionaries or the like. Maybe some of us are some of these things, but time and again those who do truly stick up for children’s rights to just play aren’t taken seriously. Where’s the educational attainment? Where are the outcomes and the end products and the perfectly formed, neatly socialised individuals popping out the other end of the sausage machine? There is no sausage machine. Play happens.
Or, rather, play should happen, out there, out and about, or be given the chance to happen, but it doesn’t: not always. Walking through London streets recently I was struck by all the playable spaces: there were gleaming bollards to weave around, wide walkways to run down, green spaces to jump around in; there were several great, huge, pristinely-piled stacks of leaves marching down the edge of one street on a busy thoroughfare. There was enough space around them for potential players not to get caught up with passing buses and bikes and the like. Maybe the leaves had only just been piled there; or maybe it just isn’t acceptable for children to make use of such playable possibilities. I had a very definite urge to jump in as I passed by. I resisted but I don’t know why.
Out on the streets and in the bars and on the Underground though, there are adult players everywhere. Everyone, it seems, is plugged into something small and flat and glass-screened. I looked over people’s shoulders on the Tube, thinking they were emailing or the like, but they were zapping various aliens instead. I watched as one young woman held a conversation with a young man in a suit. She idly jumped her avatar over walls and bridges, flicking with a thumb as if bored by it but as if it were all still absolutely necessary: that she had to do more than one thing at a time, still talking to the man. Don’t people stare out of windows, even in tunnels, or people-watch, any more?
Our pubs are temples to our hedonism and escapism. There may even be all the play types here, if we look hard enough. In the tunnels there are musicians; odd men sing and shout at cash machines; there are street artists and dancers; people race each other along the pathways and in their cars; some people frequent the corners of bars, focused entirely on their partners, really in need of getting a room! It’s all play and there are no specific places for that play to happen. People drink on the streets, sing and dance and race anywhere they like, if they feel it in them to do that.
Children, on the other hand, are restricted to the authorised, ‘acceptable’ play ghettos sprinkled around. There’s no telling what mayhem might happen, you see, if they ever escaped and spilled out onto the street. Imagine, dancing around on the paving slabs? Or what about children racing their mates around the pavement bollards? Think of the adults . . . they’d have these mad, chaotic, dangerous creatures all around them, tripping them up and causing safety hazards. Life would be ridiculous in the city. Imagine if there were some children standing at the cash machine making up odd, hilarious only to themselves word arrangements, shouting it out to the rest of that corner of the city. It’s not like if an adult did this: we can all walk by ignoring the mad old man doing something like this, or the self-styled preacher at the church gates shouting out all his odd, meaningful only to himself word arrangements and beliefs. We can’t ignore children doing this though.
Why is this? Of course, I’ve given my opinion on things like this on this blog plenty of times before, but I’ll go over old ground for these newer observations: adults fear children, have a need for control, a need for their own purpose, a phobia of the seemingly ‘chaotic’: well, plenty of adults do, though admittedly not all of them. The groundswell of opinion does seem to be weighted against the children though. ‘Be civilised’ seems to be the dominant condition of adult need when it comes to children. It does call into question what ‘civilisation’ amounts to.
Like empathy or grace, we can’t make someone else be or do civility. We can smile and laugh when we see beauty and grace though. The other day I was eating lunch in a public café area, minding my own business, and two toddlers were skirting around, not eating their own lunch. They kept poking around the edges of where I was, stopping, looking, smiling, offering the tiniest of play cues with their facial expressions. Later, they were still there when I moved outside. I saw them pressed against the window, so I got down to their level and they placed their palms against the glass. We played on either side of the window. Their mother was nearby and she was fine with the play. If these interactions — although minor on the face of it — adults and children, could be allowed their replication, out and out, on and on in the city and the country, there would be grace and civility, as such.
We tolerate drunks and the possibly delusional on our streets, the racers who could cause actual harm, the loudness of musicians and singers when we’re trying to sleep, and so on, and we say this is civilisation. Yes, so this is play maybe, adult play, but if a child runs and screams at a pile of pristine leaves, or if a child stands up high and chants a favourite song, say, then this is uncivilised and must be stopped.
Where there is knowledge of ‘this is play’, there is grace. Where there is grace, there is civility. Perhaps we could look up from our screens and see. We can experience the world out there for a change.