Following on from my previous speculation on the ‘Ten-ish commandments of playwork’ (which were well received, all things considered), I realise I forgot one. Well, maybe I forgot a lot and I need to keep adding to these as the thinking happens. We’ll see. Anyway, for now the one I forgot is the one about education. Let’s call it the 13th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not educate’ (if we’re talking from a playworker’s point of view, that is). Education is for others, concerns of play is for us. That’s a given if we’re working in the field of children’s play for play’s sake, right?
Maybe it isn’t so cut and dried. The thing we adults don’t tend to do so well regarding children is resist the urge to ‘help’; the passing on of what we like to perceive as our individual and collective wisdoms; just show the way. It can be frustrating watching the minor struggles of everyday play taking the most circuitous of routes to achieve the desired next part (I won’t push my luck and stretch that to ‘the desired end’, because play is not about ‘product’): take the example of, say, the six-ish year old who can’t find the end of the cellotape because she hasn’t worked out that folding it over after each cut-off (or bite-off) of a strip will mean no lost end; or maybe a child can’t figure out the way to light the matchstick when trying to get the tealight burning, holding it at unworkable angles against the matchbox; maybe a child can’t work out how to get the water from the full container to the guttering, wanting to bring the mountain to the sandpit, as it were, instead of the bucket to the pond.
All of these play situations I’ve been party to in recent weeks. Sometimes we just get it wrong, according to the ‘Playwork Scripture’: give the opportunity to discover and experiment over to the children; they can make their own mistakes and find out their own ways of doing things.
At the playground the other day I was asked for help by a younger girl who was making some sort of bag: she’d been hoarding apparent essentials away, for possibly a few days before that, in a cardboard box (you know, other smaller boxes, bits of shiny paper, paper and glue-smeared things); now she needed a bag. She didn’t know how to make it, and she couldn’t find the end of the cellotape. I said for her to give it all a try (I didn’t know what she wanted her bag to be anyway). She’s quite self-sufficient in most things and doesn’t seem to need too much attention. She made the bag’s shiny blue handles (which I thought wouldn’t carry the weight of glue-smeared smaller boxes and so forth, but what do I know?) She just didn’t know how to get her bag started. I knew. I had to fight the urge to ‘educate’ her on it. I tried to walk away, in a supportive ‘I’ll be back’ kind of way, but she wouldn’t have it: she kept calling me back. I started a bag off for her (heinous playwork sin!). I left it part way through though because I knew she was more than capable of finishing it off. She did, but she didn’t tape up the bottom of it. I fought the urge to tell her. I told her (another heinous sin). I said, ‘You haven’t got a bottom to your bag.’ She piled her glue-smeared box and shiny paper and other essentials into it anyway.
The other week, I knelt down in the gathering gloom as the children huddled round and attempted to light matchsticks to light their tealights. They were all very patient and waited for the matchbox to come their way. One of the younger children just wasn’t getting it though. She was somewhat tentative with the matchstick, which I could appreciate (after all, the playground is probably the only place she’d get to do this). I’d discussed the fact that this wasn’t to be done at home, don’t worry. The girl dragged the matchstick slowly towards her. I said to do it away from her. She held the matchstick at a flat angle and dragged it away from her several times. I said maybe strike it at a different angle. Nothing happened several times over. I knew exactly how to light the matchstick. This is frustrating for the adult.
On another day, an older boy had found the guttering I’d put out in the sandpit area. I’d set up deliberately that day because, for a few weeks I’d been observing how some of the children had been poking around the discarded plastic pond moulding that had filled up with rainwater. I filled it up with clean water and the happy co-incidence of finding the guttering round the back of the site added to the idea. I put it out there with some pots and pans and flower pots with holes in them and so forth and left it be. I was a little surprised to find the older boys getting so into it later. One of these boys said to me, in passing, that he was ‘building a facility’. I don’t know what sort of facility it was! Another day, when the play was still happening there, he needed the pond water close by the sandpit. It was heavy and a bucket to the pond would have been easier, but no, the pond had to come over. He didn’t get the idea though that two of us pulling was easier than one of us pulling and one pushing. I let him in on the secret (shh).
So these are just small examples and maybe the children got what they wanted or needed from my actions in their play before I left them be again. Maybe, though, my presence and my actions stopped something else from happening: that self-discovery. Thou shalt not educate, so says the scripture, because that ‘compound flexibility’ effect (odd playwork-leaning phrase towards self-confidence and self-esteem) may be being curtailed; also here I think mainly of Bob Hughes’ writing on neuronal short-cutting when we also add Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) into the mix.
Some playwork literature/scripture to add in here then: Hughes (2012, p281) quotes Smith (1994): ‘The ZPD is the difference between what the child can achieve unaided and what he or she can do with the aid of a more experienced, probably older person to help.’
Hughes later adds (p282): ‘However, the biggest problem with the ‘zone of proximal development’ approach is that adult help will introduce ‘short-cuts’ to learning that will leave the child with gaps in its understanding or in the neuronal pathways that are formed as a consequence of new learning, that may make it difficult or impossible for the child to undertake similar tasks unaided.’
I’ve taught adults from the playwork scriptures for a fair few years now. I preach to my students not to do things for the children (sometimes quoting Hughes and sometimes going as far as looking at neuroscientific research into brain growth, and so on). I’ve got no reason to doubt what these books tell me; I tell my students and anyone who’ll listen that play isn’t about children going into their play specifically to learn things (did you do that as a child?) However, sometimes we adults do have an urgent need to help, to just chivvy things along a little, to get things going for them before walking away. Sometimes children ask for that help.
Here Hughes also adds (and its buried away so that I haven’t fully taken this on-board before — blinded as I have been by the ‘weighty neuroscience’): ‘Certainly if the child initiates an intervention then limited help should be given.’ The focus on onus in these passages though is still on the child. Can it be that unsticking the end of the cellotape and kick-starting a bag design, helping with the lighting of a matchstick, or showing a way to bring a pond full of water to a sandpit (in their minor moments) all contributed to this neural short-cutting? Or were these forms of a ‘play education’ that were desired by those children? Certainly I’m still against the wholesale education of children in their play settings: they get plenty of educational input from school, and maybe also from their parents; they’re not at their play setting to ‘get educated’; it is their play setting after all, or it should be.
So, thou shalt not educate: should we grit our teeth and bare the frustration of the obvious solution to the children’s play problems staring us in the face?; or should we just accept that we’re there in the play setting, us adults, so we might as well ‘help’, pass on our perceived individual and collective wisdoms, show the way?
Speaking ill of the playwork literature/scripture doesn’t sit easily for me sometimes; yet, in the ‘real world’ of the playground, I know I also get just slightly frustrated at clumsy cellotape-‘not thinking ahead’-ness, at awkward tools use, say, and at failures to spot the blindingly obvious (well, the blindingly obvious to me, at least).
Thou shalt not educate (even on a small scale) may well be a tension for lots of people who work in playwork: some though also go off way down the road towards Education (with the capital E) and should therefore, perhaps, relinquish the playworker title altogether. Where, though, is that line in the sand?
Hughes, B. (2012), Evolutionary playwork. 2nd edition. Abingdon: Routledge.
Smith, P. K. (1994), Play training: an overview in Hellendoorn, J., van der Kooij, R., and Sutton-Smith, B. (eds), Play and intervention. Albany: State University of New York Press. Cited in Hughes, B. (2012)