I have several ‘soapboxes’ that I tend to wheel out (if you can do such a thing!) when it comes to setting up to spout on about general attitudes towards children and their play. All of what you about to receive shall be spouted out from the soapbox that’s labelled ‘how children, by and large, come second’. Before I’ve written anything, it must be said that I am appreciative of the fact that we all share our urban and rural landscapes, adults and children alike, and that the former shouldn’t be neglected in their needs too; however, where children’s needs for use of those urban and rural areas are pretty much ignored or buried under the priority of the adult, this is the on-going concern.
Children occupy a strange position in UK society (maybe also in the US and other countries too): the dominant rhetoric towards children is one of protection, yet when it comes to hearing their voices (in terms of what they want and need, but also quite literally in hearing their voices), or when it comes to giving thought to children as equally deserving of consideration in terms of ‘space’ use, for example, children are often the poor relations. What was it that George Orwell wrote? It was something along the lines of ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.
The catalyst for this post is a photo I took whilst wandering the west London side streets and hidden bolt-hole squares, in a wide circumference around the adventure playground — scene of many of my recent-years’ writings. I was in the newer part of the ward, by the looks of things: a big tall perimeter wall separates a semi-private cul-de-sac from the main carriageway; small apartment blocks, arranged in neat semi-circles, flank this enclosed cul-de-sac side-road which extends for some way in traffic-less calm until it comes to a full stop against the end fence that abuts an empty grassed and hemmed-in lot. Along the cul-de-sac are parking bays. At intervals in each of these parking bays is this sign:
Including this photo in this post is in no way intended to be derogatory towards the people who live in this street. It is, rather, a statement on the attitudes towards children of those who built the housing development. On the one hand, sure, this ‘roadway’ is a ‘roadway’, and this car park is a car park; however, on the other hand, when I was ten, or thereabouts, this roadway and this car park would have been a pretty good approximation of a playground. When I was ten, or thereabouts, I rode my bike around my local estate’s roads and paths, and in between the houses along the alleyways (and if I’d have had a skateboard I’d probably have used that too, down the slopes, though I actually used some other fairly precarious contraptions found or contrived, speeding downhill, along the middle of the road, on my belly, my face three inches from the roadway, without brakes other than my shoes, with no means of turning other than with faith and blind luck, towards the hedge or the brick wall or the parked car, and so on). This photo doesn’t show a scene of a hill (alas), but the roadway is long with a few speed bumps, if I recall correctly (perfect for bike hops at speed, or kicking a ball along to see if it’ll go all the way to the end before touching a wall, or the like).
I’ve had a few informal and ad-hoc conversations with children recently about places of play. These are, admittedly, not part of any as-yet comprehensive study but, in discussion, the children tend towards the highlighting of what I’m thinking of as ‘destination places’: that is, parks, other large and bounded green spaces, other fenced-in environments such as school playgrounds and after school clubs. This is a shame, in some ways: what about all the other areas of in-between? What about, in the new interpretation, what I remember being told of what an old architecture school lecturer used to call ‘the toothpaste’ of a city (as opposed to its more tangible ‘monuments’)?
Children in the city (and in the rural areas, let’s not forget) can get overlooked. That is, the preferences of their play and where that might happen (if permitted a greater luxury of finding out for themselves), can be seen as just not important enough or even not properly thought about at all. I wonder how many children are genuinely consulted on matters of public space, in comparison to the consultation of groups who are routinely considered as they who ‘should be consulted on matters of urban change’ such as ‘residents’ (that is, adults), ‘the elderly’, ‘the ethnic minorities’, ‘the youth’ (that is, teenagers), and so on.
It’s not just the overlooking and ignoring that I find peculiar within this dominant combination rhetoric of ‘protection/lack of consultation or representation’: the general perspective on children could be seen to be children as ‘incapable’, ‘untrustable’, even borderline ‘stupid’.
Here’s a sight that made me think, in passing, which was why the photo needed taking:
Whilst I’m not advocating that children should necessarily play on scaffolding, sure, what made me think is the sudden realisation of what would happen if I turned the sign on its head, as it were? That is, sure, ‘children must not play on this site’, but what about adults? Can they play on this site? There’s no sign on the scaffolding to say that they can’t. Adults, it must be supposed here, are either socially competent enough to know not to play on such a site without a sign telling them otherwise, or they’re not in need of a sign because adults don’t play (really?!), or actually adults are allowed to play there because there’s no sign to tell them otherwise. OK, so I’m being a little facetious, but in all seriousness it does beg the question as to the point of signs, and to the general attitude towards children as I perceive it.
There are some signs that do recognise that children will play in certain open areas, that they do play there, and that — perhaps — nothing can be done to change that, so the ‘powers that be’ acknowledge and accept it:
It’s a start, but better still would be a state of affairs where there were no need for such signs at all: it being implicitly understood that children may be playing in any give place, designated ‘playground’ or not (OK, maybe not on the dual carriageway, but you get my point); it being implicitly understood that children’s choices of play and places to play in may be very different to adults’ own places of play (yes, adults play too), or different to adults’ ideas of children’s places of play. The protection rhetoric, counter-intuitively, might even be better served this way; children, within this, would also be better listened to in adults’ appreciations of their preferences.