Plenty of my playworking and other day-to-day thinking energy, lately and historically, seems to have gone into concerns about the ostensibly innocuous but actually insidious little word that is ‘control’. When that word comes inextricably entwined within the context of working for children, it becomes particularly distasteful. A fair percentage of adults, I would hazard a guess at, would or do object to the idea of being controlled by another adult: yet, controlling children is often deemed fine by those same adults.
Let’s first get the tired old responses out of the way (the ones that are used again and again in such discussions on the subject matter — discussions that invariably result in nothing more than a clash of ideologies): yes, sometimes children will benefit from an alert adult’s quickfire instructions (such as when a child hasn’t seen an imminent and potentially life-threatening hazard — a situation of necessary ‘control’?); no, the opposite of ‘controlling children’ won’t definitively result in ‘chaos’, ‘anarchy’, or complete global-social meltdown for that matter; yes, we do all live in a world where we have to navigate around one another and their concerns, desires and general situations and viewpoints (though that doesn’t mean we should be able to exert control on others as a means of getting by and getting along, co-operating); no, this is not about how children should ‘respect adults’ (think of it the other way around). There may be more, but you get the gist.
Play is often seen as a bad word. This is deeply troubling. A significant section of a library could be constructed with material that relates directly or indirectly to what play is seen to be, how it benefits animals and humans, how it shapes or is shaped by culture, its evolutionary and therapeutic relevances, and so on. Play is treated in studies in psychology, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, zoology, anthropology, technology, engineering, the arts, theology . . . just as a quick off-the-cuff list. Yet, for some, for many, play is frivolous, ‘unpurposeful’, pointless, bad.
In my playworking meanderings, I have known children who function, variously, on a kind of continuum between the rough markers of being utterly (emotionally and psychologically) crippled by the general or specific adult impact of any given environment on their true selves, to utterly self-confident and joyful beings. The latter are open and experimental, taking in all that those around them offer up. The former are compliant and narrow for fear of failure or displeasing the dominant force (i.e. the adult or the system or both). Those habitually subjected to controlling environments either buckle under and become subsumed by the dominance or they learn intermediate coping mechanisms, which at least go some way to allowing some of their natural selves through whilst appearing to appease the dominance at the same time. Sometimes (it’s clear to the astute eye), children are and have to be extremely subtle and sophisticated in the psychological games they’re obliged to operate.
In a playworking context (by which I mean, playworker input or input of play-literate others), there are actions that can be taken. These, however, may necessarily also need to be subtle and sophisticated. As a starting point here, I’m drawn to the thinking on what’s termed as what ‘interfere[s] with the successful flow of [the] play drive’ (Hughes, 2001: 170): I read this, in the context of my own observations and experience, as including adults who negatively affect, who psychologically and emotionally concern the child so that playing is not immediately possible. The actions of a playworking adult can alleviate the psychic discord and bring the affected child to a position of being able to engage in spontaneity. That is, the conditions can be shifted so that play can happen. As you might imagine, this is not always so easily achieved (playworking adults can be subjected to controlling environments too).
Play happens when children (and adults, and animals) find themselves in conducive environments. Fagen (1975) cites Bally (1945) in explaining the ‘relaxed field’ necessary for play. Fagen’s writing is focused on the benefits of play as connected to a technological-engineering context and the benefits of experimentation over control (the former having a broad potential and the latter being narrow and limited, as I read it):
The playful behaviour of [a feedback loop] procedure . . . suggests that play should be viewed as optimal generic learning by experimentation in a relaxed field (where the term ‘relaxed field’ (Bally, 1945) refers to the absence of goals of control).
— Fagen (1975: 160)
He gives the example of computing equipment learning to operate an aeroplane by trial and error. The feedback loop (including all the ‘inefficient’ extras of those ‘what if this or that were to be done?’ experiments) is analogous to the play of children. Replace the stereotyped thinking that tends to define the word ‘learning’ as ‘something for the future benefit’ with ‘something found out’ (for the present tense) and there’s a good enough analogue of play here. ‘Control’ and control agendas by external sources stultify the present tense experimentation; the relaxed field becomes tensioned.
Or, as Fagen goes on:
[A ‘relaxed field’, according to Bally (1945) is] a situation in which immediate needs are satisfied and no threat to the organism’s well-being is present [thus allowing play to take place] . . . goals of information [information-gathering, i.e. experimentation by play] can be achieved only when goals of control [non-play tasks] are absent . . . In the presence of goals of control, play is absent.
— Fagen (1975: 162)
On reflection, it is the lack of ‘threat to the organism’s [child’s] well-being’ that stimulates the ‘relaxed field’, and it is the relaxed field, when play can take place, that stimulates the well-being. It’s a repeated-giving positive loop in action. This is all a long-handed way of writing what the intuitively play-literate individual knows by heart, by faith and conviction.
Those adults of a controlling persuasion no doubt see it differently. Certain adults need specific purpose (well, it’s fair to say that many of us have a need for ‘purpose’, this is acknowledged): however, some adults are disrespectful towards the needs of children. Children don’t need ‘control’; they need play (I write this in the context of a need as something that addresses a deficit). Where there has been no opportunity for play or a suppression of play, children will seek it out to redress the balance. Is it the same equation for those adults who have a need to exercise control? Perhaps: there may be an initial deficit in opportunity to exercise power or purpose.
A little out of context with the original intention of the following quoted words, I come back to a presentation given by Simon Rix at the New Ventures (Playwork) Conference at Felix Road Adventure Playground in Bristol last year. Simon was talking about disenfranchised young men in the Midlands and their focus on self-worth due to factors that had affected them. Simon’s standout line for me, in respect of those young men’s opinions, was: ‘What am I for?’ Or, to paraphrase and slightly shift, because I’ve used this quote before: What’s the point of me?. If I can be forgiven for the borrowing, I suspect the same opinion lurks deep in the psyche of those adults who seek to control the actions and interactions (and play) of children.
Bob Hughes writes:
. . . the adult may see the child as a piece of property, where the child’s free interaction with the world undermines the feelings of power the adult gets from controlling the child’s behaviour.
— Hughes (2001: 124/5)
In summary, yes we live in a social environment of dynamic and multiple needs (i.e. we have to cope with other people in our day-to-days), but no that doesn’t mean that ‘control’ mechanisms are the optimal means of ‘getting along’. Play is like water (in its flow and sensory affect): control is for the narrowly channelled, the straight-lined, the dry of spirit.
Bally, G. (1945), Vom ursprung und von den grenzen der freiheit, eine deutung des spieles bei tier und mensch. Basle: Schwabe. Cited in Fagen (1975).
Fagen, R. (1975), Modelling how and why play works in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play – its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.
Hughes, B. (2001), Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
Rix, S. (2017), Presentation. Bristol: New Ventures Conference.