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

New ideological stances challenging the authoritarian dogma of social control in play settings: the anarchy is order paradigm

The following paper, written in 2011, is included in this collection for the integrity of the body of work as a whole. I recognise that some of my thinking has moved on; nevertheless, I feel it important to include the various steps made when collating the material that constitutes the journey.
Systems of human interaction in play settings require a greater degree of considered thought than is currently undertaken. Children are, by and large, repressed by adult authority. This effects their individual expressions and well-being and the potential well-being of the current and any future society as a whole.

In governmental systems, the legislature — a deliberating assembly — creates the laws, simplistically speaking, and the executive enforces those laws. In the play setting, the adults are usually the legislature and the executive. Sometimes one adult adopts both these roles (as well as the ‘interpretation of the law’ role of the judiciary).

Governmental systems employing the separation of power system choose to do so to ward against the potential of development of tyrannical power, i.e. these systems contain the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. In the play setting, one person as legislature/executive/judiciary, or as de facto supreme power in an oligarchical (power of the few, in this case adults) set-up, surely cannot be ethically right for the ‘proletariat’, the people, i.e. the children.

The fact is, by and large, play settings are not democratic — ruled by the people, with their capability to mandate change — but can be seen as a form of despotism (either autocratic or oligarchical). Play settings of oligarchical governance are ruled by the few (adults) over the many (children).

Some ‘governmental systems’ in place in play settings are nothing short of tyranny, where the manager exercises his or her own power over the whole; personal whims and reasonings dictate what happens, when, why and how.

The question must be asked: who controls the controller? That is to say, if the leadership regime of the play setting is so utterly bent on social control of the people therein, implying a strong moral compass, to whose social checks and balances does that regime refer? Cuzán (2010) writes:

‘Lacking a third party to control them, those who constitute the government are self-regulating. In other words, they operate in what I have called a political anarchy.’

Political anarchy, as Cuzán describes it, being ‘absence of a governing person [or people] within government’. It is a particular personal bone of contention that those who work in play settings are often heard to contend that children must not be allowed to do ‘whatever they like, whenever they please’. The somewhat dubious reasoning for this amounts to a variance of a phrase uttered such as ‘we can’t have anarchy here’. In the first instance, anarchy — contrary to such beliefs as stated above — is order. In the second instance, if a play setting can be governed via this model of political anarchy, then why should it be so disagreeable that the children of that play setting engage in their own interactions in such a fashion?

I will return to the first point via the second. In more favourable circumstances than are often seen in play settings, supposing the adults in necessary attendance are wise enough to comprehend, without governance of control by adults children will have to self-regulate. Order, of sorts, is in the process of being created. In anarchy there is order, not the utter chaos of people’s perceptions.

Take, for example, the notion of spontaneous order. Barry (1982) summarises this as ‘spontaneous forces [in a social system] that are beyond the direct control of man.’

This is a fair account of social systems in place in good play settings, I would contend. In observing the unwinding flow of play, it never ceases to amaze me how things just work out, it all just works.

Barry goes on to refer to Hayek’s (1979) ‘constructivistic rationalism’, being in opposition to spontaneous order:

‘It is these [rationalist] methods which have an irresistible appeal . . . in man, which associates the benefits of civilisation not with spontaneous orderings but with conscious direction towards preconceived ends.’ (Barry, 1982).

In the context of the play setting, these preconceived ends of socialisation agendas (those that presuppose the ‘product’ to be a mentally healthy, balanced individual who, more importantly, conforms to the wishes of all the rest of the masses of the society we inhabit) are not as rational as their proponents might lead themselves to believe. In fact, it is highly irrational to expect every individual to act and interact in such constraints of conformity. Children are individuals.

I’m aware of anticipated responses or thought processes that might be the advocation of spontaneous order, itself, as an irrational approach. I offer the following for consideration: as a writer, I know that the quality of a piece written is often better by way of the process of ‘writing it as it comes’, rather than the ‘rational approach’ which presupposes that the thoroughly pre-planned product will naturally prevail as the qualitatively greater. In fact, the natural rationalism lies in the former, not in the latter. That is to say, by analogy, in nature’s own order there is a high degree of pragmatism.

Children’s play is, by and large, pragmatic. It is to this experimentation that we must look in the context of the play setting as society, potentially, as microcosm. Adults are necessarily obliged to be a part of these compensatory spaces for play and, as such, it’s undeniable that their own previous life experiences will be brought upon that microcosm. It is, however, not enough to say that those adults have best learnt the ways of the macrocosm outside the boundary fence. There is no rational reason to suppose that what has been learnt by one person should be the foundation for the ‘rules of engagement’ of any other. Children are in their own formation of interactive understanding. If adults are necessarily obliged to be a part of the play space, it follows that they bring with them the baggage of their ‘life experiences’. Children are then obliged to navigate around this baggage in their day-to-day dealings in their play space. Else (2009) writes:

‘Playing with the cultural frames around behaviour, we only find out the edge of the frame when we have gone too far.’

This is not to suggest that that ‘cultural frame’ should be universally accepted. It is, after all, the adult construct that is the cultural frame that the children are pushing against. Adults who work in play settings need to concern themselves with frames other than those that they’re often only so narrowly in sight of. That is to say, we are not the custodians of all truth regarding morality, nor should we view ourselves as arbiters wielding the ultimate moulds of social conditioning. Else (ibid) writes, in this instance with regards to the history of play theory, though I cite it in context of conditioning:

‘Johan Pestalozzi (1746-1827) . . . [maintained that] children are innately good and that it is society that corrupts them.’

Spontaneous order is concerned with ‘regularities in society . . . not [being] the product of deliberate human contrivance’ (Barry, 1982). These ‘social regularities’ are the result of human action rather than intention. Barry emphasises that the outcomes of these — sometimes huge in number — co-ordinated actions aren’t part of some great master-plan. There is no master-plan, no order of preconceived notions to work towards: what happens, happens. Yet, corrupting influences, such as some adults in the play space, can funnel all that is innately good and natural into unnatural shapes created by their social moulds.

Who elected these arbiters of such moral judgement, these masters and mistresses of all that is ‘right’ in the play setting? The children didn’t. The majority of play settings are undemocratic institutions, run by unelected leaders who have come to their position by the arbitrary judgement of others further up the corporate or community food chain. Who regulates these regulators? Authoritarian organisation can only amount to socially retarded individuals. If children are to be denied their natural habitats (the fields, the trees and the rivers and streams), which previous generations took for granted — subsumed by housing developments under the auspices of housing targets, or covered in tarmac in ever-increasing allegiance to the car before the right to play of the child — then those children deserve adults who are able to sensitively service those play settings, rather than rule them.

Perhaps this necessary intrusion of adults in the compensatory space for play requires some compromise in action. I turn to some Libertarian schools of thought that advocate the state of governance being reduced to protection from acts of aggression, fraud, theft and breach of contract (Nozick, 1974). The last of these, I suggest, can also be disregarded. As Hughes (2001) has it, ‘Playworker intervention . . . can act to corrupt children’s developing judgement, and render them increasingly reliant on the judgement of adults.’

If we disregard even this Libertarian standpoint and adopt the hard-line anarchists’ stance of complete abolition of the state, where does this leave the play setting? This can easily be read, I admit, in terms of ‘let us not have playworkers working in the play spaces of play settings at all’. This is, in the reality of the compensatory space for play, not a tenable position.  Cuzán (2010) describes the ‘state’ as ‘a political entity claiming sovereignty (exclusive political authority) over the people residing within a specified territory.’ It is this sovereignty that I draw attention to in reminding that we are all, adults and children alike, denizens of that territory. Yes, it is the children’s play spaces in which we operate, but yes the playworkers are part of the fabric too. Is it too ideological to suggest that a system of peaceful and concomitant anarchy (from the Greek for without ruler) could be in place in the connective and symbiotic relationship between children and playworkers? This is order enough because anarchy is order.

I refer, in offering precedence of thought for the above, to Marshall (1993) who links the popular ‘circled A’ anarchy symbol to be representative of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s (1851) statement that ‘Anarchy is Order.’ That is, the A inside the O.

In conclusion, in response to the commonplace irrationalism that is We can’t have anarchy here, I suggest that we must have anarchy in the play setting: is there any other way in which children can engage in truly voluntary exchanges of expression, leading to the well-being of the individual and, ultimately, the well-being of society as a whole?

Barry, N (1982), The tradition of spontaneous order. Literature of Liberty. Vol. v, no. 2, pp. 7-58. Arlington, VA: Institute for Humane Studies, Library of Economics and Liberty [online]. Available from (Accessed June 16, 2011)

Cuzán, A. G. (2010), Revisiting do we ever really get out of anarchy? Journal of Libertarian Studies. Vol 22, No. 1 (2010): 3-21 [online]. Available from:, The Journal of Libertarian Studies 1977-2009 (Accessed June 16, 2011)

Else, P. (2009), The value of play. London: Continuum.

Hayek, F. A. (1979), Law, legislation and liberty. Vol. I, Rules and Order (1973), pp. 8-11; Vol. III, The Political Order of a Free People (1979). Cited in Barry (1982).

Hughes, B. (2001), The first claim. Cardiff: Play Wales.

Marshall, P. (1993), Demanding the impossible. London: Fontana.

Nozick, R. (1974), Anarchy, state and utopia. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Proudhon, P-J. (1851), Les confessions d’un révolutionnaire. Paris: Garnier. Cited in Marshall (1993).
Joel D. R. Seath
June 2011


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