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

Posts tagged ‘a. s. neill’

Reflections of a playworker in Tottenham

Last week saw a trip out across the far reaches of the other side of the city of London (that is, a trip up the Victoria line, and then a fair hike up Tottenham High Road!) to pay a visit to Somerford Grove Adventure Playground. I have been to Somerford before, some seven or eight years ago, and I have some clear memories of the play that was taking place that day in the sun, but what struck me this time, from the vantage point of coming from within the playground culture of one part of west London, was that there are similarities in what’s at stake and what takes place in those playgrounds, and there are uniquenesses too.

Cathy and Tam at Somerford received us with plenty of stories, trials and tribulations, passions and celebrations, and there were plenty of these that I, for one, could relate to (if not always directly, then with a certain sympathy). I’ve met Cathy that once before, and I feel confident in saying we seem to be ‘of the same page’, as it were. Tottenham, as I read it through these stories in our short visit, is somewhat of a melting pot of cultures, and the playground is more than just the mere superficiality of that simple word. Later in the day, I was left reflecting on how this person called ‘playworker’ is, or can also be, someone to rely on, someone to support, someone to be pushy in the face of adversity, someone who stands up to a multitude of adult agendas, someone who might be (lower case initial letters) some form of ‘pastoral help’, ‘advisor’, ‘protector’: in short, much more than merely someone who’s seen in terms of ‘so, you put things out for children to play with’, as I paraphrase of many discussions I’ve had, or erroneously as ‘so, you teach children how to play?’

There are some similarities between the two playgrounds of north and west London here (as there are, perhaps, between all the playgrounds in the city and beyond): in this comparison of north and west alone, there are similarities in that there is a cultural mix, there are various peripheral groups, the potential for or actuality of gangs, to greater or lesser degrees, the continuity of the playworkers within it all, the ebb and flow and swill of the playground and its constituent parts. Where there are uniquenesses, I suppose (without a full understanding of Somerford) I concentrate on the particular comings and goings of individuals we know well, of the way of the local community, and of the general way of things farther out beyond the estate.

As an aside, on matters of a local flavour, I was surprised to overhear the contents of some workmen’s conversations the other day, whilst I was painting signs that are strung up on the outsides of our fences. They, the workmen, were hanging around in the street, in the preliminary stages of putting out road blocks in order to pedestrianise the street immediately to the side of our most public fence. One of their number was telling another, in a broad accent I couldn’t place, but which I figured not to be local to where we were, that (and I paraphrase) ‘these sorts of estates are full of crime, of course; we’ve got these sorts of places where I’m from’. I had to smile because I thought I have to say something. I waved my paintbrush in the air and I put on my best local accent (even though I’m ‘not from around here’ either!) and told him, sure, there were police stats (I’ve seen them) about recent crime levels, but a third of those were for ‘anti-social behaviour’ and I wondered out loud if that might not correlate to ‘play’ in our books!

The point is that (apart from my opportunity to blat on about play to some unsuspecting souls), we should rein in our preconceptions, shouldn’t we? Yes, the playground is dead-smack in the middle of rows of tenements and the estate is, pretty much, a zone in its own right, but let’s not discount everything and everyone therein because of what we think we might know about it and them. The playground, perhaps, also comes under this sort of scrutiny: people might well look through the fence and see all the half-mangled stuff and bits of wood and old tyres and general air of ‘disorder’ and think to themselves ‘well, that could do with a good scrub up’; however, what they’d completely miss is all the play therein, the possibilities and the histories of that play, and all the otherness of ‘being playworker’ that flows right through it, or could flow through it. That said, the term ‘playworker’ would, I suspect, not register on such thinking processes. There’s time to address this though.

I digress. Coming back from Tottenham, and on further reflection, I’m quite acutely aware of the challenges we all might face, and the privileges we’re afforded, in and around the playgrounds in the communities in which we work. I’m also aware of the fact that we are, or that we could be, or that we might someday be called upon to be, more than just, simplistically, ‘that person who puts out the gloop and the paint, and who makes sure the zipwire’s up, or who knocks up something out of an old palette, or who chops up a couple of days’ worth of wood for the fire’. There are considerations of gang influence to be had, as well as the possibilities of drugs, or of the affects of developing hormones in the older playground users and their peers; there are the skills needed to understand the varying needs and expressions, the disturbances and the inter-disturbances of individuals and groups who might aggregate in terms of gender, age, beliefs, family background and culture, or any combination of these and more; there are the constantly fluxing ways of interacting and understanding, or trying to understand, the agitations of the fads and fashions of growing up, or just being, in that place that those children are in; there is the need to be able to bring everything to a point of ‘being on the children’s side’ (as paraphrased of the attitude of A. S. Neill, of Summerhill School), putting aside personal difficulties for long enough to be significant in those children’s lives, indirectly, when fighting their corner with every other adult around. Some days might be smooth, some days might not be.

Play runs through it all, of course, and play will happen without us, but playworkers can help show that ‘this is play’ when others see it otherwise, or they can be that ‘something else’ (lower case initial letter, insert any given other here), if that play, as such, is so detrimental to the well-being of the individual, the group, or the community at large. This is not to say that playworkers should be (capital letters) ‘Teachers’, ‘Policers’, ‘Leaders of Social Reform Amongst the Young’; this is to say that they are, potentially, part of something larger than just the geographical and psychological area inside the fence. This is how I read the work of those at Somerford Grove, and potentially of others based at other playgrounds around and about. Thanks Cathy and Tam, if ever this writing finds its way to you: I trust there’ll be many more stories that can be shared.
 
 

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Learning: what children want

What can you possibly learn at school? OK, now I have your attention if you’re a teacher, or a teaching assistant, or a parent, or anyone else with a vested interest in the whole ‘learning’ arena, I should clarify that this post is intended towards the system and not the individual professional. I also like to live in a more idealised world than the one I often perceive around me, but there’s no harm in saying it how you think it should be. I like it in that idealised world: things don’t have to be the way they are. So, what is it that the schooling system is able to give children? How to hold a pen and form the basic units of words, the rudimentary aspects of mathematics, some stuff about gravity, or sedimentary rock structures, or something about the Industrial Revolution which, in context, probably has no real context . . .?

I admit that these examples are drawn from my own learning experience, but the point still remains: the things we actually learn are the things we want to learn. I hated doing endless handwriting practice with a blotchy old fountain pen that turned your fingers purple and pruney (looking back on my handwriting exercise books and later letters now, I don’t think I mastered anything close to handwriting skills until about the age of twenty five!); what I learned in maths class was pretty much contained within the following — I don’t and won’t ever need standard deviation, quadratic equations, or logarithms, and here’s how to use a calculator; I have a fair idea of the principles of gravity, but only through practical experimentation; I know that there are different types of rock, but really, a rock is a rock; the Industrial Revolution has no context to my life on account of its dullness.

I was having a pub conversation about play with a colleague the other day, and teaching came into the range of things. I referenced A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, as I tend to do when I talk around these sorts of things, and I’ve written around this subject before, but it’s worth revisiting. Neill was way ahead of his time. If the children want to learn what they want to learn, they will, is what I take from my readings. It’s of some coincidence then that I found myself sat around at the weekend with Dino Boy (3) and his sister, Princess K. (5), as they sucked up all the information I could give them on the subjects they were interested in.

It’s a great responsibility to give information to children, as good teachers will no doubt agree. How do you give information without trying to also sway their opinions on any given subject area? I fail sometimes in this respect. I catch myself in time on other occasions. Despite these intentions, I do find that the children often absorb my conscious and unconscious sensibilities and preferences and they repeat them. I trust, in time, that they’ll have all the information they need from all the sources they look to, to form their own opinions as often as possible.

So, we talk about skeletons and various bones and what our insides look like, and what does the inside of an elephant look like? A few weeks ago I was asked ‘What does snow mean?’ (which, after a battery of questions returned in order to try to reinterpret the question, responded in turn with ‘No, what does snow mean?’ in ever agitated tones, I finally cracked as being ‘What is snow made of?’). I’m then asked days later ‘What does beer mean?’ Trying to explain the fermentation process in beer-making to a three year old is tricky, but apparently acceptable. We watch the football on the TV, and Dino Boy studies the game before asking where all the girls are, which we talk about, and we move on to the purpose of the guy in the middle wearing white when everyone else is wearing blue or yellow.

When we’re out and about we discuss whether aeroplanes need wheels, whether we need to apologise to snails we accidentally step on and crunch in wet weather when they come out, and just how squelchy dead dried up slugs we find really are. The children take in all the information of the world around them, as well as stories of my past adventures and misdemeanours. They listen intently to tales of accidents involving blood and stitches and hospital visits, and they’ll gladly put aside books of pseudo-Barbie Amelia’s politically-correct and anodyne unadventures with the pasty wolf (who’s sorry for being so greedy but who’s ultimately forgiven and corrects the errors of his ways), in favour of the real Little Red Riding Hood, a story with big teeth and all, ‘from inside your head’.

Blood and guts and the workings of frogs’ stomachs, or the like, or how dead things became dead, feature plenty, as does the refrain (re: dinosaurs) of ‘Is that one dead?’ Yes, that one’s dead; they’re all dead; dinosaurs died millions of years ago. The concept of ‘millions’ is difficult for adults, let alone three year olds. ‘How did they all die?’ Translating concepts obviously has its point where information goes astray because comets and meteorites are different things! ‘What’s a comic?’ Dino Boy replied. ‘Not a comic, a comet . . .’ (though I need to revisit this one when he tells me next time that a comet wiped out the dinosaurs, and that doesn’t even take into account the other theories!)

Often, when I ask family children or children I work with what they’ve learned at school today (as a means of conversation starter), there’s usually a quiet pause and a reply along the lines of ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Nothing, really.’ That can’t be the case, can it? Or is it more the fact that children want to block out the things they’ve been told they have to learn? The system wants xyz in their heads; children want what they want. Sometimes the two can cross paths, though I tend to find that this is often when there’s something like pizza making in the offering.

When it comes to it, the information on its own isn’t as important as the connection that’s built in good positive child-adult relationships. Children will take on what they want to learn from those they want to learn it from. Some teachers may have very good relationships with children; some may not. When I see children at after school club in apparent diligent concentration on finishing homework tasks before they go off (or go back) to play, I often sense their action more out of duty. Children despair at having to define their lists of words, or learn the order and constituent elements of the planets of the Solar System when none of this interests them. The work is done not, I feel, because they care about the subject or the subject-master or mistress.

In my idealised world, which isn’t so very far from the one we live in (but maybe just a little too radical for many to entertain), children learn the arts of beautiful handwriting when they want to link the aesthetic of well-formed and meaningful stories to the visual (though, of course, the art of handling pens starts far earlier, though also when they’re ready for it); numbers one to ten are graspable in everyday life, but so too are larger ones, and even made-up ones because we should never underestimate the power of thirty-hundred or a ‘brillion’; the concept of gravity comes to those who wait; a rock is just a rock, unless — or especially, if — you’re hit by one or if you have an urgent early need to understand geology, in which case here’s a hammer; the Industrial Revolution is something that happened a million years ago, or it might as well have done, and it may have helped lay the foundations for the iPad, or mobile phones, or something . . .
 
 

Jam and snot, or the Montessoribots?

Still on my theme of A. S. Neill’s work, from around the 1920s, I move from thoughts on education and parenting to a more general idea of ‘connectivity between generations’. I find there are links between some of my long-held own beliefs and ideas, and what I’m discovering as I read. So, in writing, I explore this further . . .

Whilst Neill was writing for The New Era: an International Quarterly Journal for the Promotion of Reconstruction in Education, in the early 1920s (a bit of a mouthful of a magazine title, admittedly!), he went out and about visiting and reporting on various establishments. One of these places was the Montessori Department of the Brackenhill Theosophical Home School in Kent. Maria Montessori had come to England in 1919, and interest in her methods was just starting to spread. I was interested to read of Neill’s observation and opinion on his visit to this particular school:

‘I spoke not a word. In five minutes the insets and long stairs [presumably forms of ‘didactic apparatus’, as named by Montessori] were lying neglected in the middle of the floor, and the [children] were scrambling over me. I felt very guilty, for I feared that if Montessori herself were to walk in she would be indignant. I cannot explain why I affect [children] in this way. It may be that intuitively they know that I do not inspire fear or respect; it may be that they unconsciously recognise the baby in me.’

What Neill seems to have experienced here is something I’ve also known for a long time, but never been able to pin down the exact reasons for either. Countless times I’ve visited a school or playscheme or some other play provision (and I’d never met those children before), and when I do I often try to keep out of the way, and before long, almost without fail, I find a paintbrush being poked in my ear, or I’ve become co-opted into a play-fight-dance, or I’m being told life histories by five year olds, and one way or another all form of previous structure and order breaks down in the immediate area around me.

It happens when I least expect it to (though I should be used to this sort of thing by now). Even just the other day, out at the park, attendant three year old leading the way, we ended up in the fixed equipment area, on the tarmac mound, and before long we were surrounded by a small group of other younger children. Admittedly we were in the middle of a form of crazy golf play (with proper golf clubs and fluorescent yellow balls), but I wasn’t doing anything really: just rolling the balls back uphill, then sitting down in the sun on the slope. The children slowly gravitated over. I did a quick sweep round for the parents the children had brought along, but no-one showed any signs of ‘man in the playground, panic!’ so I talked when talked to by the children, listened, got the balls if need be. That part of the playground became the crazy golf place (not what ‘normally’ happens in such a fenced-off designated area for designated play). After a while, one of the girls took custody of the least favoured golf club, another girl took a golf ball under her wing, and the play just scattered to other parts of the space.

Sure, on the face of it, there’s the obvious unusual occurrence of golf clubs here, but there’s also the unusual occurrence of someone being at eye height and actually listening and talking and taking notice. I’ve always wondered if there was something more to it too though. Back to this again after a swing back around Maria Montessori.

Neill notes, with some degree of concern, that Montessori’s term ‘didactic apparatus frightens me’, and that education is ‘more than matching colours and fitting cylinders into holes’. This is not a post about education, but it is about play. I’ve always had similar reservations about Montessori children’s play. A while back I was visiting students in a Montessori nursery school (I was working in the field of pre-school at the time). I was shocked, frankly, by the robotic nature of the three year olds there who, without any adult prompting, would float over to a bland pale wooden shelf, pick up a bland pale wooden object on a tray, and come back to a table, sitting down with it. The child would neatly stack blocks from one place to another on the tray, or pour water from a jug into a cup and then back again, and repeat it over and over. Then they’d put it back on the shelf.

This was not the world of three year olds smeared in jam and snot that I knew, or some years later, the three year old playing crazy golf in the fixed equipment park, shouting at the ducks to wake them up, or walking along the High Street blowing bubbles into chocolate milkshake, laughing at the newly discovered sound, smeared in saliva, snot and sun cream!

For the sake of noting some small degree of pro-Montessori methodology, I did learn a rather neat way for younger children to put their own coats on (by putting the coats on the floor, outsides downwards, arms spread out; the child then stands at the head end, slots their arms in, bends down and flips the whole coat over and on!) That, though, is the sum total of my pro-Montessori leanings.

We shouldn’t foster robotic children, and we shouldn’t foster children fearful of adults or what those adults might say to or about them. Why do children gravitate over to some adults? Of course, the physical level of the adult helps, as does the listening and the talking with the child, if wanted by that child (talking ‘with’, I’ve always felt, rather than ‘talking to’ and definitely rather than ‘talking at’); I have, for a long time, held the belief that children ‘see’ the play awareness of certain adults.

I observe good playworkers I sometimes work with, and some excellent parents, and other adults who are neither or both of these, and I watch the way that children seem to appreciate them, ‘see’ them, ‘know’ them, ‘get’ them. It’s this ‘gettingness’ that has fascinated me for a while.

The adult who tries too hard will soon be found out by the child; the adult who’s playful, up to a point, before adult sensibilities kick back in again, will be found out and discarded; the adult who just doesn’t ‘get’ play won’t even be tolerated. There are deeper reasons why some children ‘get’ some adults, perhaps: the possible unconventional looks and ways of the adult, as compared to the child’s forming stereotype, can be part of it; there may be attachment needs not served by other adults in the child’s life; there may be a raw but developing comprehension that a rebellious or unusual streak is the ‘play way’, and should be embraced when found in any other person; there may be other, more indefinable reasons.

I don’t know, but it’s an ongoing process of trying to find out. If I’m ‘in tune’ (and some days I’m not, for whatever reason), I can be minding my own business on the bus, concentrating on collecting golf balls, sitting talking with other adults in a play space and giving no outward signs that ‘I’m playing now’, and before long I have tongues stuck out at me; or I have children gravitating around, without words, not always with a need for the play objects themselves; or I find glue and glitter being surreptitiously spread up my arm.

Like Neill, I can’t fully explain the reasons for these sorts of things; I do know though that I hope children don’t become robots, and that they do just express themselves in their play. Why? Imagine a world full of robotic people unable to connect with one another at all.
 
 

On the education of adults about children

[A board should be set up] to enquire into the upbringing of children. We might call it the Board of Parental Control. It would bring parents before it and examine them. Parents convicted of stupidity would be ordered to hand over their children to a Play-Yard School.

A. S. Neill, A Dominie Dismissed, 1917
 
Of course, I use this quote as a deliberate provocation. I find it amusing, though there is a hint of seriousness within the tongue-in-cheek writing of the author. I’m gradually working my way through a biography of the pioneering educationalist A. S. Neill and I find myself amazed by what I’m discovering. Neill’s thinking, writing and practice when working with children (going back to the very start of the 20th century) is shot through with respect for the child. I write it this way because I’m aware of the context of the times in which he first practised.

Now, I am not a teacher of children or a parent. That’s my first disclaimer. My next is that I know some excellent parents who truly respect and recognise the freedom taken and needed by their children. My playwork experience in my current thinking is linked with my family experience, and my early years and youth work experience, amongst other things I’ve done and learned. It’s taken a good few years to get to here. I still have things to learn. I also still have some personal concerns about ideas on ‘children’s ways of being’: that is, my ideas on children, their freedom to play, their play, and adults who I might see as trying to control those children, versus the thought that is ‘who am I to tell someone else how to lead a life?’

In juggling these thoughts, I can only bring it back to this: these are my ideas, which I keep testing and refining; who else is coming along with that flow? A. S. Neill’s ideas and experiences are starting to reinforce, and maybe justify, some of my own; or rather, the ideas I have learned, tested, accepted and taken on as a way to be believed in. By extension, some of Neill’s own influences are being thrown into the mix.

In 1917, Neill met an American likemind by the name of Homer Lane. Lane is described (by Jonathan Croall, in Neill of Summerhill: the Permanent Rebel) as a former teacher and Superintendent of Playgrounds in Detroit. Lane came to England and set up what he called ‘the Little Commonwealth’: a self-governed community for so-called delinquent boys and girls, based on a farm in Dorset. Neill, apparently, was greatly impressed by what he saw there.

He later wrote that Lane was ‘the first man who simply said, we don’t know a damn thing about children, let’s observe them, and not force our personalities on them.’

In the hundred years or so since then, there’s still the dominant adult desire to force our personalities, morality, ideas and ways of being onto the children around us. In adults’ care for children, in their love and upholding of children’s ‘best interests’, those adults seem to want to develop those children in their own image. Or, at least, they seem to want to develop them in the image of ‘society’s view of ‘the child’. We are all a part of society. Why are children so often not given the opportunity to be themselves?

I’ve had conversations like these many times before. I was teaching adults once and was shocked to be confronted by a learner whose views took on increasingly agitated and spiteful tones. He accused me of trying to preach ‘liberal, hippy 1970s views’ which were out of tune with how society was or should be. I tried to protest. I said that I didn’t make this stuff up myself, that I was teaching here from the playwork literature. He wouldn’t have it. It knocked me sideways somewhat. I still think about that a few years on. Are some individuals just so ingrained in ‘the way things ought to be’ that children become secondary to it all?

In 1916, Neill wrote (whilst still in a more traditional teaching position): ‘I feel that I am merely pouring water into a sieve. I almost feel that to meddle with education is to begin at the wrong end. I may have an ideal, but I cannot carry it out because I am up against all the forces of society.’ I sometimes feel the same way with regards to playwork practice.

His biographer, Croall, goes on to write: ‘In particular, he found that he was having to come into conflict with parents who still believed in the traditional way of training and punishing a child.’ Neill is quoted as reporting: ‘Many a night I feel disheartened. I feel that I am on the side of the bairns.’

This reminds me of a job I once had in which I was required to undergo a yearly review with the manager of the setting. I worked with children there and I think I was regarded as a bit of an oddity, but tolerated. The manager (who I had a lot of time for, and who is now sadly not with us), would always conclude the meeting with the idea that I was more comfortable in the presence and in the service of the children. It was a backhanded compliment and a way of suggesting I ought to try harder with my colleagues. Her heart was in the right place though! I was, and always have been and always will be, like Neill, on the side of the bairns (that is, the children).

I’m not a teacher of children, and I don’t know if I ever could be (I sometimes imagine what that classroom might look and feel like!), but I have my reservations about some teachers I’ve seen at work: are they truly on the side of the bairns? Like my earlier disclaimer about not being a parent and knowing some good parents, I have also (truly) met some excellent teachers in my time. However, I wonder what teaching might look like if thinking such as Homer Lane’s were to be the norm. Croall writes:

Lane argued forcibly that the traditional form of education based on fear should be abolished. Teachers must stand down from their position of authority, and let children resolve their own difficulties in an atmosphere of encouragement and freedom. ‘Freedom cannot be given,’ he stated. ‘It is taken by the children . . .’

Of course, the fear that was evident in early twentieth century UK classrooms (physical punishment and all) is not seen today. However, I would argue (from my own observation and discussions with some children) that the fear-factor of authority does sometimes play a part. What does this do, potentially, to the children? Authority, taught Homer Lane, is the fundamental problem of society. Liberal, hippy 1970s views? Liberal, hippy pre-1920s views?

When all is said and done, we adults should be taking a good long hard look at ourselves. In balancing up ‘these are my ideas and understanding from experience and reading’ versus ‘who am I to tell others how to be?’, I err on the side of the former here. We adults (whether we’re parents, non-parents, teachers, any of us who know or could have influence over children), are part of our society — as indeed are those children, let’s not forget. If we cannot, or will not, respect the child and the children around us for who they are, then we are the ones who ought really to undergo some education, not the children.

‘Adults’, writes Croall of Homer Lane, ‘should both trust and revere the nature of children.’
 
 

Comparisons of some early twentieth- and early twenty-first century thinking about children

I have been reading about A. S. Neill recently (he of Summerhill School, more of which later). This is largely independent to my last post (consciously, at least), which was kick-started by a chance conversation about the possibility of playing being taught out of children. However, chance has a habit of bringing strands together and recent newspaper articles have been brought to my attention because of that kick-start. I feed in Neill to the thinking, though I haven’t yet read enough to form a full opinion on his work and philosophy.

This post will largely be an exercise in copying and pasting with a few editorial comments to glue it all together. It will be lengthy, but you’ll read it all if you want to. What needs to be said has already been said, you see. Why reinvent the wheel? Uncomfortable as I often am in the murky world of Politics [sic: deliberate capital P], what I would like to do is to develop a route from last week’s post, through the whole Govian national curriculum debate (via UK teachers’ current Trade Union activity and lack of confidence in Gove), add in a large dash of Alexander Sutherland Neill, and with a small leap land at the feet of play. Ta da.

So, last week I somewhat focused on my own education to highlight some good teachers, some frankly uninspiring (forgotten) teachers, and some teachers who had left an entirely distasteful mark. It was a means of trying to emphasise that play balanced me out. Maybe I came across as too ‘teacher bashing’. I say this because, of course, a major fault lies in whoever’s dictating the national curriculum. As I type, the education secretary is Michael Gove MP. I write this because I’m a playworker, and this playworker has found some common ground here with plenty of teachers — for a change.

Gove’s education plans are fixed squarely on the attainment of knowledge rather than the ability to learn to learn, as I read it. It’s his way of redressing the balance of a lack of ‘rigour’, core learning, no doubt afflicted on the children of today by the previous government. When the Tories are ousted, the see-saw of education policy will dip the other way again. Don’t the children ever get a say? That’s another story.

Michael Rosen, poet and former Children’s Laureate, recently wrote an article (which has been doing the rounds on social media) entitled Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent. Rosen refers to Gove’s apparent appearance on a recent BBC Question Time programme, and writes, addressing Gove:

You posed a dichotomy between knowledge and creativity, and made the assertion that you can’t be creative unless you have knowledge. If you watch a baby playing with a ball, say, you can see something going on that is quite different from your description: the baby is acquiring knowledge through creativity. The baby thinks up things to do with the ball, does them, and learns about what a ball does.

Rosen might well be jumping on the Gove-bashing wagon (and why not?), but from an educational/developmental point of view he has a point about play. He adds:

Once again, you repeated the word ‘rigour’ on the programme . . . I’m totally in favour of rigour when it comes to the work I do in schools: helping the children listen to poetry, recite it, write it and perform it, but whenever you talk about it, you seem to be referring to some of the worst kinds of education I had in the 1950s: learning without understanding, learning motivated by test-scores, learning lists of facts that the minister of education approves of, rather than learning how to ask questions, how to find things out, how to interpret and evaluate, how to be a learner.

Learning lists or play? I know what most children would prefer, and many parents too — if they’re truly reflecting on the power of play. However, this is all still couched in the whole argument that play is ‘for’ some purpose, i.e. playing creates learning. Sure, children get a lot out of their play, but the playwork thinking isn’t here necessarily: play for play’s sake; play for now; play is the very process of being.

Teachers’ trade union activity recently resulted in the Association of Teachers and Lecturers issuing a motion of no confidence in Michael Gove. Not having been party to the debates I can only speculate as to the reasons for the motion: they may range from fear of targets needing to be met, performance related pay, being over-worked and, I would hope, a genuine anxiety about the children. This playworker also has a genuine anxiety about children. The fear isn’t for their formal education, necessarily; rather, it is for their play lives (their spiritual, or maybe, immanent health, perhaps?): it is for their process of being.

Whilst appreciating that I’m reducing Gove’s national curriculum to a simple phrase unrepresentative of the whole, ‘list building, information absorption, and information retention’ isn’t becoming of the process of being. (It’s ironic, thinking about it, that I can reduce my understanding of Gove’s curriculum ideas to a mere list!) In another recent article, In Michael Gove’s world who needs teachers?, Peter Wilby writes:

Gove demands painstaking attention to spelling, handwriting and grammar, and lists the grammatical terms, such as ‘modal verbs’, that children must learn. He expects five- to seven-year-olds to grasp concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament or democracy. If children are presented with material that runs ahead of their mental development, only one teaching method is possible: learning by rote.

In my experience, children of this age get more out of spinning around till they feel sick, throwing themselves off things, sticking themselves to things or things to themselves, poking at things, climbing things, taking things apart, using things in odd ways, creating things from only a room full of thin air, a reel of cellotape, a cardboard box and a plastic thing that used to be something else but nobody really knows quite what: yes, play.

So we come to A. S. Neill. Summerhill School was set up in 1921 as a new way forward for education. It’s still going. As I understand it, children are treated with respect, given the opportunity to vote on school matters (on a par with the teachers’ votes), and the children don’t have to attend lessons if they don’t want to. There were cries of ‘anarchy’ and an upsetting of the conventional wisdom of adult-child relationships, i.e. power dynamics. The school was threatened with closure in 2000, but it came through this to receive a favourable Ofsted report in 2007. Neill was not against children learning, but he put a huge emphasis on play and children’s own direction. In Summerhill – a radical approach to child rearing (A. S. Neill), 1960 (extracted on A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, General Policy Statements), he wrote:

All that any child needs is the three Rs: the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom.

It’s always been a small annoyance of mine that — ironically — ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ are collectively known as the Three Rs, but that’s a small aside. I wonder if this Neill quote unwittingly plays into Gove’s hands: on the face of it, it does; yet, in reality, Neill’s thinking appears to have been far richer.

I will write more on Neill, no doubt, when I’ve finished the biography of him that I’m currently reading. Until then, I’d like to share some quotes from the extract cited above:

[Questions] so often asked by teachers are the unimportant ones, the ones about French or ancient history or what not when these subjects don’t matter a jot compared to the larger questions of life’s fulfilment – of man’s inner happiness.

Even the Montessori system, well known as a system of directed play, is an artificial way of making the child learn by doing. It has nothing creative about it.

Children, like adults, learn what they want to learn.

Most of the school work that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play . . .

When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge . . . For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel.

I am not decrying learning. But learning should come after play.

I have seen a girl weep nightly over her geometry. Her mother wanted her to go to university, but the girl’s whole soul was artistic.

The notion that unless a child is learning something the child is wasting his time is nothing less than [a] curse . . .

In all countries, capitalist, socialist or communist, elaborate schools are built to educate the young. But all the wonderful labs and workshops do nothing to help Jane or Peter or Ivan surmount the emotional damage and the social evils bred by the pressure on him from his parents, his schoolteachers and the pressure of the coercive quality of our civilisation.

The function of the child is to live his own life, not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.

We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had – a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. Since 1921 this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered: it rather has become a final faith.

In 2007, Jessica Shepherd wrote an article based on the above mentioned Ofsted acceptance of Summerhill — So, kids, anyone for double physics? (But no worries if you don’t fancy it). In that article, Ofsted are quoted as reporting:

‘The democratic process used to manage the running of the school provides pupils with outstanding opportunities for personal development.’

Shepherd goes on to quote the head teacher, Zoe Redhead, Neill’s daughter:

‘There is a growing movement towards child-participatory types of education. [Ofsted’s] words pave the way for others to copy our model. It’s a recognition that it works. On the other hand, just as you think education is getting more humanised, a government minister will say it’s all about ‘performance, performance, performance’. I’ll always view them with deep suspicion.’

The head teacher’s suspicions have proved correct: Gove’s curriculum is a dark cloud looming (although, as Peter Wilby also reports, ‘academies and free schools . . . bizarrely, are exempt from the national curriculum’).

So, to conclude, and to repeat Neill:

. . . we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had — a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being.

Perhaps we can also see some playwork thinking here. In play children have their being and their becoming, not in Gove’s world of list building, information absorption, and information retention.
 
 

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