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

Posts tagged ‘politics’

(E)states of play

It’s high time I wrote again on this blog, and a number of areas of thinking have been knocking on the door and looking for some written attention: where to go first this new year though? Politics seems a likely candidate. Although I’ve long had some fairly strong political beliefs, I’ve not always written them here. Maybe that should change. A spot of Tory MP-bashing is in order (I’ve never met a playworker who owns up to also being a Conservative: those two circles don’t seem to share the same Venn diagram!) If you’re both of these yourself, you keep it quiet.

The Tories don’t get children. They don’t understand what they are and what they’re for, really. As far as your average Conservative MP is concerned, a child is a ‘social unit’ to be quantified, money-fied, educated in standard Tory ideals of dubious morality, behaviours, the thick end of a fountain pen and the business side of an abacus. Children, as far as a Tory is concerned, are unformed adults waiting to become profitable mortgage-holding, credit-worthy, taxable units in the societal sausage machine. ‘Play’, by extension, isn’t a word that your average Tory understands.

Where there’s play there is the formation of connection to the playable areas: places of affect and history are shaped; people shape people in their movements and moments. Children find all the cracks in the city, and the play lingers there, even after all those children have long grown up. Places form and remain. That is, until a Tory like Our Dear Leader, Mr Cameron, announces (BBC article) that he’d like to obliterate the council estates. Sure, there are some run-down areas, and sure, they may harbour crime, but there’s crime in other echelons too: MPs fiddle their expenses, the wealthy and knowledgeable siphon their money away from the taxman, corporates make dodgy deals, wars are created and arms sold, drugs get dealt. Shall we pull down all their houses of disrepute too?

It’s rather simplistic to make a point based on limited points of reference, but I’m going to do it anyway because the Tories seem to make use of this way of thinking in their staggering lack of connection to the people who they’re supposed to represent. The BBC journalist, in the article linked to above, writes of Cameron:

Writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Cameron said ‘brutal high-rise towers’ and ‘dark alleyways’ in the worst estates ‘were a gift to criminals and drug dealers’. He said 100 housing estates would be improved with the plan. Mr Cameron cited analysis which suggests almost three-quarters of people involved in the riots in England in 2011 came from such estates.

Starting over, a clean sweep, will cure all crime and cleanse the country of drug dealers and rioters, so it might seem, because everyone then will be viable social and economic units with their own mortgages and nuclear families, with their own socially acceptable housing units, and with these, their own reformed Tory-approved morality and behaviour. (That this might readily be seen as ‘make money, every man’s house is his castle, sell your own grandmother’ can be quietly swept under the Conservative Persian — made in the UK — Carpet here though).

Simplistically, regenerating an area’s urban fabric will not solve all of its actual or perceived social ills. The author of the BBC article writes:

Brian Robson, policy and research manager for housing at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation charity, said it was true that poor housing and run down estates could trap people in poverty.

But he said he worried the government . . . risked ‘pushing people out of the places where they have roots’.

Some estates may be dangerous, but many aren’t so: many are home. The article also quotes Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Shelter charity:

‘It is essential for the government to consult with the people who live in and around these developments as they develop their plans . . .’

Some people may like where they live. Some people may have attachments there. Some people may have a long-standing connection to the people, the area, the building that they live in, the markets and shops, the schools and the history and everything that that place is. Some people’s entire play lives are embedded in the bricks and the pathways, the hedges and the trees.

In the Sunday Times this month (another of the UK’s non-neutral media outlets), Cameron writes:

There’s another crucial dimension to our plans: social reform — bringing security to families who currently have none. As I said three months ago in Manchester, a central part of my second-term agenda is to wage an all-out assault on poverty and disadvantage.

This is a Tory assault. The implication of the rhetoric is not, as it might seem to Tory ears, a case of picking the country up by its old-fashioned braces, giving it a good hard character-building slap around the face, telling it to stand up and fight for Queen and country, get a job and ‘be normal’; no, the implication of the rhetoric is in ‘search and destroy’, not repair. For those who don’t care, this is fine.

If the Tories succeed in dismantling what they view as the ‘worst estates’, they’ll also have their eye further on ‘reformation’ of open spaces. Playing fields have been built on and continue to be seen as fair game. Maybe all schools (in a kind of Orwellian Tory future) will be units whose tarmac rectangles (formerly known as playgrounds) are rented out to the highest bidders. Adventure playgrounds, those bastions of disorder and social connection, of ever-unfolding play, will be sold to ‘Be Gorillas in the Sky for £40 per hour’ ultra safe-climbing and instructor, character-building franchises (cf Battersea Adventure Playground), or they’ll be built over with a few more housing units (targets ticked, all the rich history buried, move on).

Of course, I’m biased in this last respect because I see so much play and what forms from this and in between this, every working day (as do my colleagues in the playwork sector, fighting similar battles as we all do). However, play does happen in all manner of other places too (places that become places because they’re played in), and this includes the cracks in the city, the estates, and the open public spaces in between.

Play just is

I really am growing very tired of the constant over-emphasis, in the proclamations of adults in general, that ‘play aids children’s learning’, or variations on the theme (‘play reduces obesity’, ‘play aids social skills’, ‘play teaches children right from wrong’, and so on). What is consistently missed in all this ‘be a better person’ rhetoric is the whole experience of being a child. If, firstly, in the case of playwork (though not too overwhelmed by the above notions), the sector takes pride (and yes, pride before a fall) in being ‘the only adults in the children’s workforce who try to see things from the child’s perspective’ (as I was taught), then there should be a lot more discussion on ‘trying to see things from the child’s perspective’ going on.

The playwork sector aside, I sometimes find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact that children’s play is their play and that those children do it, by and large, because they want to, because such and such is there to spark off that play, because it’s just what needs to be done, there and then, because . . . well, just because — or because (as children have often insinuated or directly pointed out to me), ‘because, I don’t know why.’

I’ve been in this writing area many times before, but the message just keeps coming back and demanding to be repeated. Sure, and I say this often in deference to those who tell me that children learn things in their play, sure they learn stuff, as a kind of by-product, and sure they can look back on experiences and find that they do things differently or modify their expressions or ways of being because of what’s already taken place (in their play), but here’s the point: from the child’s perspective, play is something to be engaged in just because (not because of any adult-designed outcome). Play just is.

When you were six or seven, maybe, did you start your play with definite outcomes in mind? That is, say, ‘by the end of this session I will have understood how to adequately make use of gross motor skills in order to balance on this railing without knocking my teeth out’, or ‘I will have successfully developed the ability to share so that my friend won’t end up screaming that I’ve taken all his cards’. You might well have had some vague abstract aim of not knocking your teeth out, or not being the cause of a commotion, but these were no doubt all part of the trial and error of the moment. You didn’t get any certificates or awards or pats on the head from approving adults for the play that was your play. If you did or didn’t knock your teeth out, or if you did or didn’t cause a commotion, sure you may have learned stuff, but you didn’t go into that play with the targeted aim of ascertaining that outcome of learning something. If it was your play, you did it just because. You might have gone into your play with the aim of beating your own world record of batting a ball against a wall, balancing along a railing without falling off, or riding your bike around in circles, for as long as possible without stopping, and before your legs turned to jelly, but you did all that just because.

There has been plenty written on the importance of play in terms of its evolutionary, neurological, physical, sociological, psychological, and so on benefits, and these outward-looking-in perspectives are appreciated. However, these are all adult researcher constructs. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff around in the literature on play theory, playwork theory, healthiness and well-being, psychology and psychoanalysis, child development, even zoological study and animal behaviourism. Where is the depth of literature that records what play is (as opposed to what it’s for, or what it’s good for) to the real experts on the subject? We’ve all been children, and so we’ve all been experts (past tense). Now, the real experts’ perspectives are under-represented.

There are studies that have taken on board what children say about their play: the what and the how and the where. There are not enough though to adequately affect the dominant political-media presentation (thus influencing the broad sweep of socio-cultural opinion) on what play is. Instead we have a skewed view that play is only good for certain things: for supplementing the ‘learning and acceptable morals’ diet fed to children through early education, schools, youth provision, and through the socialisation tactics of the government; for reduction of pressure on the national health system, ultimately resulting in economic benefits for government coffers, via the obesity agenda; for containment and moulding of acceptable opinion, ways of being and behaving, suppression of traits likely to result in mass conflict aimed at the ruling minority. Call me cynical, but there’s an argument to say that ‘play’ is moderated by the puppet-masters who wish to engineer a certain society that’s beneficial to a certain few.

I digress. Play is used to help mould the individual and the collective. There is a counter-argument to suggest that the activist for play (for play’s sake) is also looking to engineer a society into a certain form. This is, however, viewed from the play activist’s screen as acceptable, because the message is not ‘let them be how I contain them to be’ but rather ‘let them be.’ From the children’s perspective, if given fair representation to express their views, wouldn’t they also express their views on their play, by and large, in similar terms? Let us be. Let it be. Play just is.

There are difficulties in gaining children’s perspectives on play: sure, they have the right to express their opinions (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12) and the right to play (Article 31) — though really, does the UK government actually take these seriously? — but asking children about their play might mean, essentially, disrupting that very play to ask them about it. Even if we think we’re working ethically enough and not disrupting that play, we can make mistakes. I recently made the assumption that I was on even ground with a couple of children I was working with: we were sat around talking, and they were talking about play in a way that I assumed was OK for me to say something to the effect of, ‘Play happens all the time, right?’ It was, on reflection, a moral imposition. They looked at me and one said, ‘Er, no. There’s school, and home, and going to school, and . . .’ What I understood from her was that play was very much parcelled up for her into ‘allowable time’, but also that even here in this assumed-to-be even ground, I’d overstepped the mark and trodden on the talking play that was happening.

We can get children’s views and opinions, but we just have to be careful about the how of doing that. When we’ve worked out how to do that, we’re in a good position to get the (non-token) views of these experts: this is what’s largely missing from all the talk on play out there. There is some opinion from those who matter most — stay focused, the children! — in the written literature, and there’s more in the anecdotal material that potentially floods every playground (though often this is either missed, or not recorded, or not fully registered, or stored in memories that need to be tapped); however, this material isn’t yet flooding the national socio-political consciousness.

I’m confident, from anecdotal collection, observation- and personal- experience, when I say that, by and large, for children play just is. This is a simple message at the end of a lengthy post. I find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact of it. We should, I suggest, all try seeing things from children’s perspectives more: we might be surprised at what we find.

A natural therapy for political dis-ease

As unanimously expressed by playworkers who I have so far read, or heard, to relay an opinion, last Friday’s media declaration of the UK general election results was somewhat sobering: five more years of Conservative (Tory) rule. (Is it even possible to call oneself a playworker if you vote Tory? No-one I’ve come across in various playworker circles has yet put a Tory head above the parapet). I dislike the popular media rhetoric of a governing party that ‘rules’ or, as it’s often framed, the party ‘in power’, but ‘ruling’ is what it feels like will come about. This doesn’t sit easily with the way I like to live my personal and playwork lives. Friday’s media declaration was somewhat sobering.

The Tory perspective on children seems to me to be, by and large, one of ‘those who shall be educated, civilised, made into future economic units capable of sustaining the capitalist mantra of work hard, work harder, make money, every man, or woman, for themselves’. Although the late but eminent Professor Brian Sutton-Smith stated that the opposite of play is not work, but rather it’s depression (which is a stance that is appreciated), the ‘hard-working’ sound-bite ethic is detrimental to the natural elegance of play. (Where, incidentally, is the dividing line between someone who is ‘working’ and another who is ‘hard-working? I’m left somewhat anaemic, as it were, by the constant ‘hard-working’ rhetoric to fall from politicians’ mouths these past weeks).

There is a saving grace to be had though, and this is the start point in the thinking for this piece today (anathema to the Tory ideal): play has been a part of the natural flow of the world for far, far longer than Tory capitalism and material self-interest has been . . . and it will out-last them too.

In opposition to play, I had been feeling a little depressed (not, and very far from, in clinical terms, but rather in the manner of being pressed upon). Now where did I read of the exaltation of walking? It is something I’ve done for a long time: walk and be in the world. There is, you’ll find out, play out there. Here are themes I return to: that is to say, play is in the now, in the being and in the being here; play is part of the world and, in this respect, is not just of children. I walk because it helps me re-ground, re-live, but also because it helps me to think (even if I’m not consciously mapping out all the Xs and Ys of things to work through).

Something I’ve been background thinking about for a while, ‘out there’, whenever walking in the world that plays, is what would the places that we live in look like if we were to map them just by their trees? The place where I live is full of trees. When we really look at the things we’ve always taken for granted, we start to see in different ways. I walked out of town and along the river, south of all the buildings. There was copper-coloured bark, and there were trees that had been there far, far longer than anyone could really say. I sat at the edge of the shallow, narrow, slow-moving water, near to where a few birds played beneath and around a stone bridge (even man-made creations can add to the scene). The birds did play. There were two small ones (I have no idea what they were, but they moved fast and turned at impossible speeds). I watched as they skipped a few feet from the water’s surface: they flapped then dipped, flapped up, then dipped, zipped up then sheered around — all of this in erratic and totally non-efficient movements. They didn’t seem to be looking for food, or escaping from anything, or even undertaking elaborate mating dances: they seemed to be wasting their energies just because they could fly.

Of course, this is an interpretation, but I watched one of the birds (who was alone for a good five or ten minutes), and it did all the same movements over and around, and up and down, and round and round, never getting too far away, before suddenly turning hard in mid-air to dive-bomb underneath the bridge. Up again, and the whole thing repeated. Wouldn’t you do that too if you had wings?!

Up on the top of the hill, where the old Iron Age fort used to be, the start of this place way and far, far back, there is a clump of trees. The old earthworks are still heaped around the mid-drift of the site, but the wooden defences are long gone, and these trees are not the trees that used to be here, though they might as well be. I sat and just tried to listen. I write it like this because it is how it was, but I was pleased to later find, in synchronicity and serendipity, that my virtual world was offered this insight into some of the thinking of the writer Hermann Hesse (thank you Syl!):

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

Hermann Hesse, Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte
You old hippy, I can just hear some readers saying (though I know others are smiling!). I tried to listen to the trees, though they don’t speak in words we can lay down easily. Nevertheless, the trees — in their time, in their just-being-here-ness, in their just-looking-out-ness — had the play of the world in them, as did the birds and the bugs above the water, as did the shallow, narrow, slow-moving river, as did the day, the afternoon beyond the buildings: across the grasses and fields, and across the weeds and the late spring flowers, and into the middle distance trees, there are more greens in one place than we can ever really drop colours into our seeing minds . . .

This is all ‘walking and sitting and seeing and being’ therapy. We can move from positions of sobriety of spirit, of feeling pressed upon, to those of faith: we need only the time and space to walk (or to go out and find where we can walk), to see and to listen. We can know we’re not bound by the ethic of work yourself dry in ever depleting circles, attempting enforced attainment of future ‘economic unit’ status. We can see the play of the world, and we can know that it has been here far, far longer than the rhetorics of material greed and power, and that it will out-last all of this . . .

On the playground, I see children spinning slowly on the roundabout, looking up into the sky, and I don’t disturb them . . .

One day, we can hope that a Tory might get released into the wild: an epiphany could happen . . . or he or she might spend their breaths, by means and ways, trying to straighten up the trees, trying to fix the futures of their days.

The question of the how of speaking other languages about play

It occurs to me that even though we happen to be speaking the same language, we may in fact be speaking different languages altogether. That is to say, when speaking about play, it might not be the thing itself that’s the contentious issue: it might just be the language that we speak to describe it. After all, isn’t the play itself the same thing no matter which way up you hold it? What the difference is is the person doing the viewing. I’m aware that I’ve tended to come around to the same subject matters plenty of times in my writing, but that’s all fine if those subject matters can be seen from different angles. When we discuss play, there’s often a playing with words itself to do this: I’m thinking this post will be no different in that respect, but the slight tweak is the view of languages used.

A small moment of minor epiphany arrived recently when I realised that, in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. My language, in this writing on these posts, is the language of ‘this is play, for the sake of play, for the hell of it, for no developmental outcomes or other future-looking gains’, or variations of this. None of us are perfect adults, all of us are continuing the process of being and are being in our becomingness, in the here and now: there’s no reason, in my language, why children shouldn’t be viewed in the same way. We’re occupied by the same genetic material, adults and children, and many adults tend to forget that they were children once too. They’ve forgotten because they think they’re fully formed, wise, more. These are not rational assumptions to have because none of us are, or ever will be, ‘complete’. We all occupy the same streets, and we all make our way, day by day. Here ends the brief précis of this language that I’ve been speaking for a while now.

However, it seems that in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. How, though, do we talk the languages of education, law and order, health, funding, and so on, whilst maintaining the core of what we believe to be true? These are questions for the asking, not answers yet for the giving. When I’m communicating with children, either by words or by gestures, but more often than not by play, I’m speaking their language, their codes and culture. We can speak more than one language within the overall language of the shared words and actions that we use. The task then is how to translate that skill into passionate advocacy for play with other adults who, by and large, don’t usually come to play from the same angle.

‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’, as attributed to Oscar Wilde (not as commonly misquoted of George Bernard Shaw), is testament to more than the words of an actual language themselves, of course, but is also relevant in this ‘adults coming to play’ discussion: what we know is that we all view it differently, and that we speak of it in different terms — what is so obvious that it hasn’t occurred too frequently though is that we do have the ability to speak others’ languages, as difficult as this may be. Or, at least, if that proves ethically tricky, we have the capability of listening.

We’re all right, of course, though. That is, we wouldn’t position ourselves so absolutely in our ethical or principled camps if we didn’t believe that what we were saying was ‘the truth’. Is it possible that there is more than one truth? Can we really be living in a more than binary world of right/wrong? When I talk of play I talk about its here-and-now-ness, and I have great concerns about the rhetoric others use in tub-thumping with equal fervour about all things only-developmental. This is a simple binary, though I know the picture is more complicated than this in reality. Could it be that children’s play offers them something for the future too, in conjunction with the just-now-ness? Yes, of course it does. Play has many benefits. Here, though, I break from the self-imposed attempt to see things in other ways, when saying: how about others seeing that same set of words in the last few lines the other way around too?

Back to the task in hand: how to see play by speaking others’ languages of it. The present UK government, and the possible next, sees children in terms of educable entities. Of this I’m convinced, judging by the rhetoric that comes directly from politicians and indirectly via media reports of their policies and statements. How can a here-and-now play person (I deliberately avoid the ‘playworker’ term here for now) speak the language of education without diluting the core belief that play is essentially made of magic? I don’t write this frivolously: if we are all made of carbon, if we are all made of star-dust, so it is that play is something ‘other’ than we might ordinarily always see. Play, from this perspective, is glitter that we can’t catch. Here we are again, back at the esoteric, the poetic, the speaking of languages not understood.

Yet, the epiphany still stands: in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. The question is not in the ‘what’ of the words (these we can say because we have them in common anyway, of sorts), but in the ‘how’ of them. Perhaps, as ‘developed’ as we consider our adult selves to be, as ‘fully formed’, as ‘wise’, as ‘more’, we can come round to the conclusion that we can understand more of the ‘how’ by learning from children. In my experience, children often seem fairly adaptable to the how of speaking the different languages of adults around them: sure, they can co-opt adults into their own language of play to assimilate them into the nature of their thoughts, but they can also be adept at role and character mimicry, and much more than this too. Children often seem skilful at playing the language of any given adult, which may be altruistic — if there is such a thing — but which may serve their needs all the more succinctly. Maybe it’s an evolutionary trait; maybe some of us, as fully formed as we think we are, un-develop it.

A naivety of love/play as the antidote

A play story, of sorts, and of certain significance to me, tends to come back into my thinking time and time again. I may have written about this before, but I wanted to start with it again here. Every time I tell it I think it must shift a little (such is the nature of tales told), but the essence is pretty much consistent.

This is it: a few years ago, when working at a holiday scheme, a group of children and me were out on a large field, which the pavilion base building was situated at one end of. That day it rained. It bucketed down. A few brave souls stayed out for as long as they could take it, but then, eventually, everyone came indoors. Towels came out. Hair was dried. I remember sitting down on the floor in the doorway of the pavilion, looking out on the field and the rain. I was eating my sandwiches. After a short while I felt the need to look around. Behind me, quietly, a mound of soggy children were also sat down eating their sandwiches, looking out on the rain-soaked field with me. It was kind of beautiful in its own way.

I write this story because there are the most amazingly beautiful things that can happen when engaged in this line of work. I’m not even sure I consider this to even be work, if we think of work as something we’re obliged to do in order to gain something sadly necessary in return. I write this story above, to cut to the chase, because I sometimes feel more than a little frustrated with the microcosms we live in and with the ways of the world as a whole. I get run down by the petty politics we all have to wade through, by tokenistic political correctness, by the dishonesty and lack of integrity of corporate greed and managerial self-protection.

I’m not so naïve as to think that all the world’s major and minor ills are going to change by this time tomorrow; call me hopeful though that things don’t have to be the way they are. A friend of mine (someone for whom, and for whose wisdom of teachings and advice, I have the utmost regard) recently told me of her belief that, given a groundswell shift in understanding, a spontaneity of action can and will take place. If this is naïve, I want to be part of this naivety.

What has this to do with play? There are two strands I’m following here: the first is the sudden comprehension that, the play believers — evangelical us — have been chipping away at the non-believers, to a greater or lesser extent, for quite a while now and the groundswell isn’t happening yet (is our society just so skewed that it refuses to accept the play of children, whilst simultaneously ‘protecting’ them to almost fanatical extent?); the second strand here is play (in its action and in its observation) can be the antithesis, the antidote, of and for the greedy, self-obsessed, politically-warped world we struggle to swim around in.

Yesterday I was at an after school club. A couple of the younger children had poked around the edges of the space I was occupying, me trying to stay out of their way. They circled in, stood and stared with quizzical squints, and we ended up chatting. One of these younger girls soon laughed and had an urgent need to demonstrate her frogness of being (as it were)! Later, I found myself in a spontaneous episode of ‘side-scotch’ (you know, paving slabs, some hopping, a bit of falling over, and so on). ‘Why are you twisting all right round?’ I was asked. I thought about it. I didn’t know. ‘It’s just the way it is,’ I said. We went on to hop off the wall.

I’m tired of adults’ lies and manipulations: other days I have to wade through the seemingly endless flow of ‘follow these rules’, ‘fill in this form’, ‘observe this health and safety protocol’, ‘tell this to this person and not to this one’, ‘clock in here, read this, do that, tread carefully here because this team colleague will get offended if that person knows this information . . .’ Really: enough of this. Enough of ‘when will I get paid, when will you respect me, when will this petty little interaction finally disappear off its own event horizon . . .?’ That’s just this little microcosm around me. What about the petty squabbling of men out there with guns, the defendants of variously sized gods, the extent of what’s in the suit trousers of other men with non-jobs or, at least, not jobs the plebeians would have? Really: enough of this.

Yes, this naivety of love for the beautiful moments is what I subscribe to here today, these last few weeks and months, and on. I feel it and I see it, on occasion, on the faces of others passing by. The other day, I said to Gack, ‘It’s raining, do you want to go out anyway?’ We went out. After wading through a puddle he didn’t expect to be as deep as it was, later, Gack directed me to walking with him in the gutter, through the deep narrow water channel building up there. I declined but he was fine with what he was doing. A woman passed us by and she knew everything was fine too.

Earlier, Gack had chosen the park at the bottom of the road. There was no-one there but us (as there was, one bus trip later, at the park in the town centre: the one usually piled with toddlers). Gack navigated the slippery wooden structures and, as usual, investigated the ‘outdoor gym’ equipment, rarely used by anyone else as far as I can see. He sat on everything because raindrops didn’t bother him. Up the slide, we flicked drops of rain around and he laughed his (already soggy) socks off at that, for some reason. It was a moment of right there and beautifully so. He stood on a tree stump and looked up at the sodden straight tall pines around us. ‘It’s so tall.’ Later we found we could be blown down the mountain of the hill.

A few days earlier, at the weekend, I concocted lunch with a four year old and a two old balancing on stools beside me. Some bread was somehow spread. We found ourselves, more by accident than design, sat on the kitchen doorstep, looking out on the garden. The children wedged themselves in next to me and we sat and ate food from plates on our knees. We didn’t say anything for a while. Everything was just as it could only have been. We contemplated the clouds together. It was a moment of beautiful arrangement.

This is the antidote to a pernicious world.


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.

The Olympics: ritual, politics, war and play

The Olympic torch passed through my town today. Apparently. On some level – indicative to some, perhaps, that I might have too much time on my hands – the Olympic Games trouble me. Why do people get so excited about it? What are the modern Olympics really about? Is it play?

Vicky recently wrote on her blog, asking whether professional football is play or work to the footballers involved. Perhaps it all comes down to a matter of perspective. A small tangent: René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe (‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’) and the title (‘This is not a pipe’) highlights ‘perspective’ to me: the artist is drawing our attentions to the fact that this is not an ‘actual’ pipe, but the representation of one. Marcel Duchamp, I believe (although I will stand corrected if need be), said that a work is a work of art if the artist says so. So, is play ‘play’ if the player says so?

What’s all this got to do with the Olympics? I need to work back through my three questions – but, before I do that, a little history (with a sprinkling of legend).

The first Olympic festival is commonly understood to have taken place at Olympia in 776 BC. There were three other Pan-Hellenic festivals, held every two or four years, also taking place in the area at this time: the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games. Pindar, a poet from the 5th century BC, claimed that Heracles initiated the Olympic Games in celebration of his defeat of the city-state of Elis and the killing of King Augeas. Or, if you prefer mythology, Pausanias (a Greek traveller), claimed that Zeus and Cronus fought over the ownership of heaven at Olympia; Zeus won and declared the Games to take place there. We can go back further, to before the first Games: in the Iliad, Homer described the funeral of Patroclus, and such funeral rites and honouring of the dead have been linked to the origins of the first Games. From honouring the dead to killing rivals and honour of the city-state, or to contest over ownership of other-worldly realms.

So, from ritual or mythology or acts of warfare, came the first Games. At that time, in the region we now know as Greece, city-states competed with each other for power and prestige. Sparta, a city-state set up for the perfection of war-skills, was dominant. The city-state of Elis had assumed control of the Games at Olympia, but Sparta muscled in. In the resulting alliance, Sparta took on the role of ‘protector’ of the Games (a way of advertising their power and prestige), whilst Elis had control of the religious aspects.

Out of this construct and background of city-state politics and war came the idea of the ‘sacred truce’, i.e. competitors from all parts of Greece and its colonies could come to the Games even during times of war. This was the way of things for many quadrennial Olympiads. The Games at Olympia continued right up until 392 AD.

Fast forward several hundred years. It’s interesting to note that, over the course of the modern Olympics, the ‘sacred truce’ has been spoilt on several occasions: the 1916 Games were scheduled for Berlin, but World War I put paid to them; the Antwerp Games of 1920 did not include competitors from the defeated powers of the war; the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled; in London, 1948, Japan and Germany were not present; in Melbourne, 1956, Sweden, Spain, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands boycotted as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary, whilst Lebanon and Iraq withdrew over the Suez crisis; Mexico City, 1968, suffered from threatened boycotts by African and black-American countries and competitors, resulting in South Africa’s expulsion, in protest at apartheid; Munich, 1972, was marred by Palestinian terrorists’ attack on the Israeli compound;  in Montreal, 1976, African countries boycotted the Games in protest at the New Zealand football  team’s tour of South Africa; Moscow, 1980, saw protest by the United States and over 30 other countries regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in Los Angeles, in 1984, the Soviet Union and some of its allies reciprocated a withdrawal with claims of insufficient security; the 1996 Games in Atlanta were marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing; human rights activists called on the 2008 Beijing Games to be boycotted.

So, whilst the ancient ideal of the ‘sacred truce’ has been well and truly ignored in many modern Olympic Games, the old heart of the piece seems to run through it: that is, ritual, political machinations, warfare. In a word: contest.

In his book, Homo Ludens: a study of the play element [of] in culture (various editions 1938-50), Johan Huizinga claimed ‘contest’ to have the characteristic of play. ‘Like all other forms of play,’ he wrote (p.49) ‘the contest is largely devoid of purpose.’ By this he means that the contest gets enacted out, start to end, and beyond that, before and after that, the result doesn’t matter. ‘The outcome does not contribute to the necessary life-processes of the group.’

Except that the outcomes of contests such as war and sport and athletic prowess do matter: people’s reputations and honour and incomes can depend on the outcome of contests such as the modern Olympics. Yet, just like the perspective of whether something is art or not, whether some act is play or not, it only really matters to the person who’s doing it. Right? The Olympics only really, truly matter to the athlete.

So, why then do people line the streets in every town and city that the Olympic torch passes through on its way around the UK? (Or rather, an Olympic torch, a manufactured symbol with many other similar copies). Why do people get so excited about the ritual of watching a symbol pass by them for thirty seconds on the street, let alone the ritual of the Games itself?

Is it play for the spectators in the watching of the torch as it passes by? If it is play, then it’s with some irony that the play of a streaker yesterday has been brought up quickly by the legal system: ironic because the original Games were performed in the nude. That aside, is the play of the spectator the reason why the torch relay (and also the main event) is being embraced by many? If play is doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, where does the potential social obligation for watching this whole affair fit in? Of course, just because I don’t care for the Games, it doesn’t mean that others should feel the same way. I am slightly troubled by the unthinking embrace of the whole affair though: an embrace on the grounds of some form of nationalistic pride subtly being suggested to us (by the media and politicians).

Why do people get so excited about the Olympic Games? Genuine or subtle suggestion of nationalistic pride? What are the modern Olympics really about? Ritual, political machination, warfare, contest. Is it play? At some level, maybe. At another level – well, I’m not an Olympian . . .
[Historical source: Collier’s Encyclopedia]

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