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

Posts tagged ‘school’

Play, for play’s sake

The rhetoric of play as an instrumental tool is everywhere (within the limited incidence of its national discussion). It seems that politicians (if they even engage with the idea of ‘play’ at all), journalists, the majority of those who work with children in any capacity, et al, seem to be predominately fixated on outcomes, desirable goals, end product, future-fixing. Play, in this construct, is a means to an end. Play, in this formation, is an adult-manipulation. What children see is different, and it is what children see and how and why they engage in their play that should be the most important consideration when play is the subject of contemplation.

For a long while I’ve been banging this particular drum, but recently and specifically I’ve been somewhat grated by the whole affair that is the instrumental use of play in order to help ‘solve’ the ‘national obesity crisis’. The cynic in me suspects (though can’t yet substantiate) that there is no great and overwhelming desire for the health and well-being of people in the eyes of the government and other powers that be: it’s more to do with counting the beans and keeping the costs to the NHS down. I do wonder about the numbers. That is, I’m dubious about how much of a crisis this ‘crisis’ really is. I’m particularly dubious with regards to the contention that there’s a huge obesity crisis in school children.

Now, before I go further, some balancing out: yes, I have witnessed some examples of particularly overweight children in my day-to-days in various locations, and it’s fair to say that this highlights that those children exist, of course, beyond the dry spreadsheet data. I’m also aware that some areas of the country, or of particular towns, cities or rural areas, might be more prone to a greater occurrence of higher body mass index (BMI) in children (by way of all manner of complex socio-economic factors). However, having worked in some areas of recognised socio-economic ‘deprivation’, I just don’t see what the statistics are saying. (I don’t claim extensive observational evidence, of course: who could? I accept that this is a snapshot).

Could it be that, simplistically, all the obese children are indoors on their Xboxes and Playstations and not out and about playing? Well, the instrumental argument follows a simple cause and effect of ‘run around, get fit’, after all. That said, why aren’t all the underweight and, for want of an appropriate word, ‘normal’ (whatever that is) weighted children (within the acceptable BMI percentile) who play in such ways considered in that equation? i.e. not seen out and about, so must be lazy, on their way to obesity, need to be ‘fixed’. The discussion is wider than the one that often goes along the lines of: if we use play to make children fit, then there will be less obesity and people will be better for it. ‘If we use play’ is a red flag to this particular playworker.

So, this post is an entire exercise in ‘back of an envelope’ calculations and notes. (Fair warning: there will be some rough workings and plenty of scribbling of numbers). How many obese children are there actually? We get fed the message of a ‘crisis’ or an ‘obesity epidemic’ but we don’t always get the numbers to back it up. Then, when we receive some data, we get this in handy sound-bites too, without really knowing how that relates to the whole. This line of thinking struck me on reading a recent article in The Guardian entitled Obesity putting strain on NHS as weight-related admissions rise (Boseley, 2018). Apart from the article’s title feeding my cynicism re: the economic impact on the NHS, the main point of interest was the following:

Childhood obesity has not shifted very much since the school measurement programme was introduced in 2006-7. Last year [2017] 10% of children starting school in the reception year were classed as obese, a slight decrease over time.

It was number crunching time! For the purposes of balance here, Boseley does go on to add that ‘the proportion for those leaving in Year 6 for secondary school was 20%, which is a small increase.’ It’s beyond the scope of this particular post to speculate on the causes of the apparent 10-20% increase between school years R-6 (age 4 to 11 in the UK) because I’m interested in comparing observational (and albeit piecemeal) data with the statistics of younger children deemed to be obese.

Are there really such huge numbers of obese four year olds in the UK? Ten per cent screams out like a crisis. However, what are we really looking at here? Before we go any further, a quick overview of body mass index (BMI) and ‘obesity’. According to information given by, if your BMI (measured by dividing your weight in kg by your height in metres squared) is 30 or above then you’re classed as obese. If there’s an obesity crisis in children (in this study, four year olds in Reception class), another question is how much might all these children weigh to be classed as obese?

So, to the number crunching. The Department for Education (DfE) (2017) provides figures for England on school attendees (so, the start of back of an envelope workings-out if extrapolation needs doing for the UK as a whole). It states that there are, as of January 2017, some 4,689,660 children at state funded primary schools in England and that there are 16,786 state funded primary schools in this country. This gives an average of 279 children per primary school. According to the Office for National Statistics (2015), 2011 being the most up to date census, in which admittedly, all the following are closer to secondary school age now than Reception age, there were at that date some 763,851 four year olds in the UK. It doesn’t give the figures for England alone so some creative extrapolation needs to be done: suggests that, as of 2017, there were around 54.99 million people in England. Calculating, from the 2011 census, that the percentage of four year olds to the UK total population was around 1.21% (763,851 out of 63,379,787), this gives a current working figure of around 662,738 four year olds in England (yes, I’m aware that I’m working on 2011 and 2017 data sets, but it’s back of the envelope stuff, this). That is, 1.21% of 54.99 million total population of England, rather than the UK. If we divide this 662,738 by the DfE statistic of 4,689,660 children at state funded primary schools in England in 2017, we reach the figure of some 14% of primary school children being 4 year olds, i.e. Reception age. (Checking my maths is fine, and please let me know if you see an error in the calculations).

If there are 279 children per primary school on average, then 14% of this figure gives us an estimate of 39 four year olds per primary school. Citing the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) (2017), Boseley (2018) reckons on 10% of four year olds being obese. That, according to my number crunching, equates to four Reception class four year olds per primary school in England (i.e. 10% of 39 children per school). Four.

Now, as the quote goes, there are lies, damn lies and statistics, but four isn’t a crisis, is it? There are those who will, no doubt, shout out that even one is too many. Yes, if we’re talking about genuine health grounds for concern, then maybe. We should look at what BMI calculations for four year olds mean in numbers. If the average four year old is, taking into account variations for gender, around 1.05m tall (or, 3 feet 5 inches in ‘old money’) then their weight would need to be in the region of 33kg (or, around 5 stone 3lbs, because, frankly, you might as well ask me to weigh someone out in buckets of sand for all I know about how much 33kg is!) for their BMI to hit the obese classification of 30. Here’s the point: 33kg, or a little over 5 stone, is a lot for a four year old to weigh. How many of those do you actually see?

I’m still dubious after all my number crunching. There’s an extra layer of cynicism here as well though: this may well come back to bite me in some way but if playworkers jump on the ‘obesity agenda’ bandwagon to get their work funded, for example, then aren’t they falling into the trap that supports the notion that play has to be ‘for’ something, future-fixing? We know what play’s about, playworkers. We really do. If the future fixers over-ride the idea of play for play’s sake, as children know it to be, then play gets fully subsumed as a subset of sport, citizenship, social engineering and so on. Play should not be taken over by the soft- or hard-line control agenda. The agenda goes something like this: play in ‘xyz’ way because sport/fitness, or any other health agenda, will help you be healthy model citizens, you’ll be ‘responsible’ (i.e. thinking in the same way as the rest of the masses), and you won’t cost the country as much, economically or otherwise.

Play is better than this, more magical than this, more ineffable. On the rare occasion that it does manage to be uttered from the mouth of a politician, it often comes out distorted. I recently sat through forty minutes of a recorded online ministerial debate, poorly attended as it was, though at least play was nominally the subject (my apologies for not yet being able to transfer the link). It was brought up for discussion by Chris Leslie MP (Labour) and though he did bring the subject of funding for playgrounds up (so, all good there), he did bang the ‘play and obesity’ drum a little too much. I sighed, again. Still, the other fella (Conservative MP, Rishi Sunak) was playing on his phone somewhat and not giving the impression he was paying attention and thus, I suspect was the case, when his turn came he rattled off his pre-prepared speech, slipping in an attempted one-up to the Rt Hon other fella by claiming one more offspring, and then going on ad nauseum about the instrumental nature of all things play without ever mentioning play, in essence, at all (sport, fitness, yes, as I remember it, even mental health, and social cohesion, but not play).

Thus ends today’s sermon of number crunching and disconsolation at the instrumental perception of play, to the accompaniment of the banging of drums and the shrill peeping of pipes, which — being maybe in so high a pitch that very few can actually hear — keep on saying, over and over: play for play’s sake, play for play’s sake.

Or, to shift the inflection with the flick of a comma: play, for play’s sake.

Thank you to Jim Ley (see comments below) for the feedback on the difference between BMI calculations for adults and children. In the spirit of how this blog has always been written, these posts are all works in progress (playworkings in themselves) and so an addendum is required to the above writing. As Jim points out, a BMI of 30 for children would be extremely high and different figures are considered for those of a younger age. Whilst I was aware of the percentile aspect of the BMI calculations, this didn’t get relayed in my writing. So, although some of the calculations above are going to change, the argument still stands that the obese child is not, as observed, as prevalent as we’re led to believe.

Jim suggests a more ‘mid-healthy’ BMI for a child to be 15 rather than 23 for an adult and, whilst knowing where the line is crossed for obesity in an adult is said to occur (stated as 30), the calculation isn’t so clear for a child.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states that: ‘Obesity is defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex’, meaning that ‘the child’s BMI is greater than the BMI of 95% of [children] in the reference population.’

So, to return to my calculation of a 3 feet 5 inch tall (1.05m) tall four year old and using a back of the envelope BMI of 23 (assuming this to fall above the 95th percentile for this age) then that child would still need to weigh a little over 25kg (4 stone) to be classed as obese. The argument still stands.

Thank you again, Jim, for your corrections. This blog and its posts are an ongoing conversation, so I leave the original in its place with this addendum (in the spirit of showing all my workings!)

Boseley, S. (2018), Obesity putting strain on NHS as weight-related admissions rise [online]. Available from: (Accessed April 17, 2018)

Department for Education (2017), Schools, pupils and their characteristics [online]. Available from: (Accessed April 17, 2018)

Office for National Statistics (2015), 2011 census: population estimates for the UK [online]. Available from: (Accessed April 17, 2018)

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) (2017), Obesity update 2017 [online]. Available from: (Accessed April 17, 2018)


In praise of some colleagues of play

Reading through the posts and pages of this site, as I have been doing as of late, it’s occurred to me that I write a lot in praise of play, in support of children and their rights, about what those children do or how they are (it is a blog with a certain focus, after all) — in echoing A. S. Neill, of Summerhill, I am ‘on the side of the bairns’ (Neill, 1916; cited by Croall, 1983: 57), but I don’t always give as much credit where it’s due to the adults who are also focused in such a way. That is, in respect of the current thinking, I thought it high time I wrote a little about some of those who I’ve worked with, over the years, in our joint focus of working with and for the children, who I’ve either learned from, been inspired by, or just simply enjoyed working with because they enjoyed working with the children and were good at what they did.

Now, the caveat here is that I’m not looking to raise the status of playworker (or the playworking-minded) to an ego-focus (maybe, ‘raise’ isn’t the right word here) — as I’ve written elsewhere, and more than once, play (and the playground) isn’t about the playworker. What I am looking to do is to say that this person, or that person, has had a positive affect, even if they didn’t know it at the time. For this caveat above and because of privacy, I won’t mention any names: if those people read here, they’ll hopefully recognise themselves. If they don’t read here, then it’s here for anyone else, or for them if they ever find it.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason for the list I’m forming in my head, other than what I’ve already written above, so there will be omissions and that doesn’t mean that those people weren’t good either. There has to be some start process though. I don’t want to write things out in chronological order either, and nor do I wish to create some sort of hierarchy of ‘value’. I shall press the internal shuffle button and see what transpires.

This post wasn’t going to be written with the added extra of academic references, but now in the flow I can see another relevant one floating up in my mind’s eye: Hughes (2001: 172) writes about what he terms as six different ‘playwork approaches’ and the ‘quality of child/playworker relationship’ as he sees it, in each. These six approaches are broadly grouped into four degrees of relationship interaction, namely: poor (for the ‘repressive’ and ‘nosy’ approaches); better (for the ‘functional’ approach); good (for the ‘enthusiastic’ approach); high (for the ‘perceived indifferent’ and ‘controlled authentic’ approaches). For the purposes of writing about my previous play-minded colleagues, I find myself thinking about the latter three approaches of the above list. (I’m not differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘high’ quality relationships for the purposes of this writing: it’s all on a level).

I’ve worked in many places and with many people over the years, and some of those adult colleagues can easily be seen as enthusiasts (though they could spill over into taking over the play, they had their hearts in the right places and the children seemed to love having them around); some have practised, with intelligence and sophistication, that sometimes difficult skill of being acutely aware of what’s going on around them, though whilst exhibiting apparent indifference; some have been authentically engaged in support of the needs and preferences, the anxieties and just plain random strangeness of the children around them, and those children ‘know’. I’ll leave you to figure who fits where in the Hughes model. So, with the preliminaries over, onwards and onwards.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away!), I worked with a group of teenagers who (though we didn’t call ourselves playworkers at the time) were playworkers in training. I wasn’t so much older than they were myself, but it did strike me that these amazing people were worth their weight in gold. One in particular was always bright and beautiful, always focused on the play, even when she wasn’t so upbeat in herself (she found a way), and I just appreciated her energy. I’ve written about ‘grace’ a few times before, in respect of those who populate a place where children play (whether they are the children or the adults), and when she and I worked together, I felt that. Years later, in another place and in another life, I remember another colleague who, I think, is probably the most grace-full person I’ve ever worked with. She was quiet and caring, fragile in some ways, but just right, in my opinion, for those particular younger children there.

Maybe this is turning into a list of attributes for the ideal playworking person. Let’s mix it up. Zoom forwards another few years: I met a male playworker of roughly the same age as me and we were fairly chalk and cheese in many, many respects. We worked together closely, a lot, and so we had the easy ability to wind each other up: he would do it deliberately and I often took the bait! That said, I have to give it to him, when he was on form as a playworker, he was definitely on form. He had a look in his eye that told me that not only could he sense the play and the actions of the adults all around him, but that he wanted to push his luck a little more and more, just to see what would happen! He enjoyed the provoking, but he also knew the importance of play and wanted others to see it too. The children, most importantly, I think, also ‘knew’ and sensed him.

I’ve been lucky enough, over the years, to meet and work with plenty of people from various other countries (those from India, America, Finland, Sweden, France, Italy, Morocco, and Spain spring immediately to mind). Some of these people became good friends. A while back I had the good fortune to work with someone who came to England on a form of cultural exchange, and who later became a music teacher, I believe: we worked with children in forest locations and he was open to trying just about anything, and he was softly amazing with the children. In a similar vein (and if you trawl through the posts on this site, you’ll find this next person quietly amongst the words), I shall always remember the support worker who pushed a child in his specially adapted wheelchair up the steep inclines to where the forest school session was being held, and she worked with that boy and focused all her energy and attention on him without a word of personal grievance (if she had any at all). Some people just stay in the mind for simple acts, for years gone by.

A few years back, I worked with a man I had so much time and respect for, and over our years of working together he would bring me stories of his own children’s play, or he’d show me short films he’d made of them at play. It took me a little time to acclimatise to his humour, to his ways of working, to his ways of being, but when I did I realised that this man was the absolute heart and soul of the place. Many of the children loved and respected him, and he would often go out of his way to do things for them if they needed it, in difficult circumstances.

In a slight detour away from playwork colleagues, I did a short piece of work in a school once and was just struck happy by the sight of one of the teachers I was working with as she got inside a plastic barrel and interacted with the children on the level of play. It could have been perceived as inauthentic, some could say, but in that moment, with that teacher, with those children, in that place, it felt good and fine. You can often read things fairly accurately by reading the reactions of the children.

When it comes to reading skills, in the context of how I describe it above, two more playworkers come immediately to mind: together, and in overlaps of time, we developed a place for play, somewhere that the children also developed in their own fashion and for their own reasons, and we adults all needed to be very aware of what was happening, when, maybe why, and what might happen next, and so on. My colleagues were excellent readers of the place (by which I mean a combination of the built, the natural, the human, the temporal environment), and I respected their opinions, their ideas, their observations more than I think I could ever truly get across.

There are many others who have also had such positive affect on those around them (children and their families, other colleagues, me), at the time, and in time. There are those who listen without prejudice (yes, you know who you are!), and there are those who give great care. It’s not all been plain-sailing, of course: there have been ripples and great waves and everything in between in the seas of playworking interactions; that said, there’s been plenty of fire and grace, attention to detail, softness and oddness of idiosyncrasy along the way, so far.

Hughes, B. (2001), Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Neill, A. S. (1916), A dominie’s log. Herbert Jenkins (1916), Hart (1975). Cited in Croall, J. (1983), Neill of Summerhill: the permanent rebel. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Children’s rights and being wronged

Following hard on the heels of an article written recently in The Guardian by Susanna Rustin (Votes at 16, yes. But children need more rights than that), I also came across another thoughtful post by Michael Rosen, who seems to write wisely and consistently about children, in his article in the same publication entitled Dear Damian Hinds [Education Secretary], Ofsted forgets our four-year-olds are not GCSE apprentices. I’d been collecting links to write an entirely different post over the past few weeks, but these two offerings above coalesced my thinking into writing on children’s rights: always a worthy subject matter, in my opinion.

Rustin’s article begins with the Welsh government’s plans to reduce the age for voting to sixteen in local elections, as is permitted to those of this age in Scotland. She goes on to discuss the significant lack of concern at governmental level in England for children’s rights — though we should ignore the tired reference that is ‘Reach for a utopian vision of liberated children in charge of their destinies and you bump up against William Golding’s dystopian Lord of the Flies’ (no doubt included for the sake of journalistic balance). Notwithstanding this inadvertent stoking of the anti-rights flames, Rustin is at pains to point out that children get a raw deal in England (the Welsh government have, for a long time now, been so much more advanced in their thinking towards those people in our society who just happen to be of or below the age to still attend school).

Michael Rosen writes of the school years with a cogent regard for children and their overall experience. His article highlights Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report which, in his words, ‘assumes that the most important thing about four-year-olds is that they need to be pump-primed for what’s going to happen next.’ In other words, more future-focused work, less play. In such a short piece, Rosen packs his writing with a lot of sense. He writes (in the form of an open letter to the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds):

Schooling has been increasingly built around the idea that a proportion of children are ‘falling behind’. There are ‘falling behind’ tables . . . the report holds out, in the midst of setting and streaming, a no-one-falling-behind future. Perhaps you will acquire the special powers to prevent anyone from falling behind anyone else.

Rosen also quotes from Bold Beginnings:

‘[L]istening to stories, poems and rhymes fed children’s imagination’ and ‘[S]ome headteachers did not believe in the notion of ‘free play’. They viewed playing without boundaries as too rosy and unrealistic a view of childhood.’

He concludes this with the following:

It’s not clear why ‘imagination’ is self-evidently good, while ‘free play’ is ‘unrealistic’. Anyone who has spent any time thinking and writing about such things could as easily claim that ‘imagination’ is ‘unrealistic’ and ‘free play’ is self-evidently good.

The child’s right to play continues to be steadily and not so stealthily eroded. Many adults seem to want or need to create subsets of play (‘free play’, as opposed to the seemingly more valuable ‘structured play’ or any derivation thereof that suggests ‘solid’ and ‘useful’ outcomes — learning, citizenship, social responsibility, moral fibre, etc.) and, by extension, ‘free play’ (whatever that transpires to be) is just a frivolous luxury. Regular readers of this blog know that the perspective here is that this ‘frivolous luxury’ is very far from the lived experience of play for children.

How do or could we know this? Considered observation and reflection is always a good starting point, but we can also open our minds and opinions by actively listening to the children around us and to providing real opportunities to canvas opinion. Rustin touches on this area of thinking in her writing on giving the vote to sixteen year olds (though the argument can also be used for younger school-goers too). Regarding real consultation with children, she writes: ‘When did an education secretary, for example, last seek children’s views on the national curriculum?’

It is interesting to note, in a gallows humour kind of way, the stream of anti-rights comments that filters through the public opinion boards of Rustin’s article. There seems to be the dominant idea in the comments to her article that children — using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) definition of someone under the age of 18 — aren’t ‘fully developed’, have little to no critical thinking and analysis skills, have limited life experience, and so on, and therefore cannot possibly be trusted to make important decisions as suggested by the right to vote. Where to start here? It isn’t the fault of someone of a young age that they’re of a young age, but I have had countless conversations over the years with UNCRC-defined-as children on all sorts of topics of interest and a lot of it has been thought-provoking to say the least.

In theory, the UK subscribes to the UNCRC (ratified in 1991) and there are at least two articles contained therein that are enshrined in the thinking, actions and conversations of any self-respecting playworker, these being: Article 12, paraphrased, children’s right to an opinion about matters that concern them, and Article 31, children’s right to play (although this needed a further General Comment 17 to clarify matters, Article 31 being caught up in leisure and relaxation as it also is). As an aside, and as I understand it, there is only one country currently not to sign up to the UNCRC (and this may take further research but I believe it’s down to the concern for parents’ rights), and that is the USA. In theory, the UK subscribes to the UNCRC but precious little ‘real’ consultation takes place, as per Article 12, and though of course play does and shall always happen, it’s really adult attitudes towards play that need to be addressed so that a better offer can be made as a matter of course, not luxury, and as linked to Article 31.

Children expressing an opinion should not be a tick-box exercise. I have been to many schools or places designated as for play, as Rustin also alludes to in her article, where the UNCRC information is pasted on the walls, and I have observed or been part of plenty of consultations with children, but sometimes the efforts strike me as disingenuous. Children can work out the size and shape of things fairly quickly and they can play the game: they might write or say what the adult wants or needs to hear, but in their own time and on their own terms, they’ll express entirely different opinions. I’ve seen and heard this first hand. I continue to see it happening. Children aren’t stupid.

Where many adults have a need to create subsets of play, children will play in all their in-between time. Some adults find this disagreeable, unfocused, superficial, not towards any given ends. Children will play anywhere and everywhere, if that place is conducive to what they want to play and how they want to play. Children will play at any time, for the same reasons. So in trying to exercise their right to play (whether they know about the UNCRC or not), or in just getting on with what they are, as biological creatures, pre-disposed to do, i.e. play, children will play first thing in the morning and late at night, at meal times, at any given moment in the street going from destination to destination, in classes, waiting for the bus, brushing their teeth, going to the toilet, waiting in line, and all other instances which adults also do in their day-to-days and which, for those adults, are mundane necessities. Yet, this play of the children is not seen as play, often: it’s disruptive, unfocused, impacting on the adult who wants or needs to be somewhere, and so on.

I’m not proposing that all adults (whether they be parents, teachers, or anyone involved with working with or just passing by children) just give up the ghost and do whatever the children want whenever they want to (this is where I usually have people citing Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and ‘oh, but there’ll be anarchy, and we can’t have that’, and I’m frankly bored of that now): conversation, relating, intuition, and understanding are all needed in a properly functioning and diversely populated aggregation of people, which just so happens to include ‘x’ many children, who have their own opinions, feelings, experiences and ideas too.

If our legislation bestows rights on individuals and groups of people in our society, then those rights should be properly served. Children, in England at least — not served by a devolved government — seem to have paper rights that aren’t always properly provided for in the real world: the powers that be in Westminster, for example, have difficulty understanding that such small creatures called children could express valid points of view and that they tend towards something they know, as lived experience, as ‘play’ (four-letter word as that is, to some).

Anti-system connections

In stepping back to analyse recent events in our lives, sometimes strangely fluid — if not entirely lucid — patterns start to show themselves. I don’t know if there’s been a subconscious pull towards certain reading matter as of late, or if other mystic forces are at play (no, I don’t believe in deities), but a majority of what I’ve picked up and read lately seems to be blaring and reflecting back at me my recent concerns of ‘playworker as anti-system’. I’ll explain in due course. Perhaps it’s all a form of ‘confirmation bias’ kicking in: this idea that plenty of what I’m reading at the moment is holding up a placard emblazoned with ‘See? You’re right.’ Or, at least, current reading material feeds neatly and accidentally into the conversation.

The basic concern has been going something like this: given that, for playworkers (true playworkers, whatever they might be), advocacy for children’s right to play is right up there in the echelons of highest regard, is it actually as straightforward as this? That is, really, aren’t those tub-thumping, breast-beating, right-on, never-lie-down playworkers actually fighting for play and for children more because they, the playworkers, are anti-system? Children are fundamentally anti-system, aren’t they? (Or, in their natural state, before the onslaught of the whole system we live in has weighed them down and into subservience and submission, they are). Aren’t playworkers then just fighting with kindred spirits against a common enemy? Are playworkers more about the fight, the cause, than they are about the rights of the community of recalcitrants?

Children are recalcitrants, as are playworkers. They kick against the system. Even so, I’m troubled further still in the thinking because it’s one thing mixing things up a bit and quite another being a heretic. Sure, plenty of playworkers have to ‘play the game’, or approximations of it, to get things done, but deep down in those playworkers I suspect that there’s some inner being racking up all the hard-won points against ‘the system’, even in those who wear the ‘normalest’ masks to play that game. This is a moment at the end of a paragraph for any playwork readers here to pause and reflect and be honest with themselves, to test out what I’m saying . . .

In my recent reading (which has been fairly spread and, as far as I’m consciously aware, not seeking out material to support the anti-system thinking), I was perusing posts I’ve missed from the various pages of Arthur Battram’s blog and found this, by chance: Thinking in Systems, in which he highlights the writing of Donella H. Meadows via the Creative Systems website (link via link above) . . .

‘So, what is a system? A system is a set of things — people, cells, molecules, or whatever — interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.

‘A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something. We can’t impose our will on a system . . .’

Though we do try to impose our wills, this definition seems to me to describe ‘the system’ we live in: that is, the countless policies, procedures, rules, protocols, propaganda, bureaucracies and insidious expediency of containment that all serve to suppress and drain us all into submission. Too much, too strong? When we think it out, we know we’re being caged but we often let it slide because, well, we have our wide screen TVs and our broadband and our all-branded products of every other flavour. Couldn’t it all just be worse?

Children are suppressed by the system in all manner of creative and inelegant ways: they rarely have a real say in things that affect them; they’re seen as adults-in-waiting and all that that entails; adults weigh on them in schools, in what passes as their non-school-non-work time, in their play, in how they’re meant to be and act and think and see and do and what they should and shouldn’t say, and . . . it goes on and on. It isn’t any wonder that they push back when they can (if they haven’t been pushed under too longer already). I’ve read similar or linked things in different texts this week (and I don’t know now if it’s a subconscious or a conscious seeking out):

Chance led me to an excellent book by an author I’d not heard of before. Jay Griffiths wrote Kith: the Riddle of the Childscape (2013) and I have every need to write further about her writing at some time in the near future. For now though (difficult though it is to pull out just one good quote), I offer up the following:

‘. . . children loathe puritanism [sic] and they flock to those who bust the fences of convention: they are spellbound by the unrestricted adults . . .’

— Griffiths (2013: 97)

Carol Black writes at her A Thousand Rivers essays site:

‘We [relating to American culture] focus on our children directly and tell them exactly what we want them to know, where in many other societies adults expect children to observe their elders closely and follow their example voluntarily. We control and direct and measure our children’s learning in excruciating detail, where many other societies assume children will learn at their own pace and don’t feel it necessary or appropriate to control their everyday activities and choices. In other words, what we take for granted as a ‘normal’ learning environment is not at all normal to millions of people around the world.

‘. . . the subculture of American institutional schooling . . . makes increasingly rigid demands on very young children and suppresses more and more of their natural energies and inclinations . . . Traits that would be valued in the larger American society — energy, creativity, independence — will get you into trouble in the classroom.’

Children buck against the system because it’s in their nature to. It’s also a reaction on their part, which is well-put by Teacher Tom, again highlighted via Arthur’s blog:

‘I fear [in some American schools, the approach of] make those schools even less free: even more like prisons . . . no-one will think to consider that the children’s behaviour is a natural and predictable response to the cage in which they are forced to spend their days.’

Confirmation bias at play or actual reality, children are anti-system, I believe. For similar reasons, so too are playworkers. I’ve met enough to know that there’s a general disdain (that’s too mild!) for all the countless pointless weight of procedure, propaganda, bureaucracy, containment and, overall, inauthenticity out there. Who or what are playworkers really fighting for?

I came away from a soulless meeting this week, in which I was contained in a room with two other adults and we just went through a mechanic, robotic, charade of interactions, and I walked home feeling plenty weighed upon. I had my head down; I was minding my own business. Then the universe (or whatever mystic forces happened to pop into existence around me at that time) conspired to brighten everything: confirmation bias or not, whatever the case, I passed a woman and a small child of about three years of age. I don’t know this child and can’t think of anywhere that I might have met her. She caught my eye as I passed, and she smiled and waved at me. As I’ve said and written many, many times before, children just seem to ‘get’ certain adults. In such moments, there’s an authenticity very much at play.

On approaches to play

Having recently completed some study on a psychotherapist’s perspective on- and engagement with- play, and having written a piece for a journal on what I discovered, my production editor contacted me to ask me to firm up one of my references. I’d fallen into the trap of quoting a well-worn offering, familiar to many play and playwork readers, and I’d not pinpointed the page of the original text, needing to flesh out my secondary reference. These oversights, because of the often-used quote, led me on a bit of an academic hunt which, in the fullness of time, has led me to the impetus to write today (ultimately — we’ll get there soon enough) on ‘play and learning’.

The page number I was asked to provide, and which I needed to trace, was for our old friend, the psychologist Mr. Jerome S. Bruner. It’s for the quote that goes:

‘Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity.’

— Bruner (1977: v)

It was the (v), or page five, of Bruner’s writing in the introduction of Tizard and Harvey’s (1977) The biology of play that I was looking for. Not being able to lay my hands on a copy of the Tizard and Harvey book, I had to source a copy of Janet R. Moyles’ (1989) Just playing?. This book, the author of which is an educationalist, is the one that’s referenced, regarding the Bruner quote, in the National Playing Fields Association’s (2000) Best play. There’s a trail that needed following here, and the secondary reference was the closest I could get. There though, in Moyles, was the all-important page number. (Here it is above, for anyone who may also be looking for it).

Linking to all of this, I’d just come back from a gathering of play, playwork and playworking (that is, as I define it, relating to the ‘attitude’) types in Bristol: playworkers and non-playworkers alike. One of the messages that seemed to strike a chord with a fair few people, from the conversations that took place, was a need for us (playwork people) to connect with our ‘allies’ who aren’t necessarily in the playwork field. I don’t take this as a call to battle, but as a call to realise that there are or may be crossovers in the great Venn diagram of common causes of those who work with, for, in support of, for the needs of, etc., children.

So, having just delved deeply into the writing of a psychotherapist in her perspectives on play, I thought it high time I actually read Moyles’ book: Moyles being described in the biographical notes as a Professor of Education. I think it’s fair to say that, if we (playworkers) stand back for a few moments, really stand back, we might just see ourselves as a group of relatively right-on lefties, eschewing everything that’s deemed ‘normal’ in society because the recalcitrance of play is the ‘real normal’ which no-one else but us and children can see. We pride ourselves on occupying a special place, and some espouse the thinking that our goal should be to work to a point that we’re no longer needed, to do ourselves out of work (I never fully bought into that, but I can appreciate the sentiment). If we stand back for a few moments, really stand back, who are we trying to kid? Do we need to climb out of our bubbles?

In Bristol, when talking about young men disaffected and disillusioned by unemployment in the Midlands, Simon Rix said a few words in particular that have just stuck with me: ‘What am I for?’ This can be taken, as I write, in the context of those young disillusioned men in their community, in the context of the playworker in reflection on themselves, and in the context of sewing up the threads of this post so far (Bruner’s play as an approach to action, the suggestion of connecting with non-playwork allies on thinking about play, reading on play in terms of psychotherapy and education) . . . ‘What is play for?’

Here I am in my thinking. When we read a work of fiction, we have to try to disconnect from our view of the world as we know it (that whole suspension of disbelief mechanism that must prevail if we’re to fully immerse ourselves in that fiction). To a certain extent, I suppose, we also have to do this when reading academic texts which, on the face of it, don’t tally neatly with our own worldviews. There can come a point, however, when that whole fragile suspension starts to fracture. For me, this came about around page 56 or so of Moyles’ Just playing?.

She’s writing from a specific perspective, the educationalist, it must be kept in mind, and she seems to have a genuine desire for the educational well-being of the children she writes about, but . . . poor play in this book: it’s nothing but a means to an end. I haven’t ever seen ‘play as process’ as meaning something akin to ‘steps in order to achieve a goal’ before, as is apparently proper to the dictionary definitions, as this book seems to define it (despite Moyles’ championing of ‘free play’ — whatever that is, because I do wonder if play is only play when it’s ‘free’, as opposed to Moyles’ teacher-conceptualised ‘directed play’, which surely can’t be seen as ‘play’, really, can it? Those right-on leftie playworkers are getting all purist again!). Poor play is a means to an end here and my suspension of the playworker worldview kind of fractured at or about the following point, in which Moyles writes (in relation to children solving problems through play):

‘Vandenberg (1986) sees children’s play as a potentially valuable natural resource that can be used to develop creative individuals who will be the source of technological innovation so necessary for our economic survival, suggesting the use of children’s play as the foundation for meeting society’s future demands . . .’

— Moyles (1989: 56)

I read on, nevertheless, though I was troubled and, twenty pages or so later, my faith in allies was wavering more with the following (in relation to children and creativity):

‘Pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have is essential if learning within the school context is to be appropriately tailored to children’s development and needs.’

— Moyles (1989: 77)

My discomfort lies in the feel of soft and hard control, depending on the circumstances, perceived as inherent in the act of teaching, as described. Yes, there are some damn fine teachers out there, I’m sure — standard caveat — teachers who care and are good at what they do and who are loved by the children they teach; however, this writing is rather geared towards the ‘use of play’, the idea, than the individual who attempts to slot it into their metaphorical toolkit.

I’m not sure how much people believe me, or hear me, when I repeat my thinking that learning has a habit of coming from play, sure, but that children, by and large, don’t go into their play specifically to learn. Children might go into their play ‘just to play’, to ‘muck about’, to ‘cock about’, to ‘be daft’, to ‘get away from stuff’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘go mad’, or any number of reasons, including to ‘find out’. There is, however, a qualitative difference, I suggest, between ‘finding out’ and ‘learning’, in the context of everything above: one is self-initiated, self-motivated; the other is imposed, albeit potentially or actually with good intentions. Children might find out stuff via their play, but they do it on their own terms. The idea of ‘using play’ in ‘pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have’ is a little troublesome.

Notwithstanding anything else that Bruner may or may not have thought and written, and taking his often-quoted line initially at face value, play is an approach to action, not a form of activity. What is play for? Play is for now — Kilvington and Wood (2010) read Bruner’s line as ‘it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that makes it play’, and it is to this interpretation rather than Moyles’ presumed connection of ‘approach’ with process towards a goal/product — ‘play must be viewed as a process’ (Moyles, 1989: 11) — that I gravitate.

When I teach (adults) in the on-going pursuit of ways of seeing play, I don’t now go out to deny that learning can come of that play. I’m comfortable with the idea that here are resources, here is ‘play stuff’, and what comes of it is what the children make of it, and what comes of it may be something they didn’t know before. Children’s ‘needs’ aren’t, however, necessarily always those that adults think they are. Children may well not go into their play with the thinking that adults suppose they should have (‘caring and sharing’, for example), and they don’t necessarily have the will to be impressed upon by what adults consider important learning opportunities.

At home recently, Princess K. and Viking Boy have had sudden urges to work out how to make and shoot longbows from flexing stripped-off branches and lengths of elastic, with thin garden cane as arrows; they’ve wanted to talk about tsunamis and earthquakes, and make ‘how to’ lists of their own devising for paper maché and squeezing orange juice. This playworking me has only provided the spark, unintentionally, for some pieces of this, pre-planning none of these experiences, trying to read the unfolding situation, staying in or stepping out of the way, as needed (sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding): working with play, not perceiving it as ‘using play’.

I am mindful here of the isolationist, holier-than-thou stance that a group of playworkers, or a playworker, or those of a playworking disposition can be seen to operate with (though I also read the same in Moyles’ treatment of the perceived-as necessariness of an educationalist). There may well be ‘allies’ in other related fields, but we shall have to agree to meet more in the middle (or, at least, get as far as possible into individual examples of one another’s respective literature bases first, before the suspension of disbelief fractures). Is the literature of playworkers wide enough? Likewise, is there enough breadth in the literature of the educationists, the psychotherapists . . .? How much crossover is, or should there, be?

(The study and discussion on) play is an (on-going) approach to action.

Bruner, J. S. (1977), Introduction, in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Spastics International Medical Publications. Cited in Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 11). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork: for all who work with children (p. 18). London: Continuum.

Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

National Playing Fields Association (NPFA) (2000), Best play: what play provision should do for children (p. 6). London: NPFA.

Vandenberg, B. (1986), Mere child’s play, in Blanchard, K. (Ed.), The many faces of play. The Association of the Anthropological Study of Play, Vol. 9. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics. Cited in: Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 56). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Engaging with mythic material in the play

Back in September, I told the story of telling a story about mermaids. It was a way into writing about ‘myth-narratives’ and ‘oral histories’, which our modern selves may well have forgotten all about in our technological, world-unconnected modern ways. I have a tendency to return to favourite themes and ideas, and so I find myself thinking this week about oral histories and stories, not this time of mermaids, but of Vikings.

Princess K., at home in September, wasn’t too perturbed by my suggestion that mermaids don’t exist. Her younger brother is also sucking up everything he can about the ‘real stories’ I can tell him. He has the moniker here of ‘Dino Boy’ because that’s what he was into when he was younger. Now, having passed into his Marvel Comics ‘Superheroes’ stage (with a particular focus on Hulk and Thor), he wants to know all about the Vikings. He seems to like the blood and guts of it. A while back I told the children the legend of Beowulf (with as much gore as I could paste into it!). Now, we’re onto stories of Ivárr the Boneless, and by extension (hopping around in time), King Alfred, and the like.

I don’t know too many Ivárr the Boneless stories, but we’ve both latched onto this character as someone of great villainous potential. Viking Boy, as I may have to now call him here, stops me every so often, mid-story, or when I’ve reached a natural pause, to ask, ‘So, who are the Goodies and who are the Baddies?’ Things seem to be so binary in this four-year-old’s world. Maybe that’s a result of modern televisual renditions of older stories. Maybe it’s a modern sign of the times. Occasionally I answer him by saying, ‘Well, who the Goodies and the Baddies are kind of depends on which side you’re on?’ but I don’t think he really gets the significance of this. So, for all intents and purposes, King Alfred is the ‘Goodie’ here, and any given Viking is the ‘Baddie’.

Just like stories of mermaids, stories of Vikings are important. As I inferred in September, we risk losing the richness of traditional tales if we stop telling them. Why tell stories of Vikings if we’re not ‘Viking’ ourselves? Well, as I said to Viking Boy when he asked me ‘are there any Vikings now?’, where we live (that is, England) we might all be a bit Viking. The mechanics of descendancy may also have passed him over.

In our stories, I’ve told how King Alfred fought the Vikings, and how he ran away to the marshlands of Somerset. Viking Boy knows now how King Alfred was supposed to have burned the cakes there. He’s listened to speculations on why Ivárr the Boneless was ‘boneless’, and sucked up everything I know about the Danelaw and the division of the north and the south, longships, the legend of King Cnut, Viking swords, and Jorvik, embellished in places, of course, with plenty of blood and guts in waves of early Viking raids. There’ll be more to tell.

A few weeks back, I got into drawing the battles with him. He watched closely at first, his face pressed near to the paper where I was telling the story as I lined up Alfred’s men against some unnamed Vikings. Viking Boy named the Vikings: there was Jeff the Viking, Jeff the Boneless, Andy the Boneless, and — for some strange and so far unfathomable reason — Locust the Viking! Then he laid into the men of both sides with felt tip pen, which was the blood and guts and gore. We had a similar battle, later, and later in history, with Harold’s men against the Normans (‘sort of Vikings’, being the only way I could describe descendancy) on the fields at what came to be known as Senlac, being better known as the Battle of Hastings. Viking Boy confused his own history at this point, but we still needed to go into graphic and particular detail on the legend of Harold’s gory demise (possibly, in a four-year-old’s head, due to the archers of Ivárr the Boneless: this adult listener forgiving the mash-up of a horde of time travelling Vikings!).

I think we’re still a little way from being able to mutually agree on what is legend, alleged history, and what is ‘truth’; Viking Boy has a binary mindset when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and when it comes to ‘made up’ and ‘real’. To him, it seems, the stories are ‘real’ if I tell them and if, when he asks ‘is this true?’, I tell him yes. I make room in the answer for the potential for alleged legend, but just like another strapline (Marvel’s Spiderman), with great power comes great responsibility! With story-telling comes great responsibility. Viking Boy looks at me with wide eyes, sucking up the ‘truth’ of what I say.

Later, when we drive past one of the old stone gates out of town, he pipes up from the back seat, asking what that’s about. It leads me into a story of King Alfred and his fortified burhs. Viking Boy listens carefully. Every so often, when we talk about the time we went to the cathedral, he brings up the story of all the kings there and ‘can we see the bones all mixed up in the boxes?’ because these are the stories I’ve given him. Stories get absorbed. When he runs into the room brandishing two thick cardboard tubes, jumping in front of me, proffering me one of them with a ready stance, he says ‘Can we play fight?’ (he leaves a small gap between the ‘play’ and the ‘fight’). Sometimes he follows this with a ‘You be the Goodie and I’ll be the Baddie’; sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s no in between, and he’ll often whack me on the knuckles as soon as I’m weaponised, or he’ll bundle in with his feet and arms waving: sometimes there’ll be a flying jump and no apparent plan regarding a landing strategy (other than maximum ‘enemy’ damage). ‘Do you know? Do you know?’ he sometimes says in a pause in the attack, ‘You be Alfred, and I be the Viking.’ I suppose that means he’s the Baddie again.

Stories get sucked up and played out. Is this playworking? I don’t know, though there is the engaging with the play material of the child in it; is this teaching? Perhaps — there is the engaging with the factual (and mythic) material, as requested by the child, in it. I don’t know if Vikings are on the syllabus of the national curriculum, but if they are (or, when they are), I’d like to know how that goes for Viking Boy’s teachers. Maybe he’ll have moved on further in his absorption needs by then.

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.

Berlin sites given over for play, and considerations of urban public space use

During a recent trip to Berlin, Germany, I met old friends and submerged myself on the tourist trail (along which I readily engaged in what an old architecture school tutor used to call the obligatory ‘Kodak Spots’ — photographing the well-known places then moving on: Brandenburg Gate, what remains of the Berlin Wall, the site of Checkpoint Charlie); as I went though, I also felt a need to take passing photos of various playgrounds. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this documenting, as ad hoc as it was, or what conclusions I might draw from it. I’ve now had a little time to sit on it all and think it over a little.

When we pass by places set by for children to play or be in, we should trust that voice inside us that may tell us what we might feel like as a child in that place ourselves. Adults of the world too often dismiss the world of the child, and in so doing they forget about themselves: that is, they forget about the fact that they were once a child too. It wouldn’t do any harm to see the world through children’s eyes a little more. A good way to start is to look at the world through the eyes of the child that you were yourself.

As such, without any great in-the-moment analysis, my latent child’s interest in places set by for play was taken a couple of times in Berlin, for different reasons, although there were also occasions of the opposite happening too. It seems that this latter disaffection, created by a general adult disposition towards how to cater for children in the urban environment, is played out across many cities and countries.

Berlin Playground 1

Pockets of space are given over, sure, but it sometimes feels squeezed in, thought of after the buildings. The positive spin on this is at least there are pockets of space given over. There are questions of functional necessities (such as high fences for football pitches) . . .

Berlin Playground 2

. . . but when is a ‘pitch’ actually a ‘pitch’, and why do some function elements have to be so reminiscent of keeping ‘dangerous individuals’ (that is, here, children) away from the good and law-abiding others? I don’t know what the blobby dinosaur shapes are all about here, but maybe they’re intended to soften the blow of all of the above.

Fences and other means of protecting ‘defensible space’ are worth continued consideration in regard to play and urban environments. In 2012, on a study tour of Malmö and Stockholm, Sweden, we learned about the Swedish concept of ‘Allemansrätt’ (the right to roam) and a general lack of need for fences to divide areas. In Berlin, thinking on fences must have filtered through my photographic snapshots:

Berlin Playground 3

A lack of fences is all very well, but what the ground contains is also due some consideration.

Similarly, the surrounding environs of places given over to play (squeezed in, or ‘at least they are there’ spins, whichever you prefer) are also due some thought:

Berlin Playground 4

All cities seem to be forever changing themselves, turning themselves continuously inside-out in the building and re-building, but what then happens is little pieces of the city (and little pieces of the populace, e.g. children) get either marginalised or they cling on bloody-mindedly in amongst it all.

Where my latent child was stimulated somewhat in Berlin was in the chance discovery of a playground structure of some novelty to me:

Berlin Playground 5

Berlin Playground 6

Berlin Playground 7

Berlin Playground 8

My in-the-moment thinking was what it might be like to be up on these odd rubber walkways, but my adult analysis also kicked in when observing a lack of barriers above the UK fall height of two metres. I’ve only just noticed that there’s a child in one of these pictures looking out over the edge.

Novelty might only last so long, by definition, but the initial catching of attention could be a factor in design of fixed play equipment. A playground house caught my attention briefly, somewhere in Schöneberg perhaps, but I wouldn’t have played or at least stayed here long as a child:

Berlin Playground 9

Near Winterfeldtplatz we discovered what we read to be a school:

Berlin Playground 10

Berlin Playground 11

Here, it seems, is some form of fusion of thoughts on this latent child’s in-the-moment stimulus, fencing and defensible space, and considerations of the child in the city. As a child here I would probably have hid myself in amongst the trees, just to watch out and see! I was taken, in my relaxed state, by the design of the fences (which were, admittedly, still fences marking boundaries of areas in un-Swedish-like ways), replicating the landscape somewhat. The place felt, in the immediacy, more tangible to a human-ness of experiencing the world than many of the stark concrete blocks of the former East Berlin and the grandiose town houses of the former West of the city.

Berlin, in these snapshots, demarcates children’s useable/allowed space from that of the adults in the same way that probably every other city in the world does, though there are instances of novelty and stimulus to be found. What would be truly inspiring, however, is if the adult populace of cities (being the ones who currently exert formalised control over such things as urban planning) worked more towards acceptance of the blending of spatial needs: those of children as well as adults. Yes, this is somewhat Utopian but not impossible.

This is not to say that children aren’t being given the opportunity to play out there in the world at all (sitting in a pub at a busy intersection in Shepherd’s Bush, London, whilst the circus are camped out on the Green, on a late sunny afternoon during a school holiday, observing all the play between the roads and the circus fence, goes some way to showing this, though those children are still ‘hemmed in’ to a degree): what this all is to say is that tolerance of play should be the norm, not the exception; that children squeezed in to spaces between buildings, fenced off from the city for reasons of corralling, is disingenuous to the popular refrain of ‘putting children first’.

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 . . .

The simple complexity of children behind fences

A while ago my work took me to a few of those ‘maximum security’ schools: you know the type — those with the fifteen feet high fences and slowly sliding sky-high entrance panels (‘door’ isn’t the most appropriate word here); or those with three levels of entrance stage, through narrow chain-linked spaces with no immediately visible ways of getting back out once the door behind has shut clicked closed (like descending into the realms of lower Earth, or like a progressively demonic trial by increasingly impossible inquisition towards eventual and inevitable doom!)

All melodrama aside, it reminded me of the simple question that’s often nagged me when it comes to fences around schools and designated places for play: are the fences to keep security threats out, or are they to keep the children in?

Maybe the easy answer is to say that it’s a bit of both really. This, however, throws up deeper questions: why do we, as a society, feel the need to imprison children behind such fences in the name of ‘security’?; why do we feel the need to ear-mark small parcels of land where play is deemed ‘acceptable’, but only there?

When it comes to the first question, I make a starting point of referring to Tim Gill’s book No fear: growing up in a risk averse society (2007). In it, Gill states (p.49):

Home Office data . . . gives the numbers and ages of murder victims, aged under 16 years, killed by strangers in England and Wales for each year between 1995 and 2004/5. It shows that in 1995 not a single child between 5 and 11 was killed by a stranger. By contrast, in 2002/3 four children of primary school age were killed by a stranger. But there is no trend: in each of the two years following 2002/3 there was just one case. The annual figure changes randomly throughout the 11-year period.

In fact, the figures have been at around their current level for decades. Precisely because the crime is so rare, it can be stated with near certainty that there are no more predatory child killers at large today than there were in 1990 or 1975. These statistics categorically refute the dominant media message that dangerous, predatory strangers represent a significant or growing threat to children.

As Gill goes on to state, despite this extremely low percentage of cases, this is still no consolation to the parents of those children who are the victims, and this should of course be borne in mind. However, the over-riding personal feeling towards the barricading of children behind fences is that the society that we live in would rather that they be conveniently corralled for the benefit of the adults in that society (for adults’ comfort, reduction of anxiety, and so forth), yet the emotive concern of ‘children’s security’ will always win out and acts as a kind of smokescreen.

Children’s security is important, but what needs to be addressed is adults’ attitudes towards children in order for children to be better off. That is to say, a better general acceptance that children are part of that society, have opinions and expressions, are human beings even (and I don’t think I exaggerate here too much regarding some adults’ attitudes towards children!) — all of this will contribute to a richer way of living for all.

Two contrasting examples of physically defined space, regarding ways in which children and adults co-exist, can be drawn from personal experiences in Sweden and London. Whilst Sweden undoubtedly has its social problems, like every other country, a notable personal experience was the oft-repeated story of a visit to a school in Malmö, where the boundary between the school playground and the public grass was a line of trees with a playable dirt space beneath (no fence in sight); in contrast (and apart from the obvious examples of maximum security schools to be found in many towns and cities in the UK), there’s an odd little arrangement of designated play areas taking place on Shepherd’s Bush Green in West London. On both sides of one of the footpaths through the Green, there’s a designated fixed equipment play area, each with an admittedly low fence surrounding them. What always strikes me when I walk along this path is that I’m bisecting two separated groups of playing children, hemmed in by fences, on an otherwise wide and open public green space.

Why are the fences there? I can only conclude that it’s to keep the children in. Perhaps the psychological aspect of ‘defensible space’ ought really to be added in to the mix here though. That is, as picked up from my long-lost days at architecture school and the study of public and private space (e.g. the streets on which we live), there’s often a physical ‘barrier’ that marks the limits of our land (the end of our gardens, front or back), though this might not even be a fence — it could just be a line where the grass stops. It is, however, still a psychological barrier other people are often reluctant to cross, or it’s a line we expect others not to go over because this space is our space, and the street is all of our space.

Is the low, barred fence around many designated places for play also a barrier signifying the ‘defensible space’ of children? Would children choose to ring their play places with fences if they were designing them themselves?

Perhaps sometimes children do feel safer when behind the fences of school or the playgrounds they frequent, embedded as the latter often are in otherwise wide or open public space. Perhaps, though, in modern UK society’s fixation with security at all costs, these children know no different and blindly accept the fence (similar to the alarming trend of forgetting the art of handwriting or reading a real book because touch- and slide-screen technology is rendering these things obsolete, but that’s another story). Children now may just never have experienced play without fences, or play without the hovering adult, or play that hasn’t been channelled by a society fearful or anxious or just plain annoyed by it . . . Let us box our children in containable units, just as we box our consumer-society products. We do live in a convenience world, after all. What was the Dead Kennedy’s comment all those years ago? Give me convenience or give me death. There we go: melodrama again!

I admit that the playground where I work has a high fence around it. I didn’t put it there. I look at it some days, before the children have arrived or after they’ve gone: I try to work out what I feel about it. Some days it has its purpose: it encloses a sanctuary where the man screaming at the traffic warden in the street just beyond can’t overspill his angst into the ‘children’s space’; it provides that ‘defensible space’ for us playworkers, perhaps, because I’ve noticed that even when the gates are open during the open-access weeks, adults are often reluctant to cross the invisible threshold line; it says that this space is sacred; or, last week, the adjacent similar fencing around the public multi-sports area (‘the pitches’ as the children call it), was used by other children to climb up, hang from like monkeys, and jump onto the roof of the next building from!

What would it all be like if there were no fence here at all, and (this is a pre-condition of that scenario, I suppose) if our society were much more pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of that society — respected better, listened to more, considered?

Fences are a cause of some reflection: are they to keep security threats out, to keep the children in, or both, and what else lies beneath all of this?

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