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

Posts tagged ‘school’

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?
 
 

On the origin of play memes

Whilst busying myself in the kitchen the other day, I overheard the children next door playing. The youngest is about three or four years old and she was playing on the trampoline which is behind the shed. I couldn’t see her or who she played with, or how they played, but I could hear their play. The point to this preamble is that I heard her enacting being a baby to her friend and it was exactly the following in the enactment: ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga.’ This was exactly the same play-words that I’d heard Princess K. and Dino Boy using a short while back whilst in my garden and whilst they also enacted baby play. When I thought about it, I realised that pretty much all the children I’d ever heard in this sort of baby-play used this exact ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ phrase.

Where does it come from? Real babies don’t go ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’: they gurgle and splutter and laugh, and strange alien word-formations start to come from their mouths, but I’ve never heard a real baby ever say ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’. Maybe I haven’t heard enough babies, but let’s just run with the assumption that real babies don’t go ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’. Someone, somewhere, must have started the whole ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing (or maybe, in the same way as evolution has a way of coming up with similar solutions to environmental challenges in different parts of the planet, ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ spontaneously arrived independently of other similar utterings elsewhere).

It’s the same with ‘being teacher’ role play: whenever I see children engaged in the socio-dramatic art-form that is the recreation of their teacher, or a teacher, I’m fairly confident in saying that it’s going to involve chairs, desks, usually some sort of a board, a register on a clipboard and, importantly, a fair amount of finger wagging. I’ve never seen a teacher wag their finger at a child or a group of children, I don’t think. I’ve seen some stood up, arms crossed, with stern looks on their faces, and I’ve seen some doing the whole ‘Errrrm’ thing at a pitch high enough and at a volume great enough to wake the dead and to reach into the far recesses of the playground, but I’ve never seen the finger wagging thing. Where do children get this from?

When I started thinking of the origins of such actions and phrases as finger wagging and ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’, I made a quick loop round the idea of ‘memes’. I tried to find a workable definition, and the one that follows is cobbled together from various places such as Oxford Dictionaries, Urban Dictionary and Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:

An element of a culture; an idea, belief, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture from one individual to another, by imitation for example, either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)

A pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; especially contagious to children and the impressionable.

These play memes that are ‘being baby by using goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga’, or ‘being teacher by finger wagging’ seem to be culturally transmitted between children. This transmission process keeps those memes alive. The more they get transmitted, the stronger they become, i.e. the more embedded they become in the play reportoire of a mass of children. The individual elements of this mass of children don’t have to know one another: children in the north and children in the south engage in the memes, for example. Such is the strength of such play memes that children can essentially speak the language of play to a complete stranger-child and still not have to engage in the language that their family uses, as it were. Many times I’ve seen children from various countries capably comprehend one another in their play.

So, the strong memes survive and, just like natural selection, the weaker memes die out. Children engaged in ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play, or ‘being at the vets’, or ‘being the doctor’, or such like, still tend to spend more time narrating what’s about to happen rather than immersing in the ‘what’s about to happen’ actually happening. This narration meme is strong still, whereas what’s happened to the old ‘locking together of fingers, index fingers up in a point, open the gate of the thumbs, turn the hands upside down, and wiggle the other fingers to show all the people in the church’? I don’t know why we used to do this when we were younger, but we did, and it was almost like a form of currency, one child to the other. Yesterday I saw a child do the old ‘High-five up above, on the side, down below . . . you’re too slow’ thing to a colleague, and I’m glad that meme is still hanging in there!

The question is though, and it’s one I can’t answer, so I’m just typing it out to throw it out there: where did such memes start? Or rather, how did they start? Of course, we’ll never know because as far as we know nobody’s fully documented the infinite depths of children’s culture. It is, also, another way of opening the door again here on the thinking on magic and legend and play and the depth level of our culture, of which children are such a part, but which they aren’t always fully credited for.

The play memes of children transmit themselves through the cultural whole but we can go about our adult lives ignorant of the nuances that surround us: the replication of ‘goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ (both in terms of how different children use the same phrase and, in my experience, that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ is itself often a double ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’); the interpretation of the actual or archetypal teacher in all its finger-wagging satire and caricaturising; the essential narration before/as some play (like indoor/outside space: is it?/isn’t it?); church steeples as known actions; high-five configurations as means of joking, relating, power-shifting, perhaps.

We can trace the memes back, maybe, but they’re of folklore so can we even find their beginnings? So, I ask the question rather more in rhetorical manner: where did that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing come from?
 
 

A child’s journey: the road to normalisation or the dirt track in the forest?

In the week that children go back to school here in the UK, I find myself thinking about going to school for the first time. I’m going to cut to the chase here: if children need to be in school, then starting school at the age of four is just too early. What is it they can possibly learn at such a time in their lives that they can’t get elsewhere? There will be educationalists out there who will be shouting out (with as much fervour as a playworker does about the child’s right to play) that children can only benefit in the area of lifelong learning from an early and solid educational institution start: let’s see.

What I’ve done during the week will find its way into this blog, and what I’ve done in this respect will be work with children or play with family children. Either way, starting from what we’ve seen and experienced will inform what we write down in better ways than just leafing through the papers. This week I spent time with three family pre-schoolers out in the forest.

As the children ran around, chasing each other along the dirt tracks and through the ferns, over the dried up stream beds, the youngest being a dinosaur, the others screaming and taking all sorts of random routes around, I watched on, thinking: next week the eldest will be in school. She might love it, but she might find it a complete shock to the system. What can a four-year-old learn there that can’t be learned out amongst the pine trees, where the sun slops through, the play just taking the children away?

Out in the forest they get to make their own decisions about which way they go, to count if they want to, to see things they haven’t yet got names for, and to find out what those names are, to understand what can and shouldn’t be done in the real world (eat the black berries but not the red ones, said their mum). In school, wrapped into a grey uniform, expected to sit still for lengthier periods than normal (despite, perhaps, a developmental state that bucks against this), expected to conform to others’ bizarre and often unintelligible rules, the lifeblood starts its early drain away from the children.

So, the counter-argument is, I suppose, that school sets in motion the ‘training for life’: the expectancy of society that children ought to get used to. I have said it before and so I repeat it here: things don’t have to be the way that ‘society is’ — things can be different. What can four-year-olds need of learning to wait for teacher to talk to them that those children can’t get in their play with other children? It’s a big world, sure, and we have to work out how to get along with one another, but we all have to do the ‘manning up’ business. If one four-year-old doesn’t want to share his stick/rock/chalk with another four-year-old then ‘manning up’ is the order of the day, not learning to listen to others by means of enforced adult strategies.

I use the examples of stick and rock and chalk deliberately: how do we think our ancestors ever coped on this insignificant little outpost of rock in the middle of space and nowhere? Now though I swing from the harsh right to the more liberal middle: better that we as adults understand and communicate on play terms with our children than we neglect them or forcibly instruct them on ways of interacting ‘for the good of society’? For the good of the Cause, perhaps? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to suggest that, in certain quarters, there’s a tyranny of adults.

It’s interesting to read, in the same week as school starting again for the autumn term, that the UK government proposes that school leavers should carry on studying English and maths up to the age of 18 if they don’t get a grade C GCSE at 16 years of age (Teenagers have to keep studying English and maths). Whilst, on paper, the sentiment to provide young people with the requisite literacy and numeracy skills to get on might be well-meaning, it does all rather strike me as a cynical way of keeping those young people from the jobless figures; or, ultimately, it creates a way for those young adults to ‘fit in’ and so to suitably serve society, the State, the Cause, call it what you will.

In a small leap of the imagination, I imagine pensioners, years down the line, sat at their school desks, still not being allowed to blink out into the sunlight, drained of all their play life and, indeed, their will to live. ‘Just let me pass my GCSE now so I can go crawl under a rock!’ OK, so I exaggerate a little!

Here’s an idea, which isn’t new, but does need repeating again and again by all of us who believe in it: maybe this ‘start school early, leave late (and later)’ isn’t working. In 1972 the school age was eventually raised to 16. This was just a couple of years shy of my entering the system at the other end. I was duly released within the agreed time frame. My acquired study system was to effectively take a visual snapshot of pages of my revision notes, or to rigorously commit tried and tested methods to memory. I memorised my way through my O-levels (yes, younglings, those old-fangled now worthless things, though not as old-fangled as the eleven-plus: your spangly new GCSEs, and whatever the government might want to shove your children’s way soon, will be equally as worthless in the fullness of time). Everything fell out of my head when I left the exam room because I didn’t need it any more. After I was released I really started learning things because I was interested in what I chose to learn.

There is no use in life for quadratic equations, standard deviation, sines, cosines and the other one I’ve forgotten (unless you want to be an engineer: working out what you want to be, more often than not, comes later in life — wanting to be a vet at the age of four, or even fourteen, might well turn into wanting to be a hairdresser the next day). Now, I’m all for the idea of children being able to count and being able to write correctly, but they come to it when they’re ready. In the meantime, running around in a forest for the afternoon with friends or brothers and sisters or cousins, with loving communicative parents and other adults who just ‘get it’, will surely give a child much more than a week sat in a training room (classroom) in the preparation that is ‘the first steps on the long journey of normalisation’.

In a 2007 UNICEF report, Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries, the UK ranked overall 21st out of 21 developed nations regarding six aspects: material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and subjective well-being. There’s plenty to digest in this document but it’s to one part of it that I draw particular attention: in the area of ‘subjective well-being’ (with the UK ranked here as 20th out of 21), the report states — with reference to the most recent Health Behaviour in School-Age Children survey, albeit of 2001 (p.38) — that only 19% of fifteen-hundred cluster-surveyed 11, 13 and 15 year-olds claimed to ‘like school a lot’ (out of this option or ‘I like it a bit’, ‘I don’t like it very much’, or ‘I don’t like it at all’).

Statistics can always be manipulated so you should draw your own conclusions, but it makes for interesting reading for this analyst. Perhaps running around in a forest for a few years longer might have improved those children’s sense of their own self-being: they wouldn’t have had to wear grey if they didn’t want to, sit still for longer than they were able to, or learn some adult’s way of communicating this particular way; they would have worn the dirt of the dried up stream beds on their clothes and in their hair and on their faces, the sunlight sploshing through the pine trees onto their heads and skins; they would have taken their own routes and found their own moments of inspiration and interest, moving or sitting as the whim took them; they would have shouted down the dirt tracks because shouting out loud in forests is what forests sometimes inspire you to do.
 
 

On affective interaction

Good quality interaction isn’t always appreciated and understood. I’ve worn several of my many hats this week, but a thread that’s run through all these recent days is how we can positively affect and be affected by way of such quality. I’ve seen this both in meaningful contact and by observation of poorer quality interaction. In a week in which some members of the playwork world discussed matters regarding ‘the argument for playwork’ at Sheffield Hallam University, it strikes me as serendipitous that my own playwork thinking this week has been focused on interactions: as playworkers we’re more than simply creators of environments that support play and advocates for children’s rights to access those environments. This is my experience.

This area of quality of interaction could be seen to be subjective, and sure, what’s good for someone might not necessarily be good for another; however, being well used to observing over the years and in various job roles, when I observe a child’s total disassociation from the moment in question, say, because of poor quality adult interaction, then subjectivity all but gets taken out of the equation . . . this then is a case of actual poor quality taking place. More of this later. First, some positives.

I spent some time this week engaged in conversations with a young man with learning difficulties. We were out and about and something clicked. We had random conversations on matters which clearly stimulated him and which he wanted to know more about or tell me about. Did I know, for example, that brown sauce is made of sausages? Or did I know that the stuff in the fields, that yellow stuff, makes Wheatabix? Strawberries grow underground, perhaps. Jam is fantastic. Chickens lay eggs. How far is the moon from the Earth? Some towers are very tall, etc.

The point to this preamble is that in conversation with him I didn’t talk down to him or try to fix him with what I might have felt to be more important or less random subject matters. I felt ‘in the moment’, in the flow, on a level, and it was the right level because jam is fantastic, brown sauce does seem as if sausages could be involved, some towers are tall, the moon is (it turns out) some 240,000 miles from the Earth. We were in the same emotional and imaginative space at the same time and it felt necessary and right and the only place that we could be.

I also had another conversation of quality that day with a young man in a wheelchair. We were sitting in an outside café area and he manoeuvred his chair next to my bench and raised his seat up so our head levels were the same. We sat in the sun just talking of this and that, and then he started telling me about the difficulties in his everyday life. He wasn’t moaning, he was just saying. He told me about his medical difficulties and so I asked, ‘What’s that like?’ He was matter of fact and articulate in explaining things. He told me how he gets annoyed when people don’t talk with him just because he’s in a wheelchair. I came away thinking something along the lines of ‘there but for the grace of whatever we believe in go we’, but I also had a sense that some significant interaction of some sort had been made here.

Earlier in the week, however, others’ interactions (this time with children) didn’t feel so right in the moment. When I’m able to work in a field, literally, on a sunny day, I realise there are many people who would like to be in this position. I observed a good playworker’s work with a group of school children; then, when I had all the information I needed here, I found my attention turning to the interactions of teaching staff also present. The children had been on a day out of school: building fires, catching bugs in nets, climbing trees, whittling with knives and so on. It was, however, all a little anxiety-infused by the teaching staff come the end of the session.

If you are that playworker reading here, and I know you have done in the past, you have done well. When the children were asked to tidy things away, you managed to slip my observation for a few moments, ghosting quietly and respectfully through the long grassy space as you did. The teachers — these teachers in particular (this isn’t, as ever, a blanket perspective on the profession), however, decided to get across their planned-in teaching objective (of ‘teamwork’) via their late session anxiety: that is, as they hurried the children along to finish ‘on time’ they sat and pointed, proclaiming ‘teamwork’ loudly at a child who evidently wasn’t showing this; or they told individual children ‘responsibility’, or such-like whilst not assisting the children themselves. Such was the poor quality of interaction here (and yes, they had also used a whistle on various occasions — one of my personal pet hates) that one child I observed, bringing his hand-drill and circle of wood to a teacher, finding her doing it all for him (threading it into a necklace for him too), stood and looked up at the sky with a visible sigh. What, I wondered, had he learned here?

What I re-learned here was that our interactions are important because of the moment, but also because they can partially or wholly define any other person. We can hold memories of others either by our first impressions (the ‘primacy error’: everything thereafter being used by our brains to try to ‘prove’ our first impressions) or by accumulation of interactions of quality, or equally by those lacking in such. We form our bases of trust and love, or fear and other failures, of others; we build up our layers. Quality of interaction, here in these examples, is such because of how that interaction affects — or seems to affect — both parties.

When I wore another of my hats this week, out in another field, training on playworking ways, I worked hard — consciously — to be the best I could be in my interactions with the young people of that group. Perhaps I succeeded in places, and I know where I also came unstuck. This all had nothing to do with a feeling of ego needing to ‘win out’; it had everything to do with a sense of quality of interaction, of those I worked with deserving this, of a realisation that I too could learn and gain from them.

Good quality interaction can have significant and powerful affects both ways: the moments stay with us.
 
 

On the education of adults about children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, to conclude, and to repeat Neill:

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

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

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