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

Posts tagged ‘socialisation’

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.


Working with children and emotions in the human environment

Two children are having an argument over something and they just can’t let it go or get over it: what do you do? That is, you’re an adult watching on, a playworker perhaps, or you’re of a playwork-minded persuasion — even if you don’t know it — and you see all this bottled-up aggression unfold in front of you: When do you step in? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all?

My playground noticings for this week have formed around some children’s antagonisms, their righteous anger, and their focused interpretations on fairness — for the benefits of the self — resulting in cyclical arrangements of revenge. This all sounds fairly heavy-duty and negative, but thinking about interactions of this kind, in and around play, and a few days on from them, I file this post under the draft working title of ‘the human tendency to push others’ buttons and have others push our own’. That is, adult or child alike, none of us are, or ever will be, perfect and we will irritate, and be irritated by, others.

A playworker, who understands that they can just as equally push children’s buttons as vice versa, also understands that a reasoned process should take place when thinking on children’s various interactions with one another. I’m not an advocate of the school of thinking that promotes such direct verbal mantras as ‘Now, was that kind?’, ‘Share your toys’, ‘Say sorry’, ‘Don’t be mean’, and so on. That’s not to say that a little human kindness, sharing, sincerity and love wouldn’t go a long way in this world; it is to say though that forcing things on children may well only turn them into people of automatic responses that lack thought and true emotion.

Children will have arguments, just as baby birds will fall from trees, and just as you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself sharing a train carriage with someone with an annoying ringtone, a propensity to eat crisps loudly, or someone blessed with the most pathetically irritating cough in the whole wide world! The trick, or the sleight of mind, for the playworker — or playwork-minded person — when around the arguing children, is in trying to know what best to do and when.

Last week I watched on as a group of footballers cheated outrageously to get the oldest of them out of the game. She, the oldest, was not best pleased when the ones who were ‘already through’ to the next round conspired against her, but to her credit she tried every pressure, persuasion and conceit to get herself reinstated before finally taking on her erstwhile opponent and winning through again in a replay. The boy she beat stomped off in a flurry of self-defeat (because, in truth, he’d got it into his head that he couldn’t beat her fair and square before the replay anyway). The girl then took it on herself, after celebrating, to go and have it out with another child who was the chief cheat.

At what point do you step in when the two are literally at each other’s throats? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all? Eventually, for the boy’s protection, I stepped in (because I think she was only really holding him off and could easily have done him some proper damage if she’d tried). Was I right to even step in at all? ‘Play nicely’ (whatever that means) didn’t even enter my head (nor would it ever do), nor did ‘respect each other’ or ‘is this kind?’ These are education system mantras, which I understand to have some safeguarding intent but also, perhaps, some eye on crowd control. I stepped in when I judged it necessary but I don’t know if my judgement was correct.

I’m not advocating children go all out to hurt each other and adults just watch on and do nothing. I’m thinking around the relative benefits of adults not controlling the every emotion that children are expected to display. What was in my head at the time of the intervention was one of protection for the boy (the girl could easily look after herself, I think, and would probably have held her own against the whole group — all in it against her together — if she’d had to): I had no agenda of the children making peace with one another. What transpired was odd: I was aware of the heightened state of agitation that the boy was in after the older girl had left the scene of her own accord, and I sat down on the grass bank with him just so he could ‘come down’; a few of the other footballers came over and sat with us. One of them, another younger girl, shouted at me from just a few feet away, trying to tell me what had happened. She was also highly agitated. There’s no point in trying to be rational with people who are so ‘up’ emotionally, though I said quietly to the shouting girl, ‘Hey, I’m just here, this far away,’ but she didn’t hear me . . .

The oddness was in how the children came over, sat down calmly enough and tried to explain away the group’s actions (their cheating, as perceived by the aggrieved-against, and as observed by me): I hadn’t asked them to come over, and it struck me that they might have felt a need to justify actions when no justification had been asked for. Is this symptomatic of a social system in which children are often told how to behave?

This same week, another group of children were running around chasing after another boy and I observed it all flow around the playground and around me. As I observed, I felt something beginning to bubble up: I could see the boy was being ganged up on, even though the group appeared to be in ‘play mode’ — maliciously, softly, perhaps. I asked the boy, in passing, if he was annoyed because I felt he was. He said he was. Now, we need to know the children around us and I could sense that this individual was past the point of his own ability to deal with the situation. I intervened. I asked the gang to come listen to the fact that the boy was at this point. They didn’t listen. I tried to come at it again by a change in surroundings. They didn’t listen. It hit me that I was doing it wrong: it looked like I was trying to impose my adult views on the children, of how I expected them to be, or that’s how I felt it. I realised that this was a gripe between the aggrieved boy and the gang leader (who, it turned out, was also aggrieved): so I took these two to another room, reducing the stimulus, where they could tell each other what they felt.

This was, again, not a case of ‘respect each other’, ‘play nicely’, or ‘is this kind?’ This was a means of opening a dialogue, and whatever was said was whatever was said. I said nothing. I knelt down in the doorway and feigned disinterest. The boys took it in turns to resolve things for themselves. I shrugged when they’d stopped talking. They went. I got lucky, but I also came out with a few more thoughts on conflict, interventions and interactions.

I’m not always calm inside when children push my buttons. This happens, because we’re humans, and humans will have a tendency to do this to one another sometimes. It doesn’t happen very often, but life is not always sweet and rosy on the playground: it would be boring if it were. No matter how old or experienced we get at being around these unpredictable creatures that are the children we work with, there are occasions when buttons will be pressed: it is an on-going process of learning about the self in the ways that we deal with these moments. It should also be remembered that we will annoy the hell out of some children sometimes too. This week, I was wandering the playground when I saw two children at the sand pit: the girl was sat in a big hole and the boy nearby. He suddenly shouted at me: ‘Hey, Joe [he calls me this], go away. We need some sand privacy.’ I knew I’d bugged him just by my presence, and he knew I was observing. I tried some banter but it fell flat on its face. I moved away.

We need to be careful in our observations, but they are key not only to understanding individuals at play (and how we might be in all of that: present or absent) but also in further thoughts on how the adult world at large impacts on children. I see children on the playground sometimes engaged in cycles of revenge, never seeming to reach a point of karmic fulfilment, as it were, returning and returning in always attempting to have the ‘last word’ by trying to trip someone up, playing at throwing paint over them, a little shove here or there, and so on: I wonder at the unfulfilled needs wrapped up in all of this, where adults have previously imposed the ‘this is how to feel and be’ full stop to the argument of the day — children keep pushing and pushing buttons because they haven’t been allowed to work out for themselves the point of ‘this is enough; I have my balance; I am avenged.’

Arguments will happen and buttons will be pressed because we interact in a human environment: it’s how we deal with this that is important. If we’re an adult who’s bugging the children, or being bugged by the children, if/when should we walk away?; if we’re observing arguments or aggressions of cycles of revenge, if/when should we step in? Maybe my interventions this week worked well; or maybe, when it comes to emotion comprehension and regulation, I’m also part of the adult problem for these children.

The play problems with children’s books

Does reading count as play? We could answer this by expressing an opinion based on personal experiences of play, or we could draw on the academic literature in order to say yes, no, or maybe. There’s plenty of that literature to draw on (that tired old question that is ‘what is play?’ has done the rounds over the years), so I’m going to focus in on one fairly well-established set of criteria from the academic world: Catherine Garvey (1977) suggested that characteristics of play could be seen as:

1. Play is pleasurable, enjoyable: even when not actually accompanied by signs of mirth it’s still positively valued by the player;
2. Play has no extrinsic goals. Its motivations are intrinsic and serve no other objectives. In fact it’s more an enjoyment of means than an effort devoted to some particular end;
3. Play is spontaneous and voluntary. It’s not obligatory but is freely chosen by the player;
4. Play involves some active engagement on the part of the player;
5. Play has certain relations to what is not play.

[Adapted from: Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010, p.17), Reflective Playwork]

Reading, I would say, for those who like to read (and, importantly, when not being forced to read something) can therefore be play (it’s pleasurable; you might do it for the sake of it, just because you love reading; it’s freely chosen; you engage in it, get into it; you know when you’re reading something because you have to because of what it feels like). I write all of this because I’ve been thinking about books for children for quite a long time now.

I have several frustrations with the majority of children’s books I pick up and read to those who ask me to do this (I appreciate that, of course, some children can’t read yet and so need this support, but also that to those who can read a little sometimes someone else’s voice can lend something to the story). The main, and enduring, frustration has to be the one I label as ‘the learning agendas’. Firstly, however, there is the counter-argument, the appreciation, that books can be a good source of education for children. That said, my frustration is centred around the fact that there are just so many education-focused books out there for younger children and often the education is disguised in or as the story: it seems to me as if this is cheating children of a good story. Often, the education agenda will be as fairly innocuous as the development of more awareness of the numbers one to ten; sometimes it’s far too insidious for this playworker’s liking: take these titles I’ve found recently: Luke Tidies Up and Be Nice. Adults should stop trying to turn children into ‘model citizens’, I contest!

My next, and currently major, gripe is language use. Why do some authors insist on writing books for children using words that — I’m pretty sure from my experience of working with a wide age range — children aren’t using themselves in their day-to-day language? Before my argument, a couple of examples:

‘Are those silly goats too fast for you?’
‘Probably,’ said Mr Farmer wearily.

She lumbered back to the old barn.

‘I’ll get those goats out of the turnip field.’
‘You?’ they exclaimed. ‘You?’

I’ve never heard any child use the words ‘wearily’, ‘lumbered’ or ‘exclaimed’, ever! I rarely hear adults use them in conversation either. Now, I’m aware of the argument that is ‘language as prescriptive’ versus ‘language as descriptive’ (the first being that, in grammar for example, there are rules to be followed; the second being that, essentially, language evolves and the rules should follow this): I know that children can learn new words from books, and I’m usually of the prescriptive school of thinking when it comes to spelling, grammar, etc., but here I’m thinking that children’s books should describe the words they actually use. If reading is play, and not for adult learning agendas in this case, then the stories should reflect the children’s cultures. Whenever I read to a child from a book, I tend to change words such as ‘wearily’, ‘lumbered’ and ‘exclaimed’ to words more in keeping with their own language use. I’m looking to describe the story; I’m not looking to being a teacher. I’m not a teacher of children, which other people could do.

Another concern is gender stereotyping in children’s books. However, I’m not taking the usual tack here: I’m going against the grain because I get annoyed by token efforts to educate children about what a perfect world we could live in if boys could be depicted as princesses and girls depicted as car constructors or rocket ship captains, for example. A disclaimer is due at this point: I have no issue with either of the above taking place in the play; it’s the token aspect I object to. The fact is that girls often do have a predilection for the pink and sparkly, ‘Prince carries off Princess to the Land of Happily Ever After’ (and perhaps there’s a further discussion there to be had another time about social pressures), and boys often have a predilection for all things fast, whizzy, loud or explosive (or all of these combined). What’s wrong with books describing things as they are?

I’ve told a lot of stories in my time, and they’re always made up as I go along. I don’t include learning agendas or good citizenshipness; I try to use words that I know my audience appreciates, and I don’t pander to political correctness. The stories tend towards random journeys for no particular reason, quests that may or may not end up with jam explosions, nuclear meltdowns, dead animals, poo, or whatever takes the fancy of the children involved. I involve the children in the story and take on their ideas and so we form the story together (there may then be any combination of dead princesses, broken giraffes, super-hero failures, conspiracies or dream scenes, or any other fantastical arrangements). The storytelling is partly my play, sure, but partly the children’s too. We go with the flow, and if all the characters don’t get on or if they all die then so be it — it was good enough for Shakespeare.

Stories for children, spoken or written, should be alive, playful and play-filled, ‘real’, as in emotions — though true and not ‘token true’ — or fantastic (or fantastical or phantasmagorical, whatever the desired flavour). The slipped-in adult agendas of being nice, sharing, counting, tidying your room, all covered up with glossy expansive pictures, just doesn’t seem to me to satisfy the potential for play that reading can have.

Garvey, C. (1977), Play. The developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books and Open Books Publishing Limited. Cited in: Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork. London: Continuum.

Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork. London: Continuum.

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.

Of the importance of thinking

Lately I’ve been wearing many hats. I lose track of myself some weeks: sometimes trainer, sometimes trainee, sometimes playworker, sometimes independent learner. I work with children and with adults; I play with family. In amongst it all there’s a thread of thinking about what I’m doing whenever I wear any one of these hats (sometimes the hats are worn at the same time, and this can be confusing). So I’m thinking about thinking . . .

It occurred to me, earlier in the week, that some trainees just blindly follow what they’ve been told by the trainer. I’m a trainer myself and so I know what might go on in the minds of those doing the training: I find, despite myself, if I’m undertaking training, I’m often also paying attention to how the trainer works — not just what they say; I find I start questioning the ‘how they work’ and that then leads me to questioning the content. Of course I’m not perfect when I’m being the trainer myself, so there are things I can learn in doing that too, but after a while you do get to work out when the trainer’s blagging it, being evasive, not entirely sure, etc. because . . . well, let’s just say I’ve been there too!

It’s the questioning of what’s being presented, or taught, that I want to focus on here though. Sitting there nodding your head, moving the pen across the paper dutifully, or absorbing everything totally without it bothering your brain is all very well (and it might be just what some trainers want), but it won’t help you — the trainee — really. Sure, the trainer gets their evaluation form filled out with ticks in agreeable places, and they don’t have to deal with any awkward questions, but has anything really been gained here?

Co-incidentally, in the process of thinking this all out in my head, I received a message from one of my current playwork learners: she questioned my feedback to her, and put forward strong arguments for why she was doing this. Excellent! I thought. Now, there’s a brain that’s starting to think about children and play and playwork and reflective practice. This questioning also gets me thinking about what I’m saying to those I’m giving playwork information to: is what I’m saying actually playwork? Does what I’m saying tally with the ‘real world’? Am I just regurgitating other playwork writers’ ideas? Do we need to re-define what playwork actually is?

A fair amount of taking on board (I won’t necessarily say ‘learning’ because there’s an active element to this) what’s being taught could easily have something to do with the ‘believing in’ of the person who’s doing the teaching or training. The same can be said for the things that ‘playwork people’ are saying, out and about, online, in journals, etc. When someone becomes un-believed in, all their thinking might well become un-believed as well. There are some playwork people who I believe in a lot; there are some I struggle to believe in because of what they say or do.

As in other fields of work, playworkers can become sucked into the whole ‘this is the way it is’ scheme of thinking: so-and-so says or writes such-and-such, therefore it must be true. There needs to be more thinking done all round. I don’t just limit this to playwork: anyone who works with or around children should be thinking more about what they, the adults, do and about what the children are doing. Why? Children deserve consideration.

Here’s an interesting viewpoint I picked up on recently from the ‘field’ (that is, people I know out there in playwork-land): it’s something I’ve kind of known about for a while, but I feed it in here as an example. Writing about children from an ex-teacher’s point of view, John Taylor Gatto is of the opinion that:

The ordinary citizen in command of an active imagination is dangerous. Realising this makes it easier to understand why so many great philosophers and theologians — dependent for their bread, butter, and status on selling useful advice to rulers — recommended mass schooling of the young as the best way to weaken imagination and make subject populations manageable.

Socialising imagination is the most important job mass schooling does in the interests of those who value social stability over individual development.

For school to do its work, it must centre itself around obedience, deference, competition, routines, and memory, but those are only minor parts of an education.

Almost nothing school offers is educational in the fundamental sense that it offers understanding and hard-nosed skills. When you emerge from school, can you build a house, make clothing, grow food, repair a machine? Do you know the ways of the human heart so well it would be hard to fool you? Can you concentrate? Can you associate skilfully in any kind of human situation? Are you self-reliant, resourceful, strategic or tactical at your own discretion? Do you trust your judgment or do you subordinate yourself to ‘experts’?

Will you be able to steer your own ship through the years of your life, or have you only been trained to be crew on someone else’s ship, and to listen to a stranger as your captain?

Strong stuff. Are children given the scope to be able to think for themselves (in their own play, at home, at school, in play settings, out and about)? By the same token, are playwork trainees being encouraged to think enough, to question the received wisdom of the ‘great and the good’, to say ‘hang on, that’s not what happens in my experience’?

If adults and children aren’t in positions where they’re free to really think, and really question things, then isn’t there something very, very wrong going on? So, I put it to you — whether you’re a playwork learner on a course or not, or if you’re someone who works with or around children in other ways, or if these children are your own children or part of your family — question what you see and hear and what you’re taught or what someone you believe in tells you: ultimately, children deserve that consideration, that process of your thinking.

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.’

Disorder as the natural tendency

Sometimes my writing for this blog comes about by way of thinking on recent media interest around children or their play, and then dropping into that thinking other ideas . . . this week I drop ‘entropy’ into the mix.

Entropy, according to a recent BBC News Science and Environment report, can be explained in terms of ‘the Universe tends, in general, to a more disordered state’.

What’s doing the rounds at the moment is Conservative MP Liz Truss and her condemnation of nurseries (whose children, she says, are ‘running around with no sense of purpose’). This playworker doesn’t think of the ideas of ‘manners’ and ‘discipline’, as Ms Truss seems to think; this playworker thinks of the ideas of ‘disorder’ and ‘entropy’ when he thinks about ‘running around with no sense of purpose’.

That the Universe itself can be seen as something that is inevitably marching headlong into a state of ultimate disorder is reassuring, in a way. The BBC report also adds a side-note (linked to the laws of thermodynamics) that ‘everything, everywhere, is at least a little bit disordered’. Everything heads that way.

A variable in this thinking is the amount of time things might take. Systems go from order to ultimate disorder, eventually or quickly. If we consider that ‘putting energy’ into a system can create order, we should also consider the idea that everything can be affected by something else; therefore, that ‘affecting of the system’ isn’t ordering it at all. Let’s put this into context:

I know full well, from experience of doing and from observing, that a group of children (I’ll use this as an idea of a ‘system’) can be affected both by leaving it to its own devices (hence the inevitable tendency towards disorder) and by imposing too much on it (trying to create some order, but in effect just affecting that march towards disorder in other ways). By ‘disorder’ I don’t mean to colour that word with negative connotations; though, admittedly, the word ‘order’ is more coloured in such ways.

‘Order’, in the context of this thinking, is the word used for the aimed-for state when attempting the action of control. It can also be seen as the dead, lifeless zone. What happens, at a simplistic level, whenever someone wants to impose too much control on someone else? There’s some degree of rebellion, perhaps. It might take years, or it might take a lot less time, but attempts at control are bound to affect individuals. Some people defer completely to being controlled. It’s the easy route, but it’s also the way that’s been imposed on them and they know no different. Being controlled may well result in more attempted controllers. There is a subsequent potential lack in thinking.

To think we need positions or perspectives to think from. The BBC report (which is titled ‘Entropy law linked to intelligence’) suggests the following:

The simplistic model considers a number of examples, such as a pendulum hanging from a moving cart. Simulations of the . . . entropy idea show that the pendulum ends up pointing upward — an unstable situation, but one from which the pendulum can explore a wider variety of positions.

Further simulations showed how the same idea could drive the development of tool use, social network formation, and co-operation . . .

We already know that play functions as a way of finding out, as a way of providing the player with the possibility of more options. Play is fundamentally disordered in process. If we see order as basically static, disorder is dynamic. Everything tends towards disorder and everything, everywhere, is at least a little bit disordered. In this way of thinking, not only is ‘order’ impossible but it’s also pointless trying to impose it (because it’s impossible). The only reason to try to impose it must be in attempting to control, and the only reason for this must be in attempting to create some purpose for the self.

Why do children need manners? Because that’s what society demands; because society is what I have to live in; because if I have to have manners so do others; if others haven’t got manners, and I have, and I have to live in a society that demands manners, then I should instruct others how to have manners; because now I have a purpose; because If I have no purpose, what is the point of me?

I don’t think like this personally, I hasten to add. I have other, different, traits which I won’t bore you with now!

Liz Truss, apparently, does not like children running around without a sense of purpose. Perhaps, with purpose, they would then be ‘useful members’ of society, able to aid that society in its own purpose: the instruction of others in how to act. ‘Order’ would be achieved, and with it a deficit in thinking (because what thought do we need when everything, like morality, is decided for us?), and with it a lack of potential wider variety of positions from which to think from (positions which have, in the past, driven us to explore tool use, social network formation, and co-operation) . . .

The argument could go on and on and round and round (at least this would be a dynamic situation though, one in which ideas and exchanges could flow, rather than a static acceptance: a dead state of being).

In short, and in summary, it is the huge expanse of children’s play ‘disorder’ that should be recognised in our society, of expression and creation, of trial and error and running around without purpose, rather than the aim of ‘order’ by manners and so forth. Ideas such as how to respond to others, right and wrong, and suchlike can be explored through the child’s play (as opposed to being told, and blindly following, these ways of acting by others). Over-zealous attempts at order can create unhealthy minds.

Disorder is the natural tendency.

On swearing to tell the truth

Language use — and in particular, some children’s use of certain language — tends to cause all sorts of ruffled feathers in the ‘right thinking’ sensibilities of many adults. In the doctrines stuck to by those adults (educationalists, some parents, maybe, etc.) when children are around, hearing swearing sets off instant reprimand reflexes. Yet, when the children are gone and the adults are in the company of each other, fuck . . .

If there are words that aren’t understood, I agree with the principle of a certain playwork writer who advocates the buying of a dictionary. So I want to know what certain words mean, or use to mean . . . so I go to the dictionary. In the spirit of another certain playwork writer, who advocates ‘proper deskwork’ research (i.e. those things we used to have, back in the day: books), I pulled out my two huge 1979 edition Oxford English Dictionary (OED) volumes. Now, what do these words I hear mean, or what did they once mean?

First though, a preamble: I come to this subject area to write on because it’s been rumbling around in the back of my mind for the best part of the week. Bits and pieces of conversations, reading of others’ writing, reflecting on the things I heard on the playground in London recently all comes to the typing fingertips.

There was a time, I admit, when I also engaged my instant reprimand reflex on hearing children saying certain things that didn’t fit the ‘moral compass’ I’d had instilled into me. It was something I’d absorbed from my colleagues at the time, and from the set-up of the places I was working in. I wasn’t advanced enough in myself to question the doctrine, so I just went along with it.

I remember back a good few years (it’s funny now I think of it from this playwork perspective) when I was in the staff toilet, washing my hands. Next door, in their own toilet room, I could hear two younger boys, about five years old, talking with each other. They were the sweetest little things, ordinarily. You can guess what’s coming! I suppose they didn’t think they could be overheard. Out came a stream of various ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ and so forth. My instant reaction/reflex was wrong: it was a ‘I hope I didn’t hear what I just heard’ comment (albeit playful in itself).

Really, though, what does it matter? Like I say, we swear, and children swear and will continue to swear when they become adults. They’re only words. Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we have to pay attention to the intent of those words: there’s a difference between saying: ‘Fuck off, I don’t believe you!’ and ‘Fuck off’. We’re adults and we should be able to read this stuff here without the emotional baggage; hence I write it like this.

Appreciating the intent of a set of words, there are two arguments for ignoring them that immediately spring to mind. Firstly, we all grow up in a certain culture (by which I mean our family and the environment in which we and our family live). That culture is a complex organism and our use of language is embedded within it. So we accept that we have different cultural backgrounds. Secondly, even if the intent is aggressive, we are emotional animals and emotions will out. I don’t like being told to fuck off, just as you may well not like it, but it’s how I choose to deal with it — rather than trying to make the other person not say it — that’s important and more productive.

Playworkers don’t live in a moral vacuum but we also try not to enforce our own views on the children. This is a point that many adults can’t fathom: it is, perhaps, because of that ‘reprimand reflex’, which they blindly believe in. I don’t know why.

So, to the proper deskwork research! It’s a little disappointing that the OED (or my copy of it, at least) doesn’t make reference to ‘fuck’ or any other such words that are guaranteed to offend many adults. A quick search engine quest does throw up a variety of ideas on the source of the meaning of the word; however, as with many things on the great and vast interweb, you take your chances there in believing any of it. So, to the books, which despite not giving a fuck about fuck, do give a fuck about ‘arse’, ‘bastard’, ‘piss’, ‘shit/shite’ and ‘twat’ (which I find somewhat amusing in itself!) A choice selection of cuts therefore, for your amusement, curiosity, and delectation:

Arse: the fundament, buttocks, posterior, or rump of an animal; heavy arse: a lazy fellow; to hang the arse: to hold back, be reluctant or tardy; arse upwards: in good luck; arsed: having an arse; arseling: backwards.

1530: What up, heavy arse, cannest thou nat aryse.
1711 Swift: Do you think I have nothing else to do but to mend and repair after your Arse? [i.e. behind you, in your rear]
1768 Ross: Then Lindy to stand up began to try; but he fell arselins back.

Bastard: one begotten and born out of wedlock; a sweet kind of Spanish wine; a kind of cloth; a kind of war-vessel, a variety of galley; a large sail used in the Mediterranean when there is little wind; a particular size of paper; an impure coarse brown sugar, made from the refuse sugar of previous boilings; of abnormal shape or irregular size.

1677 Moxon: The Bastard-tooth’d file is to take out of your work the deep cuts.
1695: Covered with an Arch of Bastard Marble.
1859 Darwin: The ‘bastard-wing’ [set of three or four quill-like feathers placed at a small joint in the middle of a bird’s wing] may safely be considered as a rudimentary digit.

Piss: probably onomatopoeic; to discharge urine.

c. 1386 Chaucer: How Xantippa caste pisse up-on his heed.
1600: [an] intolerable stench of pisse and goates dung.

Shit/shite/shote: excrement from the bowels, dung; to void as excrement.

c.1400 Lanfranc’s Cirurg: If he may not schite oones a day, helpe him perto . . .
1484 Caxton: The wulf shote thyres by the waye . . .

Twat: erroneously used by Browning under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.

1660 Browning: They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat, They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.

The last of these being, of course, my favourite of the found OED quotations! Context is as important as intent when using words, and modern usage has shifted older versions into newer versions; however, the point here is that words good enough for Darwin and Chaucer and Swift, etc., can be good enough in playful context too. What was that rhyme I used to sing in playing games with other children when I was maybe seven or eight or nine years old . . .?

Ip-dip dog shit, fucking bastard, silly git, O-U-T spells out, so out you must go. Or something like that. I didn’t know what the words meant: they just rhymed and scanned well. I just knew that the rhyme was the rhyme for finding who was out. It was no big deal.

Understanding behaviours (the children’s and your own)

A new year, and this year will be the year when children’s behaviours will be universally understood. Well, OK, maybe that’s a little ambitious. We should start the year off by thinking small. I’ve spent the best part of this week thinking on the subject of behaviours, discussing it with various people, swapping emails, and being around children — one of whom acted in some quite challenging ways.

Thinking small doesn’t mean ‘thinking narrowly’. By ‘thinking small’ I mean thinking about our own understanding of children’s behaviours. Everyone could benefit by giving this area of thinking some consideration. When I write the word ‘behaviours’, I do it deliberately: in the plural rather than in the singular. The word ‘behaviour’ is far too easily linked with a negative socialisation way of thinking, or with other adult agendas of how children are expected to act and interact and be. Behaviours, plural, is a way of saying that children experience lots of ways of being.

Thinking small, thinking locally, thinking about my own practice and interactions with children, I know that — however I am on any given day — that is likely to affect the children around me in some way. Here’s the bottom line: if I’m in a room where there are also children present, I’m going to affect them.

Positively, if I’m true to my word and my teaching, and the children know that I am that guy who practises what he preaches, then anything can happen. ‘Stuff’ will get played with because it’s stuff and because it’s playable with. Spaces can be played in, ways of playing can be explored, etc.

Negatively, if I forget to ‘walk the walk’, if I lose focus, if I’m not true and honest to what I talk about, then children will react to that; they’ll interact back with me in challenging ways. Those of us who have worked with children for any length of time can all relate stories about when we were or weren’t ‘on the ball’. I can certainly offer up times when, for one reason or another, I have affected the children and their play. There have been some very challenging times.

I worked with a group of children who were, in retrospect, not ready for the idea of playing their own way. I felt it at the time, and now with a little distance I still feel it, but their experiences of adults imposing on their play had had a lot to do with how those children interacted with each other, and with me, and with other adults in their play space. We, the adults, weren’t all thinking in a playwork way about the children around us. The children deserved a better deal. Adults had damaged, and were continuing to damage, their play.

I have observed similar situations take place in other ways, in other children’s play settings. The common denominator is the way that the adults treated the children.

Sometimes those adults thought that their intentions were noble enough: they said that children should act this way, or that way, behave like this or like that, because those were the rules that had been set down for everybody. Those adults didn’t see that ‘the rules’ didn’t fit the reality, didn’t suit the children, didn’t work because the children couldn’t or wouldn’t be squeezed into them like plasticine into tubes.

Sometimes the adults insisted that they knew best when it came to children’s play. Sure, adults can often have a keen eye (too keen sometimes) on matters of ‘health and safety’, but ‘health and safety’ is just a by-word now, a phrase, used when people refuse to think in a common sense way for themselves. Blame it on health and safety. No-one wants a child to get hurt, of course, but better a broken bone than a broken spirit and all that.

Sometimes the adults insisted that their idea of interacting was the best way for the children. Regular readers of this blog (and others I talk with) will know of my dislike for the phrase ‘play nicely’. Sometimes, sure, children get a kick out of playing with others, but if little Johnny does not want to share his stuff with little Susie then ‘playing nicely’ is not top of his agenda. He’s acting (I’m not writing ‘behaving’ there deliberately) in a way that he needs to act right there and then. If Susie tells him to ‘just fuck off’, tomorrow, then frankly, Johnny had it coming.

Sometimes adults have frowned upon children for the things they do and say. ‘You can’t say that. That’s not nice. That’s not polite.’ Then they’ve laughed and joked when the last child has left the place, telling each other: ‘Shit, little Johnny was a fucking nightmare today, wasn’t he?’

Here’s the thing, adults: you can be part of the problem. The other day, I was part of the problem. The children I was with played with ‘stuff’ (to the uninitiated, I’m talking about cardboard boxes, tubes, old buckets, scraps of material, etc.), and generally just got on with things. I was in the room, but all seemed well. Then one of the children needed the toilet and didn’t get there in time. OK, no problem, but the moment of play had shifted into the child’s anxiety over clothes. I became increasingly frustrated with the way he showed his anxiety and this, in turn, affected him. I tell you this because it happens: adults can get frustrated. My affect on the children had shifted from positive to something more negative.

Playworkers affect children. Teachers affect children. Nursery nurses affect children. Parents affect children. Let’s face it, we all affect children. How much better could it be for children if we adults just took a step back sometimes, considered how we affect the children around us, and did something about it? When I realised how I had affected that child this week, our frustrations at one another growing steadily, I took a mental step back. I changed my course. I said ‘fine’. The child came up with a solution to his anxiety, I accepted it, and we moved on. Play happened again.

I tell you all of this because we are all potential affectors of children. We affect their behaviours. I wonder what you insist upon — with the children around you — that makes those children act in the ways that they do sometimes. Do you realise how much you affect those children?

Children’s play is not about you

A message to adult readers: children’s play is not about you. Really. Children’s play is their play. Playworkers are unique amongst adults who work with children: true playworkers are focused on play — not on educational outcomes (as teachers will be), on preparation or foundation for future years (as early years workers will be), on law and order and fitting in with rules and regulations (as, say, police community support officers will be). Playworkers work with the child’s agenda, not with the adult’s agenda.

There are so many adults, for one reason or another, who can’t or won’t get this though. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told that children ‘have to respect the rules, because I have to’; that children ‘should conform to society, because we all have to’; that children should ‘play the way I want them to, because I don’t like noise or mess or anything I think is too risky for them.’ Adults — it’s not about you.

So, I reply to them with a question: Why can’t children choose to do what they want to do? There’s usually a direct and quick response, along the lines of, ‘Well, then there’d be anarchy, wouldn’t there? We can’t have that.’ This shows me two things: (i) that the adult in question doesn’t understand what ‘anarchy’ is really about (but that’s another story); (ii) the adult in question is a product of the system that this country, the UK, is unfortunately churning out, i.e. you must conform to the way things are.

So, children’s self-expressions, making noise, making mess, rough and tumbling, engaging in risky play, etc, are becoming more and more frowned upon: regarded as ‘abnormal’, ‘anti-social’, ‘undesirable’ because these behaviours don’t fit with the dominant adult desire to have things their own way — the adult need to control. Why do adults control? Perhaps adults feel controlled themselves, powerless themselves, and need to control and have power over others to balance things up.

Children, and by extension their play, are easy targets. However, children’s play should not be treated with such contempt. I imagine a bunch of adults standing around, each with a handful of marbles — one adult grabs the marbles of another and announces, ‘Now, that’s mine.’ I imagine a bunch of adults standing around, each with a handful of children’s play . . .

Children’s play is not about you. It’s not about what you want. Children’s play belongs to the children.

What do adults want from children’s play? What are the adult agendas? They want children to learn information; to learn how to do things; to learn how to be (or how the adults want them to be) with other people; to run around so they don’t get fat; to not try things out because they think they, the adults, have a better way of doing it; to not slip or fall or hurt themselves in any way. On the face of it, most of these things have a place in care or education environments. This isn’t to suggest that playworkers don’t ‘care’: of course they do. Playworkers care greatly. Perhaps that’s why we get so worked up about these sorts of conversations. Playworkers care about the play of children (and, of course, the children themselves), and play is more important than I can say in just a few lines.

As a playworker, I’ve observed children’s play for many years, and I’ve learnt a great deal. I can only be an absolute authority on my own play though. When I played, as a child, I didn’t go into that play — consciously — in order to learn factual information, or how to make something, or how to share, or how not to be obese, or how to prove that adults were right, or how to carry out personal risk assessments. I might have got a lot of information out of my play as a result of playing, but why did I play? Why did I go into my play?

I played in the woods because they were interesting and dark and wet and close and sunlit and just down the road.

I played on top of the old bungalow because there was an overgrown garden full of somebody else’s eggs and brown sauce and flour, and so I used them to trash the place.

I played on my bike, going round and round the block, just because I wanted to make it to a hundred circuits.

I played by putting snails in empty drinks cans and putting them in the middle of the road, then sitting under the bridge to watch, because I was curious.

I played in the stream by the lake, scooping along in the shallows, because I liked the feel of the water on me and the breeze in my hair.

I played football up against someone else’s house because that was where I found myself when I decided that I needed to play football; because the wall was a good sized wall; because there was a bit of a slope that bounced the ball back at me at unexpected angles.

I played by ‘selling’ comics to other children on my front door step because I had comics and because the hallway made a good shop and because other children were interested in my comics.

I played football with other children because I liked football.

I played by standing at the end of the street with the children from that end, and we talked about our dreams because I was fascinated that other children had had the same dreams as me (or, they said they did!)

I played by sliding down the stairs in a sleeping bag because the sleeping bag was slippery and because the stairs made you go fast.

I played on top of the living room table because that was the best way, at the time, to get from one part of the room to another without touching the floor.

I played with my sister and brother by communicating through the central heating grills, each of us in different rooms, because I thought this was a good way to communicate, and because I imagined this to be our own secret way of communicating: a way that the adults couldn’t hear!

I played by standing on the edge of the parapet above the garage, maybe a twenty feet drop to the road, because this was a drop that needed looking down on from the edge . . .

In my play, I wasn’t thinking about conquering my fears, or developing my confidence or self-esteem, about sharing with others, about learning how to pedal or how to kick a ball coming at me at unexpected angles. I wasn’t thinking about my fine or gross motor skills, about my cognitive awareness, or the developmental outcomes of any kind. I wasn’t thinking about the feelings of other people inside the houses around me, or about the feelings of the other children I played with: if they didn’t like me that day, or if they didn’t like what I was doing, they told me; so, I went off and played on my own. That’s life.

My play was my play. It wasn’t the construct of adults: it wasn’t adult-directed, or shaped, or suggested to me. It wasn’t about the adults.

Children’s play, my fellow adults, is not — or should not be — about you. If it is, it isn’t children’s play.

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