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

Posts tagged ‘society’

Poor play: the onslaught of instrumental rot

Poor play: this magical, ineffable, sublime and often highly personal affair has been infested by an instrumentalist rot. Once such a thing’s set in, it’s prone to acceleration. The message is clear from this writer and playworker: play is for play’s sake; however, this essential message about play is weighed by all manner of adult agendas swilling around at the periphery, and some individuals and organisations of nominally playwork flavour may have forgotten what play is. That is an aside. The purpose of this writing is to shine a light on the general swill out there: a swill that sees play in ways often very different to the way that children (and playworkers) do.

First the lament (or, as Arthur Battram puts it in the comments below, the ‘play wails’) and then down to the nitty-gritty of the research:

Play has its benefits. This much is accepted. However, if you were to ask a child (hypothetically, because the actuality of such an endeavour could be seen as unethical) what the benefits of their play were, I’m confident that (supposing they weren’t playing the whole ‘just tell the adult what they want to hear’ game) what they’d say would be markedly different to what an agenda-driven adult would say. Benefits, to the majority of (albeit sometimes well-meaning) adults, can turn into aims and targets. Play becomes a tool, an instrument, towards reaching a certain aim. It is this instrumental rot, this mindset (‘set’ being entirely appropriate here), that I rally against.

Not everyone who interacts with children, or who has a vested consideration for them, is a playworker. This I appreciate. However, the adult agendas wrapped up in such areas as education, politics, health (and even brand awareness), to name just a few, with regards to the consideration and treatment of play, begin to weigh heavily: they’re making me nauseous. Poor play: I’m sick of the agendas.

The Playwork Principles (PPSG, 2005) aren’t perfect by any means, and they’ve been subjected to critique by various authors over the years, but one of the eight statements therein does strike a chord here: ‘For playworkers,’ declares Playwork Principle 4, ‘the play process takes precedence and playworkers act as advocates for play when engaging with adult led agendas.’ This is a rallying call to those out there reading this who know full well what this means. These are difficult times in terms of funding for play provisions and for playwork: this is readily understood. The coalition government couldn’t sweep away the previous Labour Party Play Strategy quickly enough in 2010. Austerity has bitten hard, the bottom line of Tory policy is money; more potently, however, austerity, the Tories, the neo-liberal machine are all wrapped up with an inability to comprehend the idea and the actuality of play. If play doesn’t ‘produce’ anything, then play is seen as pointless. Enter the instrumentalist agenda: if play is purposeful, it can be funded.

It shouldn’t be this way. Regular readers of these pages will know my disdain for the current (money- not people- obsessed) obesity agenda linked to children and their day to days. To this I can add an uneasiness at the usurping of play by education, future fixers, and in some ways therapists too. All ‘use’ play for instrumentalist ends. Some wrap up their (sometimes well-meaning) concern for the children in their scope of consideration with an inability to perceive what play is, for those children. Play is what play is in the moment; its benefits are what benefits the child or children at that time (yes, I am also aware of the deferred benefits argument); the instrumentalist rot of adult agendas should not be allowed to set in.

Herein ends the preamble. The meat of this post is concerned with research undertaken in order to substantiate my previous claims. This research is, of course, not exhaustive. However, of the recent national and international articles posted to various publications (and a couple of older ones for good measure too), I can as yet find no out-and-out example of promotion of play for play’s sake. One comes close, but still there are issues: in Which is the only country to protect in law the child’s right to play? (The Guardian), Aditya Chakrabortty reports on the Welsh government’s positive regard towards children’s play but the reporter still adds that ‘Yet play teaches children to resolve differences.’

Why does play have to be ‘for’ something other than itself in the writing and thinking offered up by others? (By ‘others’ I mean ‘not those of a playworking persuasion’). Play, if it has to be ‘for’ something, is ‘for’ its own ends.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has just had her office publish a report titled Playing Out: a Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity. Whilst play has been thrown into the spotlight by this report, it is unfortunately chock-full of instrumentalism, often blurred through the lens of ‘benefit’. Yes, children’s play is important (because of an implicit respect for children and their ways of being, their rights, them, perhaps?), but here in this offering we have a litany of skills development, concerns on obesity, future fixing, social engineering, and so on. Some quotes:

By playing, children try out new things, test themselves and learn new skills. Play is also a way of developing social and emotional skills: by playing with others children learn to share, take turns, negotiate and make friends.

Far from being an inconsequential time filler, it is clear that play helps children grow into the rounded, sociable and skilled people we all want them to be.

There is so much to be gained by enabling children to play and be active. It’s time for a joined-up approach to supporting children’s health and wellbeing and a recognition that only by working together will we deliver the changes necessary to protect the health of future generations.

Play teaches children to use language effectively and solve problems . . . Through play and physical activity, children learn how to negotiate, cooperate and see things from other people’s points of view.

Children’s social skills are also honed through play. Equipping children with the skills to negotiate and draw boundaries, e.g. through role play, may help prevent unhelpful peer relationships from forming, such as those in gangs.

Recommendations to help children become more active: Increasing children’s play and physical activity would have a range of physical and emotional benefits . . . Put out of school activity at the heart of the plan to reduce obesity.

Where, in all this, is a recognition of play in non-instrumental terms? Play is a political football, kicked around: goals are scored. The real players, in this analogy, are sat on the bench, watching on.

The instrumentalists are in the ascendancy. Poor play. A selection of other findings follows.

In Why playtime is an essential part of childhood development (Child in the City), Jenny Silverstone writes:

When they play, they learn . . . When they play, a child is working on their neurological development . . .

(Sorry, they’re doing what?)

. . . solo playtime is important to help a child explore their imagination. Playtime with other [children] is equally important too as it helps with socialization [sic] and conflict resolution . . . [sensory play] builds up language skills and it is a way for them to learn how to problem solve.

Professor Karen Hutchison of Rowan University says: ‘Play is actually the work of a child in which they are preparing themselves for adult roles and society at large.’

No. No, it’s really not. Play is the focus of the now.

Perri Klass writes in Taking playtime seriously (New York Times):

Play is a universal, cross-cultural and necessary attribute of childhood, essential for development and essential for learning.

In addition to teaching children content, we should look to strengthen their human skills, [Dr. Hirsh-Pasek] said, helping them learn to think up new ideas and explore them, and to navigate the social worlds of play and, later, of work.

‘Play is not a specific activity, it’s an approach to learning, an engaged, fun, curious way of discovering your world,’ Dr. Tamis-LeMonda said.

Play is an approach to learning, to work, to development, the future of ‘betterness’. What about being?

In Time Health, Siobhan O’Connor writes about The secret power of play:

. . . scientists have learned that free play isn’t just something children like to do — it’s something they need to do. Play keeps [children] physically active, all the more important at a time when some 20% of American children are obese — more than triple the percentage from the more play-friendly 1970s . . . It also exercises their minds and their creativity. More than anything else, play teaches children how to work together and, at the same time, how to be alone. It teaches them how to be human.

Play for play’s sake doesn’t get a look in.

Reporting on National Playday in 2014, Katherine Sellgren writes in Play ‘boosts children’s development and happiness’ (BBC, archived under an education URL):

Play helps boost children’s language development, problem solving, risk management and independent learning skills, a study reaffirms.

The report, for the Children’s Play Policy Forum, found play improved children’s physical and mental health, as well as their emotional well-being.

It also found playtime in the school playground could enhance academic skills and attitudes and behaviour . . .

The study also said play and youth facilities in public spaces had led to reductions in levels of anti-social behaviour and vandalism.

[Playgrounds were] linked to a range of improvements in academic skills, attitudes and behaviour, and to improved social skills, improved social relations between different ethnic groups, and better adjustment to school life.

Yes, yes, but what about how play is?

Very acute and current affairs in the US have been viewed recently through the lens of play. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write in How to play our way to a better democracy (New York Times), and despite quoting the ‘free play’ definition offered by Peter Gray (‘activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself’), that:

Outdoor free play, in mixed-age groups, is the most effective way for children to learn . . . essential life skills, Professor Gray says.

How to future-fix a post-Trumpian society.

Returning to the recent publication by the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, Michael Savage writes in The Observer under the title of Call for action to end children’s ‘battery-hen existence’ in summer holidays, that

[Re: the idea of ‘play on prescription’] Research has also indicated that half of British seven-year-olds do not meet the chief medical officer’s minimum physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes activity every day.

‘If children are there [at adventure playgrounds], they will be less anxious, out and about and improving.’ (Anne Longfield)

Improving, no less. Play for attainment of CMO activity guidelines. Savage goes on to write that:

Sarah Wollaston, the Tory chair of the health select committee, backed the calls. ‘Physical activity and play are enormously important to children’s physical and mental health,’ she said. ‘Providing these facilities may save money down the line. It is fantastic value in avoiding the costs later on of poor mental and physical health.’

Is it all about the money? What about poor play? Would any Tory know what ‘play for play’s sake’ means?

The final word here goes to the Lego Corporation. Perhaps whilst trying to entice a few readers into engaging with a few more products in the pipeline, under the title of Families that [sic] play more are happier, but even children say they are too busy for fun and games, the Lego reporter writes that:

The power of play to help children learn is indisputable for parents. Almost all (95%) believe play is essential for children’s wellbeing and a vital educational tool. Four in five (82%) think that children who play more will be more successful in future studies and work.

At the bottom of the page it’s stated that:

The Lego Group’s mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow through the power of play.

What though about the play of today?
 
 
References:

Chakrabortty, A. (2018), Which is the only country to protect in law the child’s right to play? The Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/22/child-right-to-play-wales-law-budget-cuts (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Children’s Commissioner for England (2018), Playing out: a Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity [online]. Available from: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Play-final-report.pdf (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Haidt, J. and Lukianoff, G. (2018), How to play our way to a better democracy. New York Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/01/opinion/sunday/democracy-play-mccain.html (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Klass, P. (2018), Taking playtime seriously. New York Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/well/family/taking-playtime-seriously.html (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

O’Connor, S. (2017), The secret power of play. Time Health [online]. Available from: http://time.com/4928925/secret-power-play/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

PPSG (2005), The playwork principles. Cardiff: Playwork Principles Steering Group.

Savage, M. (2018), Call for action to end children’s ‘battery-hen existence’ in summer holidays. The Observer [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/25/end-battery-hen-existence-in-summer-holidays-childrens-commissioner (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Sellgren, K. (2014), Play ‘boosts children’s development and happiness’. BBC [online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28658441 (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Silverstone, J. (2018), Why playtime is an essential part of childhood development. Child in the City [online]. Available from: https://www.childinthecity.org/2018/08/29/why-playtime-is-an-essential-part-of-childhood-development/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Trangbæk, R. R. (2018), Families that play more are happier, but even children say they are too busy for fun and games. Lego Group [online]. Available from: https://www.lego.com/en-gb/aboutus/news-room/2018/august/play-well-report/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
 
 
Addendum:
Sometimes reporters of articles get to speak to playworkers, advocates for play for play’s sake who do their level best to explain their experience and understanding of play, to inform those articles; sometimes, it’s acknowledged here, those reporters misrepresent or mangle those playworkers’ words.
 
 

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One giant leap for childkind

We are all simply children of different ages.

— Gordon Sturrock, personal communication (2018)

 
It isn’t any wonder that many of us find ourselves all at sea in the waves of global and local political discontent, disinformation, dis-ease: the egotistic presidents, ministers and other lesser dictators of hyperbole have taken up their sticks and assumed themselves of power. Billionaires speak whatever passes in their mind, without regard, because others worship the capital scraps that fall at their feet; corporations speak in numbers, not in the language of people; bureaucrats enact the data crunching will that comes from somewhere high above, unquestioned, because that is what they’re programmed to do. It may sound naïve to say it but, whisper it, there are such things as people and the many trials and tribulations of their lives.

What has this all to do with children? Well, I write in the context that we are all never ‘fully solved’, that we are all somehow making our way, continuing to try to make our way, that we are — deep down, or not so very far from the surface — creatures of shared concerns, anxieties, hopes and fantasies of escape. In short, and to flip that all around, children are just like us too. We all experience the process of ageing, gaining internal encyclopaedias-worth of what we think as knowledge, refining our intuitions, making myriad mistakes and repeating them until those mistakes have taught us what we need to know, but wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with any of that. Wisdom can just as easily be an in-the-moment acuity, such as with child-like presence. There is a difference though between being ‘child-like’ and ‘childish’.

There is a far more positive connotation to the former than there is, in popular modern culture, to the latter. What if, one by one, some by some, we were to begin to connect with one another in the higher degrees of child-like grace? This is not a covert way of suggesting that we all ‘play nicely’ (whatever that means), ‘share and care’, or other saccharine mantras of pre-school adults’ soft decree; this is a way of saying that, if we think to see carefully, there are other communications within the apparent one before us. Children often have a great capacity, in my experience, to comprehend the essence of this.

Children and adults alike can be child-like or perceived as childish. In the negative connotation of the latter, wrapped as it is in a distrust or fear or illness of ease regarding children and their actions or apparent irrationalities, adults construct a state of feebleness, of unformedness, of uselessness. The word is wholly unfair on, and unrepresentative of, the child. The noun that is ‘child’ suffers judgement with the addition of the suffix that is ‘ish’ in the way that adjectives don’t always do (e.g. yellowish, smallish, flatish). Even, if we were to stretch the lexical point, the adjective that is ‘Spanish’, or ‘English’, (‘relating to Spain or to England’), could suggest a vagueness (Spain-ish, England-ish), but not such negativity as we often find in ‘childish’.

We could shift our collective thinking. Connotations can change: they have done already in some words (e.g. artificial, villain). What if ‘childish’ became so elevated that it were up there, enjoying the view, with ‘child-like’? What would need to happen for that to be? Of course, the dominant collective attitude, disposition, treatment and regard for children would need to shift, but this will take time: children are often treated as pawns for adult agendas (the well-documented separation of Central American families travelling across the US border, for example; the politically-decreed testing of school children to meet Government targets in the UK). There are such things as people . . .

Herein lies the rub: we are all such things as people: even the billionaires, the power merchants, the corporate greys in their penthouses, the bureaucrats and others programmed to perform. None of us ‘grow up’ because none of us can: we may think of ourselves as wise or powerful or worthy in any amount of ways, but really we rely on others to bestow or affirm these attributes on us. We grow out, grow along, we gather articles along the way, which we may later discard or keep still, but ‘growing up’ is a fallacy. We might work out how better to cover the emotions that tangle out of our feelings, but we won’t master this thing called life: children are emotional feeling people, as we are; adults are emotional feeling people, as children are.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that every person on this planet is going to get along. I do, however, believe (because I have experienced it) in the notion of child-like grace. It is a transpersonal presence in both children and adults, and it is a connection we can all make if we want to try being open. We listen to the noise that’s forced upon us (even with the best effort of not trying to hear the squawking in the street below, in the dead of night, we can’t always not hear the relentless stream that comes at us from the politicians, the media analysts and manipulators, the opinions of all our fellow listeners): we listen and we become subsumed, we allow ourselves to follow, we accept connotations. We can do something about this: we can think, we can see, we can connect. It is child-like to do so.

We have a common grace, but we have to want to be in touch with it. We will fail daily, because we share our streets and cities with many others, and we can’t always predict their various shifting states of being; we will, however, have moments of affirmation that aren’t wrapped up in corporate or individual greed, the rhetorics of power, or the hierarchal positionings and posturings of dominance. Our affirmations will be quiet, quite probably unworded, full of a sense of knowing that isn’t taught at school, replete with something ‘other’. We will be child-like, childkind.
 
 

The war on the war on obesity

Further to my recent post on the childhood obesity agenda, a little refinement is necessary. This is a subject matter that might gain continual return in my writing. Briefly, my current thinking is that play, as precious and beautiful and as fraught or vociferous as it is, is engaged in for the sake of itself; play ‘used’ for instrumental gain by external parties is disingenuous to what play is, for the player. So, by not so stealthy means (and despite the fact that the ‘p’ word — as playworkers know it — hardly gains any real degree of recognition in those external parties’ outpourings), when play is manipulated (albeit under the guise of, say, ‘physical activity’) towards solving issues (societal, economic: political), I’m in disagreement.

The manipulation in question here is the obesity agenda. My writing/thinking is a reframing of prevalent perceptions of play: play, for the player, is autotelic. Regarding autotelic theory, Burghardt (2005) writes that this ‘derives from the view that all play is done for its own sake . . . the play performance is its own gratification, not the putative end or goal. Thus, autotelic means that the goal (telos) of the behaviour is itself (auto)’. Compare this to the one reference to ‘play’ I’ve managed to find, to date, amongst government documents — under a section entitled ‘supporting early years settings’ in the Department of Health and Social Care’s (2017) document Childhood obesity: a plan for action, it’s stated that:

‘In early 2017 . . . we will update the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework to make specific reference to the UK chief medical officers’ guidelines for physical activity in the early years (including active play).’

It is only ‘active play’ deemed as beneficial: there is an agenda for its use; furthermore, it’s included in a section specifically referenced to the early years. It is as if play doesn’t or shouldn’t exist beyond the early years because it will, by then, have further transmuted into other forms of activity that have (playworker un-endorsed) measurable outcomes. If playworkers continue to jump on the bandwagon of using the ‘play as physical activity to help solve obesity agenda’, then play for play’s sake loses out, even if the funding is provided. Well, some might say, play the game, twist things for your project’s benefit: it helps keep the real play agenda going. That it might, but it doesn’t help in the long run, I’d say. The wider perception of play for play’s sake won’t be enhanced because people haven’t been adequately informed.

Play for play’s sake: this is the message we should be continually shouting out. We have to call it as it is.

This ‘calling it as it is’ brings me back round to the government’s obesity agenda. It has long been my contention that, despite the rhetoric of concern for the health and well-being of the nation, the actual bottom line is that the economic strain on the NHS, and by extension, the government coffers, is the real driving force. So, it’s apposite that the following news report has been filed today: Nick Triggle (2018) writes for the BBC that the ‘NHS needs £50bn extra by 2030’, citing ‘a former health minister and leading surgeon’, Lord Darzi.

A few days ago, I felt obliged (though, really, I didn’t actually want to) to wade around in the murky depths of the Tory Party Manifesto — more technically reference-able, perhaps, as The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto (2017). I felt obliged to root around in order to feed my obesity agenda concerns, to get some evidence, though I felt dirty for it afterwards! I do it so you don’t have to. A few nuggets unearthed, for your consideration:

The manifesto is aimed at what it calls ‘ordinary working families’, stating explicitly that ‘[t]hey are the people to whom this manifesto is dedicated.’ (p.8). Does this then presuppose that everyone not included in the narrow overlap of whatever ‘ordinary’, ‘working’ and ‘family’ are considered to be are not included?

‘We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism.’ (p.9). (The jury appears to be out on this one, given the reputation of ministers of recent times, based on actions). Let’s move onwards though with the economic agenda.

Under the heading of ‘five giant challenges’, the manifesto points to ‘[t]he need for a strong economy’ (p.6), and this bullet point comes top of the list. The capitalist agenda is, contrary to feeble attempts to persuade us otherwise, prevalent: ‘Without business and enterprise, there would be no prosperity and no public services.’ (p.9); ‘A strong economy is the basis for everything we want to achieve as a nation.’ (p.13); ‘Capitalism and free markets remain the best way to deliver prosperity and economic security.’ (p.16).

How does the party plan our present and our future? We’re in the sausage machine of ‘productivity’, don’t forget:

‘[W]e will continue to strive for full employment.’ (p.54); ‘We need to give every child in our country the best possible education if we are to provide them with the best opportunities in the world.’ (p.50) (that is, employability). Education is filed under a section entitled ‘The world’s great meritocracy’, where it’s stated that ours should be ‘a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow, where advantage is based on merit not privilege.’ (p.49) (work hard, be productive, be a part of the machine, the economy requires it). Let’s just gloss over the quote about privilege here because it’s laughable.

So, we come to the NHS and the economy and the productive units of society. It must stick in the throats of the Tories who might well prefer that the NHS is sold off, to be more profitable, but it can’t, yet, when the manifesto declares that ‘[t]he Conservative Party believes in the founding principles of the NHS . . . care should be free at the point of use.’ (p.66). The ghost of Aneurin Bevan must be howling for conflicting reasons.

The manifesto attempts to temper the subtitle that is ‘The money and people the NHS needs’ (p.66) with its touch of the human element, but really it’s the money that stands out. Yes, it is a service that needs paying for, this can’t be denied, but the humanity rings hollow, the sentiment as read thereafter that the nation’s health and well-being are paramount is secondary (if that high up at all) to the finances. So it is we come back to childhood obesity and ‘the crisis of obesity’:

‘We will continue to take action to reduce childhood obesity . . . We shall continue to support school sport, delivering on our commitment to double support for sports in primary schools.’ (p.72). Yes, I’m cynical and no, I don’t apologise: use play, or approximations of it, or near-guesses of it, to ramp up fitness, to deliver (or pump in ‘education’) academic achievement, to create ‘opportunity’ for jobs, to become productive units for the economy. Blah.

Returning to the Department of Health and Social Care’s (2017) Childhood obesity: a plan for action document, it is stated that:

‘[N]ot only are obese people more likely to get physical health conditions like heart disease, they are also more likely to be living with conditions like depression . . . [t]he economic costs are great, too.’ I suspect that the last line here, being the first line of the second paragraph, is the real first line of the document. The first line though, as given, is rather: ‘Today nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese.’ What this doesn’t do, however, is play straight with the document it cites for this. This document, the Health and Social Care Information Centre’s (2015) National child measurement programme (England, 2014/15 school year), gives statistics for reception age (four year olds) and Year 6 (eleven year olds), not 2-15 year olds. The focus of the former document is on obesity, but the latter document has four categories of weight, being: underweight, healthy weight, overweight and obese (also combining the last two for comparison purposes). What is then read in Childhood obesity: a plan for action, no doubt, is that the ‘overweight’ category becomes subsumed into an all-encompassing ‘obesity’.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre’s (2015) document also suggests that, in fact, the trend for obesity in four year olds is going down, not up:

‘The prevalence of obese [reception age] children (9.1%) was lower than 2013/14 (9.5%) and 2006/07 (9.9%). Over a fifth (21.9%) of the children measured were either overweight or obese. This was lower than in 2013/14 (22.5%) and 2006/07 (22.9%).’ (p.9).

A closer look at the whole range of percentages for the four categories of weight, for four year olds, allows us to see a picture that isn’t just focused on the ‘negative news’, putting things in perspective:

‘Table 1: Prevalence of the BMI classifications, by school year and sex, England 2014/15: [Underweight] 1.0 [%]; [healthy weight] 77.2 [%]; [overweight] 12.8 [%]; [obese] 9.1 [%].’ (p.10).

Plugging my previous post’s figures for population of four year olds (662,738) into an equation that has it that 9.1% of these are obese (coming out at 60,309, give or take), and with the assumption of 16,786 state-funded schools for children of that age, we still come out at 4 children per school, rounded up, falling into this category. Four. Now, the added extra to the thinking is the explicit acknowledgement of children’s BMI categories being played off against each other and only those at the 95th percentile (i.e. 95% of the reference population weights are less) are seen as obese: surely, in any reference population where percentiles are made use of, a certain number are going to be in that top bracket, no matter what their weight?

Let’s come back full circle. The Department of Health and Social Care’s (2017) Childhood obesity: a plan for action document states that:

‘There is also evidence that physical activity and participating in organised sports and after school clubs is linked to improved academic performance.’

Ramp up fitness, to deliver (or pump in ‘education’) academic achievement, to create ‘opportunity’ for jobs, to become productive units for the economy. Blah. There’s even reference to how Ofsted will be used as a stick to ensure compliance of the above, though not, of course, in those words.

Poor play (or loose approximations of it, notwithstanding the argument that ‘sport’ and ‘play’ can, philosophically, be deemed as different things entirely). It is to the perception of play, or its grouping together with ‘sport’, ‘physical activity for xyz benefit’, and so forth, that I write of. Poor play: used to improve academic performance, for greater ‘opportunity’ to access the ‘world’s great meritocracy’, to be economically purposeful, to be a part of the sausage machine of productivity, to not cost the government coffers too much.

What of play, for play’s sake?
 
 
References:

Burghardt, G. M. (2005), The genesis of animal play. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Department of Health and Social Care (2017), Childhood obesity: a plan for action [online]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action (Accessed April 26, 2018).

Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015), National child measurement programme (England, 2014/15 school year) [online]. Available from: https://files.digital.nhs.uk/publicationimport/pub19xxx/pub19109/nati-chil-meas-prog-eng-2014-2015-rep.pdf (Accessed April 26, 2018).

The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto (2017), Forward together: our plan for a stronger Britain and a prosperous future [online]. Available from: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/2017-manifestos/Conservative+Manifesto+2017.pdf (Accessed April 26, 2018).

Triggle, N. (2018), NHS needs ‘£50bn extra by 2030’ [online]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-43898963 (Accessed April 26, 2018).
 
 

Play, for play’s sake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boseley, S. (2018), Obesity putting strain on NHS as weight-related admissions rise [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/apr/04/obesity-putting-strain-on-nhs-as-weight-related-admissions-rise (Accessed April 17, 2018)

Department for Education (2017), Schools, pupils and their characteristics [online]. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/650547/SFR28_2017_Main_Text.pdf (Accessed April 17, 2018)

Office for National Statistics (2015), 2011 census: population estimates for the UK [online]. Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/2011censusunitedkingdomsubmissionforunitednationsquestionnaireonpopulationandhousingcensuses/part2/rfttable1_tcm77-392509.xls (Accessed April 17, 2018)

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) (2017), Obesity update 2017 [online]. Available from: https://www.oecd.org/health/obesity-update.htm (Accessed April 17, 2018)
 
 

Children’s rights and being wronged

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

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

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

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

Rosen also quotes from Bold Beginnings:

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

He concludes this with the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-system connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Griffiths (2013: 97)

Carol Black writes at her A Thousand Rivers essays site:

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

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

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

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

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

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

An optical hierarchy: layers of seeing

It’s come to my recent attention that we tend to live in a somewhat superficial world. It’s not a new revelation of mine or anyone else’s, but it’s one that flows back in every so often.

The other day I was walking by the river in the gathering autumn. I sat on a bench in the sunshine and listened to the water and the quiet passings of people going by. As I sat, I observed the play of a young child of about four as she leant over the lower wooden railings looking into the water. She was with what I presumed to be her family (mum, dad and older sister). The father wanted the girl to catch up with them. Her focus was on the ducks. I saw that she was mouthing the words ‘quack, quack’ and, as she did so, she moved her fingers up by her face and pressed them to her thumb, and released again a few times over, as if her hand were in the mouth of a puppet maybe. It amused me. The father saw me (in what was my observation) and, though not looking directly at me, he kept looking back to let it be known (as I read it) that he thought it odd or not right that I sat there being amused at the play in front of me.

There is something of a qualitative difference between the actions of ‘observing’ and ‘watching’. I use my words carefully because I observed the play that was happening. Observing ‘the play’ is also something that should be noted here. We live in a superficial world where people mistrust others and the act or non-act that is ‘no great depth of thinking’ can get plastered over ‘observation of play’ to manipulate it into something ‘other’. I’m tired of the lack of grace.

The superficiality many often inhabit (we can also find ourselves there in that superficial layer when we don’t know we’re there sometimes, too), is something we all just seem to accept too readily. We drift along, in the analogy, just on top of the river and we’re quite content to be told what to think and feel and we’re quite happy to go along for the ride of being sucked into ‘the rules’ or ‘cultural norms’ imposed on us within it all. We don’t look beyond and beneath.

If you look closely you can see the trees sway, the water shift, the world revolve; if you look closely you can see into the cracks and the alveoli; if you peer in and beyond you can realise you don’t have to see or think or feel in all the ‘normal’ ways. Play lives here too, as does observing play because play is good and observable.

This preamble, then, brings me to what I have been thinking of as some sort of ‘optical hierarchy’ in layers of seeing. We can see deeper in, but only if we want to or if we recognise that we might be able to. We don’t have to inhabit that superficial realm. We can refine the definitions of our actions (such as the apparently simple and effortless act of ‘seeing’) as we reflect on the active verbs of our engagements with the world.

So, I reflect, I have at times used the words ‘observe’ and ‘watch’ almost interchangeably in general and maybe throwaway speech or writing, though in the context of considered playworking, I know I use the former deliberately. There is, however, a qualitative difference between those active verbs that are ‘to observe’ and ‘to watch’. There is a richness embedded in the former, which is not inherent in the latter. There is a certain action of noticing within what is ‘watching’, though this noticing can be imbued with an external perceiver’s fear and mistrust or with the watcher’s gathering attention to detail. Here we start to wade, potentially, in the shallows rather than swim in the depths.

Just as light can be perceived as both a particle and a wave, we can proceed with this optical hierarchy simultaneously as either and both in the positive or in the cynical and fearful. There are qualitative differences between the active verbs that are ‘to watch’ and ‘to look’, between ‘to look’ and ‘to glance’, and between ‘to glance’ and ‘to glimpse’.

English is blessed with words and synonyms, but really, in the context of the subject matter of an optical hierarchy in ways of seeing play, the ‘nearness or closeness’ of synonyms isn’t near or close enough for the accurate depiction of actions and their intent.

When we ‘observe’ play, we are able to access all manner of conscious and unconscious moments and memories, considerations and part-contemplations, reflections and open questions, driftings and inherent understandings. Observation is rich and replete with connections: play is a universal force, a thing-in-itself, a manifestation which we can connect with and connect to all manner of our reveries and experiences and other wisdoms. Play resides in the cracks and alveoli as well as all around, in the depth layers of our engagements with the world.

So, when I’m feeling that connect, even and especially the small moments of play and playing amuse and cause the wheels of internal refinement to start to shift. Observation (not only of play) can lift us, submerge us, move us. On one depth level, we are neurochemical beings: we can become flooded. On other levels, we’re what some call ‘spiritual’ beings (though really, in the same way as proclaiming madness precludes actual madness, proclaiming to be ‘spiritual’ may suggest there’s still a way to go in this endeavour, and there isn’t really a word in English to adequately define ‘truly spiritual’, despite the richness of the language): ‘spiritual’ beings as we may be, observation can enhance this yet further and deeper in. We can be subsumed.

I observed the play of a young child of about four as her focus of attention was taken by the ducks, and as she made puppet-like gestures with her fingers, mouthing ‘quack, quack’ and as her presumed father looked at me with ill-regard. I just felt, sadly, that one of us was paddling along in the shallows. Even the ducks poked their heads beneath the water, rooting around down there, every once in a while.
 
 

(E)states of play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The playworker as pastoral adult/belying the trust

I think I may have made a small error in communication judgement when working with a particular child last week. We make mistakes all the time, but we don’t always know or see this. I may have made an error, but I won’t know with a little more clarity until later on this week. The error was along the lines of talking with that child’s mother about an observation of one thing I’d seen that child say and do. This wasn’t anything to do with disclosures or things of this kind: it was simply something I’d seen the child do, and in the greater scheme of things (or so I immediately thought) it was no big deal . . . but telling that here might even compound the personal issue. Let’s just say that it was nothing of any concern to a playworker or maybe even a parent; however, my telling the observation might turn out to have been something of great importance to the child.

This all leads me to thinking more on the subject of trust. If we talk with parents, we sometimes tell them of the funny things their children say, of the quirky interpretations on life that those children have, and so on. Have we committed a crime here for any given child though? My reflections have come about by way of questions to myself, which I intend to lay down here and expand with writing as I think: writing is sometimes the best way to think!
 
How much, if anything, of children’s communications to us should we relay to their parents when in general conversation later?
If you work with children in a staffed after school provision, or even sometimes in open access (because some children’s parents still come by), it’s a fair bet you’ll be in conversation with those parents at some point. This child I’m writing about in my example tells me plenty of her day-to-days, of her general feelings, of her ways of seeing things. I take it as a compliment when she chooses to tell me the things she does. I only told her mother one of the conversations we’d had that day last week (it wasn’t necessary to talk about them all, and the one I did discuss was one that particularly amused me). Shouldn’t those conversations be private though? (That includes the thinking of how much, if anything at all, of private conversations should be placed online here, which is why I don’t relay any stories of these in this writing now).
 
Why do children tell us the things that they do?
I sometimes wonder what it is about ‘this’ adult that ‘this’ child has decided to trust with the gems of their thoughts. Maybe children have favourite adults, or at least, maybe they have favourite adults of the moment. Maybe playworkers (not all, perhaps, but some) are open to listening to the day-to-days in ways that other adults in that child’s life may not be. Every child is different and some will prefer their teacher for the same reason, or their mother or their father. Some, however, may see the playworker as the person at the farthest end of the scale of authority. If they know we won’t pull them up for swearing or that we’ll smile at paint being thrown around, then maybe that opens up the appreciation of the pastoral in what we do.
 
How high a priority do we give to that part of our ‘as is’ playworker role that is pastoral?
In terms of the ‘descriptive’ rather than the ‘prescriptive’ (i.e. the playworker can be seen to actually do xyz, rather than the playworker should do xyz), the pastoral aspect is evident to me. That is, when we listen we do so because we want to, because we feel we should do (not that we have to), that we can in some way be of use. At times I’ve supposed that I may be the only person this child is willing or wanting to tell this small but significant moment to. We don’t go out of our way to ‘help solve’, as it were, but we should know that we have been chosen when this choosing does occur.
 
What can draw children to a pastoral adult?
Apart from the aforementioned spectrum of perceived authority, there are other symbolic layers: this may be wrapped up in things like the ‘not’ of who this ‘any given playworker’ is (this playworker is not my teacher/mother/father, etc). There may also be the drawing of the child to the pastoral adult in terms of the archetypes they represent. That is, though the child won’t be thinking this, the playworker may well represent ‘player’, ‘joker’, or maybe even ‘super-hero’, or ‘protector’; or, in terms of more playwork thinking, and straying away from archetypes, the playworker could be ‘someone who can keep this play going, or hold it, or pick it up again from where we left off two months ago’. All of this, perhaps, opens the playworker up to being someone who can be confided in.
 
Why do children sometimes seek a pastoral adult?
Is there a deficiency in the ways that society in general, and the micro-societies around the child, depict that child’s place in it all? If a child is led to believe that the dominant adult view is one of the child being led, or told, or directed, or guided, or informed, and so on, won’t this adult-to-child communication direction ultimately create a perspective on ‘what adult is’? If there’s a pastoral adult, the direction of communication shifts, breaking the mould.
 
What other psychological aspects might be at play?
If a child seeks a pastoral adult, are they in the midst of some form of ‘transference’? That is, in piling onto that playworker, say, the combined positive attributes of others they’ve known, does that playworker become to them what that child wants them to be? Another thought on psychology is that of ‘introjection’: are the positive attributes that the child finds worthy in the pastoral adult actively sought after (in order, on some deeper level, that they be taken in as their own)? Either way, as a means to create or as a means to internalise from, there may be more to the child-pastoral adult relationship than meets the eye.
 
Will it do harm to, in effect, belie the pastoral trust invested in us if relaying any communications had with the child to their parent?
This I don’t know. My suspicion is that children can be fairly resilient but that some, even if otherwise emotionally balanced, may see such incursions into the child/pastoral adult relationship as a gross breach of trust. The question is effectively the central one in all of these reflections here. It leads to the further deliberation of just how resilient is any given child in the degree to which that pastoral trust is belied? That is, where on this child’s spectrum of ‘trust belied’ is ‘too much’?
 
Can you get the trust back every time? Should you try? Either way, why?
I can think of a few examples where I’ve either had to earn trust from a child over a long period of time, or where I’ve inadvertently done or said something that marks me down as someone to be sniped at, or where I’ve rebuilt to the point of things seeming OK again (though we never know for sure because, well, ‘there was that thing you said once, wasn’t there?’, or something like this in not so many words). More or less, if I try too hard, I’m found out and ignored or vilified the more for it. If I don’t bother at all, I’m ignored or vilified for it.

In the end, there are no real answers here: there are only questions for the asking and for the thinking more about.
 
 

Cities of function and fantasy

First, a short story: once, last week on the playground, two older boys were observed to be engaged in a moment of play (these two boys, you see, had been the same two who’d been exercising their subtle and not-so-subtle psychological malefactions on the other inhabitants of the playground at either end of the summer). This is the moment of play observed: there had been some filling of thin latex gloves with water by some children (one walked around the playground with his heavily-filled glove, proclaiming it to be some form of udder!); the two older boys filled their gloves and, finding that they swung in such a way that amused them, proceeded to hang them around their necks to form a pair of heavy breasts each; the boys tucked them into their t-shirts and bounced around, laughing.

I needed to write this because it was an observation of light relief in amongst some of their otherwise more challenging behaviours. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the writing of it until I went for a walk earlier on, several days away from the playground, thinking about the city. For ‘city’ here, you can also read ‘town’ or ‘any given urban area’. I got to thinking about how we go about our day-to-days in quite guided ways: the city is, despite our possible interpretations of freedom and free-will and the like, somewhat prescriptive. That is, everywhere there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways of telling us what to do, where to go, how to be. We can do certain things here and here and here: the city is a functional place. What if we could actually just do our own equivalent of the older boys’ latex glove play? Or rather, by extension, what if the city weren’t so layered with the functional ‘do this here and do this there’ as it is? Would it all break down?

Many, many years ago, at architecture school, we were given the project of designing a city, I remember. Being young and more naïve than I am now, my project co-students and me designed what I now see as being a ridiculously functionalist, largely science-fiction-based, quartered, quasi-Utopia which was neither living nor liveable in. We had long debates about where we’d plant the dead, where the workers would be placed, and so on. Our cities aren’t like that now, are they?

What we didn’t know back then was that cities carry messages, many millions of messages, and we’re all subtly and not-so-subtly floated along in the stream of ‘do this and do that’: on the obvious level there are direct signs, but there are also roads and paths and railway lines that convey the message that this is a route from A to B and not for XYZ other endeavours; within this infrastructure there are the various architectures that have their space or social designation written in their size or decoration or the like; there are open spaces, which are really enclosed spaces, with their messages of ‘escape’, or ‘temporary use’, or ‘be restored’; there are skateparks or fixed play equipment areas (which I always want to write as ‘fixed play areas’), which carry in them the message that this is a corral in which, and only in which, it’s acceptable to be creative, inventive, free-spirited (which in the case of the former is often within replications of props of the wider urban environment, and in the case of the latter is a place that often resembles zoo enclosures built for captured gorillas). The city is, in short, full of messages about the designated function of its constituent parts: use this part in this way.

Would society collapse irrevocably if we played with the infrastructure (put everything of absolute necessity for conveying humans from Point A to Point B underground)? How might we then use the strips we formerly called roads? What if we took down all the fences (which carry their messages in their size, position, degree of hostility, and the fact that they’re there at all)? Could we learn to transfer all our received mistrust of others into an ability to share? What if the acceptable captivity of children’s fixed play equipment areas (or teenagers’ skateparks) — transmitted to us at present by tucking them neatly out of the way under the auspices of ‘safety’ — were exploded from its current ghettoisation into the greater city-scape?

This is not just a question of child and adolescent play though: if the city were less ‘guided’ it would be less so for all of us, adults too. We may think we’re free of mind to come and go but maybe we’re not. A little Nietzsche might illustrate my thinking:

‘Absolute free will can only be imagined as purposeless . . .’

What if we could do our own equivalent of the latex glove play in the less guided city? Messages might still be apparent in our day-to-days but at least the bombardment wouldn’t be so fierce. In this strange new world, we wouldn’t have the eyebrow-raising, the comments, or the disapprovals that we often currently find hidden, or overtly shown, in the actions of others. In this odd new place, no-one would be concerned at the ‘being me’ or the ‘being some experimental me’ exhibited in the play. We might think we’re pretty liberal now, but we’re less than absolutely tolerant: all the messages we’ve absorbed have affected us.

In conclusion, let’s rewind a little. The latex glove play example is an odd (and slightly flippant) one to choose, but I use it here now because it has its comic extremity: imagine, let’s all walk around with latex gloves hanging inside our clothing and no-one bats an eyelid, or cares! Or, imagine the city is a continuous carnival, not a three-day affair. Or, imagine, instead of adding something ridiculous to the city, let’s take away the ridiculous elements of all the subtle and not-so-subtle messages: the dominance of the conveyance infrastructure — where convenience is superseded by capital necessity; the fences and the enclosures, demarcating forbidden trespass and acceptable usage; the ghettos where play can be allowed to happen . . .

Perhaps this odd city I’m dreaming up, a city of fantasy rather than of function, is just as quasi-Utopian as the naïve functional science-fiction city of my student days. Call it an exercise in thought, an operation on the city as it is (with optional latex gloves!)
 
 
Reference

Nietzsche, F. (undated) in Spariosu, M. (1989), Dionysus reborn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Cited in Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 
 

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