The child’s place is in the playground

5 Dec

After going to the East London Play Conference a couple of weeks ago, and hearing Bob Hughes, ‘play philosopher’ talk, I decided it was time I got stuck into more play theory. I know that playwork is better and more radical that I currently think it is. I know this because the more playworkers I meet, the more I realise it’s not just the odd one or two who are radical, progressive and anarchist, it’s most of them. And the theory doesn’t disappoint.

This is from the introduction to Playwork; Theory and Practice edited by Fraser Brown (2003)

Today there are playgrounds, kindergartens, uniformed groups and after-school clubs – a plethora of places where children are socialized to the adult concept of play. The unwritten assumption is that play must always be good for children. It is organised and sanitized, both in physical and social terms. It is important here not to lay blame upon, or criticize professionals, who give so much of themselves in the pursuit of fostering children’s play, The critique is not about individual human behaviour, but about the broad-scale hegemony of contemporary society to which play professionals fall victim just as much as parents and children. This is the hegemony of economic rationalism, which demands that humans must be productive; that this requires seriousness and diligence; and that the task of any child is to become a productive adult. The child’s world is constructed around the idea of play being a preparation for the rigours of adult life. Adulthood is perceived as being serious and productive. Regrettably, many branches of the play movement have fallen victim to this industrial hegemony. They see play purely in terms of developmental preparation, and voice rhetoric about the beneficial results of play in the development of children. Children are not encouraged to run because it is joyful and stimulating, but rather so that they will run faster than their peers, and win races against them. Of course, play has substantial developmental benefits, but that is not its one and only purpose.

The industrial revolution and its accompanying urbanisation left us with another important legacy. In spite of the rhetoric about the family, economic efficiency has meant that people are classified in terms of their relevance to the industrial state – so everyone has their place. The child’s place is in the playground, nursery, after-school club, etc. One of the important results of this is that idealized play, in so far as the ideal is allowed to survive, has been located in the world of children. The extent to which the play movement has focused its attention and vision on children is one of its most striking features. By maintaining that play belongs to the realm of children, the movement may have aided the depiction of play as trivial.

Most discussions about children’s play seems to assume it is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated behaviour, undertaken for its own sake… However…even within that framework, there are almost as many definitions as authors, a plethora of explanatory understandings, and a shift in thinking from looking at the extent to which play is good, to asking what is it good for and how might it help children develop into adults. One of the problems resulting from this is that much of what adults do, supposedly in the interests of children, is seriously misguided. In practice it only serves to marginalize play and make its finest realization more difficult to attain. Many well-intentioned play providers, whether they realize it or not, are merely adults taking control of children’s lives – i.e removing the very essence of play from the child’s experience…In supervised play settings, our desire to protect children and keep them safe from harm often mitigates against the child’s freedom to experiment, take risks and experience challenges. The excessive programming of after-school clubs interferes with the spontaneity and personal direction of  that we might expect to be characteristic of any child-centred provision.

Playwork is not a branch of community work. It is not youth work with children. It should not be used as a mechanism to enable social workers to make contact with troublesome families. It has little to do with homework clubs.Nor should it be viewed as a fortunate by-product of the drive to increase the nation’s workforce. At the root of all those approaches is an adult agenda.

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