New Year’s Revolutions

There’s another of those uncredited lines running around my head, that children playing out is both sign of and catalyst for healthy communities.

It sure feels true, doesn’t it?  When we see children playing outside, we can assume that people know their neighbors, there there is confidence in the safety of public space and a general acceptance of children’s presence.  In communities where children do not play out, we often see a spiral of suspicion, repression, conflict, trauma and reaction.  Something similar happens with adult play – we know what follows when societies suppress art, literature, comedy and dance.  Healthy communities hold a place for participation, imagination and dissent from citizens of all ages.

2016 gave us a lot to process, and I’m glad to be starting the New Year by teaching a winter term course at Middlebury College, titled “Children’s Play as Social Subversion”.  My abstract promises that:

In this course, we will look at historical and cultural interpretations of children’s play in anthropology, psychology, anarchist theory, the “new sociologies of childhood” and the UK-based field of playwork. We will investigate systems of power and control acting upon children’s time, space and freedom, and play’s intersection with issues of gender, race, class and neurodiversity. Through readings, written work and practical assignments, we will establish a rich understanding of play, exploring and moving beyond the conventional fixed equipment playgrounds which have been called “ghettoes for play” to critically examine material and social environments children create for themselves.

This is all pretty thrilling, but I’ve been embarrassed by my struggle to assemble a reading list that reflects the diversity of the field.  Other than the playwork ‘classics’, what should I be reading and sharing with people newly interested in play and children’s rights?  What readings or concepts have inspired you to think differently, feel more deeply?

And if you’re looking for more ways to play in your 2017, keep an eye on this…

A slow and internal reframing

I held strong opinions on ADHD long before I knew much about it.  When I first got into playwork, freshly impassioned by children’s rights, it seemed a horrifyingly easy way to medicate children into little boxes of conformity and obedience.  I thought of canaries in coal mines, how some suffer first under conditions that hurt everyone.  Everything I read talked about over-diagnosis, about all those boys who simply couldn’t sit still.

It was only at Parish that I met children struggling so heroically with their differences, that I saw how useful terminology might be.  But more than once, colleagues would point to a specific behavior as “so ADD” and I said some version of “but we all do that, don’t we?” then looked out over their surprised faces.  No, came the reply.  Not everyone does.

So, I started reading other stories – about how girls in particular can be under-diagnosed, how intense social training can twist ADHD into depression or anxiety.  The quizzes included questions both specific and diverse.  Feeling alarmed in busy shops?  Never quite making it to the post office, despite a thousand good intentions?  Scattered organizational systems, cycles of procrastination and panic before bursts of intense focus…  All of it, extremely familiar.

Huh, I thought, filing that away.

Then at a conference, a woman I respect enormously mentioned she’d recently been diagnosed with ADD and experienced a sense of relief.  She said that name allowed her to stop calling herself lazy or careless or stupid for the things she couldn’t change, for the difficulties she’d kept secret.

“I’ve been…  wondering about that myself,” I said.  She nodded.

“Welcome,” she said, and punched me on the arm.  I grinned.  The more I looked around the more brilliant, beautiful, fascinating women I met with stories similar to mine.  Most of all, there is satisfaction in reading a list of traits that includes both aspects of myself I love, and those I have spent hopeless years trying to eradicate.  Thinking of them as flip sides of the same coin allows me to be more generous with myself, more gentle.

Labels are always imperfect, shifting as our understanding and interpretation of differences change.  Like all tools, labels can be used to connect, empower or oppress.  But for now, thinking about this label in reference to myself doesn’t feel medicalization, it feels like the start of acceptance.

On baking as play

Suzanna reminds me to play, because I forget all the time. I might be short-tempered or vague when we’re talking or start to go weird in some other way, and Suzanna will ask if I’ve been outside lately. She’ll ask what I’m doing for fun and perhaps show some of the crafts, postcards, photography and doodles that she’s been working on. And for several years, she’s patiently encouraged me to start baking again.

When I was small, I loved to bake. The reasons all came back when I carefully leveled cups of soft flour and poured tiny scoops of fragrance. I don’t know why I resisted for so long, other than all the usual reasons why we resist what is good for us. It was fun, to look through recipes again and daydream flavor combinations for scones, quiche, cornbread. I cut cold butter into mountains of flour, and creamed it against bright sugar crystals. Everything is full-fat, sweet and crumbly. Over a few weeks, I got good at baking again, and had the joy of bringing my mother food she was actually excited about eating. It reminded me how cake is more powerful than we give it credit for.

If cake was the point though, we’d go out and buy one. Making something more difficult than it needs to be for the fun of it is a pretty decent definition of play. Baking develops skills of foresight and improvisation, and offers the drama of a sponge’s rise and fall. Like all play, baking allows people to experience large emotions in a small way – joy, disappointment, risk and triumph. And when I take a strawberry pound cake, sunken in the middle, over to a friend’s house I can watch her taste it and know it came out good.

I’ve been lucky to have Suzanna as one of the voices in my head, calm and compassionate. She reminds me to be gentle, and apply some of the warmth and non-judgment from playwork to my own self. I’m so grateful for that, and specifically for her nudges to play more. When it comes to baking, the risks are low, in time and effort and cost, but the rewards can be marvelous. In short, it’s a great choice for the chronically play deprived – such as myself, and maybe also you?