Parents at Play in Paradise

The Eden Day at Paradise Park was, as I’ve said before, entirely lovely.  The sun shone and the local police and park wardens smiled upon us.  Parents and children came from all over the borough, representing the area’s extraordinary socio-economic and ethnic diversity.  There were so many people having the BBQ lunch that the cafe ran out of plates.  It was wonderful to see how many parents came along to a session such as this, staking a claim on children’s right to use and enjoy a public park.  Plus, it was free and widely advertised. 

Below are pictures taken by my co-worker Suzanne, with consent from parents and children.

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The parents weren’t shy about getting involved, in some cases establishing themselves as the leader and assigning children roles as assistants or even spectators.  This was where things got complicated.

When it comes to play, my emphasis is always on children’s right to freely chosen, adventurous play in public, as well as dedicated, locations.  The idea that parents ought to spend large quantities of time playing with their children is a new one, created by a specific set of factors.  I think that some of these are:

·         A dramatic rise on the expectations of children to perform academically, which has reduced or eliminated the free time which previous generations spent playing

·         A recent widespread interest in children’s play and developing awareness of its importance for children’s physical, social, emotional, cognitive and creative development

·         Pressure on parents to be wholly responsible for their child’s development , and the concurrent guilt that no amount of time or attention is enough

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Add to this an enormous cultural fear of strangers and it’s no wonder that this day was primarily used as a family-friendly activity, rather than an opportunity for free childcare.

There’s one problem, though, that makes some people squeamish.  Grown-ups aren’t very good at having fun.

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Playing, in the sense that we use the word, involves taking risks.  It can be physically and emotionally exhausting, because you’re pushing yourself to try new things constantly.  It can be revelatory, because you’re using creative, intuitive aspects of yourself that get buried under the day-to-day concerns of being an adult in the world.  It can definitely be embarrassing, because play demands no less than wholehearted participation.  When you’re shot, you shout and fall down and roll on the floor.  When you’re an airplane you run at full tilt with your arms outstretched.  This lack of self-consciousness is usually peculiar to adults who are professional actors or on particularly good drugs.  My point is that play can be hard for adults, even though as children they were once experts.

So when adults co-opt children’s opportunities for play they are doing them a tremendous disservice.  On the day, we saw many children wandering around looking mopey while their parents constructed dens fit for a territorial army or fussed over furnishings.   When this happened we tried to pull the parents aside and say delicately “this is for them, you know”. 

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When parents let the children lead, they allow them to develop their own ways of doing things.  The children get to explore the materials, their meanings and possibilities.  They get to construct elaborate games of territoriality with neighbouring dens and groups, they can stage battles or host parties, exploring relationships of war or hospitality.  They get to make the world, however briefly, into the way they want it to be and, in short, they’re much more interesting than you are.  The worlds of childhood are more intensely imaginative than the one adults inhabit, more vibrantly surreal and continually evolving.  People can be army generals, tribesmen, princesses or cooks, or everything all at once.  They can be birds and tornadoes, they can build and destroy and build again.  Rules shift in a moment and colours never, ever clash.

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When adults’ participation is cooperative, rather than co-optive, everybody learns something.

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