The summer months are the busiest for playworkers, when we run more sessions per week, for longer each time. Playgrounds are at their most boisterous, flooded with more children than ever as parents look to fill those long bright days, and outdoor sessions attract children who are roaming around their neighbourhoods looking for adventure.
I went on a brief holiday of my own to Dorset, where I ate ice cream, combed the beach for interesting rocks that turned grey in my pockets, and stared at the window of a toy shop.
This last one felt like getting woken up by a splash of cold water, reminding me that rampant consumerist gendering of play never goes on vacation.
One window, a riotous pink explosion of Sylvanian families, tiny pushchairs, baby dolls and makeover kits.
And the other? Toxic mutants! Mega Death Match games! Giant blinking skulls, pyramids, skateboards, tanks. Things that are blue!
I think that most children enjoy, as I did, a variety of toys. There are things in both of these windows that would have made me extremely happy for as long as it took to break them into a thousand sharp plastic pieces. The problem that I have isn’t with the toys (though many of them do cost an absurd amount and were probably made by, as well as for, children) or even the colour blue or pink. It’s with the strict categorization of everything in the world into either appropriate for girls or appropriate for boys, and the implication that interest in some things precludes interest others.
Girls have: homes, babies, ways to experiment with their appearance.
Boys have: war, travel, construction and demolition.
This zoning continues into the store itself, which like so many stores is effectively zoned into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, and the distinctions made clear by the packaging of the toys. It makes a child’s experience of browsing for a toy into a statement about their gender, and ultimately limits their fields of experience.
It seems self-defeating to me – wouldn’t ditching the gender imperative mean that all children would have the chance to be interested in all the toys?
Later at the beach there was a similarly product-focused version of ‘what children need’ was on offer. Where the river ran into the Channel a deep basin was formed, offering rafting, dune-surfing and the chance to clamber over rocks and tide pools. Possibly one of the finest natural play opportunities anywhere, with free and open raw materials for building and demolishing and the sounds and smells of the water everywhere.
And to one side?
The inevitable bouncy castles.
I’m not a dour and humourless playworker really, and I try not to spend my time picking holes in other people’s provision or pointing fingers and saying “Consumerist! Patronizing! Exclusionary!” in a loud voice of alarm. It’s just that these things seem so indicative of much wider problems that we, as adults, have with children, play and ourselves. Adult anxiety manifests itself in the careful structuring of children’s time and policing of their behaviours, and so many people who say they want the best for children simply don’t think to ask them, or wait and see what they choose freely.
Even on holiday.