“Miss! Miss! MISS!”

I just delivered my first play session in a school.  People in play often choose not to work with schools, preferring the home territory of Adventure Playgrounds, or to conduct Play Ranging sessions on local housing estates or in public parks.  The thing is, there are lots of children in supplementary classes or formal after-school clubs, or who go straight home after school ends and unless we work in schools we will never meet these children, know them or their needs. 

The relationships children have with adults in schools is fundamentally different to those on playgrounds, and are based on assumptions of respect, obedience and reward or punishment that good playworkers work over time to dissolve.  I’m not saying that these structures are inappropriate for schools (that’s another subject entirely), just that they are very difficult to balance with the basic tenents of good playwork practice.  It’s possible that any playwork in schools is conducted as a sort of compromise, and any conversation about play that teachers or playground staff and playworkers might have is fraught with misunderstandings.

“They just don’t play anymore,” the teachers told us beforehand.  “There’s so many fights instead.  When I was young we played loads of games, but the kids today just don’t know how.”

This made a sort of sense to us.  We’ve seen children with little opportunity to play have trouble initiating or maintaining play with others, and the first consequence of this is generally either aggression or withdrawal.  But when we went for our first lunchtime session we saw children teasing their friends, making faces, getting out a jump rope and throwing balls one to another and trying to cram as much unstructured activity as they could into one short hour.

“See?”  The playground manager said.  “Just what I said, no games.  Now, I was thinking you could start up a netball match.  That would be excellent.”

No!  That is not excellent.  This is not play – that is Physical Education, and as such is catered for during lesson time.

Play is something different, but explaining those differences and child-led playwork has been proving somewhat difficult.  It made me think about how many ethnographies of childhood have focused on games to the exclusion of all else.  Some of these have been very good, and landmark texts in demonstrating the rich existence of a children’s culture, but they have sometimes failed to note that games are a part of play, not the sum total.  In fact, games which are led by an adult fixated on rules need not be playful at all.

That said, it is often said that previous generations of children had enormous stores of skipping rhymes and ball games to play, and that children today don’t seem to.  I wouldn’t argue with that – the children I know often don’t know or play many games that adults would recognise as such.  The reasons for this are often given: that children don’t have enough free time, that they don’t spend the free time they have with other children (particularly of different ages), and that because of these children’s cultural networks are collapsing.  This is certainly true.  Additionally, children are given a number of toys which demand to be played with in certain ways, they have (arguably) shorter attention spans than previous generations and some say they lack iniative.

It becomes clear that the lack of games played by children is associated with a value judgement on not just the conditions in which they are raised, but also on themselves.  I would agree that it’s not surprising that children growing up in a city covered in ‘No Ball Games’ signs don’t know many ball games, but to deduce also that they are incapable of playing games is something else entirely.  Children are incredibly inventive, and adaptive.  If they are not playing many games, traditional or invented in that moment, we have to think whether one reason might be that games do not serve their play needs in the ways they served those of previous generations.

Our children spend so much time in structured environments – both for education and entertainment.  Their time and habits are strictly monitored.  What if, by choosing play that does not carry a list of rules, rewards and punishments, they are catering to a side of their development that needs spontaneity, improvisation, and personal meaning? 

Why is it so difficult to trust that children who spend their lunchtime ‘messing around’ and being as silly as possible, are doing so because it’s the best complement to the rest of their day?  While I would love to see school playgrounds that offer a richer environment than the tarmac postage stamps we accept as ‘normal’, our first need is to develop a body of practice which both accepts the limitations of working within a traditional school environment but seeks to facilitate children’s exploration of their own play needs.

This is, obviously, something of a work in progress!

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