I really hesitated before weighing in on this because in a sense anything that gets people talking about children’s play is valuable. The thing is, the ideas carried in the article about what that play looks like, what it’s for and how it’s facilitated, is very troubling. I’m also afraid that these differences in how we’re using words like “play” aren’t being flagged up early enough – even though they can fundamentally change the kind of provision we’re actually talking about.
The background is: a school in Newark, New Jersey, having grown tired of the disciplinary problems and injuries their children were experiencing at recess, have called in an organization called Playworks to deliver a mandatory and structured physical activities-focused session every single day. They have since reported fewer injuries and less of the “behavioural” issues that required teachers to intervene.
My problems are these:
This isn’t play, as I would use the term. If you’re ever in doubt as to whether what you’re observing is play, there are a couple of core questions to ask yourself:
Are the children involved voluntarily?
Is the activity led by a child?
Is it being done for its own sake – meaning, for the pleasure gained in the process and not for rewards such as gold stars, or to escape being told off?
I don’t think that what they’re leading during these recess breaks can meet any of those criteria. Adult-structured games activities offer no possibility for time to relax or reflect, to dream or imagine or to negotiate the frame, direction and completion of play with peers – all of which are essential for children’s enjoyment of their lives today, and for their social as well as physical development into adults capable of doing more than what they are forced to.
If children are being told that basketball and running laps all recess are not optional, this isn’t even recess. It’s Physical Education, and recess – their prime opportunity for play with other children in the whole day – is being stolen for what is essentially more class time, more time being told what to do by an adult.
Children need recess, they need to squabble over status objects, make and break friendships, feel included and excluded and work out how that happened and what to do about it. Sometimes this can break out into fights.
Children need to run sometimes, fast and hard. Sometimes they fall down or push one another over, and when this happens – particularly when this happens on blacktop surfacing – kids can get hurt.
That said, I know that some playgrounds have genuine problems with violence and many children have so few opportunities for play that they respond by playing ‘harder’, faster than they would prefer to, simply because it’s their only chance. Some children with little play experience lack the social skills to join in others’ games, and may smash their way in instead. This is where playworkers can come in, to smooth that entry process and help children gain the skills they need.
I would argue that a typical school playground, by which I mean an unfurnished blacktop cage surrounded by high wire fencing, is one of the worst possible places to play. It is uninspiring, simultaneously exposed and claustrophobic. It’s challenging for children who have no dressing up clothes, no bits of string or feathers, no cardboard boxes, no trees to climb or flowers to collect, to find satisfying ways of play in what is essentially a prison exercise yard. Add to this the fact that many children today have underdeveloped play skills due to lack of opportunity, and its no wonder that they start using one another as toys.
The Playworks website has a rebuttal posted of some of the disapproving comments posted on the Times article. There are some suggestions that the original article leans more heavily on a sense of discipline than Playworks do in practice, and some semi-encouraging phrases about ‘teaching children how to play’. I was hopeful that this program, as so many, was misrepresented in print. However, entitled Structured or Unstructured Play, I’ll Take Neither! the rebuttal letter manages to spectacularly miss some vital points. First and foremost:
Kids know how to play. They are not doing it wrong. Individual children may need help maintaining play with others, if they are easily frustrated and have limited social negotiation skills. They may need help originating play, if they have gone without play for so long that they have forgotten how to listen to the small and playful voice inside nudging them on with ideas. They may need help accessing opportunities for play, if space, objects and time are not readily available to them. But good playwork is not about teaching children anything, it’s about providing them with the opportunities to figure it out for themselves.
Remembering her own childhood, Founder of Playworks Jill Vialet says:
“When I was growing up in Washington, DC, I had the chance to play outside, unsupervised, every day after school, during the weekends and all summer long. While some people might call that play ‘unstructured’, I would argue that it was as structured as anything I have ever been a part of. The older kids taught the younger kids a host of rules – from how to pick teams to how to quickly end disputes – and as the younger kids became the older kids, we passed on this culture of play to the generation behind us.
Structure here is not the point. Jill doesn’t seem to see any difference here between learning about play from other children, and learning about it from adults. Through structuring play for other children, individual kids are learning about leading, following, jockeying for position in groups of peers and near-peers. They are working it out for themselves as they go along, gaining skills in asking and giving help, making decisions and making do with the decisions of others, and finding a place in a group.
While we take for granted that children ought to be streamed in school according to age, what this quote actually demonstrates is how much children can be learning from one another – a whole ‘culture of play’, far richer than anything adults can force children into. It is this link which has been broken as children’s rights to play out have been taken, and it is this that we have to help ‘mend’.
She also says that: “kids don’t get to play outside and be unsupervised the way we used to” and I totally agree. That’s why I think that defending the opportunities they do have to play freely is the best way we can advocate for their rights. School, being a safe and moderated environment where children are together for the majority of the day, is an ideal opportunity.
What about improving the offer of these playgrounds? Bringing in loose parts, cardboard boxes, lengths of fabric, jump ropes and low-growing trees? There is always a little period of immense excitement at the beginning, but once the children grasp that new opportunities are staying, they soon settle in and begin playing in dramatic, inventive and inclusive ways. They ‘skill up’ as players, become more able to advocate for their own play needs and settle disagreements themselves. Children with better play opportunities during the day do better in class as well, with improved attention spans and fewer behavioural concerns.
This is what we ought to be doing! Not giving P.E. teachers whistles, but giving children stuff to play with, encouraging them and supporting them as they learn for themselves all the things we cannot teach them in class – how to share and imagine, how to get over a broken heart, how to dare to do something scary, how to make friends and live with enemies – how to be themselves.