Take a look at this playground:
Behind her the children began filing in from lunch, hands in their pockets and eyes searching the ground for pebbles which had all swept away. They weren’t allowed to run or shout, and the staff spent all of their time judging disputes and sending children back inside. Nobody seemed happy about this, but they didn’t know what to do differently.
The Break Leader sighed.
“These kids,” she said. “It seems every year, every day even, we put out less and less stuff, but the behaviour problems just get worse and worse! I don’t understand these children at all.” On that, I thought, she was absolutely right.
Play is a drive, I said. It’s a human need, like food or sleep. Conflict and competition occur when opportunities to satisfy that need are denied. You could see immediately how any toys dropped into that space would be snatch-grabbed away or became the focus of a big row. By creating a place that was sterile of play cues and opportunities, the school had established an environment of artificial scarcity. In the absence of anything else to play with, the children treated one another as toys. They were cruel to one another and took pleasure in it. Without the chance to play, they couldn’t develop the skills necessary to come together positively, to stand up for themselves, to imagine different possibilities and invite other children in to join them.
Instead of whistles and regulations, we came in with chalks and bright sequined scarves. We brought cheap plastic bead necklaces and lengths of string, and the children looked up at us with starving disbelieving faces. We tucked these things into our pockets with the ends trailing out. We invited theft and then, when they stole the scarves away we chased them until we all fell over laughing. The scarves became dress up for games of brides and ‘Auntie’s visiting from India’. Others were folded and tied in tight knots, ninja-style. The beads became treasure, swapped or gifted with great ceremony. One child just folded the scarf, and gazed through it at the playground turned pink and suddenly shot through with rainbows.
Instead of associating break time with desperation, frustration, fear and getting in trouble, they began to celebrate their free time as freedom! They began to dance through new ideas, to experiment and show off to one another. When we brought the tennis balls back out and allowed them more than one apiece, they taught themselves juggling.
A few small objects turned it into a feast.