Feast and Famine

Take a look at this playground:

Calvert School Playground, Baltimore, 1905
It’s more than a hundred years old, but could have been taken yesterday.  In fact, the greatest difference is that now we’d expect to see far more children packed into that space, and very likely no balls or bats.  School playgrounds are still most often composed of a flat expanse of tarmac, high fences and precious little else.  Sometimes there will be markings down for hopscotch or other games that once children would have drawn for themselves with chalk, and sometimes a few pieces of fixed equipment at the back.
Standard playgrounds, whether flat tarmac or fixed equipment, are designed for gross motor skills, for the shucking off of physical energy that seems excess when teachers are trying to keep children in their seats.  You can move your body here and perhaps make some friends, but you cannot alter your surroundings – only your relationship to them. These are places designed with surveillance in mind, with the managing of behaviour and development of physical discpline.  All possibilities that for surprise or subversion that could be designed out have been, and what is left resembles nothing so much as a prison exercise yard.  This shouldn’t be so surprising – they’re designed with exactly the same intentions.
I was working in a school once, delivering training to the playground staff.  The Break Time Leader showed me the locked cupboard where the rubber balls and jump ropes languished, dusty and forgotten.  She explained how the children bought a voucher for a pound which could be exchanged for one piece of play equipment per day – and how the voucher was the first target for punishment following misbehaviour in class.

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.

Here are links for more inspiration on how loose parts can work in preschools or primary schools.


3 thoughts on “Feast and Famine

  1. Thank you so much for posting such amazing stuff on your blog. As always this is great to see. I used to work for the Exeter Scrap store and would love something like this to take off here. Unfortunately we’re lacking in funding 😦

    1. Thank you!

      Scrap stores are the BEST places, hands down. It’s like supermarket sweep, but of free and wonderful junk! It’s sad to hear that, at time when we’re supposed to be looking towards cheap, sustainable solutions scrap stores are still struggling for funding. They’re so much cheaper than landfills!

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