It’s funny how things converge at times.
Yesterday I took the bus from London to Cardiff, choosing two books to keep me company on the journey. I packed them on either side of my sandwich and orange (to prevent them getting squashed, of course) and put all the rest of my travelling library in the cubby up top. Pretty soon I was settled into the coach seat, wedged between the window and a slumbering stranger, as we started juddering our way through the centre of London. A little voice piped up from the empty-seeming seat in front of me.
“The incy wincy spider climbed, incy wincy, incy incy.” The small boy sang quietly to himself as he ran a finger through the condensation on the window. “Nanny, can I have a biscuit again?”
“Not yet,” she said. He hummed to himself a little and I rootled around in my bag for the fat green highlighter.
“What about now?” he asked.
“No. You can when I say.”
The first book I’d brought was Libby Brooks’s The Story of Childhood. I was up to the chapter on Ashley, a fifteen year old boy growing up on the estates and streets of Peckham, articulating his experiences of being left out of standardized schooling. No longer attending, regularly picked up by police, Ashley was precisely the kind of ‘non-standard’ child that is the source of so much adult panic. When he was 9 he found that he was deaf in one ear, but when he asked the teachers to speak up they “thought (he) was taking the piss”. I thought how differently this would have been handled in the schools I was lucky enough to attend, and how my Mum would have known the mechanisms necessary to advocate for me if support was lacking.
Ashley’s concern (echoed elsewhere in the book by a teenage girl named Lauren) was that caring about academic success was ‘girly’ or ‘soft’, something a boy trying hard to establish a reputation would find impossible to live down. I highlighted whole pages at a time, thinking how any effective educational system needs to work within the cultures of the children, as well as those of their parents. Most of the people currently working in schools are – surprise surprise – those who as children thrived at school. No wonder it’s hard for them to understand the diverse issues of children who don’t.
There was another giggle from the seat in front. One small pale hand was curled around the right hand side and behind it one eye peered over. When I looked up the eye blinked and quickly disappeared.
Switching over to D. W. Winnicott’s Home is Where We Start From, I found another angle on the same question – this time looking at those children who are almost too successful at classroom achievement.
“You will feel like starting these last children off on the sliderule and differential calculus. Why not ask them to guess rather than calculate, thus using their personal computers? I don’t see why, in arithmetic, there is so much emphasis on the accurate answer. Why about the fun of guessing? Or of playing around with ingenious methods?”
Winnicott addresses the dangers faced by children excessively or exclusively concerned with the ‘right’ answer – that they are not developing their own answers. Instead the split between the ‘true’ (or psychosomatic) self and the ‘false’ (that which knows and does what is expected) becomes a chasm. This duality and ensuing tension is inevitable to some extent, and socially useful, as anyone who has expressed gratitude for a terrible birthday gift might attest. It can, however, become problematic. He cites the example of a boy of 10 whose academic successes had made him feel ‘unreal’, not-true to himself, and who suffered nightmares of being assaulted by a man with a sword.
At this point Winnicott went all Freudian, which did dovetail nicely with Ashley’s concerns of academic ‘girlishness’, but still made me take a brief break to look out the window instead. When I looked up though, the eye behind the seat had returned and was gazing at me unblinking. I waggled my eyebrows at it and he gasped, then ducked around to peer out from the left. I stuck out my tongue. He squealed and drummed his heels on the seat cushion, then was told off by his Nan.
It seemed ridiculous to begrudge a child’s play cues for coming between me and my reading about children, so we snuck in a few more rounds of peek-a-boo as his Nan nodded off. My mind ticked over though, connecting these two readings with Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. In it she interviews girls who articulate the problems of this ‘false self’ with heartbreaking eloquence. She was interested in girls who seem to embody what they refer to as the ideal of ‘effortless perfection’ – natural-seeming good looks and outstanding achievements in academic and social spheres. What she found beneath the high gloss carapace was a mass of seething bodily dysmorphias, eating disorders, self-harming and self-destructive behaviours. They spoke of a black hole where their sense of self ought to be, of a desperation to ‘feel real’ – and failing that, to feel anything at all in a body that they were profoundly alienated from, that they responded to with intense disgust and loathing.
Always so good at being what people had wanted them to be, these girls expressed confusion when Martin asked about their internal voices, that tiny whisper of self. They no longer had one, or had forgotten how to listen.
That seems a desperately disheartening note to end on – that our intense pressure towards a specific kind of achievement may damage those who seem to thrive in it as well as those cast aside. The boy in the seat in front gave me hope, however. The solution is clear (play, always play!). It’s free, and the most renewable of resources. It’s immediately enjoyable and self-affirming, and the truest expression of hope and joy in the world. Through play children and young people can make their own worlds, in the Winnicottian idea of creative living as well as with sticks and cloth. They can give their internal voices houses and crowns. They can give their most private selves a place to live, and strong defences. They can give them fireworks and trumpets!
It seems that we need to be having conversations about play with everyone, educators and therapists and policy makers and parents, with all the other people who will ever sit on buses next to children. The therapeutic aspects of play are immense and play has an enormous part to play in the prevention of disorders and depressions in children, and in the children’s recovery – both from the consequences of play deprivation and from other trauma. We need to support a wider understanding of the importance of play in children’s healing, and that of our whole child-hating society. This can then be something we all participate in, part of the big project of social life.
Note to Americans: Incy-Wincy Spider is the same as the Itsy-Bitsy one that you may already know, climbing and falling just the same in spite of doing it in another country.