I had expected to meet people at the IPA Conference last July that knocked my socks off, but one knocked them clear into the next county.
Matias Cordero‘s background is in Children’s Rights, and his interest in play is strongly rooted in that approach. In playwork, we talk a lot about children’s right to play and about the importance of children’s opportunities to be free within that play – but Matias is talking about rights and freedoms in far more expansive terms.
He hooked me first when asking a question of another speaker, quoting a line about “children’s right to not be understood”. So, naturally, I ran after him and grabbed a spot next to his for lunch. We talked about globalization, Marxism, and power.
It was the next day that he really astonished me, delivering a presentation called “Empowering Children’s Right to Play: From the UNCRC to the African Working Children’s 12 Rights.” By unpicking the UNCRC’s definitions of childhood and rights he revealed the assumptions behind the Convention and its predication on a notion of “every child” that is without ethnicity, sexuality, or obligation – and without useful application to the lives of children in the majority world.
It was brave to deliver, particularly in that room, and some people did walk out. For others however, it was exactly what they’d been waiting for – and when he started talking about the efforts of working children to unionize and campaign for their own rights on their own terms, you could feel the room’s collective heart rate quicken.
Since then, I sent him some questions. He sent me his responses.
MLS: The quote of yours that has stuck with me since IPA is “children don’t realize power in the cracks of reality, but in reality itself.” It seemed to speak to the difference between play from playwork and children’s rights perspectives. Play people will sometimes talk about how playgrounds function as a ghetto for play, without realizing that they sometimes establish play (process and experience) as a ghetto for children’s power.
MC: I agree. And this means that the power of children at play is just an appeareance of power. If you recall the experience of the polish ghettos under the Nazi occupation, you might find a lot of intra-ghetto power, in between the Jews (i.e children) and against the occupants (i.e. adults), such as smuggling food, medicine, weapons or intelligence across the ghetto walls, but, of course, that power was impossible outside the ghetto. Likewise, if you pretend to lock children’s power inside the safe walls of play (or even safer walls of playgrounds) that power is useless outside of it because, just as play, it is unreal. I’ve been reading some things on Actor-Network Theory and its critique of modernist dichotomies, such as being & becoming, culture & nature, agency & structure, etc. One of such dichotomies, for me the one that harms children the most, is the one between play/irreality (or cracks of reality) and work/reality. So, it is imperative to de-ghettoize so-called children’s power.
MLS: The crucial difference between the disciplines seems – to my play-trained mind – to be that playworkers think of play as the place where children have freedom, and children’s rights people think of play as one of the things that children do when they are free.
MC: That’s the problem with playworkers, to think of play(ground) freedom as real freedom. It’s oxymoronic to believe that play is unreal (or a crack of the real, as in Lester’s) and then pretend that the freedom earned in play is real. I think that there can be freedom in play, and that play can enhance freedom, but only inasmuch as it intermingles with the real, as it is polluted by the real; only if play is understood on a continuum with work (play-work continuum) can its freedom be of any relevance. Of course, this opens other questions on work exploitation, on capitalist/hegemonic work which by definition is separated from play, and, then, on the capacity of work to host emancipatory possibilities. But these questions are a good sign: too many questions have been closed too hastily, and our job is to reopen them. Check this quote from the diary of Cira, a 9-year-old Bolivian child living in the Andes:
Saturday, 28 September 1996: I got up at 6, combed my hair, washed my face and had my breakfast with pancakes. I went to Felisa’s house to look for a goat and afterwards I came home and began to peel potatoes. I put the pot on to cook and made lunch. I went to let the goats out, I milked them and let them out of the enclosure. I went to feed my chicks and then I went to fetch water from the stream, I came home and ate my lunch. My lunch was made of rice. I went to give water and maize to the pigs and from there I fetched water to water my flowers, then I went to harvest potatoes. Then with my sister we went to play with my brother’s bicycle and I went to fetch water and my sister saw a little pigeon. We wanted to catch it but we couldn’t catch the small pigeon, we fetched water and went to play football. Then I had my tea with bread and then I went to enclose the cows and the goats. I had my supper and went to bed at 8 o’clock (in PUNCH S.  “Childhoods in the Majority World: Miniature Adults or Tribal Children?”, Sociology 37: 2, p. 284)
It is beautiful, it is sad (because it will be no more), but it is inspiring.
Regarding children’s rights people, the majority thinks pretty much like playworkers, believes in a right to play, in the abolition of child work, in play as a tool of development, or of health, or education, or freedom, etc. So, my perspective is also minoritarian amongst them, I fear.
As a field, we talk a lot about play and freedom – I got into this playwork via an interest in children’s cultures of subversion, and the ways in which play and playgrounds might function as laboratories or incubators for children to acquire skills of secret-keeping, secret-sharing, and working things out for themselves. This is a conversation that we all need to be involved in, as we consider what we mean by the words we use, and how we operate within the flawed and beautiful world we share. We won’t all agree, but that’s what makes it interesting.
Matias Cordero has his MA in the Sociology of Law from the University of Milan and University of the Basque Country, and his HD from the Catholic University of Chile. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Vitoria, Basque Country, where he is working on his Phd thesis on sociology of law, trying to advance a critical sociology of children’s human rights.