Play Ranging Far and Wide

I’ve written before how conversations with play advocates in other countries will often echo certain familiar themes.  We might view these as the Big Three barriers to free and outdoor play: dog poop, fast cars and stranger danger.  They come up again and again, in conversation with people around the world. They are by no means the only barriers, but they seem to come as part of the minority world parcel of ‘modernity’.

There are also familiar sticking points in theory and conversation – when I talk about children’s freedom, people ask about children’s violence.  So much seems par, for the average British playworker.

You might be surprised though, by the next most common sticking point when I’m talking about pop-up adventure playgrounds or play ranging in other countries.  I was surprised, though I don’t know why because it was a recurring issue in team meetings wherever I have worked.  Can you guess what it is?

Clean-up.  Specifically, whether or not the children should be expected to have a hand in it.  People in the US, Costa Rica and Colombia have all raised it as an issue, drawing me into a conversation that touches on the cultural context within which I learned about playwork – the cultural context within which playwork grew.

I was always taught that clean-up is the playworkers responsibility.  If our team was out ranging, the argument ran “if we brought all this junk, it’s our job to cart it away again”.  If the team was on a fixed site, it was “well, you wouldn’t invite people round to a party then expect them to do the dishes, would you?”  Any time spent doing mandatory cleaning was time not spent playing – though if a child wanted to help clean up then I would obviously pass them a broom.  In fact, when it came to fixed sites I was always in favor of doing as little clean-up as possible to allow play to develop and continue over time.

All that said, “because that’s what I was told” is a terrible reason for believing something, so I asked people to explain their concerns.  Why did this bother them?  What did they think the consequences of playworkers doing all the clean-up were?  Why should the children be cleaning too?  Here are some of their responses, paraphrased to the best of my memory’s ability.

“Kids these days are used to being waited on.  That will become the only game they want to do, just throwing stuff around to see you clean it up.  It’s better that they feel invested in the session and the materials, like they have an important role in making it happen.”

“Cleaning up these materials ourselves makes us look unprofessional to the parents and other adults, because in our culture it makes us appear the children’s servants.  If we can’t get adults to respect us, they will never bring their children here.”

“If the visitors (to public all-ages events) join in cleaning, they will feel more invested in the play session.  Parents also will feel more able to take these ideas and do them elsewhere.  It makes the whole program feel more community-grown and less like a service we’re providing.”

What are people’s thoughts?  How might the ideas we hold about playwork also reflect our cultural practices and assumptions?  What is best, when it comes to children’s play?  And if what is ‘best’ is different every time, what’s the process for deciding what we ought to do?

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3 thoughts on “Play Ranging Far and Wide

  1. The kids do a lot of clean up on our playground and my thinking is: if the kids don’t put things away, then they won’t know where to find them, so I see it as an empowering mechanism. Having the luxury of a permanent space, we can further define the space as child-driven, by allowing them to assert their own definitions of clean and ordered.

    Playworkers on our playground provide very broad cataloguing and maintenance frameworks: the tools go in the shed, unused wood goes on the wood pile, the hose gets rolled up so it doesn’t bake in the sun, but within those frameworks, the kids define where specific tools go, and are allowed to leave materials and supplies out for ongoing projects. The added bonus is that the kids can make “suggestions” to one another about how to play, by leaving things near other things – a child-directed application of the Portchmouth Principle.

    I do realize this approach is only possible with a permanent space and within a smaller community, because when things get “lost” I can redirect a child back to their peers. But I can say that it works well for us, because it lends a further sense of ownership.

    I also love the serendipity it allows. Creations, tools, and supplies in unexpected places – stashed away in forts, dropped into a hole, wonderful random collections of objects left in a wagon…one year, the kids made their own “cool things bucket” and somehow communicated to one another that it was a bucket for everyone. I found animal bones and feathers, rocks, a dried out mushroom, a piece of rusted metal, the end of a hose, some nails, and a shoe. I worried a little that a child left our playground with only one shoe and I didn’t notice…but there are always trade-offs 🙂

  2. I was only having this debate with my level 2 Diploma group on Friday!!! It comes up time & time again!
    I have no objections to children tidying up when it is as illustrated in the comment above – they own the space, but what I do object to is lots of adults calling themselves playworkers & then in the same breath crying, “but we need to teach children responsibility!” My response to this is, “I’m sure I must have misheard you when you said you were a playworker? Maybe you said you were a parent, or a teacher instead?” I also ask if they clear away their glasses & wash up when they go to the pub with their mates to which they all say “no?” in a very puzzled way. I tell them that’s because they’re out to play & it’s someone in the pub’s job to ensure you get exactly what you want/need from that time. (A bit like playwork?)
    I don’t understand why anyone would want to end a play session in a non playful way, sending children away in a more subdued manner, so parents don’t get the feeling that their child has had the fantastic time they were having before “tidy up time”. Most children naturally just start helping & that’s a much better feeling. 🙂

  3. If children want to tidy up, then fine — crack on. Pushing a broom around can be part of the play (though they’re also often not ‘tidying’ as such). Adult agendas get in the way too much here though. I’m of the opinion that it’s my job to tidy up. No problem. I serve.

    I’m reminded of a story: I was working in early years at the time. An EY worker told me, in her reflective honesty, that she worried about ‘tidy up time’ because, she said, at their place they played one particular piece of ‘classic’ music which let the children know it was time to tidy. The staff member said, a little tongue in cheek, but with concern, ‘When they grow up and go to the opera and hear this piece of music, they’ll just get up and go straight into tidy up mode!’

    Draw your own conclusions when put in a playwork context. 🙂

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