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?