Think global, play local

We playworkers talk a lot about barriers to play, whether they may be physical, social or internalized. One of my favorite parts of this job is hearing from adults and children about the barriers to play they identify locally. While of course there are some specific circumstances, I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the commonality of these barriers – how familiar the stories I’m being told are, even if their degree shocks me every time.

A mother in Jamaica explained that her little girl doesn’t have time to play because she gets “so much homework” to do in the evenings. Playfulness in schools is strongly discouraged, and the girl was marked down for “coloring outside the lines”. Her daughter is 3.

A father from Iran told me that car culture dominates in his hometown, and that where children used to play in the streets they are now driven from one place to another and “do not know even the children who live next door”. Instead, they play Xbox.

I’ve shared before a conversation with a journalist and mother in Bogota about fear of strangers as being separate from the actual likelihood of harm. Common barriers recur in different countries, in the city and countryside, in wealthy communities and among those living in acute poverty. Car culture. Academic pressure. Fear of public space and strangers. All combining to make everyone a stranger, to make our presence strange in public space.

We need these international stories, the ones that surprise us and the ones that make us shake our heads in sad recognition. There is something powerful in hearing “this happens where you live, too?” It means we are not alone, that our struggles to keep play in the lives of children are not a sign of our private failure, that this struggle itself unites us with people around the world.

I saw a child in East London once, staring with his palms against the glass to watch us play in the tarmac square below. “He can barely walk,” one of the other children told me, and I did not know whether he had physical needs that had kept his parents from bringing him down, or if those problems were caused by his being kept indoors. We often see children who are disabled by their lack of play.

A student on our course wrote from Uganda that “the children here in our community were forbidden from playing with other children away from the home yard because of bad child practices like child-sacrifice, child trafficking and kidnapping. The children in their singleness stayed in their homes and spend all the time helping with housework and garden work. It was a lot of struggle getting these children between 5-14 years out of their homes for play activities with other children.”

When he began leading play sessions, he found a beautiful thirst in the children who came. Sometimes there were problems of aggression or withdrawal, but his patience allowed the children to participate in their own ways, at their own speeds. Soon their parents were staying longer at drop-off, and new people coming by all the time. Play effected its own change, built its own connections, signposted more possibilities than people had seen.

There is a rhythm in reading about children all around the world with their palms pressed against the glass. There is a vast commonality, a repeated cadence of playwork working, of children finding their way back to play, gaining in confidence and joy. Creating a place where it is safe to play has profound effects, rippling far beyond the frame and bringing more people, each drawn by their own beautiful need. Whether these adults are parents, teachers, therapists or simply grown-ups who care, we all begin to support children’s play in the same way. We begin by humbling ourselves.

We do this by setting aside what we think we know, and paying close attention to what is. This is, so far as I can tell, also the best way to hear someone’s story. When we listen to someone’s story we are entering their frame, their place, and it is sometimes helpful to remind ourselves that no matter how familiar this story is, we do not know it yet. No matter how similar or different our lives might have been, we are only meeting now.

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