Play for its own sake.


I love my daughter’s school. In the middle of the east end of London, it has the same feisty womanish atmosphere that my tiny, oak panelled secondary school did. The girls have the chance to excel at whatever motivates them. There is a tendency to Mind about how the girls are feeling. My daughter is one of a tiny percentage on non-Muslim girls and an even tinier percentage of white kids. That is made to be OK. She has made lovely friends, performed in great shows, enjoyed her studies, developed respectful, teasing and valuable relationships with staff.

So why oh why oh why is the school motto ‘Educating Tomorrow’s Women.’?
Grrr that makes me angry. They are educating girls now. (My daughter is valid tomorrow, but not quite yet?)

When I ran an inclusive Adventure Playground, there was a huge amount of pressure on us to use educational tactics with the children of to use physiotherapy exercises in children’s play. We refused. No Peto, no Pecs here. This time and place was just for play. It was playing for children now, not education for another time. And indeed, many of the children died in their early years. I felt a lot better knowing they had played long and hard instead of being trained for adulthood. This childhood play was maybe the only time that they could have the freedom to explore their own play lives.

Doing an evaluation and monitoring training recently with a wonderful funder, I found myself trying to calibrate the success of my project against outcomes like ‘improved social cohesion’. Well yes, but that is an impact, a looooooong term thing. Not a thing of this moment. Fair enough so. I need to demonstrate a value for the work, but whatever happens in the future, the children need to play now.

In my early contacts with the terrifying prospect of a nationwide lack of play within the United States, during the Bush presidency, I was massively frustrated by the repeated comment that ‘We need more research’. Anguished scream. Yes. More research is needed, but children need to play now!

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not state,’Every Child has the right to Play BECAUSE blah blah blah.’ No. It states, ‘every child has the right to play and rest.’ (paraphrased)
Why did I not think to cite this as a justifiable outcome in my monitoring training?

I recall my HeadTeacher, the formidable and ironically named Miss Goodman, telling us a story in assembly about a woman who became paralysed with terror at the thoughts of all the things that could go wrong in her life. what she imagined was death and accident and grief and the woman ended up weeping her life away about these imagined the terrors that the future might hold. This parable stays with me when anti- players imagine the hypothetical risks that serve to stultify the lives of children to the extent that No Playing is considered less risky any play. It tells me about living in the ‘precious present moment’.

It is this perspective that made me respond in a fit of pique to a posting from some beloved American friends. It was another in a long series of writings about how play improves the Child’s body, brain, emotional/social functioning in adult life. I know childhood obesity is a problem. I know that if children do not tinker they do not develop inventive and creative thinking. I know that if they do not make up their own minds as individuals and groups that they will not be able to function democratically. Even the urge for children to reconnect with nature through play is presented under the guise of saving the planet.
All of those things are important.
Yes yes. Tomorrows women should be educated.
Yes play does develop social cohesion.
Yes, depriving a child of play may lead to the creation of another Charles Whitman.
Yes, children have more empathy with the world if they are not divorced from it through a lack of play.
Yes, even we do it… Depriving children of play probably does deprive the human species of the skills that we have developed and refined to hard wire survival skills into our lives.
But… When ever I read articles that urge big business or educationalists or parents to make sure that their children are playing because that ‘will make them smarter’ I get the cold shivers of fear down my spine.

Part of my problem is with the word ‘smarter’.
In the UK ‘Smart’ means tidy, clean, ordered, compliant. A smart soldier looks like all the other soldiers.
Smart also means a lingering hurt-as in ‘I received six of the best with the birch and the wounds still smart’. They still hurt, minutes, hours years after the violence. We can smart emotionally too.

Do you see why my English ear recoils at the desire to make our children smart?
If you are not smart or conformist, then you will smart, hurt physically and emotionally.. It is institutional bullying. ‘I will make you smart.’ Or worse, self punishment… ‘Make yourself smart.’

Part of the work that had to be done in the states was to make the case for playing. It has results, consequences in later life. Business and science finds a more creative workforce. Health budgets diminish because medical bills decrease. There are fewer mass murderers. Children are cleverer because the plasticity of their brains is increased and the combinatorial flexibility of their mind body skills is enhanced.
This is like some sort of hideous eugenics policy.
We want our kids to be smarter because that will give them a better chance in life, at university, on the careers ladder, as an earner.

We have as yet only the tiniest of an idea why all over the world, children discover for themselves the same playings. Why has this happened throughout history as we understand it?
But the nearest I can get is ‘Every child has the right to play’.

I know from watching them, that they need it, they are good at it and, I suppose I will admit that, they fail to thrive without it. It is their universal language. Somehow, children make themselves complete in their playing. It is not for fun or for any other ‘anything-else’ that I can find words for.

This failure to justify,to measure, to lassoo the cloud, somehow makes play feel all the more important to me.

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