I wonder if you have heard of Charles Whitman?
One august day in 1966 Whitman murdered his wife and his mother.
He then took a gun and climbed to the top of a tower on the campus of the University of Texas. With superb precision he shot and killed first a pregnant woman, then 14 other people. He wounded a further 31 before he himself was shot by an off duty policeman and a member of the public.
The state of texas was so horrified by these murders that the governor launched a thorough investigation into the life of Whitman. Part of the investigatory team was Dr Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist. Brown interviewed as many people as he could find who had known whitman throughout his life. What he discovered was that Charles’ father has been tyrannical and controlling. Many interviewees stressed that Whitman had systematically been deprived of play through all his childhood by his father.
This struck Brown as a significant factor in Whitman’s life. He went on to investigate many other homicidal males, and found that play deprivation was a unifying factor in all of their lives.
(National Institute for Play.)
Other research would seem to backup the findings of this study.
Rats deprived of play become insular, anti-social and aggressive.
Observations of Romanian Orphans, deprived of play altogether, reveal children presenting with erratic behaviour, physical desensitisation, difficulties in forming social bonds, depression, withdrawal or hyperactivity and restrictions in brain growth with some areas of the brain showing no activity at all. (Hughes 2001 quoting Chugani 98 Tobin 97)
You would think that we could take wisdom from evidence like this wouldn’t you?
Well apparently not.
In the united States of America, in we think approximately 40% of schools, children no longer have recess- playtime. They go a whole working day without playing, This applies to children from kindergarten age. Evenings are taken up with organised activities, with homework with screen time. Children are not playing out. Children are not playing. Play is often considered to be a waste of time. A frivolity. ‘A four letter word.’ (Almon)
When did you last see groups of children playing out on the streets near you?
when did you last see children climbing trees or covered in grunge after a day spent just mucking about?
We are losing play.
It is slipping away from us like sand and water carried in cupped hands. And most people have not even noticed the loss of something they think of as so trivial and childish.
We are losing play.
What can we do?
Well those of us who had play as an everyday part of their childhood can try to remember what it was like. this is not always easy . Those memories seemed to be deeply buried and rather vague. But as we focus on them they become clear and vivid.
I remember running barefoot over shingle and hopping over the barnacle and seaweed incrusted jagged rocks. Hunkering down over tide pools to watch their soap operas: the arrogant conservatism of the monocled top hatted crab: the sheer nervous jittery terror of the yummy shrimp: the slow vain anemones opening up their beautiful tendrils to lure, entrap and consume admirers.
When the tide was high we swam underwater as far as we could til our lungs were bursting. Then we would break through the surface of the water the the sun on our faces soapy nosed and spaniel shaking and knowing a little of how it feels to drown.
We used stuff we found on the beaches, discovered fish skeleton impressions in stones pressed like thumb prints into plasticine. We learned to recognise a flint and to make sparks and knives.
We played in the overgrown road behind the beach.
The windblown pines twisted into perfect climbers with gloops of oozing resin, jungles of cow parsley to be macheted through with sticks,… that celery smell! There was discarded porn and I was certain that the place was crawling with adders.
Where were our parents? Asleep in deckchairs with the daily mail flopped over their faces. We only came back to find them when we were hungry.
People from all over the world talk about climbing tall trees to forage mangos or apples,
About the sledges improvised from car doors to slip down the banks in Silicon Valley or Jamaica.
About swimming in rancid London canals or dowsing each other with water from fire hydrants in New York.
They jumped from building to building.
They made dens from tropical grasses or wood from bombsites or sofa cushions in a high rise flat, or snow… in both Denmark and Chicago I was told about ice houses built and inhabited by kids, lit with candles, with fires to cook upon.
I hear about children who made the stuff they needed for their play from the things they found around them, children who played quite dangerously, who roamed in groups of many ages, who were out all day and didn’t come down til the street light went on, or until they heard the call to prayer.
Adults were busy getting on with their own stuff and just kept an eye and an ear out for the kids.
The children built strong friendships and got to know each others family and friends and came in an out of each others houses and ran errands and minded baby and formed a sort of social adhesion. A play glue that was at the heart of their community. AND the children played beyond language and gender and class and culture and faith and ability. Differences are a rich seam of creativity if you are comfortable playing with them.
All over the world where children play freely they do so in the the same 16 or so ways, This playing is a universal language.
How can it be that children have this urgent compulsion to play, as strong as any adult sex drive? Is it a conspiracy. Is it a coincidence?
Well, Howabout this?
As a part of the evolution of our species, important skills had to be passed on, hardwired into the growing infant brain. Through playing, children rehearsed and rehearsed over and over again the survival skills essential to our species.
The incentive for them to do this was pleasure. It feels good to play.
So our ancestor children climbed trees to escape things that wanted to eat them
Played with fire, water and mud
They rehearsed adult roles
They made the things they needed from the stuff round them, ( improvisation, flexibility, invention and creation.)
They learned how to face danger and calibrate and take risks.
They learn to hide and to chase, to nurture and imagine.
They stared at the stars, developed social groups, created rituals.
They found out their personal skills and passions in their playing, just like we do now.
All this seems so distant from children’s lives in Tower Hamlets, where I live and work. but I know it isn’t, because given the chance , children play now in exactly those same ways.
However, the focus of housing design is to prevent crime not to build community. Landlords employ and Anti Social Behaviour Development Officer, ( now there is a revealing job title), who has responsibility for play.
A mate of mine, one snow day saw a group of teenage lads all hoodied up with their faces covered being loud and rambunctious. Like the other pedestrians he shied away from them, fearing trouble, until he recognised the group as his son and his mates.
Even if they are not treated with suspicion, Children can no longer roam freely in this urban environment. they cannot get to the local park, like the beautiful Mile End Park, because an arterial route severs it from the housing. The motor car is no friend to the carefree meanderings of the playing child.
So, say you are a kid living in a flat with no balcony, no garden. you can’t play on the open spaces on the estate, because they are fenced and padlocked and dog fouled. And you cant get to the local park because the journey is dangerous beyond your control, Then play becomes a thing that can be accessed only through the good graces of a grown up who has the time and the inclination to act as a play chaperone.
This is not how it should be.
Tte everyday, bread and butter ordinariness of play is gone. The children are not getting to know the neighbours, neither are the adults being mindful of the children
Play is both the catalyst and the symptom of a healthy community. It is probably the biggest thing a society can for itself. Take play away and the whole society- not just the children, becomes dysfunctional.
So what is the solution to this problem?
There are as many solutions as there are people who understand the problem. And each of them is different.
On one housing project a caretaker watched with interest as we finished our Playwork session. We chatted to him and showed him the carrier bag filled with broken glass that we had gathered as always before session. He said that he would add that task to his maintenance schedule, ‘Because the kids should be able to play out there whenever they want to, like I did.’
In the states, one woman had an ‘aha’ moment, she understood the problem and knew what she could do. She went and talked to her Boss who also understood. He remembered his playing in the parks of New York. He played with the sprinklers and with the mud and in and around the planting. Her boss was the commissioner for Parks in New York. City and she had responsibility for the employment of the Parks Play Associates. Between them they have changed Play in the Parks department from a highly structured and organised series of events to an insightful facilitation of freely chosen play.
There are about 1000 parks in New York City.
I don’t know how many children there are…… but I would guess there are lots and lots!
And, one of our colleagues in a housing association got very enthusiastic about playing ‘I’ve got the bit between my teeth now.” Together we worked with a corporate sponsor and the community to transform an ugly, bald, dog fouled, overlooked, padlocked square into a community play garden with rolling and tumbling hills, tangles of tree limbs to climb on or make swings in, growing beds, a riotous border of flowering plants, four picnic tables, so any one can use the space, and a fruiting plum tree lit with fairy lights, (because people around the area throw open their curtains to see the prettiness, they regard the place and drugs dealers are discouraged. Ergo, you can’t deal drugs under fairy lights).
A community has grown with the garden. Children play out with each other, Bengali, Somali and white.
They are playing beyond the differences of faith, culture, gender and disability.
The parents hang out with each other too.
They watch out for each others kids, chat to each other in the street.
Together they celebrated The royal wedding (the Bengali Mums made curries for the event,) and Bengali Independence Day, (Tanya wore a sari, but kept her sweatshirt and jeans on underneath, ‘because it was bloomin’ freezing’).
Once we have understood, we are compelled to act.
We need to remember carrying sand and water in our cupped hands.
And we need to make sure that our children will be able to remember it too.