Play, anxiety, moral learning, and a certain fragrance

I want to say a few words about aspects of play, and the hinterland of adult decision-making about it, that tend not to figure prominently in most of the  writings I see, or in the general discourse.

But before doing that, by way of lead in, I want to do an unashamed  promo for the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA).   In its own words it is, ‘a global network of organisations working to enrich children’s learning and play through improving the way school grounds are designed and used’.  It is worth adding that it sees school grounds as integral to the local environment,  not as separate, sequestered spaces  solely in the control of schools.  In the UK at least, this represents a real challenge. (I’ve mentioned this before) 

The ‘International’ aspect is real and growing.   Delegates attending  the recent ISGA/Evergreen[1] conference in Toronto include those from Australia, Germany, Japan, Sweden, United Kingdom, the United States; and nascent links were formed with Pakistan and Nigeria.  There remains, however,  a whole world out there. Much yet to do.

The ISGA has, over the last few years, moved from what might be called the bare bones of an entity – a skeletal state – to fleshing itself out and, quietly, increasingly purposively, developing its musculature.  It may soon pack a punch, not least because it has to hand expertise and commitment, both broad and deep, from around the world.   There are certainly a number of issues  that require an international perspective, and international clout.  The ISGA has a growing chance of fulfilling a role here.   I encourage you to take a look at its web site, and perhaps join.

Now, it is the recent joint ISGA/Evergreen conference held in Toronto in September this year that prompts what follows for, if I have read it right, there were two aspects in particular of my little offering to the conference that seemed to resonate with people.

Moral learning

The first is an aspect of play that is obscured, pressed, we might say, beneath the weight of the current obsession – probably misplaced so far as creating a durable case for play is concerned – with obesity reduction.  This aspect is the understanding that through play a moral universe is formed, encountered and understood – children and teenagers  learning through experience how values, beliefs and traditions are transformed into ways of life.  This knowledge cannot simply be taught.  It is learning-through-doing that marks the difference between the ability to recite a moral code, and learning how to live by one.

Play is a vehicle – not the only one, but a predominant one – for this type of moral immersion, an entryway into the art of living.  And the reason for this is that play – I mean ‘free play’ – occurs only where the player is an autonomous agent, utterly responsible for their own actions, and the consequences that follow from them.  It is through self-agency that a personal moral territory is marked out, and inhabited.

As to obesity, the arguments for play that rely on its ability to reduce obesity  seem to me, well, wobbly, and have the unhappy side-effect of associating play too firmly, too unitarily, with movement, exercise, dashing about and that bane that afflicts us, play as ‘letting off steam’.   In other words, we are in danger of reductionism, something we have fought hard to counter.


The second aspect that appeared to resonate was directed at adults: parents, educators, playworkers, managers and so on.  It was this: anxiety is not a moral quality, nor an ethical position.  The fact that you, who have responsibility for children – in a ‘free play’ or a curriculum-focused outdoor leaning environment, or as parent – are anxious about children determining for themselves what they are capable of doing offers no form of justification for succumbing to that anxiety, for limiting children’s authorship of their own decisions.  I speak ‘in principle’ here.  There are of course occasions when curtailment and intervention are necessary.  But these are relatively rare.  The exceptions serve to confirm the principle, do not undermine it.

The adult responsibility  requires that anxieties are interrogated.  To be examined in the light of values and understandings  that include a self-questioning about the ‘conception of the child’ that might underpin the fearfulness.    Lurking beneath the surface may be the unacknowledged, barely conscious  view of children as essentially incompetent, not resilient, incapable of learning from their mistakes; a conception that is ahistorical, not grounded in the realities of childhood as we observe it, or as we have ourselves encountered it as children.

In our day-to-day talk we understand that there are ‘over-anxious parents’.  And we know what we mean by this:  our common, everyday, understanding is that such parents have made a mistake, have prioritised attending to themselves, over attending to their child’s actual needs and wants. Has mistaken what mollifies their own fears, for what is good for the child.  Whilst psychologically understandable, often deserving of sympathy  – the reasons why a person is this way  are many and varied – it is none the less not the ground upon which judgments about what is good for children should rest.  It renders those of us prone to allow anxiety to dominate our decisions morally culpable.    By extension we have the over-anxious teacher, the over-anxious playworker, the over-anxious park department, the over anxious…and so on.  (This, incidentally, is directly linked to the tendency to engage in ‘secondary risk management’ – wrongly applied when merely designed to ‘watch one’s own back’.  But I shall not trouble you with expanding on this here).   There is a ‘right’ to play, not to anxiety.

The whiff of it

There is another aspect of play, that I did not in fact get to at the conference – to my shame.   From where I stand, it receives rather too little attention in the litany of arguments generated in support of play.  Perhaps it embarrasses us.   It is however my cast-iron, foundational, bottom-dollar, non-negotiable, evidence-immune, pre-eminent reason for caring about whatever-this-sort-of-thing-is we call play.

Play is both an initiation into, and the embodiment of, the idea and practice of freedom.   The idea of it constitutes a sort of itch, a hankering after that quality the value of which evidence can neither confirm nor deny.   So here’s to freedom, that renegade fragrance, and the whiff of it that we call play.

[1] In its own words, ‘Evergreen is a national not-for-profit that inspires action to green cities’.  A significant aspect of its work is on school grounds.  My too limited, but vastly enjoyable encounter with the organisation leads me to say that it appears a very splendid undertaking indeed.

7 responses to “Play, anxiety, moral learning, and a certain fragrance

  1. “Play is both an initiation into, and the embodiment of, the idea and practice of freedom. The idea of it constitutes a sort of itch, a hankering after that quality the value of which evidence can neither confirm nor deny. So here’s to freedom, that renegade fragrance, and the whiff of it that we call play.”

    yes yes! love this.


  2. Hi Bernard, I do agree with the sentiments (unlike those on standards) very much, freedom in particular, but could I ask you to précis a bit?


  3. Excellent, particularly the anxiety and morality bits. Reblogged.


    • Arthur, I greatly appreciate your comments and will be eager to read your paper once completed. It’ll be interesting to see if the points raised – by us both now – wil prompt wider discussion. Thanks again, Bernard


  4. Reblogged this on musings|scraplog and commented:
    This blog is about 5 things, I’m interested in 4 of them in a big way and all of them generally: viz. play, freedom, morality and anxiety.

    Love the points you make about adult anxiety on behalf of the playing child; playworkers who work with parents (as in all playworkers,IMHO) need to have a heightened awareness of this.

    Totally agree with freedom point, we can easily forget that, because playwork takes it for granted.

    The role of play in the development of morality is less well understood and not written about much, fair play to you for highlighting it. I’m reblogging mostly for this point. I’m currently writing a paper based on my presentation at the “Play in Austerity”conference in May, which looked at this very area, and, as we agreed at the time, it was a shame that you couldn’t both be present in the room and present to the room.

    Excellent work, B, my actions speak louder than my words, which is why I’m reblogging.


  5. Hi Bernard, some of the points you’re making here remind me of a speech by Neil Gaiman about the power of reading and libraries, and the importance of allowing children to make free choices about what they read, away from the anxious projections of adults. Might be of interest:


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