It is not a minor matter that those of us at the forefront of thinking about, developing, and promoting risk-benefit assessment have been particularly attentive to language, to the meaning of words and the order in which they are placed. Thus we have taken HAZARD’s hand, twirled it round a bit, and shown its positive, sunny side. Similarly, we have suggested to CONTROL MEASURES that it should stand in the corner, reflect upon its past errors, and not rejoin us until it has developed a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to its purposes. And we have welcomed, and made permanent guest of honour, BENEFITS. She sits at the head of the table, gets served first and, so to speak, frames the rest of the proceedings.
This is not about risk-benefit assessment
But this piece is not about risk-benefit assessment. It’s about the importance of saying certain things, of not losing one’s voice, of holding fast to key ideas and values, even when they seem to have no immediate purchase.
The evidential hunt
I make no complaint that once again ‘play’ is on the evidential hunt, apparently to demonstrate to Government just how functional it is in helping to meet the objectives of, for example, improving school performance, enlivening the public realm, contributing to community safety, countering ‘anti-social behaviour’ (in quotes because it is a despicable too wide-ranging term that should be avoided), and preparing children to be economically productive when they enter adulthood. And no doubt much else.
As I’ve mentioned before, such evidence that is adduced will not persuade Government one way or the other. Though it may say it has been persuaded, and we may wish to believe it.
Take a look at our friends over there
Incidentally, it will come as no surprise that the Arts are up to much the same sort of thing – on the evidential hunt. Here’s a quote from a joint RSA/Arts Council ‘State of the Arts: Shaping the future of culture’ paper (October 2013), ‘Towards Plan A: A new political economy for arts and culture‘:
‘We need to review our achievements and consider our potential, think how our goals relate to our nation’s wider social and economic objectives – and how we can connect to these. The four papers here consider our contribution to the national balance sheet, to education, to urban economies and to the general health of society. The papers make crucial suggestions, and from them emerge two strong themes.’
But there is counter-thought. This reported by the Guardian Culture Professional Network:
‘…the result of its State of the Arts strand in partnership with the RSA is essentially an exhortation to the cultural sector to provide better evidence to government. Secretaries of state for culture and education on both sides of the party divide have pleaded for more evidence, particularly on economic impact.
‘But that’s not what’s needed. National and local governments don’t take decisions about arts funding based on evidence, however convincing it is. Instead, they act in the context of the wider economic picture, and in light of their own prejudices, world-views, ideologies and instincts. That’s what makes politics, politics, rather than managerialism.’
The State of (Free) Play
If I have any interest in play, that interest rests on two pillars, notwithstanding any secondary fretwork that attaches to these foundations: the value of here-and-now experience; the value and actualisation of that elusive concept ‘freedom’ – free play as initiation into and embodiment of that idea. It is therefore not a primary concern to me whether or not play contributes to future-orientated objectives, though I’m sure it does. Just as I’m sure that army boot training and synchronised swimming does in some way or another.
Both those pillars have been steadily hacked away from at least the advent of Thatcherism. It being understood that New Labour was merely the perpetuation of that ideology by another name, save for some cosmetic ameliorations. Little has changed, except to the extent that the position has deteriorated still further.
The idea that free play could or can secure a firm foothold within either past or present political and value orientations strikes me as pretty well near absurd. To sustain such an optimistic stance would require that the whole prevailing ideological framework is turned upside down; or that, somehow, fragments of a child or teenager’s life – the potentially playful bits – can be separated from, rendered immune to, the prevailing orthodoxies that has as its foundational pillars:
The need to test, assess, measure, generally quantify ‘results’ or ‘outcomes’. This of course predicated on an idea of ‘worthwhileness’. Something is worthwhile only if it can lead to identifiable, quantifiable results;
That childhood is primarily a preparation for the future, in particular an economic future. The effect of this is to read back and judge the worth of child/teenager activities and interests by the restricted criteria and objectives appropriate to adult economic life;
That surveillance, supervision, oversight and containment of children and childhood is always required. This has two forms of expression, institutional and personal: the institutional, through schools, ASBOS, Dispersal Areas, and so forth; the personal, parents in the grip of anxiety about academic performance, about kids being ‘out and about’ in the public realm, about the hyper-competitive adult world children are doomed to enter and for which they must be prepared by initiation, not into agency and the fears and joys of freedom, but into timetabled, supervised routines.
By way of an aside, an anecdote: In what I take to be an example of training children to internalise their own oppression, on visiting a school recently, I saw upon the school hall wall a large collage, probably made by the children. The title was ‘Our School Rules’. The first rule: ‘We follow instructions’. The second, surely intended as a demonstration of bathos, was ‘We keep our hands and feet to ourselves’. Clearly an institution with a refined sense of priorities.
Now take a look at the ‘public realm’. Here the proliferation of privatised space, whether the shopping mall or the gated housing development, is squeezing out what we might call ‘free space’, spaces where one might legitimately be without oversight or hindrance. To say nothing of the degree of surveillance and control (see above) that attaches to the ‘public’ realm. Account need also be taken of the increase in housing densities which – perhaps with merit in housing stock terms – carry with it the danger of reducing still further the amount of ‘free’ or ‘in-between’ spaces available for general use and informal congregation.
And if you’re black, or poor, so much the worse for you.
In this wider context, a bit like the Arts, the best that can be achieved, and all that has been achieved – though we pray ardently for Wales – are temporary ameliorations, the taking of some territory, then its loss, then a retaking, perhaps in truncated form. I’ve said before that, for example, the Street Play project and Popup playgrounds, though perhaps necessary initiatives, constitute examples of accommodations with prevailing assumptions and limitations when what we’re really after is:
‘Children and teenagers being seen and heard in [unsupervised] shared public and communal space is the hallmark of a society at ease with itself’. PLAYLINK policy.
This article is not simply about reminding readers that the conventional forms of persuasiveness deployed:
‘… share the features of a ritual or a dance, where the moves are known in advance, and what counts is the grace and astuteness with which the pre-set moves are made. The evidence adduced in favour of this or that policy or proposal is not the primary determinate of social policy, it is values and ideologies that are the ultimate determinates…’
It is accepted that participation in this dance or ritual is required. But it is way, way far from being sufficient. The danger is that it becomes a distraction, draining energy and time from the exploration of the longer term. Allowed to claim it has more strategic, long term significance than, if my somewhat dismalist account of the state of play resonates, is justified.
Responding to the national and local state’s requirements will get us only so far – it will not secure permanent territory to have and to hold. The field of view needs to be widened, a broader audience reached.
There is a need to ‘make the weather’, rather than simply be subject to it. The terms of the debate must be changed. That is the overriding task.
To take this article back to where it began, the words we use, the language we deploy, must be appropriate to the subject under view: play. We must avoid sliding into self-censorship. Rather, it must be said over and over again, in reports, funding applications, public pronouncements and lobbying meetings, that the value of here-and-now immediate experience counts, has value in itself; and that play is inextricably bound up in ideas and ideals about personal freedom and agency – and a society that proclaims belief in both had better attend to creating the spaces – time and place – where such qualities may be realised.
Yes, it’s a long term haul, not least because past and current political dispensations combine with – and also generate – societal concerns and anxieties that systematically undermine what needs to be achieved. It’s been said many, many times before, and the case against has yet to be made, but until ways are found to address society directly as parents, as voters, little sustainable change will be secured. Local project work that engages with local communities may be part of this, but only a small part.
Somewhere in the thicket of my thought is also this: if ideas about the here-and-now, of agency and control over one’s own space and time are considered (somewhat reductively) as broadly quality of life issues, one can’t help feeling that many adults are seething with discontents about the nature of their pressurised lives. What adults have lost, or are losing, mirrors that of our youngsters.
The language of the here-and-now and personal agency may have more purchase than has been recognised.