I was flattered to be invited to speak at Play Wales’s SPIRIT conference last week where I ended up talking about freedom, the here and now, and democratic space. To my mind the three ideas are inextricably connected to each other.
Part of my talk took what might be called an ‘in principle’ critical stance towards Play Streets (whilst at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, affirming that if one was started in my street, I would happily help out). My comments about Play Streets did not meet with universal acclaim.
I have discussed Play Streets in an earlier article, and will return to the subject shortly. For now, I do not pursue the issue in depth.
In this article I emphasis again, or more precisely bang the drum for, valuing the here and now of immediate experience. Since a drum is now involved, I mean of course the HERE AND NOW! an area on which, so far as I can see, public policy is locked into silence.
This piece is something of a mixed bag, being in part drawn from the SPIRIT talk, part from previous articles notably the one on democratic space, and part further embellishments on the key themes. Let’s hope it works.
I began the conference talk thus:
I’ve had quite a bit of difficulty determining what to say today. In part it’s because, increasingly, I feel myself engaged in a series of repetitions – for example, about risk, about nature and play, about the Yuk Stuff, rubber IAS, and about a (wished-for) democratic public realm – saying again what is already known.
But my difficulty also stems from what might be called the internal rationale of so many conferences. That is, they aspire to inspire – that word ‘inspire’ appears in the SPIRIT publicity – and so, for example, toolkits and ‘good practice’ are promoted, examples of exemplary projects pointed at. And of course this can be very useful. But I fear I will be pointing the other way, sharing with you some of my discomforts, irritations and concerns. I sometimes describe myself as a ‘dismalist’. This means that where you see a silver lining, I see a cloud. I am your conference wet blanket.
By way of kicking off, I think it useful to share for a moment my personal reference points, to nail my colours to the mast.
To the degree that I’m interested in play, my interest flows primarily from a sort of besottedness with ideals about human freedom. To my mind, valuing freedom inevitably entails a respect for the here and now of immediate experience. We can argue if all experiences should or can be ‘respected’, but in the context of this piece, that is a quibble for the experiences I refer to are those that are entered into freely.
It is these two values – freedom, valuing the here and now – that converge, quite logically to my way of thinking, to valuing play.
Play, then, from this perspective, is a subset or expression of that much contested notion, ‘freedom’. Put another way, my justification for play is that it is an initiation into, and an embodiment of, an idea of freedom.
Notions of freedom are inextricably tied to notions of democracy, to ideals about, for example, the free movement of people out-of-doors. Freedom here is not licence, the untrammeled right to do what you like. Rather, democratic freedom implies both the requirement to adhere to social mores whilst at the same time affirming that one is – or should be – a participant in their formation. These are mores generated in the process of being caught up in the non-prescribed social whirl of a democratic outside, and not by the promulgation and enforcement of rules.
Once again I quote Ken Worpole from his book ‘Here comes the sun: Architecture and public space in twentieth century European culture’. He marks the point I seek to make well:
When outdoors nothing stands between us and the world …
When we meet other people in this outdoor world, we are more likely to meet them as free agents and autonomous individuals than we do in the graded and contractual world of institutional or commercial life …
The park and the street give us our freedom, and the buildings, too frequently, take it away’
Now, this ideal of freedom requires no ‘evidence’ to support it. It is a position immune to evidence. To demolish my belief, you would need first to collapse my entire world view, an entire ethical framework. And were you able to do that, then of course everything said so far is open to doubt, to contestation. But if you were to attempt such a demolition, be assured, you would not succeed.
I therefore do not seek my justification for play – an expression of freedom – in, say, evolutionary theorising – the more extreme and uncritical forms of which Professor Raymond Tallis has usefully dubbed ‘Darwinitus’ – or in the often quite extensive claims of neuroscience, characterised by Professor Tallis as ‘neuromania’. Of course both evolution and neuroscience have things to say to us, though perhaps not as much as is claimed.
I think the key words or requirements for us are scepticism, a critical stance, and resistance to intellectual fadism. Thoughts that may have some salience when making the case for play.
There is, it seems to me, always the danger, a temptation, to slip into a specialist language, a sort of ‘playism’ when speaking about play. Interesting though this may be for the cognoscenti, such talk is not attuned to be persuasive about the value and meaning of democratic space and children and teenagers’ right to populate it. For this, a more ordinary, day-to-day language has to do the work of persuasion and protection. A commitment to democratic space has at the same time to be a commitment to speak in a common tongue.
I find it worrying and depressing that arguments from freedom and about the value of the here and now are either absent, marginal or incidental in most of the stuff I see apparently justifying the importance of play. Our arguments are increasingly future-directed, and such ‘evidence’ as we adduce is directed towards supporting the contention that play will make children the equivalent of ‘oven-ready’ for some future state or outcome.
The ‘evidence’ is often tendentious and, as far as I can see, avoids making comparisons between, for example, the wished-for benefits of play as against the wished-for benefits of, say, synchronised swimming or singing in a choir.
But of course any such comparisons would be fatuous, because all those activities, if carried out freely, have equal value. In any case, they do not cancel each other out.
I do understand why we feel required to play the evidential game. I play it myself if required. In any case, my position does not require it to be asserted that there is no such thing as persuasive evidence. My concern is the lop-sided focus on particular forms of evidence.
One reason the evidential game is played is of course to secure funding for this or that project. There is, however, a challenging, uncomfortable question that arises here, and that is whether, and if so to what degree, the search for funding overshadows or neutralises our willingness to speak out loud against the conventional orthodoxies of our time. That to a greater or lesser extent priorities are determined working backwards from what is judged to be a fundable proposition. This might be characterised as a pragmatic approach, and justified on that ground. However, these are moot points worthy of more extended consideration, but for another time.
Ultimately we cannot win the evidential game as currently constructed – that ground is not ours. At best we secure, temporary, partial and fragile ameliorations to a generally unacceptable state – though Wales and Play Wales may yet prove me wrong here in the Principality. If so, I shall rejoice in my error.
On that, and from a more optimistic perspective, I need to commend to you a startlingly interesting and insightful report, ‘Leopard Skin Wellies, a Top Hat and a Vacuum Cleaner Hose: An analysis of Wales’ Play Sufficiency Assessment duty’ by Wendy Russell and Stuart Lester. It touches on some of the thoughts I’m sharing with you today, but with added elegance and erudition. I urge you to read it. I do not mean to suggest that the report’s authors agree with a single word I say.
What should be a source of concern to us, is that these ameliorations seem more and more to require the supervision of children and teenagers. I worry that, increasingly, children and teenagers are subject to supervision in almost every aspect of their lives, be that by parent, carer or professional. That new initiatives are predicated on supervision: think Play Streets, Play Rangers, Pop-up playgrounds; but also look at the kids going to, say, the new Olympic Park – they are tethered to their parents and carers. (Incidentally, although not argued here, my critical stance in respect of supervision cannot, in my view, be easily applied to adventure playgrounds)
To the degree that the play sector is part of, and perhaps reinforces, the ‘supervisory trend’, it may be making a long term, sector-wide, great ‘missing of the point’. The suggestion, made above, about the need to secure funding may have purchase here: it is easier (though not necessarily easy) to make the case for some sort of supervised provision than it is to devise and fund initiatives directed at securing a non-supervised public realm.
I say in passing that I’ve long worried about what might be called the professionalisation or specialisation of everyday life. That we are passed from one professional to another – play or careworker for children, youth worker for ‘youth’, then a brief period of relief in adulthood, and then off to care in the community or an old age home where another set of careworkers will minister to us.
Nevertheless, achieving temporary ameliorations is not unimportant. Even in terms of my own argument, a temporary amelioration for a child or teenager is the here and now of their lived experience. And that must count for something.
Maybe I can sum up my point by saying: pursuing the evidential game may be ‘necessary’, but it is not ‘sufficient’. I am here applying my Play Sufficiency Argument Test. You will see that I think we fail it.
Where evidence will not aid us
The sort of ‘evidence’ we feel required to pursue can have little or no purchase in making the case for democratic space. The arguments for such places and spaces are political, ethical, saying much about us as citizens, and little or nothing about us as actual or potential service recipients, or projects for improvement. It therefore matters not a jot whether kids will be more of less obese, or perform better in school as the result of exercising their right of presence in shared public space.
A quote from Jane Jacobs on the outdoors. She was speaking of the streets and in an American context. Nevertheless, it has salience here and now – not least to our residential estates:
‘In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn – if they learn it at – the first fundamental of successful city life
People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.
This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility for you to take a modicum of public responsibility for you’.
Thus shared public space is a venue or forum for informal, non-directive moral learning and activity; and that democratic space, by implication, rejoices in the stranger – the person unknown. In fact, democratic space requires that it be populated by strangers – more properly described as ‘fellow citizens’.
I don’t think either point can be over-emphasised. I’m sure that in your no doubt joyful excursions into local consultation you hear parental worries about ‘stranger danger’. I seem to be hearing more and more of this. It is of course an anxiety that feeds itself – the less one encounters strangers, the more a-feared one is of their assumed malign intent.
Stranger danger has some similarity to the fear of ghosts. The belief, not the evidence, is what engenders the fear. Another area, perhaps, where ‘evidence’ cannot do the work we would wish of it.
Here and Now
One can’t help feeling that we have learnt to speak in tongues: management speak; outcomeitus; evidentialism – and in the process perhaps lost both the confidence and the fluency to speak our own language.
There is need of antidote to counter the rather dismal current political and managerial orthodoxies. It is therefore legitimate to ask whether sufficient effort has been directed at developing fluency within a language that does the work we require of it. Language develops in use, nurtures its own capacities through the ideas that are posited, affirmed, denied, and argued about – the latter to be undertaken with relish. In other words, are we exercising our language enough?
Not naively, and thinking politically for the long term, it is at the very least arguable – personally, I would go further than this – that vast swathes of society seethe in an as yet inchoate, personally felt discontent about the quality of life that adults, teenagers and children are now required to endure. It might be characterised as the ‘Treadmill Era’ – much effort expended for little return. The point is well and succinctly made in this cartoon:
For the cartoon, I want to thank Helle Nebelong who spoke before me at SPIRIT and whose work many of us value. (The cartoon is from Sue Palmer’s book Detoxing Childhood)
For its own sake
I value freedom, simply for its own sake. I value the here and now of immediate experience and believe that we – adults – are under an obligation to counter the pernicious ideology that constructs children and teenagers as projects for the future realisation of pre-prescribed outcomes.
I am becoming quite militant about it. No longer will I speak about the ‘here and now’ in lower case, sotto voce. I shall sloganise:
Speak up for ‘The HERE AND NOW’!
You know it makes sense.
 See for example Raymond Tallis’s ‘Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the misrepresentation of humanity’ published by Acumen’