We’ve been doing adhoc Pop Up & Play sessions since I last wrote about it in March and after a session in August at David Webster Park, Troyeville we were invited by City of Johannesburg Community Development and Region F Sport and Recreation to run the school holiday club at the end of September. We were really pleased and grateful for the invitation from local government to provide this space and experience for children. They are greatly needed in communities where parents are under pressure to provide appropriate care for children because they cannot afford extra holiday care. Our model also helps reclaim spaces in the city that were planned for children’s use but have been taken over by adults and used for anti-social activities such as drug abuse and prostitution. We need to ensure an adult presence in these spaces but a presence that does not seek to control and regiment children’s play.
We had around 45 kids passing through over the week with 30 or so ‘regulars’. Our sessions ran from 10am-2pm, staffed by myself, Siphokaze and Linda – our playworkers in training who did a fantastic job. The idea behind these sessions is to provide a safe space and the resources for children to engage in child-directed play. During the week we made kites (the old fashioned way), masks, swords, wands, read stories, painted, played drums, walked the slackline and on the last day were moved and entertained by the amazing children’s dance and drama team from Buzz.
My main observation of the week is that the kids initially came with the expectation that this was another version of school or aftercare, ready for command and instruction. We laid out materials and assumed the children would just get on and play but I initially found, too often for my liking, that I was asked ‘what should I paint?’, ‘what should I make?’, even ‘how must we play with this…”. The kids in the group were of primary school age, older than the 2-6 cohort I usually work with. I wondered whether the schooling environment had made them lose their innate playfulness and creativity, or whether the presence of us adults changed the way they played as they assumed some kind of pressure to perform, to be correct or felt that they were being assessed.
I soon realised our main task was letting them realise they have all the ideas and they are free to explore them, that they have the capacity and ability and just needed the confidence, encouragement and freedom to explore that. While I spend a lot of time advocating for and explaining ‘child-directed’ play to adults it was a surprise to have to ‘explain’ (through play) the approach to children themselves.
It also took days for the children to stop asking if they could please go to the toilet, if they could go and wash their hands and to stop calling me Ma’am and Miss. I know this was both an ingrained habit and a show of respect and I appreciated it but in a play-based environment I would like to be seen as an adult and their equal. This is an interesting topic and one of contention for many in a culture that really holds onto the ‘respect your elders’ mantra. I totally agree with respecting your elders, naturally, but that respect must come from a place of mutual understanding and not one of fear and blind obedience.
A week later I came across a wonderful (lengthy!) blog post by the wonderful Teacher Tom called “Why I Teach the Way I Do’ (which is inspiration for a million blog posts to come). His ideas around democracy, freedom and obedience in the learning environment really resonated and articulated my feelings around these issues. I’ve pulled out and paraphrased some excerpts below:
“I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. … We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed…..we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.”
“Our society has collectively, through our Constitution, cast its lot with Locke, and in this view if we are still born needing our fellow humans, and specifically our parents, it does not mean that they are our superiors. Indeed they are more experienced and physically capable, but it doesn’t follow that we are subservient to them: we are born in a state of equality and freedom and we need our fellow humans. It is a challenging idea for some, this idea that adults can keep children safe and prepare them for citizenship without authoritarian tools because, quite obviously, the influence of Hobbes is still with us. It’s impossible for some to understand how a child can grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen without the constant anticipation of the carrot and fear of the stick.”
“Our job, then, is not to “tell” children or “instruct” children, but rather to keep them safe and informed as they explore their world through play, learning as they go everything they need to know, including values and morals. Some still insist, however, that for their own good we must “train” children to obey our parental commands, to react without question to our words: “Stop!” “Come here!” “Sit there!” much in the way one trains a dog. (I’m sorry that this metaphor offends people, but I stand by its aptness.) If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor. This, however, is emphatically not the world for which I’m preparing children. The habits of blind obedience, of trained reactions to the commands of others, flies in the face of our democratic experiment: they are a danger both to the child and ultimately to the rest of us who count on our fellow citizens to be equal and free. Obedience is not a democratic value.”
“Being child-directed is about creating a physical and intellectual space in which children “tell you” when they are ready to expand their experiences; not commanding them, not drilling them, not testing them, but simply narrating, filling their world with facts.”