Thursday, 7 July 2011

Tenets of the New Puritans #2: "It's for the children" - the curse of the play strategy

“It’s for the children” or “think of the children” has become a core mantra for the New Puritan – we should hide cigarettes and alcohol just in case some child might catch a glimpse and be drawn inexorably towards the evil weed or corrupting liquor. And a host of restrictions and controls – some advocate building huge firewalls – are needed in case a child stumbles across a little bare flesh on the Internet.

Great calls go up when an actor lights up on film or television – especially when that actors is a cartoon chameleon.

Anti-smoking campaigners have branded the animated film Rango a public health hazard for encouraging children to take up the habit.

A raft of groups said the PG feature, which opened last Friday, is setting a bad example by featuring more than 60 instances of characters puffing away.

Doubtless our brave campaigners care only for the welfare of children, just as do those people who insist on airbrushing out I K Brunel’s cigar.

But there is a more insidious problem with the New Puritans and children – the de facto banning of play. Or rather its replacement with something that is similar to play but, by being directed by the New Puritan, ceases to be such a thing. After all we didn’t need a “play strategy” did we?

Children and young people are to be encouraged to give their opinions on Bradford's play strategy and play provision by calling a play "hotline".

The authority will publicise the All to Play For strategy using brightly coloured posters and cards featuring the number for Bradford early years and childcare service.

Ali Long, play development and training officer, said the play team of four full-time staff and other mobile playworkers wanted to hear directly from children and young people.

You see the problem is that we might just do the wrong kind of play – you know, the bad sort:

Teachers reprimanded two seven-year-old boys for playing army games - because it amounted to 'threatening behaviour'. The youngsters were disciplined after they were spotted making gun-shapes with their hands.

Play strategies are intended for purposeful things, they are part of learning – we might see them as the creation of a dutiful generation of young New Puritans. Children face barriers to play (which don’t extend to adults telling them to stop that and stop it now) and we should be concerned about “the quality of play environments”. This whole approach, the idea that we need centrally-directed strategies is deeply worrying.

In its way the Bradford strategy both compounds and also comprehends the problem:

Access to the outdoor environment for play remains a high priority for children and young people. We are currently witnessing the growth of a new phenomenon – that described by a number of professionals as the “battery child syndrome” where today’s children are often denied the play opportunities that earlier generations took for granted.

But nowhere does the document admit to the source of the problem. A while ago I mused on the joys of being ten:

We climbed over the fence to play football in the school grounds (it is only a rumour that we climbed on the roof) & could cross the fields to Elmers End Cricket Club and watch them play – and so long as I was back for tea no-one bothered

With Jeremy Lesuik I got the bus and tube to go to football – Highbury, Stamford Bridge, Upton Park – on our own and paid for from our pocket money. And in the Summer a trip to The Oval or Lords for cricket

Mr Sparks took us to the old golf course to play cricket – on occasion up to twenty or so playing an impromptu game. In bad weather he took us swimming. We walked the two miles there and back to South Norwood pool

...And climbing the cherry trees and digging for Roman remains in the garden (which of course we found in abundance)

Now I know part of this is nostalgia but the bigger part is a recognition is what we have lost in our search for a risk free “play environment”. And more importantly in making sure no voices other than the approved New Puritan voice are directed to the upbringing of children.  We touched above on bad play for boys (you know the stuff with guns and violence – they would play like that if it wasn’t for TV and video games) but there’s also bad play for girls too. The difference is that this sort of bad play isn’t attacked by punishing the girl but by directing our attention to mum or to the shopkeeper:

Bailey's report asks for government and business to work together to tackle the problem – for example, by ending the sale of inappropriately "sexy" clothing for young children, such as underwired bras and T-shirts with suggestive slogans. But Bailey recommends that if progress is not made the government should force retailers to make the changes in 18 months.

Cameron's letter says: "I note that many of the actions you suggest are for business and regulators to follow rather than for government. I support this emphasis, as it consistent with this government's overall approach and my long-held belief that the leading force for progress should be social responsibility, not state control."

That girls want to play dressing up, to try out make up, to pretend to be models or princesses is normal behaviour not premature sexualisation – if there is a problem it is with adults sees anything sexual about a nine-year-old child, whatever they are wearing. Yet that is precisely what the New Puritans are doing – suggesting that girls dressing-up is ‘premature sexualisation’ is precisely the same mistake as we make by saying that a women in a mini-skirt is asking to be raped.

In all this we see a conflicted attitude to children but one dominated by a corrupted idea of childhood – one where children can have all of the fun we had without any of the risks, where our obsession with sex is visited onto the one group in society without that obsession and where play must be directed to purposeful things rather than indulged in for its own sake.

It seems to me that when society thinks it needs a play strategy – apparently because children have “a right to play” under the “UN Charter on the Rights of the Child” – that society has lost its way. Yes children need to play but we don’t need a strategy, we don’t need directing in this, we know (and children certainly know) what to do.

Pleasure – hedonistic, undirected, indulgent pleasure – is a human need. Sadly, the New Puritans believe only certain kinds of pleasure are worthy of encouragement and that many great pleasures are harmful, sinful, a cost to society. And must be ‘denormalised’. So it is with children’s play – it must be supervised, directed, managed and prescribed , made ‘safe’ and expunged of any corrupting influences from ‘harmful’ adult pleasures.

But of course we do it all “for the children”.


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