1,000 words about where loose parts should best be left to get the most from them. It's largely about the word serendipity and a dead German biologist. The second of a two-part blog.
a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece
"Whether we acknowledge it or not, when we adults gather specific materials together and place them in a context that we have pre-decided, like the tabletop, then we have both reduced the variety and the possible combinations available."
900 words on what happens when a five year old spots an aging playworker while trying to balance along a low wall, with a bit of a more than 100-year-old theory thrown in to boot.
"It is at this point that she noticed me walking towards the pair with shopping bag in hand and we briefly made eye contact – and something happened. Question is, what?"
900 words about what happens when you ask a playwork consutant to make recomendations on movoing a local community playground because of noise complaints. It doesnt as expected.
"It seems to be a truism that when children and young people come into conflict with adults in their local communities it is the adults who invariably win."
1,100 words about the latest reserch into the effects of children playing computer games with violent themes and dangerous behaviour involving firearms. It's not quite what you might expect.
"The history of children’s play is littered with examples of adults expressing concern over the negative impact of certain types of play. In the old days it was concern over things like spinning tops (I kid you not) but in a modern context the biggest fears are possibly about a presumed link between computer games with violent storylines and real violence."
900 words about the confusion some find over using loose parts and how that relates to 'open-endedness'. The first of a two-part blog.
"By definition an object, whether a loose part or not, cannot be ‘open-ended’."
Following on from 'The Big Fire Challenge' and 'The Empty Pot Challenge', here's your 2019 challenge ... it does not matter what children you work with or in what context ... try this one out.
850 words about conflict between child-space and adult-space in local communities.
"It seems to be a truism that when children and young people come into conflict with adults in their local communities it is the adults who invariably win. This is especially true with the allocation of space as can be seen from the vast number of complaints made by adult residents against local playgrounds every year."
850 words about my first day at school.
"I have a vision of standing beside the kind of sand and water tray that would not out be out of place in any early year’s centre today and pretty much staying there not daring to move."
850 words about a memorable, exciting moment in a darkend room with a loose parts element.
"This may sound silly, but my hands were shaking a little as I opened the envelope and a waft of a familiar smell leapt out ..."
900 words about what we, the adult in a playspace, should be doing while there are children playing all around us. Vygotsky gets a mention as does a playwork pioneer.
"We have had many positive developments in an early learning and forest school context in how adults see their role in recent decades. What was the ‘teacher’ has, in many respects become the ‘educator’, for example, and that has clearly been a considered move; and yet ‘educator’ still implies ‘educate’."
900 words about the deep suspicion there appears to be for 'play' in the American kindergarten classroom.
"Restricting particular types of play, or learning, into a predesignated ‘corner’, ‘area’ or ‘station’ is like putting a wild animal in a cage and thinking that’s helpful. It’s not."
900 words about Simon Nicholson's 'Theory of Loose Parts' that asks if we are missing something in our interpretation of his ideas.
"Pretty collections of beads and shells, plastic shapes and buttons, stored neatly in nice wicker baskets or storage tubs, etc. do indeed constitute loose parts, there is a slight problem here. Becoming fixated with seeing ‘loose parts’ as just these small aesthetically pleasing things at the expense of others that might be less attractive to the adult eye really misses the major idea behind Nicholson’s original theory."
900 words asking when is a good research paper not a good research paper, highlighting issues with one recently published piece on the play of school playgrounds.
"A good research paper, even when it produces a counterintuitive conclusion, can slice through the bias of an emotional response better than a hot knife through an organically produced, seed-oil based butter substitute."
500 words about abnoxious teenagers and how we all went through a phase of being rude, destructive and apparently unthinking. And yet, we all did it ... didnt we.
"It was dark at the time as we climbed commando style over the fence and I confess I don't remember feeling concerned about this. Curiosity had got the better of us."
500 words about how the wear and tear marks left behind on physical features by years of use provide subtle clues to the actions of people long after they have left.
"This week, during an aside from the regular monotony of motels and cafes which makes up the uninteresting side of being on the road touring, brought up an unexpected example of forensic Playwork - the act of reading and interpreting the physical signs that playing leaves behind."
500 words about scary news headlines, ignorance about the reality of children at the play, and the right and wrong questions to be asking.
“Shocking” and “unbelievable” says an article reporting a story that has grabbed national attention in the UK this week. This is in response to a story about a group of children seen playing ‘chicken’ in the road.
a \'shȯrt-rēd'\ piece
500 words about childhood family rituals and oddities and the importance they place in making us 'family'.
What family rituals can you remember? What little oddities do you still have in your family?
500 words about the differences and similarities that can be found in thirty-years worth of photographs of children at play.
Do you have photos of you playing as a child? Can you see any differences/consistencies?
500 words about the importance in having an eclectic collection of books for the serious researcher on play and playing.
How eclectic are you bookshelves? Where have your unexpected influences come from?
"Can you imagine what the world might be like if we all managed to maintain the natural curiosity and playfulness of our child-self through into our adult life and on to the end of our days?"
a \'lɒŋ- rēd'\ piece
An 1,800 word biographical piece about my early introduction to Playwork and to the world of New Games offered as a tribute to Bernie DeKoven, long-time playful person and key member of the New Games movement. Bernie is true-hero of mine and I count him as being a great influence on my working practice. All Hail Bernie!
This peace gives a definition of 'playfulness' and touches on the importance of being able to conquer self-consciousness when working around the playing child.
1,000 words on describing a chance encounter that resulted in a genuine, deep-down, fighting for breath belly-laugh.
What uncontrived moments have you shared with children and young people? Where were they? What were the circumstances?
Here is some news on how I’ve been organising new writing recently with ‘long-reads’ and ‘short-reads’. This piece includes Facebook links to the latest short-reads. #engage
"Anyone who says children do not think critically has never watched a two-year-old pick up some new object for the first time and stare at it."
a \‘lɒŋ- rēd’\ piece
A 2,100 word piece that asks if you have any books on philosophy on your shelves becasue there is a real, and ancient, link between play and the thinking science. Critical Thinking gets a mention as does Monty Python and famous internet meme.
A PDF version of this essay is available for download in the text.
"I can see the reasoning behind saying play is the child’s equivalent of work … but it isn’t, and saying it is doesn’t help."
An 1,800 word piece that points out that those who don't know their history are doomed to make the mistakes of the past. So, this piece links the topics of play and history together and traces a line of thought through some significant names.
A PDF version of this essay is available in the text.
Thoughtcrime on marc-armitage.com is now online.
"The approach that often well-meaning campaigns, such as the latest Irish ‘Let’s take on childhood obesity’ campaign, adopt in relation to children playing, often leaves me cold."
This piece describes how assumptions about children's lives can sometimes override reality and that even well-meaning people can advance projects that they might feel will be of benefit but which ultimately are just trying to fix something that simply is not broken.
"Anyone who works with children, particularly younger children, knows that some of the objects that find there way into pockets no matter how small or seemingly incidental are clearly more than meaningless."
This piece links one particular element of children's play with mysticism and the importance of objects in children's lives. A psychologist gets a mention ... but not in a good way.
QUESTION - What things have you been brought by children? What objects have you seen them collect and keep? How have they used these things?
"It is not enough for adults to just explain reality in a real world context to children – to make sense of our type of reality children must do so in their own way and that means playing it through in their own non-adult reality."
The topic of war, weapon and superhero play is a thorny one that can be divisive yet there is one easily overlooked, sometimes ridiculed element of such play that should inform us on what our attitude towards it should be.
"It now seems routine that not only is TV news footage of children altered to disguise identity but so are images of children gathered for other reasons too."
Fuzzy and headless children are everywhere and we think it is contributing to making children's lives safer but it is not. The real effect is a negative one and it affects more than just children.
"We often throw around the term ‘risky play’ as though it was a category of play like social play or gross-motor play. But it is not. Taking risks is simply one of the things children do when they are playing and, because a significant amount of playing is about pushing boundaries and extending ourselves, it turns out that most play is risky in one way or another."
This is a longer than usual piece as it was originally something published in the Barnados Ireland journal. It questions our approach to guarding against the risks and hazards that children face in institutional settings and suggests four particularly risky experiences that all children should have access to.
"When I was living and working in Sweden, a friend and fellow PhD student of mine with the Högskolan i Halmstad (the University of Halmstad) called Anders Nelson, now Dean of the University, told me a story about his young son Viktor."
In a piece that mixes a superhero, a punk rock star and Eric Morecambe we explore one tiny experience that reminds us how easy it is for adults to forget how earth shatteringly amazed we could be as children to discover something new and profound.
"I have absolutely no objection to people smacking children under any circumstances. None. On one condition."
There is a fierce battle curently underway in the United States of America between a group of people who wish to see the rights of children upheld and extended, and another group who see this as a threat to their familiy life. There have been some significant developments since this piece was first written which are highlighted in a new postscript.
"I realised how tempted I was to point out to these two adults why their boys could not contain themselves and note that they themselves were creating an impossible situation for themselves and their sons - but it would have been ugly. So I didn’t."
Parents and other adults can be oblivious to the effect their actions can have on the children around them and can sometimes sap the wonder from children's experiences. This story describes two such examples - one conscious the other not.
"I have a message to all those out there that might not have much respect for the well-being agenda or who might believe that the issue of children’s happiness is nothing but a modern fad that has no real bearing on the real world. You’re an idiot."
Some aspects of Playwork are harder than others. This story highlights one of the most profound.
"I’ve been asked a number of times why I continue to wear black and white Converse originals on my feet and am rarely seen without them – even in a suit (true story). Today, I explain one of the reasons why."
Shoes. It comes down to shoes. Interestingly, this piece has been one the most commented on, most sharied pieces I've ever written. Here it is brought up to date with a new crucial piece of information in a postscript.
"Throughout most of the 1980s I lived in a house down a cul-de-sac. It was a quite short street with not too many parked cars on and, completely by chance, had three or four playworkers living down it – two of us in the same house."
Children clearly create their own special places for playing but sometimes they need help from local adults to make this work. It can be as simple as asking the right questions and knocking on the right doors and it need not cost the earth.
"He momentarily lost his balance but once he’d recovered he put the stick back on the fence and carried on plinking and plonking."
Adults can help and adults can hinder. It's as simply a matter of attitude.
"Why is it that a legislator feels the necessity to legally protect the rights of adults in relation to privacy and social networking but not of children and young people?"
This is not a question of new fangled technology and the need for the latest electronic gizmo. It's about independence and recognising that the children and young people of today live different lives to that which we did and have opportunities available to them which we may not fully understand.
"Posing a question in 2005 Paul Martin said, “We all say we want children to be happy, but it is a notoriously elusive aspect of human existence. How can parents help children to maximise their chances of being happy people?"
This piece questions our perception of 'quality time' in children's lives and challenges the idea that what children need most is to spend more time in parental company. It highlights the findings of a number of surveys and studies, gives IKEA a shout-out and name drops some significant thinkers on this topic.
It is a habit of mine to ask for a reference or citation when matters of fact are quoted with no source simply because a research based approach to working with children and young people should be the norm in developing good practice – emotive anecdotal comments should be the exception. This is especially true in the field of play and playing as it can sometimes become an emotive topic and a good research paper, even when it produces a counterintuitive conclusion, can slice through the bias of an emotional response better than a hot knife through an organically produced, seed-oil based butter substitute.
Unfortunately, this recent paper ‘Individual and environmental correlates of school-based recess engagement’ published in the journal, Preventative Medicine Reports just isn’t (vol 11 Sept. 2018 p247-253).
The paper begins well enough by acknowledging that recess periods in the school day have been in decline in school districts throughout the USA and concludes that this is not a good thing. It goes on to say that this is not a good thing because, “The school day … is a prime opportunity to promote PA [physical activity].”
And that’s where we hit the first problem.
This paper is a classic of the physiological type of research that is concerned exclusively with the health benefits of children being physical activity to the exclusion of all else. The introduction sets its overall aim out very clearly when it says, “Physical activity is important to help curb high obesity rates amongst today’s children.”
Methodologically it’s a very tight paper and no doubt well intentioned. The research involved more than 8,000 children in seven schools in which one part of the study held observations of ‘recess activity engagement’ while in another data from the wearing of a Fitbit activity monitor were taken and the two sets of data then combined and analysed. The tabulated results are clearly laid out and easy to read.
It is the conclusions that the paper reaches that are worrisome, though: It concludes that girls tend to be less physically active during recess periods than boys – and that’s no surprise as most similar research has drawn the same conclusion. Yet it is how this is stated that starts the alarm bells ringing as its says that more than a quarter of children (particularly girls) were observed in “sedentary activities (e.g. talking with friends).” The bias here is beginning to peek out.
The paper also quotes previous research on the topic stating that it found, “… adding more playground equipment and providing a structured recess yielded the largest effect on [physical activity].” This paper seems to agree with that. In fact, the reference to ‘sedentary activities’ above shows very clearly that the researchers are seeing the potential benefits of playing purely in the context of increased physical activity – sitting play bad, running around play good – and the major conclusion it reaches is that the involvement of adult-initiated and structured activity is essential to getting the desired increase in physical activity:
“… in the current study, adult engagement and supervision was identified as the most salient recess level predictor of engagement for boys and girls. Thus, in considering how to take advantage of limited [recess] time for PA … adults can be more than passive observers assigned to monitor recess, but can also be active participants, and even beneficial role models, for children on and around the playground.”
It’s almost as if the research has been funded by an organisation with a vested interest in adult-led playground intervention projects, isn’t it?
Yet at one point, the paper makes an almost throw away comment that might lead to an alternative conclusion. It notes that recess in the study schools accounted for approximately 5.6% of the school day and then, shock horror, finds that, “Interestingly, recess length was a significant predictor of both MVPA [moderate-to-vigorous physical activity], and steps per minute taken during recess. This finding suggests that extra recess time not only increases opportunities for physical activity, but that children are more active with the time they have when this is increased.”
So, to increase physical activity simply increase the length of recess time, right?
One of the real problems behind this paper is that it has a clear bias in its approach paradigm that seriously narrows any possible conclusion. At one point the authors claim, “To date, no study has concurrently examined the contextual features of the environment and what students chose to do during recess in a systematic way.”
Oh, really? I could lead them to a decent sized metaphorical warehouse full of research relating to school recess periods that has done just that; but they have done so from alternative paradigm to that of the authors who appear to have no previous knowledge of other approaches – all except one of the extensive references cited are from a physiological perspective.
Much of this non-physiological research quotes the benefits of recess that goes beyond the purely physical (see just about anything by Peter Blatchford and Anthony Pellegrini, for example) and not the least amongst those benefits is the value of unstructured time away from adult imposed activity rather than arguing for more.
So, when is a good play research paper not a good play research paper? When it may, even with the best intentions in mind, make the reality of play for children harder to achieve rather than easier. That’s when.