The Problem of Play

When I first began writing regularly on this blog a little over a year ago, I never imagined I would write on education as much as I have. It certainly hasn’t been the main topic I’ve dwelt on here, but it is one I generally show little interest in despite it being my profession. I think the main reason I have ended up writing at all is that I have the opportunity to write things I don’t much hear. As I wrote just over a year ago, I am something of an enemy of my own profession and I don’t think anything I wrote since then has done much to contradict this.

As I also wrote in that previous post, it is more the ideologues or education professionals that don’t actually teach, that I have particular distaste for. The rank and file of the profession who actually teach children, are for the most part soft-left politically, but quite pragmatic with the business end of the job. And the ones that aren’t in my experience, are not very good at the job. It is hardly surprising that these are the people who seek non-teaching roles in the industry.

Because of this reality, it is not altogether unusual to hear some statements totally heretical to our modern religion made in the staff room, from time to time. I’ve heard female teachers state that elementary schools need more male teachers which was met with nodding approval by an audience of female teachers. And this wasn’t to flatter my ears as I wasn’t in the conversation and was probably reading a book at the time. I am also quite sure that the teachers with direct experience of the fruits of single-motherhood, don’t think much of modern family culture either. They may not say these things out loud though.

There are other examples but I’d rather get to the subject which involves play. Now being right-wing politically, if not professionally I am quite familiar with the contempt with which thinking men speak of modern day-care schooling. I nod with approval when reading eloquent rants on the stupidity of “everybody wins” sports and “participation” awards. I heartily agree that children should play outside more and be left do it without the proverbial (and sadly now – sometimes literal), leash around their little necks. My soul cries with joy when someone states that boys should be allowed to behave as boys always have and not be sat in a corner or drugged into submission by nasty, barren spinsters. Despite being emotionally and physically weak in my childhood, I approve of the notion that boys should be left to engage in roughhousing and competitive aggression with little interference. I even wish I’d been stronger about being engaged myself when I was a boy.

What does this mean for people working in the schools though? Well, not much.

I know a lot of teachers would agree with these sentiments if they could stop taking criticism as a personal attack or even just look past the politics of those writing. But the reality is worse than that because even if they could, very little could change anyway.

The first class I taught was about thirty kids just entering teenage years. There was a large group of boys and I was encouraged to take the group out for fitness daily outside of physical education. I remember watching them play football (Aussie Rules), and having to stop them not only tackling but making any deliberate aggressive contact, no matter how sporting. Not because I wanted to but because I had to. I’d been through what passes for education training in university and while I’d been forced imbibe a lot of rhetorical poison, my instincts resisted where my reason faltered. But the hard truth is that even if I wanted to let them play as they wanted and should, I risked career ending trouble if I did.

The best I could hope for by allowing such play is that I would only get complaints from some angry parents when their children got slight injuries. These might be overlooked and I would go on doing it but a more serious injury occurring where I could not show that the room they played in was sufficiently padded, could mean legal strife. In that same year I had to answer the same questions from two separate department lawyers when a child was injured entirely by their own fault. Imagine what would have happened if I could have been shown to be at fault?

This extends to even kindergarten level play where hysterical parents might erupt in fury at minor accidents that occurred in the safest possible conditions. As is probably obvious, nothing is ever safe enough and children will find a way to injure themselves no matter what sterilised and heavily padded obstacles their hysterical overlords put in place. Whether these overlords are zealous or not is irrelevant because not following these instructions could ruin their day, week or end their career entirely.

I have worked across many age groups now and it seems to be the way things are. It doesn’t matter what I think. I can allow children to play like children and significantly raise the likelihood of ending my career, or I could follow the rules and get by. Almost all teachers choose the latter to varying levels of enthusiasm. The rest stop being teachers or would really like to.

I can’t really think of a good way to solve this problem with the current legal and school systems. Like much of society, modern schooling must stop and change direction but with so much inertia in the form of public obligations, money and politics behind it, it won’t without hitting something big. The only thing I can imagine off the top of my head is if the pressure to keep children safe got so extreme, that most competent teachers simply left the job. In other words, the risk versus reward (which is already decidedly in the risk section – especially for men), for those doing the job, would have to get continuously worse until it became intolerable. Without people to keep the ball rolling, it would slow down and be able to change. More likely, it will continue like this until it just won’t. Probably until something else happens that ends it.

For parents it is a little easier. Just let your kids play. Take them to the park but stand back and let them run about. Keep an eye on them but don’t follow them everywhere. Don’t worry about them getting hurt because they almost certainly will eventually. Yes, it might be very bad and it might be something that is completely avoidable and tragic. But no amount of laws, no amount of padding, no number of warning signs is going to stop that from ever happening.

When they get hurt, stay calm, help them up and reassure them. Don’t go crazy over blood or even breaks and if you can’t stay calm in those situations; then stay away and let someone else handle it. Encourage your children to be resilient, get them involved in things that will challenge them and don’t let them be wimpy and make excuses.

I’ve ever had to stop myself from bringing home some of the habits I have got from work. If they find a dressing gown cord hilarious to drag and chase about the house, why not let them for ten minutes before bed? One of them might stub their toe or they might have a collision that ruins your night but that’s the best way for them to learn it’s not a good idea to run inside.

The best way to learn is by making mistakes. That’s one thing that’s been true from both observation and experience. One day it will be amusing to note that the insane policies schools put in place to protect children actually prevented them from learning much at all.

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