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  • Penelope Davison

The Politics of Play

How the culture of progress affects and deters play in adults

There is a particular feeling shared by participants of many subcultures. It is felt by skaters practising tricks along public staircases. It is felt by parkour practitioners who visibly practice movement within cities. It is felt by high school students playing informally on an oval specifically designated for structured sports. This feeling is a specific dread mingled with defiance that comes from spotting an authority figure heading towards them. It is the anticipation of reprimand from a personal innocuous act, to play, train, or move in a way that opposes rules, whether they be implicit or constitutional, legally or culturally enforced, that the ‘gatekeepers’ of order, in the form of security guards, teachers, or ‘legitimate’ public space users, inhibit, prohibit, or condemn particular use of space in the name of order. These verbal reprimands are often an extension of physical deterrents serving the same purpose; metal ridges on planters (also known as ‘skater haters’) to prevent skaters grinding, or imposing fences surrounding the prime part of the oval. All of these elements combine to create a unique oppression against free play and movement, and/or anybody not deemed the target audience. Curiously, an exception to those excluded from free, public play, is children. With play and chaotic movement seen as natural for their age, children are afforded a particular type of leniency which is withdrawn from young teenagers and adults (or YTAAs) with calls of “you shouldn’t be doing that”, “stop playing around”, and “act your age”.

The question then, is how has Western (or in this case, American, English and Australian) society come to see play in public spaces solely the domain of the child? What elements in society might have contributed to not only legal authorities (such as security guards) stopping adults from using public space in a playful manner (almost always from a desire to reduce accountability and prevent potential property damage), but also the passersby, with no formal or legal powers relating to the space beyond a heightened sense of legitimacy, and a responsibility towards order? Why does this attitude exist towards young adults upward, but not extend to young children themselves? In this essay, I will argue that two major contributing factors of YTAAs being seen as illegitimate partakers of play, would be the achievement based learning and workplace requirements, where productivity and results are considered the markers of success, and the active encouragement of measureable and serious competitive sport, which focuses on human perfection and progressiveness rather than the purposeless movement of play. With success, productivity, and perfection the idealized traits of a perfect adult, adults are encouraged, through urban design and communicative cues such as signs and verbal directions, to utilize public space in a way that reflects these values. And consequentially, with less or no YTAAs visibly engaging in unstructured play or movement, this further cements the idea of play being primitive and solely the domain of children.

Before the 1960’s, a widely held belief was that a child pushed too early to achievement would develop into an ineffective adult, creating the phrase “early ripe, early rot” (Elkind, 2009). While mass schooling was initiated from a need to create capable workers for the industrial era, the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite caused a form of mass panic in the US, who, perceiving a technological and academic deficiency in themselves, aimed to make up lost learning and progress by appropriating more time from early childhood, pushing the beginning of academic achievement earlier and earlier, at the sacrifice of play, free time, and physical movement. With the goal of education now focused on extremely quantifiable and standardized results, the idea of play or intentionally unregimented time becomes unthinkable, and nothing more than a distraction. A student who plays is condemned by their figures of authority, whether that be parents, teachers, or any other adult. To play becomes a challenge to the goals of society, or hold it back to primitive, undisciplined roots and depriving society of its full potential.

Reflecting this is the availability of interesting playground equipment for children ages 6-12. As children get further into their schooling, opportunities for play are further reduced due to the lack of appropriately sized playground equipment (Veitch, Salmon, Ball, 2007) with one of the most common discouragements children aged 8-12 faced being having the available equipment too simple, small, or aimed at younger children.

“Girl: Well we don’t really often go to parks [but go to football grounds at least once per week]. The parks are pretty boring ‘cos it’s all baby stuff there. I reckon they should have a park where the older kids can go and muck around and have big slides and big things. Not like the little ones that you can’t even fit your bum in.” (Veitch, Salmon, Ball, 2007, pg. 414)

This resulted in children losing interest in free play and movement, seeking other entertainments instead. Another complaint was the presence of idle teenagers, which could suggest that the teenagers also lack an appropriate public space for play, or a public space that meets their own needs. With older children gradually becoming a deterrent to younger children’s play, older children and/or teenagers also begin to be verbally discouraged using public play areas. This was done in favor of the younger children, who are not yet under the same academic expectations and are therefore not conflicting with society’s desire to achieve academic greatness.

This push towards measureable, quantifiable results is also reflected in the way physical education and movement, though taught or allowed far less, is approached. Eichberg (2010) discusses this change in regards to the role of laughter in movement culture and games. Modern sports are considered an evolution of traditional folk games and ‘carnival’ activities. The goal of most folk games and movements was to encourage not a winner and perfection, but an opportunity to fail, and an invitation of laughter. An example would be to consider a sack race, in which participants, awkwardly hopping in sacks, aim to reach the end of a short course first. The goal of this game is not to be the fastest sack hopper; to actually win the race is of secondary importance. The purpose is instead the joy that comes along with the awkward movement, the mistakes, and the falls. The true goal is to communally share the theatrical element of failure and chaos.

“Laughter thus reveals itself as a bodily, wordless discourse about the imperfect human being. It tells a story not only about the prevailing order of sports, but also about perfectionism as a central focus in the order of Western thinking and social practice more generally.” (Eichberg, 2010, pg. 171)

Laughter showcases the acknowledgement of human vulnerability, and importantly, the acceptance of said vulnerability and chaotic chance.