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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play and chaotic movement seen as natural for their age, children are afforded a particular type of leniency which is withdrawn from young teenagers and adults (or YTAAs) with calls of “you shouldn’t be doing that”, “stop playing around”, and “act your age”.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.

As society began to progress and modernize, the chaotic and light-hearted nature of games and play was exchanged for the quantifiable and measureable seriousness of modern sports. Eichberg (2010, pg. 166 – 167) argues that games and play were chaotic, and could not be controlled by the upper class which desired progress, and order. While banning various games and festivities only had a limited effect, transforming their focus from laughter and community to the achievement of measureable outcomes was more successful. Play now worked to reinforce an industrial and achievement based culture. As with play in schooling and childhood, laughter and play became secondary, and unwanted remnants of an undeveloped culture or individual. With the goal to be as close to perfection as possible and superior to your opponents, laughter (a representation of failure, chaos, and human vulnerability) becomes inappropriate, and play the antithesis of success.

This appropriation of games and carnival into quantified sport and achievement is, like the expectation for children to stop playing as they get older, reflected in the use of public space. Just as facilities conducive to free play and movement are limited to children aged under 8, any publicly available facilities for adults and teenagers to move or exercise are not made with play in mind. Exercise becomes accessible only in the acceptable format of organized sports, on public ovals, or through regimented, measureable gym activities (as evidenced by the increased frequency of exercise parks containing standard gym devices outdoors). Other physical deterrents are consciously put in place to impede different forms of play as they strive for legitimacy. The ‘skater haters’, or metal points that prevent skaters utilizing certain benches or other obstacles are an example of this. As are signs that specifically ban play movements such as climbing or parkour. All of these elements are the physical manifestations of the productive, ordered expectation of society at large and can reduce the possibility of play in YTAAs. Exercise and movement cannot be legitimately performed simply for movement’s sake; it must be to achieve a goal such as quantifiable fitness. Mitchell (1995) discusses the role of public space as important in its potential as a platform for representation. Without the ability for an idea or marginalized group to represent itself to the larger population, it loses legitimacy and credibility, and often remains unacknowledged by society at large. He states that,

“By claiming space in public, by creating public spaces, social groups themselves become public. Only in public spaces can the homeless, for example, represent themselves as a legitimate part of ‘the public’. Insofar as homeless people or other marginalized groups remain invisible to society, they fail to be counted as legitimate members of the polity.” (Mitchell, 1995, pg. 115)

Therefore, with YTAAs discouraged from play and free movement in public through physical deterrents and a lack of facilities, their decreased visibility perpetuates the idea that play is for children only, and strengthens the stigma and confronting nature of a YTAA at play.

With so much of society pushing the idea of perfectionism and orderly play from early childhood through modern sports, it comes as little surprise that there is an adverse reaction from members of the public when they see YTAAs at play. After years of schooling in which students strive to be most correct, or athletes vying for the highest perfection, to see spaces used in a way not originally intended (or ‘incorrectly’) can often provoke mockery. This is reminiscent of way that laughter at a serious competition is seen as poor sportsmanship, or a student not taking their work seriously makes adults tut-tut about the loss of that student’s future. To see YTAAs at play in public is to see them utilize their time in a way which is not quantifiable, and can be confronting to the learned, cultural bias towards order. To be in a culture of perfectionism where productivity means success, the passersby may speak up against YTAAs at play from a subconscious, self-serving obligation to prevent perceived waste of time and productivity, or to sooth the outrage that may be felt by seeing another at be at ease when they are encased in the anxiety that comes from continuously driving for improvement. After all, while society’s sense of self worth is derived from productivity and private accomplishments, seeing a person partaking in aimless play breaks implicit social rules and comes at the detriment of the beholder’s own accomplishments. Anybody engaged in society’s values feels personally confronted, and intervene in an effort to regain a sense of superiority and self-assuredness, or from a genuine desire to help whom they see as a lost or misguided YTAA. To play is to defy the supremacy of private accomplishment, and to challenge the idea of results as self-worth. It is to laugh and undermine the seriousness that a productive society relies upon to drive its agenda towards progress.

For a YTAA to play is to work against a culture of perfectionism in Western society which is reflected in the changes to schooling over time, changes to games and movement culture which is also reflected in the way public space is designed. While once childhood was left for children to play and develop, the need to reach new technological and academic limits trades free time and play for structured routines and tests in an effort to make all time productive. Traditional folk games and movements of play have been subverted to measureable, quantifiable sports with a focus on perfection, sacrificing laughter and the chaotic nature of unstructured play in a bid to create the order needed to increase productivity. In response, the facilities created to enable free play and movement such as playgrounds only cater to young children. YTAA are intentionally deterred from engaging in forms of free play through verbal reprehension, the absence of facilities, or only being able to access facilities that cater to regimented, measured movement and sport. This leads to a lack of representation and legitimacy of YTAAs at play, which, in conjunction with the overarching culture of perfectionism and progression, turns open public play by YCAAs from an innocent, personal act, to an act of defiance of society and order at large. This in turn leads to increased prohibitions on the play possibilities of YTAAs through physical deterrents (such as the afore mentioned ‘skater haters’), unsolicited negative comments from confronted members of the public, and through the legally backed reprimands delivered by authoritative figures.


• Eichberg, H 2010, ‘10. Sport and Laughter: Phenomenology of the imperfect human being, Bodily Democracy Towards a Philosophy of Sport for All’, Routledge, Oxon, UK, pp. 161-179. is article is about the transition of folk games and body movement from carnival and laughter, to one of perfectionism and quantifiable achievement.

• Elkind, D 2009, ‘Hurried Child-25th Anniversary Edition: Growing up Too Fast Too Soon’, Da Capo Press, pp. 3-21. An analysis of the stressors of childhood and how changing cultural and technological norms induce or force a superficial early adulthood on mentally underdeveloped children.

• Mitchell, D 1995, ‘The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 85, No. 1, pp. 108-133. A record and discussion of the events around the ‘Peoples Park Riots’ and their social implications in regards to public space.

• Veitch, J, Salmon, J, Ball, K 2007, ‘Children’s perceptions of the use of public open spaces for active free-play’, Children’s geographies, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 409-422. Results of a study to discover the reasons why children did or did not play in public parks.

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