• Anne O'Connor



There is no doubt that social media has its shortcomings, but I do love the way it can bring random things into my consciousness that I would never have known about – and often with perfect synchronicity. Just as I’m preparing for my seminar on Block Play at the Nursery World Show 2018, a friend posts this link to an article in an Arts magazine about an exhibition in Massachussetts USA - that takes building blocks as its starting point. The exhibition looks wonderful and the article offers an in-depth critique of all the exhibits, the centerpiece of which is a series of pedestals covered with Lego and other building toys for visitors to play with. Michelle Aldridge, the author of the article made this interesting comment.

After spending three hours at the show’s opening, I concluded that we adults are pretty horrible at play. Even when signage made it clear that visitors were not only allowed to touch the toy blocks, but encouraged to do so, some guests still asked for permission, as though they suspected some cruel artistic prank. Younger viewers, unsurprisingly, didn’t hesitate to dive in. Their impulse to build, destroy, and rebuild came naturally. Play has not yet been schooled out of those young minds, and art-world decorum has not yet instilled a fear of breaking the rules.

Now this won’t come as any surprise at all to early years practitioners, for whom block play and construction is an essential part of their working day. But even those of us surrounded by blocks and legos on a daily basis, still seem to need permission to actually play with the things. Our current damaging climate of educational over-assessment and narrow focus on literacy and numeracy means that if we ever actually do get time to spend in the block corner, we are more likely to be monitoring, assessing and quizzing children about colours and numbers, than engaging and ‘wallowing’ with them in their play experience.

One of the key features of block play is that it is impermanent. Half the fun is in knocking it all down or deconstructing things so you can make something else. However, Aldridge tells us that the curator of the show, Corwen Levi has noticed we adults seem to have a problem with this. “If there is any difficulty to overcome in this show,” Levi says, “it is that visitors are reluctant to tear down each other’s creations to make something new—and so I occasionally go through the gallery and knock everything over, not unlike the Fraggles do to Doozers’ towers, allowing a fresh wave of construction to rise up.” He attributes this reluctance to a psychic block some gallery visitors have: “Maybe it is like taking the first step into a small vendor’s booth, or making eye contact with strangers on the street, in that committing to engage takes a psychic toll for which we don’t always have the energy.”

I think it also probably has a lot to do with that ‘art-world decorum’ mentioned earlier, that tends to lead to the assumption that anything on a pedestal or a plinth in a gallery comes with an implicit ‘Do Not Touch’ sign on it – even when it doesn’t. But I am rather taken with this notion of the psychic toll of ‘committing to engage’ and the energy that can take. I think it says a lot about what can happen to us as adults when it comes to social engagement – and also to the energy involved in allowing ourselves to play. Watching family members crawling on the floor playing with the baby’s xmas presents (while the baby, of course, contented themselves with the wrapping paper) reminded me that adults really, REALLY, want to play, but we need the permission of having a baby or small child around to be able to do it. (I think it’s also fascinating to notice how the toys constructed for babies often really only make sense to older children - and adults - but that’s a blog for another day.)

So to play without this ‘permission’ seems to involve a psychic toll that is just too much for most of us and we are starting to see this happening at ever younger ages, as children’s school lives are bound by targets and learning objectives (and a fixed and stultifying curriculum) and their out of school hours are spent, if not indoors hooked up to screens, then on an endless round of extra curricular activities involving certificates and competitiveness. Yes, I know I’m exaggerating – but not that much. It is well-documented that children no longer have as much access to physical, open-ended, self-chosen play experiences, particularly outdoors, as you or I might have done. It is sad that adults find it hard to play - but for playing without a goal or fixed outcome to have become something that is beyond the scope of a 9 year old is a very worrying state of affairs.

And where are all the ‘serious ideas’ of the future going to come from, if the opportunity to play isn’t there to act as a prelude?

Thanks to Arthur Horne for the link to the article in Gwarlingo

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