Playworker and blogger Morgan Leichter-Saxby recently posted a thoughtful three part series of pieces on the topic of play memories. She argued that, while the process of inviting adults to recall their childhood memories of play can be powerful, it needs to be done with care, and may not always be appropriate. I see her point, but feel the technique has a value that is hard to downplay.
I almost always draw on people’s play memories in my work: in talks, in workshops and even in consultancy projects. I use the technique to help adults to appreciate children’s immense appetite for experience and everyday adventure, and their desire to find places and times when they are beyond the anxious gaze of adults. I emphasise that it is not about glorifying some alleged golden age to grow up. I make it clear that yes, the childhoods of children, young people and young adults today may well be different. But that doesn’t mean they are damaged, or are heading to hell in a handcart. Which is one of the reasons I have a problem with the idea of ‘play deprivation’ [pdf link]. (It is not the only reason, but that is a topic for another time.)
In my experience, getting adults to reflect on their childhood play experiences has a profound positive impact. Lightbulbs go off. Debates open up – about risk, for instance – that would otherwise get bogged down in unproductive rehearsals of bar-room opinions. Permission is given to admit to some key insights, like the fact that children at play can sometimes be cruel, destructive and transgressive.
People very quickly get the point that giving children a taste of freedom, encounters with uncertainty and opportunities to take risks (and to take some responsibility for their safety) are key ingredients of a ‘good enough’ childhood. Even if – as sometimes happens – people’s individual memories are different, they recognise and accept the implications. Witness this testimonial from one of my first major consultancy clients, the Forestry Commission.
The aim of much of my work is to motivate adults to do things differently, and to do this as a result of seeing children differently (hence my website name!) People tend to be more motivated by a sense of loss, of things going wrong, than by a positive vision – a point I have made in recent debates about the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’. (A positive vision is important too, but it is rarely the catalyst for change.) Play memories exercises are a powerful tool for getting adults to see how children’s lives could be improved.
It is for others to judge the impact of my work. But if it has made a difference, it is in part down to this conviction. If adults are to allow children to play more and have more everyday autonomy, they need to be confronted with the contrast between the childhood freedoms that they took for granted and the scheduled, controlled, goldfish-bowl lives of so many children today.