by Julia Steiny
Medieval storytellers and play-masters always faced the huge problem that Evil was so much more fun to portray than Good. Devils often made their entrance from the back of the audience, delivering sin’s pinches to real bodies as they made their way to the stage. The characters World, Gluttony and Lechery could flaunt their drunken or sacrilegious naughtiness, even as they were doomed to the fires of hell. Virtue, Kindness, and Modesty? Dull, dull and dull. Tough work competing for attention.
But compete they did, because they had to. Affirming visions of Good was the point of the stories, after all. Facing adversity with triumph, in comedy, or noble defeat in tragedy, upheld an ideal of what it looked like when the community had it right. However hard to achieve, good character was the basis of a good society, and so it had to drive a good story. Performers had a moral obligation to imagine heaven on earth, because ultimately that was more satisfying to the audiences than cynicism.
These days, Hollywood has lost interest in ordinary, Leave-it-to-Beaver stories about healthy kids and families. On the news we see children involved in violence, shootings, bullies, and toys that maim. Frightened parents wrap their kids in bubble wrap, shielding them from life’s greatest lesson: falling down, going boom, and making sense of what happened. Actually, if we’d only let kids explore, watching them manage risk — climb a tree, build with tools — can be heart-stoppingly exciting.
So I was delighted to see that the Alliance for Childhood had dug out an old 1957 film that shows just such a bit of a heaven on earth for children. It looks like a newsreel of the sort that used to play before the feature film. In it “The National Playing Fields Association” promotes “Adventure Playgrounds,” described as having “originated in postwar Europe, after a playground designer found that children had more fun with the trash and rubble left behind by bombings — inventing their own toys and playing with them — than on the conventional equipment of swings and slides.”
Today adventure playgrounds are all over Europe and Japan. Many call them “junkyard playgrounds” because they’re full of cast-off wood scraps, wire spools, paints, old pool slides, whatever.
As a 1950s vision of heaven, the children are spotless, even as they dig deeply in the dirt, dive into holes and dam streams. Boys build while the girls cook, wearing dresses. A gorgeously-voiced BBC radio announcer enthuses his way through a delightfully prosy script. The camera lingers on kids having a blast learning that “Work is fun and service is satisfaction.” The aesthetic is cornball, but every one of his words is just as relevant to today’s children, if not more so.
The narrator focuses on two conditions essential not only to having fun, but to building character. Again, modern children hear a lot about bad behavior, with few if any images of attractive behavior other than getting good grades and excelling in organized sports.
The first condition is that children need to create worlds that belong just to them. Everything in these playgrounds is created by the children’s hands. “Nails and junk bring happiness,” and as the village of little structures develops, “so does character.” Children choose what to build and do. They begin or stop as they wish, and if they want to pull off to the side to be alone, that’s okay too. This isn’t school or home; it’s their world, and no one else’s.
Douglas Rushkoff makes the point that kids are never the drivers when playing video games or other electronics. They’re passengers in someone else’s software vehicle. Likewise, organized sports are managed by adults. But having a world of your own is critical to developing a sense of who you are. Developing that world with others teaches you who you are in relation to them.
The second essential condition is the “Playworker,” whom we don’t see in the film. Today European colleges offer 2-year degrees that certify playworkers to work for municipalities in parks, public playgrounds and the streets themselves. The narrator notes, “Conspicuous by his or her absence, the leader guides, but never organizes; watches over them, but never interferes; is always there, but never in the way.” The kids aren’t abandoned to create their own world; there’s attention, recourse to help and a potential relationship with a functioning adult. Talk about an image of Good! Imagine if U.S. municipalities cared enough about their kids to invest in people to watch over them out in the field. Kids desperately need to feel safe in their own worlds, but neglect makes the streets dangerous.
As it is, we ignore children’s innate urges to build, dam, make things, climb, invent, interact, and make choices about their own lives. Better to give kids a bit of land, some junk and to have someone standing watchfully to one side as they do so. The last line of the movie is: “And your reward is just this: the sound of children’s laughter. No music was ever sweeter.”
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.