Friday, 8 May 2009

Places Children Love 3/3


Researcher Alison Clark, of the Institute of Education, works with three to five year olds, learning how to listen. Clark has adopted the Mosaic Approach to communication with pre-schoolers, a Danish method based on the premise that children are experts in their own lives but communicate differently from adults. In her work Clark combines conversation and observation with photography, map-making and child-led tours, and at a preschool in Kent she and her colleague Peter Moss used all of these techniques to find out what children thought of their surroundings. The school had a grant from Learning Through Landscapes to improve its outdoor space, so the research had immediate practical importance.

Photography turned out to be particularly significant. Asked to take pictures ‘of what is important here’ the children produced some unexpected results. One child, working on a book of important outdoor spaces, included a picture of the school’s indoor sandpit, which suggested a need for a place for digging outside. In another instance, pictures and maps emphasised how intrusive the security fence was, but it also emerged that the children loved looking through gaps in the fence at people going by, so any improvement to the fence needed to retain its porous quality.

An outdoor playhouse was known to be popular, and this was confirmed by the research, but further discussion revealed that it was also a source of conflict because there wasn’t room for everyone inside. So the idea was mooted to introduce materials for children to build temporary structures and so alleviate the pressure on the existing house.

Clark believes we need to listen to children more. “We have put a lot of money into play equipment,” she says. “But that isn’t necessarily where children gravitate to. They love the scrubby bits round the back of the playground.

“We need to remember that outdoor play for children isn’t about adult goals like keeping fit or learning to climb. It’s about freedom, exploration, creating imaginative space.”

How did we lose sight of this? For one thing, playgrounds were not invented solely with children’s development in mind. After all, the playground fence keeps children safe, but it also keeps them out of trouble. When we talk about the factors that prevent us letting kids out on their own – fear of traffic, concern about ‘stranger danger’ – we tend to forget that many adults are happier not to have children running wild.

The efforts being made by organisations like Learning Through Landscapes represent an attempt to reconcile our need for order and our children’s need for disorder. And it is a need. When the kids pilfer blankets to make a den behind the couch they’re not doing it to annoy us. Kids do this everywhere, in all cultures. Tim Gill wonders if there isn’t some primitive urge to create shelter, a survival instinct so strong it exists now as play. Or is it that children need, now and again, to transform their environment, to feel they have some control over a world they are not generally allowed to alter?

Then again, the den itself is only the beginning, a private place where the imagination rules. Whether it’s behind the sofa or up a tree it’s a place where fantasies can be indulged and a sense of independent being discovered. When my daughter and her friends disappear into the bushes on the way home from school I imagine that the bushes are like the brush at the edge of a clearing, with the forest stretching away behind them. The forest is gone, but the brush is still there, and the children can still experience that feeling of being just outside their known world.

When talking about his own daughter, Tim Gill says that he is “Very conscious that children have an elastic line attached to us. They want to extend it, but they don’t want it to be completely cut.”

I asked my daughter what it was children love about those laurel bushes. She shrugged. But what do they do in there?

“I don’t know,” she says. “Clamber about. Hide. From their parents.”

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