Thursday, 27 April 2017

Just playing.

"The right to play is the child's first claim on the community. Play is nature's training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing enduring harm to the minds and bodies of its citizens" - David Lloyd George, 1926.

The Foundling Museum on Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury is a charming place and something of a hidden gem amongst London's museums. It tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, Britain's first home for abandoned children, founded by the mariner turned philanthropist Thomas Coram. A statue to Coram stands in front of the museum but greater testament to him is nearby Coram's Fields, a large open space comprising playgrounds, sand pits, duck ponds etc; and not admissible to any adult without a child in tow. I spent a magical afternoon with my ex-partner and her four year old son there some years ago and it truly is a wonderful place.

In the museum itself you can see billet books, wristwatches given to resident foundlings for good conduct, Hogarth prints, paintings by Canaletto and Gainsborough, and more modern art contributed by both David Shrigley and Grayson Perry. There's a room given over to George Frideric Handel where you can listen to his Messiah whilst inspecting his last will and testament. Both Handel and Hogarth were major benefactors to the institution. They've also got a rather good deal on with the Art Fund that meant I was able to use my National Art Pass to gain entry for just £2.

I was there, specifically, to see Child's Play, an art exhibition, a symposium, and a book project initiated by artist Mark Neville with one aim:- to improve the conditions for children's play in Britain and, I'd say, globally. In this age of austerity both time and space for play are being gradually eroded. Neville, like most people surely, believes that it's not just a fundamental human right for children to have access to play but vital should we not wish the next generation of adults to be increasingly both physically and mentally unwell.

Neville's taken photographs around London and the UK and as far afield as the USA, Kenya, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. He's looked at how children adapt to conditions and how their environment not only affects how they play but what they play. Play, for kids, is often a serious business. The intense young boy below would often tell Neville to stop taking photographs with the line "No, Mark. Stop. This is serious".

Boy with rope at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, London (2016)

Historical associations can affect the play of children too. Corby in Northamptonshire has a tradition of steel making and attracted many skilled workers from Glasgow. The strong Scottish identity this gave the town has resulted in it being the only town outside Scotland to have its own Highland Games and Highland Dance Competitions. You can see on the faces of these little girls how seriously they take it.

The faces of the kids from Nightingale Primary School tell a different story. There's genuine fun being had here. The children were asked to give out some 'New York, Lady Gaga attitude' and you can see, from their pouts, hands on hips, and nonchalance, that they took to their commission with some gusto.

Highland Dancers, Corby Highland Games (2010)

Nightingale Primary School, London (2012)

While the above are, on the whole, examples of structured play free play, too, is important in helping children to learn self-determination. Adventure playgrounds are great for this. Tree houses, swings, climbing frames etc; provide a safe environment for children to learn to evaluate risk and not to rely entirely on adults.

The little girl at the frog pond looks like she's just tried something she won't be trying again and the kids at Somerford Grove in Tottenham initially look like they're up to no good - until you realise they're simply extinguishing a barbeque. Photographs can be read in many different ways and sometimes a caption can change your understanding of one completely.

The Frog Pond at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, London (2016)

Kids at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground, Tottenham, put out the barbeque fire (2011)

Kids in Braddock, Pittsburgh (2012)

Somerford Grove Adventure Playground in Tottenham (2011)
So play in the UK and the US, though sometimes under threat, is generally encouraged and provided for. But what of places where the problems are both more urgent and more dangerous? Play is resilience and even in war zones, refugee camps, or during bereavement and poverty (quite often all linked together) children will find a way to play.

There are currently 13,000,000 displaced children around the world. Forced out of their homes by various armed conflicts, demonised by the right wing media of Rupert Murdoch, and forced to live pretty much hand to mouth. Gideon Mendel's installation at the Autograph ABP Gallery earlier this year did a great, and important, job of correcting that false narrative in portraying refugees, first and foremost, as humans like you or I. Mark Neville's photographs continue the good fight.

Lashkar Gah Girls School had to be reached in a tank. The journey took several hours and on arrival the sound of explosions and gunfire could be heard clearly just over the wall of the compound. The children in Gereshk were as vulnerable as any soldier to being maimed or killed, at any given moment, should they step on a mine. Yet still they both played and played up to the camera. Play often takes the form of escapism but rarely can it be this imperative.    

Lashkar Gah Girls School, Helmland Province, Afghanistan (2011

On Patrol in Gereshk, Afghanistan (2011)

Serenading Masha at Zhytomir Special Boarding School for Deaf Children, Ukraine (2016)
Zhytomir Special Boarding School for Deaf Children, Ukraine (2016)

Family in Shamattawa Aboriginal Reserve, Manitoba, Canada (2012)
In Ukraine 2,500,000 people have been displaced by Putin's ongoing aggression. Zhytomir Special Boarding School cares for both deaf children and Down syndrome kids, giving them friendship and love at a time when Russian tanks wreak destruction elsewhere in their country. This is what it's come to mean to celebrate 'strength' in our leaders. I can't help thinking it'd be a far stronger leader that doesn't imperil the life and wellbeing of infants.

Adrenalin Alley, Northampton (2010)

London Fields Primary School (2016)
Neville joined the International Rescue Committee on a trip to Kakuma which, with a population of over 200,000, is Kenya's second largest refugee camp. Most have fled conflicts in Ethiopia, Rwanda, or Sudan. The International Rescue Committee provide health care but Neville saw that the children themselves had hand-made hoops and wheels which they used sticks and branches to propel forward.
Footballs and crude Frisbees were utilised as elsewhere in the world but the most shocking, upsetting, and powerful image of all is one of a group of very young children gathered round a hole, taking turns to stick their heads into it, sucking up the dirty water, and spitting it out, over and over again, until pure water gathers at the bottom which they can drink. They've made a game of it but it's a game of life and death.

If the next generation of children are to have a better lot than we, as a planet, have given this current generation we really need to think about, and do something about, our skewed sense of priorities. We need to stop voting in powerful leaders who'll put their own people first (and screw everyone else) and remember that we all share this planet and it's the only one we've got. I've often heard adults telling their children how important it is to learn to share. Maybe it's time we led by example.

If you'd like to donate to Save the Children here's a link:-

With hoops, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Boy with ball, stick and Frisbee, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Football match at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Hairdressers in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Sucking Water from the Earth, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

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