Let our streets be universities

Last week Tom Sutcliffe hosted a discussion titled “Play and creativity” on BBC Radio 4 as part of the programme “Start the week”. The panel of guests included:

Steven Johnson: author of “Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World”

Tim Harford: author of “Messy: How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world”

Stella Duffy: writer, theatre maker and founder of Fun Palaces (http://funpalaces.co.uk/about/)

Ed Smith: former cricketer, author and academic

Tom Sutcliffe introduces the discussion by suggesting that we usually associate work with achievement and, by contrast, fun with recreation, describing these associations as “nice tidy categories”.

Steven Johnson explains that play and pleasure shape the modern world, driving change. Delight and wonder can transform society he proclaims; they can drive innovation. Johnson believes the history of play to be “globalising”, it brings countries together, affecting the economy through “moments of delight”. By chasing industrial developments, Johnson explains we are chasing new, novel, technological ingenuity and we often misunderstand how creative we can be when our mind is in a playful state. Through play, children often create their own rules, this evolution being a form of cognition and creativity which is often overlooked.

Tim Harford warns of the potential dangers of over-categorisation. He highlights the hazards of fun, such as becoming immersed in a computer game which hacks the imagination. However, he also emphasises the importance of “taking yourself away from a safe place, out of a comfort zone” to see things differently. Harford proclaims “mess can be self organising”. By accessing pieces of paper in a seemingly disorganised pile, we act like computers; whilst the information we access the most remains at the top of the pile, we are subconsciously predicting we will need the information again. Harford’s examples are firmly based in his certainty that “within superficial mess there lies structure”. He draws a parallel between this sense of mess and playfulness which can both seemingly have no purpose.

Stella Duffy speaks of there being “value in disruption if you choose to use it”. She is referring to the “magic of the mistake” and the “possibility of something new”. Through the introduction of the concept of Fun Palaces, Duffy hopes to support local communities in creating a “laboratory of problem solving and fun”. She wants communities to decide for themselves what they consider creativity to be, “making arts accessible to all and making the people the experts”. Fun Palaces can occupy any space in a community, a village hall, a pub, a library. Ultimately, “a university on the streets”. Sutcliffe concurs, suggesting that democracy would appear to be key, with the spaces having a democratic feeling.

As a former professional sportsman, Ed Smith believes categorisation is over restrictive. As a player of a game, you need to be an interpreter of space, free to make choices. Smith, like Loris Malaguzzi, regarded as being the founder of the Reggio approach, agrees with Duffy, arguing against the separation of art and science, supporting multidisciplinarity. We need to “inform each others work, be an opportunist” and sometimes “put something in a different language”. Again, reiterating Malaguzzi’s belief in children expressing themselves in more than one hundred languages. In creating games, children demonstrate a sense of fairness says Smith, they negotiate, take on the role of coach and of the referee, learning a lot about life as they do.

Smith ends the programme by stating he considers there to be “creativity in all sports” and that the best coach he had ever met once said “stop worrying about doing it wrong”. Perhaps in the field of education we could do well to remember this statement. As parents and as educators, we should stop worrying about failing our children and instead allow our children find delight and wonder in play, to make mistakes, to improvise and to learn for themselves.


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