(Header photo by Jien Chun)
What do you see when you have a child in front of you? Do you see someone to protect? A nuisance? A person in a different developmental stage than you? Do you see that child at all? I started asking myself these questions after talking to Christine Lee, a play activist in Taiwan and a member of this community. She told me she used to find it surprising when her friends in Europe talked directly to her children and asked them how they were, because adults tend to ignore children in Taiwan. Lee said that one of the main problems she identifies in her home country is that the Confucian culture is adult-centric, with children considered as having to respect adults, and there is also a lot of sexism, with children seen mainly as the responsibility of mothers.

I understand that there are different cultural approaches to children. From my experience, for example, people in Greek, Argentine or Italian restaurants are quite tolerant of a toddler running around, compared to some establishments in Switzerland. But what does this translate into when it comes to real life? Are politicians informed by these cultural views when they draw up policies? Do we adults think of children when we furnish our homes? Are we really making space for them and their developmental needs, or do we just expect them to find their way in an adult world, and grow up as fast as they can? (And if so, is that hugely problematic?)

The coronavirus has disrupted millions of lives, exacerbating previous inequalities and highlighting some of the underlying structures of our societies. When it comes to children, it’s become clear that in many cases they are having it much harder during the pandemic. Think of The Philippines, where under-15s represent a third of the population: they have been banned from leaving their homes for a year now. Or take England, where children’s commissioner Anne Longfield accused the government of “institutional bias” against children who are not allowed to play outside or meet their friends, despite campaigns by childhood experts and parents. The list could go on, citing school and playground closures, or early curfews that cut down chances for children to play outside with their parents.

I believe we can tell how a society values its children by measuring how free and accessible play is to them. For Christine Lee in Taiwan, it was poorly designed playgrounds that turned her into a children’s rights activist. I interviewed her for a piece I wrote on play for Initium, a Honk Kong-based digital media outlet. If you read traditional or simplified Chinese, you can access the full article here.

Here are some of the takeaways from that piece:

  • Play can be an antidote for the stressful times that children are facing, especially if they’re stuck at home.
  • Play is paradoxical: while it is defined by its absence of purpose, its most vital role is as a means of learning.
  • Adults can support real free play by being more aware of their role. Anji Play, a comprehensive curriculum for public schools in Anji County, in eastern China, offers some great guidelines. They call it True Play.

I also had plenty more takeaways from my chat with Christine Lee, so I’m going to inaugurate a new section of this newsletter dedicated to great people whose work you should have on your radar. Also, don’t forget that Christine is part of this community, so if you have questions for her, go ahead and ask, and she’ll be around to answer! Remember to scroll at the bottom of this article to leave a comment.

Three questions for … Christine Lee, Parks and Playgrounds for Children by Children, Taiwan

Why did you start campaigning for better playgrounds?
I started the movement in 2015, when my daughter was one year old. Many of the participants to this movement are home-makers, they are full-time mothers, including me. They see playgrounds in Taiwan, especially in Taipei, as poorly designed, there is nothing for children to play with. There are always rubber mats on the ground, and children can’t touch sand, rocks, grass or bark, there are no natural materials. I felt very shocked because in the UK my daughter could play with real materials and people would not tell her to stop shouting or stop touching things. People in Taiwan are very strict with kids playing with dirt.

How did society react to your demands?
Taipei’s city council was taking away some steep concrete slides that children found very interesting, without informing them or us as parents. Kids were not treated as part of society, they were ignoring their right as citizens, and they also treated us mothers as invisible in society. We did a press conference and eventually the mayor and the head of the park administration unit said they would invite us and our children to their design meetings. Over the course of five years, we’ve managed to participate in the refurbishing and building of over 200 playgrounds, often involving children in the design and feedback phase. We also started with street play campaigns in 2019.

What tips do you have for encouraging free play at home at the times of corona?

  • Let children play with natural materials, if they can go outside they can bring rocks, sticks or wild flowers back to the house and build small gardens on balconies or window edges
  • Install swings or monkey bars on the ceiling or apply climbing holds to the walls (and puts mats underneath)
  • Indoor trampolines can also be a great stress relief

Two events on play, cities and homes for your calendars this week

One of my most favourite scholars on play, Tim Gill, whom I’ve interviewed for previous stories on play, will do a virtual launch of his latest book, Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities, this Thursday. There will be guests from Recife, Tirana and Tel Aviv. You can register here.

On Friday, I’ll be part of a panel on “Home, homelessness, and (in)sanity in the age of corona” at the City Scripts online festival, hosted by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. It was my former colleague Tanmoy Goswami who invited me, and I’ll be discussing ideas of how home is not always safe for children, and how play can help. You can register here.

What I’ve been reading

This editorial by The Guardian asking the government to help children recover from the set-backs of the coronavirus is completely spot on. While education does play an important role, children shouldn’t be asked to cram once they are back at school. “What has happened to children over the past year – for a six-year-old, one-sixth of their entire life – is more complicated than missed literacy and numeracy targets. How to make up for the vital socialisation experiences that children have been denied is not straightforward. But increased opportunities for play, both within and outside school, should be prioritised in England as they have been in Scotland.” Right now, let’s start off by allowing more play and giving more support to families, and let’s move on from there…

What I’ve been listening to

I’ve been listening to this song, Colour of Blue, on repeat. Naomi in Blue, the author, is actually Naomi Larsson, a journalist I briefly worked with while at The Correspondent. I can’t explain how in awe I am of music makers, because I’m not a musical person, and how excited I am to find out the artistic lives of the people I meet on a regular work day. You can preorder the digital album here, and get it for its release on 28 February!

What I’ve been watching

Float is another Pixar short that had me in tears. It’s the story of a father and a child who is different. I exploded in tears when the father, exasperated, shouts: “Why can’t you just be normal?!” It’s the short’s only dialogue, and it’s an intense moment, showing how society’s outlook is putting a burden on the father, and how the father is taking it out on his child. If you want to know more, I loved watching the short’s making-of in which writer and director Robby Rubio explains how the movie is inspired by his own personal experience with his son’s autism diagnosis.

Who’s been inspiring me

You may know by now that I dig Jacinda Ardern’s style. The New Zealand prime minister declared tooth fairies essential workers during the pandemic and listened to children’s worries. She then announced that the government would provide sanitary products to all girls in high schools, because one in twelve young people miss school because of period poverty. Ardern is now delivering on that promise: in June all schools in New Zealand will provide free pads or tampons.

What members are saying

Last week I wrote about how snow had awakened my feeling of excitement and desire to play, and I added a caveat: not everyone will experience the same. Anya, a member who works with children with developmental delays, engaged with this exact idea, and I’m glad she did: “Today, it is snowing again here in New England. This year my feelings about snow are different. I have fond memories of playing in much smaller amounts of snow as a kid growing up in Southern US (Tennessee) and even watching my dogs in the snow in recent times. Sadly now, with the pandemic, snow represents the isolation of needing to stay home. While still appreciating the beautiful sparkle, each snow fall brings more longing for spring. Looking forward to the return of flowers and green things!” You can read her comment, and more, here.

What I’m missing out on and would love your help with

It’s been two months now since I launched this newsletter, and you made my work possible with your support. Let me be honest: a lot of this community knew me from before, and we haven’t grown much since January. This worries me because it will take a lot more to make my writing sustainable. So, can I ask you for one more push? Will you send this newsletter to one friend that you think will absolutely love it? They can join here.

Thanks again, and maybe see you at the event on Friday?

With love and care,

📣 Imogen Champagne, a member of this community and a former colleague, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Bega, NSW, Australia. Thanks, Imogen! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

4 thoughts on “What access to free play tells us about our attitudes towards children

  1. I’ll jump in with the first question for Christine.
    What does it look like for children to be involved in the design of a playground? Could you give us some examples of what happened, and what they contributed?
    Thank you!

    1. In most participatory workshops, children are invited to see example pictures of all kinds of play-spaces with various play functions, and use coloured-dot stickers to choose several what they like the best.

      Then, with loose materials like doughs, pipe-cleaners, ice-lolly sticks, gravels, coloured papers etc. to create their own dream play-space. They would be invited to tell the designers how they play in their own designed play-space, or not, if they don’t want to speak in public they can do that to their parents to fill in feedback forms.

      Designers would draft playground blueprints according to the above designs and discuss with professional adults such as child psychologists, occupational therapists, playground standard inspectors and us (Taiwan PfC) to finalise the design.

      In some cases, children would be able to paste their designs or artworks to playground walls to honour the participatory process; and in some cases, children would be invited to test-play the playgrounds to be inaugurated.

      In experimental cases, play-leaders would build temporary play structures (built with cardboards, pipes, ropes, pallets etc.) for children to play onsite for the designated playground to be built or to be renovated. Parents and designers would observe how children play with the loose materials and discuss playground blueprints accordingly.

      Hope this explains to some extent. 😀

  2. I just wanted to say that I am here and still loving to read your posts. I don’t have a lot of time lately to comment or ask questions, but I’ll do my best. For now, please just know that I’m enjoying and loving your work and that your newsletters are a wonderful moment to pull away from my busy days and look at different ideas and perspectives that I find both rewarding and important to my own personal growth. So thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *