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Julia Steiny: It Takes Guts to Depict a Happy, Healthy Childhood

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

 

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."

Good image.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. http://infoworks.ride.ri.gov/.For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at http://[email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 

 

Related Slideshow: RI Experts on the Biggest Issues Facing Public Education

On Friday November 22, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Providence Student Union, and RI-CAN: Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now will host Rhode Island leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors for a symposium on "the civil rights issue of the 21st century, adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."

Weighing in on the the "three biggest factors" facing education in the state today are symposium participatnts Gary Sasse, Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Leadership; Christine Lopes Metcalfe, Executive Director of RI-CAN; Anna Cano-Morales, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, Central Falls Public Schools and Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Tim Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees; and Deborah Cylke, Superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools.  

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Sasse

"Provide a state constitutional guarantee that all children will have access to  an education that will prepare them to meet high performance standards and be successful adults.

Bridge the gap between the educational achievement of majority and minority students.  This will require the implementation of a comprehensive agenda for quality education in Rhode Island’s inner cities."

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Sasse

"Revisit school governance and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the state, school districts , neighborhood schools, and school teachers and school administrators.  Develop and implement a system to hold schools responsible for student outcomes."

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Sasse

"Build a consensus and buy in of all stakeholders around  the education reform initiatives being advanced by the Board of Education."

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Metcalfe

"Set high expectations and raise our standards across the state for anyone that contributes to the success of our students. From adopting the Common Core to discussing rigorous teacher evaluations, conversations around creating a culture of high expectations have to be at the center of the work."

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Metcalfe

"Expand opportunities and start earlier - we must ensure that all kids have access to a high performing public school of their choice, which includes full-day kindergarten."

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Metcalfe

"School facilities - with an aging infrastructure, underutilized buildings and the need to provide fair funding for school facilities for all public school students regardless of the public school they attend, this needs to be a top issue tackled by the RI General Assembly in 2014."

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Cano-Morales

"Meet the academic potential of all students but especially with regards to urban schools students -- 3 out of 4 are Latinos in Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket." 

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Cano-Morales

"Connect through specific best practices the academic successes of our students to careers jobs. Investing in schools is economic development as a whole for Rhode Island. " 

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Cano-Morales

"Increase the access to -- and completion of -- higher education and post- secondary opportunities.  Poverty? Struggling families? Education and access to careers and competitive wages is the best antidote."

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Duffy

"Providing adequate funding is critical -- and there are going to be pressures on the state budget, which mean stresses to meet the education funding formula.  With the predictions of the state's projected loss of revenue with the casinos in MA, education funding could be on the cutting board, and we need to ensure that it's not.  Do we need to look at strengthening the language of the constitution to guarantee funding?"

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Duffy

"Implementing the common core standards will provide continuity -- and comparison -- between states now.  With over 40 states involved, we're embarking a new set of standards here."

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Duffy

"Accountability and assessing student performance -- how that it's driven by the common core, we'll be able to compare the best districts in RI against the best districts in say MA.  That's the intent of the Common Core is a standardization of how we hold the system accountable."

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Cylke

"Issue one is quality.  Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code.  And the reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. There's an absolute, clear relationship between the quality of public schools, and economic development of states. There's irrefutable evidence that quality public schools can make states more competitive."

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Cylke

"Issue two is equality.  In West Warwick and Providence, the per pupil spending is around $16K.  In Pawtucket it's $12.9.  What's wrong with that picture? If I'm in charge of overseeing that my students are college ready, they need to be adequate funding.  A difference of $3000 per pupil?  We're talking in the tens of millions of dollars -- more like $25 million in this case.  An exemplary school district is Montgomery County, MD -- they have roughly the same number of students, around 145,000 -- there's one funding figure per pupil. There's equitable funding for all kids."

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Cylke

"Issue three is Infrastructure.  A critical issue is whether the state is going to lift its moratorium in 2014 for renovations for older schools, ore new construction.  If that moratorium is not lifted, and those funds are not available, it is critical to us here in Pawtucket. The average of my schools is 66 years, I've got 3 that celebrate 100 years this year. These old schools have good bones, but they need to be maintained.  These are assets -- and this is all interrelated with the funding formula."

 
 

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Comments:

To sum it all up less "Leave it to Beaver" and more "Little Rascals".

Couldn't agree more. When the kids wanted a play tool set, got them real tools. They have smaller tools sets for minor jobs, that worked just right.

Comment #1 by Wuggly Ump on 2014 01 29




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