Play vs no play

It’s summer, schools no longer sending out lessons, and kids are starting to run out patience with being cooped up. Also, they miss each other. Small pods of them are starting to show up in parks.

I was up in Cordonices Park today, a beautiful park with a large flat grassy picnic area bordered by a large oak and bay tree-lined hillside riddled with dirt paths. Long flights of stairs climb up the hill. Down at the bottom, a natural creek runs out of a pool under a waterfall.

Kids running all over the place. These are 6-8 year olds (I asked). Certain amount of social distancing going on. One or two maybe wearing masks. Moms down near the creek, looking up to try to follow the little bodies as they scramble up and down the hillside paths.

“I guess they’ve gotta get out of the house,”I say.

“It’s not just that,” says the mom. “It’s developmental. They need each other to play with.”

I was also listening to how they were talking to each other. I suddenly realized what was different – I hadn’t heard conversations like this in months. It was like hearing birdsong in the first few weeks of the shutdown — wow, what was that? And then I noticed what they were doing. I’ll just catch the fragments of conversation that I heard:

Three boys: What did your brother say? He’s not my brother. OK, your friend.

Four boys, running: Where’s the base? Back here! Run, he’s already there. We can get across here. You’ll get wet. I don’t care. Come on!

Group of five boys, splitting up as one goes to help another: There’s Eric! he’s coming up. I’ll go help him. Wait for me! Use this (long vine offered down the hillside). Come on. Wait for us!

Four boys: Have you ever been hit in your eye? Anyone? Have you been hit in the eye? (Three boys stand silent listening, awed.) I have been hit in the eye!

This is play, energetic, focused play, no particular scenario, just the hillside with a lot of trees and a tangle of paths. But in the conversations, which came to my ears as something completely new because I haven’t seen anything like it for nearly four months, I saw the negotiation of identity; giving of approval, encouragement, advice; invitation to join, leading a group and telling a personal history. Rapid deployment, testing and passing along of social skills, something that could not be done by a kid alone in a house with a parent, or on line.

Gorgeous oaks that will be here after the virus has gone, and maybe after we’re gone, too. Over 125,000 dead in the US, half a million worldwide, and the spike going up. EU countries are talking about banning travelers who come from the US. We are hearing indirectly about how other countries are viewing us. A friend in Denmark is developing a curriculum about US racism — you mean there’s something special about US racism? It sounds Hmmmm.

Bottom line right now: we assume we and everyone will get it. We expect to survive but aren’t sure about that. We expect that a vaccine will be developed but that getting it will not be decided fairly. Access to it will be decided by who can pay for it. If you are expendable (people in nursing homes on Medicare, prisoners) you will be last in line. If you are an “essential” worker you will find out what is meant by “essential.” Does it mean that the economy depends on your work? What if there are other people who can do your work if you aren’t available? Is it you or your labor that is essential? Slaves on sugar plantations in the Caribbean had a life expectancy of 3 years. They were replaceable but as time went on they got more and more expensive.

Time to read Black Jacobins which has been on my book pile for months. I am highly recommending Little Fires Everywhere, incidentally, the TV series with Reese Witherspoon, which is better than the book. And for looking into the future, Supernova Era by Liu Cixin.

The reason for reading Liu Cixin is because the picture of what the world would look like if it was run by 13 year olds is not pretty. Readers can draw their own parallels. But the the thirteen year olds he is describing are ones that were provided with standard if not elite educations, not kids packed into bedrooms or apartments for months at a time with no opportunity to learn to play together except on video games where they shoot each other.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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