Confessions of a playground tyrant

16th June 2000 at 01:00
I AM ashamed to admit I have banned Pokemon cards from our playground. When I tell you that I had discovered a scam intended to deprive younger boys of their collections you may say "And quite right, too", but I know that justice would have been better served had I isolated the offenders and left the majority to continue enjoying their harmless fun.

However, the real damage was to my self-image. I like to think that I am tolerant and broad-minded, in a responsible way of course, but on the day after my ill-considered assault on Pokemon I found that I am no better than the new critics of musical chairs.

The party game has become the latest target of those who seek to control our children's lives. A report has condemned it as encouraging violence and aggression and recommends that it should be banned. I have no remit to defend musical chairs - whose dim memories belong to childhood parties with girls in dresses, boys in ties and sedate, tuneless versions of the "Grand Old Duke of York". The lure of the prize was never strong enough to encourage me to exert myself and capture one of the scarce chairs but it worked for some children and that was fine. We enjoyed ourselves and no harm was done.

It is the talk of banning which is disturbing and which has become more frequent as teachers have taken greater interest in events beyond the classroom. There are playgrounds where adults have banned football, or any ball game, or where chasing and capturing games are banned or where any new craze is swiftly banned and there is even a school where Harry Potter books are banned.

We regularly express concern that children's lives are becoming more sedentary and over-protected but instead of permitting some adventure and risk the best we can manage is to teach playground games from the past.

Our intentions are good but all we do is perpetuate the idea of "teacher knows best" by providing a diet of games which had died out because their time was up anywa. Even adventure courses have lost their adventure and PE lessons have become much less robust as teachers restrict themselves to activities that can be assessed and relate to 5-14 outcomes.

The playground is where learning about other people takes place. Children soon learn about those who have similar attitudes to themselves, they develop an understanding of the rules of negotiation and give and take, and they discover whom it is best to keep away from, all basic experiences which we use for the rest of our lives. Pokemon, like football stickers and the recent crazes in our school of Warhammer and Pogs, is another opportunity for children to compare their collections, learn about market forces and to enjoy developing friendships through common interests. The fact that most of the activities are beyond adult understanding is a bonus.

Changed attitudes to safety and bullying have brought adult supervision into playgrounds which were once ignored by grown-ups and while there is a clear responsibility to prevent physical injury and emotional distress, there is also a responsibility to allow children their own space. The adult should be a benign observer ready to step in only when the child is in difficulties they cannot resolve.

My ban on Pokemon, just like the discouragement of musical chairs, is not a contribution to social development and I should have dealt better with the scam. A colleague, recently returned from a teaching visit to another European country, has described morning intervals supervised from the edge of the playground by cigarette-smoking teachers who would place a well-aimed kick on the posterior of any pupil who came too close or indulged in unacceptable behaviour.

This picture will curl the hair of the politically correct but I cannot stifle a sneaking admiration for the air of healthy neglect and wonder if such immediate disapproval would have been a more effective method of dealing with my Pokemon scammers.


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