Keep a look out for 'invisible' behaviour

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Surveys, studies and reports update by Reva Klein

Can you tell the difference between playground banter and racist taunting? When is a game of "kiss chase" fun and when is it threatening? How much of what goes on in the playground is invisible or indecipherable to adults?

Forbidden Games: Race, Gender and Class Conflicts in Playground Culture, by Phil Cohen, is a study that explores the different interpretations given to playground incidents. Most notably, it looks at the gap between what adults perceive to be "children being children" and those children's own version of events, often experienced as harassment with racial, gender or class overtones.

Cohen, director of the Centre for New Ethnicities Research at the University of East London, set up the Playwatch project at a multi-racial primary on the edge of London's Docklands. Observations of the playground were made by children, teachers, playground staff and the researcher, both by standing at certain vantage points and with the aid of surveillance cameras. The different ways of reading different situations were telling. Where staff tended to play down incidents such as fights and even the use of the word "nigger" ("They call each other all sorts of names when they get angry I but it doesn't mean that they are being racist," insisted one playground supervisor), children at the receiving end expressed their hurt, anger and - what's worse - their reluctance to tell some teachers for fear of not being believed.

While Cohen admits that it is difficult to disentangle the different elements at play in aggressive taunts or actions, he instituted strategies to help staff at any school deal with such incidents. Among them were stories in which the narrative structure resembled that of a playground game and where children were encouraged to try out less stereotypical roles. Others were the establishment of a student council, where grievances about harassment would be taken up; weekly classroom discussion times devoted to events in the playground; and a code of conduct for the playground, spelling out to staff and pupils their responsibilities and the behaviour that is expected of them.

Published by The Centre for New Ethnicities Research, The University of East London, Long Bridge Road, Dagenham, Essex RM8 2NS.

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