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They know how to play - trust them;Parents Forum;School Management

Trust the kids, eh?'' we say, meaning, of course, exactly the opposite. Trust kids to opt for a chip buttie rather than a salad roll; trust kids to find some mud to wallow in just as the visitors are due to arrive.

Even so, I was surprised at my own offsprings' lack of enthusiasm at the news that a nearby primary school was to institute something called "positive play'' in the playground.

I'd often walked past the acres of empty tarmac and wondered why the authorities couldn't provide a few more facilities. Now the plan was for designated areas offering such activities as chalking (with a theme for the week), bean-bag games, skipping and football. Senior pupils were to be responsible for overseeing the juniors in these activities - another plus, in my view - yet my two remained doggedly sceptical.

"Why do we need it?" "Well, surely it's better than just loafing around all playtime."

They were clearly affronted at the suggestion. "We don't loaf around!" There followed a litany of all the games my daughter had played during her primary years and the ones my son currently enjoyed. The sexual stereotyping involved made it seem as though feminism had never happened. There were imaginary games for the girls and rough and tumble alternatives for the boys, but they did have one thing in common: nobody was standing around with nothing to do. I'll admit this didn't match my preconceptions, but it didn't alter my view that the provision of more facilities must be "a good thing''.

Then news of how the experiment was progressing began to seep out. In a playground where there hadn't been a bit of bother hitherto, bean bags weren't so much being thrown to the other person, as thrown at himher. Designated themes for the chalk areas were quickly abandoned in favour of obscene or mutually insulting graffiti.

Call me irresponsible, but I had to laugh. Trust kids? On the whole I do, every time. Of course they were right. The notion of "positive play'', now I came to think about it, was always a contradiction in terms. I remembered hearing playgroup guru Brenda Crowe speak at a conference. "Play is a feeling,'' she said, and went on to liken the sensation to the one scientists experience as they conduct an experiment: that sense of total absorption which comes from hypothesising then standing back to see what happens. Think of children at play. "Make it that such-and-such happens,'' they say, as they constantly renegotiate the terms of the experiment in the light of what they've already discovered.

Of course the game's outcome can't be guaranteed. If it could, it wouldn't be worth playing. It may end up a total failure, a bit boring, or downright dangerous. It is, they now tell us, but a short step from creating a cloned sheep to cloning a human being. But what would any group of self-respecting scientists make of an instruction to design an experiment with a "positive'' outcome, limiting themselves to specific pieces of equipment to be used only in certain pre-determined ways? In their frustration, might they not end up chucking a few test tubes around the lab?

It occurred to me that this is precisely what we're in danger of achieving as we swing away from the vague "children learn through play'' philosophy of the Seventies and Eighties to the apparent accountability of the national curriculum, national tests and so-called league tables. Are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water? A concept such as "positive play'' suggests we may be. Of course, it's surely also essential to allow them to "play'', to become enthused with the thrill of discovery in a situation where no one, not even all-knowing parents, teachers or HMIs, has already predicted the outcome.

The school with which I began must have been as surprised as I was at the results of their well-intentioned "experiment'', now abandoned until "the better weather'' comes. Myself, I'm forecasting a long, hard summer. Trust the kids? I'm glad they did.

Esther Read

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