Anarchy in Action : Chapter 10 - Play as an Anarchist Parable

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(1924 - 2010) ~ British Anarchist Writer and Social Historian : ...lived with the title of Britain's most famous anarchist for nearly half a ­century, bemused by this ambivalent sobriquet. In Anarchy in Action (1973), he set out his belief that an anarchist society was not an end goal. (From : Guardian Obituary.)
• "The anarchists, who have always distinguished between the state and society, adhere to the social principle, which can be seen where-ever men link themselves in an association based on a common need or a common interest." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "...the bombs you are worried about are not the bombs which cartoonists attribute to the anarchists, but the bombs which governments have perfected, at your expense." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "It is, after all, the principle of authority which ensures that people will work for someone else for the greater part of their lives, not because they enjoy it or have any control over their work, but because they see it as their only means of livelihood." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)


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Chapter 10 - Play as an Anarchist Parable

Chapter X. Play as an Anarchist Parable

The boy who swings from rope to horse, leaping back again to the swinging rope, is learning by his eyes, muscles, joints and by every sense organ he has, to judge, to estimate, to know. The other twenty-nine boys and girls in the gymnasium are all as active as he, some if them in his immediate vicinity. But as he swings he does not avoid. He swings where there is space — a very important distinction — and in doing so he threads his way among the twenty-nine fellows. Using all his facilities, he is aware if the total situation in that gymnasium — of his own swinging and if his fellows’ actions. He does not shout to the others to stop, to wait or move from him — not that there is silence, for running conversations across the hall are kept up as he speeds through the air. But this “education” in the live use if all his senses can only come if his twenty-nine fellows are also free and active. if the room were cleared and twenty-nine boys sat at the side silent while he swung, we should in effect be saying to him to his legs, body, eyes — “You give all your attention to swinging, we’ll keep the rest if the world away” — in fact “Be as egotistical as you like”. By so reducing the diversity in the environment we should be preventing his learning to apprehend and to move in a complex situation. We should in effect be saying “Only this and this do; you can’t be expected to do more. Is it any wonder that he comes to behave as though it is all he can do? By the existing methods of teaching we are in fact inducing the child’s incoordination in society.

Innes Pearse and Lucy Crocker, The Peckham Experiment

All the problems of social life present a choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions, and the ultimate claim we can make for the libertarian approach is that it fulfills its function better. The adventure playground is an arresting example of this living anarchy; one that is valuable both in itself and as an experimental verification of a whole social approach. The need to provide children’s playgrounds as such is a result of high density urban living and fast-moving traffic. The authoritarian response to this need is to provide an area of tarmac and some pieces of expensive ironmongery in the form of swings, see-saws and roundabouts which provide a certain amount of fun (though because of their inflexibility children soon tire of them) but which call for no imaginative or constructive effort on the child’s part, and cannot be incorporated in any self chosen or reciprocal activity. Swings and roundabouts can only be used in one way, they cater for no fantasies, for no developing skills, for no emulation of adult activities, they call for no mental effort and very little physical effort, and are giving way to simpler and freer apparatus like climbing frames, log piles, “jungle gyms”, commando nets, or to play-sculptures — abstract shapes to clamber through and over, or large constructions in the form of boats, traction engines, lorries or trains. But these too provide for a limited age range and a restricted range of activities, and are sometimes more indulgent to the designer than to the user. It is not surprising that children find more continual interest in the street, the derelict building or the scrap yard.

For older boys, team games are the officially approved activity — if they can find some permitted place to play them, but as Patrick Geddes wrote before the First World War, “they are at most granted a cricket pitch or lent a space between football goals but otherwise are jealously watched, as potential savages, who on the least symptom of their natural activities of wigwam-building, cave-digging, stream-damming and so on — must be instantly chivied away, and are lucky if not handed over to the police.”[105]

That there should be anything novel in simply providing facilities for the spontaneous, unorganized activities of childhood is an indication of how deeply rooted in our social behavior is the urge to control, direct and limit the flow of life. But when they get the chance, in the country, or where there are large gardens, woods, or bits of waste land, what are children doing? Enclosing space, making caves, tents, dens, from old bricks, bits of wood and corrugated iron. Finding some corner which the adult world has passed over, and making it their own. How can children in towns find and appropriate this kind of private world when, as Agnete Vestereg of the Copenhagen Junk Playground writes:

Every bit of land is put to industrial or commercial use, where every patch of grass is protected or enclosed, where streams and hollows are filled in, cultivated and built on?

But more is done for children now than used to be done, it may be objected. Yes, but that is one of the chief faults — the things are done. Town children move about in a world full of the marvels of technical science. They may see and be impressed by things; but they long also to take possession of them, to have them in their hands, to make something themselves, to create and re-create ...[106]

The Emdrup playground was begun in 1943 by the Copenhagen Workers’ Cooperative Housing Association after their landscape architect, C. T. Sorensen, who had laid out many orthodox playgrounds had observed that children seemed to get more pleasure when they stole into building sites and played with the materials they found there. In spite of a daily average attendance of 200 children at Emdrup, and that “difficult” children were specially catered for, it was found that “the noise, screams and fights found in dull playgrounds are absent, for the opportunities are so rich that the children do not need to fight”.

The initial success at Copenhagen has led in the years since the war to a widespread diffusion of the idea and its variations, from “Freetown” in Stockholm and “The Yard” at Minneapolis, to the Skrammellegeplads or building play rounds of Denmark and the Robinson Crusoe playgrounds of Switzerland, where children are provided with the raw materials and tools for building and for making gardens and sculpture. In Britain we have had twenty years of experience of the successes and pitfalls of adventure playgrounds and enough documentation of them to disabuse anyone who thinks it easy to start and operate an adventure playground, as well as anyone who thinks it a waste of time.[107]

When The Yard was opened in Minneapolis with the aim of giving the children “their own spot of earth and plenty of tools and materials for digging, building and creating as they see fit”,

it was every child for himself. The initial stockpile of secondhand lumber disappeared like ice off a hot stove. Children helped themselves to all they could carry, sawed off long boards when short pieces would have done. Some hoarded tools and supplies in secret caches. Everybody wanted to build the biggest shack in the shortest time. The workmanship was shoddy.

Then came the bust. There wasn’t a stick of lumber left. Hijacking raids were staged on half-finished shacks. Grumbling and bickering broke out. A few children packed up and left.

But on the second day of the great depression most of the youngsters banded together spontaneously for a salvage drive. Tools and nails came out of hiding. For over a week the youngsters made do with what they had. Rugged individualists who had insisted on building alone invited others to join in — and bring their supplies along. New ideas popped up for joint projects. By the time a fresh supply of lumber arrived a community had been born.[108]

The same story could be told of dozens of similar ventures since then. Sometimes there is what Sheila Beskine called a “fantastic spontaneous lease of life’ followed by decline and then by renewal in a different direction. But permanence is not the criterion of success. As Lady Allen says, a good adventure playground ‘is in a continual process of destruction and growth”.

Years ago, when The Times Educational Supplement had commented skeptically on such playgrounds, Joe Benjamin, who started the Grimsby playground in 1955 and has been concerned with many such ventures since those days, answered critics in a memorable letter:

By what criteria are adventure playgrounds to be judged? If it is by the disciplined activity of the uniformed organizations, then there is no doubt but we are a failure. If it is by the success of our football and table tennis teams then there is no doubt we are a flop. If it is by the enterprise and endurance called for by some of the national youth awards — then we must be ashamed.

But these are the standards set by the club movement, in one form or another, for a particular type of child. They do not attract the so-called “unclubbable”, and worse — so we read regularly — nor do they hold those children at whom they are aimed.

May I suggest that we need to examine afresh the pattern taken by the young at play and then compare it with the needs of the growing child and the adolescent. We accept that it is natural for boys and girls below a certain age to play together, and think it equally natural for them to play at being grown up. We accept, in fact, their right to imitate the world around them. Yet as soon as a child is old enough to see through the pretense and demand the reality, we separate him from his sister and try to fob him off with games and activities which seem only to put off the day when he will enter the world proper.

The adventure playgrounds in this country, new though they are, are already providing a number of lessons which we would do well to study. ... For three successive summers the children have built their dens and created Chanty Town, with its own hospitals, fire station, shops, etc. As each den appeared, it became functional and brought with it an appreciation of its nature and responsibility ... The pattern of adventure playgrounds is set by the needs of the children who use them; their “toys” include woodwork benches and sewing machines ... We do not believe that children can be locked up in neat little parcels labeled by age and sex. Neither do we believe that education is the prerogative of the schools.[109]

At the playground he ran at Grimsby there was an annual cycle of growth and renewal. When they began building in the spring, they began with holes in the ground, which gradually gave way to two-story huts. “It’s the same with fires. They begin by lighting them just for fun. Then they cook potatoes and by the end of the summer they’re cooking eggs, bacon and beans.” The ever-changing range of activities was “due entirely to the imagination and enterprise of the children themselves ... at no time are they expected to continue an activity which no longer holds an interest for them...”

The adventure playground is a kind of parable of anarchy, a free society in miniature, with the same tensions and ever-changing harmonies, the same diversity and spontaneity, the same unforced growth of cooperation and release of individual qualities and communal sense, which lie dormant in a society whose dominant values are competition and acquisitiveness.

But having discovered something like the ideal conditions for children’s play — the self-selected evolution from demolition through discovery to creativity why should we stop there? Do we really accept the paradox of a free and self-developing childhood followed by a lifetime of dreary and unfulfilling toil? Isn’t there a place for the adventure playground or its equivalent in the adult world?

Of course there is, and just as the most striking thing for the visitor, or the organizer, in an adventure playground is not the improvised gymnastics, but the making and building that goes on all around, so the significant thing about adult recreation is not so much the fishing, sailing, pigeon-fancying or photography aspect (though in their organization these frequently illustrate the principles of self-regulation and free federation that are emphasized in this book), still less is it the commercial and professional sport which is just another aspect of the entertainment industry. The significant aspect is the way in which the urge to make things, and to construct and reconstruct, to repair and remodel, denied outlet in the ordinary sterile world of employment, emerges in the explosion of “do-it-yourself” activities of every kind.

This in turn leads to a spontaneous sharing of equipment and skills:

“I’ve got two very good friends,” Mrs Jarvis said, “Mrs Barker, who lives opposite, has got a spin drier and I’ve got a sewing machine. I put my washing in her spin drier and she uses my sewing machine when she wants to. Then the lady next door on one side is another friend of mine. We always help each other out.” Mr Dover’s great hobby is woodwork; at the time he was interviewed he was busy on a pelmet he was making for a friend living next door and he had just finished a toy train for the son of another. He relies on Ferd, another friend who is also a neighbor, to help when needed. “Just today I was sawing a log for the engine of this train and Ferd sees that my saw is blunt and lends me a sharp one. Anything at all I want he’ll lend it to me if he has it. I’m the same with him. The other day he knocked when I wasn’t here and borrowed my steps — we take each other for granted that way.”[110]

The continually increasing scope of the activities people undertake in their spare time is illustrated by the kind of tools and equipment, beyond the range of ordinary sharing between neighbors, that can be hired. One firm which has spread all over the London area hires by the day, week, “long weekend” and “short weekend” anything up to mechanical concrete mixers, Kango hammers, scaffolding, industrial spraying plant and welding equipment. Undoubtedly it provides a valuable service, and its overheads must be high, but there is little doubt, from a comparison of its hire charges with the market prices of the equipment, that for many of the hundreds of items which it lets out on hire, joint ownership by a group of neighbors would prove more economical to the individual user.

Take, as another approach, the case of power tools, domestic sales of which have risen phenomenally in the last twenty years. They have grown from the introduction in the 1930s of small portable electric drills in the joinery industry on work which was too large or too unwieldy to be conveniently brought onto fixed machinery. The typical power drills for the amateur market have developed from these machines and from the principle of bringing the tool to the work instead of the work to the machine. They have enormously increased the capabilities of the home handyman, not merely by the reduction of the physical work involved but also by bringing much higher standards of fit and finish within his reach. The basic tool is always the drill and there is now a wide range of specialist attachments. The makers also offer bench fitments to convert the portable tools to bench drills or lathes or saw tables in which the tool is used as a fixed motor. Commenting on this trend, J. Beresford-Evans said:

At first sight this idea seems admirable, yet it is reactionary in that it denies most of the advantages that the portable tool offers. Most multi-purpose appliances pay for their versatility by a loss of efficiency in each individual job they perform — unless the machine is so designed that the over-all efficiency is great enough to compensate for this loss. But the degree of power, structural strength and precision of manufacture required for such a tool would immediately price it out of the very market at which the makers of amateurs’ power tools are aiming.[111]

The way out of this dilemma is again the pooling of equipment in a neighborhood group. Suppose that each member of the group had a powerful and robust basic tool, while the group as a whole had, for example, a bench drill, lathes and a saw bench to relieve members from the attempt to cope with work which required these machines with inadequate tools of their own, or wasted their resources on under-used individually-owned plant. This in turn demands some kind of building to house the machinery: the Community Workshop.

But is the Community Workshop idea nothing more than an aspect of the leisure industry, a compensation for the tedium of work? Daniel Bell, commenting on the “fantastic mushrooming of arts-and-crafts hobbies, of photography, home woodwork shops with power-driven tools, ceramics, high fidelity, electronics’ notes that this has been achieved at a very high cost indeed — “the loss of satisfaction in work”.[112] Another American critic presses home this point:

The two worlds of work and leisure drift farther apart. The recreation world contains all the good, bright, pleasant things, and the work world becomes the dreariest place imaginable ... There are certain basic emotional needs that the individual worker must satisfy. To the degree that the ordinary events of the day are not meeting these needs, recreation serves as a sort of mixture of concentrates to supply these missing satisfactions. When the work experience satisfies virtually none of the requirements, the load on recreation becomes impossible.[113]

I want to return to this problem and to the role of the Community Workshop but to consider first the anarchist approach to the organization of work.

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November 30, 1995 :
Chapter 10 - Play as an Anarchist Parable -- Publication.

July 22, 2019 18:47:00 :
Chapter 10 - Play as an Anarchist Parable -- Added to


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