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Friday, April 3, 2015

Some Urgent Reforms- Playgrounds for Adults
The Speaker, November 16, 1901

One of the greatest errors of current intellectual life is the idea that there is a thing called the Child- a peculiar animal whose customs and tendencies are to be discovered as we discover those of a butterfly or a jelly-fish. The child is unconsciously conceived as a separate species, which is of course, a very fruitful error. The child is first and foremost a man, just as the youthful rhinoceros is first and foremost a rhinoceros. We talk as if a child were planned on a small scale. We no more believe that the child will grow into a man than we believe that a pistol will grow into a Mauser rifle. In their fundamental and instinctive conception of things modern educationists no more think that the child is father to the man than they think that a cigarette has a bright future before it as a successful cigar. "Child study" is the conception at the back of their minds, the study of one unique and somewhat fantastic animal.

The fact which is persistently overlooked is the fact that on an enormous number of questions in which children differ from adults children are not childish, but simply human. It might almost be said without undue paradox that it is the adults who are childish, immersed in mysterious trivialities, cowed by unmeaning regulations, bedizened with the black foppery of a fantastic decorum. To put on a black hat because one is sorry for one's father's death is, seriously considered, the act of a baby. It is the adult who is the strange beast, whose antics require serious psychological explanation. A child would be fully justified in putting on a very large pair of spectacles and in studying grown-up people like ants on an ant-hill. But so simple and terrible is his own humanity that he would probably never fully understand that dance of dehumanised beings who pay to be made miserable at theatres, who dare not give a penny in the street, who would cram with food and brandy a man saved out of the sea, and refuse assistance on principle to a man dying on the pavement a yard outside their doors. We have to get used to these contradictions in our civilisation, but in getting used to them we certainly become less human- indeed I would go so far to say that in getting used to them we become slightly insane. A child might well think our habits utterly moon-struck. Instead of the incubators and model nurseries in which modern educationists study children, the children might well exhibit parents in cages, with the dangerous parent chained in a corner and growling on a heap of straw.

Of this childish monopoly of things purely human there are many examples. But certainly the most remarkable example is the institution called "play." There is nothing in the slightest degree childish, as the word is ordinarily understood, about the institution of play. It differs from all the other arts only in being more serious and direct; it differs from all the other games only in being more varied and poetical. When a grown-up person has an artistic idea he or she scrawls it down in a set of ugly hieroglyphics on a piece of paper and gives it to somebody else to take care of and turn into other and uglier hieroglyphics; or else he takes a stick of burnt wood or a mess of coloured pastes and plasters on to a piece of canvas a laborious and inadequate picture of what he means. A child simply thinks of the idea and performs it. If he thinks of a fight with swords, for example, he does not write and re-write and correct a piece of artificial prose about “ringing parries” and “dazzling thrusts in carte.” He does not mix three kinds of white and four kinds of blue in order to imitate the gleam of sunlight on steel. He simply fights with swords. My present contention is not merely that this conduct of the child is more picturesque, more amusing, more poetical, for of this almost all modern writers are fully aware. My contention at present is that it is much more human, much more sensible, much more sane. The conduct of a child who, the moment he thinks of a man in a hat and cloak, puts on a hat and cloak, appears to me preferable to the conduct of the adult artist simply because it is so much more reasonable. If, as one of us walks down the street, it suddenly strikes him how magnificent it would be to lunge and guard with his umbrella like a sword, why should he not lunge and guard with his umbrella? It is a much more serious and creditable proceeding than reading up irrelevant fact in the British Museum in order to write an ephemeral story about someone else lunging and guarding.

The truth is that play in the infantile sense is simply human. In proportion as grown-up persons do not indulge in it, they are not more mature, but merely less human. And by a hundred indications we may learn that grown-up people would throw themselves with intemperate ardour into play if only they had the permission and the opportunity. Sudden and unmeaning bursts of horseplay among young men at colleges and classes testify to their dark and unconscious craving for children's play. Scores and hosts of solemn and conventional young men take refuge in romping the Lancers, a proceeding far less dignified and amusing than "Hunt the Slipper." Vast crowds come out into the streets, on any excuse, because the Boers have failed to capture a town, or because it is the anniversary of some Royal person having his hair cut, and roar and stagger about looking for some reasonable game to play. They are neither Imperialists nor ruffians, they are simply children. They desire in some shape or form to revive the peculiar sensations with which they went out to their first children's party. They exult over the relief of Mafeking with the same uproarious indifference with which other little boys have for generations exulted every fifth of November over the frustration of a doubtful Roman Catholic plot against James I. What they want is to play. What is needed is nurseries for the adult, nurseries in which stockbrokers can be instructed in "Puss in the Corner," and those who have a more grave and aesthetic order of intellect in the more solemn ritual of bells and fruit which is called "Oranges and Lemons." Of the various children's games and their suitability to different classes of modern men I shall speak in an ensuing article.

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