Last year, I had one of those unremarkable days. It was neither good nor bad, just unexceptionally dull. Back from university for a break and deflated after a rush of deadlines, I could not bring myself to occupy my time in any meaningful way at home. So, I ventured out to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. It was called ‘Play Well’, and it explored how the concept of play impacted our daily lives and how it had shifted over time.
Wandering around the exhibition’s various stops; life-size soft toys, miniatures, digital games, I was exhilarated. I left inflated with ideas, the exhibition had added playfulness to my day, and had lifted me out of the static slump I was in.
Thinking back to that exhibition, it got me wondering how the notion of play could clear the haze that has set in since restrictions began. It made me question, are we ever too old to act like children? I don’t think so, because I think aspects of being a child are lessons in critical thinking. Children are very good at imagining different worlds, making elaborate career plans to be clowns or astronauts, conquering climbing frames, building coin-sized villages.
As you grow older imagining worlds becomes more about living and surviving in this one. And with tightened restrictions, being confined to domestic or localised spaces means getting through the day. As many of us stay in our childhood homes, the domestic space becomes uncanny, only partly familiar. The steam that used to escape hot milk and the blanket forts that acted as forests are exchanged for hot coffee steam and burrowing under duvets to work not play.
Now we are limited to spaces of nostalgia, and I think it has confused what kinds of things we reclaim from childhood. Being young is associated with protection, ease, comfort. Yet, being a child is also mud-lined adventures, questioning how objects and spaces are organised, inventions made from unusual resources. Advice for the first lockdown was full of statements like ‘disconnect’, ‘slow down’, ‘relax’, to the point where I felt I entered a kind of zombified, protective stoop. Yet, this time around as we move through the wintery expanse, I want to take note of the playfulness with which children approach the world.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam exchanges typical associations of the child with innocence and traditionality, for notions of silliness, childishness, and playfulness. Approaching the world through embracing irregularity can help us notice flaws in our current systems. So, whilst we can’t be free in our usual ways right now, how can we engage in the playfulness of youth? Perhaps we can embrace muddy or rainy weather rather than shying away from it. Maybe we can take less pedestrian paths and look for unconventional routes instead of being isolated to benches and pavements. We can allow ourselves to feel all the kinds of emotions, good or bad, that come out of this time. Rather than feeling the pressure to ‘unplug’ altogether from technology, we can use it inventively, finding pages that spark creativity, organising online collaborations.
As with everything, reclaiming playfulness is easier in theory than in practice. The other day when I took a walk in the park, a dog ran over and barked at a couple of kids that had built a twig-fort under a rain-soaked tree on the side of the concrete path. The owner approached the fort and apologised for her dog’s presence but explained in an accusatory that she didn’t expect anyone to be there. Defying expectation is something that children do really well, they shift how we see and use space.
The above example is muted compared to two instances where teenagers were berated for experimenting with idle time. In the first lockdown a teenager was shouted at by a passer-by for using a scooter on a pavement, and just this week a teenager on a bicycle was stopped and surrounded by policemen because of an alleged minor cycling violation. I can only describe both of these instances as racially motivated. Policing young people’s movement calls into question where we expect them to occupy space and how.
The racialised aspect of these occurrences calls further into question the intersectional nature of race and age, and how young people who seem like they have nothing to do are always framed as a nuisance, and ultimately criminalised. As writer, activist, and model Hélène Selam Kleih argues, “To be black, to be any ethnic minority, and to add to that, young, leads to suspicion”. The “false inclusiveness” of bustling city life implies there is a space for everyone, but is this really the case?
With space more and more privatised, it has become less acceptable to simply ‘be’ in open spaces. Now in the context of heightened restrictions, space has become even more private as we are limited to domestic, familial zones. We need to rethink how we negotiate space through the framing of childhood wandering. This could be a step towards imagining spaces that expand physical and mental possibilities, instead of labelling young people as ‘out of place’.
Approaching this stagnant time through a lens of childlike irregularity can help us break the polarisation of youthful ‘immaturity’ and adult ‘seriousness’. As I stand looking at the mist-covered rows of trees in my local park, I think of how ‘Play Well’ lifted my fog that day, and I start to look at the dusted trees differently.