The Role of Destruction in Play

When that tulip poplar tree came down and bisected our Blue House Site, there was a moment of celebration, "Oh this has given us a bridge and a giant hole." The hole the root system left when the tree fell was definitely a win. We brought more shovels in the wagon and I happened to find a set of lanterns on the street. Work began in earnest to find gold, diamonds, dinosaur bones, the other side of the earth -- all those things that children know are THERE. But, the visual and physical flow between the two halves of the site were interrupted. It was not the same. The play on each side was contained and separate. 

This interruption and unplanned change of the environment gave me a lot to reflect upon. How does a significant change of environment or materials change the play? What role does destruction serve in play? 

In playwork, destruction is part of the ken, an acknowledged and built in part of the play cycle. Build-shape-destroy-create-shift-begin-again. In an educational setting, not so much. We don't have posted rules at our school but we talk plenty about the destruction of materials with our parent co-opers, but more often it is about how little bits of treasure drift away in clutched hands, pockets, and backpacks from school to home. Of the posted rules I have seen "out there," there is always something about keeping property or materials safe. In a democratic classroom where rules are crafted and agreed upon by the group, I am certain that children will not come up with that anti-destruction/protection rule independently. They would need prompting and of course, they agree to it, but is it something they actually think of as important? During play, children's own rules about the "pretend I am..." are deep and wide. It is completely acceptable to have contradictory rules overrun the other. I have just never observed young children looking at wreckage and wrecking the same way an adult does.

I have plenty of examples of how nature's destruction have changed things one way or another. And I know that this does indeed change things. Often it changes them for the better.

"Keep out." Plans have changed . . . in the extreme. 

"Keep out." Plans have changed . . . in the extreme. 

During our 2012 summer camp Tink sessions, the derecho* tore through the dens the campers (ages 5 through 12) constructed each week. The challenge to build dens that would withstand wind and rain was truly put to the test. During the last week, the campers built a yurt they could all fit in using bamboo poles, a bike wheel, dismantled hula hoops, rope, yarn, paper, and gumption. Mid-week the derecho whipped up a squall that left the yurt in ruins. Not to be undone, the campers turned the whole site into a zombie-defense encampment with pointed and buried stakes, trapping pits, and a sign that read, "Plans have the extreme." You have to love a sign that includes suspension points between such noteworthy phrases. 

Place is such an essential component in childhood and play. Teachers and parents take a lot of time to plan settings, arrange furniture, and choose materials just so. What is not at the top of the to-do list is a plan for the destruction and the falling apart, the wrecking, and the crashing over. Adults may change the environment, pushing a table this way or that, etc. Adults are not usually keen on the destruction aspect of play and I don't think it is just about the preciousness of materials. It is about the conflict that arises when I wreck something of yours or you wreck something of mine.

This struck me when we read, Christina Katerina and the Cardboard Box recently. This book is about all the creativity that springs from creating constructions/play using a cardboard box, but it is also about destruction. Each time the construction is destroyed by Christina's friend in his frustration about how to "be" in the play, she creates something new. In one iteration, she creates a race car and she drives it speedy fast around a pretend track and as she does, she shouts, "Honk, honk!" at Fats, her friend. I know this "honk" sound she is throwing at him and you do too, all you players and observers of the play. She is honking in a way that says, ha ha, I am driving so fast and you aren't. Oh he wrecks that car in no time at all. Such messy play! Aren't they being mean to each other? Shouldn't we put a stop to that right now??

We wonder about the loss of freedom for "free range" play, but the free range play is not just about roaming. There is more to it, certainly. One of the things that goes missing when we overmanage children's play; when we smooth out the kinks; when we make sure everyone and everything is nice; is the ability to reinvent and navigate failures. I wonder if this essential freedom to take apart and tear down is the dearest bit of childhood lost. I also wonder if honking in just that tone AT someone and having your construction torn apart by that someone is just as dear. 

Plans have the extreme. Try it sometime. It's not necessarily fun, but it is necessary.

A heaving pile-up of stuff tottering on junk heap, but so purposeful.

A heaving pile-up of stuff tottering on junk heap, but so purposeful.

* Derechos are associated with bands of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as bow echoes, squall lines, or quasi-linear convective systems.