Playgrounds

August 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

Living in Melbourne in the past six months, and working with Australian children since the last four months, I could not help but compare a lot of things with the lives of Indonesian children. When I say ‘Australian’ children, or ‘Indonesian’ children, I am, of course, making generalization that may not ring true for every one of them. In my post, Australian children refer to the ones that I work with (I would say middle class economy). Indonesian refers to the children in the preschool that I worked with (middle-upper class economy, and the slum children (lower class economy), or poor children. This observation is only based on my personal experience.

What fascinates me is the varying degree of how ‘free’ are children ‘allowed’ to play in this different groups (excuse the oxymoron), and how it contributes to personalities and character development. Children of middle-upper class economy in Indonesia, I perceive, to be more inhibited in their play and exploration, compared to the other two groups; middle class Australians and lower class Indonesians.

From my own experience as a child (a middle class economy, female, to be precise), I get some “don’t”s. Don’t go too far. Don’t go to the mall without adult, you’ll be kidnapped. Many of my friends get more “don’t”s; Don’t buy ice cream kampung. Don’t buy that meatball, that’s made from rat’s meat! Don’t buy any snacks from the street. Don’t take public transport. And not just buses, but don’t take taxi as well! Don’t ride motorcycle. Don’t look some people in the eye, don’t stare! Don’t touch it, it’s filthy! It’s drizzling, come on inside!! Don’t be too friendly to some people, etc. And how much do we realize that they all have internalized to our habit or belief system? The likely explanation of highly untrusting atmosphere might spring from the great economy disparities in the society. The rich, that separates themselves from the poor, sometimes live in the very same area with the poor. They have to make sure they stay clean and ‘dignified’, always (un)consciously confirming, ‘we are the civilized ones’. In big cities like Jakarta, the sight of poor people are unavoidable wherever you go. Is it justifiable, however, to instill this suspicion in children, in order to protect?

The city of Jakarta houses ten million people. With such density, houses crammed with one another, poor transportation system, and mad traffic, the government has long ignored people’s need for public space. There are barely public parks and playground for children. Nada. You might wonder how could we live this way, but this has become the norm for us.

If you live in a decent housing complex, you might have a playground, however deficient and unsatisfactory. If you don’t, however, whether you are from middle or upper class economy, you might find yourself staying at home, playing with your toys or your siblings. Naturally, these types of play, pretend play, role play, construction, are also of great value for development. But as I worked with the poor Indonesians and the Australian children, I realize the significant loss that the middle class Indonesians are suffering, they are missing out some kind of “adventures” like what the other two groups experience, finding secret pathways, catching insect, playing in the rain, which I’m going to talk more about later.

It is also in the big cities like Jakarta, where playgrounds are very scarce, children of the middle/upper class economy physical exploration are restricted, unless they go to the playground in the malls, by paying ridiculous ticket fee, with extravagant rides that are not always imaginative; that serve to entertain, not to stimulate. When I ask my students to share about their weekends, many would answer going to the mall. I find it regrettable, but where else could they bring their children to a playground? Some upper class families now live in apartment buildings in Jakarta, and they do have playgrounds, but they are only tiny fractions of society. Existing playgrounds in housing complex are in great deficit (if not almost totally LOST), small, with inadequate provisions, with poor maintenance, often abandoned. Put a swing, seesaw, and slide, in a small space, bam, you have a playground. Even though I’d like that statement to serve as sarcasm, but if we have at least that three things, it is still much better than having none. The condition, or the absence of playgrounds in Indonesia is a portrayal of how play is overlooked as an important part of development, but seen merely as leisure that serves nothing for thinking or learning dispositions. In schools, recess in the playground often only happens for approximately 15-30 minutes, out of 4-5 hours formal and traditional learning in the classroom, where children are forced to be quiet and listen passively to the teacher.

In the preschool that I worked at in Jakarta, the playground is not challenging enough for the children. It seems like it is built without much thought put into it, like most preschools. With such small outdoor area that had to be compromised in an expensive land in the heart of the city, the playground is overcrowded. They had playtime after school (at 12), and some (not all) parents and nannies would watch carefully and say, “Be careful! Hold on to the bar.” out of need for protection from fall, sometimes due to overcrowding. Some are assisted and held constantly. The children that fell are often treated with such care and sympathy, they would be helped to get up, cuddled, and some carers would even take it further by ‘hitting’ the object that cause the fall (for example, a swing), to cheer up the child, saying that the swing is ‘naughty’. To be fair, not all carers would behave this way, however the former consist of considerable amount, to the point that I gather it to be somewhat cultural. All my students are kept clean and smell good all day even in the hot and humid weather.

Naturally, bigger boys still play and run around wildly, but again, are they missing out some things that the other two groups experience? Or do children compensate with existing conditions and find their own ways to make things more exciting?

(Western) theories in the past century have been elucidating how important play is, how it contributes to ‘thinking’, your imagination, problem solving, creativity, flexibility and so on. Therefore in developed Western countries, experiences for young children have been (attempted to be) provided in a way to accommodate those developments.

In Australia early childhood framework, instead of ‘teaching’ (traditional teaching), the educators are there to ‘provide experience’, and so the learning comes from the children themselves, not being a passive subject of ‘teaching’. Educators facilitate, challenge, and the children are always the active participants of their own learning. Just how Indonesians are more inhibited in their play correlates to the crippling education system, where they are also expected to sit quietly and passively listen to the teacher, in Australia, their learning, as well as their play, are also more unrestrained. They are supported, in their play and their education, to be (at least more) active.

There are plenty of examples that I encounter everyday in my workplace that shows how many of the parents here that I deal with are more understanding and lenient of dirtiness, wildness, and whole lot of craziness that are often regarded as an important element of being a child. Once two children under my care were fighting over a toy. A tiny little toddler girl (who is a vicious little biter), bit a boy on the face, which left a very bad bite mark on his cheek. Based on my experience with Jakarta preschool, where parents often seem upset when an incident happen to their child, I became nervous when this bite-victim parent came to pick him up, only to find him laughing and saying, “Yeah, it’s bound to happen sooner or later”. Then he teased his little boy, “So somebody gave you a big kiss huh”. And it didn’t only happen to one parent in case you’re wondering if it’s coincidental. We got the similar reactions from parents when children fell and got swollen on their forehead, grazed on their chin, who bled on their hand, bit on the thigh. In my centre, when children fall, they are not treated with as much concern, but rather with a kind but assertive remark that he/she is fine and needs to get up and try again. They are rarely helped and assisted to stand up again, unless, of course, it is a bad accident, one with injury, or very vulnerable child. This manner also stems from Australian culture of ‘independence’ and ‘self reliant’, which are deliberately instilled in children, in contrast (but not superior to) to Indonesian culture that values ‘helping each other’ more.

In the childcare I work in, the children are excited to hold a big insect in their hands to investigate it, run around bare feet, and when it’s ice-chilly, drizzling (yes, 1 and 2 year olds are allowed to play when it’s drizzling! in contrast to Indonesians who are always told to go in when it drizzles), and when I feel the wind is about to blow me away, the children still play excitedly outside. In the city, on the hilly greenery area in front of a library, I see children rolling themselves down the little hills and parents just let them be without anxiously supervising, neither for the child’s safety from fall, or for the protection of strangers. There seem to be more sense of security and ‘trust’ in public space.

In our yard, we become fascinated by lights and shadows, sound of machine that cut the grass, rain, we found a little hole in our fence which become our peephole to a garden with beautiful flowers. We have picnic in our yard frequently with birds chirping on our roof. I personally feel indulged with pleasant sensory experience. There are many resources (natural and manufactured goods) for children to play with in the yard; plastic toys, big sandpit, twigs, leaves, steel, chalk, and we incessantly record their exploration. We even plan for dirt play. “Getting dirty is good for immune system” they say. We constantly observe, analyze, supply and change supply, we plan their exploration. Discoveries, despite come from within, are also planned, everything is based on careful measure and documentation. And their play is also always supervised.

Australians put much more effort for outdoor play as much as indoor play. Slides or climb equipment are not simply put but additional materials are there to improvise the play. Wooden board used for balancing beam, for sliding, combined with tyres, climbing frames, blocks, or net. The wooden board for slide is sometimes put higher, without the ‘safety’ curve on the side.

I then took sometime to learn about playgrounds in Melbourne (by visit and research on the internet), which I find much more challenging on every level. They are also designed based on calculated risk and in accordance to the safety policy.

I am very intrigued, however, by how slum or poor children play. In the world that don’t bother providing them with playgrounds, the world is their playground. They appropriate existing objects, furnitures, roads, and stairs, for their play. Raw, spontaneous, without safety measure, but also without anticipated exploration. They are allowed to ‘get dirty’, to ‘take risk’ instinctively and without intellectualization. In a very narrow alley in the slum where it is barely enough for one adult to walk, boys gather to play marble. They may not have climbing frames or balancing beam but they do climb walls and trees and walk on the very high pole to cross the river. They may not have a football field but they play in the parking lots of a bank office after work-hours, or play on the road where cars rarely pass by. They may never play gokarts but they get up on the top of the trains. They get on a huge leave in rain, to be pulled around and swung around by their friend and thrown to the mud. They may not be able to buy remote controlled cars or buy video games but they make their own games using tyres, bottles, stick and stones. They develop “toughness” naturally. I once saw a toddler examining a motorbike parked in front of his house. He scrutinized it and at one point he tried to get ON it. He obviously fell down and cried. Was he comforted? I waited but all I could hear was the mother yelleing from inside, “Makanya jangan manjat2. Nangis kan sekarang!” (“Told you not to climb. Now you’re crying”) The boy still got up and tried it again, with no one watching.

My point is, if play is indeed crucial to cognitive development, to trigger you to explore, investigate, invent, discover, if it develops your flexible thinking and problem solving skill, if it helps you to socialize, to negotiate, to humour, to spark curiosity and sense of fascination, if all the playgrounds in the developed countries are designed for the children to have leisure, for them to take risk, to practice, fail, and try again, to develop courage, resilience, to develop creativity..

then the poor children, have met many of the aims that all the ‘play designers’ make for the rich and protected

then they are, supposed to be, more creative, than those two groups of children

Unfortunately, the Indonesian education system does not value these qualities, the qualities glorified by the western theories, that they gain through chaos. It only cares if the children can memorize facts. It cares for the children to shut up, listen, and magically understand. It conflicts the ‘child’ within them. The poors’ academic performance are reflective of the economic condition, and without outstanding academic performance they would likely to end up in menial jobs where they don’t have a say in most of the things. With minimum access and opportunity to shine. I wonder what happens to the ‘creative child’ in them.. does it fade? is it asleep? is it buried? will it die?

I’m not trying to make poor people look numb or desperate (in fact, play-wise, the middle/upper class play are more numbing in my opinion). I know for a fact that they are very resilient and creative in coping up with adversities in life; such as finding ideas to deal with flood, to deal with disability (in a busy road I saw a man in a ‘wheelchair’ made out of strip board on wheels. And he did not only sit there on the board but he put old cushion-y car seat on top, for comfort). I find that very creative. I’m just dumbfounded to see how much potential and intelligence wasted in a vast ocean, drifting ceaselessly

half dead

Wouldn’t you be unhappy in life if you are made to become less than you’re capable of?

 
Image source: various (google: keyword: children playing, village children playing, etc).
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§ 2 Responses to Playgrounds

  • And from my observation, many Indonesian parents are so easy to utter the word "nakal" (naughty) or "bandel" (well, also naughty, I guess?) when the kids are just you know, playing carelessly. Oh, and so easy to say "jijik", and scared the shit out of kids by telling them not to do something or the ghosts will get them. I kid you not, one of my relative once told her son that if he's not behaving nicely (as in stop running around) the security officer might raped him. I fuckin' kid you not. I was so baffled. I don't know where I'm going with this actually, but, yeah, you know what I mean.and you're a good writer, write more often!!

  • arian alana says:

    Ghosts! I almost forgot about that. I vividly remember my nanny told me if I go out play after 6pm, there will be ghosts all around the neighborhood. And I did believe that. My niece was told all the time when she was a toddler, that if she didn't finish her food, the police will catch her. And that was not anomaly, it IS a cultural habit. We (as children) were so much driven by authority and by fear. Thanks Dinda, I'm going to practice writing more.

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