Evolutionary biologist Karl Groos observed more than 120 years ago that “animals do not play because they are young,” adding “they have their youth because they must play” (1898:76). With a few classic exceptions, this idea—equating children with play—colors what most people assume to be the anthropological study of childhood’s central focus. However, especially of late, we’ve seen plenty of explorations of how children cope with abuse and neglect, their role as household go-betweens or liaisons between the domestic and public realms, their productive capacities, and contributions to allocare as well as their service in the role of household head. Also of late, scholars have begun to see the value of play past the juvenile state.
Explorations of play in adulthood do differ in significant ways from those undertaken with or focused on children. That said, those who study play among adults have a lot to learn from the anthropological study of play in children; and in time, growth in understanding might be bidirectional. I realized this myself while engaged in a project on conspiracism. I was almost done, I thought, when an interview with the frisky young organizer of the Storm Area 51 event came across my screen, throwing my scholarly sobriety into a tailspin of sorts, or really, more of a cartwheel: an op-ed emerged in response.
In short, the op-ed, whose working title is ‘Free Beer for Aliens,’ asks conspiracy theory scholarship to bring play into the work. I also would suggest here that anthropologists of childhood might benefit conversely. Perhaps it is time we take more seriously as conspiracy theories the knowledge children create and carry in regard to the manipulations of parents, teachers, and others who hold power over them.
If you are interested in conspiracy theory scholarship and bringing play into this work, contact Elisa Sobo.
(This work first appeared in its original form on BLISS on September 26, 2018. This is an updated version. Read the original here with photos)
It is often assumed that social research is the domain of experts—and that those experts are necessarily adults. Most research on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (ASRHR) is adult-led and adult-centered, not only ignoring young voices but denying diversity amongst young people. Information about young people’s sexuality therefore often remains insulated within their peer groups, preventing innovation in ASRHR programming. This too often leads to a deficit or pathological perspective on adolescence in ASRHR research and intervention.
Espiritu, an undocumented college student, narrates her journey of hyperdocumentation – the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings unworthiness – through her own drawings. Her story is one among so many that need to be told.
Doing research, or storytelling, in this age of post-truth feels entirely demoralizing and … necessary. In a time when any utterance of text is suspect, it can be downright frightening at most and risky, at least, to document anything. When we see powerful leaders spewing personal beliefs and emotions in lieu of facts and evidence, and people embracing this approach to the world, what are we left with? But the irony of all of this is that right when we find ourselves discouraged to speak is the same time when we must bring our stories to the forefront because they are most threatened. We must also find and provide outlets for young people to share their stories – telling our truths is still the best defense against despair.
Espiritu’s big, round, enveloping eyes are dark brown, almost black. Her shiny hair, done up in the most precise tresses, hangs easily below her waist. Soaking wet, she is maybe one hundred pounds. There is a shyness to her toothy smile and an eagerness for knowledge that is palpable. An unaccompanied minor, she hyperdocumented her way through high school, community college and then to a prestigious four-year university on full scholarship. “Hyperdocumentation” is a term I use to define the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings of unworthiness – something I experienced and continue to experience as a once undocumented immigrant myself.
Latin American youth leaders come to the U.S. every summer to gain skills to take back to their home countries. Over the twentieth century, American nation-states cultivated children and youth as cultural diplomats to promote capitalist-oriented development under the guise of hemispheric brotherhood. But upending the historical flow of knowledge production, this generation is prepared to engage and to defend their local realities and traditions.
A Virtual Reunion
From Panama, Nathanael—Natha, for short—leaned into his headset microphone, his face projected on the wall of a Miami University classroom bursting beyond capacity: “You all have a beautiful campus, wonderful working infrastructure, and incredible access to resources,” he affirmed. The Ohio students nodded—they’ve been told this since first setting foot on Miami’s campus. Indeed, institutional lore attributes an oft-repeated quote to Robert Frost, who hailed it as “the most beautiful campus that there ever was.” “We don’t have that here in Panama,” Natha emphasized, “but we do have ideas for social and political change.”
Roger chimed in to the virtual session from Ecuador, affable but pressing: “We have great projects going on, but our resources are constantly imperiled. Find ways to partner with us so that we can work together to effect change at the local level.” A political science major at the Universidad Central de Ecuador, Roger is also a member of the Colectivo Nueva Democracia, which encourages political engagement premised on fomenting cultures of dialogue and consent among emerging young leaders from differing political ideologies. On the side, he’s developing an app to promote eco-tourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Buenos Aires is multicultural. Buenos Aires is cosmopolitan. Buenos Aires is welcoming and inclusive. Buenos Aires is a city of migrants. These were the messages I heard from state officials while conducting research in Buenos Aires during 2016 and 2017. Such narratives circulated through the city government’s monthly cultural programing—programing that attracts thousands to iconic parks and streets to eat ethnic food and to celebrate immigrant communities: Buenos Aires Celebra Colombia, Buenos Aires Celebra Italia, Buenos Aires Celebra Paraguay, and so on and so forth. This programing is complemented by commemorative events organized by the national immigration office at the city’s historic museum of immigration.
This robust programming resembles what Lugones (2014) calls “ornamental multiculturalism,” or a multiculturalism that “reduces non-Western cultures to ornaments to be enjoyed touristically,” while ignoring and obscuring structures of power. These events each generate colorful flyers, professional photographs, short videoclips and hashtags through which the message of an inclusive, multicultural state are circulated via Facebook, Twitter, and government websites.
Yet amid these messages is another, also incredibly robust scene of cultural production, one assembled by migrant youth living in Buenos Aires. This scene involves theater performances, books published with carton and fabric scraps, and radio programing. It is multicultural, multilingual and transnational, and it creates an alternative to the state’s ornamental multiculturalism. It does not shy away from analyzing power relations and deliberately enlists culture as a vehicle for resistance.
“Risky Play” has been finding its way back into the mainstream discussion – some arguing in favor of pushing back against overly safe environments that lack experiential learning opportunities for risk management. As anthropologists (other disciplines and professions as well!) that work with children and youth, we should be quick to raise a red flag: this is a topic ripe for empirical inquiry, not just idealized beliefs. We would like to invite you, dear ACYIG community, to weigh in on the subject in our first blog module with a series of blog posts on the subject of “Risky Play.”
An introductory blog post poses some possible lines of investigation – questions that anthropology and other social sciences are well- suited to answer – and some preliminary thoughts on the subject by Scarlett Eisenhauer and Dori Beeler. Elisa (EJ) Sobo (SDSU)invites us to consider children and youth involvement in online communities, conspiracy theories and can invite us to ask how far-reaching risk might be. Additionally, Julia Fleming reviews a documentary film “The Land” to weigh in on the issue.
We invite our readers to engage in this module and look forward to a continuing discussion on the subject with both formal and informal responses, comments, thoughts, and data interpretations!
By Julia Fleming (Case Western Reserve University)
Imagine an expansive outdoor space dedicated solely to child’s unadulterated play. It is by no means contemporary or state of the art: it is just a portion of hilly, muddy land with a small stream running through it, confined by a tall wooden fence. An abundance of objects intended for the entertainment of children are scattered around. These objects, however, are not the typical objects you would think of when you think of outdoor children’s play. They are unconventional, seemingly random items, ranging from metal shelters, to an old rowboat, to cardboard, to manikins, and much more. This space exists in Wales, and it is called The Land. It is one of the hundreds of “adventure playgrounds” that can be found throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. A group of filmmakers found interest in this specific adventure playground, decided to make a documentary about it, and aptly named “The Land”. This film offers an intimate perspective on the spontaneous, risky play that is encouraged at the playground.
It also addresses many stimulating issues, such as “What should play be?” and “Is risk necessary for a child’s development?” The film made me reconsider what I previously thought about risk in child’s play. It helped me realize that personally, I think children are very protected, perhaps too protected, when it comes to play, risk, and exploration here in the United States, and that this should change.
Scarlett Eisenhauer (UCLA) and Dori Beeler (University of Durham)
Risky play is in… again! Or so some headlines would have us believe. A recent article by Ellen Barry (2018) describes “danger” intentionally left on a playground in England to allow children and youth to actively face risk and learn from that experience. The underlying theory being that if children cannot experience risk then they cannot learn to deal with it effectively on their own.
It reminded me of the popular Swedish story “Ronja, the Robbers Daughter” by Astrid Lindgren. As she grows, Ronja has to learn how to live in the forest. She has the following dialogue with her father before leaving her home castle to go learn (roughly translated):
Father: Beware of getting lost in the forest.
Ronja: What do I do, if I get lost in the forest?
Father: Then you look for the correct path.
Ronja: Well, then.
Father: And be careful not to fall into the river.
Ronja: What do I do, if I fall into the river?
Father: You swim.
Ronja: Well, then.
This dialogue continues for a while. Once Ronja is in the forest she scampers off only to actively look for these environmental realities, such as the river, so she can beware of it. The narrative in this story, read and watched in movie form by many children in Europe, reflects the narrative of the risky play “revival” by Barry – that in order to learn to deal with inherent risks in one’s environment, one must confront them, even as a child.