‘We sneak off to play what we want!’ Bakhtin’s carnival and children’s play MARIA ØKSNES
Traditionally, children’s play has been explored through the views and understandings of adults who claim to speak for children. Hence, the practice has been to study children on the outside of the life they lead through a language that may primarily be connected to an objective scientiﬁc discourse between adults, which precludes speciﬁc ways of regarding play. According to Brian Sutton-Smith (1997, 2004), this discourse has described play as being primarily about learning and development rather than enjoyment and fun, and has been identiﬁed as the rhetoric of play as progress. Because of the freedom associated with play, it is said to be the best way to learn and develop. He writes: ‘play effectively becomes privileged over work both as a learning or arousal-seeking activity and as a major factor in the individual’s mental and emotional development’ (Sutton-Smith 1997: 203). This play-as-progress rhetoric seems to constitute how children should play and may be viewed as an exercise of power. We see in our culture that children’s play is subjected to institutional guidelines. Adults attempt to regulate and control play, suppressing activities they deem inappropriate, aggressive or dangerous, and encouraging activities they consider productive, beneﬁcial or therapeutic (Ailwood 2003; Cannella 1997). This attempt to govern play implies that play is something that can be subordinated to both adult and children’s own intentions. It follows an idea that an outcome of play can be predicted. The idealized play relating to children’s progress is only part of the picture. Gail Cannella (1997) stresses the importance of acknowledging the full range of children’s play behaviour. As children spend increasing amounts of time in educational situations, including preschools, kindergartens and after-school programmes, and have less time to themselves, it has become increasingly important to understand the relationship between ‘schooling’ and children’s play (cf. Sutton-Smith 1987). Sutton-Smith writes: ‘Paradoxically, children, who are supposed to be the players among us, are allowed much less freedom for irrational, wild, dark, or deep play in Western culture than are adults, who are thought not to play at all’ (Sutton-Smith 1997: 152). I fear that despite ideological statements about the value of play, the world is becoming a tougher place for children to ﬁnd room for their own play. It is important to question the ideology with which the study of children’s play has often been approached. Play researchers critical towards the dominant
play discourse agree that children’s voices and ideas should be involved in the construction of new understandings about children’s play. I have therefore conducted an empirical study of children’s play within preschools, kindergartens and after-school programmes in Norway. The aim of my study has been to explore children’s own thoughts and perceptions of play. In this chapter I will argue that children can offer us a more balanced understanding that challenges the prevailing instrumental view of what play is. The Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895-1975) concepts of the unofﬁcial carnival life and revelations of a side of life that cannot be shown through the use of the ofﬁcial language may provide us with new perspectives on play in certain educational settings. Based on Bakhtin’s description of carnival I discuss to what extent children ﬁnd room for their own play and what seem to characterize this play. I start with a more detailed description of what I consider to be the dominant perspective on children’s play.