Bullying the nettles: ludogogy of the oppressed.

(A reference to Paolo Freire’s commendable book Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Humberto Maturana has a thistles and child story.

He is walking with his young son through a thistle-infested field. Seeking to heroically clear a pathway for his young son, who he loves with all his heart, he starts to playfully scythe the thistles, swinging his walking stick like it’s a sabre. His son asks him “Daddy, why do you hate the nettles?”

Maturana was much chastened. Children naturally respect the natural.

There is so much in this story and I only have time for one or 2 carats from the gem. So…

We don’t talk enough about oppression. Children are an oppressed group. We knew this in the 70s, the millennials feel it, but don’t fight it. Generational Learned Helplessness.

All oppressed things, like prey animals who quiver and dart and have huge eyes on the sides of their heads to see 360°, constantly observe, scan, watch and listen. Children observe all adults for signs of threat and they conceal their own feelings. To a small creature, everything bigger that moves is a threat, a potential predator. Even your mum. And if it’s Gary’s mum, especially Gary’s mum. You know those smiling natives in gap-year Trustafarian’s humblebrag photos? As the awesome Caitlin Moran pointed out, those smiles are the nervous grimaces of the rabbits as the fox enters the field…

And if you are oppressed, you always wonder if you’ll be next. That’s why, when the brave ‘zero tolerance of bullying moronic hero in their own brain’ leaps in to quash a bit of bullying*, all it does is frighten all the rabbits. There is a special  place in playwork hell for anti-bullying zealots.

Same thing happens when HR don the superhero suit and fight an ism.

*BTW, it’s not bullying unless it is hurt that is sustained, repeated and targeted. Otherwise it’s just mean. You know that word ‘mean”? Kids use it a lot, adults less so. Pay attention, people. And hey…

Let’s be careful out there.

Stop trying to save the world. Can we fix it?

I was approached by an NGO, which used to be called Intermediate Technology in the 1960s, a few years ago to speak at a conference.

One of their major private funders had read my book and was urging them to get me to speak. It became clear that the two organisers I spoke to by email had no idea why they should involve me. I, for my part could divine no coherent approach in their thinking. Practical Action they were called, ironically, and they were about encouraging micro enterprises using the standard capitalist concepts of business development, in Africa.

They were clearly addicted to funding, and expended enormous amounts of energy jumping through the hoops of complex metrics pushed down on them by increasingly dissatisfied funders. I got the impression that USAID, the main government funder was responsible for the complicated metrics; the usual government bureaucracy of accountability due diligence and valueformoney. They wouldn’t say boo to a goose; they just meekly complied.

I kept trying to make sense of what they wanted. I asked to be put in touch directly with the funder who had urged them to book me. They wouldn’t. They kept worretting on about economies being systems. But the people they were supposed to help had a goat and a mud hut. They were so poor they didn’t even have Microsoft Office!

Eventually I told them I didn’t have anything for them. I suppose I could have flown to Washington and taken their money but to be honest I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to go through all the grief of security theatre and visa applications and all that.

In the 60s,  Victor Papanek designed a “remarkable transistor radio, made from ordinary metal food cans and powered by a burning candle, that was designed to actually be produced cheaply in developing countries.” It cost a few pence to produce. It was a fixed tuner, because there was only one radio station, and so on. The Americans through USAID were parachuting crates full of battery operated 2 band radios into rural areas. Each cost ten dollars. They could only receive the one government station despite being 2 band radios capable of tuning across the entire frequency band because their was only one station within range. When the batteries ran out there were no more batteries to be had and no money to buy them if there were. When Papanek’s candles ran out they burnt animal dung.

This would have been the mid 60s. Those that don’t learn from history are condemned to continue to waste tax dollars.


Meanwhile, day of light, someone at the New Republic had been paying attention. Their tale of inventive, innovative, creative, development unfolds like this (spoiler alert: it fails)…

“Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

“PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.

“The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010…”

The sorry story unfolds here:

Yes, it features children playing. Woo. Some say using kids to pump water is exploitative. Matias Cordero will have an interesting take on that (Google him and ‘IPA 2011’).

If you persevere, towards the very end, there is a brief mention of complex adaptive systems. Yay.

This coming year, 2016, I shall endeavour to do, and be, Quality…

Which, when I put it like that, sounds a bit strange.

Trashy, as in trash talk, is not quality. Mediocre efforts aren’t quality. Not being human and not being honest but especially not being kind, aren’t quality.

So the plan is to be more kind, more intolerant of the intolerable, and to endeavour to produce only quality in my endeavours. Good old fashioned word that: endeavour.

Triggered by this blog…

(‘Triggered’ a new use of the word with a new, yet equally sinister, repressive meaning, as in ‘trigger alert’: this might upset)

“So what we need to do is ask ourselves the question that Robert Pirsig asked in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): what is quality? Don’t be fooled by appearances or first impressions: this is not just an abstract or philosophical question, suitable for polite discussion with a glass of red wine in the evening. It’s an existential pursuit, inseparable from the search for true values. If taken with full seriousness, and if deeply understood (and I don’t pretend that I’m so successful in doing either, for it’s very hard to do) it will claim the whole of our lives and determine all that we do. We might ask this question explicitly, or just implicitly, perhaps using different terms, or expressing it through action rather than through words. But it will still be the pursuit of quality.

“So that is my suggestion for a light to guide us towards the exit of a long tunnel that, admittedly, I have been painting in very dark colors. Perhaps it’s not much, but it’s the best I have to offer. It is not an answer but a question – not a fixed goal to be reached, but an open path towards the future. If we stop asking this question – because we have lost interest or just don’t see the point – then I’m afraid it’s all over with us. But I don’t think that will happen. Even with “brain change” working against us, I have to believe that the search for quality is just too deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. Even with the daily attacks of hypnosis by the popular media, to which we are all exposed, human beings will keep looking for values and meaning – simply because we cannot help ourselves. So I guess that’s my message for the New Year: Stay awake! Let’s refuse to be fooled. Let’s not allow ourselves to be lulled into compliance with a meaningless world made of markets and data, for though it dominates the present, it literally has no future: nothing to strive or hope for. Let’s keep using our imagination to look for what’s real.”


Ludic Instrumentalism2: The Revenge…….Through ‘self-initiated cognitive activity’ we become human.

“Such is the context for understanding well-meaning folks (like me) whose lamentations about diminishing opportunities for play tend to include a defensive list of its practical benefits.  Play is “children’s work!”  Play teaches academic skills, advances language development, promotes perspective taking, conflict resolution, the capacity for planning, and so on.  To drive the point home, Deborah Meier wryly suggested that we stop using the word play altogether and declare that children need time for “self-initiated cognitive activity.””

“Kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way.”


“The point of play is that it has no point.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or shudder when I read this sentence in a national magazine:  “Kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way.”[5]  But I will admit that I, too, sometimes catch myself trying to justify play in terms of its usefulness.”



Through ‘self-initiated cognitive activity’ we become human.

Am I committing the sin of Ludic Instrumentalism when I say that “Through play we become human”?

Since I said that ‘becoming human’ thing a few years back in the piece I wrote with Penny Wilson and Mo Palmer, the great Peter Gray has made the same point in his blog (just so you know, I said it first).
The point is this: children learn how to get along with each other through the many daily interactions with other people, big or little, going about their daily business. Being told off in a shop, being smiled at, play fighting that goes wrong, unkind remarks from others, making peace, etc.

(Only a small part of that is the over-vaunted ‘rough and tumble’ play, which is a thing mainly confined to boys. Especially boys around seven or eight (and older, given half a chance, and, while I’m in a bracket, why, o why, do Americans call it ‘roughhousing’? Is it related to a lack of housing? Sleeping rough? Two nations separated by a common language.)

You could reify these rubbing-along together processes as ‘socialisation’, but that implies a slightly sinister process driven by an adult societal agenda. It also implies a desirable monoculture. In reality, that sort of so-called state socialisation delivered by professionals often fails, else everybody would have 2.4 children, live in a semi in Swindon, watch Xfactor and not listen to The Cure and wear black from head to toe, and not like Corbyn. Any sane society, so not North Korea then, has to learn to get along with alt-cultures (sub-cultures is a bit disrespectful, isn’t it?). Periodically this lesson has to be re-learnt by the state. Black people in Ferguson seem to have got that point across to the Police and City Hall, eventually.

I prefer to talk about ‘getting along with each other’.

This summer, a bunch of kids, some live in my street, some from just round the corner in the next street, have been joyfully rampaging up and down. There’s a little plot of ground at the bottom of our street, opposite the old garages and near the two big houses down the little un-tarmacced road. As well as screaming, playing chasy games, riding bikes, having races, wheel-based and pedal, and standing and sitting about, the kids have been building a farm for most of the summer. Here it is:


Inevitably the noise of them screaming drove an invalid (not happy with that term either, he isn’t not-valid, he is chronically ill) to call the Old Bill. He has the misfortune to live opposite the home of a couple of the kids, and the group just happens to hang outside their house. There’s a low wall outside, perfect for sitting on or leaning against. So the din is at its worst just outside his front window. You have to feel sorry for him, and I do. The noise is terrific when they briefly appear outside my house on bikes and scooters. Joyful, brightens my day, but not all the time.

The plastic Plod handled it quite well actually, if you accept the dominant narrative that children are a nuisance, don’t have Article 31 rights or indeed any rights to legitimately use public spaces, are always in the wrong, don’t need to be listened to and are incompetent to look after themselves and therefore mustn’t play in the road because they’ll be run over. Given that the street is tiny and narrow and stuffed with parked cars, the average speed of traffic can’t be more than 10 miles an hour (I checked my own speedo), so that’s basically a convenient ‘lie to children’, to apply pressure to get them to not play in the street. No point in talking to them as thinking reasonable social beings, just herd then along with some flannel.

In the interest of fairness, there actually is one guy who occasionally whizzes up and down the street like a nutter; but despite him, nobody has died. The kids learnt quickly to keep an eye for each other, as ever. Are the plod interested in catching this turbonutter? I asked them: no, not really.

Thanks to the intervention of the Bill, not a lot has between learnt here in terms of intergenerational relations. Missed opportunity. The kids keep to the bottom end near the spare ground. The two who live at the house opposite the complainant seem not to be out as much, and the two from round the corner aren’t often seen.

Now, these two friendly and sociable little kids are, shall we say, of a non-pasty skin colour, unlike moi —I’m  a sort of off-white with a pinkish cast. This prompted one of my neighbours, a good neighbour, to refer to them obliquely by saying that the area had become more multi-cultural’. She was correct, IMHO, to attribute this to the ‘buy to let’ phenomenon, aka the rise of an exploitative rentier class. If you are a hard lefty, feel free to call my neighbour a racist; I prefer the term ‘ignorant’. The established locals round here, a mix of Welsh and Northern English, are friendly, tolerant, look out for each other, live and let live, keep an eye out, hold your parcels for you, tell you when you leave your lights on, hold a key in case of emergencies, always say hello in the street, or wave from their car, often pause for a chat, give advice on builders, and are the nicest people you could ever hope to have as neighbours. Oh, and some of them are a bit elderly and a bit scared, and don’t like change and think that people with different skin colour are some sort of vague threat. So let’s call them ignorant, and reserve the term racist for actual thugs, Donald Trump, the Daily Mail, the Sun, frothing at the mouth loonies on Question Time, the BNP and Hitler. Come on, live and let live, it’ll work out OK. Humans are cool.

Oh, and in case I forget, here’s some evidence that learning soft skills, like getting on with grownups when you play in the street and make a noise, might mean that you don’t grow up to be a mentalist or a criminal.


Am I committing the sin of Ludic Instrumentalism when I say that “Through play we become human”?   Does that go against the idea of ‘Play for its own sake’?  I ask because I’m not sure. So please comment.

Merry Christmas to all the children and all the grown-ups everywhere, even Donald Trump.

Humans are cool. Be kind. Even to the Trump.

Reinventing science? From open source to open science | Integration and Implementation Insights


To all my chums in universities, read this.

And anyone else who likes thinking.