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Neighborhood Bridges

At the Drop of a Hat No Where


At the Drop of a Hat No Where

by Jack Zipes

Watch a child anywhere. There is no place she won’t play, and no-place is that utopian

sphere where we are all free to play and experiment so that we can be in touch with ourselves and

our environment at the same time. No-places are those spots and spaces that are briefly

designated by children (and adults) as spaces of play, what the Germans call Spielräume – where

we imaginatively play with possibilities and envision what we can do with our dreams and potential.

But no-places are disappearing; they have become constricted. When I was a child, we used to

take over the streets to play stick ball, touch football, and many other games. Woe to the cars that

dared to come by! There were vacant lots or parks that we would occupy and organize ourselves to

play cops and robbers or house. We went off to play by ourselves, sometimes in dump heaps. But

play has become increasingly regulated and regimented. Spaces are guarded, protected, limited,

owned, and controlled. If there is play, adults determine the rules. Children are supervised and

surveyed through a camera’s eye. More and more our experiences of life are being controlled and

policed by what Michel Foucault called the panoptic eye.

Nevertheless, a child will still play anywhere, create a space, where there is no place, and

no- place becomes his space even if it is only for a moment -- a moment in which he gleans

something important and learns about his potential, projects his visions, tests himself.

He will ride his bike and pretend to be a race car driver on a speedway or perhaps a

cowboy riding a horse to warn people in a town of an imminent attack. He will play basketball by

himself on an outdoor court and win a championship game in the last second. She will burst into a

Neighborhood Bridges

At the Drop of a Hat No Where

run and skip over cans or obstacles to win the 100 meter hurdles in the Olympics. She will

suddenly tell her friends in the playground a dream about magnificent clothes and a dance she

attended, and they will all start acting it out, using her story as a prompt. A little girl in her backyard

begins to play house, talking to herself and to her dog and other imaginary people. A brother and

sister, bored at the beach, build a city and create sand figures that talk and enter into conflicts. The

sand is their place of struggle because the sand had been no-place, no one’s space, and they

occupied it briefly to designate it and themselves.

As long as children are curious, they will create their own spaces to play or appropriate

spaces, because the world is their laboratory in which it is necessary to experiment to find one’s

place. Unfortunately, most people never find their proper place, a place they appropriate and can

call their own and feel that it is their own. It is not because they don’t search for it. It is because

they are crippled at a young age. Their imaginations and curiosities are tamed and disciplined.

Their arms and legs are tied. They are whipped into shape by their families and schools. They are

filled with lies and false illusions that promise a new world that is a world of consumerism that

consumes them. Their minds are numbed and washed so that they will sanitize themselves and

adapt to the conditions around them without much protest. They are afraid to deviate and to be

called deviates. They are given less and less space to play and come into their own.

For a long time we have been moving toward a “brave new world,” to perfect the human

mind and body, perhaps to become flawless and immortal. We are being driven to excel and be

number one in every endeavor and to profit from every situation. Parents invest in their children

and plan their lives even before they are born. There is little room in which to play even in infancy.

And yet

Children are naturally subversive because they are naturally curious, and if we as adults

can learn to grasp how we use power to manipulate children and to respect the curiosity of

Neighborhood Bridges

At the Drop of a Hat No Where

children, they will grow through play, anywhere at the drop of a hat, and they will flourish in any

place or no-place. And perhaps we will, too.

Schools, even the best of them, are penal and painful institutions. I know this is a gross

exaggeration. But they are fundamentally based on the principles and the practice of discipline,

whether corporeal or mental. Schools have always been made tolerable by the illegal play of

children, whether it be in the halls, classrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, playgrounds, etc. In

general, however, it is taboo to play against or with the restrictions of the school. Play must be

assigned. It must have an assigned place.

What would happen, however, if school furthered play no matter where and enabled

children to take over space and transform it the way they desired? What would happen if children

collaborated with adults, teachers and artists, to form a children’s public sphere in which each child

had a right to explore and imagine a world different in which she was living? Actually, we know

what would happen, for there have been many experiments in progressive education based on

play that date back in America to the beginning of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, these

experiments have not taken root, and we have not grasped how significant play is to the

development of children. In fact, it is more important than ever before, at a time when functional

literacy, rote learning, and examinations rule the schools, that play be fostered within all institutions

of learning.

It is not easy, but it is well worth the effort. For the last eight years I have collaborated with

teaching artists, teachers, administrators, and children to develop a storytelling and creative drama

program in the elementary schools of Minneapolis and St. Paul called Neighborhood Bridges. The

basic philosophical purpose of the program is to animate children so that they will become

narrators of their own lives, players conscious of the choices that they make and will have to make.

To do this, we, the teaching artists, enter a classroom and transform it with the assistance of the

Neighborhood Bridges

At the Drop of a Hat No Where

teacher and the children into a Spielraum for two hours. There are five phases to our play that

involve improvised storytelling and writing, shared stories and the invention of stories, theater

games, the acting out of stories, and the creation of new stories. What is crucial in this program is

the transformation of the classroom space into a no-place. To be specific, we gradually move all

the chairs and desks to the side so that the classroom becomes an area in which we can

experiment in any way we desire. Though there is a structure to our program, it is a flexible one

that gradually enables children to take control of the materials and games that we provide. For me,

the most interesting part of the two hours occurs when the children, organized into three groups,

are asked to perform skits based on the stories that they have heard and have created. They are

asked to go to three different places within the transformed classroom, to discuss their stories and

how they want to make them into plays, to divide the roles among themselves, and to use found

objects within the space of the classroom if they need them for their plays.

Generally speaking, all hell breaks loose, but what appears to be chaos is actually an

explosion of their imaginations that leads to new insights. For approximately ten minutes the

children move about, chatter, gesticulate, argue, rehearse or don’t rehearse, while the adults

observe their actions. Only if there is a major conflict, or only if they are asked for help, will the

teachers or teaching artists participate. From the outset, their role is that of the animator, who

introduces games and stories and coaches, trying to bring about cooperation, critical thinking, and

imaginative play. In a children’s public sphere, adults are necessary as mediators and facilitators,

but their goal is to make themselves disposable. They are to be replaced by children who create

their own place to play and learn more about their lives.

It is fascinating to observe the ten-minute rehearsal time that the children have to produce

their skits, works in progress. Quite often the groups, after they discuss their stories to recall the

plots and to divide roles, fall apart. Some of the children will rehearse; others will look for objects to

Neighborhood Bridges

At the Drop of a Hat No Where

use. Two or three will imagine themselves in a scene that they keep changing. Sometimes children

from one group will merge with the children in another group. There is no clear division of space as

they bounce about talking loudly, singing, and uttering strange sounds. Their stories and skits keep

changing. There is no script, and often one of the children will serve as the narrator/director so that

there is some semblance of order to their performance.

At one point, the rehearsal space becomes a theater space. Two groups will sit on the floor

and form the audience. One group will perform in front of them, learning theatrical skills and how to

articulate what they have conceived. Their entire skit is based on improvisation, and agreements

made in rehearsal are often broken and changed during the performance so that something

unimaginable is imagined. The unexpected is the norm of the play.

The children are asked to reflect upon their plays and the play in general at the end of the

two hours through a writing game. It is a reflection that is prompted by their experiences, and the

writing is not an imposition. Rather it is a request through prompting to write about what they have

been experiencing. When asked, children will act, write, draw, and sing at the drop of a hat. Their

minds are full not drained. They have been sparked and keep the sparks alive. They become

uninhibited and creative even if they are shy once they know that no-place is their space.