Contracts kick the fun out of playground kickabouts

Fun is hard to come by in 2016. We’ve suffered through Jamie Oliver’s long crusade against fizzy drinks, new alcohol guidelines telling us to drink cranberry juice instead of Fosters, and various Guardian journalists telling us we can survive on lettuce for 10p a week. But now, our children are having the fun sucked out of playground kickabouts.

A school in Aberdeen is demanding that children as young as eight sign a contract before they are allowed to kick a ball around a tarmac space. Some of the rules include: ‘I will demonstrate sportsmanlike conduct’; ‘I will not hog the ball’; and even ‘I will not chant, or use banter’. Pupils have been warned that if they do not follow the rules, they risk not being allowed to play football for the rest of the term.

Yes, headteachers must be sick of eight-year-olds fighting over whose turn it is to go in goal or fetch a ball stuck under a car. But the move to formalise playtime reflects the wider trend to police fun in society. Imagine you are an eight-year-old struggling to stay awake during maths, only to be robbed of letting loose and hogging the ball in the playground. You then reach for your Fanta Fruit Twist, but Jamie has taken that as well. Life would not be worth living. The whole point of football when you are eight is to try to dance around your classmates pretending to be Lionel Messi. Depriving children of the joy of competitiveness, and even showing off, is wrong.

Playground kickabouts are an essential part of growing up. They help build relationships, allow kids to exert energy and they often provide happy memories. I remember standing on the goalpost and managing to block the ball to stop the other team from scoring. To this day, it is the proudest moment of my life.

Schools should enforce playground rules and maintain standards of behaviour in the classroom. But making pupils sign a contract removes teachers’ authority. Teaching is based on the understanding that ‘you do not do this because I have told you not to do it.’ But with a contract, the power relationship shifts between child and adult, and becomes, ‘we had a legal agreement and you have broken it’. It creates a distance between the child and the teacher at the same time as giving the child more room to argue against authority. When kids obey their teachers, it is partly out of fear, but it’s more out of respect and appreciation. Contracts make it impossible to build the rapport that teachers rely on to push and educate lively and often difficult young people.

We must let our kids hog footballs and drink Panda Pop – and we must also trust our teachers to handle sporting activities and playtime as they have done for decades. Contracts are for the adult world, not for the playground.

Michael P Fitzpatrick is a writer and researcher.

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