From friends to prefects

Why playground squaddies won't bring peace.

Simon Knight

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Topics Politics

Teaching children lessons in ‘citizenship’ has become one of those issues that gets a vigorous nod of approval from all sides in the education debate. Which might explain why I was met by furrowed brows when I dared to question the usefulness of ‘Playground Friendship Squads’ at the secondary school in Scotland where I work as a school link social worker.

After all, what could better demonstrate a child’s active commitment to society than volunteering to befriend fellow students who are experiencing isolation?

For some reason, the playgrounds over which we preside as adults are seen as more vicious than those in which we played as children. Being a child today would appear to be more a constant state of vulnerability than a point on a developmental journey. I was schooled in both Scotland and England, and was considered an alien in both, so I was perhaps more vulnerable than many. But I coped. In fact, I did better than ‘cope’ – the conflict that I suffered threw up challenges that enhanced my ability to win friends.

For children, conflict is an essential and a creative experience, as was recognised many decades ago by Jean Piaget, one of the most influential developmental psychologists. Piaget saw that ‘children need to coordinate current beliefs with alternatives’, and that arguing with peers ‘is the only social context that can generate authentic coordination’. By viewing playgrounds as battlefields, with casualties and refugees, we miss that they are actually ‘learning zones’.

True, playgrounds are hotbeds of unpleasantness: not just for the ‘new boy’ from out of town, but for all children at some point in their lives. Children are, as a matter of course, sometimes cheeky, spiteful and physically violent to one another. There is no quantum leap from infancy to full social competency. Children need to learn though experience, and this takes time. The pressures that are generated in the playground force children to develop new strengths and strategies, to boldly go where they have not gone before.

And children can take it on the chin, too. There is a widely held assumption that children are emotionally scarred for life by unpleasant experiences in their early years. But according to Dr Jennifer Cunningham, a Glasgow-based community paediatrician specialising in child development, ‘emotionally safe’ playgrounds really translate to mean ‘emotionally restricted playgrounds’: ‘Children are much more resilient than we give them credit for. They can’t grasp the level of seriousness of situations in the same way adults do and, consequently, don’t experience the trauma that an adult might. Children also spring back better, because they don’t dwell on things to the same extent.’

But what of the friendship ‘squaddies’? If they shouldn’t be peacekeepers in playground battles, can’t they at least administer some first aid to the injured? Well maybe – teachers have always enlisted the help of more trustworthy pupils to act as their proxies. But these pupils are prefects, not ‘friends’ – and these are two distinct things.

Red caps, badges, distinct ties and other emblems confer authority on to officially endorsed senior pupils. Prefects can carry out useful tasks for teachers and play an important role in school life – not least as a position to aspire to for less mature pupils. But the responsible compassion derived from duty is very different from the mutual trust and affection of friendship. The two are separate and meet different needs.

It is now generally accepted that there is more conflict between friends than in other peer relationships. Children use friendship to test out what they must deliver and what they expect in return – and the ‘friends for free’ scheme can’t deliver the level of intimacy of peer-based, ‘earned’ friendships.

Official ‘friends’ can shield vulnerable children if playground relationships get out of hand, but the reciprocity of real friendship is missing. What can an 11-year-old prefect have in common with a primary one pupil who feels lost? In fact, such ‘friendship’ schemes may even make things worse. If the younger child latches on to the older one, he will lose the opportunity to learn friendship skills from age-appropriate relations – while becoming increasingly isolated from peers and possibly ending up being resented by his older ‘buddy’.

Intervention into playground battles by older mentors may demonstrate the community spiritedness of the prefect (among other things). But in fact it takes a school community in the opposite direction to the one intended. Peace may break out, with all the cliched images of hopscotch and hula hoops, but it’s a false and sad harmony that relies on being policed.

For trust really to develop among children, they must be allowed to experience their relationships and the emotions they generate in an unfettered way.

By turning children with a developed social conscience into ‘super citizens’, through schemes like playground squaddies, we are making them and what they do special and different. Do children really need the red cap ‘uniform’ to encourage them to lend an arm for comfort? And if hand-picked good guys are the only ones to trust, then what does this say about the rest of the children in the playground?

Simon Knight works as a school link social worker near Glasgow, and also works with Generation: Youth Issues

Read on:

Peer groups bad – friends good?, by Jennie Bristow

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