The 31 May 2012 saw the University of Greenwich host ‘Youth, Recreation and Play’, a conference bringing together youth workers, school pupils, artists working on community arts projects, students from George Williams College and Greenwich University, and local and international academics from a range of disciplines. The conclusion of the conference saw Dr Mary Clare Martin, its organiser and founder (with Dr Keith Cranwell) of the Centre for the Study of Play and Recreation, launch the London Network for the History of Children.
Three plenary sessions – ‘Play and Legal Liability’, ‘Play, Space and Boundaries’ and ‘Empowering the Young? Citizenship and Activism’ sandwiched two streams. The first, ‘The Development of Youth Work’ included papers having an historical and socio-economic perspective, whilst the second, ‘Theoretical and Educational Developments’ focused on the socio-economic and the psychological vis-à-vis childhood development, youth and adult maturation, educational organisation, and the politics of education and employment policy.
Presentations from six Bedonwell Junior School students (three girls, three boys) opened the conference. They recounted their role and self-development through participation in and leadership of the school’s ‘Guardian Angels’ programme. Designed to support younger pupils by ensuring all have playtime companions, and to encourage positive caring and sharing together with principled citizenship within the school environment, Guardian Angels is a mentoring and skills awareness concept-in-practice consequent upon the work of Deputy Head Heather Soanes and June Vincent, SENCO. The students spoke of their leadership as Guardian Angels arising out of their ‘shadowing’ (as younger students) students holding the role before them and how they, in turn, mentored their own ‘shadows’.
Of particular interest to historians, sociologists and political scientists exploring women’s role was a session on ‘Youth Work Provision: Catering for Minorities?’ Anne Hughes of the University of Southampton and Dr Mary Clare Martin delivered papers on, respectively, ‘A Good Jew and a Good Englishman’: Religion in Jewish Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, 1880-1930’, and ‘Disability and the Girl Guide Association 1900-1950: Heroic Patience or Active Engagement’.
Anne Hughes’ research and reflections on late nineteenth and early twentieth century creation of young people’s clubs by wealthy philanthropists, particularly in London’s Jewish community, will remind 2011 Women’s History Network Conference participants of the holdings in the Women’s Library. One of the Vera Douwie Scholars at the 2011 WHN conference revealed the existence of a significant archive, including written material and photographs, featuring East End clubs and their initiation and support by well-heeled West End Jewish women.
Anne Hughes highlighted the gendered-focus of the clubs, where ‘sports were a main focus of their activities’, however:
‘Within boys’ clubs, sport and militarism was the primary focus of the activities, with religious elements included as a way to promote sportsmanship or strength of body. For the girls’ clubs, religion was seen as a way to promote the ideals of femininity … [T]raditional English and Jewish notions of womanhood and manhood affected the inclusions of religious elements.’
Another side of ‘clubs for girls’ was evident in Mary Clare Martin’s trawling of Girl Guides’ archives to illuminate the ‘principle of inclusion’ enshrined in the Guide Law, ‘A Guide is a sister to every other Guide’ and how it worked in practice:
‘Many of the developments within the GGA [Girl Guides Association] began at grass roots level. From 1919, companies were founded in institutions. From 1921, an organization called Extension Guides was set up to enable “invalid, cripple, blind and deaf girls living in their own homes to become Guides”.’
‘Badge requirements were adapted to make it possible’ for Guides with a disability ‘to achieve’. As well, ‘special camps were organised for different groups’:
‘While the photo of a Guide in uniform lying in bed making a pretend camp fire might seem distant from the experiences of those who could move freely in the open air, the rhetoric emphasized how Guides were all one family, with only minor differences. Indeed, the association claimed that Guiding was the one thing which could dispel the sense of isolation and difference experienced by disabled Guides.’
Dr Martin’s analysis of archival records provided answers to questions including ‘whether images of heroic suffering and patience dominate over the more pro-active discourses emphasizing achievement and potential’, whether the GGA promoted ‘a medical or a social model of disability’, and whether Guides with a disability were ‘able to participate in the same activities as their peer group’. She observed that, as may be expected, the picture is complex:
‘Some accounts eulogize girls who were models of patience. One girl who had to lie in bed all the time made friends with the birds who flew in. In 1946, Daphne was presented with the “Badge of Fortitude”. She spent all her life in a plaster bed but could still do gardening from her spinal chair was “the friend of all the children in the neighourhood”. Nevertheless, pictures and stories of girls [with a disability] at camp also emphasized the value of the outdoor smells, sounds and relative freedom to blind girls, or how “higher-grade defectives” were almost the same as other Guides, and badge requirements should remain the same …’
A plenary session on the legal implications of play raised questions which continued through the day: whether, in play, girls and boys are treated differently, with stereotypes dogging the footsteps of the sexes when it comes to what, as children, they are permitted to do and what is affirmed or condemned. Edward Phillips (University of Greenwich) ‘Boys will be Boys: Legal Culpability for Sport and Horseplay’ led to participants questioning whether ‘girls will be girls’ is accepted within schools and the law as a positive or negative notion, and what relationship it might have to its ‘boys will be boys’ equivalent. Or is there any equivalence at all? Are girls as girls engaging in recreational activities in the school ground expected to conform to a more passive picture of performance so that stepping out of that role may lead to condemnation not experienced by boys?
‘Youth, Recreation and Play’ followed on from the January 2012 conference, ‘Rethinking the History of Childhood’. It anticipates another January conference for 2013, focusing on issues surrounding play, recreation and the law. This is particularly apposite, for both the January 2012 and the present conference highlighted the central role played by the law in childhood and the activities of childhood, not the least in recreation and play. Myriad questions rise in the field, too, for adults in recreational activities.
Note: The conference programme in its entirety, including all titles of papers and presenters, may be found on the Greenwich University website.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt’s books include Growing Up Feminist – The New Generation of Australian Women and Growing Up Feminist Too – Raising Women, Raising Consciousness, volumes in the Artemis ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives’ series.