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Programming and freedom, play and productive work

Henry Maier

Play and work, programming, and spontaneity — the many components within one segment of this chapter may seem perplexing. It may help to clarify if we conceptualize that programming deals with the effort of guaranteeing the residents a sound diet of everyday life experience which will hopefully enrich development. The essence of programming is not the scheduling of special events but envisaging and planning a day which promises to satisfy: with adults to support and to guide, with routines which serve to relax, where old ways of doing things are tolerated and new ways are possible, and above all, where life can proceed for fun and for keeps.

Work or play for children, adolescents, and hopefully for adults, involves strong personal investment and opportunities for self-realization. It is essential for children to have ample opportunities for work, activities where they can invest themselves and see the outcome (productivity) of their efforts as useful (marketable) to others. In one program the adolescents are asked to contribute four hours a week of work. Work projects are recommended and posted by the youngsters and staff. Once a resident signs up for a task, a commitment has been established. These teenagers work and frequently they work more than required. Their work assignments are a challenge to them and have value in their own eyes and the eyes of their community. Among some of their tasks are painting, genuine repair work, errands with the maintenance person, and fixing things for elderly neighbors, or cleaning up the sports field after a public event. Such tasks are extra; different from the daily chores of cleaning up their quarters, washing dishes, or emptying trash containers which are routines. The routines are necessary and time consuming, but they do not constitute challenging work experience.

Parallel to work, play is children’s major avenue for learning, for exploring, for verifying themselves and, above all, for interacting meaningfully with others and environmental events in general. "Play is active, energetic, creative and imaginative ... It is a vehicle by which youngsters learn of their world, of its construction and how they fit into the scheme of things" (Wilson, 1977, p. 249). In play children not only deal with their difficulties; play is foremost a vital resource for learning by trial and error, to risk and to do for fun what is either too scary for real or what is better not done or not done yet. It is human to dare oneself and others in play; it is also human to do in play, "just for fun," all the things which are taboo or at least not quite proper in ordinary life. In play we can win or lose without permanent repercussions; in play one can hurry or daily. In play, moreover, persons can practice and experience essential behaviors which can scarcely be tried out otherwise. Where else but in play can children or adults effectively practice at being outstanding or at playing unashamedly: the fool, to wait and to take turns while on the edge, to outwit, to cheat or to steal within permissible bounds without being caught, to co-operate, to hold back or to give for the greater good. Many forms of play have as a major ingredient a sampling of these: to bluff, to cheat, to steal, to annihilate as well as to share, to team up, or to save the day for all. Consequently, to play "high court" or Star Wars, Bionic Woman, or Treasure Island can provide a rich give-and-take in fun and learning.

In no way in the light of our contemporary knowledge can this writer reconcile the notion that play serves as a reward for or as reinforcer of good behavior. On the contrary, play is learning itself. Play provides sustenance for life, including good new problematic behaviors for further learning. The more disturbed or distressed children are, the less able they are to fall back on play as a help-rendering process. In other words, when play is needed most it is least at hand. With such an understanding, play often must be encouraged or induced as an essential ingredient of a child’s daily life.

Program planning includes the creation of opportunities for children to do things together, to work, to play, and to fulfill the necessities of daily living (routines) in such a way that the customary procedures do not become high points of the day. Instead, each day’s activities stand out for their challenge and adventure, with routines built in as a matter of fact. Program planning serves also the purpose of assuring each child ample private life in the inherent fishbowl existence of group living. Simultaneously frequent joint activities will link together the residents of each unit; periodically the unit will be linked with other units of the program, and whenever possible connections will be made with people beyond the institutional barriers.

Provision of activities for children and youth in group care is such a vital area of concern that special attention needs to be called to additional comprehensive resources for this aspect of group care services. Readers may find the following publications helpful. Although some of these resources date back more than a decade, their content is still pertinent: DeNoon, 1965; Nicholson, 1975; Plank, 1973; Redl and Wineman, 1957, pp. 318-94; Whittaker, 1969; and Wilson, 1977, among others.

... And When the Expected Is Not Done
What should be our response when clearly enunciated expectations are not fulfilled? Such a question will likely bring forth a flood of answers or at least personal tension. Some readers may respond with the thought: "Stand firm and make them!" Others may protest vehemently: "It should not happen!" while many readers may be inclined to respond that "There must be discipline!"

Perhaps the real concern should be with the fact that our expectations are important. We value what we expect of a child. In other words, the focus should be on the expectation rather than the violation. Focus on the violation ultimately comes to revolve around authority issues and a power struggle over who runs the place (Polsky, 1962); while continued concern with expectations maintains the original concern with what we value to be important.

Let us imagine a group of adolescents who return later than mutually agreed upon from an activity, or who "forget" to pick up clothing strewn about their rooms. These kinds of situations are in conflict with a set of general expectations. Basic to this conflict is the clarity and degree of importance of these expectations rather than the implied disregard for the adults associated with these expectations. The care workers of the adolescents would have to explicitly convey again that they count on the youngsters’ adherence to basic expectations. The expectations still stand regardless of being late or neglecting to straighten out belongings. Most noteworthy, non-compliance does not necessarily alter standards or become an issue of disobedience, rather non-compliance requires a persistence to find ways of meeting these expectations. The focus has to remain upon assisting children to learn to do as requested rather than struggling with them over who sets the rules and necessitating the establishment of a way of proving that expectations have been carried out. This latter approach shifts the issue from concern with standards to a power struggle over "who is on top" (Ebner, 1979).

Let us imagine the rather common occurrence of an adolescent storing her clothing in helter-skelter fashion on the bottom of her open closet in the face of her care worker’s explicit demand to straighten out the disorder. The worker is now faced with many alternatives for dealing with this training situation — namely, the care of clothing. Among other alternatives, a worker could take up techniques with this resident demonstrating how she can get it done. A worker could do the job with the adolescent to convey the importance of the task. The worker could insist upon priority for this task before time could be given to other activities, or the worker could reiterate her personal dismay and with it, her personal concern. The latter would leave the youngster to wrestle with her own conscience over the matter. Incidentally, in the case of a worker with a close attachment with the youngster, more persistent learning would typically occur with the last approach. The youngster’s value acquisition would be most intimately challenged by the worker’s strong personal appeal; by the worker’s identification with her requirements, and in turn, by the girl’s identification. We note in this example that the worker does not doubt her authority or power position. In each of the techniques employed, the focus has been on attending to the task.

In the foregoing paragraphs we tried to deal with the ever-present concern for discipline. Emphasis has to be upon assisting a child or youth to fulfill expectations in terms of their actual appropriateness. No direct consideration has been given in the face of non-compliance to what should be done or when and how children should be punished. Concern centers around the critical incident, critical for the child’s or youth’s learning, rather than the worker’s self-esteem and survival (Beker, 1972). The question then shifts from the kind of punishment each piece of violation requires, to what can be done toward the individual’s mastery. It is assumed that children and adolescents learn in many different ways. Every possible medium for learning is to be utilized (Whittaker, 1979, p. 38) as children and their care givers struggle together. Ways need to be found for learning to live together while living to learn, and for adding new styles continuously to meet and to fulfil tasks yet undone.


Beker, J. (1972). Critical incidents in child care. New York: Behavioral Publications

DeNoon, B. (1965). Horses, bait and chocolate cake. In Maier, H.W. (Ed.) Group work as part of residential treatment. New York: National Association of Social Workers

Ebner, M.J. (1979). Hard hats versus soft hearts: the conflict between principles and reality in child and adolescent care and Rx programs. Child Care Quarterly, 8(1), 36-46

Nicholson, M.L. (1975). Child care practice and the passions of today: Some propositions. Child Care Quarterly 4(2), pp. 72-83

Plank, E. (1973). Play activities. In Working within hospitals, Rev.Ed. Cleveland OH: Case Western Reserve University Press

Polsky, H.W. (1962). Cottage Six. New York: Russell Sage Foundation

Redl, F.and Wineman, D. (1957). The aggressive child. New York: Basic Books, pp. 318-94

Whittaker, J.K. (1969). Program activities. In Trieschman, A.E., Whittaker, J.K. and Brendtro, L.K. The other 23 hours. Chicago: Aldfine.

Wilson, T. (1977). Creating a diversified activity program in a small psychiatric institution for children. Child Care Quarterly, 6(4), pp. 248-258

This feature: Extract from chapter 2, Essential components in care and treatment environments for children. In Maier, H. (1987) Developmental group care of children and youth: Concepts and practice. New York: The Haworth Press