If you go to the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London, you will find that it has been transformed into a gigantic playground, on a scale that as a child, you could only have dreamt. The 35,520 square foot hall is full of three-person swings that can each comfortably accommodate a trio of oversized adults.
When I visited, the whole place was heaving. The swings were occupied by bald dads, their legs dangling, enjoying the flying and falling as they veered back and forth. Hundreds of visitors, every single one over five feet tall, were lying spreadeagled on the soft, springy carpet, designed in bold stripes of colour inspired by the 1970s – orange, brown, red, and a light blue – that ran across the sloping floor. Overhead, a huge mirrored ball swung from the ceiling, and those underneath could see themselves reflected in it as it moved back and forth.
The artwork, One Two Three Swing!, is by the Danish art collective Superflux, who believe that people can have fun with art while contemplating significant issues such as capitalism, belonging, and identity. The installation is apparently divided into three sections, titled apathy, production, and movement, though it is hard to tell which is which.
This is not the first time the Tate has tried to inject play into art. In, 2007 the artist Carsten Höller invited people to fling themselves down helter-skelters to create the feeling of “delight and madness”, because he felt slides should not only be used by children. Elsewhere, it’s the same. While sleepovers for kids at the Natural History Museum have always been popular, in the last few years the institution has started to sell tickets for a similar event for adults. Dino-Snores for Grown-ups offers live music, comedy, and a dinosaur-themed games room, before the grown-ups slip into their sleeping bags for lights out. No kids are allowed.
What’s curious, is that for kids, the trend is for the opposite. There is no promise of music, a dinosaur-themed games room, or any comedy at Dino-Snores for Kids at the Natural History Museum. Those aged 7 to 11 can explore the Museum after dark while, according to the promotional blurb, “taking part in fun and educational activities”. They can also attend an educational science show presented by a Museum scientist. When I took my 8-year-old niece on a sleepover at the British Museum, for kids, she took part in an art activity about religion and a quiz about the 18th century doctor, Hans Sloane, whose collection founded the Museum. She had a great time, and I, of course, wanted her to learn something, but it was an explicitly educational event, rather than just for fun.
There appears to be a reversal of roles here. In a topsy-turvy way the rise of adult play, which allows grown-ups to hide from the world, is happening as children’s play is increasingly directed towards particular outcomes, or regulated in some way, making them grow up too quickly.
According to research conducted in 2017 by NPD Group, a retail analyst, sales of toys to adults have increased by almost two-thirds over the past five years. The toys for adults market, of the non-bedroom and non-computer kind, is now worth £300m in the UK – and it is growing faster than the children’s toy market. Whereas for kids, it is the toy market for educational games that is exploding.
As for playing outdoors, unsupervised, kids today can forget it. Fears about stranger danger, abduction, the danger posed by cars, and the possibility of accidents, means that they are cocooned, taken to school, club, and then back home to the sofa where they watch television or play on their tablet, before homework. Fear about risks to children is one of the main reasons why the distance children play away from home has decreased by 90 per cent in the past 30 years, but in that same period, risks to them have not increased – just anxiety.
Which is one reason why the figures for indoor play are rocketing. According to the research company, Mintel, in the UK it is now a £106 million market. And yet as enjoyable as it is to watch kids throw themselves at the yellow foam and get lost under bouncy red balls, it’s not the same as them going out the front door for hours and getting up to whatever takes their fancy, coming back only when their name is shouted out for supper. That kind of play, the one when mum and dad know little about what you are doing, when you sometimes get into trouble – as well learn how to get out of it – is only a memory of adults. For children, it’s inconceivable. And their world is shrinking as a result.
Children rarely get the opportunity to play wild, unmonitored, to go by themselves. Which could be why they are so in thrall to new technology – because there is no other world for them to explore. But messing about with an App is not the same as that feeling you had when you played for hours outside. That meant coming home late, sometimes bruised and knackered, but feeling free.
If they do step out without their older chaperone, there is outrage. Like that experienced by the New Yorker, Lenore Skenazy, when she wrote an article about how one summer she allowed her 9-year-old to ride the subway alone. The piece provoked an uproar, and she was called a child abuser. Some commentators called for her arrest for child endangerment.
Skenazy stood her ground, setting up the ‘Free-Range Kids’ movement. She argues that giving children independence, instead of “helicopter parenting”, which is when parents obsess over every movement and intervene at every moment of their children’s lives, is a healthier approach to child-rearing, for parents and children. She is right. One of the strengths of free-range play is that it is free-flowing, unstructured, pointless, and outside of market forces.
We should let the kids out. They’ll get to their exams later, and we can bandage their scraped knees when they come home. Adults need to grow up and let the children be alone with their childish things. It’s their time to play.