A level playing field: The commodification of play

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In the city of Toronto, one of the options for play is a kid-friendly coffee shop that offers a play area. Let's call it "FunSpot." When I first heard of FunSpot I thought, "What a great idea." But then I discovered that, on top of the premium cost of your hot beverage, there is a fee to access the toys, the little slide, and the rubber mats -- all of it cordoned off from the coffee bar by a friendly-looking little gate. FunSpot functions almost like an indoor park, which is fantastic in the winter months, especially if your child is too young to skate or can't even walk. But do not mistake this for a public space.

Certainly, you might point out, this kind of exchange happens all of the time.What is a swimming lesson, for example, if not an exchange of money for play? Well, yes. My son and I have been to FunSpot only twice, but each time I can't help ask myself about what it means to commodify play. What are the implications for children and their caregivers when access to play spaces is limited? And what does it say about the social importance of children when individual families are asked to shoulder the costs of their learning and their fun?

This last question is a timely one. The newly released Drummond report is a retraction of the political commitments made to children by Dalton McGuinty in 2004 (the Best Start Plan). The Best Start Plan promised spending that would "fundamentally" support parents and service-providers in "their pivotal role of helping their children be successful, regardless of their circumstances." Best Start seemed to seek redress for years of minimal investments in children, which had led to a situation where children from economically or culturally marginalized communities were relatively less prepared for formal learning by the time they entered the school system. But in a recent reversal, an attempt to lessen the provincial government's $16 billion deficit has inspired Drummond to recommend numerous cuts to early childhood education, beginning with hiring fewer educators.

The pivotal role of early childhood educators is clear to me because my son and I mostly spend our time at a free drop-in centre that was created under McGuinty's Best Start vision. A genuinely diverse crowd makes use of the drop-in centre: parents (both Dads and Moms), grandparents and caregivers (mostly nannies). The space is pretty big and bright and it too has toys, though donated and not as fancy as the ones at FunSpot (my son doesn't notice). Many languages are spoken and the songs are sung in English, Mandarin, Japanese, German or French. But even before the Drummond Report, this centre was limited by budgetary constraints and so, like others of its kind around the city, it isn't open all day every day.

Contrast this space with FunSpot, an apt pseudonym because fun it is: it is brightly coloured, spacious, and full of toys and interactive furniture. My son has enjoyed it but I have not. I am unable to shake the "icky" feeling I get when I'm there, nor my wont to analyze the situation like a field scientist.

The feelings and types of interactions one gets from these spaces are palpably distinct and I'm sure this has partly to do with who frequents them. At the drop-in centre there are a lot of parent-to-parent interactions as well as help for parents from the staff. This ultimately helps the kids because they get more interaction with one another and also with other adults besides their parents. On the other hand, FunSpot seems to attract a monoculture and there is much less interaction among visitors -- Moms come with their friends and stay in conversation with them. There is a song time (an additional fee on top of the play time and the coffee) but the songs are all in English. A less rich experience for everyone.

What this Mom qua field scientist is noticing, then, is a material division in opportunities for learning and growth in her city. FunSpot epitomizes this division. Sure, those without extra money may be able to once in a while fork over nearly $7 for a coffee and one hour of play. But these people (myself included) will always be markedly different from those who don't think twice about this kind of spending. And in private "play" spaces like FunSpot they will feel like interlopers. I know I have. A recent Globe and Mail article made the point starkly if stereotypically: it proposed a reality TV show about Leslieville mothers, where the actors were described dressed in Lululemon with thousand-dollar strollers.

So, from my admittedly anecdotal observations, I am inclined to answer my own question with this: given a lack of political and social (collective, we could say) commitment to creating adequate accessible spaces for kids of all kinds, we are contributing to the reproduction of social inequality.

Can we necessarily say that children denied access to FunSpot will grow up to inhabit positions of socio-economic under-privilege or that, conversely, those children who frequent FunSpot will inevitably assume decision-making power? Of course not. But the larger picture is compelling. We are in the midst of another baby boom and by all measures of inequality the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger. As housing prices sit ridiculously high (a recent report states the average house price in Toronto is over $600,000), for instance, more and more families have trouble making rent. This inequality is being borne out in the material demands of child-rearing and ought to be a problem for anyone who hopes for an inclusive society.

What do I hope for? More political commitments to kids, not less. I am not interested in vilifying FunSpot; they have rent to pay and there is obviously a market for the services they provide.

But what I would like to see are great spaces like FunSpot for everyone. This requires more political support for the creation and maintenance of public play spaces for kids (including support for drop-in centres and their amazing staff). Because, ahem, Mr. Drummond, there might be no better place to foster social equality than on the ground, where our newest citizens play.

Kelly Bronson is a young academic living in the city of Toronto with her husband and their baby boy. She divides her time between her work researching science's relationship with society and getting her hands dirty gardening, cooking and lots of playing!

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