Being and becoming

For her Sociology Masters, Lucy Benson used ideas about children’s being and becoming as a foundation for generating research with children. In this abstract, she suggests that though these ideas are not new, they are worth revisiting as a useful foundation for the playwork approach, and for all those with an interest in childhood, and in how children are constructed and presented.

There are some physiological differences between children and adults which cannot and should not be disregarded. Prout and James describe this phenomenon:  ‘The immaturity of children is a biological fact but the way in which that immaturity is understood and made meaningful is a fact of culture’ (Prout, 2005). Until fairly recently, understandings of children were almost entirely focused on what children’s existence meant to their future adulthood; children were seen as dependent and incomplete humans who were to be invested in because they represented the future, rather than because their lives had meaning in the present. They were considered as human becomings rather than human beings. This is still the dominant standard used to understand UK childhood(s).

In the 1990s childhood sociologists made a strong case for children as complete beings, actors with a capacity to influence their own lives and the lives of others. This understanding of children as complete beings has helped to stengthen the children’s rights movement.

Nevertheless, this concept was shaken up by Nick Lee in his book Childhood and Society, where he questioned the validity of dichotomies such as biology versus sociology, and being versus becoming. Instead, he argued that in an ever-changing world, whose pace of change propels forward with gathering speed, there is nothing stable; humans do not become something and then remain in that same state throughout their lives. Human beings are in a perpetual state of change and, in this light, we can accept the constant becoming and re-becoming of both children and adults. This becoming does not negate the being of either child or adult, we are all beings in a state of becoming. Furthermore, the manner that we come into being does not need to be defined as either biological or cultural,  as these parts of human selves are so utterly intertwined that it would be impossible to separate them. 

If this rejection of dichotomies is accepted, then we can focus on the human as doing.  It is our acts that are important, both to the being and becoming of our selves, and in the creation of conditions which we believe will improve our shared world.

Life is a prolific and open-ended narrative which is always more than the sum of it’s political and social constructs. It is with this spirit that I approach my work with children, considering us all as beings in a state of emergent becoming through our interactions. This, I believe, is a useful consideration for the foundations of playwork.

Children are not our future, they live alongside us in the present. We all make the future together.

Lucy Benson

Photo:James Schaap


Gallacher, L – A., & Gallagher, M. (2008). Methodological Immaturity in Childhood Research? Thinking through ‘particapatory methods’. Childhood 15(4), 499 -516.

Good, P. (2017, January 20). Routines. The Cunningham Ammendment, p. 4.

James, A. (2011). Agency. In J. Qvortrup, W. A. Corsaro, M.-S. Honig, (Eds.), The Palgrave Hanbook of Childhood Studies (pp. 34-45). Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lee, N. (2001). Childhood and Society. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press.

Nieuwenhuys, O. (2013). Theorizing childhood(s): Why we need postcolonial perspectives. Childhood, Vol.20(1), 3-8.

Prout, A. (2005). The Future of Childhood. Oxen: Routledge.

Ward, C. (1977). The Child in the City. London: The Architectural Press Ltd.

Wells, K. (2009). Childhood in a Global Perspective. Cambridge: Polity.

Lucy Benson is head of adventure play at Islington Play Association in London, where she works with and for children in six adventure playgrounds. She recently co-authored a paper with Dr Rachel Rosen which was published in Children and Society, From Silence to Solidarity: Locating the Absent ‘Child Voice’ in the Struggle Against Benefit Sanctions. Lucy holds an MA in Sociology of Childhood and Children’s Rights from University College London. This article is derived from her dissertation, City Limits: Children’s Perspectives of an Unequal Borough in a Neo-liberal City.

One thought on “Being and becoming

  1. plexity says:

    Interesting piece.

    “Human beings are in a perpetual state of change and, in this light, we can accept the constant becoming and re-becoming of both children and adults.”

    I think I’ll have to say ‘agree’ to that.

    I would direct you towards my interactionist* perspective which is implicit in my nostrum:

    “Through play we become human.”

    People seem to struggle with the meaning of this. I’ve seen it imperfectly recalled as ‘play makes us human’. No it doesn’t. Bad guys torture people playfully – that doesn’t make them human. I’m sure you don’t need reminding that play is not the same as ‘play-nicely’. Play** can be wild and dangerous and messy and hurtful: the injunction to ‘play-nicely’ decodes as ‘stop playing’.

    When Jane Jacobs describes ‘sidewalk play’ in ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’, which all thinking playworkers simply MUST read, she is describing what we might vernacularly term ‘ bloody kids sodding about on the street annoying people’. And those kids are LEARNING. (Learning is a thing that kids do, all the time. Annoyingly they decide what they learn, not you. And they observe all the time, obviously or they wouldn’t learn…) And what they learn on the street is: HOW TO GET ALONG WITH OTHER PEOPLE. Sociologists, drearily, call this ‘socialisation’. Terrible word, badly thought-out concept; misleading if not plain false. “Through sodding about, they learn to get along”, one might say.

    Human is as human does. Humans are social animals. Without interaction with others, we pine, we mope, we become less human, slowly, steadily. That’s what I’m pointing to with the term ‘interactionist’,or ‘interactional’, whatever.

    That’s what I was talking about.


    Final words from me just now:

    Love your final sentence, Lucy.


    *can’t be arsed looking up whether I’m being constructivist or constructionist, because I don’t have to blather pomo piffle because I don’t ‘teach’ at a ewni

    ** maybe we need a NVQ in Playnicework. That would make it easier for authoritarian soulless employers to recruit the sort of humourless and inhuman jobsworths that are preferred by many ‘settings’. We could also set up the The Playnicework Foundation.

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