Hoops, wheels and moose heads: playtime in the world’s most inhospitable places

How do children play in refugee camps, aboriginal reserves and places ravaged by war? Photographer Mark Neville found out

You seldom see a smile in Mark Nevilles photographs of children. Even in glorious circumstances, among the mud and smoke of a well-run adventure playground, children appear stern and serious: deeply focused on whatever business is afoot. In what Neville calls oppressed space at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya or in bomb-damaged east Ukraine they gaze into his camera quizzically, as if briefly awoken from a more absorbing inner world.

Childs Play, an exhibition opening this week at Londons Foundling Museum, brings together images from 15 years of Nevilles photography. From Afghanistan to Pittsburgh, London, Corby, Port Glasgow and the Isle of Bute, he noticed that his big, socially engaged series all featured strong images of children. These are now part of a wider campaign to raise awareness about the importance of play in childrens development.

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A boy in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2016. Photograph: Mark Neville

Neville has previously tackled post-traumatic stress disorder, toxic waste and war, so this new topic play might seem a lighthearted departure. But he believes it is an essential survival strategy. Unstructured activity determined by the child, as opposed to educational games or sport, is about social interaction, testing boundaries and confidence. The only way we gain confidence is to test our fears. Some are social, some physical, some psychological. All get tested in the playground: its a microcosm of the real world.

New material for the show has been taken in Kenya and Ukraine, as well as in the London borough of Islington, which granted Neville access to the Toffee Park and Lumpy Hill adventure playgrounds. Neville is concerned by the lack of a national play strategy in the UK, which could lobby on behalf of such sites. If were looking at making cuts we look at Toffee Park and think, Well, surely kids can play at school, so we dont need that. It just gets crossed off. If we dont provide play, theres going to be a generation of unwell adults.

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Christmas Day in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2010. Photograph: Mark Neville

Across the thousands of miles of territory covered in the show, common threads emerge: kids trundling hoops and wheels in Kenya and Afghanistan; girls playing mother and child; the universal appeal of water, mud, rope and string. We see children performing for the camera: there is the occasional manic grin, a hardman snarl from a pre-schooler in Pittsburgh and unexpected vamping from a girl in southern Afghanistan. We drove for a couple of hours in a tank to get to Lashkar Gah, Neville recalls. There was an outdoor class going on. I was at the back and suddenly this girl stands up and starts posing to camera like a silent movie star.

Neville has seen first-hand how, in hostile environments, play becomes an outlet, a release, a kind of therapy. It allows children to make sense of the horrors going on in the adult world and deal with them. Whether theyre the horrors of life in Islington which there are or on an aboriginal reserve in Shamattawa, Manitoba.

That reserve in Canada has become totemic for Neville a place of extreme neglect. A community of about 1,600 people living in shacks, serviced by one grocery store (which burned down last September) and accessible only by plane, Shamattawa is home to a generation of aboriginal tribes Cree, Sioux who have been completely disinherited from everything to do with their identity and their religion. The adults live without hope, so they become hopeless parents too..

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The mooses head in Shamattawa, Manitoba, 2016. Photograph: Mark Neville

One image of Shamattawa shows half-dressed children in a dilapidated kitchen with a severed moose head on the floor in a puddle of congealed blood. What might be an axe handle, or the butt of a gun, lies beside it. Shamattawa has shocking numbers of child suicide. Kids see that if you kill yourself, theres a funeral and a public outpouring of attention and grief, says Neville. I was walking around and came to a little clearing in a wood. There was this graveyard of little crosses with teddy bears stuck on them, hundreds of them. I wept and wept.

In March, alongside Childs Play, the Foundling Museum will host a symposium on issues of public space and childrens rights. Neville and campaigner Adrian Voce have also put together a book outlining the mental and physical health issues associated with a lack of free play, and covering the threats currently facing spaces and facilities in the UK. It will not be commercially available, but will instead be sent out to bodies and individuals with a stake in the issue, or influence in the field.

This reflects Nevilles belief that simply taking photographs and exhibiting them is no longer enough: the images have to be disseminated in a way that might actually make a difference. Because its a fucking disaster, isnt it, the world at the moment? he says. None of us can afford to sit back and let it happen.

Childs Play is at the Foundling Museum, London, from 3 February until 30 April.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/31/childs-play-photography-mark-neville-interview