Playground panopticism: Ring-around-the-children, a pocketful of women

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In his essay on panopticism, Michel Foucault (1995) analyzes the architectural structure of the panopticon planned by Jeremy Bentham in 1791. The structure revolutionized the concept of disciplinary power through the technology of surveillance. The panopticon is a windowed, central tower in which a supervisor can survey the people in prison cells or rooms that occupy the periphery. The prisoners, patients, schoolboys, or workers in the cells can be perpetually seen by the supervisor in the tower, while those that are watched cannot actually see the person watching them. With this structure, the very few can hold power over the many because the tower supplies the very suggestion of constant surveillance. Those of us who still notice the surveillance equipment that monitors our movements in banks and stores are conscious of how this feels. It makes us think twice about undressing in front of dressing room mirrors. Recently, a mother was charged with child abuse when store cameras filmed her hitting her child in her car. She pled guilty and said that she was overly frustrated by the child, who continually misbehaved in the store. One wonders why surveillance tools cannot enable store managers to send aid to an overburdened mother in the store, who perhaps needs help expediting her shopping. But surveillance equipment is designed for punishment, not intervention. The concept of the panopticon, I was astonished to find, enabled me to interpret the data that I gathered through two years of participant-observation research on two playground settings in the San Francisco Bay Area. One was an outdoor public suburban neighborhood playground, and the other was a commercial playplace situated in a suburban strip mall. The panopticon model taught me the meaning of the term "supervision," identified as the mechanism of safety in the rhetoric of playground safety and design recommendations (Smith 1998; Wellhousen 2002). The suburban playground that I observed operates upon a similar principle of constant surveillance, with the children playing in the center and the parents-usually mothers, the embodiment of the possibility of surveillance-circled around the children on the park benches. When they have done something questionable, children furtively glance in the general direction of the benches. Although children know who their mothers are and prisoners do not know who is watching them, the park benches similarly represent the constant suggestion of being watched, and thus the automation of panopticism. The adults on the benches may not have actually observed a transgression but "mothers have eyes in the back of their heads," the children know, just as they know that "Santa Claus sees you when you're sleeping." Adults want children to believe that they are seen. Although supervision is equated with keeping children safe, panopticism also seeks to produce a certain kind of subjectivity in children, an internalization of discipline through self-monitoring. In this chapter, I also argue that panopticism creates a certain kind of subjectivity in mothers, who initiated me into the multifaceted meanings of supervising children on playgrounds. Unlike Foucault's panopticism of the prison, the panoptic force of the mothers around the suburban playground becomes a community that gazes at the children only to ultimately gaze at one another, seeing reflected in the children the parenting abilities of one another. Through visiting several playgrounds with my now-four-year-old daughter, I have come to understand that a complex network of female social relations occupies those benches. Elaborate rules of both playground etiquette and social competition occupy the ring of women that can be found at almost any Bay Area suburban playground in the mid-morning or afternoon. Through encoding the principle of surveillance into its physical structure, the panoptic structure of the suburban playground actually objectifies women as mothers and allows mothers to objectify themselves, because they participate in the female community that is watching and measuring the behavior of the children to assess the mother's mothering. In this chapter I compare the ring of mothers in Bay Area suburban playgrounds, particularly focusing on the one in my neighborhood of two years, to parents and children at McDonald's PlayPlace, where children disappear from their mothers' gazes into networks of tunnels, enclosed slides, and cages of balls. Around the PlayPlace are not benches but cafeteria tables; both play equipment and parental tables encourage parallel play. Although the McDonald's is located in "suburban sprawl," the children pass one another in tunnels as urban, anonymous subjects, while mothers socialize with one another instead of watching or talking about their children. Whereas mothers of young children perform governance of their children's conduct in the public playgrounds under study, they rarely interfere with their children's behavior in the PlayPlace, having to some extent "let their guard down" and put their trust in commercial standards for safety. This is true to such an extent that McDonald's has a sign saying, "Police will be called for children unattended by parents." The ironic equation of "commercial" with "safe" is not unlike the irony within the American Halloween ritual, when mothers distrust homemade food and authenticate the safety of packaged candy. The vigilance that the mothers exercise in the suburban playground is relaxed in the commercial play zone, furthered by efforts of companies like Chuck E. Cheese's to provide identity bracelets to parents and children upon arrival and ensure that the right children leave with the right parents. Commercial sectors represent a broader, more dispersed ideal of surveillance. There, the mothers relax their panoptic responsibilities and experience an intriguing moment of freedom from disciplinary concerns. This explains the appeal of the commercial playplace to mothers and children, who seek relief from surveillance regimes. With the price of a Happy Meal, parents purchase an alternative ideology that tells them, "You deserve a break today," which, apparently, the public playground does not afford them. Curiously, the relaxed form of behavior that parents exhibit in commercial playgrounds allows children to create their own rules for play and conduct their own social interactions, largely free from adult interference. We live in an era when children's spaces are increasingly circumscribed, and their activities- even recess (Pelligrini 1995)-increasingly organized by adults (Postman 1994). Although the commercial playplace represents the privatization of public play space, the actual freedom that the children enjoy there parallels the freedom that urban, working-class children exhibited on the streets in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Nasaw 1985). Before middle-class social reformers-the ancestors of the suburban mothers I observed- succeeded in developing public playgrounds to get children off the street, working-class children set their own rules for governance and play, with minimal adult interference. Though by no means a public street, the PlayPlace structure serves to symbolize the pipes and ducts under a street, enabling the children to disappear in a way middle-class mothers would not allow in a semi-urban park. The families using the McDonald's PlayPlace, located in the midst of discount outlets, represent a more mixed socioeconomic group than the middle-class neighborhood playground. Ironically, the commercial sector has stepped in during the late twentieth century to create the perception that "free play" can be purchased by anyone-for a small price. . . .

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWho's Watching?
Subtitle of host publicationDaily Practices of Surveillance among Contemporary Families
PublisherVanderbilt University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780826516718
StatePublished - 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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