plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Trust in play

I was recently put in prison, again, by a couple of nine- and ten-year-olds who, in the play, described themselves as the amalgam that was ‘The Child Terror’. It was one of those play frames (that is, occurrences of play) which I’ve been noticing lately whereby the play shifts and flows into one narrative after another, and continues over days. Somewhere along the line, this week, I took to responding to every whim of these girls, and others, with the playful response that was ‘Yes, Master’. I forget the exact order of events these days on, as of before in the purely observational, but I generally and variously became — in the naming now — the ‘play slave’ (retrieving the things that were to be played with), the captive, and the co-conspirator.

At one point I was needed by another child, outside of this play, to visit the room where the art supplies are kept. I said to my captors, in a voice just a deliberate degree shifted out of the construct of the ‘Child Terror’ play, that I would need to leave the sofa prison for a few moments but that I would be back. ‘Promise?’ the girls asked with a very exact look in their eyes. ‘Promise,’ I told them. I crossed my heart, as required in the lore of the playground, and swore on my own life. Off I went, temporarily released. I knew, even at the time I was proposing my small escape, and also when I was in the art room, and then when I was coming out of it again, that there was no way I could break the girls’ trust. Herein lies something small but very important.

Around other play, when we had the fire lit at the end of the week, the circular area at that end of the playground all orange and hot in the dark of the early winter after school session, one of the younger girls handed me her long charred ‘poking stick’ and said, ‘Will you look after this for me?’ (such sticks being at a premium that day). She went off to the toilet. I was needed elsewhere: I handed her stick to a colleague with the information that it was hers, and thus I transferred the trust, which he accepted and delivered when she came back.

At home, when Dino Boy wants to playfight (which, at the age of the upper end of three, is most days), he runs off to retrieve a weapon of choice for each of us — cardboard tubes lately — and we fight, kendo style, him trusting that I won’t accidentally get him on the knuckles. Once, this happened, and I thought ‘well, that’s the playfighting ways of us just taken a few steps backwards’. He is, however, more resilient than I’d given him credit for: he came back for more, and therein lies something small but perhaps even greater still.

Of course, this trust is a two-way thing. I build up my knowledge of the children I work with: them as individuals, them within the collective dynamic. My default state with them, I suppose, is one of trust: even though I know full well that certain children I know are supreme blaggers! It is what it is though: when a child I know outside the fence asked to borrow a football, I went with the playground-lore-like ritual of ‘shaking on it’, through the fence, trusting that the football would come back, knowing full well that it might not. It didn’t seem to matter: objects find their way on and off the playground all the time. What’s more though, what goes around comes around: trust can play itself out in long time-frames sometimes.

I’m reminded of a short story I often tell, and one I may have told in these posts elsewhere: the gist of the story is that I once visited a playscheme provision run in a sports centre and, I remember this well, myself and one of the staff there were having a conversation about working relationships with children. I was getting a little annoyed by his somewhat controlling attitude towards the children, in honesty, but I kept calm enough in our post-session debrief: I said something along the lines of, ‘Can’t you trust your children?’ He, a young man with what I supposed to be a somewhat already-set outlook on life, replied quickly and earnestly, looking me dead in the eye: ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘They’re children!’ You can imagine how I ranted for several days afterwards to anyone who would listen.

Without trust where would we be? That is, when we work with children, and when children play around us, trust will result in moments of magic that are difficult to truly tell on the page, and in trust we have the seeds of potential other futures and future offerings between this adult and this child. Despite the difficulties of truly capturing the look in the ‘Child Terror’ girls’ eyes, their willingness to suspend the play for a few minutes, their just-as-is-right acceptance of the self-returned captive’s suppliant wrists, such trust should be written into ‘the standards’ by which learners of the trade are assessed.

These standards refer to trust and building relationships, but really, they’re so dry. At level 2, for example, learners new to playwork are asked to show that they can:

‘Develop an effective rapport with children and young people in a play environment.’

‘Treat children and young people in a play environment with honesty, respect, trust and fairness.’

‘Communicate with the children and young people in a way that is appropriate to the individual, using both conventional languages and body language.’

Excuse me: I was yawning. Who wrote this stuff? How dry are they? (that is, the standards and the people) — as an aside, one of the ‘Child Terror’ girls told me this week, on meeting at the start of the session, that I was ‘so dry; you’re so dead.’ I smiled because I really don’t know what this means! I have to factor in that the local child parlance that is ‘That’s sick’ actually means ‘That’s good’, apparently, but really I’m still none the wiser. If it’s an insult, that’s fine, because that — in itself — is part of the non-dryness of actual relationship-building that the level 2 standards, for example, are not.

I propose, instead of the above sort of criteria examples, that it be written into a learner’s ‘be able to’ standards towards competence, the suchlike of the following:

‘Have grace in the moment of play.’

‘Communicate only with the glint of an eye.’

‘Trust in what is.’

Or words like these, as difficult as capturing the trust inherent in being captured, released for a few minutes, returned to the play, actually is.

Late one after-school session last week, in the post-‘clocks-go-back’ dark, I found myself stood on top of the six foot high or so box structure/recent addition to the playground, having been ordered to walk the plank by a boy with a cardboard sword, and up there with me I was sure I heard a younger girl tell me: ‘OK, you be the Buddhist.’ I laughed. ‘I’m not the Buddhist,’ I told her. ‘No,’ she said, repeating her actual words again: ‘You be the Baddie.’

For a good portion of the session, one of the dominant play frames had been some sort of war play. It tumbled around the darkening playground after maybe starting somewhere indoors with the inspiration afforded by some curvy lengths of train track, which became guns. I don’t know for sure how it started: I didn’t see the actual beginnings — often we don’t, and pinpointing the moment of ‘now’, which becomes ‘everything else’, is difficult. Before this, I had been closely observing, from a high up vantage point, the interactions and attempts at play of one particular older boy. He had annoyed some of his peers on the walk back from school, just by bugging them and pushing their buttons over and over, and when the children got back to the playground, he was still pushing and bugging. Perhaps he needed their attention and any attention is better than none at all. Anyway, I observed him almost exclusively as he wandered around the place, trying and often failing to ingratiate himself into the already established play frames that were taking place. He fell into one, was rejected, bounced off somewhere else, and the cycle repeated. Eventually, after losing track of him for a short while, I saw that he was playing war.

He seemed to have found a group and a form of play in which he was fairly accepted. The boys in the play made use of the train tracks (and other parts of the train set as grenades), and then they also used the rods of the old football table, an umbrella, and later cardboard swords and daggers. Some of the girls joined in. The play tumbled around in variations of allegiances and alliances. Inside, early on, I stood at the doorway to the playground, out of the way, and observed how one boy found himself surrounded by three or four others: they all opened fire at once and the boy fell dramatically to the floor. He got up and play carried on.

As the war play was taking place, as some children sat around the fire pit in the dark, as other children continued hoarding their office chairs and who-knows-what-else up in the hill-house, I was called over to the hammock swing by three girls. ‘Push us,’ they said. So I pushed and we concocted made-up lullabies (involving fallen baby birds) together. I tried to extract myself every so often, but every time I was called back. ‘Push us more.’ So on I pushed, and on we sung. Extracting oneself from the play is also a difficult thing: do it too soon and the play may break down, or the children may become dissatisfied; do it too late and the latter may also take place . . .

Earlier in the week, I was supporting an older girl with her play on the go-kart, which she was using down the slope where the zipline is. I was in service of the play, pulling the kart back up the hill for her. I did contemplate whether I should just say, ‘Hey, you do it’, but the moment was what the moment was. I pulled the kart up the hill for the umpteenth time and she paused to talk with other children. I went to pull the kart up a little farther, and to turn it round for the next ride down the slope, but the girl put her hand up and told me, forcibly: ‘No. You can just sit over there now’, or words to that effect. I felt like I’d overstepped the mark. I was in the play too long, even though I felt like I was in servicing mode. Maybe I was seen as part of the play itself.

Back to the hammock swing girls: in attempting to extract myself from the play too early for the children’s satisfactions, I found myself chased and physically pulled back to the swing. A new play frame evolved, and soon enough I was deeply in the play. I found myself variously captured and re-captured, marched off to some prison that the girls were making up the existence of as they went along, and then it felt like I was bridging two play frames at once, without the two really fully merging: the boys’ war play still tumbled around with shots fired and guns and swords interchanging in their hands, even though the objects themselves were the same ones; the girls who had captured me were, I felt, softly trying to be a part of that war play too.

At one point I was sat on the tyre swing, in between capturings, and a small group of boys came up to me with cardboard daggers. One put his dagger a few inches to my throat and told me not to move. What struck me immediately was the way that he played it: he wasn’t aggressive in his play, and he was respectful of the distance between his dagger and my neck. He played out his role of the moment and so did I. The girls’ capturings of me evolved into us teaming up against the unknown enemy. At first this was us all running and hiding from one particular boy (whether he knew he was cast as the aggressor, I don’t know). We hid in the shadows of the dark evening on the playground. It felt like the girls were trying to merge into the war play, but it also felt like their play actually ran parallel to it. Then we were clearly not being chased or sought by anyone. Maybe we never had been. The play shifted into swinging on the tyres. A colleague said to me in passing: ‘Playing are we?’ or words like these, and it’s this that made me realise that I was deeply in the children’s play, at their request and need, despite having tried to extract myself from it several times.

‘You be the Buddhist,’ one of the girls had told me, or so I thought I’d heard, in the middle of the depth involvement. Children tend to cast themselves as the ‘goodie’, I find, even when their play actions suggest otherwise. Perhaps that’s some sort of social indoctrination at play: only the ‘goodies’ can win. So, on another level, it’s amusing to think of ‘the Buddhist’ being cast in lieu of ‘the Baddie’. All this is an aside. What this post points to most is the war play of the children, to the play frames that come together but don’t quite merge, to the ‘self extraction’ of the playworker from the play, or to the attempts and failures of this, for various reasons.

It’s only play, some say. Sure: if you like.

There’s only one place to start writing this week: that is that our place, White City Adventure Playground, has been officially chosen as London Play’s Adventure Playground of the Year for 2014! Many of you in the playwork sector will already know this, but some of you may not: so here’s the celebration on this platform. It’s pleasing to highlight years of development and hard work with the receipt of this award, but it’s also particularly satisfying to hear that the children of last year’s award winners, Shakespeare Walk in Hackney, chose White City as — presumably — the place they’d most like to play, out of the short-listed entries. Our film is here, and this is London Play’s edited highlights of the event.

When I write ‘our place’, of course the playground is the children’s but without the hard work and dedication of my current and former colleagues, this essential square of land in the middle of these tenement blocks could have drifted into something else entirely. The more I work on this patch, the more I see it as an important part of the lives of all the children it gives essential breathing and being space to. There are those children who drift on by and who, to be honest, drift in and out and smile and play and drift away again, but there are also those who have every other need to come in and we see the gradual build up of this as term time slides by and half terms get ever closer. To have an open access place all year round would work for so many children in the area (so, funders out there . . .), but the after school sessions as we have them are full of children’s own play too. This is an important point: I have seen many (and I mean ‘many’, across several counties and boroughs) after school provisions, and the play in a great deal of those is heavily weighed upon by adult agendas of all manner of flavours. This play is not ours: I’ve said this many times. Let the children play to their own designs.

As per last year’s London Play Awards blog piece (where we received the 2013 Innovation Award), there follows a few play notes about getting to and from and being at the ceremony. This year we took a small bunch of children, via the underground, up north of Camden to East Finchley and to a small cinema to see all the short-listed films for various awards. Despite there being a great green fence around the perimeter of the playground, some of us are of the opinion that play doesn’t stop when the line of the gate is crossed back out onto the street again: chancing our luck via King’s Cross instead of the central line, we came out into the sunshine of north London and the children fell around the street in good song and humour, parkouring (if there is such a verb!) up the paving slab inclines to the side of the street.

We thought we were fashionably late, but some were more fashionably late than us. It didn’t matter. Things seemed to be taking place in an ‘as and when’ way, and by and by our compere arrived, dressed this year in at least four costumes all one on top of the other. The man must have been full of energy drinks and other sugared stimulants because I don’t know how he managed to keep up the jumping around in various monkey, bear and other guises, under the house lights, for an hour and a half! The children in the cinema seats duly jumped around and heckled and the like, but despite this, I have my older self to blame for a nagging disdain of all things ‘wacky, zany’!

Personal preferences aside, play happened (face painting on stage, a hundred odd beach balls flung around, dancing, and generally lots of sugared up energy all round!). We were up for a few awards, and as each award went by and we hadn’t won any of them, the children near me from White City started getting a little despondent: ‘We’re not going to win anything,’ they told me (raise expectations and there are after-effects!) I said for them not to worry, we might get a shot at ‘the big one’. They asked me if we’d win it, and I said I really didn’t know. Despite all this, it pleasantly surprised me that when a soundtrack to another playground’s film came on, a song they knew and seemed to like, the children went from building despondency to instant sing-and-dance-along in their seats.

When finally the last trophy on the stage was reached, it seemed a long pause but it probably wasn’t, ‘And the winner is . . . White City Adventure Playground’. The White City children jumped up, and I said to those near me, ‘Go, go up on stage.’ There’s something to be said for being humble in receiving an award and our children were, shall we say, blessed with other attributes! We can’t tell them what to feel though, this is playwork: there was shouting into the microphone that ‘We won!’ and an acceptance speech that just made me laugh because a Hollywood starlet was born, complete with a flourish in her thanks!

I see it all as play. There were other attendees who didn’t win anything, but truly for me there looked to be some great places to play shown up there on the screen. It’s a tribute to all the playworkers out there who are doing such work with such dedication: some will be getting paid nowhere near what they deserve (but they do it anyway because they need to), some will be experiencing a rough ride with the parlous current general state of playworking affairs, they will be giving all they have (physically and emotionally) to see that the children in their areas get to play how they want and need to play. This cannot be overstated enough. I think there should be a campaign (I start it now) aimed at the non-playworker-but-sympathiser: if you ever ask a stranger at the bar what they do and they say ‘I’m a playworker’, buy them a pint! You never know, they just might be giving their all to support your child to play.

I digress. After the ceremony at the cinema, the children were interviewed for press releases, and we must have made the photographer wait an age as the children chatted around in the lobby, ate their lunch, and just soaked it all up. They played on the underground train back via King’s Cross (hanging from the handrails, plastic spiders, beach ball headers and catches in the carriage), and when we came out into the west London sunshine, the children concocted a plan to try to ‘look sad’ to our colleagues who were working with the day’s open access children on the playground. We entered the gates and the children managed to keep up the pretence for a good thirty seconds or so!

It was beautiful on the playground, there’s no other way of describing it. It was calm and flowing, quietly hectic and bubbling away, everything was possible and full of light and warmth. The sun makes such a difference in late October. The children we took on the journey to north London blended into the general playground scene to play. It took me a while to re-acclimatise after the bustle of the city: here, I thought, is an enclave of play amongst the tenements; here is privilege.

In celebrating White City’s award, I also celebrate the dedication of my playworker colleagues, in all the places where they work ‘out there’ so that children can play in the way that they want and need to: keep on doing what you do and know that you are appreciated.

In 2010 I delivered a two-day basic playwork block of training, and what I remember most of those sessions will always be the comments made by one attendee towards the end of the second day. He was extremely angry and struggled to keep it in check as he told me, in no uncertain terms, how he saw what I was teaching to be some maladjusted misinformed ‘1970s liberalism’. His vehement opinion really knocked me back. I defended myself at the time by saying that I didn’t write the stuff I was teaching (despite believing in it), that it was developed from those respected playwork writers who’d already put their observations, reflections and theories down on paper, but it was to little avail. The ‘liberal accusation’ is an on-going accusation, I find.

That is to say, the more I learn about my observations of children at play, my re-readings of older texts and readings of new texts, my conversations and correspondences with other playwork-minded people, and how all of this allows for more nuanced understandings of my own and others’ practices, offering other lenses to see through, the more I recognise the ‘liberal accusation’. Towards one end of the ignorance spectrum (ignorance is bliss, perhaps?) is the only slightly annoying but still somewhat pervading commentary that is, ‘So, you play with children; how hard can it be?’ Towards the other end of the spectrum are comments such as, ‘You can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: there will be anarchy’, and ‘Children need discipline, order, direction’, or comments from people who say they’re playworkers, and the like, along the lines of getting the whole playwork thing but that, now then, back in the real world . . . (add in any given adult construct of whatever the opposite of ‘just playing around’ can be seen as).

We’re not just playing around in playwork. This is serious stuff. Children play, and their play is also serious stuff. Sure, play can be funny, ridiculous, cute and fluffy, but play also includes the urgent need to destroy, the fervent need to win, the desperate need to be included, the subtle need to just be near this adult in this ‘just right now’ for just a few moments, the sometimes almost imperceptible need to be heard and taken seriously: all of this and an infinite arrangement of other needs too. When I hear the ‘liberal accusation’ come my way, in light of all of the above and everything else I’ve not got the space to write out here, I can’t help the virtual soapbox from coming up out of the ground beneath me and, before I’ve had enough time to think the situation through, there I am, quietly indignant and letting others know it.

The attendee at the 2010 training sessions who shot his ‘1970s liberalism’ accusation at me, if I remember correctly, also went on to extend his thinking (which had, no doubt, been brewing for most of the two days in that room with me and his learner colleagues): his view was along the lines of how you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want because there’ll be ‘anarchy’. ‘Anarchy’ has got a bad press in the minds of ‘liberal accusers’. The word is often used as a general catch-all that represents the comprehensive meltdown of society as we know it, and the meltdown of the micro-societies of children’s adult-led ‘play settings’ (or, as one girl of about ten, who I used to know, once told me of the after school club she attended, and where I then worked, ‘I don’t want to go the children’s farm today’).

There’s plenty to be diverted by in that last paragraph, plenty to be ‘unpacked’: perhaps there’s material for future writing here but, for now, suffice is to say that I’m starting to understand some playwork colleagues’ indifference for the term ‘play setting’. It does rather conjure up the image of something somewhat lifeless, sterile, in the process of fossilising, setting . . . I’m more interested in the idea of ‘place’. Sure, we do have these things we call ‘compensatory spaces for play’, i.e. the bits inside the fence where play is given the opportunity to be; we may work in these as playworkers, but the place is greater than the space because, amongst other things, there is the playwork mindset at work.

Back to my anarchy-fearing anti-liberalist, and his kindred spirits, and his view that you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: the simple response is often just ‘Why?’ Of course, this will be a red flag to a bull, more often than not, and can be used with mischievous intent. However, the question is valid, I think. That is, why can’t children make decisions about what they want to do, and how they do it, and why they want to do it the way that they choose? Is it valid to say that you, an adult, should not be allowed to make decisions about whether to go to the café or the pub or stay at home, whether to go by bus or cycle, or to decide that you need to go to a gig because you’re feeling a certain way? You’re not stupid: you can make your own choices. Children aren’t stupid either: adults tend to treat them as if they are though.

Now, it is fair to say that sometimes children may not perceive the hazards inherent in a situation (but let’s face it, there are plenty of adults who don’t see hazards either: I’m currently of the opinion that if I’m walking down a street and a fellow adult is engaged in phone-zombie mode, eyes on the screen in their hand, head down, ears blocked up with whatever their musical thing is that’s pouring through their earphones, then I’ll just walk-aim for them; call it mischievous intent, call it play!) Back to the children and their occasional inability to see the hazard because (just like the phone-zombie) they’re so into their play: I have been known to point out the hazard if the child hasn’t seen it, or to ask children to remove themselves from an area. Is this adult control? Last week, when a girl was just so hyped up around the fire pit, not noticing that (in my opinion) her play was a potential hazard to the other children around her as well as to herself, I asked her to leave for a while. The children will put plenty of cardboard on the fire because it’s instant gratification, which wood alone can’t give, and because they actively seek out the ‘biggest fire ever’, but they don’t sometimes see the way the fire comes close to their trousers as they jostle for ‘king or queen of the fire’ status. I continue to reflect, a few days on, about whether I did the right thing by her (she refused to leave the fire pit area because, I suspect, she was embarrassed, put out, angry at me, I’d disrupted her play). We settled into a compromise.

This is not a ‘liberal, anarchic, anything goes and hang the idea of danger, let them get on with it’ approach. Apparently, as was told to myself and a colleague by another colleague, a passer-by outside the playground took offence at the fire pit as was seen by peering through the fence: the inference being, as I read it, that children and fire do not, should not, mix and that it’s all very, very wrong. It’s all far too slack and liberal. Children should be given discipline, order, direction, not left to their own devices in obviously unsafe, anything goes havens of anarchic meltdown . . .

In places of play, where play can actually happen, skilled playworkers know when to stay out of things, when to keep a careful eye on the constantly shifting play, when to observe closely from afar or almost imperceptibly from close by; they know that they’re repeating cycles of dynamic risk assessments in their heads, they can sometimes anticipate the play before it’s happened because they know this play frame from other occurrences, they know these children on this playground, they’ve seen the affects of this weather, this play resource, this dynamic of children, or they can make a near-as-makes-no-odds assessment of combined factors of experience in new situations; they can read the stories unfolding, they can hold up their hands if they get it wrong (because that’s what happens in the continual cycle of learning and understanding: we misinterpret sometimes, we realise that we could have been ten seconds sharper, we see that one thing we said or did led to other things that might not have happened otherwise) . . . all of this and more.

I often say to playwork learners that if, by the end of a session, you’re not mentally worn out (and sometimes physically exhausted too), then maybe you’re not doing it right. Being a playworker doesn’t mean that this ‘1970s liberalism’, anything goes slack culture, as I read the accusation, is the norm — being a playworker doesn’t mean that we don’t take children’s physical safety, or safeguarding of welfare, or stances on bullying and the like lightly; the ‘liberal accusation’ cannot, or will not, see the nuances of all that is observed, felt, intuited, there and then considered, in-the-moment referenced from the playwork literature, experienced, reflected upon, that the on-going deliberation and action that the practice of playwork is. Just as children’s play is serious, so is playwork.

Relating to meaning

It’s a bright autumn day on the playground: there are twenty or so children spread around, but it feels like even fewer because they’re spread out: there are a handful of children poking around at the fire pit; some are at the tree swing, attempting to climb up to it, then getting stuck; some are pushing the shopping trolley we found around the platforms, over the woodchips and down any slope they can find; some children are hoarding a pile of pans and cushions, old money collection pots, and a well-used A-frame board up in the hill-house; some children are hanging out beyond the tyre wall, talking out of earshot about whatever children talk about out of earshot of adults. I’m sitting on the bench looking out on all of the above, over the shoulder of a ten year old I’m sat there with as she does her homework with the pages flapping about in the breeze.

I am required here. That is, I’ve been asked to ‘help’ but really, I think, this child knows well enough how to do what her teacher’s asked her to do. I tell her I’m not a children’s teacher, and she knows. She just shrugs. It seems, in a way, that even though this is school homework, and even though we’re not a ‘sit down and do your school homework organised club’, this has an element of play about it too. I, this adult, me this week, am required. I ask her how she’s been taught to do fractions at school, i.e. I’m not looking to teach, I’m looking to respond to whatever’s needed of me. I get another shrug and a line along the lines of ‘I haven’t’. I’m not sure that’s true, but you never know. ‘How are you supposed to be able to convert this fraction to decimals then?’ I ask. It doesn’t seem to be that important.

A little later, as I keep a periphery eye on the comings and goings of other playing children over her shoulder still, I’m asked to do the spellings thing: same as last week — give the word from the list, turn the page down, she writes it. The breeze is playing havoc with the system so we go inside where a handful of children are jumping on the old red sofa, from on top of the chest of drawers, or poking around in the art store cupboard. We settle down for spellings. I read, as asked, then walk off for a minute or so to multi-task. It seems to work, though I remember from the previous week that she’s got a system which we both know is kind of rote learning. I tell her this. She’s smart enough to know what I see and what she’s doing.

This week she has to put the given words into a sentence, in correct context. She insists on trying to form sentences with the given word at the start of every line. It doesn’t work so well the way she wants to do it but she keeps on trying, and I figure that she’s being as obstinate as she can: she knows full well what these words mean and their context. She tells me that she’s using other longer words too to make it interesting for her teacher, or words to this effect. She strikes out sentences we both laugh at and she writes a new one. It is in this, I feel, amongst other strategies within it all, that I have a sense of ‘being required’. She’s in need of this person’s time and most of his focus. Even when I wander off, she seems to know I’ll come back, as promised.

She gets bored of homework and wanders off outside again. She says for me to push her on the zipline. OK, I say. I don’t feel any great waves of ‘neediness’ coming from her, of over-reliance on the adult. We continue to laugh and joke at the zipline for a while and I tell her (because I then think I should spend time elsewhere soon) that I’ll give her one more push and then I’ll leave her to it. She says ‘OK, fine’ but that I should have a push too. So this happens and, as I’m setting off down the line without the ability to jump off, she wanders off and leaves me be, smiling and laughing to herself. This week it has been me; other weeks it will be other colleagues.

Not only is there meaning, representation, in play but there is meaning in relationship. This child relates to this playworker in the moment and/or over time. I feel extremely privileged when I think of my playwork interactions in this way. I’m on maybe thirty journeys at once with these maybe thirty children (which represents the term-time children I know at the playground), and that’s not yet to mention the ‘x’ amount more journeys engaged in, of different stages, with the children who come to school holiday-time open access, and the children I’ve also met here who I see out and around the area, outside the fence, who may also be part of other groups to use the building we’re based in.

Part of all the journeys is honesty. If the children ask why a colleague is grumpy one day, I’ll tell them as much of the truth as I’m able to; if I’m tired or frustrated or over-stretched, and it starts to impact on the children and their play, I’ll tell them what’s wrong if I can, and I’ll apologise if I’ve wronged them in their play; if I can’t play ‘Family Had’ (or ‘Hadder’ as it’s morphed into in some quarters!), I’ll say why — that wood is slippery today, I really can’t run today, I will if you find others but let me do this first. If I can’t join in when I’m required, I get grumbled at, but I’m being honest so I feel no playwork guilt. I see my responses as being part of the on-going journey of this child and this playworker.

Sometimes my journey renders me invisible. That is to say, I can often find myself close in to the play (like at the tyre swings circle where a handful of children are jumping around in the spare tyres on the floor, or like at the football table — me in the kitchen, just listening in a few yards away — one child swearing at another with a laugh, the other child laugh-swearing back) . . . I’m close in and no child seems concerned by my presence. I take it as a form of ‘this adult is accepted’. This often doesn’t happen overnight. One journey currently involves a younger child who I’m just now getting eye contact and laughs from after a few weeks. Already her journey of relating to some colleagues is more advanced than her journey with me. It is the way it is. I’m on my way to the potential for invisibility with her.

Being required may take the form of dedicated adult attention, or it may be the requirement of invisibility, both built in trust and moments of play over time/s; or it may be anything in between. The ability to accept the play of the child, and the child themselves, must be an integral part of this process of adult development, and maybe this ‘adult fine tuning’ is also part of the reason why some children can just ‘get’ some adults they’ve only just met. The children know. Suffice is to say, for now, that there is meaning not only in play, but in the choice of interaction of children towards adults.

Some days when with, or around, children at play, I find myself taken back to basics. That is, through the interaction or the observation I remind myself about what play is or what it could be. Last week, on the playground I found myself in the presence of a child’s sheer determination to achieve what she’d set out to do, her ability to perfectly well risk manage her own play, and the coming together of a small collection of ‘ingredients’ to enable her to problem solve in her play.

In the last hour or so of the after school session, one of the older girls was talking with me and she shoved her new thick winter gloves into my coat pocket. It was an action of trust, as I saw it, but also of continued connection. She decided she wanted to climb the tree at the top of the bank where I’d been standing because, perhaps, a couple of other children had been jumping around in the lower base branches of it. Ordinarily, I think, I’d have been more OK with this because I like to think I get the idea that children’s play often includes some experimentation, risk taking, and exploration at height. On this occasion, however, I had a little concern because the tree may not be in the best shape for climbing. I also had to factor in whether the child in question was a good tree climber or not. I didn’t know, but in retrospect should have known because I have seen her climbing around and balancing on other structures with ease.

Up she climbed and I watched as the branches gave a little under her weight. It made me wonder what it was like up there for her. Even so, after a while, I suggested that maybe she ought to come down now, though I shouldn’t have done: it was, at this stage, more about my own comfort levels than hers. She was more than capable of climbing. She placed her feet carefully on each branch before testing its bend or rigidity, and she moved on up. Then, it transpired, she spotted the basketball stuck high up in the furthest branches. It wasn’t clear what was happening to start with, but I soon realised, as she talked with me, that she was reaching up for an already broken-off thin long branch to use as a prodder. She couldn’t turn it around up there, so she passed it to me and asked that I hand it back to her the other way up.

She took the prodding branch from me and edged her way up and outwards more. She stretched the branch up to try to reach the basketball, but she was still some way short of it. ‘Can you see it?’ she asked. I said that I could. I moved away from the base of the tree, and I realised that I was much more comfortable with the play now because I’d observed for time enough to see the way she could move. We talked together about the ball, the branches she was standing on or wanting to stand on, the possibility of shaking certain branches by hand, how far off the ball she was from my perspective down below. She took my suggestions on board, tried out the ones I guess she thought might be useful, carefully moved her feet to other branches.

At one point she put a foot on one branch that really did look like it wanted to splay out sideways on her contact. I wasn’t sure she appreciated this. I said that her left foot looked unstable up there to me. She tested her weight, and moved her foot to another branch. Although I wasn’t so worried about her by this time, I did wonder what I might, or could, do if she fell. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to catch her or how many branches she’d bounce off, if any, on the way down! The experiment exploration lasted for a good twenty minutes or so. I kept my periphery eye on the rest of the playground, though most of the other children were elsewhere, and I knew a colleague had a distant eye on the tree too, but mostly I was focused on the child in her determination to reach the basketball.

Eventually she got close enough with the four- or five-foot long prodding branch to touch the ball. It didn’t shift. She tried out all manner of ways to knock it down: pushing hard, short prods, moving the branches underneath. She didn’t show frustration, just bloody-minded determination! Then the ball moved, but it got stuck a little further down. She adjusted her position and kept trying. Eventually, the basketball fell and bounced down the hill to land at the palette wall of the fire pit. The child shouted her triumph. She carefully climbed down towards me and passed me the branch, saying for me to ‘look after this: it’s my lucky stick!’

When she came down, and when I passed her back the lucky stick, I asked her if she wanted the ball. It had become almost an after-thought in her mind, or so it seemed. She asked where it had gone, but it didn’t seem to be that important. It was the act, the problem solving, that was the reward in itself. She ran in to tell others what had happened. Later, I saw her lucky stick laid on the table tennis table, as if in a museum (though her mum really didn’t fancy taking it home when she came to collect!). I wanted to tell her the story, but another time.

There are three main things I draw from all of this: the first is the immediate thinking/reminder to self, there and then, about the playwork world’s concept of compound flexibility being in operation (i.e., in short, the flexibility of variables or ‘ingredients’, as termed above, of an environment — things can be used in various ways — supports experimentation in play, leading to self-confidence and self-awareness, leading to greater ability to problem solve, leading to more flexible play environments, and so on); the second thing to consider, back to basics, is that children’s play is or could be this experimentation, exploration, self risk management (play is this, rather than what we think it should be); thirdly, and similarly back to basics, we can trust those children because they know perfectly well what their play is about.

Something strange happens to time when you’re hyper-focused: it doesn’t reel out in quite the same way as the norm. ‘Time’ seems to be one of those themes in this writer’s writing: something that recurs. Here, I’m thinking about the time in a talk-discussion given/entered into, and I’m thinking about what I’ve previously called ‘playground time’. Firstly, and again, thank you to Lauren at the South London Gallery (SLG) for inviting me to explore (an indulgence for me) on many of the lines of my current thinking, this past week via the monthly Play Local talks. I’ve still yet to process everything that was said, and that wasn’t said, that evening, but it’ll come.

The kick-start for this particular piece of writing here is a story I told at the SLG talk. I told the tale of Beowulf, or my own oratory version of it, but it was told at length, or so it seemed. Perhaps it did go on for a while, but when I checked in with the clock soon after, nothing of the time I’d thought had passed had actually passed. It’s the same, or similar, often on the playground. When the children are playing, when all is as fine as it is and can be in that moment, when I check in on the clock just to see out of curiosity, time has a habit of being strange. This is kind of the opposite of ‘time flies when you’re having fun’.

Last week the sun was shining again. We have been spoilt these past weeks after summer has bled into the start of the new term. It’s had its positive affects on the children, or so it seems. I remember standing in the middle of the playground, as the play has happened, sometimes slowly, sometimes in bursts of action, sometimes ponderously, and I remember this on several occasions, and I thought how ‘very now’ it all was. This isn’t the phrase my ‘in the moment’ thinking took, exactly (I don’t even think there were words at all, as such), but there was the sentiment of ‘very now-ness’. This is both something I’ve written about before, here, and something I thought about maybe bringing up at the SLG talk, though I didn’t because it wasn’t the discussion that was forming.

Here’s what I wrote in my SLG notes, taken from the former blog post, but redefined in more visual form:

About the Very Now

So, here I am revisiting the ‘very now’. When I stand in the middle of the playground and I see the children scatter, on coming in from school, like (in my current writing simile, though not in the thinking of the then as it was) they’re pieces of paper released, I feel the ‘very now’ but without the words to describe it as such; I feel it when I see the children wandering around tucking into fat ‘fish finger and ketchup’ sandwiches, or when I see them engrossed in experiments of squeezing the end of the hose pipe to see which way the water goes, and how far, in the hazy sunlight; I feel the ‘very now’ when I watch the intense concentration of one boy, one day, as he carefully dissects an old computer with a screwdriver, peering into its innards from close quarters as if inspecting the very essence of its life-force itself.

I don’t know what time’s doing in the heads of the playing children; what time does in me is something strange though. Nothing at all else matters. If I’m in a story, as I was when I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying or was about to say next when telling Beowulf, or if I’m observing the play that is happening and not thinking about the play that was or will be, there is no time. This isn’t to say that in these moments I’m not thinking: far from it, but I don’t have the words still or perhaps ever.

I’m reminded of something else said at the SLG talk: I was told, from the perspective of one seer there, that once you start trying to define this thing we’re calling magic, it loses its magic, or it isn’t there. She pushed away a tea cup! It’s like this. When I’m on the playground, and if I try to define what this ‘very now-ness’ is, as it is, there, it may cease to be. So, I try now with words to describe what I shouldn’t be trying to describe, because then, what I’m trying to describe gets lost.

Perhaps this is a particular problem of ‘those who see play’: ‘those who never will see play’ can’t be swayed because there are no words succinct enough. Yet, we try. Perhaps what we should do instead is smile benevolently (though some will no doubt see this as patronisingly) and not say anything at all. That’s difficult when you believe in something so strongly. Perhaps we should show this ‘seeing play’ by sitting and ‘just seeing play’. Others might follow suit, you never know. When you bother to look you just might see.

I had thought about telling another story at SLG, but never did. It was a brief version of Ernest Scott’s telling of Baba Ram Dass (formerly Dr Richard Alpert) when he trekked into the Himalayas to meet the guru sitting in the field. Scott writes that Alpert, as he then was, wanted to know what the whole deal was about LSD and that he thought the guru would know. The guru, an old man who’d never experienced such narcotics before, apparently, took several times the ‘starter’ dose, and Alpert waited anxiously for the inevitability of the after-effects. Nothing happened. The guru didn’t need the drugs: he was already there. So the story goes. You can connect your own dots . . .

When I’m hyper-focused on the play, or in the discussions, or in the thinking, or in the moment of the moment that is, there is no time. There is only ‘very now’. Stories help to fill in the edges of what we can’t fully describe, but ultimately what we feel, in the moment, should be acknowledged. All stories are true: they become things in themselves; moments, though, are tea cups that can disappear.

I have spent these past weeks immersed in magic (whatever that should mean). It is a process of trying to understand, or to see. What this is, what we’re in, could be impossible to describe; though what we cannot always see to say, as such, we can feel. Words pile up on words: in the reading, in the notes, in observations of play. There are only so many words a brain can hold though. In the unfinished ending that this continuing process is, what it can only come down to, I suppose, is ‘connect’. I need words to try to explain the insufficiency of words . . .

‘Magic’ is a word that’s bandied around without care. This is not a post about the common or garden (or even skilled) stage illusionist or street performer: this post encompasses much other. In trying to explain what words are so far from really being able to do, I’m re-realising about the other ways we could use words. In order to be able to subvert a form, we must first understand the structures of that form. Now, and only now, can we do such as leave out words, a forming of gaps to fall into; subtly twist syntax; mix and merge the language we’ve grown up all our lives with. New meanings start to emerge between. It is rare: only those who get this get this. Magic is of the in-between.

Out there, in the world, in there, out of the world, is a depth level of magic to connect to, with, within. Last week, as the long shadows of a late September afternoon began to spread over the playground, the sun shining in, the children laughing and running in complexities of chase-tap, I caught the slightest, lightest look from one girl, who smiled and tilted her head as if to say, ‘Yes, I get you, your actions, everything of your right here and now-ness.’ Of course, I’ll never know what she actually thought, there, then, because she probably doesn’t know herself, now, but . . . here is the difficulty of words . . . what is was, was what it was. Or, what it was, was what it was. You decide. That moment was of magic (noun), a magic moment (adjective), a performance of magic consciousness shift in me (verb).

When we connect, there is no sleight of hand. Everything of everything is open. I think I’ve always believed that many children can read the open words of adults, who necessarily roam their dedicated places for play and, by extension, those of those adults out there in the fence-less streets too. I say it this way because I haven’t felt otherwise, though my ways of seeing and feeling have become more refined. Children can read us, and we can connect with this reading. I called this ‘play connectivity’, some while ago, but really, what the words are aren’t what connectivity is.

Last week, also, I came onto the playground early on in the session and there were children already there before me. Down from somewhere up the slope behind the tyre wall and around the corner came a child whose light we all seem to see. She bounded into my path and announced herself — if not with an outright ‘ta-da!’, it might as well have been! There was a flourish and a conversation, just of the ordinary details of an ordinary day at school, where the teacher, it seems, was having her usual bad day: such was the interpretation of a child who saw it fit and fine to just say, to me, because . . . because, I like to think and feel, this wasn’t a usual child-adult/adult-child communication. ‘You will tell us if we annoy you in any way, won’t you?’ I said. ‘What, anything?’; ‘Anything’. She smiled. ‘Sure.’

Many of us have had these sorts of interactions, despite their unusualness. To be fair, some teachers may get them too. What’s underneath, or within, or slightly hidden from and in it all, beneath/within the honesty, the openness, the privilege, is the magic field. This is the place where time and times converge, where there is ‘connectivity’, or the possibility of it, if we can see and feel where we are.

We may feel unconnected with our day-to-days of day-to-days: we all do; it happens. Yet: becoming/being open to the possibility of all that might be in the world is a start. Earlier, at the time of writing, after being occupied in what I perceive as the unmagic veneer I sometimes gloss along, I took a walk and there, in the late afternoon early evening haze was all that I’d not connected to, that earlier, at and in the screen. I write in notebooks to feel the page at my fingers; I walk to feel the page of the world.

The playground is an abundance of pages. None of them can be written, truly. Being there, being on the playground, is a unique experience, no matter how many times we do it. Each uniqueness is impossible to capture, really. We represent what we see with stories, but what we tell is not what it is, in the moment. The pages are in us, but we must learn to read. Reading is a magic gift, a gift of magic. If seeing is believing, believing is only possible by immersion in the moment. There, last week too (this being just a representation of a moment), I read a moment as a magic one: I met two three-year-olds, for the first time, who were unsure of me, but later, soon, after spending honest time with them, I met them again and they were as ready to tell me life stories if they wanted to. It is privilege, this ‘gettingness’, this ‘being seen’. The art is in the knowing, in the appreciating: reading is a magic gift.

What we may appreciate are levels other than the usual veneer or sheen. Sure, children can trust and love, even or especially, us who aren’t family, but what we might see beneath, behind, within this, they do too, and neither we nor they have words for this. Words are insufficient here. We have to be in it all: moment, magic field, there not here.

This week I have been acutely aware, in appreciation, of being in these children’s territory. That is, not only the place/space of the fenced-in playground but the streets around: there, that is theirs not mine. I come home, a long way home, by train, and this is my hometown. There, everything of their childhoods forms: layers upon layers of times. I feel like I should walk carefully through it. It is an appreciation of other depths, I think.

Immersed in magic, in a magic field, depth arrangement, it’s perhaps impossible to think in other ways. Words are insufficient, inadequate: after all, how exactly can we describe the way the sun shines in? We can only represent, use language in devious ways, tell our stories and hope someone, somewhere, connects.

A slightly unusual post this week, insofar as it’s mostly a screenshot of a heads up for an upcoming adventure! At the start of October I shall be discussing on several current strands of thinking at the South London Gallery (SLG) in Peckham. Play is central to the story that I trust will evolve, of course, but there are all manner of lines of enquiry so far. Here’s the screenshot below, but to access the links highlighted in it you’ll obviously need to go to the SLG Play Local site. Thanks to Lauren Willis at SLG for the invite, and also for showing me round the Peckham estate and Shop of Possibilities there the other week.
Play Local SLG (Oct 1, 2014)

Immediately after attempting to explain whether mermaids exist or not to an inquisitive five year old, I knew this would be something I’d be writing about. Princess K. and I were watching cartoons: she was engrossed in the fish-story that was unfolding on the screen before asking, mid-way through, ‘Are mermaids real?’ I thought about what it was I should say. Mermaids were real enough to her. How to explain myth here? So I asked a question back: ‘Do you want the real answer or something made up?’; ‘The real answer,’ she said, straight away, and without taking her eyes off the screen.

Thinking about it, I don’t know if my answer was any more couched in ‘the real’ than any other answer, but what I told her was this: mermaids don’t exist (probably!), and that there were stories invented by people who saw things they couldn’t fully understand (this being, pretty much, a verbatim account). Princess K. didn’t seem at all concerned by this, and we carried on watching the cartoon mermaids together.

What is true — that is, what I have always known — is that stories are important. In our developing worldview (individually and collectively), that which we may not necessarily be able to see or ‘prove’, but that which we can intuitively feel, is wrapped up in the myth-narrative. We structure what we perceive, but what we cannot get across in other ways, with stories. The oral history of our species has been forming for generations. If we stop telling stories to structure the things we feel and perceive, but which we have no other frames for, then we stop connecting to the world we’re a part of.

This isn’t all a way of saying I believe in mermaids! I don’t, but I do believe in the power of stories. When I look out on the playground, I see the play that is happening, of course, but I see stories forming too. I see the stories that are, and the stories that have been, and sometimes I feel the stories that might be. When I walk around the empty playground, I feel the formation of myth. That is, if myth is the story-structure of the things that we can only perceive, rather than ‘see’ or ‘explain’, then myth-stories are everywhere on the playground. This is also true of the streets we walk on, the buildings we frequent, and the in-between-nesses too. I don’t want to write ‘spaces’ because I’m very much thinking of ‘places’ right now. In every place that play happens, or has happened, or will happen, is a story.

I have a million stories of play (and that is a story in itself because I don’t know how many stories of play I have exactly). All my stories of play, all my observations of it and all my involvement in it, if this has happened, are potentially present in a place I walk around. My perception is that everything I have seen and sensed and felt here, in any given part of the playground, is there for the engaging with, all in the now. This is more than just saying ‘I remember this or that’; this is a perception I can’t fully ‘prove’ or ‘explain’, so I structure the perception with the formation of this myth-narrative:

I have a million stories of play that come alive when I look on a place of play. They start to overlap each other. I wonder if some might influence others. I conduct an invocation, a ‘calling in’, of the stories of play that have happened here, into the fabric of where I stand. They appear. Truthfully, I have to be ‘there’ to do it properly, but I can tell the story of the story here (just as a ‘map’ is a representation of a ‘territory’ and not the territory itself, this here is a representation of an invocation in situ): I fiercely protect the old ramshackle ‘den’ at the back of the playground (though the last time I saw it, last week, it was more derelict than before). It is a place with many names, from many times, with many additions of wood and other components, with many deconstructions, layers of paint, objects within and ghosts of objects, and the ghosts of play that have been. One day it’ll fall, if it hasn’t already. I protect it because of its changes. I protect it because it is the ever-formation of place. When I look there, when I’m there, I start to see the layers of play forming of their own accord. This is the myth-narrative I use, in the here and now, to structure-explain what I perceive but what I can’t fully convey.

Stories are important in keeping alive the things we can’t fully explain, but which we feel or sense or perceive. We can ‘know’ something without being able to tell it. Aside from the science or theory on the importance of play, plenty of which I’ve read and absorbed and considered and analysed, I ‘know’ that the play I see and perceive is uniquely of the now that it forms and that forms it; I ‘know’ that there is a ‘gettingness’, sometimes, between playworker and child; I ‘know’ that where play is, there is līlā, the play of the divine, but that this is not the divinity we simply, and mythically, draw as ‘God’.

The story of ‘Are mermaids real?’ is a story of play, but it’s also a story of a story. Mermaids don’t exist (probably!), I said — I like to think I inserted that clause with a pause just wistful enough: leaving the door open, consciously, so as not to squash the possibility that the subject of the story could be real. Stories, I also said, were (deliberately past tense) invented by people who saw things they couldn’t fully understand. Perhaps, then, as I analyse my story of a story told of stories, the past tense inventions are less likely to apply now: stories are now less frequently told about the things people don’t understand (we, the adults, may be in danger of losing the myth-narratives of our oral histories, in time).

That said, maybe the possibility of mermaids is still true enough for a five year old, this five year old, and I ‘know’ that children, in general, have myth-narrative stories at heart. We should listen more.


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