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

Five weeks of playwork on the playground has come to an end, and it’s taken its physical and emotional toll (even not having worked every single day of it, as I haven’t). Between us we’ve lumped around crash mats and other large equipment, put up and taken down swings and tarpaulins and suchlike, mixed up buckets of paint and gloop and slime; we’ve dealt with the sun and rain, with mad-hectic children buzzing off the play, and with ebbing and flowing gangs and all the psychological difficulties that this has brought to various people on-site; we’ve seen lots of weird and wonderful play, and we’ve drunk a few beers afterwards!

In no particular order, and with no direct reference to which is which, here’s a sampling of things I’ve learned this summer and things I remembered to re-learn about this hectic, challenging, stimulating, exhausting thing we call playwork and about the play that has been . . .
 
When teams work
When the team is in a flow, when its members have worked with each other long enough (whatever that length of time may be — for some weeks, or with those who slot right in, for some hours), amazing things can happen. Honesty with one another is key. Don’t take things personally. Trust the instincts and abilities of one another. Check that others are OK, because they will have down times; make sure you say what you have to say if it needs saying and not because it makes you feel appeased. If it can wait, it can wait. There is time for everything. Watch the flow when it’s in operation and appreciate it. Communicate. Apologise for cock-ups. Make the tea!
 
Ingredients for play
Of course play sessions can take place without conventional ‘toys’. The children used no board games, or plastic manufactured single-use things, as far as I saw, all summer (unless you count loom bands here). Of course there were loom bands, because loom bands are everywhere, but I don’t recall a single football game or organised sports-type play. In fact, the only use of balls I saw were the occasional bouncing of a basketball; or delivery of a basketball to the net whilst shooting from inside the speeding wheelbarrow on a fly-by; the football taped to the rope inside the tyre circle; the tennis ball bound to the makeshift swingball set-up (upturned old bin); or a small ball or three being lobbed at playground visitors in a way of saying, perhaps, ‘Oi, this is our playground!’

Five weeks of play can happen perfectly easily with access to the fire pit, crash mats to jump onto from height or wrestle on, the trampoline to use as a mechanism to flip or bundle from, trays and buckets of slime, a wheelbarrow, a bag or nine of water balloons, some drills and saws, the old drum kit, and plenty of bits and bobs in the style of loose parts. An essential ingredient, of course, is playworker understanding/acceptance that this thing they see, this thing the children use the way they choose to use it, is play.
 
Play that happens in slow motion
Some play happens in slow motion. That is to say, the on-looking playwork team members are, one minute, talking with each other, catching the flow of the play that’s happening or forming, anticipating what will happen next, or just not quite at that point yet; play happens and the playworkers see it, feel it, can’t move quick enough for what’s taking shape, or just end up scratching their heads and laughing because what they’ve seen has happened, gone by, all done and moved on . . .

One older boy pushed his younger brother up onto the platforms in the wheelbarrow. All fine and good. We watched on from a short distance away, down at ground level. The older boy stood at the top of the wide slide with his brother in the wheelbarrow. He isn’t . . . ? I thought. The look on colleagues’ faces suggested they shared my thoughts. He isn’t . . . he did. The younger brother didn’t look too concerned by the prospect. The older brother shoved him and the wheelbarrow down. He landed fine, sliding to a halt before we could react. Expect the unexpected.

Another day, later in the summer, we watched the playground background as a boy was engaged with an old metal barbecue frame he’d found. He dragged it around for a while. He dragged it up the slope. I watched him try to haul it up over the wooden platform’s edge. I was passing by. I looked over the edge to the ground. ‘Watch out there’s no-one coming,’ I said. He nodded. The barbecue went over the edge. I looked down and shrugged as it bounced off the woodchips. ‘Uh-huh,’ I said. ‘That did it.’ He looked over the edge too. ‘Uh-huh,’ he said. Always expect the unexpected. Later, I saw him bashing the life out of the poor thing with a rubber mallet.
 
For what we are about to receive
Being sharp to ‘what we are about to receive’, even when running on sugar fumes at the end of a day at the end of summer, is essential. On one such day I was observing from up on the platforms (a place some of us have taken to, to stay out of the way, but which feels a little aloof sometimes too because it has the feel of a castle ramparts). I was up there because I’d been running around on (yet) another mad-futile attempt at catching the older free-runner boys in their daily play that’s called, locally, ‘Family Had’. It’s ‘tag’ or ‘it’, but with a particular set of words you have to say if you catch a runner, or the catch is invalidated, apparently. It’s almost impossible to catch a free-runner who’s younger, faster, ridiculously fearless as he jumps off high platforms sideways without looking (but then, the point of the play, I suspect, is just the chase!)

I stood up on the castle ramparts on the top of the tyre climbing wall for a few minutes, taking a breather, when I saw tension brewing by the gate some distance away. Anticipation is key. I got down the tyre wall and across to the gate area just as an older girl emerged from the storage container with a full bucket of red powder paint that was, quite obviously, going over the head of one of the boys I thought had been teasing her (‘for what he was about to receive’). I gently made contact with the bucket and relieved her of it, surprised that she let go so easily, in what felt like almost a dance movement pirouette. When I returned to the scene after setting the bucket back down in the container, not quite sure of what might be happening out there, there was a commotion that resulted in her chasing a pack of boys down the street with a bread crate! There’s being sharper, and there’s being even sharper!
 
More ingredients for play
Before any such venture into summer schemes with children, buy lots of cornflour (because it’s not just early years age children who seem to get a lot out of ‘gloop’ play), and plenty of ready-made pink paint; accept that red paint and cornflour gloop work well to make ‘blood’ and internal organs, and that black paint and gloop makes zombified hands, and, well just proper mess; heated wax finger dunkings go down well, as do mod-roc ‘plaster cast’ arms; cakes are often good for the making, especially if leaving the children to make their own icing (it’ll be blue, and very slimy, and taste somewhat eggy!); children don’t mind eating blue things (iced cakes; or those big old rock-hard things we used to call gobstoppers, but which they have a different name for; or they’ll eat sticks of blue things that look suspiciously like roll-on under-arm deodorants!); if you have a secret stash of water balloons, do not accidentally reveal where you keep them (you won’t have any left and once the secret’s out, there’s no going back!)
 
Sacrificial offerings
Some children spent practically all day, every day, even the rainy days, creating and nurturing the fires that they’d made. Old sofas were sacrificed along with palettes smashed up with sledgehammers, all the old wood lying around, some perfectly serviceable wooden blocks that were sitting quietly in the storage container minding their own business, someone’s old vest (found and ruthlessly burned!), and attempted burnings of aerosol cans. ‘Why can’t we put them on the fire?’ was the protest when we found them. ‘Umm. Really? You need to be told?’ were various responses. So the same children attempted to burn foam they’d found, with the same playworker reaction, and as if the world was out of all the wood it once ever had, on one occasion a swift intervention at the sight of a few puffs of black smoke revealed that the innards of a small cushion were being put to the flames. By and large, the children knew about the fire and were respectful of it; they needed more and more stimulus though: things we need to be prepared for.
 
Free-running’s part in relationship-building
The older boys, the free-runners, gained our respect for their physical skills, and we theirs, I think, for our attempts to catch them: though that’s not all. The free-runners knew that some of us are older than, and not as fit as, them (that’ll be me!), and even younger playworkers (well, younger and fitter than me, at least) get exhausted too. After days of repeated play (and probably from the start of it), the boys respected our calls for time-out breaks to catch our breaths. The children call ‘time-out’ if they’re in imminent danger of getting caught, or if the younger children are tangled up in the netting bridge, flopping around like fish; we call our time-outs if we’re in danger of collapsing! We stood around talking with the older boys on our catch-up breathers. The relationship-building seemed to me to get stronger every day: though that’s not all. The older boys looked after the younger children in the play. They called out to others if we were almost behind them, and they took it on themselves to help the younger ones who flopped around in the nets!
 
Natural places
Playwork embraces knowing about the play that has happened and that might happen on the playground. It also embraces the idea of knowing that change can stimulate, but sometimes — some of us discussed later in the summer — things to play on and with find their natural ‘best place to be’. The drum kit can work in the circular intersections of pathways up the slopes, which act as kind of amphitheatres, or under the slide, but sat on the boards over the old fire pit area, there’s a kind of stage that children used every so often; the children liked to jump from the three ledges of various heights on the platforms and onto the crash mats, and so that ended up being a place the crash mats ‘belonged’; the trampoline was often dragged there too if we didn’t put it there, and flips and so on happened (I see this area as a sort of arena, with its square gallery sides, with children hanging off the balconies looking down, almost like a version of Shakespeare’s Globe) — the play is largely self-regulated here.
 
Servicing the play
There are conflicts on playgrounds, of course, and sometimes these get resolved by the children themselves, and sometimes someone swinging a shovel at someone else needs a swift, quiet intervention, or sometimes children just need us to be someone to shout out their frustrations at. What is clear though, after another summer on the playground, is that the majority of the play and interactions is self-regulated by those children: they don’t need us to make up the ‘rules’ for them; that said though, as with the free-runner/Family Had game, some play seems to be better appreciated if the playworkers are involved. This I see as another form of ‘servicing the play’. It isn’t our play, though we’re in it. Sometimes we’re the chasers, as in this play, and sometimes we’re the prey, as it were, the targets, as with water balloons.
 
 
I’ve only scratched the surface of this summer on the playground. Those who know playwork and who read here, those converted to whom I preach, will know there are a hundred other stories and realisations/learnings and re-learnings in between those words and days I write about above.

Suffice is to say, to those not yet privileged in having the opportunity to work in this field, that despite the difficult conversations that must be had (on those who might be bullying, on those who are affected or blaring out their signals of whatever lies beneath the surface of their agitations), that despite the physical challenges of shifting the heavy equipment and the standing in the heat or the running after free-runners, or the endless demands of returning the play cue that is ‘push me in the wheelbarrow, once more round the playground’ followed by ‘me next, me next’, despite the gangs that form and disperse and shift into new conditions, there are always those slow-burning relationships building, trust and faith, understandings of play and commitments to the cause that is ‘this is the children’s place’; there is the beauty of the stories children tell, in passing, the faith they have in any given playworker, the smile that says hello, or the quiet passing ‘shush’ behind a colleague’s back as they prepare to flatten them with a water balloon!; there’s the unexpectedness of play that forms in front of your eyes (wheelbarrows and old barbecues and experiments on the fire); there’s the salute from the older boys at the end of summer, saying, ‘See you in October’; there’s the looking out on the playground, after the children have gone each day, thinking, ‘Play has happened here; we have created a space and place for play.’
 
 

What can you possibly learn at school? OK, now I have your attention if you’re a teacher, or a teaching assistant, or a parent, or anyone else with a vested interest in the whole ‘learning’ arena, I should clarify that this post is intended towards the system and not the individual professional. I also like to live in a more idealised world than the one I often perceive around me, but there’s no harm in saying it how you think it should be. I like it in that idealised world: things don’t have to be the way they are. So, what is it that the schooling system is able to give children? How to hold a pen and form the basic units of words, the rudimentary aspects of mathematics, some stuff about gravity, or sedimentary rock structures, or something about the Industrial Revolution which, in context, probably has no real context . . .?

I admit that these examples are drawn from my own learning experience, but the point still remains: the things we actually learn are the things we want to learn. I hated doing endless handwriting practice with a blotchy old fountain pen that turned your fingers purple and pruney (looking back on my handwriting exercise books and later letters now, I don’t think I mastered anything close to handwriting skills until about the age of twenty five!); what I learned in maths class was pretty much contained within the following — I don’t and won’t ever need standard deviation, quadratic equations, or logarithms, and here’s how to use a calculator; I have a fair idea of the principles of gravity, but only through practical experimentation; I know that there are different types of rock, but really, a rock is a rock; the Industrial Revolution has no context to my life on account of its dullness.

I was having a pub conversation about play with a colleague the other day, and teaching came into the range of things. I referenced A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, as I tend to do when I talk around these sorts of things, and I’ve written around this subject before, but it’s worth revisiting. Neill was way ahead of his time. If the children want to learn what they want to learn, they will, is what I take from my readings. It’s of some coincidence then that I found myself sat around at the weekend with Dino Boy (3) and his sister, Princess K. (5), as they sucked up all the information I could give them on the subjects they were interested in.

It’s a great responsibility to give information to children, as good teachers will no doubt agree. How do you give information without trying to also sway their opinions on any given subject area? I fail sometimes in this respect. I catch myself in time on other occasions. Despite these intentions, I do find that the children often absorb my conscious and unconscious sensibilities and preferences and they repeat them. I trust, in time, that they’ll have all the information they need from all the sources they look to, to form their own opinions as often as possible.

So, we talk about skeletons and various bones and what our insides look like, and what does the inside of an elephant look like? A few weeks ago I was asked ‘What does snow mean?’ (which, after a battery of questions returned in order to try to reinterpret the question, responded in turn with ‘No, what does snow mean?’ in ever agitated tones, I finally cracked as being ‘What is snow made of?’). I’m then asked days later ‘What does beer mean?’ Trying to explain the fermentation process in beer-making to a three year old is tricky, but apparently acceptable. We watch the football on the TV, and Dino Boy studies the game before asking where all the girls are, which we talk about, and we move on to the purpose of the guy in the middle wearing white when everyone else is wearing blue or yellow.

When we’re out and about we discuss whether aeroplanes need wheels, whether we need to apologise to snails we accidentally step on and crunch in wet weather when they come out, and just how squelchy dead dried up slugs we find really are. The children take in all the information of the world around them, as well as stories of my past adventures and misdemeanours. They listen intently to tales of accidents involving blood and stitches and hospital visits, and they’ll gladly put aside books of pseudo-Barbie Amelia’s politically-correct and anodyne unadventures with the pasty wolf (who’s sorry for being so greedy but who’s ultimately forgiven and corrects the errors of his ways), in favour of the real Little Red Riding Hood, a story with big teeth and all, ‘from inside your head’.

Blood and guts and the workings of frogs’ stomachs, or the like, or how dead things became dead, feature plenty, as does the refrain (re: dinosaurs) of ‘Is that one dead?’ Yes, that one’s dead; they’re all dead; dinosaurs died millions of years ago. The concept of ‘millions’ is difficult for adults, let alone three year olds. ‘How did they all die?’ Translating concepts obviously has its point where information goes astray because comets and meteorites are different things! ‘What’s a comic?’ Dino Boy replied. ‘Not a comic, a comet . . .’ (though I need to revisit this one when he tells me next time that a comet wiped out the dinosaurs, and that doesn’t even take into account the other theories!)

Often, when I ask family children or children I work with what they’ve learned at school today (as a means of conversation starter), there’s usually a quiet pause and a reply along the lines of ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Nothing, really.’ That can’t be the case, can it? Or is it more the fact that children want to block out the things they’ve been told they have to learn? The system wants xyz in their heads; children want what they want. Sometimes the two can cross paths, though I tend to find that this is often when there’s something like pizza making in the offering.

When it comes to it, the information on its own isn’t as important as the connection that’s built in good positive child-adult relationships. Children will take on what they want to learn from those they want to learn it from. Some teachers may have very good relationships with children; some may not. When I see children at after school club in apparent diligent concentration on finishing homework tasks before they go off (or go back) to play, I often sense their action more out of duty. Children despair at having to define their lists of words, or learn the order and constituent elements of the planets of the Solar System when none of this interests them. The work is done not, I feel, because they care about the subject or the subject-master or mistress.

In my idealised world, which isn’t so very far from the one we live in (but maybe just a little too radical for many to entertain), children learn the arts of beautiful handwriting when they want to link the aesthetic of well-formed and meaningful stories to the visual (though, of course, the art of handling pens starts far earlier, though also when they’re ready for it); numbers one to ten are graspable in everyday life, but so too are larger ones, and even made-up ones because we should never underestimate the power of thirty-hundred or a ‘brillion’; the concept of gravity comes to those who wait; a rock is just a rock, unless — or especially, if — you’re hit by one or if you have an urgent early need to understand geology, in which case here’s a hammer; the Industrial Revolution is something that happened a million years ago, or it might as well have done, and it may have helped lay the foundations for the iPad, or mobile phones, or something . . .
 
 

Play can sometimes take on more threatening forms. I use this word deliberately because I was going to write ‘darker forms’ but realise that that might not amount to anything clear. ‘Dark play’ has been thought about before, and it conjures up possibilities of what it could be, I suppose, but play can be threatening: it’s this that I’m thinking of when I consider the potential adult playworker response. On the playground recently there has been cause for some of us to go into what we’re tentatively terming as ‘self-sacrificial’ mode.

Play is a process of the moment, but it can also come loaded with the moments that have already been: the play that has happened on previous days, inside or outside the fence; the tensions and complications between children; the rivalries and shifting allegiances; the dynamic of children finding their place in the midst of it all. The moment that arrives can be more than just a response to another child’s ‘cussing my mum’ (a major concern, it seems, on this playground), or being caught unawares by an apparently errant or aberrant play cue, or a momentary agitation. The accumulation of moments of the playground can pile up to cause the potential for a perfect storm in itself. One child throws a water balloon at another, smacking him hard in the face, or on the bare arm, the assailant running away laughing, all for example, and there’s more here than can be fully appreciated in the split second.

Should playworkers intervene? Stopping the play is fraught with all manner of practical and theoretical difficulties. Rational conversation attempts can be (and were, in one case) responded to by this playworker being caught full in the face by a loaded bucket of water. Breathe, I told myself. It’s OK to be angry, inside, but breathe; think quickly. What should playworkers do if the rights of others to play are being impinged upon, when the integrity of the playground’s inherent ‘balance’ is threatened with collapse, when what was play could easily become what may not be so playfully-infused?

So far, we reflect, the ‘self-sacrificial’ approach has its benefits. Turning the mischievous intent or the rebellious reply of the child into ‘this is play cue action’, going through the playworker’s own anger or other emotions, and out the other side, in sudden clarity afforded by breathing, is a start; however, if filling a bucket in return of that cue becomes a protracted hunting down of the play-perpetrator around the playground, a ‘revenge’ mission, then the adult-playworker becomes bully. The only way, perhaps, to resolve the tension of mischievous/rebellious recalcitrant intent (bordering on ‘no longer play’, threat-turned-to-unbalanced playground), and not lurch into revenge, is to self-sacrifice. The play happens, and stays as play, of a kind, the players are focused, the players are not bullied, the playground’s ‘psychological security’ is maintained: the playworker accepts their position as moving target for the good of the whole.

Spending the entire session in wet clothes (especially jeans) is somewhat disagreeable, shall we say. I don’t like getting wet and I don’t want to do it. I’ve resisted it for a while: most of summer, perhaps. Sometimes the getting wet happens in the cueing of the playworker by what has happened here before (once children here get a whiff of unspoken agreement, target-practice is on): that is, sometimes the playworker isn’t giving the vibe off, in the now, that it’s OK to be flattened on the blindside by a stinging fat water balloon to the ribs, or to the lower back, or skimming off the shoulder, whizzing past the ear. React or return? That is the question.

Others, on certain days, are better at the whole delicate holding of it all than me. Even if the initial return is playfully done, there’s still the reflective recognition that this is done in light of the threat that the play can become; there’s still the potential for knowledge, reflection-in-action, that this is not about ‘win’, ‘adult bully’, ‘adult play back’ — it’s wrapped up in some holding function, or words quite like these; there’s still the possibility that the children’s play cues might become ever more insistent, harder, faster, more durable than the playworker’s capacity to keep just the right side of everything.

‘How do you get out of this?’ I asked a colleague in passing as I manfully ran away, soaked, cold, verging on being somewhat fed up and tired from moving and watching for all manner of elaborate visible and invisible ambushes. Perhaps you hide yourself away; perhaps you hold up your hands and trust that saying you’re done won’t prove as fragile and precarious a position as being ‘unarmed’ and honest in the middle of the playground actually is; perhaps you offer never to fire first, even when given gilt-edged chances to drench one of the original assailants (hoping that the fragile trust will hold).

Trust can go a long way. When I go to shake Parkour Boy’s hand, full bucket in my other hand and with no honest intention to get him or to cause him psychological concern, and I say to him I won’t get him, but instead here ‘good battle’, I trust that in that moment something happens. When I find myself backing out of an easy shot, knowing that that might come back to get me twice as wet later (if that’s possible!), I trust that here too is something forming. In the end, the ‘how to get out of this’ can be smoothed by a combination of breathing, playing it out till it needs to be done, or holding hands up when really I’m done, trusting all manner of dynamics, hiding in full view by the fire to get warm, knowing that if need be a colleague, this colleague in particular, will take on the form of accepting target.

When the dirt and water have settled, when the play peters out, having wound its way around the playground’s other hundred play frames that day, not having battered directly into them too much, we can sit and talk about the play that has happened here, the children that have needed whatever they’ve needed, the acts of necessity or of realisation of playworkers who’ve variously got parts right, or nearly right, or right enough, or any or all or none of the above.
 
 

It’s half-way through the summer school holidays, or thereabouts, and it seems a suitable time to think back on play that has happened on the playground in the past few weeks. We’ve taken plenty of photos and some video observations at White City Adventure Playground, so I wanted to look back on things that haven’t been captured so much in these ways. What’s also knocking around in my thoughts is that I sometimes write these play observations and then leave them be, or I might feel that I’m getting a little over-bearing with the whole ‘hey, this is play’ message I speak about with others I know. With this in mind, it’s occurred to me to publish up some recent stories and also reflect on them for my own benefit (yours too, if you want it that way, but mostly for the here and now of reflection/writing to find out what I feel).

A caveat to self (and others if you want it) before I start to write though: the following is about what can be seen, learned, reflected upon for the benefit of this playworker in question, but it’s not an exercise in ‘what happens on the playground is about me’. That attitude is a circle I find very hard to square. As a playworker, I’m in service of the play, the children, the playground as a place or amalgamation of places where children can come to, can be; as such, I’m at the edges of it, not the centre of it, even when I am — physically and momentarily — right there in the middle of the site! I digress, as I find myself in ‘hey, this is play’ preaching mode again!

I ask my playwork learners to undertake observations of play as part of their on-going studies, and then I ask that they reflect on them with regards to how they feel about the play. (We should recognise our feelings towards the play in order to be better in tune with it, and to be in tune with our capabilities of doing and comprehending, with knowing when we’re wrong to interrupt, and so on). So, as I ask my learners, I should ask myself. I do this, in my usual practice, in the privacy of my head as I walk the playground or when I interact with children, or when I observe, or in the time we have in open discussions with my colleagues, but I do this now too, in public written words because, in part, playworkers who are truly playworkers out there — I trust — will connect with it.

Three stories about play and playwork, for half-way through summer starters . . .
 
About being a taxi driver
Observation
Over the repeated play frames of days, on occasions, children ask to be pushed around in the wheelbarrow. One of the children will ask, quite casually, ‘Where’s that wheelbarrow?’, and I’ll look around and say I saw it over there half an hour ago, or something like this; then, ‘I need a taxi,’ will be a typical response from the child. That child will get into the wheelbarrow (sometimes with and sometimes without cushions) and I’ll lift up the fare by the handles of the contraption and ask, ‘Where to, Guv?’ I’ll get a reply that’s either, ‘To the waterslide’ or ‘To the benches’, but mostly it’s ‘Everywhere.’ ‘Everywhere, Guv?’ I’ll say. ‘Right-o. Do you want to go the easy way or the hard way?’ They’ve asked for the hard way, or the long way, every time so far. So, this’ll be up the hill, through the long grass, or down the bank or along the edge of it, or over the platforms (sharp right-bank round the corner at the bottom), through the tyre swings, round the back of the pool table, slalom through the dormant tyres on the ground (or whatever combination of route happens because of other play frames to weave around). Often, at set-down point, there’s another child eager to get in and the whole ‘Where to, Guv?’ starts again.

Feelings and reflections on the play
This play may have started, this time round, one day when it was really hot and the wheelbarrow was just lying around at the top of the waterslide not being used. I did the circuit and ended up depositing the child in question down the waterslide by tipping them out. It seemed like a play cue waiting to be made use of, I suppose. Of course, that only meant that the whole frame needed repeating, and three times round the playground on a hot day, going the tricky/hard/‘dangerous’ way every time is pretty tiring. It’s good to be in service of play in this pretty direct way, but it’s not about ‘being needed’, as such, I don’t think: it’s about knowing that sometimes children have a use for you that can just as easily be extinguished the second you put the wheelbarrow down. Some days it’s the opposite though, and children need more and more taxis: team members can resort to a kind of tag-team ‘new taxi driver’ support of one another.

The children seem to like the convoluted, twisting route: narrowly avoiding swinging tyres and the like, squealing and shouting for more. Maybe it gives them a buzz. ‘Look,’ said one boy as we passed an ex-taxi driver busy at writing up an observation one day, ‘see, this is much better,’ as we swung through a narrow gap between benches and which I wasn’t absolutely certain we’d get through without knuckles or ankles being scraped. Going down the incline on the platforms is also interesting because we pick up speed and I know from experience that the wheelbarrow handles come off if you’re not careful (which causes the potential for a fright or two, though not necessarily in this respect a fright of the children’s). I change my grip there and execute a sharp right-angle turn at the bottom: it’s almost as if driver and fare are performing this symbiotic trust thing up there — the fare trusts that the driver won’t accidentally tip him or her out, and the driver trusts that the fare won’t lean so far as to be tipped out. The children in the wheelbarrow seem to actively encourage this driver’s extreme tipping sideways of the taxi though. Perhaps it’s part of the whole ‘playing with vertigo’ thinking. Every so often the fare is required to shift their centre of gravity. Double rides make things even more tricky, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted! I started charging fifty-seven million and one or two dollars for a ride round the playground, but it soon didn’t need the invisible money. The role play didn’t seem to need so much of my role in the play for it to still be valued.
 
About poking around time
Observation
It was quiet one morning just after we’d opened the gates. It often is this way as the children come in and poke around for half an hour or so. I decided to stand up on the platform and just watch the way the interactions and ‘poking around’ happened that day. From that vantage point up above the tyre climbing wall, I could see pretty much the whole site, give or take. I observed as one of the older boys came in and I made a mental tracking of his route from the main gate, taking a left onto the paving slabs of the main patio area, over to the pool table there. The rest of the playground was ignored at this time by this child. This zone he moved in was where the other children initially gathered around in small clumps, mainly. He moved between these small groups of children, announcing his presence quietly by either poking his face close into the communications or just standing near and then moving on. After a short while he ghosted past the pool table, leaned over and took the white ball, slotting it into his pocket. Nonchalantly, a minute or two later, he asked the other children nearby where the white was. They didn’t know. He then said to a younger girl with a pool cue that, hold on, there was a white ball in her ear. I couldn’t see her face. He proceeded to pull off the ‘white ball from the back of her ear magic trick’. She appeared happy enough at this. The older boy wandered off.

Feelings and reflections on the play
I’ve long been interested in that early ‘poking around’ time on the playground, this playground. It seems to happen with regularity: children seem to settle themselves into the late morning, early part of the session, slowly, even though most of them are regulars and know the site and each other well enough. Observing this older boy here was also interesting because we’ve acknowledged that there seems to be a kind of Alpha Male thing going on, but it often changes according to who’s in. The older boy was top dog on that day, or at least for that first part of it. Standing right up out of the way allowed me to see what was happening without being in the direct eye-line/psychological awareness of the child in question. I’ve no doubt he knew I was there because he’s smart enough when it comes to knowing what’s around him, I think, but he didn’t know what I was looking out for in the way that I was looking at it.

I was amused to see how he wandered in, poked around, disrupted some play but then seemed to put it right again. It was a definite letting others know he was there, but not in a malicious edgy way: it was playful, but deliberate. I wondered if, in his head, he was also trying to make up for something there and then. I’ll never know, I guess. Why does ‘poking around time’ happen like this? Every day’s different, I suppose, and though some play frames do get repeated, and play narratives follow children and playworkers around during the week, it’s as if the playground is being reset for the session to come. That is, this resetting isn’t a wiping clean of what’s happened entirely; it’s more of an Etch-a-Sketch shaking (you know, you can still see the grainy lines of what was drawn there previously underneath). Does that analogy work? It works in the here and now for me.
 
About a happy girl with a play patch
Observation
A girl who was new to me was standing at the gate about half-way through the session one day. She didn’t come in but stood there patiently, waiting. I noticed her from a distance and because my colleagues hadn’t yet seen her I walked over to say hello. I got her signed up and invited her in. She smiled. She knew another child later, when he was signed up too, so she wasn’t lost completely. She was fairly independent but then came over to me, still smiling, and hanging at my elbow. She gave me some very direct play cues: ‘Let’s play on the roundabout’; ‘Let’s play on table football.’ So I returned the cues. After a short while of her beating me on the football table (though I was trying but evidently not good enough with my left-handed defenders), some more children wandered over and watched. One boy invited himself in to be my defenders, and I agreed. Soon, others involved themselves and I quietly stepped away. The girl was still smiling as she played and I snuck off. A little while later, I saw that she was cueing a colleague by inviting him into various play frames she was trying to set up just for the two of them.

Feelings and reflections on the play
I choose the phrase ‘play patch’ for this story because, on reflection, it seemed that that was what I was doing: I provided a patch for her to transition from being involved in play frames with me to being comfortable, so it seemed, with other children. I was initially comfortable with her choice of me (which may well have been because I did my best to make her feel at ease when signing her up for the sessions), but then it felt like she was looking at me as one of the children with her ‘Let’s play xyz’ play cues. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to support her: I began to feel a little more uncomfortable when she repeated the cues at me and didn’t seem to spin off into her own play. I get that way if closed into any given play frame these days: it feels like I can’t then observe the whole space well enough. It was a quandary: how to support, return the cues, and subtly pull away without it all falling apart for her. I also felt maybe she was stopping me from doing my job well (that is, the observing of the whole); though now, of course, I know that my support was exactly part of that job. I knew this all along, but I forgot in the moment.

So, when the good fortune of the other children’s arrival at the football table came, I chose my moment carefully and I chose well. She barely registered that I’d left, which was good. She didn’t show any agitation, as I saw it, that I’d left her be (this being a very conscious concern as I chose that moment that I chose). The play patch had worked, though maybe I could have kept a closer eye on things, or done more/something else because she repeated the communication/needs with a colleague. What his thinking on his interactions with her are, I don’t yet know. I’d like to delve in deeper to find out what my colleagues feel about their interactions with various individual children: though summer is a rush of plenty of thought processes, actions, various reflections, and we’ve yet to talk on this particular play of this particular child. There’s never enough time to talk about all the things I’d like to talk about . . .

So sometimes I write.
 
 

Once, I remember a conversation with Bob Hughes along the lines of: observe the background. As the summer season on the playground is now in full swing, this advice comes back to me time and again as I stand in a position in the middle of the edge of things, out of the way, looking for the optimum ‘X marks the spot’ widest cone of vision. When you find the sweet spot, invisibility can kick in. Why does this matter? Sometimes, often, children can change the way they play, the way they act (as in ‘action’ and as in ‘perform’), the way they are, with the metaphorical lens firmly directed their way. Why is it then that this ‘purest of play, unadulterated by us’-ness is important?

In discussion this week with a colleague, the conversation flowed into the idea of ‘better play’. We’re there to make sure that ‘better play’ can happen, was the suggestion; to which I responded, how can there be a distinction between ‘play’ and ‘better play’? Can we put a qualitative value on any given instance of play observed? We can make better play environments by way of consideration of the space use, resources, our own actions, interactions, interventions and so on, but play is play, surely? There is ‘better play as observed’ and ‘better play from the perspective of the playing child’ to also consider here. When I think back to my own play as a child, how can I say that my bike riding of a hundred laps of the local square was ‘better play’ than my hiding in the bushes, or better than my standing leaning over the prospect of a sheer vertical drop, or better than my playing ‘anything goes football-rugby’ in the dining room?

So now, as I write, I write about the ‘purest of play’. Which is it to be? Is this pure, unadulterated, observed but not imposed upon play of the background on the playground ‘better’, or more desirable, than the close-by ‘changed because it’s being observed’ play of the foreground? Who is it more desirable to? That is, sure children may want to play in their own way, for their own reasons, without undue interruption by adults (which is desirable for them), but playworkers also have an urgent need for children to play in that way too. What’s in this for us? That is, why do we have this need to observe children playing without our interruption?

When teaching the whole ‘why observe?’ thing, it’s difficult to go any deeper in than really scratching the surface. Sure, we can say that we observe to learn about play, to consider individual play needs and preferences, to comprehend the impact of resources and colleagues on the play, to make judgements about access to various play types, and so on, but we can’t really teach that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that many playworkers seem to have in the moment of observation: that is, that sense, emotion, feeling, immersion, connection, call it what you will (and I don’t even know what to call it here) that goes far deeper than observing in order to learn about play, individual play needs and preferences, comprehension of resources, colleagues’ impact, play types, etc. Explaining what this ‘je ne sais quoi’ is is like trying to teach empathy . . .

Let’s just say that, for me, observation of play is an immersive experience that is necessary. In the moment I may not ‘learn’ any great insight, but a book is not made of just one page. In fact, the analogy is apt because when reading a book, if it’s a book that intrigues, the world outside those covers no longer matters. The world outside still impacts on the reading experience, but it can be put on hold and ignored for a while. The playground as book. For some of us the book’s covers aren’t defined by the playground’s perimeter fence: the book doesn’t close.

The other day I tried to explain what I did for a living to a family member I’d not seen for a while. I didn’t go into any of the above, but I did say that I work on the playground and I observe. I added that it wasn’t as simple as I made it sound. In a way, that conversation was also a catalyst for this writing today. The other elements to feed in here are recent considerations of various playwork styles (and by extension, our cones of vision in the observing on the playground), and our other developing ways of observing.

I’m aware that I like to wander the playground to see as much as I can at any given moment. Colleagues, I notice, might do the same, or I might do a visual sweep of the playground and find them sat quietly up on some steps watching out, or they’re immersed in conversation or play invitation with a child or small group of children, or they’re running, chasing, being chased with water balloons, or tidying, resourcing, heads up, or heads down, or building, or fixing. What they see I can’t say: that is, they see the play, they feel it, sense it, as I do, but what that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of observing for them is, I can’t say. I don’t yet know how to frame the question to them.

In our other developing ways of observing, we sometimes sit with the ‘video’ button on on the camera. Observing the background in this way benefits at least two-fold: in the first instance, children are less aware of it from a hundred yards or so away, if at all; in the second instance, the things that were clearly in front of the camera-holder at the time, foreground or background, but which only become apparent on play-back, can be a fascination in themselves. However, unless the camera becomes as invisible as the unobtrusive playworker, it will often be an instrument that will change the play.

Does this matter? Is the play any worse off for being observed, either by eye or by camera? Some play happens because the act of observation makes it happen, when it wouldn’t have happened without the observing taking place. In the end, here, I can’t draw any definite conclusions. I offer up these thoughts on observation as a means of reflection and as a means of suggestion to other playworkers, asking: What is it that observation is for you? What is the ‘je ne sais quoi’ you get from it? Observation goes deeper than just seeing the play.
 
 

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Larmer Tree music festival in Wiltshire, working with some of the children there (hence my lack of writing for a short period). As these events can tend to be, it was hot and sometimes hectic, sometimes calm and lazy, powered by intense thunderstorms, impromptu musical sets on the corners of pathways, and of course play. I wanted to write about the play, but first I needed to recover from days out in a field, days following this in travel, and the first days of summer on the playground in London.

In all my work and play with children (I don’t treat my family children as work!), I do tend to think along the lines of playworking these days. It wasn’t always this way. Perhaps I didn’t have a depth level understanding; perhaps it didn’t seem to matter so much. Now it does. Having said that though, I’m growing more and more aware of the argument that ‘other methodologies are available!’ Of course I know that those who work with children do so in a number of different ways: it’s just that having been immersed in playwork thinking and doing for a fair number of years now, the playworker-self tends to get dug in. Last weekend, in a return to my younger days of being a focal point in the games play of children, I took part in some sessions at Larmer Tree (it’s all good, as we shall see).

There’s a caveat to this: whereas before I might have planned out the play, now I like to think I was responding in the moment to the needs and preferences of the children who chose to take part. Sure, I had ideas about what they might like, but it had to change as the play inclinations shifted. For some of our sessions we occupied the centre of a flag circle out on the main field where the periphery stages, shops and bar areas were: on a hot summer afternoon, children took up the long rope we were using and shifted the play into a big tug of war. We went with the flow.

So, this is the set-up, but I wanted to write about the play moments I saw around the festival, as well as some play moments in the Flag Circle or in the marquee (our other venue), as the morning rain hammered down outside. I write these without drawn-out conclusions, just being observations with maybe a few first thoughts attached: small stories of play in a transient arena for the weekend.
 
The story of feeling fine bringing this play to an end — or, the futility of trying to be fine? (after Oscar Wilde)

As we set up in the marquee (some bits and bobs of play stuff were spread out and my colleagues opened up a small parachute for the pre-schoolers who were beginning to gather), I watched on from the edges of the humid space we were in. Too many of us, I felt, wouldn’t have been conducive to play. Gradually the children drifted in. I trod my way in carefully, sat down nearby, knowing the effect I can sometimes have on younger children (‘what is that?’ they sometimes seem to be saying at me as they stand and ponder what this me is!) In a short time though, I found I was being thrown all sorts of cues and was surrounded by a small group of younger children. Their parents (I presume) hovered nearby. My colleagues were variously engaged in skipping or limbo rope play behind me.

My story relates to the final minutes of the session though: some children’s entertainers had come in to set up for their set in the marquee, but they were setting up almost in the middle of the play. We were gradually over-run by families gathering to watch them perform. I was immersed in the play frame of a child who was using circular plastic sports markers, but I didn’t just want to gather them in and pack her back off to her parents. How to bring this to a playful close? We started making a trail with the small amount of markers we had. She placed the first ones down and I picked up the end of the line and handed them back to her. We trailed all the way back to the edge of the marquee, round seated people, through seated people, over their feet, and so on, back to the corner where we stored all the play stuff. I thanked her, as we finished the trail with a flourish and a ta-da! Dad, presumably, hovered and whisked her back to the entertainers who promptly kicked in with some strange song about mechanics or odd-job men fixing things, or whatever that was. The marquee was full and the rain continued.
 
The story of the ego in the circle

At the Flag Circle on a roasting Sunday afternoon, I was using up all the energy I’d gathered that morning as we all sat around at the campsite talking and relaxing. The children were engaged in a run-around game and I stood by ready to be involved if need be. All of a sudden there was a small commotion on the far side of the circle. It was none of the group of children who were playing but some teenage girls who were squealing excitably inside the flag circle of play, which was a convenient invisible periphery to the area we’d occupied. There was a man nearby too, just inside the circle, and the girls had been using their cameras with him. Without thinking about it I called out to the group (the man and his entourage) that if they were inside the circle they were playing, that they were welcome to join in, but they were considered as playing! They didn’t take up the offer, leaving promptly. It turned out that the man was the lead act on the Sunday evening main stage. I still don’t know who he was: I’ve never heard of him before. Egos don’t impress playworkers!
 
The story of entrances, exits, and crossings through

As my colleague and I walked from the Flag Circle area to the beer tent at the far end of the field after a play session, I said that I was taking a small detour around the frisbee play that was taking place a few yards in front of us. Why? she said. It’s what I think I should do, I said, or words like these. Walking around the play frames that are taking place, where possible, whether it’s children or adults or both playing, is kind of steeped into me now. That said, others can wander in (as above) or concoct a raiding mission into play frames that I’m involved in with the children I’m working with, and I have to then think quickly, or spontaneously, about how to react. Once, in the Flag Circle, the large parachute in mid-flap and surrounded by a group of children, a couple of men ran through the circle and underneath it, emerging the other side with big smiles on their faces! I felt they’d been weighing it up for a short while. They were in and through and out before I could say or do anything, the children didn’t seem perturbed, the place was a festival. Play continued on. Entrances, exits, understanding of ‘this is play’ all spring to mind . . .
 
Small incidences of play that might have been missed

There were plenty of small incidences of play that may have passed others by (and there were certainly many incidences that I missed too). When I spot such smallnesses I make a mental note so I might write about them later:

I was sat in the beer tent and I looked over to the bar area to see a younger girl who’d laid herself down on the floor. She had her head positioned so that she was looking directly up the central tent pole, high into the canvas roof space where there was a small circular opening to the sky. Children’s perspectives can fascinate sometimes.

Similarly, at one of the main stage sets, waiting for the band to get ready, I stood at the back of the crowd and scanned the scene in front of me. There was a child out near the front (it wasn’t a huge area, so I could see she was about seven or eight years old). She was sat up on someone’s shoulders, and she was the only person up that high in the whole crowd, but she was facing the back of it towards me, not the stage, scanning the place just as I was. She held her hands up and just seemed to me to be absolutely peaceful with her position and view.

I walked along the row of shop stalls, one day after the rain. In the mud, on his knees and dressed in waterproofs, was a young boy who was pushing a plastic tractor and trailer around. I stopped to observe whilst being far enough away, I hoped, not to disturb him. I looked around, but I didn’t see any adult or parent watching out for him intently.

At the food stalls area near the main stage, I sat at a table and ate. There were people piled into the small triangle of land, sat at tables or on rugs on the grass, or just lazing around. The place was packed full, but my attention was taken by two children who’d found the A-frame advertising board of one of the eateries in the middle of the space. The children were weaving in and out of the pyramid space the board had made, seemingly oblivious to the mass of people all around them.

Back at the beer tent, a father (presumably) came in with a girl of about two sat on his shoulders. He approached the bar. She wasn’t holding on to his hands or his head, and he didn’t hold her ankles, hands or knees. The child was gripping with her thighs and, as he ordered at the bar, she was smiling and testing her own limits by leaning backwards and backwards, sitting up again, leaning back further, and so on. Her father didn’t seem concerned. She was well-versed in balancing by the looks of it.

At the fringes of the main stage area there were sections of trees contained as quieter areas or art or poetry areas. I wandered through a few times at night time because that was when all the uplights came on and cast shadows in the low branches. Families walked in and around the small labyrinth. One evening, two older girls ran past me, back towards the adults they had in tow, to tell them with great excitement about the ‘secret garden’ they’d found. I looked back to where they’d come from and saw no secret gardens, of course. I had to find out. Round the corner, off the main track, I found what they’d been excited about: the trees there had been decorated with large versions of liquorice allsorts sweets hung from the lower branches.

In another area of the quieter woods, I wandered into a small enclosure to find that a strange sort of three-way hammock tented contraption had been hung about six feet up in the branches. Inside and in-between the small nodes these hammocks created were a group of children scurrying around like hamsters, squeaking and squealing in the half-light of the evening.

At the campsite I sat and watched the evening sky and clouds a day after the torrential downpour of the storm that clattered the car tops. Two younger girls and a boy ran along the grass track that doubled up as a road. The girls each had a balloon (an animal shape with feet, which scudded along the ground); the boy was balloonless. The children ran down the track, ignoring me, a bundle of energy and balloons, and disappeared around the cars at the far end. A few minutes later they appeared again on the next track, and repeated the whole chase and run-around several times. Eventually the boy gave up, still balloonless. The girls continued on and on. As with the tractor boy in the mud, no adults hovered by. There is play that just happens, adultless, unknown about by parents perhaps, and there is play that is ‘parent-approved’, hovered upon.

Other methodologies are available, of course, but I do find myself wandering and observing by coming back to what I know . . .
 
 

I find myself considering the rationale on ‘respect’ again here as I sit down to write. This has come this week via some personal interactions on the playground, some conversations on the subject with a group of playwork learners, and out and about whilst in ‘parent mode’, as it were.

I often find my writings nudging up to this ‘respect’ word. My default position is always on the side of the child when it comes to hearing the repeated position of many adults, i.e. something along the lines of ‘children have to learn to respect adults/others/me’. I play the child-game of ‘but why?’ here: ‘respect adults/others/me’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I said so’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I’m the adult’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I got here first’, ‘but why?’, ‘because that’s causality for you’, ‘but why?’, ‘because time, as far as we know it, goes only one way’, ‘but why?’, ‘because . . .’ The ‘respect adults/others/me because I demand it’ argument tends to descend into such ludicrous levels to me.

I find myself needing to consider this whole ‘respect’ thing further though. Of course, we’d all like to have some respect in the world, wouldn’t we? We work hard, we often do our best, and we find that others just don’t care. Does that give us the right to demand that others respect us though? This is pretty much my default response when setting up a debate on the subject matter. It then follows that we can only earn another person’s respect, that we have to work at it, just as we have to work on ourselves, and only we can do that. We often hate this, of course, because others who just don’t care, or do us wrong, then ‘get away with it’: the whole ‘where’s the fairness in the world?’ thinking kicks in. We can only work on ourselves though. Let others sleep easily or not.

When it comes to children though, we adults often think we have a right to demand of them what we like and we try to make them act in the ways we want them to. That is, we seem to follow some bizarre but rationalised version of the ‘but why?’ game logic, if not in so many words, but the end result being something along the lines of ‘I got here first, I know best, don’t question it, so show me some respect’. Children’s choices, ideas, thinking, likes and dislikes, annoyances and grievances, can often largely be ignored: ‘I don’t like liver and onions’, ‘well, try it anyway because it’s good for you’; or ‘I don’t like him, he always wants the things I’ve got’, ‘well, try playing with him, you never know you might like him then’; or ‘I don’t want to speak to you today,’ ‘show me some respect’.

Well, so goes the adult-logic, we can’t possibly have children making decisions and getting their own way all the time, can we? Whatever next? They need to learn a thing or two about life. To which I suggest: so should the adults, and there’s a saying about people and glass houses . . .

Here I am again: on the side of the child. Of course, in ‘parent mode’ it’s difficult to be constantly taking on the ‘I want, I need, he won’t/she won’t’ all the time. Of course, as a playworker it’s also difficult to take on the agitations that can happen between children, the arguments and tears, the various difficulties of being six or eight or twelve. Sometimes we slip into ‘now stop’. We say it, in playworker mode or parent mode, and we may or may not then think why it is we said it. Is it because ‘now it’s time to stop and show me a little consideration, respect, call it what you will?’ . . . but why . . .?

I wrote two brief stories of ‘play that has happened’ to a colleague this week (you know who you are!) These stories link in to all of the above and I paraphrase them again here. A few days ago we were wrapping up in debrief time on the playground after all the children had gone home. Suddenly there was a loud bang from outside. We soon realised that someone was onsite, on the playground out there. Opening up the shutters (and I was advised to stand back in case something else was thrown underneath them as I ducked down), there were three logs lying on the paving slabs. The logs used to be part of the small fencing by the walkways. There was no-one around, so we split up to search. Then, over the bank on the far side two faces peaked up, saw us, then scarpered, climbing the fence and over the other side quicker than we could move (on a side note, and thinking on fences again, so much for fences, and fences maybe don’t keep security risks out or children in!) I recognised two of our usual boys, who we see at open access times, as the runners. My first thought was, I admit, ‘What’s going on here? Why can’t they just show a little appreciation for this place?’ This, however, was quickly followed by the realisation that this was some sort of play cue and that they might just be saying something like, ‘Hey, we’re still around and it’s near the end of term, and we need to come in again.’

The other story is about a girl at after school club. She was upset one day recently. She’d not received an award at school, which all her friends had got, and I don’t think she was best pleased by the attention she’d received from adults bringing her from school to club that day either. I sat with her a while and listened to her woes through her tears. A little later, happy smiley her returned. She followed me to the kitchen and, unexpectedly and without coming in, she leaned over and held the door open for me. ‘Thank you, madam,’ I said. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she replied. I didn’t ask for this or demand it. It didn’t matter to me if she did or didn’t do or say what she did, but she did, and that matters to me now, but not because of ‘things she should learn’. There are other levels to this.

When in ‘parent mode’, out and about, crossing the river on a summer day, having smelled all the flowers, and watched snails, and poked around at the farmers’ market, and played around in shops, and having gone up the escalators to jump off the top, and having gone down one floor in the glass lift because it was a glass lift, and so on and so forth, Dino Boy at the age of three refused to move any further than the rock to watch the ducks and say he wasn’t ready to go home yet: I knew deep down what he was saying . . . yet, I was tired and hungry and his sister needed my attention and I just needed to go home now . . . ‘Please now’, perhaps, kicks in in times like these. So this is where taking stock needs to happen. Let’s breathe, and let’s look at the riverweed and throw a stick in, then we can climb a mountain and smell some more flowers, and we can keep playing as we go . . .

Sometimes children’s decisions are much more rational than ours: I don’t want to go home because I haven’t finished playing yet; I want to hold this door open for you because you listened to me; I want to throw this log at the shutters because, in a strange sort of way, it’s my way of saying I know you do care about me; I want to respect you because I choose it, not because you tell me to.
 
 

This week immersed

A week immersed in the life of a playground, in discussions about play, in teaching the arts of playwork — as they appear to this playworker — can be a long time. The immersion is akin to the immersion of being in play: plenty happens, plenty has the potential for happening, plenty awaits just at the edges of perception. I started the week thinking on ‘rules’ (that is, the rules we adults often want to apply to the children’s ways of being), but I got distracted into thinking on playworker action and inaction, about being in the middle of the play-swill whilst observing, about being in the play and how and when to walk away, and how playwork is just so much more than the view that some might have that is ‘just playing with children’.
 
The rules

Adults can get so weighed down by ‘the rules’. What are these rules, and who wrote them anyway? That is, things like: you must walk this way, act that way, treat each other like this, share that, behave in this manner, stand or sit or talk or eat or listen in this or that way, and so on. I came to the conclusion that some children will blindly follow these ‘rules’ simply because they know no other way of operating in the adult-heavy world. This way of adult imposition becomes ‘normalised’. The ‘rules’ become absorbed, the children grow up, and they pass ‘the rules’ on to the next generation. No thought or challenge takes place. I’ve certainly met young adults who have regurgitated ‘the rules’, as they’ve absorbed them from adults around them, in unthinking ways. When these young adults are challenged to justify why any given ‘rule’ is in place, they look blankly at you, incredulously, and say something like ‘It’s the rule: without it there’d be chaos, anarchy, social meltdown’ or whatever phrase best fits.

There’s a deeper level of consideration to be had in all of this (civil liberties, governance, rights and responsibilities, and so on), and greater minds have already had and continue to have those discussions. What strikes me here though, in the context of children and their places of adult-staffed places of play, is that often ‘the rules’ are either blanket-written into a policy statement or two, or they’re listed in adult-imposed restrictions and diktats on the walls (with little or no child consultation), or they’re just not written down at all and children are expected to follow whatever the adult says because that is what the adult has said.

Policies often gather dust and fail to reflect the dynamically shifting sentiments of the playground; consultation exercises often become just that — ‘exercises’ in ‘doing the right thing’; how I loathe anything on a wall with the word ‘golden’ attached to it (‘golden time’, ‘golden rules’) — gold is the highest standard here, but it suits the adult; children challenge all the time, and adults could be better at realising that sometimes, just sometimes, children are right in what they challenge about ‘the rules’.
 
Action and inaction

When we turn a blind eye to a ‘breaking of the rules’, what’s happening here? We’re not being negligent (unless we choose to ignore, say, a child attacking another with a sharp stick and a plank of two-by-four); we’re understanding the playfulness of a situation; the children are communicating that ‘the ‘rule’ in this case is perfectly well understood but we choose to ignore it because it’s stupid and makes no sense in the context of this play that we’re doing right now, in this particular place, with this particular object or other person’.

Our playworker inaction can, often, be perceived by the children as the perfect action. When a child walked outside this week with a disposable cup full of water, I was stood leaning against the open double door frame just watching out over the flow of things. The boy took the water away from the inside areas and threw it, and the plastic cup, down onto the wood chips. He turned around and smiled at me and made to walk back inside. He knew, I trust, that I knew it was play. I didn’t feel the need to say, ‘Oi, pick that cup up’. Why would I need to have done that? I don’t know why he did it other than it was play. It did no harm. Others may see the scenario differently.

When we, as adults on the playground, start to let these play occurrences get to us though, they build and build. I’m certainly sometimes prone to the build-up of challenges of play, dynamics and niggles between individual children, teasings and deeper agitations: we are human, let’s not forget. However, when we forget to step back from the edge, the edge takes us in before we realise it. Tensions in individual adults can pass between team members and before long ‘action’ surpasses ‘inaction’ as the dominant response. ‘The rules’ get added to as a means of trying to step back from the edge. Our ‘action’, our interferences and insistences, dilute the play and the potential for play.
 
Observation in the middle of the play-swill

I use this phrase not to infer a negative (play is not an allusion to ‘pig-swill’), but rather to suggest the nature of a swirl. Our ‘inaction’, our deeply understood comprehension that this play is play, and this play needs to happen, here, with this, with these people, and without me, now, is essential. One day this week, a day when we were all calm as a team because everyone seemed to be in the position, to me, of comprehension of that play at that time, in tune, when the sun was out, when all the dynamics of the children just slotted together, I stood up on the platform in the middle of the playground and observed. I got in no-one’s way. I was a camera in the midst of it all. I turned around to see the whole panoramic view.

Nearby, and up on this level under the tree on the hill, a colleague was sat with a small group of children who had laid a box beneath the tree. One of the girls was kneeling before it and was saying a prayer. My colleague had a paper cone in her hand, and she waited patiently as she sat. Soon, the group were walking slowly along the platform levels, my colleague carrying the stricken box above her head, with what I termed in my thinking ‘professional wailers’ trailing in mock sorrow! They walked all around to the wobbly bench and then to the sand pit. The box was left under the tree there. Later, I found out it was a funeral for the dead cardboard box robot.

As I turned to follow this play taking place, I knew that down below me another small group of children had found a long spool of ribbon-like material from inside and had started wrapping it around the playground, beneath and between, and separate to, the funeral entourage. They were seeing how far it could get before it snapped, then starting again. Beyond that, at the sand pit, some children were continuing to dig what turned out to be the River Thames: the hose pipe trailed from the stand pipe, via the old sunken bath, and into the length of the pit where there was plenty of tubes and guttering channels and bits and bobs for the engineering with. On the opposite side of the playground, on the makeshift small football pitch nearby, between the platforms and the zipline, there was a match going on. I felt in the midst of it all up there but that I should stand carefully and still for a while: comprehension of ‘action’ and ‘inaction’ being what they are.
 
About being in the play and how and when to walk away

‘Doing it’ and ‘teaching it’ are different animals. This week, when I taught (or told stories), I attempted to continue the idea of ‘this is children’s play, not yours’ but found myself in the area of ‘play cues and responding to them’. Like learning how to write, we make plenty of mistakes when beginning the process of this art form that is playwork. We continue to make mistakes as we get better at it, but at least we recognise our errors and what we might do about them. I was particularly heartened to hear one learner tell me how he knows that sometimes he just gets so absorbed in the play that he forgets to see anything else going on. I didn’t expect that at this stage. His task, like all of ours, is to now think what he can do about it when he gets absorbed again. I thought about my week on the playground. I hadn’t thought about it so much at the time, but the teaching focused me on my practice and I think I’m pleased with the way the details of this small story to come turned out. I said (the edited highlights of the following):

One day this week, an older boy wanted me to play football with him. His usual partner in play wasn’t around and the boy needed me to play. As it turned out, he didn’t need me that day (because the next day he needed a colleague): I stood in the big goal (the children have the big goal and the small, palette board goal, but they don’t seem concerned by the discrepancy) and he wanted me to ‘play to win’ because he’d told me, the week before, ‘so let’s start again because I know you’re not playing as hard as you can and we should play properly now’. We played for a short while and then some other boys came over and just blended into the game. It was with a sudden epiphany that the play had not stopped, broken down, or been corrupted in any way, and that I was now surplus to requirements, that I stood still at the edge of the makeshift pitch. I waited a second or two, just in case, then quietly snuck off. There was positive ‘action’ and ‘inaction’, observation in amongst it all, and a non-adherence to ‘the rules’ of social interaction and football in general. I reflect that I got it right.
 
Just playing with children

Some days I get it right, some days I get it wrong. Some days ‘my wrong’ affects the children, my colleagues, myself, to such an extent that I question whether I’ve got the hang of this playwork way of working at all. Some days I know I’ve got it right because I haven’t dictated to the children, imposed unjustifiable ‘rules’ on them, I’ve listened to them and consulted with them, I’ve admitted that I got such and such wrong to them, and done something about it, I’ve observed play because it’s play and not got riled by the things I’ve seen, I’ve stood still and carefully, or I’ve given the child exactly what they need at that time, in that place, and then I’ve left. This week, I figure, it’s about grace and timing, levels of comprehension, turning a blind eye, and knowing, always knowing, that it’s not about us. ‘Just playing with children’ has long since disappeared from my beginner’s thinking.
 
 

Playwork is not the only way of working with children. This has become clearer over the years, in the way that the blindingly obvious has a tendency to secrete itself in full view. This is to say, playwork is a methodology of working, and other methodologies are available. However (there’s always a ‘however’), playwork seems to me (and many others of similar experiences) the most ‘authentic’, integrous, soulful, connected way of working when treading in the children’s space.

Last week I wrote about fences. It was both a thing-in-itself and a means of jumping into further writing. I am aware of the tub-thumping I do here on the screen and — despite the rational part of my brain spinning away in the background of my day to day interactions — I’m aware of my sometimes awkward tub-thumping ways out and about: I know that the world in which we live won’t change just like that, despite all my advocacy for play and for the world of ‘wouldn’t it be great if . . .’ I know this, but I keep on thinking ‘what if?’

Last week I wrote:

What would it all be like if there were no fence here at all, and (this is a pre-condition of that scenario, I suppose) if our society were much more pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of that society — respected better, listened to more, considered?

If we were able to treat our children differently, better, with more considered thought, with all the time and grace we expect others to treat us as we go about our day to days . . . if we were to do this . . .

So things don’t happen overnight, but we can start small and locally. Playwork methodology, for me, holds within it the greatness of the small: the small moment, the small beauty, the small anxiety, or the small nuance of enormous subtlety. Where such seeds are sown, strange and wondrous fruits may sprout instantaneously, and they’ll stay rooted. The child who ‘gets’ the playworker because the playworker gets them, their play, their reasons for being or saying or doing, is someone who may well recognise that playworkerness of being in others too.

Playworkers work with the child’s way of being, doing, playing, choices, fears and dreamings and schemings, and so on. Some days playworkers get their practice wrong, but they can call themselves playworkers if they acknowledge what they’ve got wrong, why, how, when; they can take it on the chin when their fellow playworkers tell them what they’ve seen or felt or intuitively understood. They make good where they can. Some days I’ve got it wrong. Some days I’ve got it right . . .

A few weeks ago, a small moment happened on the playground, a moment that may have gone absolutely unrecognised by anybody else, including the child that this story relates to (right there and then, at least, though I’m trusting that the affect of the moment stays with her in her continuing acknowledgement of playworkerness). It was this: I was walking towards the corner of the building, out on the playground; I heard her but couldn’t see her; I knew she was coming my way and I knew how she would enter that space which I currently occupied. I stopped quickly, and she hurtled around the corner, sped past me with just the briefest form of acknowledgement of my presence, and then was gone in the play somewhere else. I’d got it right because, I immediately recalled, the story told to me of someone somewhere else who’d not stopped, despite the child about to career around the corner on the pedal car, slamming into that adult someone; the child got blamed and was subsequently prevented from playing there and with that again.

It should be the other way around: this is the child’s space of play, stop, wait. When I see colleagues who are playworkers, or people who aren’t playworkers but are in the space of play, walking around the children’s play (their ‘play frames’) instead of straight through them, I sense someone pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of this society — respected better, listened to more, considered. It is to these small instances of understanding that I’m often drawn.

When ‘the rules’ are ‘broken’ by adults (playworkers or otherwise) because ‘the rules’ aren’t fit for purpose, are there because they’ve always been there, or because they serve mainly to reduce the anxiety of adults or are subservient to those adults’ tolerance levels for play, I applaud inwardly: noting, nodding. In the same way that children ‘get’ that archetypal playworkerness, which can manifest in various adults, and they seem to grow more comfortable with those adults, I too note that playworkerness of others. I can get myself in trouble with the whole ‘let’s not worry about those ‘rules’ today’ thinking: I’ve recognised this and it has happened. If it happens though, it happens because what I feel and see and think about is: ‘this here is play.’

Playworkerness, in its small richnesses of occurence, I think of when I see or sense adults knowing what’s around them, or around corners, and actively doing something about this, when they walk around the edges of the play frame, when they aren’t slaves to ‘the rules’. I see it also when they show they know that any manner of things can pollute or ruin the play (not shouting out to children to do this or that; not pushing their noses in to see/be part of/teach children ‘better ways’ of play; not trying to grab the ‘play setting’ by the temporal edges, as it were, and fling it back around so all its energy of play stops and then slowly spins the other way, all around that adult at its centre — that is, there is playworkerness in not saying, implying or insisting that ‘it’s all about me’).

It’s not about the adult, but the child seems to know that the adult who serves the playness is an adult who is embraced into that playness. Anything else, in the context of the ‘play setting’, and the adult is left at the edges of ‘necessarily being there’ but not ‘being necessary’.

Playwork methodology, in the particulars of its small graces, in its ‘authentic’, integrous, soulful, connected way of working when treading in the children’s space, is a starter disposition for a society that could do better, I feel.

What if we could take down all the fences and walk around, not through, the play of children’s space within the whole space?
 
 

A while ago my work took me to a few of those ‘maximum security’ schools: you know the type — those with the fifteen feet high fences and slowly sliding sky-high entrance panels (‘door’ isn’t the most appropriate word here); or those with three levels of entrance stage, through narrow chain-linked spaces with no immediately visible ways of getting back out once the door behind has shut clicked closed (like descending into the realms of lower Earth, or like a progressively demonic trial by increasingly impossible inquisition towards eventual and inevitable doom!)

All melodrama aside, it reminded me of the simple question that’s often nagged me when it comes to fences around schools and designated places for play: are the fences to keep security threats out, or are they to keep the children in?

Maybe the easy answer is to say that it’s a bit of both really. This, however, throws up deeper questions: why do we, as a society, feel the need to imprison children behind such fences in the name of ‘security’?; why do we feel the need to ear-mark small parcels of land where play is deemed ‘acceptable’, but only there?

When it comes to the first question, I make a starting point of referring to Tim Gill’s book No fear: growing up in a risk averse society (2007). In it, Gill states (p.49):

Home Office data . . . gives the numbers and ages of murder victims, aged under 16 years, killed by strangers in England and Wales for each year between 1995 and 2004/5. It shows that in 1995 not a single child between 5 and 11 was killed by a stranger. By contrast, in 2002/3 four children of primary school age were killed by a stranger. But there is no trend: in each of the two years following 2002/3 there was just one case. The annual figure changes randomly throughout the 11-year period.

In fact, the figures have been at around their current level for decades. Precisely because the crime is so rare, it can be stated with near certainty that there are no more predatory child killers at large today than there were in 1990 or 1975. These statistics categorically refute the dominant media message that dangerous, predatory strangers represent a significant or growing threat to children.

As Gill goes on to state, despite this extremely low percentage of cases, this is still no consolation to the parents of those children who are the victims, and this should of course be borne in mind. However, the over-riding personal feeling towards the barricading of children behind fences is that the society that we live in would rather that they be conveniently corralled for the benefit of the adults in that society (for adults’ comfort, reduction of anxiety, and so forth), yet the emotive concern of ‘children’s security’ will always win out and acts as a kind of smokescreen.

Children’s security is important, but what needs to be addressed is adults’ attitudes towards children in order for children to be better off. That is to say, a better general acceptance that children are part of that society, have opinions and expressions, are human beings even (and I don’t think I exaggerate here too much regarding some adults’ attitudes towards children!) — all of this will contribute to a richer way of living for all.

Two contrasting examples of physically defined space, regarding ways in which children and adults co-exist, can be drawn from personal experiences in Sweden and London. Whilst Sweden undoubtedly has its social problems, like every other country, a notable personal experience was the oft-repeated story of a visit to a school in Malmö, where the boundary between the school playground and the public grass was a line of trees with a playable dirt space beneath (no fence in sight); in contrast (and apart from the obvious examples of maximum security schools to be found in many towns and cities in the UK), there’s an odd little arrangement of designated play areas taking place on Shepherd’s Bush Green in West London. On both sides of one of the footpaths through the Green, there’s a designated fixed equipment play area, each with an admittedly low fence surrounding them. What always strikes me when I walk along this path is that I’m bisecting two separated groups of playing children, hemmed in by fences, on an otherwise wide and open public green space.

Why are the fences there? I can only conclude that it’s to keep the children in. Perhaps the psychological aspect of ‘defensible space’ ought really to be added in to the mix here though. That is, as picked up from my long-lost days at architecture school and the study of public and private space (e.g. the streets on which we live), there’s often a physical ‘barrier’ that marks the limits of our land (the end of our gardens, front or back), though this might not even be a fence — it could just be a line where the grass stops. It is, however, still a psychological barrier other people are often reluctant to cross, or it’s a line we expect others not to go over because this space is our space, and the street is all of our space.

Is the low, barred fence around many designated places for play also a barrier signifying the ‘defensible space’ of children? Would children choose to ring their play places with fences if they were designing them themselves?

Perhaps sometimes children do feel safer when behind the fences of school or the playgrounds they frequent, embedded as the latter often are in otherwise wide or open public space. Perhaps, though, in modern UK society’s fixation with security at all costs, these children know no different and blindly accept the fence (similar to the alarming trend of forgetting the art of handwriting or reading a real book because touch- and slide-screen technology is rendering these things obsolete, but that’s another story). Children now may just never have experienced play without fences, or play without the hovering adult, or play that hasn’t been channelled by a society fearful or anxious or just plain annoyed by it . . . Let us box our children in containable units, just as we box our consumer-society products. We do live in a convenience world, after all. What was the Dead Kennedy’s comment all those years ago? Give me convenience or give me death. There we go: melodrama again!

I admit that the playground where I work has a high fence around it. I didn’t put it there. I look at it some days, before the children have arrived or after they’ve gone: I try to work out what I feel about it. Some days it has its purpose: it encloses a sanctuary where the man screaming at the traffic warden in the street just beyond can’t overspill his angst into the ‘children’s space’; it provides that ‘defensible space’ for us playworkers, perhaps, because I’ve noticed that even when the gates are open during the open-access weeks, adults are often reluctant to cross the invisible threshold line; it says that this space is sacred; or, last week, the adjacent similar fencing around the public multi-sports area (‘the pitches’ as the children call it), was used by other children to climb up, hang from like monkeys, and jump onto the roof of the next building from!

What would it all be like if there were no fence here at all, and (this is a pre-condition of that scenario, I suppose) if our society were much more pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of that society — respected better, listened to more, considered?

Fences are a cause of some reflection: are they to keep security threats out, to keep the children in, or both, and what else lies beneath all of this?
 
 

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