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

It’s closure time of the year. Just as the self-employed undertake a self-assessment for the paying of tax, I thought I’d undertake a playwork self-assessment for the year. I do this not to beat my own drum (there are some things to improve upon after all), but in the hope that other playwork people might be inspired to do it too (at the very least, in the privacy of their own thoughts or notebooks). Plenty has happened this year: there’s no way I can capture it all, so I aim to write a flavour overview as a means of sparking what might lie in others’ consciousnesses.
With due regards to time, with grace
I’m aware of the passing of seasons on the playground. Although I won’t write every section here like this one, I’m thinking clearly about that long, wet January when the place seemed underwater continuously, and when we developed a swamp in the centre of it all; February brought the realisation of how long the open-access children have to wait between the short times they get the playground for (October to February is a long winter). We waited so long for the first flowers, and then the grass grew long, and it grew through the scattered tyres. I resisted the cutting of the grass for a long time: there are hiding places to be had. In the end though, things change: this I know. Before long, those new long hot days of summer were on us. We had to adapt to the water bombs, to the spin of the play. The autumn stretched summer out into long shadows and the heat stayed on until one week when the winter came. The light left and the children played in the dark. The tree den became empty through the branches because all the leaves had gone. The fire pit became the centre-piece to plenty of the play.

In all of this, I find I needed resilience and the ability to cope with soaked denim — even when I asked for it not to be water bombed; I needed humour when I had no reserves left, and sugar (in the form of fizzy energy drinks and chocolate!) Overall, I was aware of the need for grace. Some days I find this deserts me; more days I realise that moments make up everything, and that I am in between, and that the slightest gesture carries weight. Grace, like time, is in the fabric of the playground.
I think of an eight-year-old who told me to fuck off, not so long ago, so I fucked off
I want to write it like this because it’s true. This boy told it to me straight (and it wasn’t this year, but this further thinking on it, on personal ‘ways of being’ progression, is of this year). There was a time when I would have objected to his words, for various socially absorbed reasons (that is, what I took on board, without questioning it, about what others told me I should think). So, when this boy told me I was wrong, in no uncertain terms, I realised I was wrong. I continue to think about ‘being wrong’.
I think of the good days in which I serve
Some people I’ve worked with have objected to my reasoning that I should ‘serve’ children. They seem to be saying that I shouldn’t be taking a stance that they themselves see as overly self-deprecating. I don’t see it this way. I see it, more and more, as essential in good quality playwork: I am in service of the play. My purpose is not to control, or to teach, or to dictate or direct. I can and have served in many ways: on good days. There are days when I’m not so on the ball, in honesty. These are the days I can work on, in my continuing thinking on ‘being better’. On good days, I serve the play directly, or indirectly, walking away. The children tell me with the looks in their eyes or with words I don’t expect . . .
I make some mistakes that I recognise
There’s a small difference between me using the word ‘that’ and the word ‘which’ in this heading: the former is my admission that there are some mistakes that I make and that are recognised and, therefore also, some that I may miss; I choose not to use ‘which’ because this implies to me that I recognise all of my mistakes. The mistakes I’ve made, I’m working on; those that I don’t yet recognise are those that may make themselves clearer in the fullness of time.
I listen to the indirect and direct problems that children bring me
On the whole, I’ve not been a great believer in the ‘playworker as always basically invisible’ school of thought. I did go through a phase of being more invisible than visible, but then the children I work with now got to know me better. I work in a human environment. In that environment, those children bring me their small and great issues of their day-to-days, on occasion. I don’t know what to do about this, often, because what can I do? So I listen when I can. Sometimes I might go about the listening process in ways the children don’t want (see my previous post about the boy on the roundabout). Generally though, these children here will bring me things if I am the one they wish to unload on. We might be sitting round the fire, or we might be just talking at the hatch to the kitchen, the children sat up on the counter (some of the girls see this, I think, as ‘their place’, sat up against the wall eating pasta straight from the pan, or the salad straight from the bowl!) I do my best to listen, and if I get it wrong the children tell me in no uncertain terms.
I get my hands filthy, my clothes wet and smoky
Really, I think, this year, playwork involves a fair degree of this. There’s no point standing around pretending to be interested, constantly checking your phone, looking at the clock, hugging the corners of the playground (or whatever the place might be termed as) in tight little lines of personal comfort zones: you’ll get found out. Children know. Your colleagues know. You might be the only one who doesn’t. One day, one week, if I’m on form (and we all get tired, sure), I earn my way this way of filthy hands, of wet and smoky clothes. There’s still nothing quite like getting on the Underground at the end of a summer session, covered in mud and paint, stinking to high heaven, still talking play, even though the day’s come and gone, and heading for the pub, drawing the attention of slightly freaked-out fellow commuters!
Some play concerns me; some play I’m required in
I use the word ‘concern’ in two senses: some play concerns me, as in ‘it troubles me’; some play concerns me, as in ‘my presence is required in it’. I find I’m fine with some children climbing some trees, but other children climbing other trees has its worries. What I do or don’t do is then important. I decide to consult with a colleague, and I step away from the play as she observes. Yet, some similar play doesn’t concern me at all: I watch on amazed as the older boys perform all their parkour moves way up above me, jumping off the highest platform points, rolling, and bouncing off and on again.

Some play concerns me, as in ‘I am required’. I often wonder, when cued to play, about the difference between ‘neediness’ and ‘being required’. I see these as different in quality. If I’m well-received for a quality of ‘being me’, one day, I’m a necessary aspect of the play. It isn’t my play, but I’m a part of it. When it’s done, it’s done, and I’m discarded like any other object of the loose parts variety. Some days, the play might not be this way inclined: I inherit a personal little shadow. I try to give that shadow away to a colleague, in hopefully sensitive ways. It is this aspect of ‘being required’ that I find some fascination in though.
I’ll step away and around the play that doesn’t concern me
This is something I have been aware of for a fair while. I think of it every time my intended path comes into contact with a play frame/instance of play in front of me. It doesn’t take long to stop, wait, choose the right moment to pass on around the play, where possible. What I have learned is that I think about this more and more. On the days I get it wrong, because I’m requested elsewhere quickly, or because I just mis-time it, I tell myself this for next time.
I continue to learn the tools of the playground, recognise my limitations and inabilities, recognise the skill of others
Is being a good playworker about knowing which end a sledgehammer, screwdriver, saw, or power drill operates from? My limitations have always been my use of such tools (ask my woodwork and metalwork teachers at school!) However, slowly, slowly, I learn where the ‘on’ button is for most things! I will always be useless at doing the things that others can just do, seemingly, without even being aware that they’re doing it. My hat is very much off to them. I’ll keep trying.
I de-personalise the children’s criticisms, but take their said and unsaid praise
On some occasions this year, children have told me that I’m in their face, I’m bugging them, I’m not needed, or I’m something I just don’t understand because I haven’t got the local child parlance quite off pat yet. Yes, sometimes I’ve felt aggrieved by things said, but more often than not I know that that is what was needed to be said by that child in that moment. Tomorrow always brings a different light. ‘Tomorrow’ might end up being a few months down the line.

In contrast, when children choose to say how much they appreciate you, it’s usually not a superficial communication. In some ways, the following example is the catalyst for this post today. In the last week of school term, one of the older girls had discussions with various playworkers about whether they were on her ‘nice list’ or not. (It transpired that she’d been to Spain, apparently, so she told me on her way back from school one day, where those not on the ‘nice list’ get lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings). I found myself on the ‘nice list’. She smiled at me and told me that I always opened the door to her and her friends, bowing, saying things like: ‘Hello, ladies’! It’s true: part in playfulness but also part, in truth, because this is my way of saying an honest welcome to them. The point is that these ways I take for granted, over time, hadn’t gone unnoticed by this child. It has made me think on plenty of other ways of ‘being playworker’.
I write carefully, mostly
‘Being playworker’, for me this year, involves ‘being writer’. Words are important because they can either heighten or destroy the possibility of meanings. I try to choose wisely because words have play in them too.

A short while ago, I came across some words attributed to Barry Schwartz, regarding the cultivation of ‘practical wisdom’ in a piece entitled ‘Our Loss of Wisdom’, which I believe can be found via the TED talks website. Schwartz discussed ‘being wise’, and I thought as I read this passage that I could transplant his words ‘a wise person’ with ‘a playworker’; here’s what I can leave you with for 2014:

‘A playworker knows when and how to make the exception to every rule . . . a playworker knows how to improvise . . . real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A playworker is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand . . . to serve other people, not to manipulate other people . . . and finally, perhaps most important[ly], a playworker is made, not born.

‘Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people [who] you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, [to] try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures . . . and you need to be mentored by wise teachers.’

I have my chosen teachers. Some are excellent playworkers, some are much younger . . .
Seasonal malarkey to you all. Playworkings will return in January.

Something I’ve long been very aware of is the potential magnitude of moments: the things that pass us by because we’re not wise enough to ‘read’ them correctly. I’m adding to my understanding of this all the time, in new things learned and in re-realisations. This week I re-realised that I’m tall. I’ve known this, obviously, for the duration of my entire adulthood, but this week I re-realised that — in our moments of adult-child relating — there’s more to physical height differences than just the visually apparent. I’m well used to sitting on floors in past places of work with children, and at home, but in the winter on this playground, I’ve been walking and not sitting much. When a girl came to the fire pit this week, in a grumpy mood about something in her day, firing all the ‘whatever’ attitude of her present state of mind at me, I wasn’t helping even though I tried to listen and joke with her.

She was telling me things of her day-to-days but it was laced with something simmering under the surface. It suddenly occurred to me to lower my height because I had been leant up against the palette wall to the fire pit. More than this, it suddenly occurred to me to crouch right down, leaning my lower back against the wood: she now stood over me. Her whole disposition shifted immediately. It wasn’t that I was consciously trying to engineer this change in her way of being, at that moment: it was that I realised, after, that I had been affecting her too.

The magnitude of the moment struck me. We should not underestimate such small stories as these. It leads me to think back a short while, to a story written of recently of visiting an after school club, indoors, where I was able to communicate non-verbally (or, as I felt it) with a younger child as we slid down the wall divider next to each other, together. It makes me re-think on the times when I’ve been lower than the physical height of children. There’s often a shift in communications.

Moments come in other shapes and flavours, not just those of height considerations, and they can also be misread. A few days later, the same girl was at the fire pit again and I already knew I was tired and I felt I wasn’t reading the play as well as I could have done. The girl had spent a fair amount of time just poking the embers that had settled there (the fire had been lit quite early on and it had had a chance to settle). When her mum came for her, the girl ran inside to her. There was no-one else around, she was one of the last to go, so I threw the water from the nearby bucket onto the fire to put it out. I went to get some more from the standpipe. When I came back, the girl came charging out again and saw the rising plume of smoke caused by the sodden embers. She called me all sorts of things. She stomped off, muttering under her breath words to the effect of hating me now. I realised that, although she didn’t say it in so many words, she’d wanted to show her mum the fire she’d been nurturing. I hadn’t read the play up till then well enough because I was tired.

This is a moment that I write in order to remember it. I write the following for the same reasons. On the bench outside, a boy was banging away at the innards of an ex-computer, which was pretty flat but he kept going anyway. He progressed to use of the sledgehammer, dropping it onto the circuitry from a small height. I stayed close by, wary of toes. The girl of the stories above came by: ‘I want to try; let me use the sledge.’ She hefted it, dropped it, a few times. The moment of magnitude in question was a reading of some small satisfaction.

Three children wanted wood for the fire and I sourced a palette for them which I’d put by earlier in the day. They started banging it with hammers to try to break it up but nothing would shift. They wanted the sledgehammer but when they each tried to lift it, it was too heavy for them. They succeeded, individually or by group effort, in raising it and letting it drop with a dull thud-plop onto the wood without much impact. In the end they resorted back to the hammers as I sledged the palette and as they hooked off the scraps. The children knew about health and safety well enough, I realised: ‘Hold on!’ one kept telling me, ‘Let me get out of the way’ (which she was, but I suppose she must have felt it necessary to tell me again).

A boy was being bugged by two others. I couldn’t see what the focus of the issue was, but the play of the two boys (which wasn’t so much play for the first boy) fell around inside and outside in sporadic bursts. Eventually, the bugged boy took himself off to the far side of the playground on his own. I watched him go, left him for a little while, but decided for some reason that I should go open up a conversation. I circled around towards the roundabout, pretending I was doing other things, but really, truthfully, I think he had me pinned almost immediately. He stayed there though, and I came to crouch down at the roundabout bars as he slowly spun around. I asked him if there was anything I could do. He blanked me completely. I asked again in other ways and I got the same response. Slowly, quietly, he slid the roundabout to a crawl, which allowed him to get off. He walked away without a word or a look my way. I crouched there on the bar, despite being below his eye height, slowly spinning on my own. I hadn’t read this one right, nor had I chosen the best course of action, despite my best intentions. Other children came over immediately and cued me to spin them, which I did. I watched the boy trudge off into the gloom of the middle of the playground. I didn’t take his blanking of me personally.

I write this small story, and others, here and now to remember about moments and their potential magnitude.

‘Playwork’, I think (this week, at least, and returning in part to previous writings) is not a job, as such: it’s a way of thinking, a way of being. I would say it’s a ‘mindset’ but, just as the term ‘play setting’ continues to seem to me to be something rather akin to ‘somewhere in the process of becoming concrete’, a ‘mindset’ probably isn’t the right word: playwork is mindfulness, mindedness. It is an approach to seeing/perceiving children and play. Within the seeing comes the visibility shone on the seer by the child: this adult gets it; within the seeing comes the possibility of being brought into the play, or comes the insult without any huge consequence, or comes the possibility of confidence (as in ‘to be confided in’), etc.

I write this because I’m aware there are those who don’t call themselves ‘playworkers’ but who show, sometimes, a mindedness towards play in their actions; equally, there are those who do call themselves ‘playworkers’ but who really, at that time, have less focus on the children and play than they have on other things (say, any given adult agenda). Within the field of those who call themselves playworkers, we’re never going to come to a consensus on exactly how to work: there will always be different ‘flavours’ of playwork-minded people, which is fine, because it takes all sorts. However, there are confusions bound up in all of this: of which, I shall address a few a little later.

We can only truly embrace the flavours (to continue the metaphor) of those we think of as playwork-minded, perhaps, in those we see to be on parallel tracks to our own: if we think of ourselves as anything, then perhaps we can only compare others to our own flavour. Close enough is good enough; too far away isn’t the ‘real deal’. Of course, we may be wrong about ourselves in the first place, but we can always re-model our thinking to take in what we newly learn.

I see playwork-mindedness in others who children take to easily; or in those who children seem to test out with actual- or mock-insults or interrogations, which the playwork-minded accept with humour and good grace. In fact, it’s this grace that I perceive in others who, through their reflection-in-action (through what they do and how they do it, which highlights in some way how they think of the children at play), that I think I value most. I have known and worked with some people who have had astounding grace. If I think I’ve done well, one day, any day, I may have been perceived as with grace; at other times, I aspire to it.

Playwork-mindedness isn’t just the above though: I see it in those, on a good day, in a good minute, to whom children show in various ways that they’re seen and approved, accepted (even, or especially, just after that adult has lost their composure for a short while). I see playwork-mindedness in looks in the eye, without words; I see it in words and banter developed between the child and the adult; I see it in the ways that some children will say some things only to some adults. There is trust.

This is all written so far in terms of child-adult relating, but I see playwork-mindedness also in the ways that some adults will talk or write to one another; I see it in the ways that an adult will go out of their way, disrupting the usual patterns of their day, to provide for, to resource for, the play; I see it in the small and large building or preparations for play, and I see it in the ways that adults of this mindedness will step around the play, not through it, without a word.

Playwork-mindedness, as I see it, isn’t the exclusive preserve of the adventure playground. I met someone recently who indicated that he thought I thought this way. I was at an after school club. ‘Playwork is a mindset’, I told him of my opinion, based on my experience (though my thinking, as I write it now, has become a little more refined since then). Playwork-mindedness can happen in other places where children come to play, it can happen on the street, it can happen at home.

Playwork-mindedness is all of the above, as I see it, and plenty more. However, there are confusions bound up in what I perceive to lie outside the range of playwork-minded flavours though (we can only compare with what we know to create our range). Overt-developmentalism, soft- or hard-educationist agendas, play in terms of social control or future-proofing have all found their way into some who call themselves playworkers and their strands of playwork. These are no strands my experience tells me as being ‘playwork-minded’.

We haven’t even touched on the difficulty of ‘ego’ yet either. This is a bit of a misnomer though, really: that is, we use this ‘ego’ word in our increasingly soundbite-afflicted modern culture (and I’m guilty of perpetuating that here now too), but we tend to use it in terms of ‘the inflation of who we are’, ‘increasing our own stock’, or ‘over-selling ourselves’. Actually, in Freudian terms (as I understand it), the ‘ego’ is a ‘mask’ we wear. Actually, actually, in Buddhist terms (also as I understand it), we must first accept that there is no ego.

‘Those-who-would-be-playworkers’ may well have a propensity towards increasing their own stock, above the drive to serve the children. The playwork-minded will have no concern for ego (or, let’s be fair, little concern — because absolute perfection is unattainable and enlightenment is then a fair way off for most of us). Service is, I suggest, essential. Without any degree of service (not ‘servitude’, ‘slavery’), we treat children as lower than ourselves.

When I’m ‘playworking’, on a good day, in a good moment, I consider myself mindful and minded of the play. The ‘I’ is problematic, in terms of the ‘ego’ (which may or may not exist), so this minded person has the approach of service: he may interact with perceived grace; he may smile at an insult, or a kick to the shin, or any other provocation; he may be asked into the play. Certainly, at that moment, in that conversation, or with that look in the eye, he’ll share that moment as one of ‘mutual gettingness’. He may be confided in, and he’ll know who can and can’t be told things and why. He may be ignored but he’ll not take it to heart and he’ll walk around the play (whether that play’s on the playground, or in any other place where play can be: on school premises, in the street, at home, and so on). When the playwork-minded is ‘playworking’ he or she will see the reflection-in-action of others of similar flavours. The mindful-minded will smile, because they’ll know . . . and, of knowing, so too will the children, quietly.

Two children are having an argument over something and they just can’t let it go or get over it: what do you do? That is, you’re an adult watching on, a playworker perhaps, or you’re of a playwork-minded persuasion — even if you don’t know it — and you see all this bottled-up aggression unfold in front of you: When do you step in? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all?

My playground noticings for this week have formed around some children’s antagonisms, their righteous anger, and their focused interpretations on fairness — for the benefits of the self — resulting in cyclical arrangements of revenge. This all sounds fairly heavy-duty and negative, but thinking about interactions of this kind, in and around play, and a few days on from them, I file this post under the draft working title of ‘the human tendency to push others’ buttons and have others push our own’. That is, adult or child alike, none of us are, or ever will be, perfect and we will irritate, and be irritated by, others.

A playworker, who understands that they can just as equally push children’s buttons as vice versa, also understands that a reasoned process should take place when thinking on children’s various interactions with one another. I’m not an advocate of the school of thinking that promotes such direct verbal mantras as ‘Now, was that kind?’, ‘Share your toys’, ‘Say sorry’, ‘Don’t be mean’, and so on. That’s not to say that a little human kindness, sharing, sincerity and love wouldn’t go a long way in this world; it is to say though that forcing things on children may well only turn them into people of automatic responses that lack thought and true emotion.

Children will have arguments, just as baby birds will fall from trees, and just as you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself sharing a train carriage with someone with an annoying ringtone, a propensity to eat crisps loudly, or someone blessed with the most pathetically irritating cough in the whole wide world! The trick, or the sleight of mind, for the playworker — or playwork-minded person — when around the arguing children, is in trying to know what best to do and when.

Last week I watched on as a group of footballers cheated outrageously to get the oldest of them out of the game. She, the oldest, was not best pleased when the ones who were ‘already through’ to the next round conspired against her, but to her credit she tried every pressure, persuasion and conceit to get herself reinstated before finally taking on her erstwhile opponent and winning through again in a replay. The boy she beat stomped off in a flurry of self-defeat (because, in truth, he’d got it into his head that he couldn’t beat her fair and square before the replay anyway). The girl then took it on herself, after celebrating, to go and have it out with another child who was the chief cheat.

At what point do you step in when the two are literally at each other’s throats? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all? Eventually, for the boy’s protection, I stepped in (because I think she was only really holding him off and could easily have done him some proper damage if she’d tried). Was I right to even step in at all? ‘Play nicely’ (whatever that means) didn’t even enter my head (nor would it ever do), nor did ‘respect each other’ or ‘is this kind?’ These are education system mantras, which I understand to have some safeguarding intent but also, perhaps, some eye on crowd control. I stepped in when I judged it necessary but I don’t know if my judgement was correct.

I’m not advocating children go all out to hurt each other and adults just watch on and do nothing. I’m thinking around the relative benefits of adults not controlling the every emotion that children are expected to display. What was in my head at the time of the intervention was one of protection for the boy (the girl could easily look after herself, I think, and would probably have held her own against the whole group — all in it against her together — if she’d had to): I had no agenda of the children making peace with one another. What transpired was odd: I was aware of the heightened state of agitation that the boy was in after the older girl had left the scene of her own accord, and I sat down on the grass bank with him just so he could ‘come down’; a few of the other footballers came over and sat with us. One of them, another younger girl, shouted at me from just a few feet away, trying to tell me what had happened. She was also highly agitated. There’s no point in trying to be rational with people who are so ‘up’ emotionally, though I said quietly to the shouting girl, ‘Hey, I’m just here, this far away,’ but she didn’t hear me . . .

The oddness was in how the children came over, sat down calmly enough and tried to explain away the group’s actions (their cheating, as perceived by the aggrieved-against, and as observed by me): I hadn’t asked them to come over, and it struck me that they might have felt a need to justify actions when no justification had been asked for. Is this symptomatic of a social system in which children are often told how to behave?

This same week, another group of children were running around chasing after another boy and I observed it all flow around the playground and around me. As I observed, I felt something beginning to bubble up: I could see the boy was being ganged up on, even though the group appeared to be in ‘play mode’ — maliciously, softly, perhaps. I asked the boy, in passing, if he was annoyed because I felt he was. He said he was. Now, we need to know the children around us and I could sense that this individual was past the point of his own ability to deal with the situation. I intervened. I asked the gang to come listen to the fact that the boy was at this point. They didn’t listen. I tried to come at it again by a change in surroundings. They didn’t listen. It hit me that I was doing it wrong: it looked like I was trying to impose my adult views on the children, of how I expected them to be, or that’s how I felt it. I realised that this was a gripe between the aggrieved boy and the gang leader (who, it turned out, was also aggrieved): so I took these two to another room, reducing the stimulus, where they could tell each other what they felt.

This was, again, not a case of ‘respect each other’, ‘play nicely’, or ‘is this kind?’ This was a means of opening a dialogue, and whatever was said was whatever was said. I said nothing. I knelt down in the doorway and feigned disinterest. The boys took it in turns to resolve things for themselves. I shrugged when they’d stopped talking. They went. I got lucky, but I also came out with a few more thoughts on conflict, interventions and interactions.

I’m not always calm inside when children push my buttons. This happens, because we’re humans, and humans will have a tendency to do this to one another sometimes. It doesn’t happen very often, but life is not always sweet and rosy on the playground: it would be boring if it were. No matter how old or experienced we get at being around these unpredictable creatures that are the children we work with, there are occasions when buttons will be pressed: it is an on-going process of learning about the self in the ways that we deal with these moments. It should also be remembered that we will annoy the hell out of some children sometimes too. This week, I was wandering the playground when I saw two children at the sand pit: the girl was sat in a big hole and the boy nearby. He suddenly shouted at me: ‘Hey, Joe [he calls me this], go away. We need some sand privacy.’ I knew I’d bugged him just by my presence, and he knew I was observing. I tried some banter but it fell flat on its face. I moved away.

We need to be careful in our observations, but they are key not only to understanding individuals at play (and how we might be in all of that: present or absent) but also in further thoughts on how the adult world at large impacts on children. I see children on the playground sometimes engaged in cycles of revenge, never seeming to reach a point of karmic fulfilment, as it were, returning and returning in always attempting to have the ‘last word’ by trying to trip someone up, playing at throwing paint over them, a little shove here or there, and so on: I wonder at the unfulfilled needs wrapped up in all of this, where adults have previously imposed the ‘this is how to feel and be’ full stop to the argument of the day — children keep pushing and pushing buttons because they haven’t been allowed to work out for themselves the point of ‘this is enough; I have my balance; I am avenged.’

Arguments will happen and buttons will be pressed because we interact in a human environment: it’s how we deal with this that is important. If we’re an adult who’s bugging the children, or being bugged by the children, if/when should we walk away?; if we’re observing arguments or aggressions of cycles of revenge, if/when should we step in? Maybe my interventions this week worked well; or maybe, when it comes to emotion comprehension and regulation, I’m also part of the adult problem for these children.

Letter to Dad: about my work

This weekend marks a year to the day since my father’s passing. I wanted to write to mark this very newest of first anniversaries and I’ve realised I’ve been writing to Dad in my head, as I’ve been working, all week. I have been thinking of what I do in my work, and I’ve been thinking of Dad as the day drew ever closer, and the two lines of thinking coincided at some small point I can’t fully pinpoint. So then, Dad, this is a letter to you, because I wanted to tell you things, have always wanted to tell you things, and for a long time now never could (except at the end when I didn’t know for sure if you could hear, but told myself you could, and because of the long slow deterioration that your illness was).

Dad, I think you always were a little confused at my decision not to go on and become an architect: I don’t think I ever took that as disappointment or annoyance, just a genuine inability to understand. We would have our conversations about what I was doing with my life and you’d say things like, ‘So, son, when are you going to get a proper job?’ I didn’t take it so harshly: it was just that you never got the idea of playwork. The truth is, nor did I, really, back then. Still, we talked about my work, in roundabout sorts of ways, and you told me your stories, and we both nodded and we moved on.

I’m in a much better position to be able to tell you what I do now. You know, you always said to me, ‘Son, work with your brain, not with your hands’ (because, I think you spent a lot of time doing the latter yourself). Well, I guess I do both. This is all one week in what I do: this week I’ve done the brain work and I’ve done the ‘grunt work’! I don’t expect you to get everything I’m going to tell you, but that’s fine, because frankly not everybody does anyway.

What I know you do get, because you’ve done it, is me shovelling a ton of sand, although you’d probably say, ‘Why do that yourself, son?’ Well, it was there, I was there, someone had to do it, and the children are basically who I work for, as it were. You know? You used to say, ‘Why have a dog and bark yourself?’ The way I see it, Dad, sometimes I’m there to do that grunt work because, strange as it might sound, I do get a buzz out of getting things sorted so the children can play. I reckon you kind of get that because, in your own way, you used to do some things like that for me . . .

So, I’ve shifted sand to the sandpit and I’ve done other things for the children’s play too: I’ve been noticing recently that there’s a lot of war play going on (you know, guns and swords and bombs and that sort of thing: you made a bombs game up when we were younger, I remember). I spent some time one day this week just strapping up old bits of foam with ‘duck tape’ and making them into foam bashers. I put these and a load of hockey sticks all in one place, slotted into upright palettes round by the fire pit (and in my head I called this the ‘arsenal’), and I hid a few bucket-loads of ‘bombs’ (plastic ball-pit balls) around the place. When the children came in that day, I went outside and saw they’d found the bashers and so on and one girl told another child she was the ‘weaponeer’ and that the stash was the ‘weaponry’, which made me smile. I didn’t tell her what was in my head, honest!

I’ve been bashed a fair amount this week, by various children with various lengths of basher (even your grandchildren, at home, seem to want to playfight lots too! Must be something in the air!) We’ve also had fires at the fire pit, and I’ve been in and out and around these with the children there. They can’t seem to get enough of it these early winter dark nights, especially when they see green flames, or when they see that the flames look pink if they look at them through the camera. There’s always plenty of play going on and I’m invited into it quite a lot by various children, or I’m just in it and the children seem fine with this. This week, apart from being bashed a lot, I’ve been in ‘parallel world’ play (those are the words the girl I was with used — she’s got a lot of imagination, as you can see! — we try to keep track of interesting quotes from children too, and I spent some time this week reading up on these and adding some more); I’ve been an artist with the camera and that same girl and another, on a different day; I’ve sat around with tea lights with a small group of children, floating them (the tea lights, that is, not the children!) in a pan of water on a cold evening; I’ve slopped out big bowls of watery powder paint so a child can make a giant sand volcano; I’ve tried to help an older child who was so upset by other footballers that he couldn’t speak straight because of the tears.

There’s a lot of just watching on too, though (I do try not to get so involved it stops being about the children’s play): for a couple of days running, some of the children played with some rubber gloves that they filled with water and stretched out the fingers in shapes that made them laugh. They say things like, ‘Man, that’s sick!’ and they mean, ‘That’s good,’ or something like that, I think. I think I gave up trying to know exactly what children’s language actually was a short while after getting looks like ‘What is this weirdo trying to say?’ (when I tried to use that language back at them!). I’ve seen plenty of other play and it’ll come back to me after a while, but there’s so much there that if I don’t write it all down, or take a mental picture of it, you know, it kind of blurs. It comes back again, after a while, but sometimes I have to be standing there in the mud to see it.

So, that’s all that, but I’ve also had a few conversations about something I’m writing for a book, and I’ve been doing plenty of reading for that too: there are so many books in the world and not enough time. I spend time every week on the computer, reading stuff, and there’s always time on the train to open a book. When I find I’m in London with a spare couple of hours (which isn’t often, but does happen some weeks), I try to make good use of my time. I’ve been going to the art gallery along the Thames (the Tate Modern): there’s a room I find myself at every time I go there and I went there this week again too — I sit there and just think about the paintings and about how I’m thinking and about how it all links in to my writing, and that sort of thing.

I’ve got some students too. I’ve been teaching them and seeing how they work, where they work, and holding tutorials and writing up plans for them. In between all this I talk about play with people I work with: this week I talked about my play as a child and where we lived and about how that little bit of land that was the estate where we lived was our territory, and how it had pretty much all we needed in it — trees, lakes, grass, slopes, secret places . . . I sometimes wonder who I’d have been if we’d moved somewhere else when I was young.

Maybe where I grew up and how I grew up contributed in some way to what I do today. Of course it does, somehow, but I mean that maybe I’d have been a different type of playworker if I’d grown up somewhere else. I don’t know. Anyway, what I do know is that what I’ve done this week is about everything I’ve said so far and it’s also about a couple of days of mopping out the toilets after the rubber gloves split, about making food for the children on the day that it was my turn, about going out with a colleague to scavenge for wood from builders doing up a house, about dealing with (or, actually, really, not dealing with!) a bunch of older children who’d come to tease us, gate-crashing at the end of the session at the end of the week when we were all tired, climbing over the fence and wanting to run rings round us before we just decided to ignore them! I wash up, tidy up, talk with parents, talk with anyone who pops in about play, and then I write about it all . . .

So, Dad, being an architect never worked out for me, but I’ll tell you what (‘I’ll tell you what’ is what you always used to say when I was younger and it always got me going, ‘What? What?’), I’ll tell you what . . . being a playworker is alright. I’m working with my brain, sure, like you said, but also a bit with my hands, and that’s all OK as long as my knees and back hold out!

Over and out, for now, Old Man. Wish we could have done this more; hey, let’s do it more.

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.


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