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

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?
 
 

Here’s a story (because stories are what surround us, what humanity used to thrive on directly, and what we — if we look closely — need in our modern lives): this is a small story but one that affected me greatly. A few weeks ago I found myself at a school I’d never been to before to meet a playwork student. I was early and so I sat down by the big glass front door, as directed, and waited for a few minutes. Before long a string of children came into the small courtyard beyond the glass, bubbly enough, but then they all just fell into line and hushed up. As the teacher opened the door, the children all filed in, duckling-style but dead quiet. It was slightly unnerving, but that’s not my story. My story is this: I was just sitting there being ‘normal’ (whatever that is), as the children filed past; the last child, who was maybe eight or nine, I guess, gave me some direct eye contact, smiled, then winked at me. Off the string of quiet children went around the corner, disappearing into the innards of the school, and I sat there very much amused and very much thinking ‘now, what just happened there?’

This is nothing new, in some ways, because this sort of thing has a habit of happening. I do, however, try sometimes to have an air of ‘being normal’ about me. I sit there or I don’t say anything or I think I affect some look on my face that suggests ‘play has gone out to lunch, back later’. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong: I try too hard. Even the children in my own family seem to have a sense of me as ‘non-normalness’. That is, not in a sense of ‘that weird black sheep of the family’; no, more in the sense of ‘it’s OK, he gets it’.

I get the ‘rude’ words whispered at me because, I suppose, the children know that I know they’re only words, but also that there are other meanings to the whisperings and to the words, and that’s all fine; I get all manner of play cues, some of which other adults might find disagreeable; I get Dino Boy putting his three-year old fists up at me, scrunched into a tight ball the wrong way round to hit with, that look of play-serious intent on his face, demanding me to ‘Come on, let’s fight!’, or he’ll wipe his snot over my t-shirt, or jump on me when I’m not looking; or I’ll be invited to help Princess K. sort Barbie’s clothes out, or ‘Quick! Come see, there’s a snail!’ (and one of the children is about to bash its shell in with a plastic spade as I do come see), or a slug, or a dead thing of some indeterminate fascination. Do normal people engage in such things?

Of course, this is somewhat tongue in cheek, but my point here is that whether I’ve got my play-focus tuned in or not, it doesn’t seem to matter much some days: adults can walk me by and not notice me, but children have a tendency to catch some riff. That said, a strange thing happened at the park the other day. Gack and I had taken a trip out of town, down to the next city on the train line, to the ‘sand park’ (names being important in the evolving personal mythology of the child). I sat in the sun as Gack went and accosted various unknown children to hassle them into playing with their buckets and spades, or to talk about whatever four year-olds talk about when out of adults’ hearing range. After a while he managed to find a girl he took a shine to and off they went to the other side of the park. I thought I’d better stay somewhere he could see me, so I trailed along with the remains of the chocolate dipper that had been melting in the heat, the half-devoured lunchbox, and drinks, and I sat down elsewhere. Gack was telling his new friend that he was at the park with me, that I had a bright pink t-shirt on. The girl looked and looked for me: ‘Where? Where?’ she asked him. I was ten feet away, at the most, right in front of her. She couldn’t see me. It occurred to me that she must have seen this adult here, me, but that she was actually looking for another child.

Such is the way that Gack must have got his description of me across that I became invisible. It was a strange reversal of the usual predicament: visibility to the child is bound in the observed object (in this case, the adult) having some play value, playability, playness, call it what you will. If there’s an extra layer of the expectation that the play object is a child not an adult, as with the girl at the park, then the playness might get cloaked. I’m making unscientific ramblings. Suffice is to say, it’s another story for the collection.

The other week, I was walking down along the road just beyond the playground in London, heading for the Tube station, when a bus pulled up just to my side. Off got a handful of children and I recognised them all straight away as children who attended the open access holiday scheme. There were no adults with them as they tumbled off and, as they did so, one of them called out to me, ‘Hi Grandpa’ (it’s what they call me!). The other children looked up and smiled and called out the same. ‘Hi, my grandchildren,’ I said, or words to this effect. They tumbled off down the street towards the football stadium, laughing and smiling and waving. The point of this small story is that my grandpa-ness has transcended the playground fences now, and I liked this. None of the passers-by may have noticed me in my ‘just another London being’ way, but the children knew something about me, and that something wasn’t just confined to the rough large rectangle of land in the middle of the housing estate that we all call their play space.

These stories aren’t really about me at all: they’re about the state of being in play, whether we try to be or not, about the idea of ‘normal’ and the idea of ‘being something’, be that a word like ‘special’, ‘loved’, ‘approved’, ‘known’, or the like. These stories are also about the idea of stories in themselves.
 
 

Playwork has lost another of its own. This week Professor Perry Else passed away: I wanted to add my own thoughts following those who’ve already taken the time to reflect and write. In a sector that has a certain intensity in its discussion, ideas, experiences, conflicts of perspective, depth of thinking, there is also a cohesion just because of all of that. Perry was one of our own. Of course, playwork has lost others over recent years, but on a personal note Perry’s passing was a little different because I knew him, or at least, I had the privilege to hold discussions with- and be listened to by him. When I heard the sad news on Sunday this week, I was shocked. I knew that he wasn’t well, that there was some treatment involved, but I didn’t know the nature of his illness or the true extent of it: Perry didn’t seem to need to say it to everyone.

So this post is my tribute to Perry, based on the short time that I knew him and on the affect he has had on me. I don’t remember for sure the first time I met Perry: it may have been at Beauty of Play in 2007, or it may have been at another playwork event or conference somewhere around the country. It doesn’t so much matter because what matters is that, having read the Colorado Paper I was at once inspired to be in the presence of one of its authors (it remains a seminal text in the playwork field, if not totally comprehended by all) and also at ease in his presence. Perry had a way of concentrating on what you had to say, listening in, respecting the opinion, before taking the conversation on. I always knew I was in for a challenge of my own concentration when we talked though.

A few years back, at Beauty of Play one year, Perry sat down with me over breakfast, at the table overlooking the trees in the dip at the back of the old country house in Stone, Staffordshire. He was already alert at 8am (which might have been an earthly hour for him, but which has always been an unearthly hour for this playworker!) I had to concentrate especially hard as he talked about his latest writing, his thinking on play, and so forth. Some of it went in but that was my fault for getting out of my tent before double figures in the morning. I remember that Perry said to me that morning that he’d appreciate it if I didn’t tell anyone yet about the contents of that conversation (and he’d had conversations with others, of course) because he was still working on it. I didn’t, as requested.

In the summer of 2012, if memory serves me correctly, Perry and I had a conversation about me delivering a session at Beauty of Play that September. I’d presented before at the event and that year I needed to go but couldn’t fund it so well. Perry offered me a deal and then suggested some research subjects to work on over the summer ready for the event. We agreed that I’d take up the study of epigenetics, and how it related to play. Perry supported my research, offered advice, and took the time to talk things through with me. I really did appreciate his mentoring.

Every so often I would cross paths with him at other events. One year I was tasked with trying to explain parts of psycholudics at the National Playwork Conference and Perry must have been doing the advanced psycholudics discussions, in the same track. It felt like being his ‘warm up man’, either way, and in a way, even though it wasn’t a straight me and then the next guy gig! It focused me. It made me realise I had to get everything spot on for my own audience because they might well then head on to Perry and find out about this psycholudics thing straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Another year Perry and I were both in amongst a large group of playwork colleagues at the Playwork Conference, listening to a colleague discussing the play cycle. It must have been strange, in a way, for him to sit mostly in silence as others discussed the writing that he and Gordon Sturrock had done years before; there again, maybe he’d got used to it. He listened carefully, as seemed to be his way. That session, I related an observation of play that I’d once mentally taken (never having fully written it down), of children lounging around on the platforms of an adventure playground I’d visited in London a few years previously: I used it to explain some learners’ ways of understanding the ‘metalude’. Perry carefully made corrections at this point. He explained the metalude not, as he perceived the example, in terms of a whole ‘thinking process’ taking place in the playing child, but more as a kind of ‘presence’. I didn’t focus well enough to capture his exact words. I wish I’d raised it again with him when I saw him last, in March, at this year’s Playwork Conference.

What transpired was that I collared Professor Else after the workshop, sitting on the floor, in a small group of playwork colleagues, explaining my experience of a number of years of attempting to teach the finer nuances of psycholudics, as I understood it, and how it all seemed to feel like the Colorado Paper had been diluted down to ‘just the play cycle’ bit (through a combination of teaching methods and learner comprehension). Perry listened, accepted the stance, and my memory is of a good discussion held with a man who seemed to respect the contributors, the feedback, the material, the possibilities and consequences.

This year, at the Playwork Conference, towards the end of the day I sat on the sofas that myself and Arthur Battram had set up specifically to engage some salon dialogue. I was tired, having talked with and concentrated on listening to my peers all day. Perry came by and sat down on the sofa. I was instantly aware of concentrating hard (not because Perry spoke a different language, as it were, though others might playfully disagree!) but because I always felt inspired to focus in his presence. There are things, now, that I wish I’d asked him more about.

My deepest condolences go out to Millie, Perry’s daughter, who I met at Beauty of Play, she of the most beautiful singing voice. Perry would tell long tales around the campfire down there at the edge of the woods: tales we’d often heard the year before, story-jokes that wound about with that particularly languid tone of voice he had. Millie would later sing, and I hope she’ll sing a beautiful song for her Dad.

Of course, we can never have known someone as a family member might, though the passing of one of playwork’s own is significant: it’s tinged with extra pertinence if that person has directly affected any other.

Peace be, Professor Else, sir.

Joel with Perry (2012)
 
 

Whilst busying myself in the kitchen the other day, I overheard the children next door playing. The youngest is about three or four years old and she was playing on the trampoline which is behind the shed. I couldn’t see her or who she played with, or how they played, but I could hear their play. The point to this preamble is that I heard her enacting being a baby to her friend and it was exactly the following in the enactment: ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga.’ This was exactly the same play-words that I’d heard Princess K. and Dino Boy using a short while back whilst in my garden and whilst they also enacted baby play. When I thought about it, I realised that pretty much all the children I’d ever heard in this sort of baby-play used this exact ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ phrase.

Where does it come from? Real babies don’t go ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’: they gurgle and splutter and laugh, and strange alien word-formations start to come from their mouths, but I’ve never heard a real baby ever say ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’. Maybe I haven’t heard enough babies, but let’s just run with the assumption that real babies don’t go ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’. Someone, somewhere, must have started the whole ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing (or maybe, in the same way as evolution has a way of coming up with similar solutions to environmental challenges in different parts of the planet, ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ spontaneously arrived independently of other similar utterings elsewhere).

It’s the same with ‘being teacher’ role play: whenever I see children engaged in the socio-dramatic art-form that is the recreation of their teacher, or a teacher, I’m fairly confident in saying that it’s going to involve chairs, desks, usually some sort of a board, a register on a clipboard and, importantly, a fair amount of finger wagging. I’ve never seen a teacher wag their finger at a child or a group of children, I don’t think. I’ve seen some stood up, arms crossed, with stern looks on their faces, and I’ve seen some doing the whole ‘Errrrm’ thing at a pitch high enough and at a volume great enough to wake the dead and to reach into the far recesses of the playground, but I’ve never seen the finger wagging thing. Where do children get this from?

When I started thinking of the origins of such actions and phrases as finger wagging and ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’, I made a quick loop round the idea of ‘memes’. I tried to find a workable definition, and the one that follows is cobbled together from various places such as Oxford Dictionaries, Urban Dictionary and Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:

An element of a culture; an idea, belief, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture from one individual to another, by imitation for example, either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)

A pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; especially contagious to children and the impressionable.

These play memes that are ‘being baby by using goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga’, or ‘being teacher by finger wagging’ seem to be culturally transmitted between children. This transmission process keeps those memes alive. The more they get transmitted, the stronger they become, i.e. the more embedded they become in the play reportoire of a mass of children. The individual elements of this mass of children don’t have to know one another: children in the north and children in the south engage in the memes, for example. Such is the strength of such play memes that children can essentially speak the language of play to a complete stranger-child and still not have to engage in the language that their family uses, as it were. Many times I’ve seen children from various countries capably comprehend one another in their play.

So, the strong memes survive and, just like natural selection, the weaker memes die out. Children engaged in ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play, or ‘being at the vets’, or ‘being the doctor’, or such like, still tend to spend more time narrating what’s about to happen rather than immersing in the ‘what’s about to happen’ actually happening. This narration meme is strong still, whereas what’s happened to the old ‘locking together of fingers, index fingers up in a point, open the gate of the thumbs, turn the hands upside down, and wiggle the other fingers to show all the people in the church’? I don’t know why we used to do this when we were younger, but we did, and it was almost like a form of currency, one child to the other. Yesterday I saw a child do the old ‘High-five up above, on the side, down below . . . you’re too slow’ thing to a colleague, and I’m glad that meme is still hanging in there!

The question is though, and it’s one I can’t answer, so I’m just typing it out to throw it out there: where did such memes start? Or rather, how did they start? Of course, we’ll never know because as far as we know nobody’s fully documented the infinite depths of children’s culture. It is, also, another way of opening the door again here on the thinking on magic and legend and play and the depth level of our culture, of which children are such a part, but which they aren’t always fully credited for.

The play memes of children transmit themselves through the cultural whole but we can go about our adult lives ignorant of the nuances that surround us: the replication of ‘goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ (both in terms of how different children use the same phrase and, in my experience, that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ is itself often a double ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’); the interpretation of the actual or archetypal teacher in all its finger-wagging satire and caricaturising; the essential narration before/as some play (like indoor/outside space: is it?/isn’t it?); church steeples as known actions; high-five configurations as means of joking, relating, power-shifting, perhaps.

We can trace the memes back, maybe, but they’re of folklore so can we even find their beginnings? So, I ask the question rather more in rhetorical manner: where did that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing come from?
 
 

Recently, on the playground, I had cause to just stop and watch the beautiful way in which a colleague of mine was working. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to me what I saw unfolding had a beauty of its own. I shall come to this story shortly. First, a preamble though: my thinking back on this observing of a colleague is, in part, inspired by something that I read this week. In her blog, fellow playworker Morgan Leichter-Saxby writes about some things she’s seen as excellent playwork practice. I was somewhat taken by one of these observations (both for its story and for the prose that Morgan uses). Of someone once seen, Morgan writes:

Trained as a professional dancer, he moved quiet and sure, with a tiger’s grace.  Children in difficulties would sometimes come and stand near him, touch him lightly on the arm and breathe deeply.

Recently, on the playground, I had cause to just stop and watch the beautiful way in which Hassan worked. I’m hopeful that he won’t mind me telling you. We can sometimes fall foul of being critical of the world and its inhabitants, forgetting that we aren’t actually the perfect and highest authority on how to be, act, or interact: so maybe it’s good that we consciously stop ourselves to see what’s going on around us when something amazing takes place. It’s in praise that I write because we don’t do this enough.

One of the girls had written and drawn a sign on an A4 sheet of paper, along the lines of ‘kick me’, though with more words than this and, truthfully, I forget the exact phrasing but that’s neither here nor there. She was looking around for someone to tape it onto. I was paying periphery attention at this time, tidying around the edges of the room as this was taking place. Hassan, of course, became the chosen one. Before long the sign maker had been joined by some other children, giggling, plotting, trying to distract Hass as he leant over at the table. I started to pay more attention, leaning on my broom.

With the sign having been stealthily and duly taped to his back, Hass went about his usual comings and goings. The girls held their hands to their mouths and tried to suppress their laughing. Hass moved out and back into the room again. There was a flow in all of this. At some point the sign came off, or a new one was created, maybe to ramp up the play. I don’t know for sure. The exact order of these events is fuzzy. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hassan, with deadpan expression bordering on fake annoyance, turned around to the girls every so often, with good timing, to say ‘What? What? What’s the problem here?’ and suchlike. This only made the children giggle more.

In between signs he screwed up his face and stretched, leaning over the table. The children gathered around and he said that they should just bang his back, you know, that would help with the aching there, or words and actions to this effect. The children duly obliged. Hass thanked them and walked off, newly taped with another ‘kick me’ type sign. I watched and I smiled. I tipped my metaphorical hat. This all flowed backwards and forwards for, I guess, something like twenty minutes or so.

Hass was, of course, playing the game. He was returning the cues, keeping it going, giving children what they wanted at that time. Part of me wondered if the children knew that he knew. Maybe that was part of the whole magic of the piece. I don’t know. In the moment of that twenty minutes or so, maybe less, I just knew it was a beautiful thing to see. I told Hass so later because it just felt right to say that, but also because we don’t tell each other such things often enough. It’s easy to criticise others, but it’s not always so easy to say, ‘Yes, that was beautiful. Thank you.’

I have some shorter stories digging back and back: I once visited an after school club where there was a large field, part of a tree trunk laying in a wide muddy puddle at the far end, twenty five or so children, and the surface water of the previous night’s rain. (Maybe I’ve told this story before somewhere on these pages, I don’t remember. Stories like this stick around though). The ingredients were primed for a perfect storm: by which I mean the combination of muddy puddle and excitable children! Soon enough there were children in their school uniforms sat down in the puddle, jumping off the tree trunk after some tentative trial runs, and some children actually swam in the inch or two deep surface water covering the grass a little further away! I didn’t do anything, just being there in my observational capacity (though maybe, on reflection, my presence had influenced the team’s decision making). That said though, the point of my story is that play happened and was given every chance to go on happening. I made a point, later, of telling the team how impressed I was by their collective bravery because I felt it just needed saying.

Someone I should have told about the beauty of what they did, but didn’t, was a one-to-one support worker I observed in Stockholm a couple of years back. The children were having lessons out in the forest and we accompanied them and their teachers, trekking out and up a steep hill to the chosen site. In our party was this woman, whose name I never took, who with amazing strength, tirelessness and grace, pushed one of the children in a specially constructed wheelchair up this hill and over the rocky terrain up there, wherever the other children went, all day. The boy communicated with his tongue, pointing to symbols on a card she held up, as I remember it. Her dedication to his needs, his play, his involvement, just left me very, very humbled.

I should have told her what I saw, not because she didn’t know what she did or because it would have made her life the richer for it, maybe, but because such things just deserve such tellings. So, belatedly, and publicly I say thank you to her (although I doubt she’ll come across these words), and I also celebrate Lynda and her team for their bravery in the field with the puddle and the tree trunk, and Hassan for playing along with the moment. There are others, and there will be others too.

Thank you, Morgan, for your quiet words which are also loud.
 
 

Something has troubled me for a long time about play: or rather, something has troubled me about how play can be made use of. What it boils down to, this disturbance, is the idea of play being used in the pursuit of ignoble social engineering: let us create our perfect society by manipulating play. ‘Perfection’, of course, is subjective, and this is another problem, but the focus of my disturbance is others’ conscious envisioning of play as a means of, a tool for, the dubious shaping of society. I shall write this post in a deliberately philosophical manner, but it’s inspired by two brief observations of play that took place recently.

In the garden, I was sat in a chair and just relaxing as play took place around me. Princess K. and Dino Boy (who are nearly five and three, respectively) were sat in deckchairs nearby when a spontaneity of ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play broke out. I was co-opted into the play of the moment: ‘You be Daddy’, I was told. She, Princess K., would be ‘Mummy’, and Dino Boy (a.k.a. her younger brother) would be ‘Baby’. This was all nothing new in the observation, and I tried to stay somewhat out of it anyway because, frankly, I was more interested in the observing than in the energy involved in order to be an active participant. I was passive ‘Daddy’. What struck me here most of all though was the voices the two children used to narrate the set-up of the scene to myself and to each other, and in the continuation of that scene: the pitch of their voices went up to a higher degree and stayed there, in role. It was almost like young children enacting what they perceived to be young children: quite odd.

Play, I later considered, had transformed the children’s usual selves. It is to this transformative effect that I shall return later. First though, another brief observation involving the same two children a day later at the local park: both children busied themselves by stuffing various found things (fir cones, bits of grass, sticks, feathers, and so on) into an up-tilted metal spinning device. They were, apparently, making soup. ‘Soup’ feeds into the current philosophical thinking . . .

Play, I’m proposing, can be seen in terms of verb and noun: that is, ‘to play’ (verb) and play as a thing in itself (noun). It is to the latter that my attention is drawn. In making use of play (as noun), as a tool or a medium, the social engineers are bending it to their will (in the building of a society they wish to create): in this model of operating, play is something that can be discarded when the product (child as configured future adult) has been realised (created). This leaves a somewhat disagreeable taste: use play to create fit and healthy people who don’t drain the future economy; use play to develop a literate future workforce; use play to manufacture a society just happy enough with their material assets not to resort to active mass dissent at the ruling few. I’m being cynical, but close analysis of modern society might well justify these statements.

Alternatively, I propose, play (as noun), as thing in itself, ‘is’ the soup we live in. Play is not the tool, the medium, to be discarded after its engineering use is spent: play is the medium in which we live. It’s always there around us, in us, through us: play transforms us, continuously. This begs the question: is this ‘transforming’ what play is for? Further to this, there’s the consideration of the distinction between what play is ‘for’ and what play ‘is’ (or, at least, what it ‘appears’ to be).

Those who make use of play for the building of the great utopian future-society seem to miss the point of what play ‘is’: play is the soup, the fabric, the magic in which we all live. Admittedly, this is a subjective perspective because the best any of us can hope to perceive is what play ‘appears’ to be to them, rather than what it ‘is’, per se. However, all my study, all that I’ve been taught, and most importantly all that I’ve witnessed and personally felt about, and in, play leads me to this conclusion. This is where I position myself. Play should be given the chance to flourish in individuals, in collectives, in the built environments of cities and so forth. Why?

Simply, in asking ‘why play?’, we might as well be asking ‘why breath?’ (Note: I do mean ‘breath’ as noun here, not ‘breathe’ as verb). Play transforms us: not for economic, socio-economic, or passive-consumer purposes, but just because that is what play (this soup, this fabric, this magic in which we live) does. If it is ‘for’ anything, then surely it’s for this, as follows: in our momentary transformation is the moment that is play’s potential to continue, to roll and cycle on, to keep being. Play appears to me to be something that needs to keep moving, swilling, in order for it to be. To attempt to manipulate play for social engineering purposes, to try to mould it into something in order to hammer an object (this child, that child) into a perfect-future product is disagreeable.

What though might we think of ‘noble’ manipulations of play? That is to say, play as therapeutic tool, for example. Children traumatised by abuse, bereavement, ill-health, and so on, can surely be led upon the road to recovery via altruistic mindful therapeutic support? It is to the question of what constitutes ‘noble’ that I focus in on here in trying to make a way through this conundrum. If play is acknowledged, given a chance to be, in the noble aim (yes, again my own subjective analysis) of truly supporting the individual, then play is not manipulated as such but seen. If (‘therapeutic’) play is used in terms of conditioning individuals out of ‘undesirable’ traits, then this also leaves a disagreeable taste.

I know a boy who’s maybe thirteen or fourteen. He’s the big fish in the little pond that is the playground. One day we were surprised to see him in the sand pit. I hadn’t noticed him for a while up till then. It wasn’t that he was in the sand pit that was surprising: he was there for a good twenty or thirty minutes, at a guess; he was with another boy of about the same age; they were poking around with sand and water, and with things to mix one with the other; the boy was actually playing — this was the surprise. Play, that soup, that fabric, that magic, had swilled around and in him. He was absorbed. It was rare and special.

The point of this story diversion is that there is a difference between the over-engineered and the natural. It is the chance for play to take place, to take root, to flow, that we should be engineering, not the children, or the moulding of their play. Why should we being doing this? Isn’t this the same as saying that we’re trying to create a better future society? No, we should be looking to see what’s already here. Play is here. If we look, we’ll see; if we listen, we’ll hear.

Why play? What is it for? Play is transformative for its own ends. Why play? Why breath (noun, thing in itself)?
 
 

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