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

Play as movement

A long time ago I’d come to the conclusion that play pretty much boiled down to ‘movement’. That is to say, not necessarily confined — in the definition — to physical movement, but as related to all sorts of movement: of the body, sometimes, yes, but also of the mind, also of what some might call the spirit, also of abstract and not fully formed ideas inside us, and so forth. I had this conversation a few years back with a very good friend of many years, a dancer, as we walked along the Weser in Bremen. ‘Play’, she said, had also formed part of her study thesis in her field, her vocation, and ‘play as movement’ was the same conclusion she’d come to. Back to the present, and the motion of travel and being part of a huge metropolis has absorbed plenty of my waking hours recently: sometimes this all just stops you from seeing the woods for the trees. So I focused in, now that I’m still for a few days: I see that, within play as movement, is the great experimentation of the now that is play.

I’m always at great pains to try not to use the word ‘learning’ in the same breath as ‘play’. Sure, ‘learning’ can take place, but ‘learning’ is such an adult-heavy word: it’s full of intention for the future, of being something that you’re not quite- or very far from yet, of being better, and so on. Whatever happened to the aspect of experimentation that amounts to ‘just for the hell of it’? When I was a child I climbed up onto a flat roof of a derelict house down the street; I threw eggs into the garden from up there, just for the hell of it. I don’t know what I learned. It didn’t make me into a better or worse citizen. It added to my general stock of stories and ‘me’-ness, but I didn’t go into it for these reasons. I climbed a roof because I could, and I threw eggs because I found them.

The great experiment of play is an on-going venture. It happens because it can (sometimes, if adults just back off and butt out). A couple of weeks ago I did the tourist thing in the huge metropolis of London. I say it like this because I forget that London underground is a different place to London on the ground, in the open air: people don’t squirt around in long thin tubes up there and the place is full of everyone, every sound, every energy, non-stop. In the city, there are (what I remember being told at architecture school many, many years ago) ‘monuments’ and ‘toothpaste’ (the latter being the streets in between). In amongst the toothpaste, if you believe in and reckon on the city that way, it’s hard to stop and see. The other week, we tourists ventured out along the Docklands Light Railway to the eastern wastelands of somewhere near Stratford, en route towards the newly re-opened Olympic Park.

It is here that a great experiment of play was seen. Wedged between the mothership Westfield shopping centre and the vacant Olympic Stadium, overseen by the grotesquely singular-purposed ArcelorMittal Orbit ‘sculpture’ tower, is a flat area of concrete with a series of circular grills set into it. When we came over the grass bank and saw the place full with children, I knew that here was a huge experiment of play taking place. Each grill was a fountain spout that sent a column of water into the air before it tumbled back over itself.

Olympic Park, London I

Children ran around shouting and screaming and laughing as they navigated between the spouts and as those water spouts rose and fell in various synchronisations. To observe it was fascinating, but what could it have been like to actually be in there? The water rose and then it fell away: all the fountains went still and dry. The spray sound fell away and sent a weird sort of almost-silence over the place for a few moments. There was a tension in the air. The children waited and readied themselves to run. Suddenly, the fountains all spurted on and a loud collective squeal went up. The children chased the on-off formation that now took place as the fountains buzzed along the routeways. Every child in the area was soaked.

Olympic Park, London II

Here is experimentation and movement (externally and internally) and here is play just for the hell of it. What was going on inside the heads of the players, of course, I will never know. Maybe it was all about nothing but the moment; maybe there were other symbolic, ritual, or myth-magical aspects starting to take place. In the observation I interpreted possibilities: children might be in a rain-dance, in a sun-dance, in a let’s just see dance . . .

Olympic Park, London III

The moment circles away, sploshes into something else, falls like a fountain gush. The movement of play, the great experiment, re-shapes itself. This photo makes me sit up and pay attention: it makes me think, but it also tells me that this is a moment that might have been something, that soon became something else, that in the end is just an interpretation, and how do I know what’s what in it at all because, actually, I was only on the outside looking in. This photo is also an oddity, a paradox: it’s a freeze frame of something moving, which in the freeze isn’t now moving at all.

Play is movement: not necessarily just of body (children stood still in waiting for the fountains to spurt up again, and who knows what movements of the mind and spirit were there within it all?). Play is just for the hell of it. Play is the great experiment, and what children learn in the classroom can in no way equate to what the dance between the fountains gives them. What that latter is, I don’t know. What I remember of what was going on in the moment, internally, when I threw eggs from a roof, too many years ago to remember exactly when, I can’t say for sure. I observe my child-self like I observe the children at the fountains: on the outside looking in.

What I do know is that it was all necessary there and then. Play is movement; play moves us.

How we might connect

Yesterday, I waited on the train — having got to the platform early — and in the seats nearby sat a mother and her young son. He was about two, or just about three. I was tired but not too tired to see that a player of the world had just boarded. They spoke bits of Chinese, maybe, and he spoke some pieces of English. He was bright and alert and happy. I looked over and caught his eye. His mother was busying herself at the pushchair. The boy had that quizzical look on his face, that look I’m used to: so I closed one eye at him, opened it up, closed the other. After a second or so he repeated the gestures, only with the sort of careful exaggerations that young children often apply to their imitations of adults. I smiled. It was a mutual hello.

I write this here because I find these minor moments extremely beautiful, significant, full. For the rest of the journey we made no more contact with one another: only when I was packing my bag to get ready to go, down at his level as his mother got the pushchair and child ready to disembark, did he flash a look to say something along the lines of ‘You get that I want to play with this tambourine here, don’t you?’ It was small and plastic and, frankly, not worth the hassle his mother had imbued into not taking it out of the cellophane packet for him. He didn’t kick up too much of a fuss: he just looked at me, and that was that.

Moments, as I’ve written about plenty in these posts, are worth more than many will ever know: first they have to be seen though. This is a small aside. The thought of the boy on the train, ‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’ (being my story’s working title), led me to sit down here and think about other small appreciations that have taken place in the past couple of weeks. Being so fleeting, these moments of appreciation — from child to adult — are registered on some level at the time in question; when taken as pieces in something a little larger though, it becomes clearer that there are other levels.

I may be thinking in such ways at the moment because I still have several Tove Jansson books filtering around in my recent reading experience: that sparse, clean Scandinavian writing style, extolling the beauty of seemingly slight instances yet, collectively, beneath it all is something flowing a little deeper. I shall need some slight examples, and here they are:

Once, this week, a seven year old came to me and held up her finger to show me a paper cut. The line was bright red but not bleeding. ‘What can I do about this?’ I asked her, whilst also empathising. ‘You could get me a plaster,’ she said. I was in the middle of doing three or four things at once and I needed to do all of them together, including find her a plaster, or I’d forget one of them. She followed me round for a few minutes and I reminded her that I hadn’t forgotten. After a while we checked her forms and I figured ‘yes, this is fine’. I found a plaster and the paper cut was covered over. She didn’t look at me but, as she turned to leave the room and as I turned to throw away the paper rubbish, she gave the slightest thank you.

Some of the older children come to the after school session later than the others: they have school clubs on before they get to us, and so the rest of the children and us are all settled into play and observing by the time these older children get there. This week, I wandered back inside after having been out observing the general flow of the playground, and in the corner one of the older boys was slouched in a chair, relaxed, feet up, picking at a plate of food. He raised his chin to me as he saw me. I put up my thumb to him. A week or so earlier, one of the older girls was lying on the sofa as I walked in, me not having seen her arrive either. She put up her thumb at me.

The other day, I was sat on the tyre swing observing another older girl poking around with an old umbrella she’d found. She stood up on the bench and made an exaggerated play of preparing herself to jump off with the umbrella, which she then did. She turned to me and said that I should watch this. So I did. There followed a small experiment in how long it might take her to reach the ground with and without the umbrella. ‘Like Mary Poppins?’ I said, still sat idly by on the tyre swing. I don’t think she got the reference. She showed me that, look, it was quicker to the ground without the umbrella (she’d taken a smaller arc of a leap to demonstrate this though). She said for me to follow her, and she went and stood up on one of the fixed structures around the corner, five feet or so off the ground, looking to repeat the experiment (as if, in my mind, gravity was differently predisposed here!) We had a conversation about stopwatches and about my archaic little mobile phone that she couldn’t believe was older than she was. All these little interactions were wrapped up in a common appreciation of equals, or that’s how it felt to me.

One boy, a boy I wrote about recently (he who had perceived me as mean to his friend), didn’t look at me as I put the juice out so he and the others around him had easy reach of it. He gulped it down, saying a straight (that is, not sarcastic or otherwise negatively loaded) thank you. It was the tiniest little touch to reach me.

All these slightest stories (‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’, ‘the plaster girl who didn’t look up with her thank you’, ‘the thumbs-up older children’, ‘the equal-umbrella girl’, ‘the boy who once thought me mean’) are stories that are greater than they might at first seem. That’s the way I see them, anyway. Of course I’m not going out of my way to make children say thank you, or to ‘respect me’ out of force, or to listen to me because I have something to say or ‘things they have to know’: these children’s various appreciations have come in their own time. To them they may just be the moment that has now passed (which they are), but to me they also build into a greater story.

The thought of the interaction with the boy on the train, the boy with the exaggerated gestures, can also be analogous: there’s a whole different level of view to be seen with one eye closed, albeit briefly.
Playworkings will be taking a week off to do the tourist thing (maybe a couple of weeks, but we’ll see).

Does reading count as play? We could answer this by expressing an opinion based on personal experiences of play, or we could draw on the academic literature in order to say yes, no, or maybe. There’s plenty of that literature to draw on (that tired old question that is ‘what is play?’ has done the rounds over the years), so I’m going to focus in on one fairly well-established set of criteria from the academic world: Catherine Garvey (1977) suggested that characteristics of play could be seen as:

1. Play is pleasurable, enjoyable: even when not actually accompanied by signs of mirth it’s still positively valued by the player;
2. Play has no extrinsic goals. Its motivations are intrinsic and serve no other objectives. In fact it’s more an enjoyment of means than an effort devoted to some particular end;
3. Play is spontaneous and voluntary. It’s not obligatory but is freely chosen by the player;
4. Play involves some active engagement on the part of the player;
5. Play has certain relations to what is not play.

[Adapted from: Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010, p.17), Reflective Playwork]

Reading, I would say, for those who like to read (and, importantly, when not being forced to read something) can therefore be play (it’s pleasurable; you might do it for the sake of it, just because you love reading; it’s freely chosen; you engage in it, get into it; you know when you’re reading something because you have to because of what it feels like). I write all of this because I’ve been thinking about books for children for quite a long time now.

I have several frustrations with the majority of children’s books I pick up and read to those who ask me to do this (I appreciate that, of course, some children can’t read yet and so need this support, but also that to those who can read a little sometimes someone else’s voice can lend something to the story). The main, and enduring, frustration has to be the one I label as ‘the learning agendas’. Firstly, however, there is the counter-argument, the appreciation, that books can be a good source of education for children. That said, my frustration is centred around the fact that there are just so many education-focused books out there for younger children and often the education is disguised in or as the story: it seems to me as if this is cheating children of a good story. Often, the education agenda will be as fairly innocuous as the development of more awareness of the numbers one to ten; sometimes it’s far too insidious for this playworker’s liking: take these titles I’ve found recently: Luke Tidies Up and Be Nice. Adults should stop trying to turn children into ‘model citizens’, I contest!

My next, and currently major, gripe is language use. Why do some authors insist on writing books for children using words that — I’m pretty sure from my experience of working with a wide age range — children aren’t using themselves in their day-to-day language? Before my argument, a couple of examples:

‘Are those silly goats too fast for you?’
‘Probably,’ said Mr Farmer wearily.

She lumbered back to the old barn.

‘I’ll get those goats out of the turnip field.’
‘You?’ they exclaimed. ‘You?’

I’ve never heard any child use the words ‘wearily’, ‘lumbered’ or ‘exclaimed’, ever! I rarely hear adults use them in conversation either. Now, I’m aware of the argument that is ‘language as prescriptive’ versus ‘language as descriptive’ (the first being that, in grammar for example, there are rules to be followed; the second being that, essentially, language evolves and the rules should follow this): I know that children can learn new words from books, and I’m usually of the prescriptive school of thinking when it comes to spelling, grammar, etc., but here I’m thinking that children’s books should describe the words they actually use. If reading is play, and not for adult learning agendas in this case, then the stories should reflect the children’s cultures. Whenever I read to a child from a book, I tend to change words such as ‘wearily’, ‘lumbered’ and ‘exclaimed’ to words more in keeping with their own language use. I’m looking to describe the story; I’m not looking to being a teacher. I’m not a teacher of children, which other people could do.

Another concern is gender stereotyping in children’s books. However, I’m not taking the usual tack here: I’m going against the grain because I get annoyed by token efforts to educate children about what a perfect world we could live in if boys could be depicted as princesses and girls depicted as car constructors or rocket ship captains, for example. A disclaimer is due at this point: I have no issue with either of the above taking place in the play; it’s the token aspect I object to. The fact is that girls often do have a predilection for the pink and sparkly, ‘Prince carries off Princess to the Land of Happily Ever After’ (and perhaps there’s a further discussion there to be had another time about social pressures), and boys often have a predilection for all things fast, whizzy, loud or explosive (or all of these combined). What’s wrong with books describing things as they are?

I’ve told a lot of stories in my time, and they’re always made up as I go along. I don’t include learning agendas or good citizenshipness; I try to use words that I know my audience appreciates, and I don’t pander to political correctness. The stories tend towards random journeys for no particular reason, quests that may or may not end up with jam explosions, nuclear meltdowns, dead animals, poo, or whatever takes the fancy of the children involved. I involve the children in the story and take on their ideas and so we form the story together (there may then be any combination of dead princesses, broken giraffes, super-hero failures, conspiracies or dream scenes, or any other fantastical arrangements). The storytelling is partly my play, sure, but partly the children’s too. We go with the flow, and if all the characters don’t get on or if they all die then so be it — it was good enough for Shakespeare.

Stories for children, spoken or written, should be alive, playful and play-filled, ‘real’, as in emotions — though true and not ‘token true’ — or fantastic (or fantastical or phantasmagorical, whatever the desired flavour). The slipped-in adult agendas of being nice, sharing, counting, tidying your room, all covered up with glossy expansive pictures, just doesn’t seem to me to satisfy the potential for play that reading can have.

Garvey, C. (1977), Play. The developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books and Open Books Publishing Limited. Cited in: Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork. London: Continuum.

Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork. London: Continuum.

Something small and fluffy has happened on the playground. When I arrived there this week, after a few days away, I found an incubator full of eggs had been installed. I’m not great with animals, it must be said (even with the small, fluffy, too cute kind), but I found myself looking in on the pile of unhatched eggs, gently basking in the tropical conditions of the small glass box plugged into the wall, looking in more and more from — what I now see to be — a child’s perspective. Here were all these marker pen numbered eggs and they needed the watching, looking out for, looking after even, for them to hatch into full-blown chickness.

One of the chicks was already out so it seemed natural to me to name him Jeff (everything — be it animal, inanimate object needing a name, unborn niece, and so on — is good with the name Jeff for me! I don’t know why: it just is). I named him Jeff (he turned out to be a ‘he’ after all: the children told me so later because they’d read the glossy notes on gender identification pinned on the wall), and so I unconsciously bought into ‘ownership’, albeit loosely so, by way of anthropomorphising something. Jeff found his feet and soon enough there were cracks forming in a sibling egg.

We watched on before the children arrived (and now I realise how I, for one, was beginning to see the contents of the incubator through a child’s eyes), and urged Jeff’s brother/sister on. It seems to be a monumental struggle to get yourself out from inside an egg. When the newly hatched one finally flopped out, all dark brown stringy fur and little stubby wings and half closed black eyes, it was just sort of — well — disgusting really! Jeff’s brother/sister/half formed thing-mate with no name yet took its time to adjust to being part of the world. It kept getting its beak stuck in the grill and its legs stuck down the side between the grill and the glass. Welcome to the world, chick, mate, I thought. It’s amazing how quickly these little bundles of goo transform into fluff though. They dry out within an hour or two. Then they sleep.

When the children came in for the after school session that afternoon there was plenty of excitement. Small clusters of them (the children) came in from time to time to check in, to watch, to will the eggs on. One of the girls kept vigil in the art room that was the incubator’s home for the whole session. She took a sheet of paper and a pen and started drawing and leaving spaces for names-to-be. I’d had random conversations with some of the children in there about how Jeff had been first out. It wasn’t so much a way of saying ‘Jeff’s mine’; rather just talking about Jeff. The children, to my great amusement it must be said, started calling Jeff by name, asking which one Jeff was, and so on! They began naming chicks-to-be, staking claims on eggs: soon we had Jeff and Clara and Max out, and number four egg, who would be next out — judging by the cracks and beak showing through — was to be called ‘KFC’, apparently.

KFC took a long time eating himself/herself out. By the end of the session we had five chicks out. The next morning, when I came in to work, overnight another five had popped out. Jeff and a couple of others had been moved into the larger container overnight, but the incubator was full of nervous fluff again. Number one egg, sadly, still sat on his/her own, refusing to crack. When the children came in again for the session that day, they were just as excited (if not more so) than the day before. They wanted to touch and stroke and pick up the chicks. One of the children asked ‘When can we play with them?’

A couple of times I reminded the children that the chicks weren’t toys: that they were living things, just a day or so old. Jeff and Clara and Max and KFC could no longer be differentiated (though one of the children had noted that Jeff did have rather large toes): the chicks all huddled underneath the glow of the single bare light bulb, an inch or so above their heads — a single living mass of fidgety, nervous fluff gluing itself together under the gaze of several huge but equally fidgety Godzilla-like children-things, all desperate to get their hands on them and squeeze them senseless (in a loving way, no doubt).

How do you work with baby chicks? I have no idea. I mean, the closest I’ve come to this sort of thing is the occasional visit to a touch farm, or the zoo, or when some strange man or woman with an unhealthily odd deficit in squeamishness brings a snake to a nursery school to freak the living daylights out of small children and/or staff members. In close proximity to animals of any kind, I usually stand back a good distance whilst the children poke and prod because, frankly, to me animals have always been somewhat useless things capable only of being smelly or creepy or anything but cute or loveable! The best tactic, I found out with the baby chicks, was to make it up as I went along and not to let the children know what I was doing.

The children came and went and so did we, and sometimes we just shut the door on the art room because the chicks probably deserved a bit of a breather. Whenever I was in there with the children, there was a clamour to get their hands on the fluffy things in the container. I reckoned they ought to do it one at a time. Sometimes the children listened to this advice and sometimes they just went ahead and dug right in because chicks are more interesting than listening to an adult. With the exception of one of the younger girls, when I was in the room, the children didn’t really know how to approach the chicks (they weren’t alone in this!): there was some tentative touching and stroking as the chicks darted back to the safety in numbers of mass fluff under the bare light bulb; there was some outright poking, which was just the kinder side of the full-on equivalent of a dig in the ribs to you or me, but still, a dark sort of teasing nonetheless. I reminded the children in question that these were living things.

One of the girls wasn’t tentative at all. She put her hand right in and scooped up a chick and held it firmly, though without squeezing till it was agitated. She seemed to have got it just about right because the chick just calmed down. If she squeezed too hard or held it too high or too lightly it started chirping and wriggling (and so she dropped it the few inches back to the sawdust, which was still probably a little traumatic in its own way). I told her how I’d seen her handle them for them to be calm, and she started telling everyone how she was the expert.

All the chicks looked the same now (except that some were lemony yellow and some were more brown): that is, a day before we could just about figure out which one Jeff was and which one was Clara or KFC. We nearly lost one, whoever it was, over the edge though. Our expert held out a chick to another child and I asked the children to hold it over the table top because it was a long drop to the floor. There was a momentary lapse though and the chick wriggled and flapped and flopped out, bounced off the table top, and headed downwards. Reflex kicked in and I caught him or her and managed to scramble the chick back up onto the table, whereupon I said to my expert chick-handler ‘I think you better put this one back in the box for me’. (I didn’t want to touch it any more than I needed to). Chick hitting the floor would have been messy. The chicks all huddled together — in a mass of little heart-beating agitation, no doubt — and I thought it best I shuffle the huddle of children out of the room for a short while.

I said a very odd thing. I didn’t think about it: it just came out. As the children were quietly pleading for more handling time (to which I promised more time later, but the chicks needed a bit of a breather), I said to one of the girls looking up at me with big eyes: ‘I usually think of you children first, but now I have to think of the chicks.’ I don’t know where that came from. What good are chicks anyway? Horrible, smelly, creepy, useless things. What are chicks for? What can they do?

The children affected their sadnesses at leaving for the time being (though they chirped up to show their parents when they came). I went to wash my hands after The Incident with the Unknown Chick and the Very Near Calamity from a Significant Height. Later, I noticed that the biggest chick did seem to have big toes and that meant he was probably Jeff. Number one egg was still very still, all alone now in the incubator. I don’t know if he’s made it yet . . .

As I grow increasingly aware of the readership (and of the potential readership) of this blog on (if not ‘all’ then ‘many’ things) play and playwork, I’m becoming more and more open to it also being a platform for guest blogs on and around the subject matter. So, to that end, there follows a guest blog from my playwork colleague and occasional partner-in-beer, fellow ‘putter-of-the-world-to-rights’, Rich Driffield. We both attended the 12th National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne this week and being part of that community again seems to have had an affect on both of us (though I shall reserve my own extended thoughts here for a time when I’ve fully processed them).

Suffice is to say that what we do, fellow playworkers reading here (and also those of you who have found your way back here or who’ve come here for the first time, from any field that you find yourself in), what we do is something very special. When I looked around the conference hall and saw playworkers who could relate to the things I do on the playground without any difficulty of explanation, I too felt part of a unique band of people. The opportunity to talk about the taboo and difficult subjects in rational safety with people who’ve also been around for many years in the field, or to have incidental or depth discussions again with fellow playworkers, fellow writers, other trainers, lecturers or professors in the ‘salon’ area we set up, or in the pub, was inspiring.

My head was spinning for two and a half days because of the intensity of discussions, because of listening, because of focus. It also became clear to me that, within the support network out there in the playwork field, some individuals are even more appreciative of the thoughts and words of writers such as myself than I’d fully appreciated. To this end, a quick note here is made in appreciation and acknowledgement of those supporters in my being bestowed the Playwork Writer Award 2014. Also, very great specific thanks are sent the way of Captain Complexity, ‘Wing Commander’ Arthur Battram (he of the excellent title blag!) in agreeing to collect this award on my behalf!

So, without further ado, it’s over to m’learned colleague Rich Driffield and his guest blog regarding his take on the conference and on being part of this community of playwork people. Rich writes:
It was with a hint of sadness that I boarded the train back to London Victoria on Wednesday afternoon. I have been encouraged to blog before but I have never really felt the need until now. Anyway, it was not the type of sadness that brought tears but instead a kind of sadness that brought a huge sense of pride and of belonging to something. I am talking about my feelings in response to ‘hanging out’ at the Playwork Conference in Eastbourne, mainly in the ‘salon’ amongst a unique group of people.

This year I got a lot out of conference: not that I didn’t in previous years but, in 2014, Eastbourne was exactly what I needed. The various conversations I engaged in, listened to, the old friends I caught up with, those people whose faces I knew but not their names, who I finally had the opportunity to speak to, led to time very well spent. It was a productive two days: I learnt things, spoke about nonsense, and laughed. But more importantly, I felt part of something again.

I sat around, mostly in the ‘salon’, and felt totally at ease. I went to a number of workshops and felt like I had something to give and something to be given. The majority of people I spent my time with totally enthralled me. This assemblage of personalities, new and old, led me to feel proud. The ten or so individuals I spent most of my time with inspired me: I hope in some way they got something from me too. In an increasingly difficult world, it is crucial that — as playworkers — we continue to stick together because we are an amazing bunch of people who do a bloody hard job.

This togetherness is something that really struck me over the last few days, and it led to the sadness I felt when leaving. It is something I have struggled to find in the past two years since moving on to a new place. Hurdles upon hurdles have been put in place, and there have been times when I’ve felt surrounded by thoughts on learning, safety and control rather than the children, who should always come first. As I boarded the train I felt I was leaving on my own again back to the ‘real world’ of seriousness and, as Eddie alluded to in his workshop, ‘bullshit’.

As I sat writing this at my kitchen table, I listened to Radio Two and a Rolling Stones track came on. This to me was a mini-celebration and, as I reviewed the last few days with the music playing, it honestly felt really good. I was back; I have discovered what it feels like to be a playworker again; I felt part of a much wider team, and I thank all the people I met for getting me back to this point!

So, what from here? Will I forget this warm fuzzy feeling in a week or so and revert back to the ‘bullshit real world’, becoming frustrated all over again? Well, maybe a little, but an important thing for me is to keep my fellow colleagues close, work on what we know, continue to develop our thinking, and pick each other up when we are down. That is what playworkers should do, and we should be confident in what we believe in. As to those who work away from here who I met: let’s talk occasionally, moan and joke on social networks, but also remember that we are playworkers, and that’s crucial to remember in times of peril.

In my continuing thinking on play between generations, I find myself very much absorbed between the pages of a particular book. This is not a playwork theory book, but a work of fiction based — as it is — on real people who are clearly loved. What draws me to write here is that, as I read that book, I became more and more aware of how I was, in part, reading with my playworker’s sensibility in place. The book in question is The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (my review of which can be found on my other site, here).

The Summer Book was written in 1972, originally in Swedish, and it’s the loosely connected reflections of the author regarding the relationship between six year old Sophia and her Grandmother on a little island in the Gulf of Finland. The playworker in me slowly started to make his conscious appearance as I read and as I began to realise that here, in these pages, were plenty of things we might reflect on in our modern play settings and on play in general: Sophia engages in physical play that makes her Grandmother anxious; she connects with nature and living and dead creatures; she sucks up the comments, or teachings, or ways of being of her Grandmother, and so on. It is, however, to one chapter in particular, and my linking of it to the playground, that my thinking is mainly concerned with here as I write.

Towards the end of the book is an account of around eight pages in length (titled Of Angleworms and Others) in which Sophia becomes suddenly afraid of all the small creatures of the island. She accidentally cuts an angleworm in half with a spade and this causes her some distress. Her Grandmother (who only goes by the character name that is ‘Grandmother’ throughout) takes an interesting approach to try to deflect Sophia’s anxiety: after her initial attempts to calm the child’s concerns fail (she says of the two halves of the angleworm ‘They’ll grow out again’), Grandmother then says, ‘You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever taken a sufficient interest in angleworms. Someone who’s really interested ought to write a book about them.’ Later that evening, in the narrative, Sophia starts to write a book about angleworms.

As I read this part of Jansson’s story, I thought on the sparking of play. I read Grandmother’s approach as a subtle means of alleviating and deflecting concerns but also of opening up a door to some form of therapeutic play to take place. The opposite, perhaps (seen many a time in play settings of various flavours of play-comprehension), is the sledgehammer adult-directed approach that is something along the lines of: now, we shall make Mother’s Day cards; now we shall do cooking (and it shall be chocolate brownies); now we’ll all get out jigsaw puzzles. (How I loathe the ‘jigsaw puzzles on the trestle table and nothing else out to play with’ approach!)

Jansson wrote the Moomin books for children (which I’ve heard of but never read), so I don’t wonder at the sensitivity shown in her writing here. What does make me think here though is a string of unfolding flowers: the ‘rose-tintedness’ of 1970s play, in its generalised form, is often denounced — play is no less worse off now, it’s said — but Jansson’s 70s writing here treats the perspective of children differently; could it be that the Scandinavian approach is, and has always been, just ‘better’?; some writers just understand more, in their non-playworkerness, than some who use the ‘playworker’ term do.

In Of Angleworms and Others in The Summer Book, Jansson writes how Sophia dictates her own book, which the latter calls A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart. Grandmother writes Sophia’s increasingly frantic thoughts and, in so doing, supports the whole play process. Sophia is flowing in her concern and in her subject matter, sometimes terse in her communications with her Grandmother because of her absolute focus in the moment, and she is a little precocious too. In this narrative device that is Sophia’s dictation, her speech, and in other aspects of The Summer Book as a whole, I began to wonder about whether Sophia represented a ‘real child’, as I knew children to be. That is, could Jansson avoid the trap of writing a child character as a stereotyped form?

You’ll need to read yourself and draw your own conclusions here, but my reasoning for writing this above, here and now, is that it made me think of the playwork books I’ve read. I’m more and more engaged in the thinking, in my work on the playground, that I’m calling ‘the theory of the real’ and whether what I’ve read and re-read in the playwork literature can be seen to relate to what still happens ‘out there’. What seems to be lacking in the playwork books is a general deficit of real children. Sure, there are reflections and stories scattered here and there (Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood’s Reflective Playwork, and Bob Hughes’ Evolutionary Playwork and Reflective Analytic Practice spring to mind, and there are moments in other books of collated offerings by various authors), but by and large I miss the real children in the general body of literature. Theory is all very well (and it is appreciated that sometimes concepts need to be explained as such), but without the individual children, the individual child, without Mikey or Livvy or Adam (all of whom I find instantly floating up from my long-stored memories of real children), then isn’t it all in danger of being somewhat dry?

There are issues around child protection or children at risk, and confidentiality of information in such cases and so forth, of course, (and it’s a great shame that we often have to think about changing the names of certain children we’ve observed and written about in public arenas), but bear with me here and come along with the thinking that is: what if there were more real stories of real play, engaged in by real children, real characters, for us to try to understand all that we study as playworkers?

Fiction offerings sometimes come along and leave us speechless (such as Jansson’s Summer Book did for me) though thoughtful: could Sophia be a real child (by which I mean, not ‘is she based on a real child?’, but ‘could she be real ‘out there’?’) At other times, fiction offerings completely miss what childness is (in the stereotyping, in the inability to see play, or in the treating of its child characters as merely minor unformed adult beings in waiting). If the ‘real child’ is written in the fiction, and by extension in the playwork books, then the possibility of real relations between generations starts to form: that is, if you can write a ‘real child’ you can comprehend the ‘theory of the real’ aspect that is, in my experience, the shifting fluidity of acceptances between the playworker and a child, this child, that child, Lucy, Ryan, Laura . . .

In A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart, in Of Angleworms and Others, in The Summer Book, the fictional Sophia (based on a real Sophia) dictates a passage that, to me, reads as an allusion towards the child’s concerns over a separation from her Grandmother (the analogy that is the splitting in two of the angleworm). The writer in me wants to believe this as a very real and possible way in which deeply buried concerns can manifest themselves; the playworker in me rejects the fictional writer and asks, ‘would a child think so deeply and so analagously as this?’, before reminding himself that yes, of course, a child can think deeply. (I remember, I think, a story written by Bob Hughes regarding a child’s drawing of a wedding dress and blood). It is more of the ‘real child’ that needs writing, more of this child, of that child . . .

Once, maybe twenty years ago (I forget for sure), Jaimie (who I only guess now as being about eight or nine years old, because I didn’t write it all down at the time), brought a matchbox into the hall where the children played. Inside the matchbox was a dead spider and she was keeping it safe. Jaimie’s father, I knew, had just recently died. We didn’t talk much about it, but we both knew about the spider.

Stories on play, of real children, stories that stay with us, make us richer in ourselves and in our relations between generations.

Looking out over the playground, over the new and already evolving fire pit in the foreground, through its upright palette wall and the drift of woodsmoke, into the hazy sun, the crisp blue February sky over the recently sodden site, there is a sudden sense of wonder. It isn’t new, this feeling, but it returns in moments made both of clarity in its general whole and in a certain inability to capture all its constituent elements there and then. It is a well-being of the spirit. It’s a moment like a haiku. Later, when I think on it all, I try to do it justice with words that don’t seem to quite sum it up so well.

So, the woodsmoke drifts up, and beyond this in the middle distance there is a multitude of pockets of play (frames of play, if you will, in ‘playwork parlance’): there are piles and swarms and conglomerations of children up on the platform structures and in the newly hung netting, in the incidental movements of players on the palettes and boards slapped over the swamp area in the middle of the playground, around the fringes in amongst cornflour gloop and paint and chalkings. There is the blending in of the sounds of laughter. It comes from everywhere. There are pockets of reflection, of children poking the fire, and there are the dartings around of others. I have the sudden feeling, without the exact words as such, in that moment in time, that I belong.

It is the half term holidays on the playground and, for the children (and for us, in many ways) it’s been a long four months or so since the last time they could come in, come and go, just be at peace and play — to a certain extent — in this way. On the first day we’re swamped early on by children needing to get in. They spend a good half hour re-assimilating themselves into the fabric of the place: we’ve made changes, plenty of changes, in the time they’ve been away (there’s a fire bowl dug into the ground near the main entrance, there’s the new netting on the platform structures, the swamp has grown, the playworkers have grown: it’s all organic). The children poke around, amalgamate their focus on one half of the site: we all seem to face away from the sun as we, the children and us, slope around trying to fit back in to the flow of this.

Soon enough, everything falls back into what I come to see as ‘playground time’: it all has its own pace, its own rhythm and texture. Play evolves and shifts and gets repeated. Relationships build. Everything flows richer and deeper, even in the slim breadth of just a few days this half term, as playground time unfolds. One of the older boys who’s been nurturing the fire for a couple of days, all day in each case, asks why we can’t just open up for longer, you know, he says, just on the last day maybe? Quietly, I register, he bemoans the usuality of life away from here.

This is the children’s space, although we — of course — punctuate its presence. Sometimes we’re a ringing intrusion in certain individuals’ worlds (no, we won’t stand idly by if you choose to slap that half-baked potato into the back of your mate- or enemy’s head!) Sometimes we’re necessary in such fundamental and loved ways: the game the children call ‘Family Had’ (as in ‘you’ve been had/caught’/chase-tap) doesn’t seem to function so well without one or more of us playworkers being the chasers (the faster the playworker, it would seem, the better the buzz). There is, however, a finite amount of time any given playworker can remain able to run, get anywhere close to catching, not slipping over in the mud/making an impossible turn, not hitting their head on any number of obstacles. When we call our own ‘time outs’, the children greet it with disdain.

When I’m not involved in concentrating on how not to end up backside up, or worse, in the mud, I wander the site. Each time I return to the fire bowl area, and I  lean on the palette wall just to see, the older boy, guardian of the fire, looks up and tells me, ‘I made that fire; it’s still going,’ or words to this effect. I nod and walk off again.

On the far side of the playground, a small group of girls spend days at a time homebuilding. It is a literal affair because once, when I walk over, they ask me if I have any more black paint and I see that they’re renovating the board house that went up last summer and which seems just to have been dormant, waiting for them, over the winter months. I come back with a jar of acrylic paint and attempt to siphon some off into their tin. It doesn’t come easily so I just hand them the jar. The girls are ridiculously polite in thanking me. I come back later and see that they’ve splatter-painted inside and outside: various colours on the black. They tell me their plans for the following day: they’re going to put up a hammock. The next day, on bringing the girls hammers and nails, and later screws and a saw and duct tape (and a colleague fixes a new tarpaulin roof for them, which they then nail into place), and I bring out a tarpaulin floor, after discussion with them, which they also nail into the mud with practically a whole shop’s worth of ironmongery, they tell me they’re building an extension. This is the wood they’ll be needing.

Later, I see that they’ve concocted several hammocks, tied and nailed to the walls. The girls show me how the hammocks work by getting into them. Earlier they took round a sheet of paper, saying to all the playworkers in turn, ‘Sign this’. ‘What am I signing for?’ I asked. ‘Just sign it,’ they smile. Later still I see that the paper with all our signatures on is placed in the centre of the main internal wall. On the final day, the girls have to leave early. It’s a shame, I think. The play has just been ended after days of concentrated focus. I wish that they’d had longer on it.

As the week evolves, we all get to know one another’s names (although I ask one boy to remind me of his, on the last day, and he declares that he has been here all week! I know this, I know, I tell him: I just have a lot of names to figure out, and sorry!) As the chase games evolve (the children work out playworkers’ running/catching abilities, and they also evolve the rules to an extent that I think, at one point, that I don’t actually know what we’re playing here, and then, ‘Oh, so those are the rules, and the sandpit is ‘homey’ — a local colloquialism for ‘home’ — and once they’re in it, they’re not coming out. I think), relationships build and for one reason or another a few of the children start calling me ‘Grandpa’! Perhaps I’m old to them, with grey in my beard (but still in my forties, so still able to run!); perhaps all adults are old, but anyway Hassan is older than me! Perhaps ‘Grandpa’ happened because it was a play taunt of slowness (though later in the week, I overhear one boy say to another that I am, apparently, really fast, and by inference that I am, actually, worthy of involvement in the play).

Before long, more children start calling me ‘Grandpa’ in the running around game, and then it becomes ‘Grandad’ and then it becomes either/or. At some point I can’t define exactly, it becomes my general name on the playground, even as the children go about their wanderings on site and in their general greetings and requests of me. I feel both pleased to have become ‘Grandpa/Grandad’ and a little nostalgic, in truth, for my nickname of last summer (that of Dooku, Count Dooku, or the like!) One day, my old nicknamer (who has taken just to calling me by my actual name) calls across the site in greeting, as of old, ‘Dooku’. I salute him. As the children go about their ‘Grandpa’ callings, in chase-tap (‘Grandpa, you’re so slow’) and in general, I start to say things like, ‘Yes, my grandchild?’ It’s all good!

There are difficulties on the playground that we anticipate and that we deal with, as perhaps there are on all such places which forty-odd children of various ages, backgrounds, tolerances towards one another, and moods, will inevitably produce. These tensions are, however, outweighed heavily by the moments of magic that can be felt and seen. I’m of the opinion that this ‘magic’ that I sometimes write of, difficult to really truly define as it is, is everywhere in any case: it always is. It’s just that we need to be open to its presence, then it starts to fizz in front of our eyes . . .

One day, I hear a rhythmic chanting, a sing-song, over and over. It’s a predominately girl-pitched sound and it’s coming from the netting that a group of children are lounging around in under the shade of a tarpaulin. It sounds like they might really be being unkind to one of the younger boys, with the word ‘baby’ and his name repeated over and over, slowly and melodically. I listen in and I observe. The boy in question is in the middle of the netting and he’s being gently rolled and rocked around by the sway of the netting and by the girls on it. I see his face and he’s smiling. The sing-song wafts across the hazy playground as other children conduct an archaeological exploration of some edge of the paving lost under the mud in the middle of the site.

Another time, we playworkers stand around observing and talking, and we see three of the younger boys all in a line as they navigate the muddy area en route to somewhere. They each have a full packet of jammy dodgers in their hands. We think they look like a row of jammy dodger ducklings! Every day the boys receive their packet of jammy dodgers from one of their relatives as she calls to them from the threshold of the playground mid-way through the session. Every day the jammy dodger ducklings can be seen waddling around, oblivious to our amusement. We see the close bonds the boys build up with one another, and it all merges into the magic fabric.

We get out cornflour and, at first, I don’t appreciate how the children have such a desire to play with it. Even the older boys who I don’t expect to get involved come wandering over to poke around at the tray that’s been left out. One of the girls needs pink paint to mix in. The children find tin cans that we’ve been stockpiling for whatever tin cans can be used for. They start to make their own cornflour and water/paint gloop individual concoctions in the tin cans and there’s fascination with the ‘now it’s liquid, now it’s more like solid’ experimentation. We get more cornflour for the next day, and I fill up a bucket of water and a biscuit tin of pink paint, just in case. Blue or pasty puce seem to be the colours of the day though. Some children tentatively ask for help, in passing, as the gloop stuff is left out for them to find sometime: they say they don’t know what to do with gloop. I think maybe there’s a thing we can call ‘gloop deprivation’. How can children not get gloop? Haven’t they all played with it when younger? Maybe not, after all. Gloop in tin cans, in turns out, comes close to the magic appeal of a day-long nurtured fire.

When the shovels disappear off behind the wooden house on top of the hill, where I’ve not seen them go before, I wonder what might be happening there. Later I go closer and I see that an excavation is taking place. The children there look up and tell me (despite me having tried to sidle away without being noticed) that, look, they’ve dug up all these rocks they’ve found. Later, an older girl is earnestly shovelling mud there. She has a container, which I notice when she looks up and tells me that she’s digging for worms. There, in the container, are several long thin, oily caramel-brown invertebrates. The girl seems pleased in her play!

When the last splutterings of this winter’s current series of storms briefly open up on the playground, the children hardly seem to notice. The clouds clear away again and the sky is blue, the woodsmoke continues to filter into the air, the mud is just a part of where we are. There is magic in the fabric, threaded through here with day-long nurtured flames and smoke, mud and song, paint and gloop, repetitions of play and evolutions of play, the building of relations and the not wanting to leave. The Easter holidays will be here soon and we’ll be open longer, I tell the boy who I think of as the master of the fire.

This week’s post is a little unusual for this blog: I’ve been asked if I’ll share to my playwork readership the following job advert regarding White City Play Project in London. If you’re an excellent playworker, or if you want to be, this is for you. Enjoy!
Playworker Advert 2014

Children can affect us in all sorts of ways. It’s something I push hard when I’m teaching playwork practice: acknowledging, and reflecting on, just how children can make us feel. Sometimes children can affect us in quite simple ways, though not insignificant because of this: they can send us home with that afterglow of amusement or feeling of a job well done; or they may frustrate or frighten us in some way because of the way they choose to play. This week though I happened to overhear one younger boy, who I work with on the playground, say to another younger boy, almost conspiratorially, that he thought I was mean.

This has affected me. On the one hand, I’m big enough and old enough now not to take this as personally as I used to (after all, immediately after this overheard conversation I was drawn into a couple of other play conversations by other children because I was someone they must have felt they could say what they said to); on the other hand, however, this overheard conversation leaves me wondering why I’ve been perceived this way by this child. I know I’ve not gone out to be mean to anyone on the playground up to this point, and in truth I suspect my ‘meanness of being’ here is levelled entirely at last week’s simple situation: that is, the asking of this particular boy to please catch up with the rest of the crowd, as he pushed his bike along during our short walk back from school to the playground. I’d asked him two or three times and he blanked me each time. The last time I asked him, he turned around and told me firmly: ‘Will you stop directing me?!’ There. That was me told!

What troubles me here is, despite our best intentions, small things such as these can stick in children’s minds (I certainly remember plenty of small things about various adults from my own childhood). Small things stick. Just as there’s a ‘halo effect’ in psychology (whereby one positive trait in a person can serve to improve the perception of all of his or her other traits), there is the negative ‘devil effect’: here, one perceived flaw in personality can serve to taint everything else, no matter what, of that person perceived. I wonder if there’s any remedying of this one situation for me and this child. Generally, I think I’m hardened to it all, but actually I’m probably still soft in the centre!

It’s worth noting, if only in passing, that an hour later, the boy in question — left somewhat high and dry in his play interactions by accident, by a colleague, who was engaged in some form of chase-tap play with him and others before being diverted away — suddenly declared me the play ‘monster’ (I was the nearest adult), and he screamed at a pitch to wake the dolphins! Off he ran and off I ran after him because it was necessary, apparently.

I don’t really know what my meanness is or was with him. Perhaps I never will. What remains is the truth that is ‘children affect us in many ways’, and the danger that, if not checked by careful reflection, it could become an unconsciously self-fulfilling prophecy. This ‘children affect us’ statement goes deeper than just ‘happy, sad, amused, frustrated, fearful’. I direct my students, in the first instance, towards Playwork Principle 7: ‘Playworkers recognise their own impact on the play space and also the impact of children and young people’s play on the playworker’.

Why is it that we feel the way we feel when children tell us (or their friends) something ‘true’ to them about us? We put a lot of physical and mental time and energy into what becomes their opportunities to play. Is there an undertow of ‘how ungrateful’ here? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think the children truly know how much thinking, talking, resourcing, sometimes hand-wringing, certainly focused beer-drinking, and so forth goes into ‘this play session on the playground’. Even now, as I write in a notebook (ready for typing up later) I’m sitting thinking, concerned about play, in the pub! No, children don’t get all that, and why should they? So, if that all passes them by, why should we expect gratitude for it?

Perhaps we feel the way we feel when children tell us that we’re ‘mean’, or whatever they feel, because we’re caught unawares by how different children can perceive the same ‘us’ in unexpected ways. Over the years I’ve got used to children seeing the ‘unusualness’ of me in their play settings: many’s the time I’ve caught the vibe from individual children, or small groups, along the lines not of ‘who is that?’, rather ‘what is that?’! I don’t take offence by this: I find it quite amusing. Sometimes it comes down to simply being a man in the room; sometimes it’s more along the lines of ‘What, a man with long hair and a beard? I don’t get it’; sometimes it’s ‘What, a man, a man with long hair and a beard who’s sitting on the floor and who doesn’t mind me sticking my tongue out at him?!’ It’s usually all good. Children have often drifted over to me in play settings I’m just visiting, asking me if I’m a boy or a girl, or have squinted at me from a short distance before deciding something like ‘He’s alright’ and either offering me a token gift or their entire life histories.

This week I was also at a play setting, visiting a student (a place I’d been to several times before) and a small girl just came over to me, offering me cardboard cake and so forth, whilst others obviously ‘knew’ me in their heads, waving and telling me what my name was. Plenty of other times I’ve been to play settings just the once and I get automatic life histories, glue spread on my arms, or ultra-focused vibes of ‘you’ll do’.

However, I’m not used to children saying things to their friends, as overheard, that I’m mean. It just knocked me a little. You know? What can I do about this? How can we resolve a perception of ourselves when we have no definite knowledge of its origin? It’s like plugging a hole when we don’t know where the hole is.

In such situations we could easily just dismiss it, or brood on it for days. We can double our efforts at providing for all the children’s play needs and preferences, or we could settle and write about it. Maybe the thing we can’t actually affect by design and plan is how certain children feel about us. We can do everything we can to be the best we can be for individuals and for the group as a whole, but we can’t legislate for the ‘taste of the moment’, ‘flavour of the day’, how this play turns out to play through us. Maybe it’s all we can know that we are differently perceived by every individual child, and so we need to be aware of the thirty different versions of us, for the thirty different children, say, present on any given day.

It’s all we can know that we’re differently perceived: the ‘authentic’ definitive us is not enough. Maybe.

Following on from my previous speculation on the ‘Ten-ish commandments of playwork’ (which were well received, all things considered), I realise I forgot one. Well, maybe I forgot a lot and I need to keep adding to these as the thinking happens. We’ll see. Anyway, for now the one I forgot is the one about education. Let’s call it the 13th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not educate’ (if we’re talking from a playworker’s point of view, that is). Education is for others, concerns of play is for us. That’s a given if we’re working in the field of children’s play for play’s sake, right?

Maybe it isn’t so cut and dried. The thing we adults don’t tend to do so well regarding children is resist the urge to ‘help’; the passing on of what we like to perceive as our individual and collective wisdoms; just show the way. It can be frustrating watching the minor struggles of everyday play taking the most circuitous of routes to achieve the desired next part (I won’t push my luck and stretch that to ‘the desired end’, because play is not about ‘product’): take the example of, say, the six-ish year old who can’t find the end of the cellotape because she hasn’t worked out that folding it over after each cut-off (or bite-off) of a strip will mean no lost end; or maybe a child can’t figure out the way to light the matchstick when trying to get the tealight burning, holding it at unworkable angles against the matchbox; maybe a child can’t work out how to get the water from the full container to the guttering, wanting to bring the mountain to the sandpit, as it were, instead of the bucket to the pond.

All of these play situations I’ve been party to in recent weeks. Sometimes we just get it wrong, according to the ‘Playwork Scripture’: give the opportunity to discover and experiment over to the children; they can make their own mistakes and find out their own ways of doing things.

At the playground the other day I was asked for help by a younger girl who was making some sort of bag: she’d been hoarding apparent essentials away, for possibly a few days before that, in a cardboard box (you know, other smaller boxes, bits of shiny paper, paper and glue-smeared things); now she needed a bag. She didn’t know how to make it, and she couldn’t find the end of the cellotape. I said for her to give it all a try (I didn’t know what she wanted her bag to be anyway). She’s quite self-sufficient in most things and doesn’t seem to need too much attention. She made the bag’s shiny blue handles (which I thought wouldn’t carry the weight of glue-smeared smaller boxes and so forth, but what do I know?) She just didn’t know how to get her bag started. I knew. I had to fight the urge to ‘educate’ her on it. I tried to walk away, in a supportive ‘I’ll be back’ kind of way, but she wouldn’t have it: she kept calling me back. I started a bag off for her (heinous playwork sin!). I left it part way through though because I knew she was more than capable of finishing it off. She did, but she didn’t tape up the bottom of it. I fought the urge to tell her. I told her (another heinous sin). I said, ‘You haven’t got a bottom to your bag.’ She piled her glue-smeared box and shiny paper and other essentials into it anyway.

The other week, I knelt down in the gathering gloom as the children huddled round and attempted to light matchsticks to light their tealights. They were all very patient and waited for the matchbox to come their way. One of the younger children just wasn’t getting it though. She was somewhat tentative with the matchstick, which I could appreciate (after all, the playground is probably the only place she’d get to do this). I’d discussed the fact that this wasn’t to be done at home, don’t worry. The girl dragged the matchstick slowly towards her. I said to do it away from her. She held the matchstick at a flat angle and dragged it away from her several times. I said maybe strike it at a different angle. Nothing happened several times over. I knew exactly how to light the matchstick. This is frustrating for the adult.

On another day, an older boy had found the guttering I’d put out in the sandpit area. I’d set up deliberately that day because, for a few weeks I’d been observing how some of the children had been poking around the discarded plastic pond moulding that had filled up with rainwater. I filled it up with clean water and the happy co-incidence of finding the guttering round the back of the site added to the idea. I put it out there with some pots and pans and flower pots with holes in them and so forth and left it be. I was a little surprised to find the older boys getting so into it later. One of these boys said to me, in passing, that he was ‘building a facility’. I don’t know what sort of facility it was! Another day, when the play was still happening there, he needed the pond water close by the sandpit. It was heavy and a bucket to the pond would have been easier, but no, the pond had to come over. He didn’t get the idea though that two of us pulling was easier than one of us pulling and one pushing. I let him in on the secret (shh).

So these are just small examples and maybe the children got what they wanted or needed from my actions in their play before I left them be again. Maybe, though, my presence and my actions stopped something else from happening: that self-discovery. Thou shalt not educate, so says the scripture, because that ‘compound flexibility’ effect (odd playwork-leaning phrase towards self-confidence and self-esteem) may be being curtailed; also here I think mainly of Bob Hughes’ writing on neuronal short-cutting when we also add Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) into the mix.

Some playwork literature/scripture to add in here then: Hughes (2012, p281) quotes Smith (1994): ‘The ZPD is the difference between what the child can achieve unaided and what he or she can do with the aid of a more experienced, probably older person to help.’

Hughes later adds (p282): ‘However, the biggest problem with the ‘zone of proximal development’ approach is that adult help will introduce ‘short-cuts’ to learning that will leave the child with gaps in its understanding or in the neuronal pathways that are formed as a consequence of new learning, that may make it difficult or impossible for the child to undertake similar tasks unaided.’

I’ve taught adults from the playwork scriptures for a fair few years now. I preach to my students not to do things for the children (sometimes quoting Hughes and sometimes going as far as looking at neuroscientific research into brain growth, and so on). I’ve got no reason to doubt what these books tell me; I tell my students and anyone who’ll listen that play isn’t about children going into their play specifically to learn things (did you do that as a child?) However, sometimes we adults do have an urgent need to help, to just chivvy things along a little, to get things going for them before walking away. Sometimes children ask for that help.

Here Hughes also adds (and its buried away so that I haven’t fully taken this on-board before — blinded as I have been by the ‘weighty neuroscience’): ‘Certainly if the child initiates an intervention then limited help should be given.’ The focus on onus in these passages though is still on the child. Can it be that unsticking the end of the cellotape and kick-starting a bag design, helping with the lighting of a matchstick, or showing a way to bring a pond full of water to a sandpit (in their minor moments) all contributed to this neural short-cutting? Or were these forms of a ‘play education’ that were desired by those children? Certainly I’m still against the wholesale education of children in their play settings: they get plenty of educational input from school, and maybe also from their parents; they’re not at their play setting to ‘get educated’; it is their play setting after all, or it should be.

So, thou shalt not educate: should we grit our teeth and bare the frustration of the obvious solution to the children’s play problems staring us in the face?; or should we just accept that we’re there in the play setting, us adults, so we might as well ‘help’, pass on our perceived individual and collective wisdoms, show the way?

Speaking ill of the playwork literature/scripture doesn’t sit easily for me sometimes; yet, in the ‘real world’ of the playground, I know I also get just slightly frustrated at clumsy cellotape-‘not thinking ahead’-ness, at awkward tools use, say, and at failures to spot the blindingly obvious (well, the blindingly obvious to me, at least).

Thou shalt not educate (even on a small scale) may well be a tension for lots of people who work in playwork: some though also go off way down the road towards Education (with the capital E) and should therefore, perhaps, relinquish the playworker title altogether. Where, though, is that line in the sand?

Hughes, B. (2012), Evolutionary playwork. 2nd edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Smith, P. K. (1994), Play training: an overview in Hellendoorn, J., van der Kooij, R., and Sutton-Smith, B. (eds), Play and intervention. Albany: State University of New York Press. Cited in Hughes, B. (2012)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 68 other followers

%d bloggers like this: