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

Relating to meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Very Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here there is time

Every once in a while we find it possible to step outside our usual routines and into a different place to be. Routines are, perhaps, somewhat superficial: being self-imposed in order to give some form to our own lives. What we believe is true, or true enough, and we find some comfort in our regular comings and goings. What has this all to do with play? Patience, we’ll get there. This week I’ve gone about interrupting my usual comings and goings. Summer has come and gone, and there has been an enormous amount of other people’s energies absorbed, travel to and fro, and attempts at juggling the thinking processes of what I’ve observed and felt: the clash of magical thinking and scientific rationale is an internal movement in itself.

This week I sat in the stone circle of Avebury. This trip was both a finding out of somewhere known of but never seen, and a pause. As we drove north up through the Wiltshire countryside, I realised that there just seemed to be a north-south axis to the land I was in: not just because of the route we were travelling, but because of the line of monuments and markers that we followed — from Stonehenge and Woodhenge, up to Silbury Hill and the Long Barrow, with the chalk White Horse in the distance.

There were tourists, we were tourists. The whole place is a restoration, it would seem; yet we come — what we believe is true, or true enough. Four and a half thousand years or so ago, the people who were at what was to become Avebury set themselves to the massive undertaking of a near-circular earthworks. I’m struck by time when I see such things that still exist: there are the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort near where I live — such earthworks as those that surround this can only be appreciated with a pause about what we’re walking on. There are plague pits near that fort site too, from centuries later, and time sits there. At Avebury, time sits in the huge near-circular ditches, once later filled with detritus, and in some of the stones. I wondered whether those stones, which were once felled for the preparation of new building, were desecrated relics or if it was necessarily done. I wondered if restoration should have been done at all.

So, after a while I sat down just to see what was there. At Stonehenge there’s a hideous new layer of modern life opened up in the form of its latest visitor centre (amongst other layers); at Avebury there are two rather forlorn souls sat at the end of the car park peddling leaflets. There’s the other modern layer too, but it’s somewhat absorbed in the village. In my life, I wouldn’t go without my hot water and technology on tap, I don’t think, but there’s something about modern layers that is superficial.

We sat at the base of a standing stone, looking out at the Portal Stones, or beyond, out along the line of the West Kennet Avenue. I was still juggling my magical thinking (which is rejected by sceptics as an excuse, a means of making meaning where there may be nothing there at all) and scientific thought. What is it that is here? I’d come to sit because, when walking I stopped to see a huge flock of rooks or crows (not blackbirds, I’m told, which won’t flock!) as they cascaded out from the clump of trees high above the Portal Stones. I watched them and listened to them as they formed a black wave against the sky and dispersed into the distance or into trees farther out there, I wasn’t sure.

So I sat at a stone in one of the inner circles. I saw that the Portal Stones were huge but that the trees were even greater. I listened to the German children playing in between stones nearby, picking up words of their language here and there. I watched the slow parade of beige-trousered elderly tourists as they stepped in single file along the earthworks bank as if towards their own demise. There was a small girl of about three years of age, skipping around between us and the Portal Stones. She was wearing a flowery sort of dress and was accompanied by what I presume was her father, Druid-like attired, and his large dog, and a woman who may have been the girl’s mother, though I wasn’t sure of this either. We make assumptions sometimes in the observation, and I wondered if Druid-dad had created his daughter in his image or if she was naturally so disposed.

The girl seemed completely well-at-ease here at Avebury, in the long grass between the standing stones. Whilst the adults in her party talked distantly some way away, and the dog stood at heel, the girl went to sit on a smaller stone laid with its surface just a short way from the ground. It struck me, observing her in her quiet-focused play with flowers and suchlike, for those few minutes, that here there was time. I could blur out the background line of elderly tourists on the far-off bank, the sounds of the German children playing to my right, the occasional car on the road into the village, the Druid-dressed man and his partner-perhaps and their dog . . . here was a small child playing amongst the long grass, on a stone which now has a name, but which once was part of something else. The near-circular earthworks of Avebury surrounded a playing child. Here was time. What would this play have been four and a half thousand years ago?

There may have been scenes of horrific ritual at sites like these, and this our modern selves can’t square and cannot ignore. What can we say of play though? Was there play? In my magical thinking, because what we believe is true, there is a great earthworks, a brilliant white great chalk-lined ditch, with massive stones on its inner rim; the trees have their enormous branches shaken by a swathe of rooks, or crows, flocking out in a huge black wave, dispersing into the distance; beneath the birds, a small girl sits in her quiet-focused play with flowers amongst the long grass, four and a half thousand years or so ago. In my magical thinking, here there is time: still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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