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

Play and language

For a couple of weeks now, on and off, and as touched upon in my previous post, I’ve been quietly observing the way that two particular children are playing. Theirs is a forming relationship, with no ‘outcome’ or ‘yes, we’re there’ about it (I don’t know the beginning of it and it almost feels as if there was no beginning: it just happened). What fascinates the most about this forming play and relationship between these two girls is that one of them doesn’t speak English (or, if she speaks a little, it’s rarely heard). In fact, this younger child of around eight or nine, I suppose, barely says anything to us at all. She has, however, almost always been in play with the other girl.

One simple observation highlights, I trust, my fascination of the play: I was standing up high, up out of the way of things one day, for a few minutes, when I saw the two girls over by the sandpit. One of them had dragged over the old buggy we have on site, which I’ve been surprised to find gets its fair use in the play. I couldn’t hear what was being said, if anything at all, but the girl who spoke no English clearly had ideas in the narrative of the play she wanted to unfold. By means of pointing and double pointing, gesturing towards the buggy, and other hand and facial gestures, the suggestion seemed to be that one of the children would be the baby, in the buggy, and the other would play a different role. Then they swapped. This needed no words, it seemed.

I’ve really wanted to ask the girl who does speak English what’s going on in the play. However, this I know wouldn’t be good because then I’m effectively asking the child to analyse her play (in a low level kind of way). So, I haven’t asked, though I want to know about the way the girls communicate from an insider’s point of view. I speak to the girl who doesn’t speak English, on occasion, as she passes by on the playground and if she looks my way, though the other child, I remember once said, ‘She doesn’t speak English, you know?’ and this is all I know directly from her.

I have known adults who have been of the opinion that children can’t possibly interact without a common language. They’ve said it in so many words. This is, of course, theoretically and observationally rubbish. I’m reminded of a time, over twenty years ago now, when I lived and worked in Germany for a short while. I was at a Jugendhaus (Youth House), and whilst I attempted to use my abbreviated German in my interactions in the play, what I found was that, ultimately, I didn’t need this or English. When we connect, we connect, and (following a small digression here) one child showed me that this had happened with the paper offering she’d made me. Such small things are significant, or can be, and can last a long time. Only recently, I was offered a token of gratitude, as I read it, from a child I made time for, she having gone out of her way to make her gift. She didn’t say what the gift was for. A failure to be able to converse in mutual languages yet to connect in other ways, in the significance of my memory, has also taken place in Holland and in Sweden, to name just two other examples (my favourite stories of being on a plane in Amsterdam — where a child cleverly communicated to me without words, and whilst visiting an outside school near Stockholm — where a child gave me an offering for whatever reason she chose).

Tokens of gratitude are not what we do the job for, but these things are written here to show that children can communicate in ways we don’t often do in the adult world. Sometimes, the tokens and offerings aren’t made things at all; rather, they’re gestures of connection for communications made or listening having taken place, or they’re thanks in other ways. When children tell you the simple tales of their day-to-days, what positives can you glean from them having chosen to tell you these instead of anyone else?

It works in other ways too. I watch on, sometimes, as my colleagues engage in certain on-going conversations with certain children, relating, understanding, or learning to understand them: then, those children choose those adults to tip a bucket of water over, to swear at in exaggerated fashion, or to lie to in such a way because they know that that adult can and will take it, or will accept it, or will intuitively know that what is being said beneath isn’t what is being said.

Returning to the child who doesn’t speak English and the child who does and to their play: in the brief moments when they’ve not been in the play together, for whatever reason, I have seen that there’s almost a magnetic pulling of one back to the other. They have sought each other out, and they have found each other on the playground somewhere, before going off poking around the hidey holes of the place again. The bond of play, of other forms of communicating, has become strong for these two children.

Today, the child who doesn’t speak English was on the playground but the other girl wasn’t there. I noticed this early on because it felt unusual to see the first child unattached as she was. A little later though, near the gate, I noticed another girl, a little older, was talking with her, in English, and this child looked at me and said (half to me, half speaking out loud in mock exasperation) ‘I don’t know how to say this in Italian!’ I told her I didn’t know either. The girls played though. Later, I saw them inside together sat on the sofa. One of the boys was saying his only Italian word at the girls, in exaggerated fashion, being (as he translated) ‘Cheese! Cheese!’ I hit on the idea of bringing the laptop out and communicating through Google Translate. It took the girl who didn’t speak English a little while to figure out what the other girl was trying to type in, and that she could type back, but eventually it happened. In returning to the main theme of this writing though, the girl who didn’t speak English indicated she wanted the other girl to go outside with her. The English-speaking girl came running in a few minutes later, banging on the office door. ‘I only need one thing,’ she said. ‘Tell me how to say do you want to play?’ I don’t think she even needed this: another pairing had bonded via play.

Of course, we see this bonding all the time in various formations of children on the playground: there are small pockets of players who gravitate to one another, and there are larger pockets who disperse and re-form in almost tribal fashion when anything significant is about to happen. The bonding can cross the socio-economic and ethnic parcelling that the adult world seems to like to create so much. There are common denominators of play, but the play and bonding could also be seen in terms of children’s connection in awareness of mischievous intent, in their latent or repressed types of play (or play types engaged in), in their calculated intentions to disrupt, and so on.

Positively play is, in short, often beyond words and the need for words. Connections are deep-seated, or become this way, and play is glue (wishing to avoid the instrumental rhetoric of words and phrases such as ‘play is a tool for xyz’): play is glue, or magnetic.

Playground time

If you work on an adventure playground of some description, you may have an idea of what I mean by ‘playground time’. Maybe there’s the equivalent of ‘playground time’ in any place where children occupy a particular site for any significant period of a day. That’ll be an observation or being-in-the-moment for a future occasion’s study. For now, I’m calling it ‘playground time’. I’ve written about it before, here and there, and I wanted to return to it today in more detail.

I’ve been flitting in and out of the playground this summer. Some days over the past few weeks I’ve worked at a playscheme for children with learning difficulties or physical disabilities; some days I’ve worked with younger children in the local parks; other days I’ve come back to the playground. I have always sort of known of some kind of playground time (even before I was working in such places, and when I didn’t have such thinking processes as now passing by): there is time that is sort of ‘out of the ordinary focus’ of the usual adult day-to-days. When you’re in and out of it, as I have been lately, there’s a resettling process, a re-absorption, that can take place.

This summer, early on, there were some difficult days. Some older children sucked up all the energy of the place. Maybe there are eddies that form, leaving holes that you can’t see through or beyond. Run with that for a little while: when I feel like I’m in a treadmill of hours of anticipating anxieties or fire-fighting on the playground, going from one ‘what-now?’ to the next, I either forget to see the whole or I can’t see it so well any more. What happens in the younger children’s play, in the quiet children’s play, in the corners of the playground, in the forming dens, in the in-betweens and what-might-be? All of this gets swamped when in crisis mode.

Now, summer has eased itself into a kind of flow. That is, playground time has kicked in, as a whole, and in the individual days. We’re past the mid-way point of summer, and although some playworkers, some days, seem to be running on sugar fumes, or taking extra breaks because they’re needed, the particular anxieties of the first few days have left for a while. Relationships between children and between children and playworkers are flowing in that ‘just pick up where it was left off yesterday’ kind of way.

When I’m in and out of the playground, over days, I have to potter around for a little while, in the morning, before the children come in; I have to re-tune to the greater whole of playground time that I feel my colleagues continue to be in because they’re already immersed to some degree. This is a personal affect, I know, because I like to catch the feeling of the whole of the place (or, as much of it as I can absorb in any one go, which takes some perceptive ‘letting in’): the re-tuning process may not affect a colleague in the same way. I don’t know.

When I’m not in the playground time flow, I realised recently after half a session, I ‘see’ only twenty feet or so around me. Things pass me by. That is, I see things going on beyond that radius, but I don’t pick up on them so well. When ‘in’ playground time, I see the far side of the playground and I sense when certain children are or aren’t on-site; I can better anticipate the play that’s forming; I can leave better alone, let things unfold without undue intervention, taking a dynamic risk assessment consideration in trusting the children I’m observing. When ‘in’ playground time, I can feel the way that lulls and agitations form and peter out. Time seems to have a different texture to it. This works across days as well as in the day itself. It’s not that it stops and starts, but rather it’s always there and I have to hook into it.

Relating to certain individual children (or the ‘how’ of all of that) shows my position in playground time to myself. One of the older girls lives in a block just down the road from the playground: she’s recently come back to us after a period of choosing not to come. Over the summer, she’ll come by and tell small moments of her life. She came into the office as I sat poking around on the computer. The door was open to all the play sounds of the hall and playground beyond. She sat and we just talked. Another boy flopped down on the sofa outside the office door and said, matter-of-factly that he’d been coming for five years now, implying that he’s part of the furniture and that he practically works there. Playground time works in small and continued ways.

Another older boy, who’s also just returned after a period of choosing to stay away, has played table tennis outside practically every day, game after game. There seems to me to be an absence in time if he’s not there. I watch on, each day I’m on the playground, as two Italian children navigate their ways through either prolonged stays at the pool table or intricate navigations around the hidey holes of the whole place (in the case of the younger girl, leading and being led by a friend by the language of play and an ever-evolving system of gestures and in-between language vocalisations). There is another sub-plot forming in the place, which is the gentle jostling for peer group leader status, now that the usual older group aren’t around for a while. It leads to different ways of playing, different spins off one another.

In playground time, I observed how three children struggled amongst themselves, in the rain, to construct a roof of carpet between parts of the platform structures that have been added to the original recently. I watched on carefully from a distance, and peripherally, thinking how they might slip, but seeing how careful they were being, how they were helping one another, how they could evidently see the possible hazards because they were arranging things. It was a careful standing back, and not a presumptuous and unnecessary intervention.

In playground time, in the pouring rain, I see how the children seem to love the new waterslide. There is no time. Everything happens when it needs to happen. This includes the way that (beyond my twenty feet radius of ‘not being in it all’ days) I see the way my colleagues are working with and for children at the periphery of my sight, bringing and fetching resources, being in and around the kitchen, sitting and talking with children, arranging the hose for the slide, and so on.

Playground time is flow, for sure, but it’s also part of the myth-magical dimension of the playground: there is a narrative that takes place in the forming moment, which is part of days and weeks. Playground time is the continuing story of the place where the play happens. In the overall story there are many, many stories taking shape and bubbling away. When one child comes onto the playground, we often call him by his chosen nickname. When another child asked me why we call him that, I said ‘because, last summer, he used that one word all the time, and so it stuck’. When I talked with a couple of boys last week (feeling quite protective of the girl they were targeting with water balloons), I told them how she was targeted so much last summer. In playground time, I can see how one older boy is flourishing because he has space to express himself these past few days; I can see how certain individuals’ presences brighten the place when they return after some days away; I can see how certain children’s creative play gradually smears itself across the playground. The playground too, in playground time, is a shifting creature: it twists and turns in its ever-changing shapes and forms. The moving built environment around the play moulds that play in some ways.

I wonder how much the children feel playground time in these ways I describe above. There is a window, some days, when some children seem to feel the imminent coming to an end of that day’s play on-site. They’ll ask what the time is. Playground time fractures a little towards the end of the session: sometimes there’ll be agitations forming and bubbling over, where play was all flowing along before this. Of course, if seen literally, playground time is gone for the day when all the children have eventually left the site, but it seems just to be in stasis, always sort of there, when the summer flow has kicked in: the next day, though there’s quite often a period of poking around at the start of the new session, play and flow picks up somewhere close to where it was the previous day.

Being out of it, for any significant period, can be a little disorientating for this playworker. The stories of the narrative whole can be picked up again though, but it takes a little morning drifting (litter picking, floating around picking up bits of wood, looking out for signs of play that has happened here, maybe, whilst scuffing around in the wet grass). Play and playworking, perhaps, follow similar arcs in and of time.

Certain forms of play, and certain individual children, can really challenge a playworker (irrespective of that playworker’s experience). I very much doubt there’s a playworker with the ability to relate to every single child they ever meet; or rather, I doubt there’s a playworker who every single child can cope with being around. Sometimes we don’t try but still our presence will aggravate some child. We can choose to take this personally, or we can choose another strategy. Sometimes, our conscious actions can aggravate all the more. We can choose strategies we think will make things all the better for the majority of the children on site, or we can choose yet another strategy for being in amongst this children’s rarefied world. In reality, conscious playworking is not straightforward, not so binary, not so ‘this is how to do it’.

Here is the context to this thinking today: last week, being the first week of open access school holiday provision at the playground, there was plenty of the usual posturing and antics from a handful of the older boys (supplemented by some of the older girls’ support or antagonism tactics, and a sprinkling of some of the younger girls’ emotions thrown into the mix to boot). Some of the older boys use various means to rule the roost. They variously engage in covert coercion tactics, diversions with playwork staff and outright, chest out, full blown stand-offs with one another. Their play, which in the calm of this writing the other side of the weekend, can still be seen as play (albeit disruptive and designed to antagonise others) sometimes results in other younger children skirting around the edges, steering clear, or not doing the things they want to do in the places they want to do them.

I made playdough one day, because one of the girls had asked for it the day before, and I left it out for the children. The older boys started throwing it around at each other and aiming it at others. There was very quickly no playdough left. I made more later, but the girl who wanted it that day couldn’t play with it how and where she wanted to: the boys had ripped it apart and attacked people again. Their play also involved jockeying for ‘top dog’ status, or acting up around the ‘top dog’, or inciting low-level verbal attacks, or the like. It was exhausting for the playwork team. It was the first week, and I had worked only part of that week on the playground myself, and by the end of the week I was already very low in sugar and desire to go about the work of providing for play.

There is undeniably the to and fro of power shifting taking place when any given playworker puts himself or herself into the position of trying to support, and even things out for, all the children. You get spread very thin. You try to do the right thing. You end up focusing only on the few who rule the roost, and you want to see the play of all the other children: you want to know if it’s there still, how it’s there if it is, what happens, and how it might be better supported. You end up, however, just aggravating the individual children who are sucking up all the attention, energy, and will.

By Friday morning I was already thoroughly exhausted. I got in early and decided I needed just to sit still on the grass and take in the world. My colleagues got on with various tasks that needed doing: cutting the grass, litter picking, admin work, bits and pieces of building. I wasn’t doing nothing. I was collecting. I sat there for a while, and somewhere in amongst all of this I realised that, the day before, I was probably part of the problem. I had got in the way of certain individual children who were aggravating others, who were aggravating me and my colleagues; I was trying to do ‘the right thing’ but ended up, evidently, making things worse. I had already decided that today would be different for me, on my walk into work: I decided I would consciously keep as low a profile as I possibly could on Friday. I would do what needed to be done (not the bare minimum, but everything that needed me, and anything that I could also do if it didn’t risk aggravation on anyone’s part). I went about my later morning tasks until the children came to the playground (mixing buckets of powder paint, incidentally, under a slow running tap, is recommended as a form of meditative centring technique!)

Now, I’ve not always been an advocate of the playwork stance that is ‘being invisible’, preferring instead the idea that a playworker will relate when needed to relate. Even this is too simplistic an interpretation, too binary a telling, of ways of playworking. When the children began to come in, however, I had the sudden realisation that, even though I was trying to stay well out of the way, I was still somewhat in the way because of a few reasons: (i) I’ve noted from previous observation of colleagues on the playground, and from reflection on my own practice, that we often tend towards operating in certain favoured zones — it might feel like ‘patrolling’; (ii) I’m taller than (most of) the children, sticking out in the middle of things; (iii) I tend to prefer walking or standing rather than sitting because I like to be able to see plenty of things in my observations; (iv) I often tend to position myself in parts of the playground, if not in the middle of things, then where I can see most of everything with just a sweep of the head. All of this, I released, might contribute to being too in the midst of things, too present, too much of a potential aggravation, even if not actually physically being in the middle of the playground. If what I’ve said or done previously has affected the children, then if they don’t know I’m there, currently, there may be less chance of my presence becoming a catalyst for inflaming past agitations. This does lead to the thinking that is, ‘well, what then is the point of me being on the playground?’, which I shall return to shortly.

The day was a conscious effort to be ‘other’ than the day before. I sat instead of stood; I tried out positions where I knew I was always lower down than the children who moved and played around me; I interacted with children, on their request and cue, who I hadn’t interacted with for a while, because I hadn’t taken the time for them or because the older boys had often taken up all my observational and interactive energy. The session started off quietly, as it often does, and then quietly rumbled along in similar fashion.

I saw a colleague eating from a bowl whilst sat down in one of the old people’s home chairs, which still cling on to life in various places around the site: he was sat near the fence, in the shade of the tree of what we call ‘the outside office’ (a sometimes den, a sometimes debriefing place). I only noticed him there because he moved to bring the spoon to his mouth. It was a good place, I found later, to observe from. I couldn’t see everything that was going on around the playground (the door to the main room inside was blocked from my view, as was the main gate around the corner, and a good portion of the far side of the playground), but I could see the main strip where the pool table functions as the social centre of the place, the wedge of open ground that is a main route towards the structures, the ‘tree house’ where the new water slide is, and in the far corner, in the haze, the latest incarnation of the ever-changing ‘mad house’ (a palette construction which children add to with new wood, nails, drills, paint, and tarpaulins), with a small group of industrious children attending to it like ants quietly building.

I sat there in the shade for a good long while. I stayed very still but I concentrated very hard on what I was seeing. This was my purpose today, I then realised. I was ready if I was needed by any colleague or child, but I wasn’t necessary to get in the way. The knowing playworker understands that his or her colleague who sits in the shade of a tree for a good long time isn’t shirking responsibilities: they know that they’re concentrating very hard. I was able to see (as I have known but re-realised again) that certain children also have their certain preferred favoured zones (just as the playworkers do); I could see how little bubbles of potential agitations formed, then dissipated, as if watching in slow motion, because no adult aggravated the situation (though they could have intervened, and might have been justified in so doing had they done so); I was able to see how the children who didn’t have so defined a zonal area of comfort moved around — one girl of around ten was the ‘butterfly child’ (she slowly flitted from one place to another: she didn’t seem to have a plan of action, something caught her eye, something happened in her head, she flitted towards the attraction or decided otherwise, she floated around in almost curvilinear fashion, caught on the breeze, smiling, or daydreaming). I saw how two colleagues engaged with an older boy in chase tap play and how he had all of their attention to himself, because he willed it that way, but he seemed absolutely in the flow of that attention. When another colleague drifted inside with all the other older boys, I wanted to know what was happening, but I resisted the curiosity because my presence would have changed things. I found out later that they’d all chilled out on the sofa and chairs, talking. I think they, and we, all needed this.

As the day went on, I kept to my very conscious playworking stance: I endeavoured to keep physically lower, where possible, to sit more, to observe in places I wouldn’t normally operate in, to lessen my possible aggravational impact. I was able to relate to children, at their request, in very considered ways. Later, when other children attempted to cue me into hassling or chasing them around at the end of the session (a common distraction technique to prolong the eventual closing of the gates), I refused to return those cues: to have my buttons pushed. I ignored them, and the children wandered off (until I couldn’t resist with the final child at the gate, him smiling in a way to suggest that he’d won my attention after all, and I got a kick in the shin for my efforts, prompting a colleague to rightly tell me that I deserved that!)

The playworking conclusions I can draw from this conscious stance (and reflections on it) are that, although we may not be the sole cause of agitations of days we wish would pass more quickly than others, we can inadvertently (and otherwise) be an aggravating contributor to it all; we can choose our actions (our height and position, our movements and words) and our apparent inactions; we need our firm resolve about us to enact our decisions and to keep them going (or to change them if they’re not working out); we need the will to resist curiosities that can function better without our presence; we can observe things we either hadn’t seen before or were re-realising again, if we know that what we’re doing in the observing is also important in the greater scheme of things; we can sit and think and not plough headlong into another day, especially if that day is one we’re not looking forward to.

When all is said and done, I believe, the conscious stance is preferable.

The art of skipping

Whilst sitting in a field last week at a music festival, lazing around in decadent sloth in the sun, I was told I analyse too much. It’s sometimes true, I guess. We were there to provide some play opportunity sessions for the children at the festival and, in between gigs (as some in the playwork world call their own work sessions!), in alternating teams, I lazed around and thought about the world going by. During the play sessions though, I found that I also did some good quality analysing. Hence the title of this piece!

If we’re engaged in the play of the moment with children, how often do we really consider the what and how of what we’re doing? We did eight sessions (‘gigs’!) in all: half in the more secluded and dedicated children’s area (though much more relaxed and small-scale than the heavy-duty Glastonbury Kidz Field — as an aside, I do wish that that ‘z’ weren’t used, or the word ‘kid’: it’s all too dumbed-down); we did the other half of our sessions in the ‘flag circle’ of the main festival area. In the latter, what transpired was plenty of skipping. We took some big long ropes and, probably because it was much more visible than the other site, this tended to draw people (younger and older) in.

Now, during this plenty of skipping time (which repeated over the days), I came to feel very aware of exactly what I was doing. That is, I found myself analysing the actions of my body in the way that I was in service to the play. Skipping (or, more precisely, being the rope swinger) is not a simple affair. I’ve known certain aspects of the following in previous play engagement, but it all seemed very immediate last week when I thought of things in terms of a collation of actions:

Older children came by and some were very proficient skippers: so, of course, this allowed for greater skip speeds. The dynamic changes when more than one older skipper plays. There are then, almost inevitably, a range of skipping abilities and styles that must be accounted for by the rope swinger. The speed of the rope has to be taken into account, as well as the arc (for skippers’ head heights), and the degree of rope scuff across the grass to account for the different heights that each skipper jumps their feet (that is, there is that range of skipping styles to allow for: jump height, the confident one spring with no intermediate half-spring in between, or the half-springers — the rope swinger has to watch the skippers’ feet carefully, they have to anticipate the full or the half-spring). Then, to add to this, there are the straying skippers who might be involved in the play. I found that this tended to happen with the younger children and can best be described here as the child in question progressively jumping backwards or sideways, usually, or sometimes forwards, out of alignment with the rope and/or the other skippers. The rope swinger has to shift position (and arc, and scuff height, and possibly speed) to allow for this drift. If skippers choose to ‘run in’ to the already swinging rope, the rope swinger has to judge their speed, their hesitation, their confident assertion, or any mix of these, and readjust the rope around that run. Additional difficulties lie in a mix of older and younger skippers, with differing abilities, head heights, jump height and style of skipping, and drift. The rope swinging has to allow for all of these variables to try to ensure that all skippers have the best chance of making it over the rope every time. Then things get a little more complex.

The rope swinger, up to this stage of the writing, has been related in terms of the singular because, although it takes two (usually) to service such play (unless one end is tied to a bench or some other sort of static object), this rope swinger is the dominant of the two. In effect, there are two sorts of rope swingers in each incidence of skipping play (well, there was when I was doing it, at least!): there is the dominant rope swinger (who undertakes the above actions and more), and there is the stable end rope swinger. The role of the latter is to be a consistent mechanism against which the dominant rope swinger can continuously re-calibrate the rope (whether they know it or not!). Whether servicing skipping can work with two dominant rope swingers or with two stable end rope swingers, I don’t know: I’d have to analyse that through observation more. It’s difficult to know, first hand, because I realise I tend towards being the dominant rope swinger. The dominant rope swinger also continually re-calibrates the feed of the rope: that is, there are readjustments of the length of the rope in the play, to account for the skippers’ heights and how they’re spaced out, and there are readjustments of the give in the slack, as well as in the ways of holding the rope in dominant and non-dominant hands, which best facilitate that feed.

Now, all of the above gets further ramped up when the odd adult comes over to play. Adults play too, and we found that the skipping in the flag circle was a draw for them as well. Some parents went out of their way to thank me, in conversation afterwards, not only for their children’s play opportunities here but for their own. The rope needs to go higher, or faster if the skipper is a father with a point to prove, say! The rope needs to allow for the additional adult re-engagement in their own play (that is to say, some adults seemed to have a vague memory of skipping but had forgotten what they used to do; some didn’t really know in the first place and just made it up as they went along, but without the practice that children put in, over and over; some adults got cocky and tried things that are second nature to their twelve year old daughters — full 360 degree turns, and suchlike — but which probably work out better without the mix of sun and alcohol!)

Back to the children: counting skips can work both ways. That is, it can act as a drive, a target, but also as a distraction. One day, three older girls and three older boys developed a friendly rivalry. The play shifted into girls versus boys (in the writing now, it reminds me of a sort of street dance-off). The play evolved into each group raising the other, or calling how many jumps they’d make: the boys were ambitious, calling higher and higher each time, even though they’d consistently failed to get past four. The girls, on the other hand, reached twelve, called higher, reached their limit for the moment, and re-assessed with one another before dropping their next target, eventually hitting the twenties. With the younger children, something strange happened with the numbers: at one stage we were counting in animals (giraffe, hippo, elephant, etc., and one boy said matter-of-factly what the next animal would be, as if we really were counting in a definite order); at another time in the play, one younger boy couldn’t get past four skips as we counted in numbers — for some reason I then started counting in German. ‘How many did I get to?’ he asked when he ran out of jumps. ‘Twenty two,’ I told him. Comprehensible numbers can distract, or so it seems.

So, I analyse too much, or so I’m told. Skipping has much more to it though than just standing there holding the rope or jumping up and down. I took a turn in the middle. The fuzz of the background just blurred as I jumped. I couldn’t really focus on anything but the moment. Some strange alignment seemed to take place: I don’t know how many I got to (not that it mattered anyway), but I felt like I was skipping for far longer than was strictly possible for someone of my age, height, jump style (ungamely!), and ability. I found I could jump without touching the rope, turn around, and around, and not fall over or get caught out, keep going. I felt like I jumped a long time (maybe it wasn’t so long, but it felt that way). Maybe I’d achieved a jumping alignment with the rope swingers, just for that short while. Maybe there was a perfect fusion of skipper, dominant rope swinger, stable end rope swinger (or, other combination of these), as well as counting which I didn’t hear, or no counting, but most of all the fusion was just all in being there and then in the play.

Skippers and rope swingers are synchronised as an in-the-moment art piece. When it falls apart, as it will, the canvas is reset.

When we walk around our neighbourhoods, or around areas unfamiliar to us, what do we feel? What does the area we’re in press on us? Which emotions, desires, or ‘pulls’ do we feel on us? What has this to do with play? Bear with me in this post, because this is, in itself, an exploration: a laying down of a foundation I may come back to sometime.

I have recently become interested in ‘psychogeography’, which is defined by Debord in his 1955 essay, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in part, as the study of the ‘specific effects of the geographical environment . . . on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In truth, and without really knowing it, I have been undertaking an uninformed and unformed background study of this for many years, as it seems. That is to say, I can now add to my act of walking my conscious awareness of the study of my emotions as I walk. Before I come on to play, a little more information on a certain means of movement: linked to the psychogeographic concept is the idea of the ‘dérive’, or drift, the definition for which I take from Wiki, so I trust it holds, though things seems to be fairly consistent across reading material:

‘In a dérive one or more [people], during a certain period, drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there . . .’

— Knabb, 1995, citing Debord

The added aspect to this is that this is not so aimless a drift; rather, it’s a conscious awareness of what pulls the drifter along. It is a way of experiencing (in this case, urban) areas in non-functional ways: where function and the playful have a fusion. Knabb (1995) also writes: ‘Cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes [sic] which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’. (This I shall return to, because there is a reflection to be had on this as linked with play).

There is one final piece of background information to add in: Debord (1955) also writes about ‘the sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few metres; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground)’.

So, within the psychogeographic study of how the urban area ‘pulls’ on the walker, the drifter, or he who is in his dérive, what emotions and behaviours are produced by the ever changing ‘ambiance’ of each segment of a street (sometimes just yards apart)? The only way to find out is to find out. Hence, psychogeographic ‘praxis’ (the actual doing, rather than just a thinking theory) is important. I will come to play. First, and next, some walked recent affects on this experimenter, edited out of the context of the whole (a sort of textual collaging in itself, rather than a ‘map’ of the whole):

This exercise of considered dérive is not as simple as one might think. First we have to come to be in a state of some flow, and then we must retain this whilst also maintaining a watchful eye on the shifting states of the self. Record every sensory impact, or as many as possible, and walk slowly. Remember to look up and around.

Certain streets exercised what I termed, in the moment, as a ‘pull’ (and I retain the phrase throughout because it seems to fit). Each pull needed accepting or rejecting. Each decision needed in-the-moment analysis of why it was accepted or rejected (for this ‘dériver’, at least!). I don’t know how much I was consciously aware of Knabb’s writing on a city’s ‘currents and vortices’ (in truth, probably not a great deal, in the moment), but they could be felt. Entrances and exits to pulling streets, defensible (invisibly boundaried) space, the affects of T-junctions or assumed cul-de-sacs, and so on, tended towards rejections rather than acceptances of drift. There is also, as is assumed, such potential psychogeographical impact on the ranging child, if the child has this opportunity to roam.

There was a dominant desire not to double back for this dériver, and later, on the inward stretch of the circuit as it became, back home, a desire not to accept the pulls of streets or ways that led me farther out. Accepting the feelings and reasons for these, as you go, as an honest approach, was a useful mode of being.

Along the way, pulls were not just streets but also a gathering accumulation or awareness of sensory impact: the smells of flowers I could and couldn’t name, perfumes of passers-by; vistas and aspects, slices between houses or whole views; the shift in the overcast sky, its brightening or the affect of drizzle; temperature changes; the sounds of planes and hard and soft traffic, the sound of the almost ubiquitous (assumed to be) wood pigeons, unseen; light shifts under, and out from under, trees; colour recognitions and juxtapositions; states of vertiginous positions (at the bottoms and tops of steep slopes) . . . all these pulls had an affect on the emotional and behavioural (directional movement, observational stance, internal desires to interact or refrain). This last point leads me to where I’m heading (this writing, as could be conceived, being a textual psychogeography in itself, if that’s not stretching it too far!): simply, certain pulls provoked the possibility of play in this dériver.

On the inward sweep of the large circuit, finding myself at a green hill, the level paths pulled me most: these paths that led roughly towards home with the least energy to be expended. A dirt track up a steep hill pulled unexpectedly, and it was accepted. It was, on the face of it, a futile climb: it was difficult to climb with only a few roots to hold on to, and it led to a short track which took me back to the track I was on before. I climbed it anyway, because it was there, feeling at the top of the hill something akin to what I remember feeling as a child: this hill has been climbed; let’s move on.

The climb affected the dynamics of the rest of the dérive. Steeply stepped pulls uphill were no longer rejected. The affects of the wind in the trees was noticed, as was the movement of every single tree on the top of the hill. A small movement and moment of play can produce a tumble of further shifts along the way. The functional aspects of the city (or one small area of it) can be — to use Neil Gaiman’s (2006) term, out of context — ‘upsettled’. The function and the play (or ‘the ludic’) can come closer together and fuse. Where does function and play start and end? This dirt slope was a track of sorts, functionally, but playfully it was a climb. Or, functionally, it was a climb, and playfully it was a track. Onwards in the dérive, the hill top is a magic circle of trees but it functions as the clearing at the top, a place of gathering. Or playfully it’s a clearing of moving trees, and functionally it’s a magic circle to be seen and engaged with.

In the psychogeographic consideration of my recent days, I’m wondering how the ‘ambiance’ of certain areas of cities can be affected to break down the rigidity of their functional selves, and to open up awarenesses of the playfulness that can fold in. Maybe we should all go on our own local dérive: a walkabout, perhaps — an awakening to what the urban ‘pulls’ cause in us, of what play folds out from us because of this.

Debord, G. (1955), Introduction to a critique of urban geography [Online]. Available from: (Accessed July 13, 2015).

Gaiman, N. (2006), The hidden chamber in Fragile things. London: Headline Review.

Knabb, K. (Ed.) (1995), Situationist International anthology. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets. Cited in Wiki: Psychogeography [Online]. Available from: (Accessed July 13, 2015).

If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? Maybe the same question could be written in terms of ‘if you’re a parent, are you a parent all of the time?’ or ‘if you’re a teacher, are you a teacher all of the time?’ Maybe these questions all have different answers. Maybe they don’t.

The question of ‘are you a playworker all of the time?’ came up in some training I was once expected to deliver (it wasn’t my course materials), and I seem to remember that the view I was expected to cajole out from playwork learners was one of ‘well, no, of course we’re not playworkers all of the time.’ I disagreed. Now, some years on, I find I’m coming back to thinking about this again.

The catalyst for this is to do with three closely spaced occurrences of play or playworker-ness which I wasn’t expecting. I’ll work backwards in time. I’d been to the pub to eat dinner and have a couple of beers after work. I didn’t stay that long (over-imbibing of a work night can have certain ramifications!): it was late evening, nearly ten o’clock, and the light was just starting to drain away around the mad and ever-moving triangle of traffic that surrounds Shepherd’s Bush Green. I walked across it, thinking of nothing in particular, when I saw a small grey shape approach me, followed by a long elongated ‘Hiiii-iii’ and a waving of hands. The usual smile of a nine year old I know from the playground’s Open Access scheme came into view. She proceeded to shoot me with her water pistol.

I asked her if she was with anyone here, it being a little way from where she lives, and she said that there was her mum, sat down at a table nearby. She dragged me over, saying, ‘Look who I’ve found.’ The girl carried on firing her water pistol at me as I talked with her mother, so I broke off conversation to play back. We played chase, with mum’s blessing, and we colluded in hushed whisperings about which members of the public might ‘accidentally’ get wet! No members of the public were hindered in the making of this blog, however! The evening folded in, and after twenty minutes or so, as the light drained away, I said I’d better be on my way. The girl would probably have stayed as long as she could, and her mum was more than happy to be out of the house. I said my goodbyes though, for now.

A little earlier in the evening, soon after leaving work, I heard my name being called from behind me as I walked down the road near the Tube station. It was one of the older after school club boys who had been with us that day, and who had left a fair while earlier to walk home on his own. As we walked, he just seemed like a different person: quiet and thinking hard. We talked of plenty of nothingnesses, and I asked him whereabouts home was. He told me where and it involved a train journey and a walk the other end. We bantered away as I walked him to the train station: I was going that way anyway. He said, ‘You know, I used to think you [playworkers] all lived there [at the adventure playground]. You know, some of you in the back room —’ . . . I said ‘Like we sleep in the cupboards?’ (which is what I always suspected the children thought of us!). ‘Yeh,’ he said, ‘something like that.’ I saw him off towards the station and said, ‘Get straight home, won’t you? They’ll be waiting for you.’ He ran across the road and disappeared into the Overground station. I thought of how we talk, in playwork circles, of children’s ranging, and of what I thought of ranging across this portion of London.

Back a little further in time, on the train that day, there was another one of those episodes of cues and returns which initially catch me off-guard. I’ve written about these plenty of times (when children seem to see something they connect with in me). It’s not that I’m even trying sometimes. A small boy, maybe three or four, was sat in the seat in front of me. I knew he was there the whole journey because I could hear his conversations with the adults he was with. I paid no more attention to a small child rabbitting on about whatever took his fancy in the ‘quiet’ carriage. It may have bothered others, but I’m used to this. We approached the final stop in London, and out of nowhere the boy decided to check the passenger behind his seat. I just looked back at him, offering no other return of his cue. He turned away and, a few seconds later, did the same thing. I put down my book. Perhaps the returning of the visual cue in the first place, by not studiously contemplating the book all along, was what did it. I don’t know. Other than this I did nothing. Now I was in the play. I gave in to it!

If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? At home, when Dino-Viking Boy and Princess K. want to play there’s often very little choice I have in the matter if they want to involve me! There are times, I admit, when I’m still work-tired, or when the youngest is smacking the eldest round the head with a cardboard tube or a plastic bucket, or when the eldest is playing every possible card she has to extract me from her brother’s attentions, I can get a little frustrated! I have been known to walk away to gather my infinite patience!! I am getting somewhat crotchety when the children pile out of the shed with armfuls of play stuff that they scatter round the patio, and I do own up to a quiet hope that sand and water and paint paste won’t be spread in all directions because ‘we’re making brown’.

Perhaps there is an argument, on paper, to say that a playworker may not be a playworker all of the time, if we look at the frustrations that take place (we work in the human field, after all). However, maybe the frustrations are all part of the process of ‘being playworker’. So, maybe, in practice, there is truth in the statement of being a playworker all of the time. I have to think about it more. What I do know, though, is that play in unexpected situations doesn’t often faze me (though it might initially catch me off-guard), and ‘being playworker’ is more than just ‘observing, putting out resources, creating environments’: actions, and reactions, and words and no-words, are part of the whole consideredness.

If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? On balance, I think: probably, maybe. If you’re a parent, are you a parent all of the time? If you’re a teacher, are you a teacher all of the time . . .?

Swearing’s messy maze

I intend to swear somewhat in this post. There you go: fore-warned is fore-armed. This is a fuck of a lot more notice about imminent swearing than you usually get with children. Two years ago I wrote about the subject of children and swearing, and I return to this subject in this post to dig around again in what many adults assume to be some sort of pit of depravity.

I’m brought to this subject matter again, specifically, by one online reference that floated by earlier in the week and by one brief observation of play; also, generally, I’m brought to this subject matter because I’m aware that I’m surrounded by a certain language form in the urban landscape. In the specifics of the two matters above (the online report relating to Arlington, Virginia’s ban on swearing in the streets, and the play observation), in the first instance I wrote a somewhat flippant online reply along the lines of ‘imagine that being tried in west London!’; in the second instance, of the playground observation, I listened at a distance to a boy of around 8 years of age jumping from the bench outside, immersed in extroverted play with his friends, exclaiming ‘fucking hell’ and ‘fuck, that was scary’, and such like. In truth, this boy’s caught my attention because he immerses himself like this quite often, rather than this one instance of play: a particularly gregarious and sometimes favourite expression of his being something like ‘hey, fucking woman’ as he chases his female play-mate of about the same age around the playground. She, incidentally, gives as good as she gets!

Two years ago, I suggested a couple of reasons why adults often found it difficult when hearing children swearing, these being: (i) potentially, unadvanced (or undeveloped, maybe) non-questioning of the dominant doctrine (that is, ‘you should not swear, end of’); (ii) personal perception of a need for imposition of adult morals on children. I didn’t take this any further in that particular post. I also wrote about how ‘culture is a complex organism and our use of language is embedded within it’ and ‘even if the intent is aggressive, we are emotional animals and emotions will out’.

These are my jumping off points for further discussion. When I write about a potentially unadvanced/undeveloped non-questioning of the dominant doctrine, what I’m really saying is that all of us, sometimes, get sucked into accepting things (systems, ways of doing, thinking, being) blindly. Sometimes it’s easier that way. What I’m not suggesting here is that anyone reading that line is stupid. Let’s face it, there is the potential subtext to the word ‘undeveloped’ that can leave us feeling aggrieved. (As an interesting aside though, rhetorics of child development suggest that a child isn’t ‘fully formed’, or is continuing to form until, by unwritten extension, they become an adult. Then they’re perfect: just like all the other adults in the world. Right.) If we shift that thinking a little into ‘we aren’t ever finished/perfect’, then ‘undeveloped’ may be able to be viewed more positively. Or, no let’s get rid of that and say that we’re in a process of advancement in our awarenesses, continuously: we can come to be more aware of the dominant doctrines that surround us, that we impose upon one another, and then we can come to question them.

Why is swearing ‘bad’? If I choose not to swear at anyone, or in anyone’s presence, then that is the moral stance I have set myself (which, as I have developed or advanced or become more aware, I have fused from the selection of factors available to me from the socio-economics of my upbringing, from the actions and reactions of my friends, from the children’s culture I inhabited, from the cultural nuances of the places I have lived and worked, and so on). If I were of religious persuasion, I could also factor this in too (though I would have to take great care in considering what it was that was my own view and what it was that was the view of the religious doctrine to which I subscribed). This, however, is somewhat out of my reach to write with any great authority on, so I make the suggestion and leave it at that. If, after I’ve come to some considered view on my own moral stance, formed from a fusing of all my influences so that I can ascertain which I agree with and which I don’t, how could I rightly suggest that that view then be imposed upon someone else? That is to say, it is absolutely appreciated that we are influenced upon in our lives (yes, the irony of escaping indoctrination does make itself apparent here), but it’s in the considered stripping back and understanding of what all of this means to ‘me’ that is needed here: the ‘me’, once found, is not and can never be the ‘any other’. If swearing is bad to ‘me’, why should ‘any other’ feel the same way when they have a whole other set of things to figure out in the finding of their me-ness?

If you don’t like swearing when we, you and me, are in conversation, then I’ll do my best not to swear around you (not because I have to, or because you’ve told me not to, but because I’ll want to). If I don’t swear in front of, or with, children, or when visiting schools, or in certain company, sure there may be a certain societal expectation wrapped up in why I don’t do this, but in my developing advancement and awareness, I accept that I’ll swear in certain places and not in others because of the way I come to present myself.

Now I’m coming across all holier than thou! A bringing back down to earth is in order: the other week I swore at a door-man/bouncer as I was trying to enter a pub. I wasn’t swearing aggressively and I wasn’t drunk and disorderly! In fact, I was aware that I’d slipped into what I’ve absorbed as the local London way of speaking out on the street. He asked me for my ID. I joked, ‘You’re having a fucking laugh, mate. I’m forty five. I’ve never been ID’d in my life!’ It turned out that this guy took offence. You just can’t take a ‘fucking’ word back from some people once it’s been said. It took me a while to get in, having had to call upon the management to help explain to him that my questioning stance was not one of intention to upset his night’s work, but merely to just know why.

OK, so on the face of it, this doesn’t necessarily back up my claims of ‘question the dominant doctrine’. However, if we look at it in terms of advancement we can see that I can remind myself not to swear at this guy the next time I see him (culturally absorbed in the local dialect or not) because it’s just not something he can deal with. It won’t stop me swearing with others though. I met an ex-Kiwi rugby player in the pub a few months back: he didn’t mind swearing at all!

Now, back to the children. The boy jumped off the bench and exclaimed to all and sundry (though really it was a private affair of him and his current play-mates), ‘fucking hell’. Where else can he do this without adult admonishment than on the playground? He may do it in the streets, and there is an argument to say that he may receive whatever he receives from the adults around him in terms of disapproval, and that this will eventually inform his journey of awareness-building (just as my door-man escapade has joined with my other similar experiences and informed my own journey). However, on the playground the child shouldn’t be imposed upon by morals that might cloud his immediate expression and judgement. This way is a way of us being too much part of the immediate indoctrinating forces, and that way leads to a non-questioning. It’s all a journey, and we aren’t ever finished.

There are contradictions and convolutions in amongst all of this, I’m aware. Even this post could be read as me telling you what you should think. In the end, I suppose, we can only make our own way. We might, as a society, be able to impose upon one another in subtle ways such as advertising, or in unwritten codes of social etiquette (such as queuing, directing the bar staff to someone who’s been waiting there longer than you have, and the like), but try to impose something so direct as ‘you will not swear, at all, ever’ in public places, on other people, and you’re really fucking asking for it!

Last week, on the Underground, on my Friday evening way home, I think I managed to make some small difference, in the moment, in the play. It was a packed Tube train on the Jubilee Line and there was standing room only, as usual at that time of the day. I wedged myself into the small corridor between seats, as people piled in behind me, and I balanced there with all my bags slung around me, holding onto the rails above my head. Two boys of about four or five were sat on seats immediately to my left. As we rumbled along, as tends to happen a fair amount of time on public transport, I caught one of the children’s eyes. He was looking at me with that hint of curiosity (that, ‘what is it?-ness’ that I get sometimes!). I returned his visual cue, and he kept on looking when I turned my eyes away. I knew because I could feel it, but also because he was still doing it when I looked back. So, here was play starting.

I like to think I’m quite careful in situations like this. Play wants an outlet, and here I am, but this child and me don’t know each other . . . anyway, I squinted a few times, closing one eye and then the other (because this is not a usual adult thing to do); then I turned down my lips; then I raised my eyebrows, and other facial movements. The boy watched for a while, then started copying a little here and there. The other boy looked up. The play of slight distance repeated itself. The first boy stretched out his leg and it almost touched mine. I moved my leg so that it just slightly knocked his foot as it dangled there in space (he wasn’t tall enough to touch the floor). Perhaps it was the rolling of the train carriage that made this happen? Perhaps the train made me do it again.

Whatever the cause, the boy stretched out again, and the play repeated over, everso slightly, everso slowly, everso knowingly. Sometimes, no-one talks on the Tube. Play talks in its own way, and I was in it, and commuters didn’t seem to register for a short while between stops. I looked up just before I was due to get off. I caught the small smile of a woman who was sat to the boys’ right. I didn’t take her as the children’s mother (who I assumed to be the woman on the boys’ left — though she was ignoring them, and me). The woman who smiled seemed momentarily taken away from the commuter day-to-day.

My stop came. The boys and me exchanged small waves goodbye. I squeezed off onto the platform, and the commuter swill behind me slooped back into place (like I was extricating myself from jelly, which reformed after my exit!). I felt that something small and significant had taken place.

It is these small instances of significance in play that are fascinating me again right now. The grand and the visible exhibitions of play are all well and good (that is, for the children involved and for the adults observing, possibly thinking, ‘well this is all good that the children can play’). How the small gets forgotten though. Last week, I was out and about around the estate, trying to work out the landscape, the cityscape, of how the children used this small parcel of London streets, when I met a child I knew, by chance. He stopped to ask me questions about what I was doing. Over his shoulder, as I told him, I saw small moments of children climbing onto a wall as the adults they were with got talking to each other (and I don’t know for sure if the adults acknowledged the play that was happening behind their backs!)

What might we see if we look? Children might balance on the kerb, or along the cracks in the paving slabs for a few yards at a time (or, they’ll avoid the cracks, for reasons that you really should strive to remember!). They might run their fingertips along a railing or a textured wall, stop to pick a flower, kick a can or the like down the street, get distracted by any ordinary extraordinariness . . . on the same train journey, earlier on Friday evening, I was sat down as a woman with a buggy came on-board, parking the young child up facing the curved window. I don’t know if this was deliberate, but I hope it was, in retrospect, because the girl in the buggy tentatively put her hand up to wave to her reflection in the dark glass. This caught her attention for another minute or so after that.

Such minor details matter, accidentally placed children or otherwise. I’m saddened to say that the opposite happens too. Last week, one day, I was walking when I was passed by a small child of about three. She was ahead of her mother (or so I presumed the woman to be), who I could hear talking loudly on her phone, about twenty steps behind me. The girl ran up to a door, which obviously took her fancy, though I don’t know why because it was grey and plain, though it did offer a small noise in return for her light tap on it, the possibility of which may have been why she decided to do this. Suddenly I heard the woman, presumably the child’s mother, bark at her in the middle of her phone conversation: ‘Stop banging on that door’. Sadly, the child’s moment fell from her face.

Children will play all sorts of urban apparatus in their finding out about the sounds of the things in the streets, and in their experiments of texture, smells and sights. I once walked with a child who would trail his fingers along the flowers, every so often, bringing his fingers to his nostrils for a very small moment every now and then. In the spring, this year, for a few weeks when the trees were full of pink and white, some of the children on the after school club walk, from school to the playground, would demand of me that I shake the blossom from the trees we passed onto them; or I’d be needed to pull off a small bunch of blossom petals for them. Another child on the walk, a younger one, pulled me over to a tree I hadn’t seen, a place where he played, not our playground, just so I could shake the blossom down onto him.

So, in wrapping up here, my challenge to the reading adult is two-fold: take note of the small incidences and significances of play you see (the sensory playing of the city in moments, walking on walls or cracks, avoiding cracks, reflections that play the player in the dark glass, moments of possible connection between child and play-literate adult — others or you); if you see the possibility that you’re invited into a momentary significance of play, know that you can help make that moment possible.

Moments, as I have written of before, are significant . . .

Back in September, I told the story of telling a story about mermaids. It was a way into writing about ‘myth-narratives’ and ‘oral histories’, which our modern selves may well have forgotten all about in our technological, world-unconnected modern ways. I have a tendency to return to favourite themes and ideas, and so I find myself thinking this week about oral histories and stories, not this time of mermaids, but of Vikings.

Princess K., at home in September, wasn’t too perturbed by my suggestion that mermaids don’t exist. Her younger brother is also sucking up everything he can about the ‘real stories’ I can tell him. He has the moniker here of ‘Dino Boy’ because that’s what he was into when he was younger. Now, having passed into his Marvel Comics ‘Superheroes’ stage (with a particular focus on Hulk and Thor), he wants to know all about the Vikings. He seems to like the blood and guts of it. A while back I told the children the legend of Beowulf (with as much gore as I could paste into it!). Now, we’re onto stories of Ivárr the Boneless, and by extension (hopping around in time), King Alfred, and the like.

I don’t know too many Ivárr the Boneless stories, but we’ve both latched onto this character as someone of great villainous potential. Viking Boy, as I may have to now call him here, stops me every so often, mid-story, or when I’ve reached a natural pause, to ask, ‘So, who are the Goodies and who are the Baddies?’ Things seem to be so binary in this four-year-old’s world. Maybe that’s a result of modern televisual renditions of older stories. Maybe it’s a modern sign of the times. Occasionally I answer him by saying, ‘Well, who the Goodies and the Baddies are kind of depends on which side you’re on?’ but I don’t think he really gets the significance of this. So, for all intents and purposes, King Alfred is the ‘Goodie’ here, and any given Viking is the ‘Baddie’.

Just like stories of mermaids, stories of Vikings are important. As I inferred in September, we risk losing the richness of traditional tales if we stop telling them. Why tell stories of Vikings if we’re not ‘Viking’ ourselves? Well, as I said to Viking Boy when he asked me ‘are there any Vikings now?’, where we live (that is, England) we might all be a bit Viking. The mechanics of descendancy may also have passed him over.

In our stories, I’ve told how King Alfred fought the Vikings, and how he ran away to the marshlands of Somerset. Viking Boy knows now how King Alfred was supposed to have burned the cakes there. He’s listened to speculations on why Ivárr the Boneless was ‘boneless’, and sucked up everything I know about the Danelaw and the division of the north and the south, longships, the legend of King Cnut, Viking swords, and Jorvik, embellished in places, of course, with plenty of blood and guts in waves of early Viking raids. There’ll be more to tell.

A few weeks back, I got into drawing the battles with him. He watched closely at first, his face pressed near to the paper where I was telling the story as I lined up Alfred’s men against some unnamed Vikings. Viking Boy named the Vikings: there was Jeff the Viking, Jeff the Boneless, Andy the Boneless, and — for some strange and so far unfathomable reason — Locust the Viking! Then he laid into the men of both sides with felt tip pen, which was the blood and guts and gore. We had a similar battle, later, and later in history, with Harold’s men against the Normans (‘sort of Vikings’, being the only way I could describe descendancy) on the fields at what came to be known as Senlac, being better known as the Battle of Hastings. Viking Boy confused his own history at this point, but we still needed to go into graphic and particular detail on the legend of Harold’s gory demise (possibly, in a four-year-old’s head, due to the archers of Ivárr the Boneless: this adult listener forgiving the mash-up of a horde of time travelling Vikings!).

I think we’re still a little way from being able to mutually agree on what is legend, alleged history, and what is ‘truth’; Viking Boy has a binary mindset when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and when it comes to ‘made up’ and ‘real’. To him, it seems, the stories are ‘real’ if I tell them and if, when he asks ‘is this true?’, I tell him yes. I make room in the answer for the potential for alleged legend, but just like another strapline (Marvel’s Spiderman), with great power comes great responsibility! With story-telling comes great responsibility. Viking Boy looks at me with wide eyes, sucking up the ‘truth’ of what I say.

Later, when we drive past one of the old stone gates out of town, he pipes up from the back seat, asking what that’s about. It leads me into a story of King Alfred and his fortified burhs. Viking Boy listens carefully. Every so often, when we talk about the time we went to the cathedral, he brings up the story of all the kings there and ‘can we see the bones all mixed up in the boxes?’ because these are the stories I’ve given him. Stories get absorbed. When he runs into the room brandishing two thick cardboard tubes, jumping in front of me, proffering me one of them with a ready stance, he says ‘Can we play fight?’ (he leaves a small gap between the ‘play’ and the ‘fight’). Sometimes he follows this with a ‘You be the Goodie and I’ll be the Baddie’; sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s no in between, and he’ll often whack me on the knuckles as soon as I’m weaponised, or he’ll bundle in with his feet and arms waving: sometimes there’ll be a flying jump and no apparent plan regarding a landing strategy (other than maximum ‘enemy’ damage). ‘Do you know? Do you know?’ he sometimes says in a pause in the attack, ‘You be Alfred, and I be the Viking.’ I suppose that means he’s the Baddie again.

Stories get sucked up and played out. Is this playworking? I don’t know, though there is the engaging with the play material of the child in it; is this teaching? Perhaps — there is the engaging with the factual (and mythic) material, as requested by the child, in it. I don’t know if Vikings are on the syllabus of the national curriculum, but if they are (or, when they are), I’d like to know how that goes for Viking Boy’s teachers. Maybe he’ll have moved on further in his absorption needs by then.

Some of the children I know actively go out of their way to bring us adults, playworkers, into their play. I write it like this, as a definite and opening sentence all on its own, because people still have the tendency to write things that they suppose children want or like (such as, for example, ‘children want and need to play in adult-free ways’). Sure, being free of adults and their sometimes restrictions is something children sometimes seem to seek out: in their hiding away, in their roaming, or in the various other secrets of their play; however, to suggest that children don’t want adults around at all is contrary to what my experience tells me.

We have to be careful at this point: I’m not advocating taking over children’s play. What I am suggesting though is that, often, children seek out certain adults to be a part of the play for whatever reason (and I’m also mindful of the fact that, in context, this writing refers to children attending a staffed provision). Some children I know return to particular narratives and ways of playing day after day, and this can involve me. It is, at times, almost as if there’s a message underneath the cues that will repeat the play of previous days, and I can’t read that message well enough (as subtle as it may be). As far as I know, one girl will only jump with me, at the trampoline, in a certain manner; another girl will ask me to play a version of a game at the netting, styled in this way because of my presence; one boy played some nearly-rough and tumble/fantasy hybrid with me, and this may shape repeat into something, in this particular form, between me and him only: maybe.

Of course, our particular adult returns to children’s cues are to be noted here: I will return cues in ways only I can, as will my colleagues to the children who cue them. I can’t return a cue as my colleague can, and vice versa. It follows that my fellow playworkers will also have engagements in children’s play, at those children’s direct requests or non-verbal cues, that I won’t or can’t have. Children choose their adults, and we may be none the wiser as to why we’re chosen. If we think back hard, we may be able to find a memory of exactly when a play relationship shifted from something to something more significant; that though is a trick in itself. How do we know what caused a spark in any other?

In this sense then, it’s even more presumptuous to assume that we adults can know what children want or need. Blanket coverage doesn’t fit at the best of times, let alone in the infinitesimally succinct moments of spark that form ‘something’ into ‘something more’: from ‘you’re OK’ to ‘you’re the one I need to play this with’. Maybe it’s not even ‘play with’ in operation here: maybe it’s more along the lines of the adult being the play shell, the container of play, the vessel, the conduit, something like this.

Last week, just a short while after surfacing from the office (my head firmly lost in a screen for a good couple of hours after the children had come in), one of the girls came up to me and asked me to play ‘Earthquake Technology’ with her. She plays versions of this, at the netting that hangs from one end of the platform structures, with colleagues — I think — and with me she calls it this: I have no idea where the ‘technology’ bit comes from, but the ‘earthquake’ involves me pulling the netting as she lies or stands on it. She’s very light and tends to fly! Other children often soon get on, which makes the servicing of the play on my part that much more difficult! Netting-earthquakes are less seismic when weighed down by four or five children.

Last week, this play took place, again. Sometimes the other children will add in other ‘natural disasters’, and maybe other colleagues have seen this too. So, as well as being the earthquake, I was required to be the ‘shark attack’, the ‘volcano’, and the ‘tornado’, and on occasion I’ve also been the ‘tsunami’. The trick to this, from the point of view of the ‘natural disaster’-maker, is not to stop! Stopping means you realise how tiring it can all get. In the middle of all of this, in what felt like holding together the play, a boy came towards me with a big smile and acted out some form of ‘natural disaster’-maker attacker role. He became anti-natural disaster boy. He came at me with a spade and then a bread crate, and he backed me into corners, though he never really touched. He was in some form of nearly-rough and tumble play. His play took on a shape of its own: it linked to the disasters still happening on the netting, but it was also just slightly removed.

There was a point that I realised, whilst picking at the toes of sock-wearing children (in shark mode), whilst run-ducking underneath the netting in some sort of wave, whilst being a volcano, whilst being earthquake aftershocks, and whilst succumbing to a plastic crystal found by anti-disaster boy, that I was holding together two play frames (these instances of disaster and anti-disaster play) at the same time. It was a case of don’t stop.

Somehow I found myself in the netting, though I don’t recall exactly how. Maybe I was running away. Another boy threw himself at me. His rough and tumble was careful but more full-on. I tried to get out but, really, I was like a stranded turtle! Eventually, after struggling free and finding myself on terra firma once again, I declared myself honestly unable to earthquake the netting any more that day. I set off to sit down somewhere, but another boy bounced past saying he wanted to challenge me to a wrestling match on the crash mats. I really couldn’t. I directed him towards a colleague, telling him how he, my colleague, is younger and fitter than me. On this occasion, I was allowed my rejected play cue.

Children don’t want or need adults around them, so it’s said. Sure, often this may be true, but often other times there are certain adults who will only do, or who will do instead. There are messages beneath and in between the repetitions of the cues.

I got to sit down for a little while, until the trampoline girl said, ‘Come’ (she says this in exactly this way, as a play cue), taking my finger. She has a way of jumping really high because she’s developed this way with me. I’ve not yet seen her do this with any of my colleagues. There are, no doubt, other ways I don’t know which she shares with them.


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