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

Connecting stories

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of observations that I called White City Play Stories. I’ve continued this thread of writing since then, but for some reason I’ve no longer tagged them as such. Stories, whatever you tag them or call them, are all stories of ‘worth’ though. Following on from last week’s writing on immersions in others’ play memory stories and on how we’re interwoven with place, I’m thinking of the play that surrounds us in our day-to-days. We’re embedded in it, even if we don’t realise this. Lines of stories flow in all the places we traverse. It’s like we’re enmeshed in a huge spiders’ web, where every thread is a story spun out, spun between the lines of other stories. It is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional weftwork, and we’re right in there in the middle of it.

We come from an oral culture and this part of us still survives, despite our written representations of language on pages and on screens, and despite our relatively recent cultural predisposition towards the instant photographic record. When we tell stories, we’re engaging with that old in-built desire to share and tell and to connect to other things as yet unsaid. Writing and photography have their places. When we write, we write sometimes because we may not be able to say, directly. When we write our stories, or when we display our photographs (and if we think of it this way), we try to shine a light on the weftwork that surrounds us in different ways. The spoken, the written, the imaged . . . everything is a story, or a fragment of a story, in the whole.

My observations, in and of the play, are written in the spirit of illuminating that part of the enmeshment that I see myself to be in. If the reader can appreciate the stories not directly experienced, as the listener of old oral tales was asked to do, maybe they can then see better the weftwork that they themselves are in. This, I suppose, is why I write my stories of play, though I’ve not articulated it in this way, precisely, before.

The following set of stories shall be tagged and categorised under ‘New White City Stories’: the whole is a multi-layered story for the finding.
A story about stories
I was in communication last week with someone from a local mobile library service regarding stories, books and children. From my experience of having worked with very small children, older pre-schoolers, and up to the older primary school years, I wasn’t so sure that the latter would engage so well with being read to from books. Sure, it can work out, but I said I found that these older-aged children generally engaged better with performance-story or the improvisational. As chance had it, that same week I was sitting in the sun on the outside sofa with one of the after school club children, just talking around, and we were soon joined by three other girls and the conversation turned, by them, to telling stories. We made up stories as we went (with no morals, with no real structure, with no concern for what might offend others). When the girls wanted me to talk, and when I’d managed to engage their attentions with a story line of their liking, I was very aware, in the moment, of the looks on their faces and of the focus of their body language. Stories about telling stories may well repeat over the following weeks.
Stories of repeated narratives
I feel sure that I’ve written something about repeated narratives somewhere before (which makes this story about a story a repeated narrative in itself!) Some children engage this adult in repetitions of service to the play, or in roles, or in layers beneath the surface of the immediately apparent. I’m not on the playground as much as I used to be and some children are aware of this and are patient for a Friday when I make sure I’m there and when the narratives that they seem to want and need to unfold can do so. Two children want/need engagement with ‘earthquakes’ on the netting (they also know that they, and only they, seem to have the capability of giving me static electric shocks because of their headscarves against the rope!) Another child’s trampolining is replete with other messages to other adults about her play (which, here, I can’t say — in entrustment of the moment!). The repeated narratives that entangle me in them are, I feel, all soaked in other messages.
Baby birds
I remember a story I told a few years back about feeling like the mechanism in service to certain play: that was, the pushing of children on the zipwire swing. There is a school of thinking that says that we adults shouldn’t be involved in this, which I can appreciate. However, there is another human level that can’t easily be resolved in playwork theory or in the dryness of qualifications literature: play is a connection, and sometimes we adults are very much connected with. Some children have recently played with the fine line between knowing exactly how to push themselves on the traditional swings and getting this adult to do it for them (or, rather, with them). The children know what they’re doing. This isn’t about laziness, this is about connection. They each take one of the swings on the hex-construction, facing inwards, and one after the other, like baby birds, they demand to be pushed, and high! I run around in service to their needs. When they get low, they squeal again! This is time spent connecting.
Playing the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘cops and thieves’, and other mutations
I can’t remember the exact order of the play that happened, this day when everything tumbled around, and when I seemed integral to things mixing and merging and mutating. One girl tried to cue me by inventing a valuable picture of mine (‘How much is it worth?’; ‘Oh, ten thousand’ [unspecified currency]). She found a slab of splash-painted wood. I couldn’t unfurl myself from other conversations though. A little later, she ‘stole’ my gold (made of gold paper, which apparently was mine). Cops and thieves took place. There are a number of ‘prisons’ currently on the playground. Some have names: ‘the Mansion’ is the hidey-hole with the other outside sofa in it, where children often sit and look out, in the dry, in comfort; the place that might become a fort is difficult for adults to traverse but easy for the children; the hut, which is even more difficult to get through, might become the ‘children’s world’. These prisons are ebbing and flowing in relative importance.

At some point, one boy shouted out ‘Who wants to play the Hunger Games?’ I didn’t know what this might entail, though I had a vague notion of the book and film. I wasn’t sure how many play frames were happening at once, what with the ebb and flow and take-up and fall-away of ‘cops and thieves’ and other play, but finger-guns, and stick-guns, and sword-guns made of a cross of wood pieces, and hockey sticks all appeared and were fired or whacked around. Children rarely act out being shot or sworded. They have in-built invincibility. One girl declared her invincibility outright and kept turning my finger-gun back on myself.

Where did the zombies come from, and why?! At some point, after I’d been shot or sworded for the umpteenth time, I must have become a ghost because one of the younger girls waved her hands around occasionally to ‘unghost’ me. Maybe the zombie mutation happened after this. Three children I know from the open access holiday scheme were pressing their noses up to the other side of the fence: this zombie adult was required to push some of the children on the roundabout (even though they were quite capable of doing this themselves) in the interior of the play and playground. The children outside looked on, engrossed. The zombie noticed this and threw cushions and old bread crates their way, poking his fingers through the small squares because it was dinner time for him! The children outside were somewhat in the play at this. They ran away and came back again. They knew me well enough as me, but they engaged with the character. Soon, somehow, the Hunger Games boy — having been cornered in open space by a small band of sword/gun wielding others — became involved with me in a stance of ‘no guts, no glory’. This adult, ex-zombie, was whacked several times on the thighs and on the backs of the knees by one of the warrior girls! These children play hard. The child in question stood off when I went down. She bowed like a Samurai, as I imagined, and left me alone . . .

These are just a few of the stories, connecting stories, of the multi-layered weftwork I’m in.

Stories of play can prove immersive. I didn’t write a blog post last week because of immersion in others’ memories. There’s more to a place than what, at first, meets the eye: this I’ve known for a long time, but when you start to dig down deeper and deeper into the recollections of others, you realise just how much has happened somewhere and how much you didn’t ever fully appreciate before. When we stop to look around a playground, how much play has happened there? When we stop to look around a city, how much play — likewise — has happened there? How much play continues to shape itself, even as we look and speak?

Of course, this is only part of the depth story. With play in any given place, there’s also the on-going formation of attachment. When I think of my own childhood play places, I think of the physical reality that they were, that they are, and of the emotional, psychological and social realities of myself as linked to there. We’re interwoven with ‘place’. This is why, when I found a whole treasure trove of west London play memory stories that stretched back some seventy or so years, I found myself immersed not only in the play of those stories but also in the social history that I was delving into.

When I walk around the estate in London where I work, I sometimes stop and have conversations with the children that I know there. They’ll ride by on their bikes, or they’ll be walking to or from school, or the parks, or catching a bus, and they’ll often stop to have a conversation. Last week this happened a few times (the children who, at first, I overheard whilst they were riding their bikes towards me, talking to each other about the water slide in the adventure playground; one of the girls from the open access holiday provision who opened up conversation as I dragged our stuff back from a play in the park session; the child who stopped me on the way to the playground so she could rummage in the bin shed of her flat, offering me some bits and bobs of loose parts play materials, and so on). None of these children had any adults in tow, and it made me realise that here, now, were recollections in formation. More than this though: here, now, was a layer that the ‘old timers’ had touched on in the stories that I’d read, though I put my own spin on it — this was a layer of the city that I had privileged access to, the layer that is the children’s city. This is something that not all adults can see, let alone be allowed to enter.

Sure, the layer that I talk about swills around some adults (almost as if they can hear the children at their feet, but they mean nothing in the greater scheme of things); for some adults, the layer of the children’s city is wrapped up in the language of the ‘anti-social’; for others, as I felt last week, it’s something much, much richer. Yes, there’s play, but there’s also the aspect of the conversational trust of certain adults, of the subtle conspiracy of understanding. It’s a reciprocal affair. The language is on a level, adult-adult, as open as it can be. There’s more to this again though: between the words and the actions there seems to be an implicit knowledge of things that don’t need to be said.

Perhaps there’s some of this in the stories that I’ve read, though I’ll have to read deeper in yet to see if this is true. There are stories of the children’s city that have tales of trusted adults mixed into them. There are all the characters of yesteryear pacing through the pages as if they still exist like that: which, in essence, perhaps they do because memories work this way. When I emerged from reading and when I found myself standing, back in the middle of the site of all these tales, it was like looking at the place I have known these past few years with magic glasses on! The things you can appreciate in between the buildings, in the streets, if you learn to see.

When I walk around the estate, now, I think about the stories that are forming in the children that I know. I wonder what the place will ‘look’ like in the memories of those children when they’re seventy or eighty years of age. What will the buildings and the streets be? Which areas will be strewn with play? What play will fizz still? Who will they be thinking of from those they played with? Which adults will they think of and why? What will the layer that is the children’s city of the now look like to them?

We can’t entertain the idea that none of this matters. Despite the negativity towards whatever depth of the children’s city any given adult might perceive, those adults often seem to forget one vital thing: they were all children once too. In this there’s also the truth that we have all been immersed in a layer of the local environments where we grew up, and this was ours; it was also, possibly, alien to many of the adults around us at that time. What is it that we lose along the way to mean we can’t at least appreciate, in peering in, that place where we once were?

That place is quite unique. I call it the layer of the children’s city, but it’s also the children’s ‘wherever that child is’. It’s full in ways that are often invisible to the as-yet uninformed adult. There are nuances and trusts, actions, inactions, and possibilities within it that only the privileged are allowed to see. It is a privilege, however, that must be earned. All cities have their many layers, and in the continual updating of their various histories the layer of the children’s city should be further written in. In this way, perhaps, we’ll begin to see a richer depth of what a place is, having greater reverence for the ‘social’ embedded in the streets, in the built, and in the built upon.

I think I may have made a small error in communication judgement when working with a particular child last week. We make mistakes all the time, but we don’t always know or see this. I may have made an error, but I won’t know with a little more clarity until later on this week. The error was along the lines of talking with that child’s mother about an observation of one thing I’d seen that child say and do. This wasn’t anything to do with disclosures or things of this kind: it was simply something I’d seen the child do, and in the greater scheme of things (or so I immediately thought) it was no big deal . . . but telling that here might even compound the personal issue. Let’s just say that it was nothing of any concern to a playworker or maybe even a parent; however, my telling the observation might turn out to have been something of great importance to the child.

This all leads me to thinking more on the subject of trust. If we talk with parents, we sometimes tell them of the funny things their children say, of the quirky interpretations on life that those children have, and so on. Have we committed a crime here for any given child though? My reflections have come about by way of questions to myself, which I intend to lay down here and expand with writing as I think: writing is sometimes the best way to think!
How much, if anything, of children’s communications to us should we relay to their parents when in general conversation later?
If you work with children in a staffed after school provision, or even sometimes in open access (because some children’s parents still come by), it’s a fair bet you’ll be in conversation with those parents at some point. This child I’m writing about in my example tells me plenty of her day-to-days, of her general feelings, of her ways of seeing things. I take it as a compliment when she chooses to tell me the things she does. I only told her mother one of the conversations we’d had that day last week (it wasn’t necessary to talk about them all, and the one I did discuss was one that particularly amused me). Shouldn’t those conversations be private though? (That includes the thinking of how much, if anything at all, of private conversations should be placed online here, which is why I don’t relay any stories of these in this writing now).
Why do children tell us the things that they do?
I sometimes wonder what it is about ‘this’ adult that ‘this’ child has decided to trust with the gems of their thoughts. Maybe children have favourite adults, or at least, maybe they have favourite adults of the moment. Maybe playworkers (not all, perhaps, but some) are open to listening to the day-to-days in ways that other adults in that child’s life may not be. Every child is different and some will prefer their teacher for the same reason, or their mother or their father. Some, however, may see the playworker as the person at the farthest end of the scale of authority. If they know we won’t pull them up for swearing or that we’ll smile at paint being thrown around, then maybe that opens up the appreciation of the pastoral in what we do.
How high a priority do we give to that part of our ‘as is’ playworker role that is pastoral?
In terms of the ‘descriptive’ rather than the ‘prescriptive’ (i.e. the playworker can be seen to actually do xyz, rather than the playworker should do xyz), the pastoral aspect is evident to me. That is, when we listen we do so because we want to, because we feel we should do (not that we have to), that we can in some way be of use. At times I’ve supposed that I may be the only person this child is willing or wanting to tell this small but significant moment to. We don’t go out of our way to ‘help solve’, as it were, but we should know that we have been chosen when this choosing does occur.
What can draw children to a pastoral adult?
Apart from the aforementioned spectrum of perceived authority, there are other symbolic layers: this may be wrapped up in things like the ‘not’ of who this ‘any given playworker’ is (this playworker is not my teacher/mother/father, etc). There may also be the drawing of the child to the pastoral adult in terms of the archetypes they represent. That is, though the child won’t be thinking this, the playworker may well represent ‘player’, ‘joker’, or maybe even ‘super-hero’, or ‘protector’; or, in terms of more playwork thinking, and straying away from archetypes, the playworker could be ‘someone who can keep this play going, or hold it, or pick it up again from where we left off two months ago’. All of this, perhaps, opens the playworker up to being someone who can be confided in.
Why do children sometimes seek a pastoral adult?
Is there a deficiency in the ways that society in general, and the micro-societies around the child, depict that child’s place in it all? If a child is led to believe that the dominant adult view is one of the child being led, or told, or directed, or guided, or informed, and so on, won’t this adult-to-child communication direction ultimately create a perspective on ‘what adult is’? If there’s a pastoral adult, the direction of communication shifts, breaking the mould.
What other psychological aspects might be at play?
If a child seeks a pastoral adult, are they in the midst of some form of ‘transference’? That is, in piling onto that playworker, say, the combined positive attributes of others they’ve known, does that playworker become to them what that child wants them to be? Another thought on psychology is that of ‘introjection’: are the positive attributes that the child finds worthy in the pastoral adult actively sought after (in order, on some deeper level, that they be taken in as their own)? Either way, as a means to create or as a means to internalise from, there may be more to the child-pastoral adult relationship than meets the eye.
Will it do harm to, in effect, belie the pastoral trust invested in us if relaying any communications had with the child to their parent?
This I don’t know. My suspicion is that children can be fairly resilient but that some, even if otherwise emotionally balanced, may see such incursions into the child/pastoral adult relationship as a gross breach of trust. The question is effectively the central one in all of these reflections here. It leads to the further deliberation of just how resilient is any given child in the degree to which that pastoral trust is belied? That is, where on this child’s spectrum of ‘trust belied’ is ‘too much’?
Can you get the trust back every time? Should you try? Either way, why?
I can think of a few examples where I’ve either had to earn trust from a child over a long period of time, or where I’ve inadvertently done or said something that marks me down as someone to be sniped at, or where I’ve rebuilt to the point of things seeming OK again (though we never know for sure because, well, ‘there was that thing you said once, wasn’t there?’, or something like this in not so many words). More or less, if I try too hard, I’m found out and ignored or vilified the more for it. If I don’t bother at all, I’m ignored or vilified for it.

In the end, there are no real answers here: there are only questions for the asking and for the thinking more about.

An unwordedness of affect

There was a girl of about four years of age bent over inside a tyre swing as I passed the small enclosed park, one day last week in London. She was positioned in such a way as to have her stomach on the tyre and her feet just touching the floor. She propelled herself around in slow and little circles, lifting her feet to then float round and round. I kept walking but it suddenly occurred to me that she was in it all, the play, for the affect. That is (and this is one of those things I already knew but needed to remind myself), she was seeing what it felt like, letting it all affect her — daydreaming, maybe, and it was all a positive washing over her.

Of course, I don’t know at all what was going on inside her head, but we have these clear certainties come across us sometimes and ‘play for the affect of it’ was what I knew right then. I carried on walking but I kept on thinking about the idea of how play feels. Such minor moments of play observed can leave such marks. This is, in itself, of ‘affect’.

Back in January, I wrote a piece that I called Connecting to the spin. In this I asked:

‘Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?’

I like to re-visit previous writings and ideas. Of course, back in January I was writing about ‘affect’, but I didn’t say it in so many words. This post today is nothing new to those who have worked around or studied play for a while: it isn’t intended to be. Instead, this post is intended to be a reminder to self and to others.

At the weekend, out at the park with Dino-Viking Boy and Princess K., the children took interest in a two-seated contraption which allowed for round and round and up and down motion all at once. They weighed pretty much the same and so, balanced out, they needed me to push them started. Off they spun, and when one pushed their feet onto the ground the other bounced up. They wanted to keep going and keep going, to have booster pushes, just to keep going. The children played on this equipment for at least half an hour without pause. We talked of nonsense things, and of important things, and of important nonsenses.

The young girl at the tyre swing in the London park was circling around slowly, and the children at the weekend buzzed by and by, but they were both about the affect of it, I suspect: what does this feel like?; what can I sense?; what are these emotions I have?

These were, however, not the conscious thoughts of the children, I have no doubt. Play doesn’t tend to work that way. I use the questions here in an abstract, clumsy manner. When we look up at clouds drifting by, with the breeze on our faces, what thoughts pass us (other than those that tell us that this cloud looks like a dog or that that cloud’s moving faster than all the others)? When we sit in the garden and we’re still, and we hear the tinkling of the metal chimes, what do we think? Words aren’t always what move through us in these situations.

We’re more than just the simple recognitions of the sensory inputs that come to us; we’re more than just the simple formation of fears or excitements or happinesses. When we stand up high, balancing precariously, we’re aware of the drop, of the possible slip, of the inevitable pain, but we’re also aware of the moment of the now, of the very edge of things (literally and internally). We couldn’t say what it is in words, truly.

The lack of words is also true of the brief buzz down the zipwire, of standing on the cliff with the wind in your face, of burying your feet in the wet and sticky sand, of staring into the fire in the depths of a winter evening, of singing in the sunshine to a favourite song turned up high on the radio. There aren’t words that adequately describe what this play makes you feel, in sensory and in emotional terms.

Sometimes we don’t think we’re playing, but we are. When we walk and we’re listening intently to the invisible birds in the trees, or when we peer down to the river bed to try to catch the flickering of tiny fish, or when we’re people watching, or driving fast, or blowing bubbles with our lips or making little popping sounds, or when we’re tapping the rings on our fingers onto metal bars on the Underground or on buses or waiting in line in the Post Office queue, we’re playing. We don’t have the words for these things that we feel because there aren’t any but also because, maybe, we don’t see that we’re playing.

At least, when we recognise this, we may be able to then come closer to the idea that what we see taking place in the actions of the children around us, in the streets and in the parks and in the schools and in the homes, is play. Play, as we’ve seen, is wrapped up with affect, with the sensory and with the emotional. It leaves its psychological imprint. The world is full of possibilities that are slow or circular, fast or bright, strange or comfortably familiar, and more.

Walking past the girl on the tyre swing last week, for five or six seconds, no more, this being the entire length of my observation, I had the feeling that this brevity of play seen would turn out to be much longer in the mind than the time it took to pass by. So it is, I know, in the instances of play recalled, and in the wordless affect that lingers, in the minds and in the bodies of the players.

First, a short story: once, last week on the playground, two older boys were observed to be engaged in a moment of play (these two boys, you see, had been the same two who’d been exercising their subtle and not-so-subtle psychological malefactions on the other inhabitants of the playground at either end of the summer). This is the moment of play observed: there had been some filling of thin latex gloves with water by some children (one walked around the playground with his heavily-filled glove, proclaiming it to be some form of udder!); the two older boys filled their gloves and, finding that they swung in such a way that amused them, proceeded to hang them around their necks to form a pair of heavy breasts each; the boys tucked them into their t-shirts and bounced around, laughing.

I needed to write this because it was an observation of light relief in amongst some of their otherwise more challenging behaviours. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the writing of it until I went for a walk earlier on, several days away from the playground, thinking about the city. For ‘city’ here, you can also read ‘town’ or ‘any given urban area’. I got to thinking about how we go about our day-to-days in quite guided ways: the city is, despite our possible interpretations of freedom and free-will and the like, somewhat prescriptive. That is, everywhere there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways of telling us what to do, where to go, how to be. We can do certain things here and here and here: the city is a functional place. What if we could actually just do our own equivalent of the older boys’ latex glove play? Or rather, by extension, what if the city weren’t so layered with the functional ‘do this here and do this there’ as it is? Would it all break down?

Many, many years ago, at architecture school, we were given the project of designing a city, I remember. Being young and more naïve than I am now, my project co-students and me designed what I now see as being a ridiculously functionalist, largely science-fiction-based, quartered, quasi-Utopia which was neither living nor liveable in. We had long debates about where we’d plant the dead, where the workers would be placed, and so on. Our cities aren’t like that now, are they?

What we didn’t know back then was that cities carry messages, many millions of messages, and we’re all subtly and not-so-subtly floated along in the stream of ‘do this and do that’: on the obvious level there are direct signs, but there are also roads and paths and railway lines that convey the message that this is a route from A to B and not for XYZ other endeavours; within this infrastructure there are the various architectures that have their space or social designation written in their size or decoration or the like; there are open spaces, which are really enclosed spaces, with their messages of ‘escape’, or ‘temporary use’, or ‘be restored’; there are skateparks or fixed play equipment areas (which I always want to write as ‘fixed play areas’), which carry in them the message that this is a corral in which, and only in which, it’s acceptable to be creative, inventive, free-spirited (which in the case of the former is often within replications of props of the wider urban environment, and in the case of the latter is a place that often resembles zoo enclosures built for captured gorillas). The city is, in short, full of messages about the designated function of its constituent parts: use this part in this way.

Would society collapse irrevocably if we played with the infrastructure (put everything of absolute necessity for conveying humans from Point A to Point B underground)? How might we then use the strips we formerly called roads? What if we took down all the fences (which carry their messages in their size, position, degree of hostility, and the fact that they’re there at all)? Could we learn to transfer all our received mistrust of others into an ability to share? What if the acceptable captivity of children’s fixed play equipment areas (or teenagers’ skateparks) — transmitted to us at present by tucking them neatly out of the way under the auspices of ‘safety’ — were exploded from its current ghettoisation into the greater city-scape?

This is not just a question of child and adolescent play though: if the city were less ‘guided’ it would be less so for all us, adults too. We may think we’re free of mind to come and go but maybe we’re not. A little Nietzsche might illustrate my thinking:

‘Absolute free will can only be imagined as purposeless . . .’

What if we could do our own equivalent of the latex glove play in the less guided city? Messages might still be apparent in our day-to-days but at least the bombardment wouldn’t be so fierce. In this strange new world, we wouldn’t have the eyebrow-raising, the comments, or the disapprovals that we often currently find hidden, or overtly shown, in the actions of others. In this odd new place, no-one would be concerned at the ‘being me’ or the ‘being some experimental me’ exhibited in the play. We might think we’re pretty liberal now, but we’re less than absolutely tolerant: all the messages we’ve absorbed have affected us.

In conclusion, let’s rewind a little. The latex glove play example is an odd (and slightly flippant) one to choose, but I use it here now because it has its comic extremity: imagine, let’s all walk around with latex gloves hanging inside our clothing and no-one bats an eyelid, or cares! Or, imagine the city is a continuous carnival, not a three-day affair. Or, imagine, instead of adding something ridiculous to the city, let’s take away the ridiculous elements of all the subtle and not-so-subtle messages: the dominance of the conveyance infrastructure — where convenience is superseded by capital necessity; the fences and the enclosures, demarcating forbidden trespass and acceptable usage; the ghettos where play can be allowed to happen . . .

Perhaps this odd city I’m dreaming up, a city of fantasy rather than of function, is just as quasi-Utopian as the naïve functional science-fiction city of my student days. Call it an exercise in thought, an operation on the city as it is (with optional latex gloves!)

Nietzsche, F. (undated) in Spariosu, M. (1989), Dionysus reborn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Cited in Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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).


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