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

In November last year, the playwork world lost another of its guiding lights. Bob Hughes died and I was honestly shocked when I heard the news, though I knew he’d been diagnosed with an illness that would, ultimately, end his life. I’ve been wondering what it is I could write (because I want to, because I must) to mark and honour his passing, these past few months since. It isn’t that there’s nothing that can be written about Bob: on the contrary, there’s so much, but what and how to write that, and how to do justice to the man? Some of us in playwork have talked online. How do we present an authentic and true reflection, how do we show the proper respect? It’s not that Bob was high and mighty (again, quite the opposite), and he wasn’t a ‘mate’, but he could easily have been this because he seemed to have time for everybody.

What shall follow won’t be constructed, well planned-out, though it is considered. It shall be a stream of consciousness because play’s like that. Bob thought and wrote about play and made many, many of us think. Not everything he wrote should be taken as ‘gospel’ (though I’m reminded here how some in the sector have jokingly, though with due reverence, referred to him as ‘St. Bob’ in times gone by!), but plenty of people seem to treat his words as incorrigible truth. I’ve heard it told that Bob lamented sometimes that his writing wasn’t taken issue with as much as he would have liked. That is a measure of the man. Another, with regards to my personal interactions with him, was his humility. Here was a man who had seen it, done it, written the book on it; yet, he would readily admit when he didn’t understand something, or when he thought his writing didn’t make sense.

He invited me to write a chapter for a book he and Fraser Brown were editing and there was no way I was going to turn that offer down. I had ideas on what to write and talked them through with Bob. He delved deeper with me on the subject of ‘myth’, which is part of where I was heading at one point. I subsequently decided I was barking up the wrong tree on that one, shelving some of that thinking process, not because Bob had taken umbrage with it at all but because I realised just how much sense he made and how much my ideas didn’t! That said, he also mentioned how I’d used a particular word in my writing which he’d never come across before (a word that I’d taken for granted that most people would know; I kept the word in). Some of my writing ended up as a bit of a jumble and I naively thought how the editor (Bob, for my work) would sort that out. Instead, Bob accepted everything I wrote. This isn’t a tale of thinking Bob slack: this is a tale of Bob trusting other writers. At the same time, he was writing a chapter of his own for the same publication and he sent me an early draft, asking me to tell him what made sense and what didn’t, so I told him what I thought. He thanked me for it.

When it’s too late to be able to take action because someone has left us, isn’t it always the way that we think we should like to have done something more or again with them? I should like to have talked more with Bob about his previous writing, of which there was plenty, but in particular (and in the spirit of honest feedback): Bob, why is the second part of Play Types: Speculations and Possibilities a bit of an exercise in taking it all a little further than it really needed to be?; Can we talk about a line that’s troubled me for a long time in Evolutionary Playwork where you write about small children (under fives) in violent interactions and how they should be ‘literally picked up and separated by, say, ten metres’?; I’ve got stacks of anecdotal ‘evidence’ to suggest I can comfortably contest the received wisdom, Bob, about ‘minimal interaction’-type thinking, and here’s a starting point to argue the toss over, if you’ll humour me (from First Claim), where you write, around the subject of adulteration, how ‘it is essential that any direct playful engagement [with children] . . . is kept to a minimum and even then it should be justifiable.’

That all said, as I’ve just flipped through some of Bob’s books to find these aspects above, seeing again all those dog-eared post-its notes stuck between the pages with my writing scrawled on them, there’s so much more of his writing and thinking that has influenced me than I appreciated. It’s stuck in the deeper regions of the brain, appropriately enough, given how he wrote and stimulated plenty on the subject of play and the brain. Here’s something that I’ve had with me for quite a while (from Evolutionary Playwork: ‘ . . . the biggest problem with the ‘zone of proximal development’ approach [Vygotsky: and others’ use of the term ‘scaffolding’] is that adult help will introduce ‘short-cuts’ . . .’ My notes simply state: ‘neurological short-cuts’. I think of this often when I’m tempted to (or actually do) find the end of the cellotape roll for a child who can’t or won’t do it for themselves.

In the same book, Bob also writes about his IMEE ‘protocol for reflective practice’, namely: thinking about what one’s Intuition, Memory from personal childhood, Experience as a playworker, and Evidence from the literature tell us in various playwork situations. I can’t say just how many times I’ve put this thinking into operation. Another of his models is his ‘Playwork Approaches’, also in this book, whereby he details a ‘cylindrical scale’ of interaction between playworker and child and I’ve been every one of these on this scale, though I know now where I settle most.

Bob wrote so much of interest to a playworker that I’m minded to read everything I have all over again. There’s bound to be more that can be gleaned now that I’m a little longer in the tooth than the first few times around the reading block, and the thing is, Bob talked the talk, but he also walked the walk when I was still a child myself, in nylon 1970s trousers!

I could write all day and evening, though I have to stop (or pause) somewhere, but it would be remiss of me not to mention, again, how he once told me (regarding his play types writing) how he wished he ‘hadn’t written the bloody things’; I’d like to note again how I once found myself, by chance, literally sat at the feet of Bob as he sat in a comfy chair at a conference and, grown adult and experienced playworker as I was, this was fine (though I’ll prostrate myself for no-one, sorry Bob, unless I’m cued in a play frame!); I’d like to relate, again, the story of how Bob came to visit us at the adventure playground in London, just to observe the goings-on of play, and I remember well how there was a water balloon fight going on and a child ran into the hall dripping and leaking his ammunition and I’m afraid I rather lost my cool with him, only to find Bob stood behind me: I was embarrassed and apologised profusely to him (Bob, not the child), but he just shrugged, saying, ‘It’s no problem, fella.’

Lastly then, for now at least, I’ve just come across another nod-worthy line in Evolutionary Playwork: ‘A recent [2012, 2nd Ed.] UK Central Government Strategic Document stated that from now on (because they were making funds available) children will be expected to treat one another with respect when they play. This is as biologically idiotic as it is politically attractive.’ Bob, I salute you once again, Sir (and I don’t call many people that). This is my respect for you, because I want to give it.
 
 
References:

Hughes, B. (2001), The first claim. Play Wales: Cardiff.

Hughes, B. (2006), Play types speculations and possibilities. The London Centre for Playwork Education and Training: London.

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

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Once upon a time, not so very long ago (just last week, in fact), I was cycling home in the pouring rain and I stopped on the path nearby a boy of about 12 or 13, both of us at the traffic lights. A little farther up the path were a couple more boys of about the same age, waiting at the next set of lights. The road was flooded from the deluge and the boys, all in full school uniform, were clearly keen not to cross the road but to experience the great splashes of water that might come up from the car tyres as they passed, drenching them further still. They were having a great time.

There’s something about the rain for some children. I’ve known plenty (as maybe many of us have) who just like to stand out in it, no coats on, arms out, heads tipped back, letting the water fall onto their faces: the whole feel of it, the sensory stimulation, is all and everything in the moment. The late and still much missed Dr Stuart Lester had the view that ‘playful moments temporarily enliven the practicalities of everyday life, vibrant moments where life is a little more and there is greater satisfaction in being alive’ (attributed 2019). In the foreword of Play for a Change (Lester and Russell, 2008), Adrian Voce writes that play is ‘evidently simply how children enjoy being alive in the world now.’ In my own words: ‘Play just is.’

At the start of summer, I was invited to do a little playworking in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, London, with the very excellent Penny Wilson and Assemble Play. Penny has bags and bags full of organza fabric, which she and the other playworkers hang around to create a colour forest that flows in the breeze, and the children run in and out of it, let the thin layers flow over their skins, over their heads, rolling and sitting and hiding. Similarly the flow of fabric and air created by a parachute wing, attached around a tree and pulled on a rope by an adult, creates moment upon moment upon moment of in the moment appeal. Nothing else seems to matter in the play.

Over the summer, I was playworking a couple of times per week in either a town or village around the New Forest area. Every week, a child of about three or four years of age would be with us and, every week, she asked for the bubbles out. We made countless green and purple shimmerings, big and small, and they were either chased down and popped or they escaped and were watched and watched and watched, up and up into the sky. Other children ran through the ever-drying stream bed because the water had completely disappeared in the seemingly endless heat, and en mass they ran out through the trees, up the low branches that came out almost horizontal at the base, up the incline, up and up, jumped down, ran around again. What else mattered here but this?

Play is, in effect, a celebration of the possible of the now, of the potential of wherever the child or children are, right in the spontaneity of the present (even, or maybe especially, if it comes loaded with a string of repetitions or ongoings from previous play): though not all play is surrounded by laughter; some play can be seen as strictly serious (maybe all play is serious in some sense?). Play, for children, is of the real world, is the real world. Play is real. Whatever play is to the observing or studious adult, this idea is a construct of their own devising. Whatever it is that adults might think, play for children is something else.

This summer saw stones thrown at the opposite stream bank and then the water was traversed on pot stilts, so as not to get the shoes wet, before those shoes were taken off and thrown across again. Children rolled down artificial hills and climbed up natural trees. They threw paper aeroplanes or sat and perused the world from inside a gold-lined ship, which was (to the undiscerning eye) a long strip of something or other wrapped around the picnic benches. Other children carried a long, long plastic chain from one place to another, and then discarded it, in the manner that logs or chunks of tree stumps will often just be transported from place to place for the sake of it.

All these places and their times, their moments, manifest in my mind as grounds of play (everywhere’s a playground possibility: take away the fences of the designated and often poorly provisioned fixed equipment enclosures and twist the words into something else to see what might transpire). Everywhere is a possible now, a potential for the being alive, even if for ‘fleeting’ moments. Yet, moments can last a lot, lot longer than we might think them to. Not only can they stack up, being repeated, being added to and shifted in the overall flow of it all, but children will often say something along the lines of ‘Do you remember that time we . . .?’ to one another, or ‘Once, over there, we did . . .’ to adults trusted with the insight, trusted because of their understanding.

These are stories of once upon a time, of moments, of being alive. They ring out everywhere and many, many of them we’re not told directly with the words: we’re told them through the observation, through the awareness that they might be there, anywhere, at any time. We ought really to give play more respect, because it is the very essence of being for the child or children in our midst. It is of the real, is the real world, it is real. In another adult construct, the children are due such respect for what they know and see and for what they are: these the kings and queens of the grounds of play (and those who know, of Assemble Play, will understand the reference here).

References:

Lester, S. (2019). As attributed on PlayGlos Facebook feed.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.

Play as language

Let it be. Play isn’t ever over. Play is open, sometimes tangled, play is felt and full to overflowing. Activity comes parcelled up. Play is lying on your back to watch the clouds, spinning till you’re dizzy, falling over and doing it all again. Play is love, is wild, ferocious, hiding, hidden, screaming, play is quietly in your thinking, all day long. Activity has a timetable or a plan. Play happens when it happens, where it happens, how and why it happens. Play is because it’s raining or because of more, because of thunderstorms, or because you’ve found a snail. Play leads to more play, leads to more play, and that is all enough, is good enough. All you need is play. Play for play’s sake makes us ‘us’. Activity is an exercise or making something someone’s given you or guided you to do, and you receive, you do, you make of that what good you can, you move along. It does, it’s of the meantime, but this is not enough. Play is all you need. Play is underneath. Play is unguided. It isn’t given but it’s taken. Play is full, is overflowing, play is felt and sometimes tangled, play is open, play is all, an over and an over, and an over and an over, play isn’t ever over. Let it be, this play for play’s sake.

Let this be a clarion call. The co-ercion or the manufactured is a poor facsimile for the spontaneity of a natural absorption. The former is shortcut after shortcut, encompassing a culture of speed and ‘product’, of ‘levelling up’ and optics over substance; the latter is of the long game, where ‘game’ itself aligns here with ‘spirited’ and is not constricted by the strangulation of ‘rules’. If there is a fluctuating spectrum along which play resides and slides, moment to moment, then at all times the natural spontaneity must out-rank the nefarious other . . . summer-struck, one young child hangs for seconds from the bars, her weight pulling at her arm muscles, alone, not so long after an adult ‘helped’ another child of similar age, taking all his weight there, as he barely touched the metal, bodily unquestioning, in the rapid prospect of the end of the obstacle; a child sits, then lies, on a picnic table, watches upwards for a short while, where, some short time before, two adults sat on the bench, with a grandchild, maybe, and one adult said to the other as he left, ‘Make sure you keep an eye on her’, and the skywatcher sits up, dangles her legs, the reflection inherent in her action suggesting she’s contemplating how to jump, and so she does; one boy climbs a tree, and no-one’s there to say don’t go any higher, and he goes only as high as he knows is high enough. So it all is in play where play comes first: then there are gradations down through the colours to the greys and to the pale, close and closer to devoid and to the void. Beyond the pale is wasteland. It isn’t a place of possibilities. It isn’t a ‘place’ at all. It is unthoughtful.

Play has its myriad affects, and words are insufficient. Yet, and yet, here we are, attempting to describe the colour of the wind. Play affects not just the playing. At the fragmentary moment that the observer becomes the observed, therein lies an utter, ineffable grace, a Yugen tracing in the connective comprehension of the nature of one another’s natures. A very young child, unknown, still unstable in her walking, is trailed around a park by an older sibling, maybe, and they do their circuits, mostly according to the want and will of the smallest, who stops to see an adult, who leans and lies on his back, on the grass, observing on, as his own family of children are off out there in their own play somewhere, and the smallest and her sibling, maybe, go on, track back round around, and the former raises a hand, without a prior indication here, to wave a little at the observing other who, in sudden gentle comprehension, realises he’s been understood, as he sees it. There is an utter grace here in the full focus lack of any other island seen within the park. There has been a falling in. ‘Utter’, here, is cognate with ‘remote’: there is a grace remote. The moment is a moment on an ocean. The affect is pacific: eschew hyperbole and consider the deeply calm. If a quiet observer can be so affected, how is it that the play of the player is?

Play is language, as is the breeze in the trees. It speaks, and leaves. It circles in the branches and reforms as something else, something unknown just moments earlier, some new possibility in the making. Play has its own nuances, its own grammar, its syntaxes and rhymes and rhythms, and only the player really knows it all, the language of their own play, though they won’t articulate it all in words we know. The rest of us can observe, shall think we trace an element of it, but we’ll lose it in a while, catch a thread again a little later: silk strands in the breeze. It’s all of this and more, and yet, and yet, closed in a box, told how to move or not to move or how to lie, to be, it isn’t any wonder that the language that was there and flowing can slowly fall away. Children can bounce back, despite the impositions placed upon them (resilience despite us all and not because of what we think we give them), but their colours are always richer with the wind.

Play is language, which affects, communicates, and circles. Let it be. Play isn’t ever over. Play is open, sometimes tangled, play is felt and full to overflowing. Play is love, is wild, ferocious, hiding, hidden, screaming, play is quietly in your thinking, all day long. Play happens when it happens, where it happens, how and why it happens. Play leads to more play, leads to more play, and that is all enough, is good enough. All you need is play. Play for play’s sake makes us ‘us’. Play is all you need. Play is underneath. Play is unguided. It isn’t given but it’s taken. Play is full, is overflowing, play is felt and sometimes tangled, play is open, play is all, an over and an over, and an over and an over, play isn’t ever over. Let it be, this play for play’s sake.

 
 

Protected: Play in adversity

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Play and time are inextricably linked. There is no singular ‘time for play’ (just as there is no singular ‘time for space’) because play and time are woven together, because they are the same fabric. Play is woven with time, and time is woven with play. Observe how a child might continue a frame of play which is, in the eye of an observer, separated by three or four weeks but which is, within the playing child, the simple-elegance yet simply-nuanced natural play progression: as if no conventional time has passed at all. Play happens all the time. Or, more precisely, play, if perceived as a particle, is one whose moment ‘position’ (or ‘event’) in the play-time construct is — just like a ‘position/event’ in space-time — without specific duration: the tracing of that particle of play’s various events, in play-time, is (in space-time terms) its ‘world line’ (Collier, 2017), but in this model’s terms, its ‘songline’, as repurposed (after Battram, 2007; after Chatwin, 2003). Sometimes, to the nuance-literate observer, play’s songline is evident; sometimes it is tacitly comprehended as just below the otherwise perceivable surface. In either manner of observing, as described, play happens all the time. Other modes of observing result only in parcelled, binary understandings of play.

Proposition:
In space-time, the event (position) of a particle is denoted by x, y, z, t. In play-time, we’re not observing Cartesian co-ordinates in a three-dimensional Euclidean space but rather, and linking to Sturrock and Else’s (1998) play cycle, and regarding the ‘events’ of play, we’re observing: the ‘x’ (the co-ordinate we can liken to the aspects-combination of the play cycle that is Annihilation-Metalude), the ‘y’ (Cue-Return), the ‘z’ (Frame-Flow), plus the ‘t’ of time (i.e. how time is felt within the playing child, pertinent to the play engaged in, e.g. is this play that is being created/coming into being, repeated in its co-ordinates, co-ordinate modified?).

Formative summary:
Play happens all the time, inextricably in and of time, either evident and perceivable or just below the surface. A moment position of a particle of play is an ‘event’, and event strings form play songlines, which may be traced and read. The play-time construct is the medium in which the playing child is: as such, particles of play have no regard for conventional temporal bounds.

To be further explored.
 
 
References:

Battram, A. (2007) in Palmer, M., Wilson, P. and Battram, A. (2007), The playing that runs through us all: illustrating the playwork principles with stories of play in Russell, W., Handscomb, B. and Fitzpatrick, J. (Eds) (2007), Playwork voices. London: The London Centre for Playwork Education and Training.

Chatwin, B. (2003), The songlines. London: Vintage.

Collier, P. (2017), A most incomprehensible thing: notes towards a very gentle introduction to the mathematics of relativity. Cited in Wikipedia (2020). Lulu EPub: Incomprehensible Books.

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing — the Colorado paper. IPA/USA: Triennial National Conference.

Wikipedia (2020), Spacetime [online]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacetime (Accessed May 2, 2020).
 
 

In our play, we are ourselves and we’re noticed as such. I would like to investigate the fusing of this idea with another, but these are the beginnings of something not the final construct. This is the start of something new (welcome to the twenties): nascent thoughts and writings, quanta, experimentations, which may or may not morph into longer, more thought-out strings sometime. In our play, we are ourselves and I’m interested in what I’m seeing as play-time. That is to say, not play-time as in ‘time for play’ (time parcelled up), but rather think of play-time in the same way as we now think of space-time. We exist in space-time (not in space without time, or time without space), and so it is with play-time: play and time are inextricably linked. There is no singular ‘time for play’ (just as there is no singular ‘time for space’) because play and time are woven together, because they are the same fabric. Play happens all the time. Play does not conform to being sliced up into ‘time for this’ or ‘time for that’: we don’t realise that we live in play-time, where play is always in existence. Within the construct of play-time, there are bodies, individuals (like planets, or perhaps better, like black holes in space-time). Each individual has its own play-mass, which can accumulate: the play-mass of individuals can become greater and greater. The greater the mass, the greater the gravity. An individual in play-time can attract the play matter or energy of what surrounds it. We can see the playground (by which I mean any place of play, any ground of play) as a galaxy spinning: all its stars and planets, all its moons and other play-masses in a great, grand dance. In their play, we see the stars for themselves and they are noticed as such. Children are stars, of course, in many ways. Yet, a star in a box is not the same as a star in the sky. In their play, we see children for themselves and they are noticed as such.
 
 

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It was with sadness that I learned of Gordon Sturrock’s passing, just a few weeks ago now, pretty much five years exactly since the passing of Perry Else. The two are inextricably connected with one another in my mind and studious experiences. Just as was the case with Perry, I knew that Gordon was unwell, but that his illness was terminal (he said as much a year or so ago at the PlayEd conference in Cambridge). I knew also, by this spring just gone, that Gordon had only a matter of a few months left to live. Even so, the inevitable news of such final events still has the potential to leave a recipient a little caught unawares. It is, therefore, all the more laudable that Gordon’s late flurry of writing and communications with other playwork writers and thinkers took place with such focus on his part.

I had spent the best part of last summer developing ideas with Gordon, via email, and writing those ideas into what became our joint paper, published in the autumn. I was acutely aware of the support he was providing, not just for myself, but for others engaged in study and development of their playwork writings. Gordon seemed to have a need to make use of what time he had left to succinct effect. He wrote at length to various groups, and to individuals; he sent books and other gifts. It was, in my reading of his focus, a way of saying to those he communicated with: keep it all going, think, keep thinking, take this all on further.

Around Christmas and the New Year, Gordon launched into an array of lengthy written communiques with a group of play and playwork thinkers and writers. He was passionate therein about an urgency in social and political constructs. He kept a keen eye on, and also fed into his other various writings, the goings-on of the ‘gilets jaunes’, the yellow vests, and the mass protests taking place in France at that time. He sent a gift of a yellow vest, compelling that it be worn with pride. Gordon was seeing playwork and its reason for being having a place amongst the precariat. Those missive communiques, pamphlets reminiscent of tubthumping calls to arms of days gone by (I imagined they might be carefully typeset and nailed to telegraph poles, or illicitly pasted up somewhere, in alleys in bohemian quarters, maybe, in the deep of night), those pamphlets sit quietly awaiting my re-reading again, visible in my email intray.

Those who have read much of Gordon’s work would no doubt agree that his writing often required a great deal of concentration. Gordon was of the opinion that those who failed to understand the words he was using (and his vocabulary was extensive) should invest in a dictionary rather than him dumb it down. I readily admit that my vocabulary has improved significantly because of Gordon’s writing. In person, however, you seldom needed that dictionary.

I have an abiding memory of Gordon observing me as I was (what I now come to term more and more as) playworking. It was maybe a dozen years ago and we were at a small conference. There were maybe only a couple of children there, maybe only the one, the son of a delegate, and there was a break in proceedings. The boy played and, every now and then, cued me into the flow of things. I went with that flow. Gordon was nearby, quietly taking everything in. He later told me what I was doing, a level I was operating on, which I was conversant with as he explained what he’d seen but which, over the years of reflecting on this one play frame, I understand better and better as I replay recent playworking through that same lens. Gordon had explained to me his observation of a playworker witnessing their practice as they worked. As with other significant moments of appreciated feedback, I have never forgotten this or him taking the time to observe and see to it that it was worthwhile to tell me.

His explanation linked very much with certain aspects written into the Colorado Paper, which he co-authored with Perry Else. This remains, to this day, a seminal paper in the playwork field, even though many still haven’t read it, and few have understood it fully (suchlike as this was in one of Gordon’s final laments). I will not claim that I understand the Colorado Paper fully, but I become more astutely aware of its inner workings every time I consider it and every time I run it through my current reflections and practice. On more than a few occasions, Gordon used the idea of a paper or thinking process being ‘a North’. I read that as something akin to following the Pole Star. The Colorado Paper is a North.

Gordon’s background in psychoanalysis has taught me plenty, or set me off into trying to find out plenty, on the significant matters of potential neuroses, therapeutic (small ‘t’) interaction, and the sheer weight of what might be in our day-to-day experiences around children. Play, and the playworker (minus the possible manifestation of the ego), have great and graceful, small and significant affects that can, under conducive circumstances, make such difference. Gordon knew this. If we indulge in the slightly reductionist exercise, for a moment, of choosing which strand of playwork thinking suits our own experiences and worldviews best, mine has for a long time favoured Gordon and Perry’s psycholudic consideration, a little ahead of Bob Hughes’ evolutionary writings (as valued as they also are) or developmental schools.

What Gordon gave me, through his writings and other communications, was the gentle persuasion to explore deeper and deeper into concepts I thought I already knew well enough, but of course, didn’t quite. I am aware, currently, that a regular group of children can bring to this playworker, daily, all their play, all their stories and continued narratives, all their possibilities and all their tumbling agitations with one another, with where they are, with the adult world and so on, but they also bring all their projections and all their transference. One of the last things that Gordon wrote, deep down in a missive to be relocated, was about how we should, as I read it, examine the counter-transference in our practice.

Gordon had always engendered in me the desire to think, and he still does, just these few weeks after his passing. Peace be to you, Gordon: an Artisan-Erudite.
 
 

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