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

Having just come out the other end of a full-on, hectic couple of weeks of open access Easter holidays on the playground, it’s safe to say that a few days rest has been very much needed. In such weeks of so much going on in the play, the not-so-play, and the not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. The playground has ebbed and flowed from the quiet first fifteen or twenty minutes each day of what, for a while now, I’ve called the children’s ‘poking around’ time, through the swell of the build-up of something taking shape in the group dynamic, right up to something (which in the moment feels) very edgy, teetering there either like the proverbial wave that won’t crash or falling over in some places like on stretches of the shore.

In this edgy, sometimes niggling, often fizzing state, the playground is one long anticipation of that something-ness that may or may not take off, when the day’s like this. These past few weeks there have been water balloons and factions, the hose pipe, water buckets (sometimes the buckets themselves being thrown), the filling of the pool table with water (‘for underwater pool’) and spadefuls of sand and dollops of paint thrown on for good measure too; there have been balls kicked blindly up high to land into crowds of unseen children on the other side of the site; the workmen in the road have had their patiences tested with children throwing bits of old piping over the foreman’s roof; palettes have been smashed; arguments have risen and fallen or grudges have sustained themselves over days. I often come back to the suggestion, when talking about playwork, that even on a calm day if you’re not going home mentally exhausted (from observing, at least), then maybe you’re not doing it right; the edgy days are even more exhausting.

In amongst all of this, we might be forgiven for missing the little moments of play that happen quickly, quietly, on the periphery of the dominant dynamic of it all. If we sit back and think though, it is possible to draw to the surface such moments that we’ve noted in passing (consciously or otherwise). It is such moments that this post is intended to celebrate: a recognition that they have been. In no particular order (I don’t know which days they happened for sure in many cases, which may add to the general celebration), there follows notes on small incidences of play that might otherwise have passed us by:
Of the ethereal
Not many of the children who attended this open access were also regular after school club children, but there were a few. One was a younger girl who I caught sight of, every now and then, as she just floated by and through the whole fizz and swill of everything else going on. I thought she might be bored or unsure. I don’t know, in truth. I offered her clay that was already out and stored on a high shelf, once, and she and her older sister took it to a corner of the playground and nothing of the edginess seemed to bother them out there. The younger sister had a serene disposition whenever she wandered through the place, as all manner of buckets and language flew around her and the playground. She wafted from one place to another, stopped (perhaps to see the way the world was from there) and disappeared for another hour or so.
Dandelion girl
The same girl picked dandelions at the edge of the site near the zipline. A colleague caught my attention to show me this because he’d never seen it here before. Later, the girl picked dandelions elsewhere at another edge of the playground. She gave them to my colleague, and she laid more out on a long stretch of carpet that I’d put there in our set-up, by the hammock swing, because perhaps someone might lie on it.
Circular dozing
Another girl had been asking me and asking me to find her some slime powder for a while, and I hadn’t been able to achieve this because of everything that was happening at that time. Finally, I found the powder and put it in my pocket ready for when she was ready again. I saw her at the roundabout. She was lying in the centre of it in the sun. The other children there said she was asleep. She was dozing for sure, as the roundabout went slowly round. I cast a small shadow over her as I watched on, I remember, in my curiosity. There was no slime till the next day.
The lucky hammer and the catapult
A boy carried a hammer around with him all day, banging away at whatever he could find. I remember thinking that maybe he was testing us, but none of us were saying ‘don’t do this’. He kept the hammer with him and the banging gradually decreased. Near the end of the session he told me it was his lucky hammer. Earlier, he’d badgered me to help him make what he called a slingshot (but which was, as I later understood, a desire for a catapult, and which I understood in the moment as a ‘see-saw’). He wanted to nail two pieces of wood together and I said go do that but maybe a Y-shaped strong piece of branch would work out for the task. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for finding this. After the weekend, he searched again and came back and back with progressively stronger Y-shaped wood. I wondered if he’d been thinking about it all that time. We fitted it with elastic bands and duct tape to tie them together. He had his catapult/slingshot, and the lucky hammer didn’t re-emerge.
Diwali boys
Three boys found the stash of powder paints in the storage container. I’d seen one of the boys in this sort of play before: that is, he likes to dip his hand into the paint and throw it to the breeze and cover himself in the process. The boys engaged in the powder paint play around the playground, getting themselves good and dusted in brown (being the choice of the moment). Later, the boys were in the container again and there was powder paint of various colours a good half-inch thick covering the floor. ‘What has happened here?’ I asked them in a manner I hoped would be taken for its intention as observation rather than admonishment. ‘Fun has happened here,’ said the boy. We’d noted the festival nature of the play in our conversations earlier.
A tidied corner
One day, and briefly, I caught sight of a small group of younger girls who had swept the boards that now cover the old fire pit, where we’d left a trestle table which had accumulated bits and bobs and which they’d removed. They’d positioned wooden cabinets at the corners, turned inwards, and neatly created some outside room without the walls. They were busy painting the furniture. I walked on by and didn’t see this again.
Ethics on the mound
Somewhere along the line, one of the boys decided that it would be a good idea to put a live worm in an old tin can and roast it alive on the fire. There were some brief discussions between myself and some of the children, though I left them to make their own decisions. Later, I was talking unconnected things with a parent nearby and, as I did so, I overheard two children behind me as they sat on the mound of earth at the entrance gate. They were digging for worms and I couldn’t concentrate so well on the parent because I wanted to hear what the children were saying. There was general talk of worms and God, and ethical scraps that passed me by, but which I wanted to hear more of.
Tales of swings
Two girls spent some considerable time, over a period of a couple of days, grappling with a socket set to extricate the bolts that held the tyres onto the swings. There was a general consensus of a small section of children that the swings would be better this way. The girls finally freed the tyres ready for a colleague to unhook the chains from the beams. Later, or another day, I caught sight of the swings going high without the extra weight of the tyres on them, sometimes with just one child swinging almost horizontally, sometimes with all of the swings used by children at the same time, synchronised to meet in the middle of the frame structure at their highest point, their toes. Once I heard, in passing, the lull of a song as a group of older girls swung.
An occasional piano
We have a piano positioned in the alcove between the tool shed and the main door towards the office and just behind where the children like to have the pool table out in the sun. Every so often a child could be seen or heard there, tinkling away at a few notes. One child, late in the week, diligently repeated the same refrain, over and over. It was a small repetition of notes and nobody bothered him. He came and went. I came and went.
A smiling smurf girl
It was the end of a session, one day, and one of the younger girls had found some blue powder paint near the fire exit and the storage container. She set about covering her skin with it as we bustled by, as children used up every last minute they had left on site in their darting to the toilet tap to fill up balloons, and as we were trying to usher everyone out. The girl stood in amongst it all with a big grin on her face. I stopped to see and she made me smile, her just looking like a big smurf, as she did! One of the older girls of her family screamed at her to ‘wash it off, now!’ She was in parental mode, as has often happened.
Just hammering
For a few days, for twenty minutes or so at a time, this same younger girl sat herself down on a low platform in the middle of the playground, after a quick trip to the tool shed, and proceeded to bang nails into the wood for no reason other than to bang nails into wood. When she was done she was done, until the next time.
One pan full of bubbles
A long time back at the very beginning of the open access days, one of the girls found a pan. I saw her a little while later with her pan filled with bubbles (or, as some children call the washing up liquid for the water slide: soap). She headed for a colleague who was sat on one of the old people’s chairs that was later to take a battering by having its back broken somehow. The girl smiled with her bubbles, looking at the hatless, hairless victim that was my colleague sat in the chair. My observations moved along . . .

In amongst the edginess, the hectic dynamic of the ebb and flow and swill and play, and not-so-play, and not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. There have been challenges these past few weeks, but there have been these moments too, and more. They rise to the surface.

During a recent trip to Berlin, Germany, I met old friends and submerged myself on the tourist trail (along which I readily engaged in what an old architecture school tutor used to call the obligatory ‘Kodak Spots’ — photographing the well-known places then moving on: Brandenburg Gate, what remains of the Berlin Wall, the site of Checkpoint Charlie); as I went though, I also felt a need to take passing photos of various playgrounds. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this documenting, as ad hoc as it was, or what conclusions I might draw from it. I’ve now had a little time to sit on it all and think it over a little.

When we pass by places set by for children to play or be in, we should trust that voice inside us that may tell us what we might feel like as a child in that place ourselves. Adults of the world too often dismiss the world of the child, and in so doing they forget about themselves: that is, they forget about the fact that they were once a child too. It wouldn’t do any harm to see the world through children’s eyes a little more. A good way to start is to look at the world through the eyes of the child that you were yourself.

As such, without any great in-the-moment analysis, my latent child’s interest in places set by for play was taken a couple of times in Berlin, for different reasons, although there were also occasions of the opposite happening too. It seems that this latter disaffection, created by a general adult disposition towards how to cater for children in the urban environment, is played out across many cities and countries.

Berlin Playground 1

Pockets of space are given over, sure, but it sometimes feels squeezed in, thought of after the buildings. The positive spin on this is at least there are pockets of space given over. There are questions of functional necessities (such as high fences for football pitches) . . .

Berlin Playground 2

. . . but when is a ‘pitch’ actually a ‘pitch’, and why do some function elements have to be so reminiscent of keeping ‘dangerous individuals’ (that is, here, children) away from the good and law-abiding others? I don’t know what the blobby dinosaur shapes are all about here, but maybe they’re intended to soften the blow of all of the above.

Fences and other means of protecting ‘defensible space’ are worth continued consideration in regard to play and urban environments. In 2012, on a study tour of Malmö and Stockholm, Sweden, we learned about the Swedish concept of ‘Allemansrätt’ (the right to roam) and a general lack of need for fences to divide areas. In Berlin, thinking on fences must have filtered through my photographic snapshots:

Berlin Playground 3

A lack of fences is all very well, but what the ground contains is also due some consideration.

Similarly, the surrounding environs of places given over to play (squeezed in, or ‘at least they are there’ spins, whichever you prefer) are also due some thought:

Berlin Playground 4

All cities seem to be forever changing themselves, turning themselves continuously inside-out in the building and re-building, but what then happens is little pieces of the city (and little pieces of the populace, e.g. children) get either marginalised or they cling on bloody-mindedly in amongst it all.

Where my latent child was stimulated somewhat in Berlin was in the chance discovery of a playground structure of some novelty to me:

Berlin Playground 5

Berlin Playground 6

Berlin Playground 7

Berlin Playground 8

My in-the-moment thinking was what it might be like to be up on these odd rubber walkways, but my adult analysis also kicked in when observing a lack of barriers above the UK fall height of two metres. I’ve only just noticed that there’s a child in one of these pictures looking out over the edge.

Novelty might only last so long, by definition, but the initial catching of attention could be a factor in design of fixed play equipment. A playground house caught my attention briefly, somewhere in Schöneberg perhaps, but I wouldn’t have played or at least stayed here long as a child:

Berlin Playground 9

Near Winterfeldtplatz we discovered what we read to be a school:

Berlin Playground 10

Berlin Playground 11

Here, it seems, is some form of fusion of thoughts on this latent child’s in-the-moment stimulus, fencing and defensible space, and considerations of the child in the city. As a child here I would probably have hid myself in amongst the trees, just to watch out and see! I was taken, in my relaxed state, by the design of the fences (which were, admittedly, still fences marking boundaries of areas in un-Swedish-like ways), replicating the landscape somewhat. The place felt, in the immediacy, more tangible to a human-ness of experiencing the world than many of the stark concrete blocks of the former East Berlin and the grandiose town houses of the former West of the city.

Berlin, in these snapshots, demarcates children’s useable/allowed space from that of the adults in the same way that probably every other city in the world does, though there are instances of novelty and stimulus to be found. What would be truly inspiring, however, is if the adult populace of cities (being the ones who currently exert formalised control over such things as urban planning) worked more towards acceptance of the blending of spatial needs: those of children as well as adults. Yes, this is somewhat Utopian but not impossible.

This is not to say that children aren’t being given the opportunity to play out there in the world at all (sitting in a pub at a busy intersection in Shepherd’s Bush, London, whilst the circus are camped out on the Green, on a late sunny afternoon during a school holiday, observing all the play between the roads and the circus fence, goes some way to showing this, though those children are still ‘hemmed in’ to a degree): what this all is to say is that tolerance of play should be the norm, not the exception; that children squeezed in to spaces between buildings, fenced off from the city for reasons of corralling, is disingenuous to the popular refrain of ‘putting children first’.

A small but significant aspect of playwork practice has been quietly playing itself in and out of my thoughts lately (that is to say, if the playwork in question is of the flavour that involves children’s wishes for the adult to participate to some degree in the play). Here’s the scenario: a child (more often than not, in my experience, this situation will involve a single child rather than a group of them, but not always) has invited or ‘cued’ the playworker into the play of the moment (say, one-touch ‘wallsy’ football against the fence, pushing on the roundabout, some variations of catch and throw); the child shows the signs that they’re reasonably happy that they’re being supported in their play choices; the playworker plays along; the child just keeps repeating or reinventing the play so that the playworker is expected to stay involved and so that the play can carry on; the playworker gets bored of it.

That’s the small but significant aspect of practice that’s been troubling me as of late. It comes and goes, and it doesn’t happen very often but when it does it sets up a whole string of processes of thinking. Boredom of repetition or involvement shifts from this to some other stimulation of the mind, but this is hardly the point: the playing child has chosen this playworker (for reasons of positive relating or sometimes for some attention, let’s face it, or for conditions in between), and so this playing child requires focus and consideration. Some of the processes of thinking are along the lines of ‘potential get-out clauses’: how do I remove myself from this scenario so that the play can still carry on in some way, or so that the playing child won’t be offended? When another child comes along and asks to play, or when they show signs that they might like to, there’s a small window of opportunity to leave quickly and quietly, but at just the right time, so that the fragile bubble of play can shift from one circumstance to the next without popping. When done well, then job done.

Some processes of thinking are along the lines of ‘when did this play shift from relating/being in the joint arena of play to the being relied upon?’ This can happen when some children are our personal shadows (those children who follow you around for whatever reason that they need to). Some shadows I’ve had know exactly what they’re doing and turn this, in itself, into play by following me precisely in every movement, and so I can reciprocate, and so this can unfold in different ways. However, when the shadows just follow because of other reasons, then this can become difficult, and when the shadows do everything they can to keep you contained within their play, then this becomes more difficult still. A colleague has spotted one of my occasional shadows and we’ve also talked about this in de-briefs too. Now he’ll call over to the child in question when he feels she’s shadowing, and he’ll spin her away into something else for a while. It’s a fine line though, sometimes, between the child relating and playing in probably mentally healthy ways with the playworker, and them falling into a brief grey zone of neediness. How do we know the threshold if it isn’t always so obvious or, in fact, if that shadowing/neediness time is brief? We have to develop an acuteness of awareness around certain children and their chosen ones.

The shadowing is an issue that sits alongside the main enquiry here: what to do, as the playworker, when you shift into a small boredom of the repetitions or reinventions of play that you’ve been involved in? Thinking in one respect, we shouldn’t get bored of the play, but we do. We’re human, and although much of play is a stimulation in the observation for the concerted playworker, some play troubles me (though not here for its ‘risky’ or expressive qualities, which seem to be those of the other end of some people’s ‘being troubled’ spectrum). Maybe some play operates at such a slow wavelength, as it were, that engaging with it proves personally difficult. Observing such play is fine, but being asked to be a part of it is a different thing. Maybe this is why I don’t work with babies: I have done and I found it slow and, frankly, uninspiring. I’ve always felt it takes a particular type of person to be able to work well with babies, and I’m not one of them.

If I find myself in the thinking situation that is the shift from ‘willing engagement because the child asks it so’ to ‘how do I get myself out of this now?’, quite often there’s a string of thinking that also plays through me along the lines of ‘I’ve been in this particular play too long’. It isn’t the case that I’m wanting to take over the play and change it for my own good; rather, it’s more to do with feeling that my presence should by now have outstayed its welcome. I’m no longer performing my role of being there for anyone else. I’m no longer in a position where I can observe the unfolding play that swills around, and I do like to be in a position where I can see as much as possible: it’s a means of fixing markers in my mind, but it’s also a means of being in-between, mostly, though ready if that needs to shift into something more specific to someone or some group or something on the playground.

This condition of shifts in states of mind isn’t as simple as just stating ‘OK, I’m bored now.’ There are plenty of processes of thinking that are strung through it all. It troubles me, in a low level kind of way (at the other end of the ‘troubling spectrum’ to someone blatting the life out of an ex-wooden thing with a claw hammer thrown back behind their heads, or someone standing up high on something slippery, or suchlike): are these moments of minor boredom justifiable in amongst all the stimulus of moving and thinking about play, observing it, being a part of it, relating with and laughing and wondering at the incredible inventiveness of expression and exploration that children often display in their play?

It doesn’t happen all that often, such a moment of minor boredom, but it happens every now and then, and its small but significant quietness scuffs and tumbles around inside — like it, itself, is a shadow-child trailing all my other thoughts.
Playworkings will be taking a break for a week or maybe a little longer (there are parts of the world to explore!)

Last week saw a trip out across the far reaches of the other side of the city of London (that is, a trip up the Victoria line, and then a fair hike up Tottenham High Road!) to pay a visit to Somerford Grove Adventure Playground. I have been to Somerford before, some seven or eight years ago, and I have some clear memories of the play that was taking place that day in the sun, but what struck me this time, from the vantage point of coming from within the playground culture of one part of west London, was that there are similarities in what’s at stake and what takes place in those playgrounds, and there are uniquenesses too.

Cathy and Tam at Somerford received us with plenty of stories, trials and tribulations, passions and celebrations, and there were plenty of these that I, for one, could relate to (if not always directly, then with a certain sympathy). I’ve met Cathy that once before, and I feel confident in saying we seem to be ‘of the same page’, as it were. Tottenham, as I read it through these stories in our short visit, is somewhat of a melting pot of cultures, and the playground is more than just the mere superficiality of that simple word. Later in the day, I was left reflecting on how this person called ‘playworker’ is, or can also be, someone to rely on, someone to support, someone to be pushy in the face of adversity, someone who stands up to a multitude of adult agendas, someone who might be (lower case initial letters) some form of ‘pastoral help’, ‘advisor’, ‘protector’: in short, much more than merely someone who’s seen in terms of ‘so, you put things out for children to play with’, as I paraphrase of many discussions I’ve had, or erroneously as ‘so, you teach children how to play?’

There are some similarities between the two playgrounds of north and west London here (as there are, perhaps, between all the playgrounds in the city and beyond): in this comparison of north and west alone, there are similarities in that there is a cultural mix, there are various peripheral groups, the potential for or actuality of gangs, to greater or lesser degrees, the continuity of the playworkers within it all, the ebb and flow and swill of the playground and its constituent parts. Where there are uniquenesses, I suppose (without a full understanding of Somerford) I concentrate on the particular comings and goings of individuals we know well, of the way of the local community, and of the general way of things farther out beyond the estate.

As an aside, on matters of a local flavour, I was surprised to overhear the contents of some workmen’s conversations the other day, whilst I was painting signs that are strung up on the outsides of our fences. They, the workmen, were hanging around in the street, in the preliminary stages of putting out road blocks in order to pedestrianise the street immediately to the side of our most public fence. One of their number was telling another, in a broad accent I couldn’t place, but which I figured not to be local to where we were, that (and I paraphrase) ‘these sorts of estates are full of crime, of course; we’ve got these sorts of places where I’m from’. I had to smile because I thought I have to say something. I waved my paintbrush in the air and I put on my best local accent (even though I’m ‘not from around here’ either!) and told him, sure, there were police stats (I’ve seen them) about recent crime levels, but a third of those were for ‘anti-social behaviour’ and I wondered out loud if that might not correlate to ‘play’ in our books!

The point is that (apart from my opportunity to blat on about play to some unsuspecting souls), we should rein in our preconceptions, shouldn’t we? Yes, the playground is dead-smack in the middle of rows of tenements and the estate is, pretty much, a zone in its own right, but let’s not discount everything and everyone therein because of what we think we might know about it and them. The playground, perhaps, also comes under this sort of scrutiny: people might well look through the fence and see all the half-mangled stuff and bits of wood and old tyres and general air of ‘disorder’ and think to themselves ‘well, that could do with a good scrub up’; however, what they’d completely miss is all the play therein, the possibilities and the histories of that play, and all the otherness of ‘being playworker’ that flows right through it, or could flow through it. That said, the term ‘playworker’ would, I suspect, not register on such thinking processes. There’s time to address this though.

I digress. Coming back from Tottenham, and on further reflection, I’m quite acutely aware of the challenges we all might face, and the privileges we’re afforded, in and around the playgrounds in the communities in which we work. I’m also aware of the fact that we are, or that we could be, or that we might someday be called upon to be, more than just, simplistically, ‘that person who puts out the gloop and the paint, and who makes sure the zipwire’s up, or who knocks up something out of an old palette, or who chops up a couple of days’ worth of wood for the fire’. There are considerations of gang influence to be had, as well as the possibilities of drugs, or of the affects of developing hormones in the older playground users and their peers; there are the skills needed to understand the varying needs and expressions, the disturbances and the inter-disturbances of individuals and groups who might aggregate in terms of gender, age, beliefs, family background and culture, or any combination of these and more; there are the constantly fluxing ways of interacting and understanding, or trying to understand, the agitations of the fads and fashions of growing up, or just being, in that place that those children are in; there is the need to be able to bring everything to a point of ‘being on the children’s side’ (as paraphrased of the attitude of A. S. Neill, of Summerhill School), putting aside personal difficulties for long enough to be significant in those children’s lives, indirectly, when fighting their corner with every other adult around. Some days might be smooth, some days might not be.

Play runs through it all, of course, and play will happen without us, but playworkers can help show that ‘this is play’ when others see it otherwise, or they can be that ‘something else’ (lower case initial letter, insert any given other here), if that play, as such, is so detrimental to the well-being of the individual, the group, or the community at large. This is not to say that playworkers should be (capital letters) ‘Teachers’, ‘Policers’, ‘Leaders of Social Reform Amongst the Young’; this is to say that they are, potentially, part of something larger than just the geographical and psychological area inside the fence. This is how I read the work of those at Somerford Grove, and potentially of others based at other playgrounds around and about. Thanks Cathy and Tam, if ever this writing finds its way to you: I trust there’ll be many more stories that can be shared.

It occurs to me that even though we happen to be speaking the same language, we may in fact be speaking different languages altogether. That is to say, when speaking about play, it might not be the thing itself that’s the contentious issue: it might just be the language that we speak to describe it. After all, isn’t the play itself the same thing no matter which way up you hold it? What the difference is is the person doing the viewing. I’m aware that I’ve tended to come around to the same subject matters plenty of times in my writing, but that’s all fine if those subject matters can be seen from different angles. When we discuss play, there’s often a playing with words itself to do this: I’m thinking this post will be no different in that respect, but the slight tweak is the view of languages used.

A small moment of minor epiphany arrived recently when I realised that, in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. My language, in this writing on these posts, is the language of ‘this is play, for the sake of play, for the hell of it, for no developmental outcomes or other future-looking gains’, or variations of this. None of us are perfect adults, all of us are continuing the process of being and are being in our becomingness, in the here and now: there’s no reason, in my language, why children shouldn’t be viewed in the same way. We’re occupied by the same genetic material, adults and children, and many adults tend to forget that they were children once too. They’ve forgotten because they think they’re fully formed, wise, more. These are not rational assumptions to have because none of us are, or ever will be, ‘complete’. We all occupy the same streets, and we all make our way, day by day. Here ends the brief précis of this language that I’ve been speaking for a while now.

However, it seems that in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. How, though, do we talk the languages of education, law and order, health, funding, and so on, whilst maintaining the core of what we believe to be true? These are questions for the asking, not answers yet for the giving. When I’m communicating with children, either by words or by gestures, but more often than not by play, I’m speaking their language, their codes and culture. We can speak more than one language within the overall language of the shared words and actions that we use. The task then is how to translate that skill into passionate advocacy for play with other adults who, by and large, don’t usually come to play from the same angle.

‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’, as attributed to Oscar Wilde (not as commonly misquoted of George Bernard Shaw), is testament to more than the words of an actual language themselves, of course, but is also relevant in this ‘adults coming to play’ discussion: what we know is that we all view it differently, and that we speak of it in different terms — what is so obvious that it hasn’t occurred too frequently though is that we do have the ability to speak others’ languages, as difficult as this may be. Or, at least, if that proves ethically tricky, we have the capability of listening.

We’re all right, of course, though. That is, we wouldn’t position ourselves so absolutely in our ethical or principled camps if we didn’t believe that what we were saying was ‘the truth’. Is it possible that there is more than one truth? Can we really be living in a more than binary world of right/wrong? When I talk of play I talk about its here-and-now-ness, and I have great concerns about the rhetoric others use in tub-thumping with equal fervour about all things only-developmental. This is a simple binary, though I know the picture is more complicated than this in reality. Could it be that children’s play offers them something for the future too, in conjunction with the just-now-ness? Yes, of course it does. Play has many benefits. Here, though, I break from the self-imposed attempt to see things in other ways, when saying: how about others seeing that same set of words in the last few lines the other way around too?

Back to the task in hand: how to see play by speaking others’ languages of it. The present UK government, and the possible next, sees children in terms of educable entities. Of this I’m convinced, judging by the rhetoric that comes directly from politicians and indirectly via media reports of their policies and statements. How can a here-and-now play person (I deliberately avoid the ‘playworker’ term here for now) speak the language of education without diluting the core belief that play is essentially made of magic? I don’t write this frivolously: if we are all made of carbon, if we are all made of star-dust, so it is that play is something ‘other’ than we might ordinarily always see. Play, from this perspective, is glitter that we can’t catch. Here we are again, back at the esoteric, the poetic, the speaking of languages not understood.

Yet, the epiphany still stands: in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. The question is not in the ‘what’ of the words (these we can say because we have them in common anyway, of sorts), but in the ‘how’ of them. Perhaps, as ‘developed’ as we consider our adult selves to be, as ‘fully formed’, as ‘wise’, as ‘more’, we can come round to the conclusion that we can understand more of the ‘how’ by learning from children. In my experience, children often seem fairly adaptable to the how of speaking the different languages of adults around them: sure, they can co-opt adults into their own language of play to assimilate them into the nature of their thoughts, but they can also be adept at role and character mimicry, and much more than this too. Children often seem skilful at playing the language of any given adult, which may be altruistic — if there is such a thing — but which may serve their needs all the more succinctly. Maybe it’s an evolutionary trait; maybe some of us, as fully formed as we think we are, un-develop it.

With the advent of the annual playworkers’ conference this week, and with so many people who go by the title ‘playworker’ (or who have links to playwork) there, I’m wondering what this playwork thing looks like to the people at the centre of it all: that is, the children. We in the field of playwork have, and continue to have, debates about what it is we do, why we do it, what its worth is, whether we’re needed at all, and so on, but how much do we know of what the children say? We do, after all, profess to putting them first.

I’ve read a fair few books on playwork practice, and these include theories for ways of working, stories of play observed, ideas on what play is good for, what it helps or does, and so on, but I’m not so sure the sum total of writing on ‘playwork from the child’s perspective’ is any great percentage of that whole. What do the children care about developmental, evolutionary, or therapeutic angles on adults working with them? What they care about, I’m prepared to stick my neck out here, is that adults who they happen to have to share their places of play with should be: people who they can get along with; who are fun to be around (though not in any overtly ‘wacky, zany’ sort of way); who listen when they should listen; who tell stories when they should tell stories; who know when not to say something to someone else, and who know which stories of the children’s they should keep quiet about; who will be honest with them; who will help and protect them if they want that; who won’t jump down their throats if they choose to swear, stick up their middle finger, or fling a paint brush loaded with paint up into the air or against the wall just because they feel like it . . .

Whilst there are aspects of the playwork books that certainly point towards such tolerance, they don’t all frame it in terms of relating. In my experience, this relating is essential to the children. They tell it in the stories and play they present, in the looks in their eyes, in the way that some may take an adult’s hand or rest their elbow on their shoulder when that adult’s knelt down. The children tell it in the things they don’t say directly about the playworker in question too: I’ve often had children tell me of their ‘teacher’s bad day, every day’, or the like, or how certain other adults in their lives just annoy them. Maybe I annoy them too, some days, but that day that I’m not part of the story in question, when being told the story in question, this I take as the children saying to me, ‘You’ll do’.

Plenty of the playwork literature links to thinking on standing back from the play, being invisible, retreating into the background, servicing and resourcing and making the environment good for play, whatever that play may be: this all happens, and can take great skill and self-discipline on the part of the playworker, but the children don’t always want just this. Sure, some days they want nothing more than for the adults to just butt out, stay back, get out of the way, turn a blind eye, and generally kindly do as they’re told! However, they’ll also often have half an eye on the adult (in staffed provisions) just being around, just in case, for dealing with emergencies, for sorting out being ganged up on if they can’t eventually resolve it themselves, or if the gang pressure outweighs the risk of social ridicule by them then not being able to sort out their own problems. ‘Resilience’ is too simplistic a word here: children often cope, to a point, and then there are finer social nuances to have to contend with.

In terms of play, I’m pretty confident from my experiences of observing it, of being invited into it, and of listening to the stories of it, that children — by and large — don’t go into their play for outcome attainment (developmental milestones, cognitive and motor skills enhancement, the roping in of obesity, with awareness of their health, with concern for their future citizenship in terms of their good consumer unit potential, or with an eye on reduction of the national health service’s cost savings per capita!) I am being somewhat facetious, but the point is that children will go into their play because it is play. They’ll call it play if they’re not told to do it (‘doing homework’ isn’t play, as the children I’ve related to say it, even if the child likes the subject, because someone is still imposing on that child’s time to play).

In my experience, children have quite a sophisticated view of when their play is: it is that quality time that isn’t imposed upon by others, though it can also be the moments of possibility within that imposition (homework can morph out of being homework and into spontaneous play away from it). Often, unimposed time is squeezed in between other things (‘work’, ‘structured dedicated times for sport’, and so on) and children have the ability to view time in between times, as well as time within imposed upon time, as time that’s playable. Plenty of adults don’t see this. The children, meanwhile, often express the need to be around others who appreciate their in between time, as well as that time that is given over entirely for play: these others will be other children, but it will also be those adults who ‘just get it’.

Whether those adults call themselves playworkers or not, children will often directly express a preference for their company (whether the old-schoolers of playwork literature like this or not), or children will indirectly express who the adults who ‘get them’, and their play, are. By ‘company’ I’m not talking about ‘best mates’, though I’ve certainly known children who’ve chosen to call me ‘friend’: by ‘company’ I’m referring to anything from just keeping an eye on the fact that the adult is there or thereabouts, to actively pursuing play cues and returns with that adult, deeply engaging them in the fantasies and flows, narratives and confidences of the play. It isn’t about a replacement of another playing child, in its most sophisticated form: it is, as I register it, an acknowledgement of relating, of shared histories of space and place, of a development of mutual knowing.

Children will play without adults being directly around, but the fact is that adults are indirectly around them in the urban and the rural landscapes of society as we know it, even if those adults don’t directly witness that play itself. Playworking embraces tolerances. Playworking also embraces interactions. It is this, in my experience, in my observation, in my listening, and in my relating, that I suggest as a way of seeing how playwork looks from children’s perspectives.

October to February is such a long time in the waiting for the children who needed to get back onto the playground again last week. It was the first half term of the year and so that meant ‘open access’ was back. The signs have been up for a couple of weeks on the sides of the fences, but you never know if they’ve been acknowledged. They had been. Plenty of our regulars came back, after some seemed to melt into the background of the estate for all this time. Plenty of new children came too: as always seems to be, we have a fair amount of newly filled-in forms at the end of every open access week.

On the whole, these weeks are psychologically or maybe also emotionally, and certainly physically fairly exhausting, but studded through and through with the sense, at the end of it, that this has been well worth all that energy. There have been water balloons (as there always seem to be, every open access, whatever the weather, resulting in the toilets turning into swamps where the children fill up their wares), there has been mud on a par — in places — with the fields at Glastonbury, and there has been paint and gloop and slime, man-traps being dug, the flying around of the ubiquitous Family Had game, plenty of hammers and saws and screwdrivers, the sledgehammer, the axe, fire and go-karting, jumping from high places, rolling in low places, sitting on the top of the hut in a plastic chair just looking out, and what seems to have been something akin to the ritual slaughter of a sofa!

It is this that draws my thoughts right now. This long wait over winter, October to February, may have been a contributing factor to a difficult first afternoon. Thereafter, after we’d all settled (staff and children) later in the week, things just seemed to shift back into playground time, a playgroundness of being. No matter how many times you’ve done this, as a playworker, this open access or this whatever half term is for you, there is the possibility that a certain ‘getting back into gear’ needs to take place. The rain came down, we were certain staff down, some of the children must have sensed a moment in time: when a couple of the boys wanted to chop up the old sofa, we gave them the tools to do this. All was fine at that time. When the dynamics of the playground shifted on the arrival of other children who often seem to need to cause a psychological edge, the sofa didn’t stand a chance! The fire was nearby and bits of foam were being filleted from the furniture and taken to the flames. We said not to put it on, but this fell on deaf ears. Before long, the sofa was being ripped apart by hand, literally, as the foam was being yanked out in great handfuls. I joked that the children involved, older boys, were like vultures, but I wasn’t feeling like joking inside.

No rational course of conversation was being heeded, so I said to a colleague that we’d take the sofa out of the equation, or what was left of it. As we lifted it to take it out of sight and out of mind, the entrails were still being taken from the carcass! I write this, partly in playful manner, because on reflection it is somewhat amusing to think of the poor thing having its guts ripped out (but this is a gallows type of humour, because in the moment this play is difficult to comprehend, deal with, and connect to the anticipation of how it will affect everything else on site).

I know I’m not alone in experiencing such tips into the potential for actual chaos (this episode being, as I observed it, the catalyst for a further flow of darker play interactions that afternoon, some of which also veered towards bullying). A recent story posted by an experienced playworker to an online site frequented by many of us in the field is testament to the shared sense of ‘what do we do here now in amongst all of this?’ on different playground sites. Some readers here will recognise this (though I keep it anonymous because the post was to a private readership): on experiencing a story of some chaotic nature, he, the other playworker, decided to make the next day as boring as possible (I paraphrase), so that the apparent chaos could be realigned (my words, not his). This is, admittedly, not something I’d considered, and I’m still chewing that one over as to the relative merits or otherwise. Sometimes we have to deviate from what the ‘playwork mantras’ say: that first day we discussed it all, after that session, and again before the next one, and we decided that a certain firmness was necessary with certain individuals. It seemed to work. The next few days were beautiful.

Not only is it difficult in the moment of such experiences, but it’s also difficult in the veering away from all you think you know about how to be a good playworker, principles of good practice, or to put it bluntly, not throwing your weight around. What we do need to consider though, after much further reflection, is how the play of all children is affected by the play (and it was this, as truncated as it was, or deviant or aggressive or whatever word we might care to use) of other individuals. There’s still plenty to consider in all of this.

I do need to finish here with a brief story of something beautiful though. That is, as I hold up my hand to a difficult experience, I also recognise that I need to balance this in myself with the understanding that this was a relatively short episode within the context of the whole week, and plenty of very beautiful things happened, many more than the difficulties, and these stories are the ones to balance us.

I have chosen my balancing story but it could easily have been something else (such as the boy who, mainly as engineer, built great steps out of tyres and a whole mound of children climbed to the top of the boundary fence; or such as the way that chalkings appeared on the chalkboard declaring a need to fart or that such-and-such loves so-and-so; or the way that two older children, boy and girl, were observed to be sharing earphones all week, in each other’s pockets, as it were; or the girl who I saw just painting the steps to the ‘tree-house’ blue, on her own, humming away; or the way that that same girl, shivering from being cold, was quietly appeciative of the warm bowl of water I put out, as she put her hands in it to warm up, and how that bowl just stayed there on the floor not being thrown around by others like I’d expected it to be; or the way that Family Had happened and the older boy who was the fastest forgot that the man-trap had been dug on the route to the sandpit ‘homey’, racing straight over it and into it!)

My balancing story though is this one: one day, in the sunshine, a girl of about nine who always says hello with a small dance and a smile, gently cued me into play on the wobbly bench. This is a low plank mounted on two springs, which a colleague built a sort of rodeo seat onto some months back. The girl stood on the bench and we just talked of nothing and something and whatever the moment was, and the play became me wobbling my feet so that she balanced or fell off. It turned into a sort of dance, and flowed and repeated, and I remember thinking part way through this, well into this, that here I was and I was totally focused in this dance with her. I didn’t look out onto the playground like I usually do, trying to capture all the play as it happened, trying to see where my colleagues were, trying just to take everything in at once (hence the emotional and psychological, as well as physical exhaustion because of mud and lifting crash mats and the like).

There I was, and I was totally absorbed in the moment. Was this then partly my play? I don’t know, maybe; or maybe I was reflecting all that she needed at that moment. Suffice is to say that I was received with good grace by this dancing girl, who seemed to still have control of everything she was doing, and we connected in the dance of the wobbly bench, and all seemed good for her, and all was good for me, and the playground was fine in that moment because I didn’t sense otherwise, and this was a balancing in more ways than one.


Of advocacy for play

After poking around the playground one morning this week, I sat down on one of the old people’s home chairs that seems to have become a regular part of external furniture now. I sat perched there, wrapped up in coat and hat, whilst looking out over the sand pit area thinking about the playwork ideas of ‘environmental modification’ and ‘the theory of loose parts’. I was just unblurring my focus there, tapping my palm with a drumstick I’d found out on the other side of the site, when I saw a police transit van crawl past on the road just beyond the fence.

There’s been a higher police presence on the estate these past days what with this van, a patrol car or two earlier, and the local wardens making an appearance and asking to do a ‘hidden knife search’ on the playground the day before. ‘Sure,’ we said, in the spirit of community relations, ‘have a look around, but do it before the children get here if you don’t mind.’ I digress.

So, I sat there tapping my drumstick, watching the police van go round, when I was distracted by the phone in my pocket. As I talked on the phone, three fully uniformed policemen came onto the playground (it turned out later, apparently, that they’d managed to ‘freak out’ the little children in the crèche room nearby, but that’s another story). I motioned that I’d be right with the policemen, but then they left. They piled back into the van and were about to go when I caught up with them. ‘Can I help?’ I asked. There looked like there was a van-load of policemen in the dark behind the officer who was just trying to shut the door, and it was him who told me that they’d come in because they’d seen me there on the playground (looking shifty was the inference; ‘Oh, I work here’, I said), me with what appeared to be an offensive weapon in my hand. I held up said object. ‘You mean this drumstick, officer?’ I asked. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Years ago, I remember, I was walking down the street taking a ball gown back to the hire shop for a friend (don’t ask!), when I was apprehended. ‘Is this your dress, sir?’ was the line of enquiry. ‘Umm . . .’ I said. I don’t know whether it was an offensive dress or an offensive me! Anyway, back to the present story . . .

Now, my fellow playworkers, what might happen next? Well, we might advocate. I asked if the officer knew what it was that happened on the playground. He said no and that they weren’t really from around here. So I asked if he wanted to know. He indicated that I could tell him. I said that children could play how they wanted and needed to here: you know, graffiti and suchlike . . .? He did go a little pale at this, in truth, so I thought it best not to give any more examples of what the children might get up to in their play. The policemen wanted to go, mistakes are made, so I waved goodbye to them with my drumstick. Play has its props and I was very respectful, I trusted, throughout our conversations.

The moral of my story, in part, and all joking aside, is that there might be plenty to do ‘out there’ for play to be recognised as such, for what children use as objects of play, for what places of play are (and for what playworkers do, and for what they look like too, as shifty as we might seem sometimes!) On the subject of objects of play, the wardens who didn’t find any hidden knives did raise a query about an old shopping trolley chain they’d found (something that a playwork colleague had detached in the making of our state-of-the-art fire grill, the chain then being left in plain view lying on the grass for several weeks now, so far ignored by children but still with play potential). The wardens, presumably, thought it to be weaponisable, nunchuck style, or something.

There might be plenty to do ‘out there’. There are all sorts of professionals who might have contact with children, or who indirectly affect them, who might be offered the ‘good word of play’ (I write it like this, in this instance, as a deliberate but playful act of some small provocation). I quite often feel the need for advocacy rising when I hear (well-intentioned or otherwise), professionals speak of play in terms of ‘activities’ they suppose children only get up to, or should be doing, or in terms of ‘getting them off the streets’ (part of the constructive-productive be-better-future-economic-units agenda), or as part of ‘controlled behaviours’ for the benefit of, well, everyone except the playing child maybe.

To be fair, there are those who are trying to see and engage with play too. We’ve had a couple of visits from a local policeman who the children flock around to talk to and who, to his credit, gets involved in the play if the children want him to. They poke him and his radio, and once they ran off with his helmet which caused him a little consternation but he held out well enough! We helped him out by locking his official gear in the office for a while, and he was quite happy to run around playing the children’s favourite game of ‘Family Had’ with them in the dark of the playground. Fair play to you, officer! There are after school children’s parents who get it (play) and there are often others from around and about (like the local bin men, or builders) who’ll tell stories of their own childhood play, unprompted, apart from a quick ‘this is what we do’ opener to resource-blagging by us. In the pubs, people sometimes talk with similar tales. The other day, at the bar, a man looked at me, seeming to see something, and told me — totally unprompted — that ‘You’ve got to play, mate, haven’t you?’

I do understand though that one person’s play is not always going to be appreciated by another person as play; however, a step in a good direction to benefit children is general development of adults’ understanding that this action, this behaviour, this expression or exhibition that’s being seen or heard, at any given time, is this child or children’s play. Children play in all sorts of ways and with all sorts of things. Not everything is an offensive weapon (though a sharp stick in the wrong context would give some cause for concern). In context though, a drumstick on a playground is an object of play, as is all the leftover stuff that the children leave lying around. It would be great if the streets of any given town or city had more potential for general play in them, but there’s also still work to be done on the whole recognition of ‘this here is play’ in the first place. The ‘average Joe’ can get it, this being a positive term (and here, the playworker is an ‘average Joe’ too); others — insert your own professional or any other given person — seeing beyond the necessary strictures of their own positions might also benefit the children too though.

Is it fair to say that any and every one of us is a different ‘us’ according to the person that we’re speaking with at any given time? That is, in essence we’re still the same, but we present/come across as just that slightly different when with different people. It’s not always a conscious act of wilful change of being I’m talking about here: this is often an operation below that conscious level, on the automatic level. I had such thoughts when thinking about friends in my social circle going back some twenty odd years ago now. A recent colleague conversation touched on the subject again, and this has now led me to thinking how is it that I am with various different children? Do I communicate consistently with every one of them, or do I shift my intonation or other manners of speaking and being when with each of them?

I really don’t know for sure. I’m too close and in the middle of it. How is this different to my awareness of how I’m different, still, with various other adults in my life? Of course I present in different ways when with work colleagues or with family, when meeting others for the first time or when communicating with other professionals I make contact with. However, I thought I was fairly consistent when with the children I know and share parts of my life with, work and family, but now I’m not so sure. I do make every effort not to (actually or seemingly) talk down to children, though I also make efforts to use words I suppose are part of their vocabulary; I also understand that words in children’s worlds shouldn’t just be restricted to those they already know though, and I like to think I talk with the knowledge that this particular word I’m using might be a new one for them. Family children, being younger than the children I work with, are sucking up all the new words they find and they ask questions, so I give answers. I’m also sometimes slightly amused and amazed at some of the words that, say, six and seven year olds at the playground use in everyday conversation.

Words aren’t the whole of it though: the way that I use them in my inflections comes into this. Whilst I appreciate the ways that almost sing-song, lilting ‘mummying’ language can have in bonding with very small children, it irritates me to hear that sing-song of adults with children who are older: I would hate to think I ever fell into that mode with a child who might, for example, be experiencing a need for sympathy. It can take on the mode of being patronising.

On the playground I also often have in-the-moment-of-play thoughts about the accents and the ‘local language’ of the children I’m with. By this I don’t necessarily mean the cultural background of that child or their family, I mean the wider all-embracing culture of that particular place in that particular part of London. The ‘local language’ is made up of a melge of slang (both enduring and in passing) and other fabrications that come from the play directly or get fused into it via films or TV. The point to all of this here is that I think now, as I write, that I must also become a part of that local language when in that part of London, as opposed to the place that is my home town. I have written about the children’s local accents before, being quite evident to my as-then untuned ear when I first worked at the playground. Now, though, a few years on, I think I must slip into that manner of speaking more naturally. If I push my luck though, I might end up sounding like someone who’s just trying to fit in. From some of the children here, there is a particular use of the slang word ‘innit’, I find. I haven’t yet mastered the finer nuances of this, as I hear it! I’ll keep listening until I’ve absorbed it more fully.

This is strange. I’ve had plenty of conversations in the pubs thereabouts with people who just strike up conversation asking where I’m from, and I slip easily and consciously into my London accent when I hear theirs, and I tell them that I’m from just up the road (which I am, technically, having been born not far from there). I don’t see it necessarily as an insincerity to be talking with an accent that isn’t quite what I normally go about my day with; it’s more a sort of ‘when in Rome’, a form of respectful acknowledgement, perhaps. This is how I see it with the random other adults I meet. With children, though, it seems a little more disingenuous to do this.

Recently, I recognised the way I often communicate with a particular six year old I know. I hadn’t realised this properly before I’d had those colleague conversations about how we are when with other adults. With this six year old in question, I find that I talk with her just as I would an adult. I thought I did this with all the children I work with, but with her it seems, on closer inspection, that I do this even more so. Perhaps it’s because she’s quite often got a serious look on her face, but I know her well enough to know this isn’t because of any sourness of being: it’s because she’s listening and sucking up everything that’s being said around her. She concentrates a lot. She knows some longer words I hadn’t given her credit for. She tells me things about conversations we’ve had or which she’s overheard some days on. I didn’t realise she took in so much. So, I have conversations with her about whatever’s important that day, and the words aren’t too complex but neither are they dumbed-down, and my tone is often even with her, though, as it seems, it’s more even with her than with other children.

What can we take from all of this? I think there are words, and ways of saying words, and ways of using local languages, and sincerities and insincerities, or the possibilities of either, that need plenty of thinking on, both during and after being around the children I’m with. I think there are ways we could think about how we are, more . . .

Keeping things together

On some occasions on the playground, our adult presence in the play is essential to keeping it together at that particular time. This is obviously fraught with difficulties for the playworker who knows that the play is not theirs, and who knows that they shouldn’t find themselves wrapped up in it so much that it starts to become theirs. That said, a certain immersion is sometimes required of us by the playing children. There have been times when I’ve found myself in and between several instances of play (play frames), all at the same time; perhaps I’m seen by the children concerned as uniquely positioned in each of these — those children being seemingly oblivious to my role and progress and position in the other play frames! Other times it’s slightly easier.

That said, when you find yourself in a play frame you can become a somewhat essential aspect of it: try to fold yourself out of it at the wrong time and you may get shouted at, physically hauled back, or petitioned with all sorts of bribes and baubles. Last week, at the dark end of the after-school session, I wandered past a group of three girls who’d set up a café or a restaurant on the paving slabs just outside the main back door onto the playground. They’d created tables from bread crates piled up in twos, and they’d found plastic garden chairs or old computer swivel chairs to sit on. In the gaps in the upturned bread crates, as I walked past, they’d already elegantly shoved pieces of red A4 paper for napkins. One girl was sat waiting to be served. Another, it transpired, was the manager. A third girl was the waitress. She was making menus, serving the customer, sweeping the floor, and so on, all at the same time. The manager watched on.

As I walked past (now I wish I could remember what was said by whom for me to become part of it: I must pay more attention to the possibility of how play might unfold, in the moment), I soon found myself part of the play. I somehow became co-opted into the role of waiter (with all the multi-tasking of menu writing, serving, and sweeping, demanded by the manager). Earlier, one of this group and another girl talked with me as we walked back from school. They were following up on a previous day’s play of castles and kings and queens, and they said that today I would be a king. The narration was almost the play in itself, except that the expectation was that the play would happen when we got back to the playground. In the end, the play fizzled into something else because of other distractions, but my point here is that I seem to be cast in some serving capacity quite often by these children, so king was unusual!

Back as the type-cast, in my waitering role, there was a glimpse in my mind — as I engaged with the role-play/socio-dramatic play — of what it would be like in the real service industry! I made play of it by asking the girl who was waitress, but who was now boss, for some time off. She said no, and I was instructed to make more menus, specifically drinks ones, and ‘boys and girls magazines’ for the waiting customers. The children instructed me to fill the magazines with gender stereotyped material, which was an interesting aside in itself.

I tried to extricate myself from the play because I felt I’d been there too long. The decision was too early for the children. I was told to come back in as I ‘went to look for a broom’. I found a hockey stick and that was broom enough. I became the customer and between us, we concocted extensions to the menu. The children brought me sand on a plate (which was my octopus pie). I looked for other ways out. The menu making was carrying on, the girl who was customer sat and started to shiver but she ordered food diligently and read the gender-stereotyped magazines carefully. A boy came along to be served. I thought that it would be OK to ‘go to the toilet’. The manager insisted that I be escorted there!

I sat myself down indoors and she hovered over me, telling me in no uncertain terms not to move. I watched her go out the door, waited for a few seconds, then scarpered! The three girls were in their play and I was away: or so I thought. I escaped to the fire pit and made a play of trying to keep warm. The manager/waitress (in truth, the flux of the role play didn’t allow me to keep good track) found me. She came and stood by my side, saying that she needed me back again. I said that I needed to keep warm for a little while. My colleague was there at the fire pit and I co-erced him into giving me a ‘job in the fire brigade’ because the restaurant manager didn’t pay me enough. The girl then said she’d pay me a thousand pounds. I upped it. We negotiated and settled on four thousand pounds. I was already back in the play from before the offer of joining the fire brigade!

I took up my old role again with renewed energy. I was needed here because the play wasn’t done. It occurs to me, as I write, that the multi-tasking of the service industry role play has its analogies with being in several play frames at once, but that’s also an aside! Later, when the play came indoors because it was just too cold for the remaining customer, the children set up bread crate tables and chairs, plus red paper napkins and menus, at the far end of the hall space. They said I was still required here. I said, when you’ve set up, because I was engaged in the play frame of the football table with another child. It was here that I needed to maintain this play’s existence, and be ‘in’ the play of the restaurant — even if just by distance for now — at the same time, without letting either play frame fold in because I’d ‘left it’.

These skills I see to be important to the relating playworker, and when we add into this mix the on-going in-the-moment thinking about what’s happening and why, and the after-the-event reflection, as well as the knowledge of previous play that has happened or play that might happen, by these children, on this playground, in this season, with these objects, there are plenty of layers to start to cause some fatigue of the mind as well as the fatigue of the feet (of which service industry personnel might well also experience!).

The moments of keeping things together, being part of one or more play frames, may only be some small part of an entire session, pockets of play that come and go: in between, though, there are other things to think and do . . .


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