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

It’s been a while since I’ve focused some writing on some playwork theory. It does raise the old question of how much does theory really influence practice (and maybe vice versa)? However, that’s a side point here and now. Every so often I start wondering again about my influence on and in the play. In the back of my head, I’m aware of the requisite requirement not to unduly affect the play. Increasingly, however, I find myself realising how I get drawn into the play by the children themselves. I do try not to take it over (because, after all, and as we know, it’s not about me). The fact is, though, sometimes the children actively encourage my play narrative co-creation of things. It’s a fine line sometimes between any form of ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, or maybe even slipping into ‘teaching’) and responding in playwork-approved ways.

Five girls in the group, these past few weeks (either in sub-groups of the whole, or en mass), have taken to actively drawing me into their repeated play narratives as soon as they see me out on the playground, often late in the day. The children range between the ages of 7-10 (or, as I think it as I write, seven getting on for whatever ‘precociously worldly wise’ amounts to). As I’ve touched on in recent writing, some of these children have repeated play frames, which they like to re-engage with on seeing me. The other day, the five girls surrounded me, and they all explained their play narrations at once (in the way that sometimes ‘you’ll do this, I’ll do that’ sort of play unwinds itself as a pre-play form of play in its own right). There was almost exactly repetitious play requested, forms of adaptations of previous play, and, unaccountably, the new introduction of Ninjas (who proceeded to demonstrate what Ninja-ing was all about as they hit and kicked me, laughing, and as they explained the play that was going to happen!)

I’m building up to the original enquiry of the fine line between playwork theory ‘adulteration’ and responding in playwork-approved ways. Bear with me. Sometimes, to be honest, responding to individual cues can be difficult enough (how to read the situation; how to judge between the right balance and blend of tone and response and joke and seriousness and so on, for any given child; what and when to say what might work for the child to keep that moment potentially precious). Responding in a likewise fashion to five children, all at once, with near enough five variations of narratives forming, whilst being Ninja attacked by two of them, is a different animal altogether! Eventually, probably more through luck than judgement, the narration of the play before the play, which is play in itself anyway, shifted into something that was more or less acceptable to all the children. I was involved, required, and drawn in.

Over the past few weeks, several areas of the playground have developed prison names. They’re becoming almost like short-term legend markers, as it were. I wonder if the names (or, in fact, the prisons themselves) will still be around come spring. When one of the children tells me (in the depth flow of the narration within the play narrative itself — yet another layer to their play), what each prison is called, I try to listen in carefully. I repeat what she says. On the one hand, I’m interested in this ‘naming of places’ business anyway; on the other hand, it seems essential to the play that I know these things. I’m told of the ‘air prison’, ‘the tree-house prison’, ‘the creepy prison’, ‘the mansion prison’, ‘the scary prison’ (and, recently, a new addition — put out there as a tester, I suspect, by one of the children — which may or may not re-emerge: ‘the dreadful prison’). One of the older girls in the group is fairly new to us. She’s taken on the narratives, absorbed them, re-played them, and adapted them. The prisons on the playground are co-created affairs over weeks.

When I’m required to be part of the play narratives that the girls play, if I don’t play ‘properly’ they tend to know. It’s basically a form of chase-tap, except the children stand around talking to me (in the narration that pre-empts the ‘play proper’, and which blends into the latter, and they tell me that ‘now I’m going to steal your watch/gold/wallet, etc.’ and then they keep standing there, with the stolen invisible goods held up, not running away!) How can I catch someone running away if they’re not running away?! This play is, essentially, morphing into not ‘chase-tap’ but ‘tap-prison-escape-repeat’. Sometimes, often in fact, the girls will tolerate the development of the narrative by myself. They take on board the things I say in the play, in passing, and they absorb them into the narrative (this is where ‘the air prison’ came from, being the idea of not being able to escape from a swing up in the air, after all).

Here’s the thing: it’s a fine line between some form of playwork ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, say) and responding in playwork-approved ways. Last week we ended up running away from the older girl (who morphed into the ‘cop’ suddenly) by flying to Brazil. The other girls buried their swag in the sandpit. In trying to connect this part of the narrative (if it needed it) with the unseen play of the ‘cop’ on the other side of the playground, or to keep it intact for the sandpit children, there may come a point where you drop all the balls, as it were. Being ‘in it’ might mean not necessarily seeing ‘all of it’.

The play across the playground had shifted condition. The older girl had created another narrative that didn’t involve us. This we discovered on going to investigate why the sand-buried swag wasn’t important any more. The sandpit girls were still accepting of me; the other children had lost interest in things over our way. I realised I’d been balancing the fine line and I made my excuses and drifted away. No ‘unwanted adult’ agitation had been caused, it would seem, I think: this time.

The next time I saw the children, variations of chase-tap, tap-prison-escape-repeat, narration-play narrative geared into action again. I write to remind myself: I write to think as I go about playwork theory’s impact on practice, and vice versa, and if those things that I thought might matter actually do still matter at all.

Last Thursday night saw the playground hosting a campfire evening for West London Zone’s link workers in White City. I estimated around sixty adults and children turned up (and, independently, so did they — so that tallies well!) The point of writing this introduction to this post is not so much to talk about the campfire evening (though this was a positive in itself), but to focus on the storytelling element that West London Zone were looking to embed into it, and from this, specifically, and as a jumping off point, the story that I told. Surrounded by a small group of pre-schoolers, or thereabouts that age, and a few parents, I told one of my favourites: Beowulf.

Now, it has to be said, Beowulf could be told with a fair amount of guts and gore! I let those around me know of my story plans, as a means of asking permission, and no-one objected, though admittedly I did rein the story in a little. There will be monsters and fights, I said beforehand. I tell Beowulf whenever I can because the meat of it I can remember well enough (stories told without the back up of books being held up have a different quality to those that are read from the page — which can work, but I tend to think these work best with certain forms of performance or in the privacy of one’s own head). I also tell the Beowulf story (though I can’t recite the original word for word!) because I find it has more ‘meat’ than the anodyne anaemia of many modern offerings.

Really, I can’t be doing with ‘Timmy Helps Mummy Do the Washing Up’, ‘Let’s All Share Our Toys’, ‘Khalid and Rupert Are Best Friends’, or ‘Last Place is Just a Different Type of Coming First’. OK, so I made those titles up, but you get the point.

I’ve written in this area before, but I like to come back to subject matters. Here and now though, there’s more to add in the thinking on stories handed down through time. I like to think I’ve played my part in handing Beowulf on and on. So often we know more about stories (which we’ve just vaguely heard of) in the form of a film or an X-Box game than we do of the original epic tales. However, here and now I’m thinking of the ‘meat’ of the Beowulf tale. That is to say, in critique, whilst I sneer at the insipid morality of titles like ‘Let’s All Share Our Toys’, and so on, maybe Beowulf’s morality punch can be seen as just as much a tool of the propaganda of its day.

‘Good’ fights ‘evil’: the archetypal staple of the stories of generations. Beowulf overcomes the tyrant monsters and dragons: though, looking closely, we see that the monsters and dragons are retaliating against the perceived wrong-doings of the Danes and Geats (modern Swedes). I’m guilty of perpetuating myths, just as the author of ‘Last Place is Just a Different Type of Coming First’ might also do. How much of this ‘archetypal propaganda’ permeates into the conscious realm of children as they grow? For now, I hope I’m dealing in constants of the human race but that I’m not causing damage in doing this (the ‘meat’, if we’re going to carry on down this line of metaphor, rather than the ‘weak gravy’ servings of ‘Timmy Helps Mummy Do the Washing Up’).

This is not a way of saying that storytelling should perpetuate the glorification of war. Rather, this is a way of saying that the archetypes we engage with throughout our lives are difficult to shake. They’re in us, in our stories. Should we try to eliminate them with the drivel of shelves upon shelves of ‘Let’s All Be Really Nice’ and the like?

When I tell stories that I’m making up with children, there’s nearly always no direction, no idea as to what the middle will be, let alone the ending, and the creature of the story evolves second by second: quite often there’ll be something like a giraffe getting flushed down the toilet, and some child will add something like how an elephant will get stuck down there too, and then a lion and a gorilla, and before you know it there’s an explosion, which’ll be messy, as you might expect! Or something like this. There won’t be morals when I make up stories with children (unless the children implant them themselves), and there won’t be any Timmy-ness helping well, or Rupert-ness sharing nicely. Sometimes, the occasion of a character turning inside-out might happen, or there could be farting, and if so it’ll probably be calamitous!

Telling Beowulf last week with a group of pre-schoolers, or thereabouts, also added something to the tale as it unfolded. King Hrothgar held his festivities in his great mead-hall, though they became parties, and the parties naturally then involved jelly and cake (as I was told!). In a way, this is right. Oral stories are transmitted from generation to generation, and sometimes new things may get added to the tale. Whilst trying to remain faithful to the version I had in my head, I rather liked the idea that King Hrothgar of the Danes had jelly and cake, and the monster, Grendel, didn’t much like this state of affairs!

What we do have to guard against, however, in the telling of the ‘meatier’ stories to children, despite the potential for transformation, as above, is the possibility that such tales of archetypal constants don’t get dumbed down. It may be a fine line between the playfulness of King Hrothgar’s jelly and cake and the eventual dissolving of such tales, a few hundred years (or fewer than this) from now, into ‘Beowulf Told the Naughty Grendel to Stop Being Bad, and Everyone was Very Nice to Each Other After That’.

It isn’t so binary, in reality, in choosing between states of telling ‘meatier’ tales and telling stories of ‘nice and blandness’. There are very many degrees in between (perhaps my made up stories of giraffes without meaningful middles, ends or directions fit in here). However, there’s definitely more collective thinking to be done in looking at what our stories are.

Playing with ‘the dead’

Last week some of the children found a dead pigeon on the playground. Well, to be honest, it was somewhat generous to give what was left the name of ‘pigeon’ because of the general carnage. A fox or a cat must have got it, I reckoned. I hadn’t seen it earlier, as I’d walked around the empty playground. When I’d got over to a couple of excitable children stood near the equally dead vestiges of the previous night’s bonfire, one of them was saying, ‘Look, there’s a leg, and over there’s the other leg, and a wing.’ That was about all that was left of the meat of it. There were feathers scattered at the burnt-out edge of the charcoal. Bits of bloodied sinew flopped from the dismembered legs.

I asked the children what they were going to do with it. They didn’t have a plan as yet. Some of their friends walked by outside the fence shortly before coming in, and the boys shouted out the find to them. They said they’d wait to show the others. I expected some sort of grave might be dug. Perhaps they might scoop out the middle of the charcoal of the previous night’s bonfire, deposit the bits of bird in there, and cover it over. I didn’t expect a solemn affair, though you never know. The playground has seen a few such graves or funerals over the years. Stories occasionally surface about such places or times. There was the bird that got a grave up on the slope behind the fire pit. There was the filmed funeral for some sort of creepy crawly behind the hammock swing, years ago (now, was it a butterfly or a caterpillar, a spider, or something else?). Stories of stories not experienced first hand can have a tendency to transform, if the teller isn’t careful. There was the grave dug for the ‘accidentally dropped’ phone, and there was the funeral procession for the cardboard box. There have been more.

Last week’s bird I expected to get a grave, but as far as I’m aware this didn’t happen. I sat back, at a distance I hoped was well enough out of the way. I was trying to observe, whilst another child asked me what it was I was doing: so I told her I thought that what they were doing was interesting. Why? she asked. I didn’t feel it proper to go into any level of analysis with her. As my focus returned fully to the episode of the bird at the burnt-out bonfire, I saw a boy come back to the scene waving a litter picker in the air. He was pulling and releasing the trigger over and over. I didn’t feel he’d be tidying up though. Sure enough, the dismembered wing was picked up in the litter picker and waved about. Then it was used to try to tease either the children on the nearby cantilever swing or my colleague who was pushing it. A saw came out but I couldn’t work out what the idea might be, and this was discarded again soon enough. After a short while, with no-one really being too disturbed by having a dismembered wing shoved close to their face on the end of a litter picker, the children tumbled off elsewhere, downing tools in the grass. The bird didn’t get its grave, I don’t think.

There is a certain fascination with dead things from certain children, just as there is a certain fascination with live things by those same or other children. The bird didn’t look too much like a bird by the time the children had found it, and I wonder if they had had any notion of the colossal scrap that must have happened for it to end up that way. Would that have made any difference to the way they’d played? I’m unsure what ‘dead’ means to children. It can be a difficult enough concept for many adults.

In the often abstract — though still somewhat symbolic — world of children’s play, ‘the dead’ is a motif that tends to come up time after time in various guises. It can be direct and it can be less so. After the bird-pickers had left the scene last week, and as I went up the slope to retrieve the discarded saw, a couple of girls who hadn’t been involved gravitated round me. We talked about how I wasn’t feeling well as of late and how I was finding it difficult to breathe and talk and do things. The conversation turned, morbidly enough, to something along the lines of ‘perhaps you’ll die’. It was matter-of-fact. What can you say to that? Short of getting all morose with them about the fate of all of us (sorry!), I just said, ‘Well, um, thanks mate, but don’t worry. I’m not going to die.’

‘Good,’ she told me. ‘I like you as a worker.’

‘What about as a person?’

‘Yes, that as well.’

I digress. ‘The dead’ was a direct conversation, though even so, it may be difficult to imagine what that actually means. Maybe this is why children play with such concepts in other ways. Maybe this is why they bury birds, or insects, or accidentally dropped phones, or bits of dismembered electrical equipment. Maybe this is why funerals for cardboard boxes happen.

The motif of ‘the dead’ emerges in other ways as well. These ways, however, somewhat side-step the whole point of what ‘dead’ is. Currently, children on the playground are playing variations of the classic chase-tap game (versions where playworkers are necessary as the chasers), but these variations include being hunted by werewolves, or vampires, or zombies, or combinations thereof. It’s the vestiges of Halloween’s shadow hanging around. Sometimes there are ghosts. These fantastical arrangements are all either of ‘the dead’ or ‘the undead’ or both. What ‘dead’ means though, let alone what ‘undead’ might mean, is side-stepped.

Children also cheat when they play these games: it’s part of the way to play, and it’s expected that they’ll do it anyway. When they get caught and ‘bitten’ by the vampire, they find a way to talk themselves out of it. Werewolves and zombies seem to fair no better. If there are guns or swords involved, children always seem invincible. The idea of ‘the dead’ is in and around these forms of play, but there’s always a way to cheat it. Invincibility (and perhaps the gift of the gab too) is a power, a mastery, taking control of things that would, otherwise, win.

I’ve seen plenty of play involving the motif of ‘the dead’: the teddy bear speared by a pole and soaked in red; the ‘dead’ electrical equipment spattered in red paint, having fallen from the bench; the chalk line outlines of people, arms out, one leg up at an angle, on the paving slabs; the effigy of ‘the silver man’ burnt on the bonfire (killing someone the children had, that day, been warned by school about); the ‘Charlie’ game involving contacting ‘Charlie’ with ‘pencils that move by themselves’ (Charlie’s name written in red on the fire escape door); the songs and stories of Bloody Mary told in quiet corners. There’s plenty wrapped up in all of this.

Graves for dismembered pigeons (or not, as the case may be), and other poor unfortunates, aren’t the be all and end all of play with the motif of ‘the dead’.

I have been sick for a while, and a consequence is that breathing, let alone thinking and writing, has been difficult! The things we take for granted when we don’t notice that they happen. The same can be said, I suppose, for all our interactions. As I’ve recovered a few brain cells as of late, I’ve had the gradual feeling that there’s an almost continuous ‘active’ aspect to my interactions with children. That is to say, whilst I don’t think I necessarily consciously go out of my way to be in a certain state when around them, there may be an unconscious me driving those interactions.

I like to think my conscious self is a natural me in my conversations, observations, and general being around the children I work with and for. That said, early on in this current illness it was noticeable how things didn’t seem to fit any more: maybe my unconscious drive had faltered. I became invisible in an unusual way, away from the playground and, being ill, I didn’t so much mind. Only when I stood in line at a cafe, a long way from home or work, one dull day (in the weather and in my head), did I start to realise such things: my attention was caught by the clearest, bluest eyes of a baby in a pushchair. Of course, the baby then became engrossed in my eye contact, and her mother said she (the baby) hardly ever looked at men this way. When she and the child left the cafe, I was sat at the door. The baby didn’t take her eyes off me as the mother pushed her out, smiling at me as she left.

I was no longer so invisible, but I was still unwell. On the playground the following week, my shortness of breath meant I needed to engage with my work in a slow way. I needed just to sit and observe to get my brain firing again, but also because doing all the things I’ve taken for granted was just too difficult. I was a walking zombie I was told. However, zombies are able to listen. I took up position in my various favourite observation spots: high enough to see as much as possible; hopefully unobtrusive enough not to seem like I was overtly spying. Every so often, one of the children would amble by. They’d say hello and sit down with me. They’d start conversations and, as I wasn’t much able to converse, I listened more. The various children told me significant insignificances (or vice versa) of their days or lives. New relations developed where, before, there weren’t really any to speak of. Other relations continued to strengthen.

I’ve always been confident that this relating is core to working with children. How often do they get the proverbial time of day from any given adult? It’s more than this though, more than a form of compensatory offer: children can and should be talked with on a level.

The usual me has been compromised these past few weeks: children I know well at the playground, and who in turn know me very well too, often come to me to repeat a conversation we had a few weeks back, in the same place that those conversations first took place, or to try to re-frame a particular instance of play. I suppose they do this because they enjoyed things the first time round, but there may be the level of wanting to re-engage with the adult of their choice because of the moment of that adult at that time. When the children come to me and want to repeat the storytelling about the Gorilla Thief or want to re-enact a scene of Cops and Thieves or want to replicate an instance of play in the netting, they don’t get what they fully want or need in my state of illness. At first, but briefly, they keep asking for the replications (albeit not entirely in a disbelieving of my illness, but in a wanting it not to be true kind of way). Shortly, something of the trust that’s been built over time kicks in: the children know I’m not lying to them.

The unconscious me must drive through all of this, but it must get damaged when I’m unwell. In such states, it’s difficult to think a straight line through and seeing what you’re seeing isn’t so easy either. Hopefully now though, the curve is an upward one. When we start to truly see again, we can think, and we can come back to ourselves.

This week we held a street playday and my observations of the play, in the general swill of all the things that were happening, brought me a little closer back to my unconscious self. My physical self is still unwell, but I smiled to see a small child kicking an empty tin can around, a boy tie himself to a lamp-post with a rope, an older boy with autism laughing as he smeared himself in what looked like shaving foam, a child walking around with a cardboard box on his head, a girl doing cartwheels and handstands, a baby playing with a potato masher, and so on.

What we may take for granted are things such as we will always engage with or be enlightened by the observations of play; we will be able to relate, in words and otherwise, with the children we find around us; we will be fit enough to carry around the resources for the opportunities for play; we will be able to think sharply and talk clearly and well on what usually inspires us. In varying degrees of reductions of these, like swills of sugar solutions, I find that writing helps.

Words start to come back within an illness that won’t fully shift. Observations of play fold in, thoughts on these wander by. Slowly, slowly, the unconscious self seems to be reforming, such is the feeling that the repair of the conscious self seems to conclude.

Connecting stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unwordedness of affect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play and language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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