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

The art of skipping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Knabb, 1995, citing Debord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swearing’s messy maze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In deepest Kent last weekend, a long way from home, and a year on from my last time there, I was greeted by a girl of about seven or eight with a line that was a story. I’d met her last year, out wild camping as we all were, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, near the clearing where all the families and their children were. It was a small event, and I was there to support the children’s opportunities to play. The greeting the girl gave me was something along the lines of: ‘Hi. What’s the biggest thing in the world? The solar system.’ On its own, this doesn’t make much sense. In context, the story is this:

Last year, in the forest (and beyond the wardrobe we’d set up as an entrance into the children’s own place), I sat with this girl and some other children as they variously pottered with bits and pieces of things we’d brought, and as they rubbed face paint into one another’s skins, as we made up stories and asked and answered questions with one another, and I said ‘What’s the biggest thing in the world?’, to which she’d replied that it was the solar system. This year, when she came over to us as we were setting up, in a different part of the forest, as the other children played on the rope swings and planks that were already there, getting good and dusty in the pit and on the mounds, the girl said hello by remembering a conversation we’d had from a full twelve months ago. It took me a few seconds to comprehend what she was saying to me at first. I looked at her, thinking that I recognised her face though I couldn’t remember her name, and then the whole sitting around of last year came back to me in an instant.

I spent the day feeling somewhat humbled and privileged that that play of words had stayed with that child, and that my face had reignited that memory for her. It’s made me think. Twelve months have gone by and time has passed but, so it seems, that hasn’t mattered at all: play just picked up where it was left off. I’ve found this often happens in the short term, but to find it spread here over a year, in interaction with a child I hardly know, is unusual. Children I know well (those I work with or family children) have been seen to return to certain play over months, or over longer periods, but this girl’s greeting line struck me as something special in other ways: what it’s opened up in my mind, not for the first time, but here in a very concentrated way, is the potential significance that adults might have in the play memories of children. That, in itself, is a responsibility.

Plenty of adults may well think that children aren’t so very present and nothing remains into adulthood (why would those adults seek to control or belittle the children if that weren’t the case?); however, if we all look back into our own childhoods, they may well be punctuated, or threaded through, with significant moments of adult presence. I’ve often had fellow adults approach me in the street, greeting me, telling me that they were one of the children I used to work with twenty or twenty-five years ago or so, and it strikes an odd chord in me to meet them because I still remember them as they were. I thought, on those occasions, of that younger me, and I skim over the responsibility of that ‘him’ in his affects on them. Now, I’m growing ever more aware of the possible affect of this present me on these present children I encounter in my day to days.

This is a huge responsibility: for me and for all of us who work with and for children. I need to pause for a short while to let that sink in for myself, let alone for the reader who might also be in a similar working situation . . . what we do as adults may well stay with the child. All the work we do that we think is of ‘great importance in its grand sweep’ may not be so important — the little moments may last longer, and stronger, and brighter. So, when a girl I meet only for the second short time, by a clearing in deepest Kent, briefly repeats a line that holds a whole story of play we shared some twelve months earlier, I feel the possible weight of its moment.

It encourages me to think again about treading carefully, especially with regards to the times when I know I’ve failed to do this for whatever reason. It tells me that the moments I might just pass off as things passing by, might be loaded already with the potential to remain: times stick, or graze, or mark, and we have a great responsibility for recognising our subtle impact of interaction with the children that we’re with.

When I think on this, I start to uncover other ways that this mark-making takes place. Last week, during half term open access on the playground in London, two brief but significant moments caught my attention in this respect. A girl of about nine or ten was lightly irritated by the older boys who were spraying water from the hose around. This had happened earlier in the year and, that time, I remember, between us we concocted the plan to turn the tap off, and this developed into her spending twenty minutes or so turning the tap on and off until the boys got the message about not spraying her and everyone else. Last week, and this is my suspicion though I can’t prove it, she caught my eye as the boys sprayed the water, and the glint in hers was evident, and we said nothing, and she turned the tap off and on again, off and on again . . .

Also last week, again with an interpretation that can’t be proved and must be taken on faith, an older boy returned to the playground after a year or so away, after a colleague’s gradual discussions with his father, after the boy had had a bad experience with another older lad that long way back, and it was good to see him again, and I didn’t recognise him at first with his hood up, standing under the shutter out of the rain, and he nodded and said, ‘Dooku’, and it was all about this for me: him being the only one to call me that, it’s his name, his creation for me, it’s one way of him returning to the playground, to this place that he left a year or so ago, picking up the pieces of the play that he was forced away from by the other boy’s attack.

These instances were all significant: the boy in the hood who nodded my given name, the girl with the glint in her eye and the plan repeated from months gone by, the girl camping with the line from a year ago she used to say hello. We have responsibility as adults because we can affect children subtly and cause what remains in them, but as I think on here, the children also affect the adult who sees and feels that responsibility and privilege. Times stick, or graze, or mark us all.
 
 

Play just is

I really am growing very tired of the constant over-emphasis, in the proclamations of adults in general, that ‘play aids children’s learning’, or variations on the theme (‘play reduces obesity’, ‘play aids social skills’, ‘play teaches children right from wrong’, and so on). What is consistently missed in all this ‘be a better person’ rhetoric is the whole experience of being a child. If, firstly, in the case of playwork (though not too overwhelmed by the above notions), the sector takes pride (and yes, pride before a fall) in being ‘the only adults in the children’s workforce who try to see things from the child’s perspective’ (as I was taught), then there should be a lot more discussion on ‘trying to see things from the child’s perspective’ going on.

The playwork sector aside, I sometimes find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact that children’s play is their play and that those children do it, by and large, because they want to, because such and such is there to spark off that play, because it’s just what needs to be done, there and then, because . . . well, just because — or because (as children have often insinuated or directly pointed out to me), ‘because, I don’t know why.’

I’ve been in this writing area many times before, but the message just keeps coming back and demanding to be repeated. Sure, and I say this often in deference to those who tell me that children learn things in their play, sure they learn stuff, as a kind of by-product, and sure they can look back on experiences and find that they do things differently or modify their expressions or ways of being because of what’s already taken place (in their play), but here’s the point: from the child’s perspective, play is something to be engaged in just because (not because of any adult-designed outcome). Play just is.

When you were six or seven, maybe, did you start your play with definite outcomes in mind? That is, say, ‘by the end of this session I will have understood how to adequately make use of gross motor skills in order to balance on this railing without knocking my teeth out’, or ‘I will have successfully developed the ability to share so that my friend won’t end up screaming that I’ve taken all his cards’. You might well have had some vague abstract aim of not knocking your teeth out, or not being the cause of a commotion, but these were no doubt all part of the trial and error of the moment. You didn’t get any certificates or awards or pats on the head from approving adults for the play that was your play. If you did or didn’t knock your teeth out, or if you did or didn’t cause a commotion, sure you may have learned stuff, but you didn’t go into that play with the targeted aim of ascertaining that outcome of learning something. If it was your play, you did it just because. You might have gone into your play with the aim of beating your own world record of batting a ball against a wall, balancing along a railing without falling off, or riding your bike around in circles, for as long as possible without stopping, and before your legs turned to jelly, but you did all that just because.

There has been plenty written on the importance of play in terms of its evolutionary, neurological, physical, sociological, psychological, and so on benefits, and these outward-looking-in perspectives are appreciated. However, these are all adult researcher constructs. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff around in the literature on play theory, playwork theory, healthiness and well-being, psychology and psychoanalysis, child development, even zoological study and animal behaviourism. Where is the depth of literature that records what play is (as opposed to what it’s for, or what it’s good for) to the real experts on the subject? We’ve all been children, and so we’ve all been experts (past tense). Now, the real experts’ perspectives are under-represented.

There are studies that have taken on board what children say about their play: the what and the how and the where. There are not enough though to adequately affect the dominant political-media presentation (thus influencing the broad sweep of socio-cultural opinion) on what play is. Instead we have a skewed view that play is only good for certain things: for supplementing the ‘learning and acceptable morals’ diet fed to children through early education, schools, youth provision, and through the socialisation tactics of the government; for reduction of pressure on the national health system, ultimately resulting in economic benefits for government coffers, via the obesity agenda; for containment and moulding of acceptable opinion, ways of being and behaving, suppression of traits likely to result in mass conflict aimed at the ruling minority. Call me cynical, but there’s an argument to say that ‘play’ is moderated by the puppet-masters who wish to engineer a certain society that’s beneficial to a certain few.

I digress. Play is used to help mould the individual and the collective. There is a counter-argument to suggest that the activist for play (for play’s sake) is also looking to engineer a society into a certain form. This is, however, viewed from the play activist’s screen as acceptable, because the message is not ‘let them be how I contain them to be’ but rather ‘let them be.’ From the children’s perspective, if given fair representation to express their views, wouldn’t they also express their views on their play, by and large, in similar terms? Let us be. Let it be. Play just is.

There are difficulties in gaining children’s perspectives on play: sure, they have the right to express their opinions (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12) and the right to play (Article 31) — though really, does the UK government actually take these seriously? — but asking children about their play might mean, essentially, disrupting that very play to ask them about it. Even if we think we’re working ethically enough and not disrupting that play, we can make mistakes. I recently made the assumption that I was on even ground with a couple of children I was working with: we were sat around talking, and they were talking about play in a way that I assumed was OK for me to say something to the effect of, ‘Play happens all the time, right?’ It was, on reflection, a moral imposition. They looked at me and one said, ‘Er, no. There’s school, and home, and going to school, and . . .’ What I understood from her was that play was very much parcelled up for her into ‘allowable time’, but also that even here in this assumed-to-be even ground, I’d overstepped the mark and trodden on the talking play that was happening.

We can get children’s views and opinions, but we just have to be careful about the how of doing that. When we’ve worked out how to do that, we’re in a good position to get the (non-token) views of these experts: this is what’s largely missing from all the talk on play out there. There is some opinion from those who matter most — stay focused, the children! — in the written literature, and there’s more in the anecdotal material that potentially floods every playground (though often this is either missed, or not recorded, or not fully registered, or stored in memories that need to be tapped); however, this material isn’t yet flooding the national socio-political consciousness.

I’m confident, from anecdotal collection, observation- and personal- experience, when I say that, by and large, for children play just is. This is a simple message at the end of a lengthy post. I find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact of it. We should, I suggest, all try seeing things from children’s perspectives more: we might be surprised at what we find.
 
 

As unanimously expressed by playworkers who I have so far read, or heard, to relay an opinion, last Friday’s media declaration of the UK general election results was somewhat sobering: five more years of Conservative (Tory) rule. (Is it even possible to call oneself a playworker if you vote Tory? No-one I’ve come across in various playworker circles has yet put a Tory head above the parapet). I dislike the popular media rhetoric of a governing party that ‘rules’ or, as it’s often framed, the party ‘in power’, but ‘ruling’ is what it feels like will come about. This doesn’t sit easily with the way I like to live my personal and playwork lives. Friday’s media declaration was somewhat sobering.

The Tory perspective on children seems to me to be, by and large, one of ‘those who shall be educated, civilised, made into future economic units capable of sustaining the capitalist mantra of work hard, work harder, make money, every man, or woman, for themselves’. Although the late but eminent Professor Brian Sutton-Smith stated that the opposite of play is not work, but rather it’s depression (which is a stance that is appreciated), the ‘hard-working’ sound-bite ethic is detrimental to the natural elegance of play. (Where, incidentally, is the dividing line between someone who is ‘working’ and another who is ‘hard-working? I’m left somewhat anaemic, as it were, by the constant ‘hard-working’ rhetoric to fall from politicians’ mouths these past weeks).

There is a saving grace to be had though, and this is the start point in the thinking for this piece today (anathema to the Tory ideal): play has been a part of the natural flow of the world for far, far longer than Tory capitalism and material self-interest has been . . . and it will out-last them too.

In opposition to play, I had been feeling a little depressed (not, and very far from, in clinical terms, but rather in the manner of being pressed upon). Now where did I read of the exaltation of walking? It is something I’ve done for a long time: walk and be in the world. There is, you’ll find out, play out there. Here are themes I return to: that is to say, play is in the now, in the being and in the being here; play is part of the world and, in this respect, is not just of children. I walk because it helps me re-ground, re-live, but also because it helps me to think (even if I’m not consciously mapping out all the Xs and Ys of things to work through).

Something I’ve been background thinking about for a while, ‘out there’, whenever walking in the world that plays, is what would the places that we live in look like if we were to map them just by their trees? The place where I live is full of trees. When we really look at the things we’ve always taken for granted, we start to see in different ways. I walked out of town and along the river, south of all the buildings. There was copper-coloured bark, and there were trees that had been there far, far longer than anyone could really say. I sat at the edge of the shallow, narrow, slow-moving water, near to where a few birds played beneath and around a stone bridge (even man-made creations can add to the scene). The birds did play. There were two small ones (I have no idea what they were, but they moved fast and turned at impossible speeds). I watched as they skipped a few feet from the water’s surface: they flapped then dipped, flapped up, then dipped, zipped up then sheered around — all of this in erratic and totally non-efficient movements. They didn’t seem to be looking for food, or escaping from anything, or even undertaking elaborate mating dances: they seemed to be wasting their energies just because they could fly.

Of course, this is an interpretation, but I watched one of the birds (who was alone for a good five or ten minutes), and it did all the same movements over and around, and up and down, and round and round, never getting too far away, before suddenly turning hard in mid-air to dive-bomb underneath the bridge. Up again, and the whole thing repeated. Wouldn’t you do that too if you had wings?!

Up on the top of the hill, where the old Iron Age fort used to be, the start of this place way and far, far back, there is a clump of trees. The old earthworks are still heaped around the mid-drift of the site, but the wooden defences are long gone, and these trees are not the trees that used to be here, though they might as well be. I sat and just tried to listen. I write it like this because it is how it was, but I was pleased to later find, in synchronicity and serendipity, that my virtual world was offered this insight into some of the thinking of the writer Hermann Hesse (thank you Syl!):

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

Hermann Hesse, Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte
 
You old hippy, I can just hear some readers saying (though I know others are smiling!). I tried to listen to the trees, though they don’t speak in words we can lay down easily. Nevertheless, the trees — in their time, in their just-being-here-ness, in their just-looking-out-ness — had the play of the world in them, as did the birds and the bugs above the water, as did the shallow, narrow, slow-moving river, as did the day, the afternoon beyond the buildings: across the grasses and fields, and across the weeds and the late spring flowers, and into the middle distance trees, there are more greens in one place than we can ever really drop colours into our seeing minds . . .

This is all ‘walking and sitting and seeing and being’ therapy. We can move from positions of sobriety of spirit, of feeling pressed upon, to those of faith: we need only the time and space to walk (or to go out and find where we can walk), to see and to listen. We can know we’re not bound by the ethic of work yourself dry in ever depleting circles, attempting enforced attainment of future ‘economic unit’ status. We can see the play of the world, and we can know that it has been here far, far longer than the rhetorics of material greed and power, and that it will out-last all of this . . .

On the playground, I see children spinning slowly on the roundabout, looking up into the sky, and I don’t disturb them . . .

One day, we can hope that a Tory might get released into the wild: an epiphany could happen . . . or he or she might spend their breaths, by means and ways, trying to straighten up the trees, trying to fix the futures of their days.
 
 

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