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

It is with some degree of frustration that someone of a playworking disposition regularly hears the ‘frivolity, or incidental nature, of play’ rhetoric, inherent in various communication. It’s not only in conversation with others that this perception takes place, but it can — in part — be traced within the play literature too. More specifically, in this latter context, and although the current reading matter in question is pro-play (it’s conversant with the idea that more is going on than may meet the eye), play can still have the tendency to be written in terms of contrasting the opinion of play as ‘the not real’ with ‘the real world’. Although not lining up squarely with the idea of ‘the frivolous’, this unreal aspect can be seen as just as ‘throwaway’.

The starting point for this post’s writing (notwithstanding the general years-long ‘unreal/real’ contention having continued to be a background concern) is another of the regularly-cited offerings of play and playwork writers: Catherine Garvey’s simply titled Play (originally published 1977; second edition 1991). In this book, Garvey posits the oft-cited five characteristics of play, these being: its pleasurable nature; that it has no extrinsic goals; its spontaneity; an involvement of active engagement; its systematic relations to what is not play (Garvey, 1991: 4). It is not, however, these characteristics, directly, that I’m looking to draw attention to with this post: it is to the idea of ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ play that this post writing is concerned.

In a chapter entitled ‘Play with Social Materials’, Garvey (1991: 82) asks ‘What is make-believe?’ and she goes on to interchange this phrase with ‘pretending’, defining it as a ‘voluntary transformation’. Further in to this chapter, she writes:

‘. . . in the social conduct of pretending we can see the extent to which children conceive of the family as a system of relationships and as a complex of reciprocal actions and attitudes. Since make-believe enactments and themes reflect the child’s notions of his world (though they do not copy them exactly), this aspect of play can provide a rich field for students and observers of social development.’

— Garvey (1991: 99)

Though there is the hint, in this paragraph, towards something not altogether faithfully and accurately reproduced in the children’s play imitations of adults’ actions, there is still the dominant rhetoric of ‘play as practice’, as perceived, or ‘play as progress’. What if we were to take an entirely different angle? What if we were not to carry on referring to play as something ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’, unreal and essentially imitative? What if we stopped making such sharp contrasts between what we regularly suggest as ‘the real world’ and ‘the unreal world of play’? So then, what if we were to start seeing play as the real world, or a real world, in its own right? (By extension, and just as a thought exercise, which I won’t follow up here due to the scope of this writing, what if play were to be seen, routinely, as ‘the real’ and everything else — if we could make such a distinction — were a pale shadow?).

Before following the line of thought on ‘play as a real world in its own right’, a note of caution regarding culture as a perceived, and as a received, phenomenon: children are active participants and a part of any given culture and will assimilate the received dominant phrases and sometimes meanings of others, including adults, in their reflection of and addition to that culture — whether a child is using an adult concept in description of their own play, or whether it’s a phrase of the subculture of the child-world, it’s hard to say, but they can and do use words such as ‘pretend’ (where does a word or a meaning start?). To illustrate the point, I highlight here a study (Sandberg, 2002) referred to by Lester and Russell (2008: 215) ‘regarding teacher intervention in children’s play in Swedish preschool and after school settings’. Children’s opinions are sought and some are quoted as saying that teachers ‘cannot play pretend games’ (Lester and Russell, 2008: 216).

It is to the idea of culture-as-perceived, rather than to culture-as-received (notwithstanding the reality that culture is not a one-way street of adult to child), as is potentially the case with the Swedish study above, that the playworking attitude is drawn: play is a real world in its own right, though operating simultaneously and inextricably connected with other ‘real worlds’. It is perceived here, and experienced by children, as real not pretend (even if potentially received adult descriptive terminology leaks in). The Garvey position quoted above does have its antithesis in the play and playwork literature; however, first a small spread of more play versus ‘the real world’ positions.

Lester and Russell (2008: 41), referring to how ‘play provides children with a dimension that is unique and not replicable in other aspects of their lives’, cite Bailey (2002):

‘. . . play is a way of experimenting with possible feelings and possible identities without risking the real biological or social consequences. Cut! Time for tea, time to go home — and nothing in the real world has changed, except perhaps that the child is not quite the same person . . .’

(Bold text: my emphasis).

In referring to an experiment conducted by Sylva (1976) on play, object manipulation and problem solving, Garvey (1991: 51) writes that ‘. . . those children who displayed nonliteral [sic] or imaginative behaviour prior to the task were the best problem solvers.’

I read the ‘non-literal’ here as referring to play/the unreal, and ‘the task’ as referring to the perceived-as-real world. Garvey later continues, in terms of play with language:

‘[Children] use outrageous names, juxtapose improbable elements, invent unlikely events, retaining just enough sense of the real world to hold the fabrication together.’

— Garvey (1991: 71)

What is this ‘real world’ that these writers keep referring to? There is a connect in how people talk about play too: still there seems to be a preoccupation with play-as-practice, play-as-unreal, play in terms of developmental progress towards being able to perform tasks in ‘the real world’; there is a distinction between ‘this is time to play’ and ‘this is time to learn, do chores, engage in any other real-world situation’. There is, however, an antithesis to the unreal/real rhetoric buried within the literature.

Sutton-Smith (1997) writes on ‘child phantasmagoria’ — which he later elucidates by way of ‘I use it [the phrase] to imply a bunch of incredible rubbish such as a wild mixture of irrealities, etc.’ (Sutton-Smith, 2008) — and, notwithstanding the use of the word ‘irreality’ (with its ‘illusory’ context, though it is a step up on ‘unreal’), he states that:

‘Children’s play fantasies are not meant only to replicate the world, nor to be only its therapy; they are meant to fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’

— Sutton-Smith (1997: 158)

Play is another world: it isn’t an ‘unreal’ world (though, Sutton-Smith contends that it is an ‘irreal’ world), it is another whole world that sits along with the mundane world. I would go further and say that play is a world that is inextricable from the mundane. Within the scope of this post though, play is a real world in its own right.

Sutton-Smith (1997: 166) goes on to suggest that ‘children’s own play society, because it is about their feelings about reality and not about direct representation of reality as such, is a deconstruction of that realistic society.’

Whilst this ‘deconstruction’ perspective is a welcome relief from the ‘reconstruction’ rhetoric that tends to dominate, it still doesn’t totally tally with the culture-as-perceived, as I see it. To this end, we need to steer towards another stalwart of play and playwork literature: Johan Huizinga. To reach him, however, a quick detour back to Garvey (1991: 56), who writes that ‘play generally reflects a willing suspension of disbelief’ (original emphasis). I read this as the idea that there is a knowledge in the child of what is happening in the play (the ‘unreal’ in adult-speak), which can’t possibly happen ‘for real’/in ‘the real world’.

Is this the case? Is it true that there’s such a stark differentiation between ‘what is play’ and ‘what is not’ (what is ‘unreal’ and what is ‘real’) in the playing child’s thinking? Yes, cultural appropriation of words such as ‘pretend’ filter through child-culture, but if you’ve ever seen a child talking in what adults think of as gibberish with another child then you might appreciate the sophistication of mutual understanding which is both ‘pretend’ and ‘not pretend’. (I once spent a good part of an afternoon with a group of younger primary school children at play, communicating only in the language of ‘monkey’, and we all seemed to understand each other perfectly well enough).

So to Huizinga, whose writing on play and being I come back to time and again. Notwithstanding the use of the outdated word ‘savage’, Huizinga (1955: 25) writes: ‘In his magic dance the savage is a kangaroo’.

It is in the area of religion and belief that Huizinga writes here. If faith is real to the believer, it’s not too far a leap to see that play is real to the player. Huizinga goes on to state that: ‘We express the relationship between him [the savage] and the animal he ‘identifies’ himself with as a ‘being’ for him but a ‘playing’ for us. He has taken on the ‘essence’ of the kangaroo, say we. The savage, however, knows nothing of the conceptual distinctions between ‘being’ and ‘playing’; he knows nothing of ‘identity’, ‘image’ or ‘symbol’.’ (ibid).

He is the kangaroo. It’s real: or, at least, in this perception as I describe it, it’s real. It is, therefore, to this idea of perceiving what children do, perceiving them at play, in terms of perceiving not an ‘unreal world’ or a frivolous act, but a very real world, ‘another world’, a possible phantasmagoria in its own right, that I draw attention. Children might well attach adult-appropriated words in describing acts of their own devising, but ‘pretend’ is also real. It just takes a shift in stance to see it.
 
 
References:

Bailey, R. (2002), Playing social chess: children’s play and social intelligence. Early Years, 22(2): 163-173. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.

Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.

Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston, MA: The Beacon Press.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.

Sandberg, A. (2002), Children’s concepts of teachers’ ways of relating to play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 27(4): 18-23. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sutton-Smith, B. (2008), Communication with Fraser Brown in UKplayworkers (chatroom): the virtual community for playworkers. Digest Number 2562 2a [online]. Defunct.

Sylva, K. (1976), Play and learning in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Heinemann. Cited in Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.
 
 

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On approaches to play

Having recently completed some study on a psychotherapist’s perspective on- and engagement with- play, and having written a piece for a journal on what I discovered, my production editor contacted me to ask me to firm up one of my references. I’d fallen into the trap of quoting a well-worn offering, familiar to many play and playwork readers, and I’d not pinpointed the page of the original text, needing to flesh out my secondary reference. These oversights, because of the often-used quote, led me on a bit of an academic hunt which, in the fullness of time, has led me to the impetus to write today (ultimately — we’ll get there soon enough) on ‘play and learning’.

The page number I was asked to provide, and which I needed to trace, was for our old friend, the psychologist Mr. Jerome S. Bruner. It’s for the quote that goes:

‘Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity.’

— Bruner (1977: v)

It was the (v), or page five, of Bruner’s writing in the introduction of Tizard and Harvey’s (1977) The biology of play that I was looking for. Not being able to lay my hands on a copy of the Tizard and Harvey book, I had to source a copy of Janet R. Moyles’ (1989) Just playing?. This book, the author of which is an educationalist, is the one that’s referenced, regarding the Bruner quote, in the National Playing Fields Association’s (2000) Best play. There’s a trail that needed following here, and the secondary reference was the closest I could get. There though, in Moyles, was the all-important page number. (Here it is above, for anyone who may also be looking for it).

Linking to all of this, I’d just come back from a gathering of play, playwork and playworking (that is, as I define it, relating to the ‘attitude’) types in Bristol: playworkers and non-playworkers alike. One of the messages that seemed to strike a chord with a fair few people, from the conversations that took place, was a need for us (playwork people) to connect with our ‘allies’ who aren’t necessarily in the playwork field. I don’t take this as a call to battle, but as a call to realise that there are or may be crossovers in the great Venn diagram of common causes of those who work with, for, in support of, for the needs of, etc., children.

So, having just delved deeply into the writing of a psychotherapist in her perspectives on play, I thought it high time I actually read Moyles’ book: Moyles being described in the biographical notes as a Professor of Education. I think it’s fair to say that, if we (playworkers) stand back for a few moments, really stand back, we might just see ourselves as a group of relatively right-on lefties, eschewing everything that’s deemed ‘normal’ in society because the recalcitrance of play is the ‘real normal’ which no-one else but us and children can see. We pride ourselves on occupying a special place, and some espouse the thinking that our goal should be to work to a point that we’re no longer needed, to do ourselves out of work (I never fully bought into that, but I can appreciate the sentiment). If we stand back for a few moments, really stand back, who are we trying to kid? Do we need to climb out of our bubbles?

In Bristol, when talking about young men disaffected and disillusioned by unemployment in the Midlands, Simon Rix said a few words in particular that have just stuck with me: ‘What am I for?’ This can be taken, as I write, in the context of those young disillusioned men in their community, in the context of the playworker in reflection on themselves, and in the context of sewing up the threads of this post so far (Bruner’s play as an approach to action, the suggestion of connecting with non-playwork allies on thinking about play, reading on play in terms of psychotherapy and education) . . . ‘What is play for?’

Here I am in my thinking. When we read a work of fiction, we have to try to disconnect from our view of the world as we know it (that whole suspension of disbelief mechanism that must prevail if we’re to fully immerse ourselves in that fiction). To a certain extent, I suppose, we also have to do this when reading academic texts which, on the face of it, don’t tally neatly with our own worldviews. There can come a point, however, when that whole fragile suspension starts to fracture. For me, this came about around page 56 or so of Moyles’ Just playing?.

She’s writing from a specific perspective, the educationalist, it must be kept in mind, and she seems to have a genuine desire for the educational well-being of the children she writes about, but . . . poor play in this book: it’s nothing but a means to an end. I haven’t ever seen ‘play as process’ as meaning something akin to ‘steps in order to achieve a goal’ before, as is apparently proper to the dictionary definitions, as this book seems to define it (despite Moyles’ championing of ‘free play’ — whatever that is, because I do wonder if play is only play when it’s ‘free’, as opposed to Moyles’ teacher-conceptualised ‘directed play’, which surely can’t be seen as ‘play’, really, can it? Those right-on leftie playworkers are getting all purist again!). Poor play is a means to an end here and my suspension of the playworker worldview kind of fractured at or about the following point, in which Moyles writes (in relation to children solving problems through play):

‘Vandenberg (1986) sees children’s play as a potentially valuable natural resource that can be used to develop creative individuals who will be the source of technological innovation so necessary for our economic survival, suggesting the use of children’s play as the foundation for meeting society’s future demands . . .’

— Moyles (1989: 56)

I read on, nevertheless, though I was troubled and, twenty pages or so later, my faith in allies was wavering more with the following (in relation to children and creativity):

‘Pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have is essential if learning within the school context is to be appropriately tailored to children’s development and needs.’

— Moyles (1989: 77)

My discomfort lies in the feel of soft and hard control, depending on the circumstances, perceived as inherent in the act of teaching, as described. Yes, there are some damn fine teachers out there, I’m sure — standard caveat — teachers who care and are good at what they do and who are loved by the children they teach; however, this writing is rather geared towards the ‘use of play’, the idea, than the individual who attempts to slot it into their metaphorical toolkit.

I’m not sure how much people believe me, or hear me, when I repeat my thinking that learning has a habit of coming from play, sure, but that children, by and large, don’t go into their play specifically to learn. Children might go into their play ‘just to play’, to ‘muck about’, to ‘cock about’, to ‘be daft’, to ‘get away from stuff’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘go mad’, or any number of reasons, including to ‘find out’. There is, however, a qualitative difference, I suggest, between ‘finding out’ and ‘learning’, in the context of everything above: one is self-initiated, self-motivated; the other is imposed, albeit potentially or actually with good intentions. Children might find out stuff via their play, but they do it on their own terms. The idea of ‘using play’ in ‘pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have’ is a little troublesome.

Notwithstanding anything else that Bruner may or may not have thought and written, and taking his often-quoted line initially at face value, play is an approach to action, not a form of activity. What is play for? Play is for now — Kilvington and Wood (2010) read Bruner’s line as ‘it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that makes it play’, and it is to this interpretation rather than Moyles’ presumed connection of ‘approach’ with process towards a goal/product — ‘play must be viewed as a process’ (Moyles, 1989: 11) — that I gravitate.

When I teach (adults) in the on-going pursuit of ways of seeing play, I don’t now go out to deny that learning can come of that play. I’m comfortable with the idea that here are resources, here is ‘play stuff’, and what comes of it is what the children make of it, and what comes of it may be something they didn’t know before. Children’s ‘needs’ aren’t, however, necessarily always those that adults think they are. Children may well not go into their play with the thinking that adults suppose they should have (‘caring and sharing’, for example), and they don’t necessarily have the will to be impressed upon by what adults consider important learning opportunities.

At home recently, Princess K. and Viking Boy have had sudden urges to work out how to make and shoot longbows from flexing stripped-off branches and lengths of elastic, with thin garden cane as arrows; they’ve wanted to talk about tsunamis and earthquakes, and make ‘how to’ lists of their own devising for paper maché and squeezing orange juice. This playworking me has only provided the spark, unintentionally, for some pieces of this, pre-planning none of these experiences, trying to read the unfolding situation, staying in or stepping out of the way, as needed (sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding): working with play, not perceiving it as ‘using play’.

I am mindful here of the isolationist, holier-than-thou stance that a group of playworkers, or a playworker, or those of a playworking disposition can be seen to operate with (though I also read the same in Moyles’ treatment of the perceived-as necessariness of an educationalist). There may well be ‘allies’ in other related fields, but we shall have to agree to meet more in the middle (or, at least, get as far as possible into individual examples of one another’s respective literature bases first, before the suspension of disbelief fractures). Is the literature of playworkers wide enough? Likewise, is there enough breadth in the literature of the educationists, the psychotherapists . . .? How much crossover is, or should there, be?

(The study and discussion on) play is an (on-going) approach to action.
 
 
References:

Bruner, J. S. (1977), Introduction, in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Spastics International Medical Publications. Cited in Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 11). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork: for all who work with children (p. 18). London: Continuum.

Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

National Playing Fields Association (NPFA) (2000), Best play: what play provision should do for children (p. 6). London: NPFA.

Vandenberg, B. (1986), Mere child’s play, in Blanchard, K. (Ed.), The many faces of play. The Association of the Anthropological Study of Play, Vol. 9. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics. Cited in: Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 56). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
 
 

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Parachuting playworkers and parents
There are many, many ways for a parachute to benefit the play. There are also many ways for the adults near the parachute to benefit (or not) the play as well. The large colourful affair was a standard piece of our kit wherever we went this summer: in the parks and halls of the villages, at the festivals, at the youth pavilion. Sometimes the play naturally morphed into the standard set of parachute games (it sometimes feels like the set list of a gig: not that it’s a lack of imagination on the part of the playworkers, it’s just that the children seem to want/know the same games). Sometimes, at certain sites, the parachute has good times to be brought out, something different, something new (the wind can bring this thinking on, or it can be flapped to say ‘this is a playable place’). On some occasions it was good to see parents come over, pick up the edge of the parachute when they saw something starting to happen, and go with the flow as children ran underneath or around it. It’s entirely possible for a group of disparate adults who’ve never met each other before to fall into an organic and co-operative motion and knowledge of what’s happening and why. The why is the children’s play.

There is the opposite too, of course. One day, we’d laid the parachute out at the widest part of the playable area at a festival (nominally the entrance to the children’s dedicated enclosed area, though it was right in front of the chemical toilets, which wasn’t ideal!). Nothing organised was happening, and it was fine. A woman came over though, quite forcibly, and she picked up the parachute and proceded to instruct a child to play. The child went with it, and he didn’t seem too perturbed (perhaps he was used to it). Some of the playworkers came over to hold the parachute too, in support, though we said nothing. The woman was irritating me a little, I admit, but the child was playing, and it became his play, of sorts, so I didn’t intervene. After ten minutes or so, the woman decided that the play was done. Off she went with her child. I don’t remember seeing her again. Perhaps I should have said something; perhaps it all ended up fine, or sort of fine, in the end.

At the pavilion, a few days later, it was a windy day. I was working as the only playworker outside on the grass. I brought out the parachute and spread it out on the ground. I didn’t really think I’d be doing ‘games’ because it didn’t look and feel like that type of a session. A group of younger children played underneath the parachute and, without really realising how, I was then involved. The children seemed to enjoy running down the centre of the barrel shape that the parachute made as I lifted it from one end. The wind was the only support I needed there. We ran the parachute down the field, going with the wind, turned and ran it back with the children running underneath it as it billowed. They shouted at me to let it go, so I did. It flew and they chased it. ‘Again, again,’ they shouted. So we did it all again, and again, and again.

I can’t leave the subject of parachutes without making reference to my younger playwork colleague (she of the non-gloop childhood) who, one day in a village hall, as we were trying to make what we call a ‘mushroom’ shape with the parachute, did something just amazing and small and beautiful. We only had a handful of children with us at the parachute so it was a little tricky getting enough lift to billow the fabric up (even though we had a couple of parents with us too). I decided that, if we stepped forwards a little as we lifted, this would give that little bit of oomph that we needed to float the parachute: except, I decided this in my head and I didn’t say it out loud! As I stepped forward, from the corner of my eye I saw her watching me carefully. She stepped forward with me. The parachute lifted up high. It’s a small thing, but it was important in the moment.

Holding patterns
I’ve been reminded again this summer, on occasions, of what it means to ‘hold the play frame’ for a child or group of children. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about ways in which an adult may be in service to the play by keeping it viable (not controlling it but just being the glue for a while). Some children have bounced their play ideas off of me, or sought quiet affirmation that ‘this use, with this thing’ is not against some rules, or sometimes they’ve played out their ideas including me, through me, around me. Occasionally, I’ve reflected that I was the glue for several play frames (or bubbles of play in the metaphor I’ve used before), from different children, playing different things, all at the same time. This is no easy task. If the chosen playworker isn’t there to maintain the viability of the play, the play doesn’t happen in the way the child is indicating they want it to. If the playworker stays too long in the play, it stops being the thing it was or was intended to be, and could become play disagreeable to the child or children, or it could become the play of the playworker. I don’t know what this says if the playworker finds themselves in an almost constant state of holding the meaning of the play, or being the mirror, or the glue, or whatever metaphor is preferred, for two or three hours almost non-stop. I do know that to do it right, it needs judgement.

When adults play
When children come to a site where I’ve brought the play stuff, I quite often say to the parents who come along too that ‘adults can play too.’ Now, on the one hand, this play stuff is not for the adults; it’s for the children. On the other hand, however, there is some benefit in (a) children and parents playing together (provided, I think, that the parents don’t take over the play or direct it), and (b) adults being made comfortable with the fact that, just because they’re adults now, their play-engagement doesn’t have to be over. By saying to parents, ‘you can play too’, I hope this starts to break down any preconceived notion that children do xyz and adults do something else. I also hope that they can start to interact with their children at these sessions on terms which they might not necessarily have done before.

At one park, I remember, we had just a small group of younger children with us but we’d spread all the making and sticking and cutting and so forth stuff out on the tarp on the grass. A couple of the parents sat there too and all the adults chatted as the children played and, somewhere along the line, I felt, the parents started playing too. It was respectful of their children’s creations (the children were busy smooshing up clay and playdough and jamming beads and googly eyes into it all!), and the parents weren’t telling the children what and how to make things. The parents made their own things, almost as if their hands were doing things independent of their conversations. It was good to see.

Observation of adult engagement with play was a little different at one of the festivals. We didn’t have such arts and crafts play stuff out on the main strip between the designated children’s area and the coffee stalls and such like, but we did have a long skipping rope! I’ve long known that adults don’t particularly enjoy the idea, generally speaking, of participating in what they perceive as ‘children’s play’, at least not in public view! (It’s strange then that those same adults are quite happy to dance at the bandstand, to dress up as if it were normal day-to-day attire, and to engage in the cultural or religious play of devotion, worship, prayer and such like at the stone circle). So, maybe we were being a little provocative and playing for ourselves when we decided to stretch the long skipping rope half-way across the main strip: those walking up the slope along the well-worn track would need to either engage with the rope or walk around it. Plenty walked around it. I do remember one young couple walking by though and the woman, who was probably no more than in her early twenties, looked at us as if to suggest a question. We nodded and she seemed pleased to be given the opportunity to skip for a short while. Adults sometimes need more than just a rope strung across the grass to accept the invitation to play.

Children, by contrast, can often see a rope and make decisions of their next actions based on different starting points: this rope is here for me if I want to use it or not. The children on the main strip of grass soon somersaulted over it, limbo danced under it, jumped it, skipped as we swung it.

This all said, over the summer there was plenty of adult play observed (either after explicit permissions given, as above, or of those adults’ own accord): lots of use of poi (either the ribbon-tailed, or water poi, or glow in the dark variety); making and crafting (under the guise of it being a ‘workshop’); rituals and celebrations; dancing and singing; playing instruments at the bandstand in what looked and felt like spontaneous groups, comings-together; drinking beer, of course! The thing is, though, and I think I may be largely right here, though I will stand corrected if not, I’d dare say it was only the playworkers (or the play-literate/play-mentality adults) who did or would call this all ‘play’, their own play. In the world of ‘being adult’, all of the above (and other examples) are known by different names: celebration, festival, ritual, healing, relaxation, recreation, hobby, pastime, sport . . . really though, they’re all play, and that’s not a bad word to call it.
 
 

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Experiments in bubbles
All summer I had been experimenting with making batches of variously mixed ‘bubble juice’ and prototypes of homemade bubble-making equipment. Are these rods and cord contraptions known as bubble wands? I don’t know. In the garden, at home, family children christened them ‘bubble knickers’ (because these ones were made with scrapstore elastic — though I think this elastic was first used for bra straps rather than knickers, but hey, the name stuck!). We attached the elastic, hung with metal weights (what look like army dog tags, and sometimes old drawer handles), onto sawn off bits of bamboo or thinner garden cane. Various bubble knicker contraptions worked in various ways. Various juice mixes (water, washing up liquid, glycerine, cornflour, baking powder) also worked in individual manners. We found that big bubbles need bigger spaces than those confined by fences and houses to be free to fly!

I took the bubble knickers and the juice batch of the moment to play sessions at a youth pavilion site (where there were children from babies to teenagers), and to a beer festival, late on in the summer. We were invited there as part of the play support. We must have got through several buckets’ worth of bubble juice that day in the sun! What struck me was that many of the children were very determined and persistent in trying to make their own bubbles. Often, when you go to festivals and they have bubbles on, the bubble-adult doesn’t let the children create (the children will have a good time chasing and popping the bubbles, sure, but more can be offered). So, after some of the children asked me the odd question that is, ‘Is it free [to play]?’ (to which I said, ‘Of course’), they took the bubble knicker sticks and kept trying and trying, not losing faith, that they could make those big bubbles. When they did, they seemed pleased with themselves.

Other, mostly younger children, who wanted to play were helped by their parents. I use this word loosely: there’s ‘helping’ and there’s ‘now darling, do it like this, here you go, look you’ve made a bubble, well done, let’s go and see what else we can do now.’ I tried to distract some parents with conversation. I noticed, as the afternoon went on, in the good and welcome sun, that the very young children seemed just to like putting their hands in the slimy mix. This worked out fine because they got their sensory input and, strangely, bubble juice sometimes works better with the added whatever-extras from lots of inquisitive hands!

Play of the subverts
At the youth pavilion site, for a two week stint, I took play stuff that was probably more geared towards the younger children (so bits and bobs that needed space, like various balls, a parachute, chalks, and so on) and a fair amount of art and crafts stuff (beads and various papers and card, clay and playdough, things to cut with, things to stick on, etc). We experimented daily with the layout of the place (it being used not only by us, but also by the local teenagers and pre-teens, and by members of the public because it was also a café space). What I found was that, gradually, more and more of the teens and pre-teens were joining in, though on their own terms.

One day, a group of boys were outside and that day I’d brought some proper tennis rackets with me (I’d observed on previous days how the smaller, thicker rackets had been used, and I thought these full size ones might work well too). I hadn’t anticipated that there’d be a group of teens who’d want to use them. They started batting the tennis balls up against the windows and then, soon enough, up onto the pitched roof of the pavilion. The balls rolled down again and, I thought, these returns made by gravity were returns of their cues, so it was all good. Then the balls got batted harder and over the ridge of the roof. It was all done ‘by accident’, of course. There was a small yard at the back of the building, and access to it was only by way of a usually locked door at the rear of the main room. The boys batted the balls over the roof and into the yard, I had no doubt, just so they could go ‘help’ by being allowed access to the yard by the youth worker staff and to retrieve them. Here I don’t use the words in inverted commas above in any cynical way: rather, it’s a making note of subversions by the teenagers at play.

Of stuff and other words
For nearly every session at this site, I also took family children with me. They’re old enough now, and excited enough, to ‘come to work’ with me. Princess K. (so-written-as here because of a continuing partiality for over-glittery Barbie stories and extra-squeakily sanitised fairy tales!) and the Boy Formerly Known as Dino-Boy but who’s now more Viking-Boy are well-used to what we tend to call ‘stuff play’: that is, the shed is (currently) neatly arranged (though not always!) with an array of bits and bobs for making with and experimenting with and just, well, playing with, however the need arises. So, to them, the boxes of stuff that (later in the summer) I neatly tessellated and re-tessellated every day into the back of my car were filled with the possibility of whateverness. There’s no adult agenda along the lines of ‘now, today we’re going to make this, do this, have this theme’ with stuff play. I did, however, say to them that we may have to curb one of our usual joint-play behaviours (that is, the way they and me all interact, in our family ways of being, in our play fashion, sometimes): there are certain words (low-level and funny though they are to us) that others might take offence at! So, stuff play was engaged with plenty and, one day, the agreements having been reached and acted on with certain word play, we shut the car doors ready to go home again and Princess K. asked me, ‘Can we play the insults game now?’ Cue lots of ‘bum’ and ‘fart’, and so on, as we drove off.

Further and continuing reflections on gloop
As well as it being a summer of bubble experimentations, I also had access to a stock of cornflour. Cornflour ‘gloop’ (cornflour and water mix, though not too much water or it’s just a mess and doesn’t ‘work’) is one of those things that I’ve long taken for granted as a standard play resource (I’ve also done a few years as an early years practitioner, as well as being a playworker, and this sort of stuff was pretty omnipresent in nurseries then). However, and I think I may have reflected on this before elsewhere in my writings, I keep coming across adults who’ve never experienced gloop. There may be readers right now who are in this category. It doesn’t make a person less if they haven’t experienced a certain form of play (just because I grew up in the 70s, say, it doesn’t make my play better than someone who grew up in the 2000s); that said, I do tend to come back to the thinking on what I loosely call ‘gloop deprivation’.

This is a broader conversation than just gloop but I use it to illustrate the point that, for whatever reason, what may be deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ play forms or resources by some adults can, in effect, deprive a child of a sensory input or experience which they then grow up without. I took cornflour gloop to the pavilion and also to some sites in the villages, as we travelled around. (Note to self: just because you put a tarpaulin down in a village hall, don’t expect gloop to stay within this boundary!). I worked with a younger colleague who, herself and for whatever reason (experiences at nursery school, the general vogue of what play is/should be at the time, etc.) hadn’t ever played with gloop or knew what it was. At the pavilion, the babies seemed to enjoy the mix, spreading it over their hands and legs and over the grass.

To be continued . . .
 
 

Summer has come and gone, and it has been one of first looking forward to all of the different things that might happen, in all of the different places, then jumping right in: play support at various festivals, playworking in the villages, a regular stint based at a youth centre in a local town community, being at home with the play, some sessions of play support for children who had re-located countries. It has been a summer of the jobbing playworker. What remains in the reflections?

The Thunderdome
We made two separate excursions, on different dates and for different festivals, to locations along the winding stretch of the River Severn where England and South Wales meet. Unfortunately for us, we seemed to have arrived in storm season. The children didn’t seem to mind. Tents put up on exposed hillsides in near constant sideways wind and rain are prone to potential submission though! The weather made putting up the big teepees and yurts somewhat tricky. On the main field, one of the dome frames was left without its canvas for a couple of days: the children swung and jumped from the frame as we walked past. It reminded me of the climbing frame constructions I used to play on as a child (except ours weren’t dome-shaped, they were stacks of brutalist cubes of what may well even have been scaffolding poles, and we didn’t have grass underneath, or ‘safety surfacing’: we had concrete — it was the 70s and we laughed in the face of Health and Safety!). The children climbed on the dome-shaped frame and I didn’t even realise it was the frame of a yurt (until days later when the canvas went on). Children can transform things into playable things, and in so doing those things can have the capacity to take on new mental forms for observers. At some point, the frame was named ‘The Thunderdome’: the children jumped onto an old crash mat and played rough and tumble fighting in there.

A cardboard slot in the weather
We had one good afternoon of weather at that particular festival (notwithstanding the school of thinking that goes: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’). It was the Saturday afternoon and I’d been assigned to do some art and older age-appropriate storytelling with the pre-teens and teenagers. It wasn’t ever going to be an ‘activity’, in my head, as such, but rather more like, ‘here’s this gig, with this stuff, let’s go with what happens.’ It didn’t turn out that way either: not with regards to art and storytelling for this age group, at least. I’d taken a whole pile of corrugated cardboard (the side panels of bike boxes, which I’d blagged from various local bike shops and scrounged from the yard round the back of Halfords a few weeks earlier), a box of chalks and a pile of charcoal from the fire pit. That was it. I had some story ideas in my head. I didn’t need them. The sun came out just as I was setting up and I thought: let’s just be outside on the grass, not in the inside tent space we were allotted. I’d been observing the play of the various age groups over the previous days and I’d had a feeling that something ‘other’ was going to happen. So it turned out. After a short time, a bunch of older and younger children were playing with the cardboard and chalks, but the older children soon lined the card panels up, end to end, to make a slide. When they were done the co-creation of a cardboard fort started happening with the younger children.

I had my penknife with me and the children directed me as I cut slots into the card, and arrangements of walls were built. Soon they were saying, ‘I need a window’ or ‘Can I have a door?’ I cut windows and doors, and roofs were made. The play morphed and flowed and walls were taken down and rebuilt and smaller houses were made and moved. It was all in the flow. I stepped back and talked with parents who were watching on.

Two young brothers, who I’d seen around and who were — shall we say — a handful at times for their parents, bundled into the cardboard constructions. The youngest was bashing away at the walls but he was happy enough. The other children weren’t best pleased though. All they saw was this boy being destructive to their constructions. It struck me in one of those moments of ‘not really knowing for sure where it comes from’ that all the boy was after was a compartment, a space within the construction, for himself. He was trying to get into others’ small inhabited areas but they didn’t want him. I quickly constructed him a space of his own. He laid down in it, still and seemingly content. There are moments in playwork when you get it right, either by luck or by conscious or subconscious good judgement, or all of these.

Just as we were starting to pack away (the frayed and damaged cardboard was on the way out anyway, and my gig time was up), the rain started sploshing down and disintegrating the card. It felt portentous, significant, in its own way!

Executing play: context and momentary witnessing
The children at this festival wandered the site and, in passing the play that’s already happening, the keen observer can be surprised or fascinated or rendered thoughtful about what has just drifted by. One day I was walking across the main rectangle of grass (kind of like a village green, I suppose, flanked by the larger marquees — the main meeting space, the children’s tent, the café and stage; the Thunderdome was at one end, and a large teepee was nearby; in the middle of the green was the flag circle). A small group of children were going past, not paying any attention to me. I heard one say out loud to the group, ‘OK, who wants to be executed?’ So, yes, that got my attention! There was a small clamour for the privilege of being the chosen one. The chosen one was led away, arms lightly secured, and into the darkness of the large teepee. I have no idea what happened next in the play: I wasn’t in a position of privilege in the play frame, both in psychological- and physical-boundaried terms.

I was, at once, slightly disturbed, intrigued, mindful of what I was actually witnessing rather than what others might describe it as. I witnessed this for maybe thirty seconds in passing, but it’s a stand-out moment of the summer. It’s laden with all manner of potential background narratives of what might have happened previously in the play, what had been seen or talked about, what had been absorbed, what had been invented and why. What I saw was out of context, and I won’t ever know what the fuller context for that play frame was.

Untitled
Elsewhere, I’ve done some play support work with a small group of children whose families have come from other countries. One of those countries we’ve seen on the news quite a lot as of late. We have, perhaps, become desensitised to what’s been going on there. I won’t write here of anything said or played in that group, but let’s just say that a brief conversation with one child, about nothing much on the face of it, suddenly struck me, in my moment of epiphany, about what war does.

To be continued . . .
 
 

There are five gardens whose boundaries are also the boundaries, variously, of one another’s gardens: Garden A meets with Gardens B and E; Garden B meets Gardens A and C and E; Garden C meets Gardens B and D and E; Garden D meets Gardens C and E, and Garden E meets all the others. At a point along the low wall and fence boundary of Gardens C and E, the width of a door that isn’t actually there, there is a threshold between otherwise enclosed areas. The children of both houses, residents and various visitors alike, often traverse the gap on the boundary, and the places of play become one fluid place.

I choose all my words carefully because technical words are subject to definition. The prime focus in this introductory scene-setting is intended towards Quentin Stevens’ use of ‘boundary’ and ‘threshold’ (as also connected to ‘path’, ‘intersection’, and ‘prop’, being urban locations observed as conducive for play) in The ludic city: exploring the potential of public spaces (2007). ‘Place’ is used in the introduction above instead of ‘space’ because, in part, the former is infused (in terms of children’s play) with all the humanity that the latter isn’t, as perceived, touched by. The latter is also, in my experience, a word or part of a phrase (‘play space’) that has become spongey and bland with over-use. People don’t understand space; place is far deeper.

Often, the children of Garden C will traverse the threshold of the gap on the boundary between the gardens to join the play of the children of Garden E on the other side, and vice versa. Sometimes, any of the children of either side will wait along the liminal portion of the wall, just to watch or think, or to think and watch. Occasionally, the resident children of Garden C and/or their random friends will chance their luck and just lie on the grass on the other side when no E-children are around, just to flop on the slope that they don’t have themselves or to look at the clouds. Regularly, the older boys will send the youngest girl out on her own to retrieve a rogue ball or space-hopper (because, I suppose, that’s what little sisters are for!).

There are definite paths through the gardens: the places or place of play. These are not necessarily confined to the concrete path of one side or the steps down the slope of the other. The overall square-meterage isn’t huge but, nonetheless, there’s an overlay of routes that can be perceived. Ways of navigating these routes are also evolving: there’s the possibility of the jump-through forming, like a leap through the threshold of a star-gate, perhaps. Play happens, though not exclusively, on the paths, the routes, and at their intersections. Recently, the grass of Garden E was strewn with the flattened-out carcasses of bike-sized cardboard boxes, with bits of extra-sticky pads that we haven’t ever worked out what their non-offcut portions are used for, with a variety of cardboard broadswords and daggers, with lumps of charcoal from the fire pit or from the wood pile, and with the experimental prototypes of big-bubble makers (‘bubble knickers’) and batch mixtures. Then there was gloop (cornflour and water, to the uninitiated), and play was amorphous in the places of the place.

Later, when I looked out from the inside to the outside, through the window that adjoins the open glass door, the sunlight streaming hard into the well of the garden, it was a hazy orange lozenge that I perceived, in which the children played with grubby faces and charcoal-smeared legs and knees. Later still, I considered bubbles more. In the terminology of playwork, we recognise the ‘play frames’ as they occur, the psychological and/or physical vessels in which play takes place. Playwork doesn’t use the word ‘vessel’ (and ‘vessel’ is a word that’ll soon shift here), as far as I’ve ever heard or read, but I always thought that ‘frame’ risked causing confusion or somehow might justify the narrow simplicity of the s-word: ‘structure’. Structure is an ugly word when the subtext, often, is actually more about what certain adults want or need, rather than what they suppose that children want/need, e.g., in simplistic terms: ‘children need structure (read as over-protection, restriction, anodyne lack of choice, or similar)’, and this then is more readily translatable as ‘the declaring adult needs obedience, calmness, order, or likewise.’ Simplistic interpretation of ‘structure’ aside, bubbles, I’ve always thought, are a way of perceiving play that ‘frames’ can’t match.

Bubbles maintain a structural integrity, to a point, and they shift according to the dynamic loads that surround, and that are contained by, them. Sometimes you get bubbles within bubbles, bubbles that are grafted onto other bubbles, bubbles that split into smaller bubbles. They bob along the very tips of the blades of grass or rise and skirt and cheat the edges of the fences. Some float up and up. Eventually they pop. A big-bubble batch of mixture will result in a feathery, candy-floss of residue, which just hovers in the air for a moment after the bubble has succumbed to the dynamic loads of air pressure and altitude, or suchlike, at its thinnest surface portions. The residue is like filament. In continuation of the analogy, the residue is the beginnings of more play rather than a finality. I watch big bubbles when they rise high: the falling of the filament of candy-floss, which bubbles contract to, always deserves my special and reverential attention.

If the bubble incorporates the play, and if it encompasses any small or great degree of the places or place of play, then the child or children are within it. The bubble’s skin has its certain structure, but it is the amorphous structure as created by the child. We should not confuse the simplistic adult term that is the over-used ‘children need structure’ with the far deeper structural complexity inherent in the bubble and bubbles of play. When I observe play, sometimes, though not always in such ways as this, I wonder at the structural dynamics of the bubbles of play (whether the bubbles are isolated, or potentially merging, or grafted on, or splitting away, or even if they’re within other bubbles of play): what internal and external loads can or will the play absorb, or hold, or resist, or reflect before the bubble skin quietly implodes? Adults (parents, teachers, any and all others) can be external loads, or become internal pressures, if the child or children have had the grace or need to surround those adults in their play.

At the thresholds and boundaries, and along the paths and intersections, or at the points of ‘furniture’ (the ‘props’) of the place that is the amalgamation of Gardens C and E, play is an amorphous bubble that forms, is never really spherical, that floats or bumps along or rises, and which eventually pops and reforms. There are many external dynamics, adult loads, that might affect the structural integrity of the constituted big-bubble mixture. Technically, we adults should take care.
 
 

Play grounds us

After something of a sojourn, I have a need to begin to immerse again in the thinking on play and in the ongoing practising of playworking. I have been away, overwhelmed: not by play but rather by the microcosms I have moved within. It’s some small wonder that all our faculties might remain more or less intact, in the adult unreal world, what with all the psychological and emotional bruising we receive in the accumulation of all our interactions. There are times when we just need to stand well back, to breathe, to look around and see and be again. If it’s like this for adults sometimes, just what must it be like for today’s children?

So, here is a statement for moving forwards: play grounds us.

We tend to live within a society or structure of adult thinking that is, at best, concerned with polarities and, at worst, content just to repeat the received ‘wisdom’. To this end, it’s ‘play’ or ‘work’, ‘find solace from work in play’, and so on. Of course, as the wiser know, play is intertwined through life, integral to it, not able to be stripped away from it. It all comes down to an attitude, perspective, a way of seeing and being. What can we see if we attempt to remove ourselves from the ‘typical-adult hegemony’ manner of perception?

Children tend to ‘get’ a playful adult. I have experienced this, talked and written about it many, many times. Earlier this week was the most recent, in discussion with someone about ways in which we might talk play with parents. This discussion, as well as others I’ve recently had or anticipate having soon, gives me a little pause for thought though: perhaps I should start shifting away from the term ‘playful adult’ to something more like ‘play-focused adult’. The former is beginning to feel a little hackneyed, a bit too ‘wacky, zany’ and I’ve long since had a low tolerance for the interchangeability of ‘hey, look at me, I’m wacky-zany’ and loose approximations of playworking (I make no apologies for the lah-de-dahness inherent in this statement): the former is a clown; the latter is something very different. Maybe ‘play-focused’ though has too much of the whiff of ‘focus group’ or somesuch about it? It’ll come.

So, pending a settling of satisfactory terminology, children tend to ‘get’ play-focused adults: when in the moment of just such a situation recently (a younger child at a play session seemed to have sized me up pretty well in her progressive interactions with me), I was able to switch out of adult-think as I tried to appreciate what was important for her. What seemed important was the moment of rolling the hoop, again and again. It was a similar perception recently whilst working with children at a camp in the forest: what seemed important was the sudden play cue (one of the most sudden and direct I think I’ve ever been offered) of a younger boy who just turned around where he sat, without first giving any eye contact or other immediately recognisable communication, to initiate catch-throw with me. What became important was the need to carry on the cues and returns (on both of our parts). Another day at the camp, a younger girl also had a need for throw-catch, and we threw the beanbags to one another over and over and over and over. She said ‘bye’ and a cheery ‘thanks, though I’ll never see you again.’

‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily relate here to the idea of a stern attitude: on the contrary, the ‘instant play cue’ boy, for example, just kept laughing as the cues and returns continued! Later, I found out that it’s practically impossible to do a good job of face painting with a child who just makes you laugh so much! Some children are deadly serious about face painting (not packing mirrors helps). So, ‘what’s important’ in play has its context. In the woods, we started to set up what I thought might turn into some small sort of spider’s web of elasticky line between the trunks, but then a few children asked to do some webbing too. Give up any lingering half-baked design ideas at this stage because the ‘co-produced’ becomes something else entirely. They just kept winding and winding and making an ever expanding 3D sort of sculpture. They would have carried on all through the forest, I’m sure, if there’d been enough elastic. It seemed important to the children, this winding and web spinning, in the moment. The area, just beyond the rope swing, earned itself a name almost straight away (named places earn this because of significances levied on them, and named places grow in stature because of being named — think aboriginal songlines): the place was called ‘The Lasers’. Various parents were summoned to gaze wondrously on The Lasers or to try to navigate through it. Later, across The Ditch of Doom, I spotted a rope bridge had been constructed. It was all ‘necessary’, ‘important’, and of the now.

In the evening, children clumped into factions as the games swilled around: the older children and a few younger ones played some form of hide-chase-tap; the younger girls led a few younger boys out into the trees for a ghost hunt — they came back for torches and trooped off again. No adults were called upon to be part of that play, except to source the torches. Despite all of this, I had the feeling (a playworker on site as I was) of never really being ‘off duty’, which was fine. That is, the children seemed to have ‘got’ this play-focused adult fairly quickly and, whether I was sat reading a book, having a quiet beer, eating, or carrying equipment around, play cues came. Play doesn’t switch on and off, if the non-polarity of thinking attitude is engaged with: play is just there.

Or rather, perhaps, we might think of play in simplistic Schrödingerian terms: play is both there and not there, potential and actual, kinetic and static, and more, and all of these.

It’s all a ‘perhaps’ and, after something of a sojourn from thinking on play and the practising of playworking, after a period of feeling somewhat overwhelmed by an accumulation of typical-adult hegemony interactions, it’s good to be climbing back in the saddle. Play grounds us, in many ways.
 
 

It’s that time of the year again when I’m minded to ponder back on playworking actions, non-actions, things learned along the way, and things to chalk up to further experience. If we forget to write these things down, we don’t seem to remember all the finer points and nuances. I’ve been less frequent as of late in my play and playworking writings: the specifics of a wider work responsibility have definitely contributed to this. That said, the beauty of play and playwork is that there’s always something to reflect on.

The other day, close to the end of term, I was walking back from school to the adventure playground with a group of children. One of the boys was on a bike and he likes to ride ahead on it. It’s usually not a problem because he has a fair to good road-sense and he stops at the corners for the rest of us (most of the time!). This day, however, I asked him not to speed off ahead of us. I didn’t really think it through and the more I asked him, the more irritated he got with me (of course). It ended up with him swearing under his breath at me, shouting ‘What is the point of you?’ at me, and finally he threw his bike down in the middle of the pavement and walked off ahead in a quiet rage. I shrugged and breathed in deeply. I decided to leave the bike there. Luckily for him one of his friends picked it up at the back of the group we were in and walked it back for him. The boy and me were not on the best of terms, at that moment, I could clearly see.

When we got back to the playground, I waited for him to stop being so angry with me and then I asked him if we could have a conversation. I said it exactly in those words: a conversation, an informal one. He said yes, OK, so I said, ‘OK, you rant at me and I’ll shut up and listen. Then I’ll say what I have to say. OK?’ So, OK. We sat down on the main hall sofa and, with him above me on its arm, he said how I was ‘the worst’ and he repeated again, briefly: ‘What is the point of you?’ He shut up. ‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘That’s all.’

So, that’s the jumping off point for this post: what is the point of me (in playworking terms, not getting all metaphysical about it!)? It’s at this point that there’s a danger of ‘Ego’ creeping in though. Playwork shouldn’t be about ego, surely? If we weren’t around, would children play anyway? Sure, they would, so that then leads the mind along the oft-trodden reflection of what playworkers do again. What is it that I’ve done this past year, these past years, for the children around me at play? If you’re a playworker too, what have you done?

Sometimes I’ve got in the way. Absolutely! The other day, a group of boys were riding their own and borrowed bikes down the concrete ramp (as is their current fad), slamming their brakes on at the last moment to execute a skidding circular stop. They mostly missed the metal storage container wall by a foot or two. One younger boy came down the hill on a bike a little too big for him. He neither braked nor turned the handlebars. He slammed into the old upturned waterslide panel in the corner. Naturally, I thought, I ought to drag a big old crash mat over there, prop it up so it didn’t take up any discernible circling space, and walk away. No, though. What I got was a resounding, ‘Oh, now you’ve ruined it! You’ve taken away what this place is for!’ OK, fair enough there, though some of the boys did then evolve the play after that into deliberately slamming themselves into the mat rather than turning the bike.

Similarly, a short while back, I observed as (probably) the same group of boys stood on the edge of the pool table indoors and as they took running leaps and somersaulted to land on the crash mat placed on the floor a few feet away. I noted the gap between the table and the mat and moved the latter forwards a little. I was greeted with the moan that was, ‘What is it with you? It’s all about safety, safety, safety!’

Is it? Is that true? So maybe the point of me is to try to make sure no-one breaks their neck? Perhaps the children only ever see these moments of me when I’m too in their faces: they don’t see the way I observe them climbing the tall trees, poking their heads out from the very top branches (me, flinching at it all and holding my breath); they don’t see how I observe the way they find and drag a big old section of telegraph pole right across the playground, fixing it first to the top of the waterslide, cantilevering it into space, then hauling it up the difficult steps of the treehouse, cantilevering it out again and securing it with ropes and bricks in bucket weight systems; they don’t see how I watch on as they’re climbing on the top of the filing cabinets, or waving fire sticks on the air, or smashing old electrical equipment from great heights, and so on.

I can’t even begin to weigh up all the play I’ve seen on the playground this year, let alone all the play out there in the streets of the city, on public transport, at schools, in little moments met in passings-by. When I have occasion to briefly meet a child I know, as they walk past, recognising me for a fraction in between their conversations with siblings, friends or parents, I often suddenly think just how many children I have worked with and for, over the years. Just like all of us who’ve been around for a few years, I can confidently say the number is well into the thousands. That causes just a small pause sometimes . . .

The other day I was talking with a playworker colleague who’s been doing it just a little longer than I have: between us we have something like fifty years of stories of working with children. He told me the story of how he recently met a woman who was a mother now but who had been a child at one of his work places, back in the day. He said that he knows they all grow up, the children he used to work with, but it was still a little strange. It made me reflect on how all those children are kind of preserved in their childhoods in the memory. All the play, and all the interactions, my colleague said, were still there in his mind. It’s true: all these things come back as if they never changed at all.

It was a coincidence then, around about that time of the week, that I was driving home, listening to a comedy show on the radio, and the announcer offered up a name I thought I recognised: she, the named woman, was someone I thought I knew, way back in the day. I listened in hard to her voice when she came on and did her ten minute slot. Was it her? Did I hear the announcer corrrectly? Was this a child I knew way back in the day? Then she told me a few little facts about her life and I knew it was her! What a strange experience. It turns out she’s quite big on the comedy scene now. I knew she’d been aiming for that (rumour had it), but I didn’t know she’d ‘made it’. I didn’t realise that she, as with all of the children I once knew, had grown up.

I often wonder what the children, back in the day, remember of me and my interactions with them at play. I don’t think of it in an ego kind of way: just curiosity. Maybe they don’t remember my name or anything particular about me, but maybe they remember that one day I said something, did something, understood something, became significant in some way. There are thousands of such scenarios floating away out there, a thousand thousand, and that’s just for me alone.

‘What is the point of you?’ the angry boy with the bike shouted at me recently. Later, after the conversation on the sofa, after agreeing that all we both needed to say had been said, when he was collected at the end of the after school club session he called out goodbye to me at the door, and of his own volition.

What we do, as playworkers, apart from trying to create more and more opportunities to play, protecting the play frames where we can, protecting the playable environments, pushing and advocating for play tolerance to all and sundry, looking for small and large pots of funding to maintain those fenced-in spaces and those street spaces, reflecting on moments of getting it right and moments of getting it wrong, taking to task the politicians (both lower case and upper case) of the world, working with teachers and head teachers and early years workers and youth workers and health professionals and artists and parents and grandparents and carers and the man and the woman in the street, and so on, in trying to appreciate play, play for play’s sake, play for the here and now . . . what we do, as playworkers, apart from all of this, and more, is try to do all of this without us being the ego at its core. It isn’t easy; it isn’t about us. Maybe a little of us remains, years on, despite our intentions.

What is the point of you, playworker? Maybe the children can tell us when we’re all too old to run around any more.
 
 

It’s come to my recent attention that we tend to live in a somewhat superficial world. It’s not a new revelation of mine or anyone else’s, but it’s one that flows back in every so often.

The other day I was walking by the river in the gathering autumn. I sat on a bench in the sunshine and listened to the water and the quiet passings of people going by. As I sat, I observed the play of a young child of about four as she leant over the lower wooden railings looking into the water. She was with what I presumed to be her family (mum, dad and older sister). The father wanted the girl to catch up with them. Her focus was on the ducks. I saw that she was mouthing the words ‘quack, quack’ and, as she did so, she moved her fingers up by her face and pressed them to her thumb, and released again a few times over, as if her hand were in the mouth of a puppet maybe. It amused me. The father saw me (in what was my observation) and, though not looking directly at me, he kept looking back to let it be known (as I read it) that he thought it odd or not right that I sat there being amused at the play in front of me.

There is something of a qualitative difference between the actions of ‘observing’ and ‘watching’. I use my words carefully because I observed the play that was happening. Observing ‘the play’ is also something that should be noted here. We live in a superficial world where people mistrust others and the act or non-act that is ‘no great depth of thinking’ can get plastered over ‘observation of play’ to manipulate it into something ‘other’. I’m tired of the lack of grace.

The superficiality many often inhabit (we can also find ourselves there in that superficial layer when we don’t know we’re there sometimes, too), is something we all just seem to accept too readily. We drift along, in the analogy, just on top of the river and we’re quite content to be told what to think and feel and we’re quite happy to go along for the ride of being sucked into ‘the rules’ or ‘cultural norms’ imposed on us within it all. We don’t look beyond and beneath.

If you look closely you can see the trees sway, the water shift, the world revolve; if you look closely you can see into the cracks and the alveoli; if you peer in and beyond you can realise you don’t have to see or think or feel in all the ‘normal’ ways. Play lives here too, as does observing play because play is good and observable.

This preamble, then, brings me to what I have been thinking of as some sort of ‘optical hierarchy’ in layers of seeing. We can see deeper in, but only if we want to or if we recognise that we might be able to. We don’t have to inhabit that superficial realm. We can refine the definitions of our actions (such as the apparently simple and effortless act of ‘seeing’) as we reflect on the active verbs of our engagements with the world.

So, I reflect, I have at times used the words ‘observe’ and ‘watch’ almost interchangeably in general and maybe throwaway speech or writing, though in the context of considered playworking, I know I use the former deliberately. There is, however, a qualitative difference between those active verbs that are ‘to observe’ and ‘to watch’. There is a richness embedded in the former, which is not inherent in the latter. There is a certain action of noticing within what is ‘watching’, though this noticing can be imbued with an external perceiver’s fear and mistrust or with the watcher’s gathering attention to detail. Here we start to wade, potentially, in the shallows rather than swim in the depths.

Just as light can be perceived as both a particle and a wave, we can proceed with this optical hierarchy simultaneously as either and both in the positive or in the cynical and fearful. There are qualitative differences between the active verbs that are ‘to watch’ and ‘to look’, between ‘to look’ and ‘to glance’, and between ‘to glance’ and ‘to glimpse’.

English is blessed with words and synonyms, but really, in the context of the subject matter of an optical hierarchy in ways of seeing play, the ‘nearness or closeness’ of synonyms isn’t near or close enough for the accurate depiction of actions and their intent.

When we ‘observe’ play, we are able to access all manner of conscious and unconscious moments and memories, considerations and part-contemplations, reflections and open questions, driftings and inherent understandings. Observation is rich and replete with connections: play is a universal force, a thing-in-itself, a manifestation which we can connect with and connect to all manner of our reveries and experiences and other wisdoms. Play resides in the cracks and alveoli as well as all around, in the depth layers of our engagements with the world.

So, when I’m feeling that connect, even and especially the small moments of play and playing amuse and cause the wheels of internal refinement to start to shift. Observation (not only of play) can lift us, submerge us, move us. On one depth level, we are neurochemical beings: we can become flooded. On other levels, we’re what some call ‘spiritual’ beings (though really, in the same way as proclaiming madness precludes actual madness, proclaiming to be ‘spiritual’ may suggest there’s still a way to go in this endeavour, and there isn’t really a word in English to adequately define ‘truly spiritual’, despite the richness of the language): ‘spiritual’ beings as we may be, observation can enhance this yet further and deeper in. We can be subsumed.

I observed the play of a young child of about four as her focus of attention was taken by the ducks, and as she made puppet-like gestures with her fingers, mouthing ‘quack, quack’ and as her presumed father looked at me with ill-regard. I just felt, sadly, that one of us was paddling along in the shallows. Even the ducks poked their heads beneath the water, rooting around down there, every once in a while.
 
 

Every so often I get on my high horse about certain repeated (and repeated) themes and situations that seem to always crop up in this, my playworking life. Often, that theme is wholly something along the lines of ‘just accept that play is play in the player’s head, and nothing to do with instrumental ways of educating, socialising, and so on.’ Sometimes, the theme is more along the lines of ‘just let them play’. At other times, the theme is ‘respect children.’ Other themes crop up along the way. This post is another in the continuing action in support of children, bringing a combination of these themes back out into the light.

There’s a line from a poem, or a title in itself, I forget which and by whom it was written, but it highlights the idea of ‘waiting for the echo’. You shout out into a cavernous space, and you wait for the call back of agreement . . . It really isn’t so difficult a concept, I think (I have always thought), to understand that play is play (just that), and that we can and should just get out of the way of that, and that we can and should respect children (them, as people, because they are, and their right to play). Hello? Hello? Waiting for the echo back.

I’ve been witness to some pretty shocking adult disrespect of children and their play recently. For sure, we all have bad days as adults (that’s what being human encompasses, I suppose!), but a continual belittling of children and their ideas by certain adults, or talking at them as if they’re stupid, detestable, or malignant creatures is only going to go one way. I have seen this done recently by parents, teachers, and teaching assistants. It shocks me that those adults who are amongst the closest to children (in terms of family and in terms of time spent with them during a day), can treat them with some contempt. A disclaimer is necessary at this point, as I often do at times of such ranting: the above examples aren’t the over-riding majority of recent experiences, yet they are significant for being noticed.

If a child is playing in a way that a playworker knows he likes to play in (for example, rough and tumble with a friend, who he knows he might hurt, and who he knows might hurt him back, but in a way that neither is really trying to hurt the other), and the playworker on the scene knows and sees all this — understands and feels it — what will the power dynamic of overbearing control imposed on that play frame by an unsympathetic adult do? The children may change their play behaviours instantly, out of fear, or out of intelligent ‘towing the line’ until the controlling influence has gone, or out of embarrassment, and so on, but ultimately this is a drip feed of unnecessary anxiety delivered upon that child. What will the accumulated net effect be?

These command and control adult tactics can often be metered out in seemingly trivial areas for expected compliance. They can be delivered with the ‘shock and awe’ approach that just makes everyone stand still, shut up, and watch, or they can be delivered in more low-key ways. One of the seemingly trivial areas that controlling adults often insist on, in either of the above ways of delivering it, is the old (not so) favourite that is ‘now, share.’ I recently witnessed a group of younger children playing on a wheeled contraption away from the playground, and this thing they played on wasn’t big enough for all of them. The children who weren’t on it were pleading with the children who were on it to let them have a go. Instead of opening up a possibility for the children to negotiate, or instead of saying to the pleading children that they would have to wait (hey, life’s like that sometimes), or instead of doing nothing and just observing because sometimes, often, children can work these things out, the adult in attendance screamed at the children to share. It was a demand, it was forceful, and it was embarrassing. The place of interrupted play was then tense. The adult wasn’t a playworker.

Now, of course, as we need to keep reminding ourselves: none of us is perfect and sometimes we have bad days, and sometimes we get it wrong. There is, however, wrong and there is wrong! Some days I know I’ve operated in what the eminent Mr Hughes detailed as the ‘functional’ approach to playwork practice. It happens. Some days, I have slipped into what he calls the ‘repressive’ approach. This happens too. We can be tired, worried, or any number of other ways of being off-guard or not on the ball. We should get over that though, and quickly. We should reflect in the moment and after the moment, and continue reflecting on it. We should, at the very least, apologise to a child if we have, in any way, caused them unnecessary anxiety.

Quite often, when I see that someone else, some other adult, has caused a situation of unnecessary anxiety in a child, and that they clearly aren’t aware of it (or that they don’t care about it), or they aren’t reflecting (which you can often see in a person’s actions), or that they haven’t apologised, I feel the need to make amends in some small way to that child. Recently, I have sought to distract the anxiety-causing adult in full flow; I have positioned myself between them and the offended child (not as a means of physical protection but just as a kind of psychological blocking off); I have stuck my tongue out at the child as a play cue; I have bent down to their level to try to re-engage them in their play, or to offer them new play cues to be getting on with. All of this is repair.

Maybe this is all an important part of a playworker’s reason for being, his or her duty, their value out there, away from the more cosseted fenced-off playground places, in the public realm. I hadn’t thought of it all this way in so many words before. I knew that advocacy for play comes high in public spaces, and I knew that urban spaces could effectively be ‘repaired’ for play, but what about the playworker as sticking plaster for the repair of other adults’ imposed anxieties in the public realm . . .?
 
 

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