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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Of advocacy for play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping things together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the January mud, the playground has that winter quality of waiting. The light at the end of the day extends ever that little bit longer, before there’s a sudden tipping into darkness as the sun falls behind the tenement roofs. The playground seems to be waiting for its mudded roots to dry out. It lies, not growing, just breathing. Last week, one day late still in the morning, the hardest frost I’ve known there lay on the mud-woodchips. The sand in the sand-pit was solid in the shade of the thinned-out tree that was once the fully-leaved cover of a now-dormant den. The sand crunched under the weight of my extra boot pressure. The sun sliced up laboriously and sheered the frost on the bench into a very slow wave of thawing. I had a need for a few photographs just to nudge me again of this in future summerness.

When one of the children asked me to help her with moving the tyres so she could make a castle (though in a queenly manner, she pointed and said ‘put that one in the wheelbarrow’), I saw the deep marks they left because they haven’t moved for months. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘you move some’. She made a feeble attempt at shifting one, then shook her head as if in actual fact regal. I imagine rings of small depressions where the playground lets out little long wheezes of air, just there where the tyres were, in appreciations no-one will really see.

Darkness is a feature of the playground wintering. Even when it’s light, there’s the expectation of light’s absence. This isn’t to suggest a negative. When the light has shifted over the roofs, and the individual and collected tumblings of children, once clearly seen, seep into shadows of only possible people known somewhere out by the tyre swings, the playground offers up the secrecies of hiding in open space. The children are out there somewhere. The fire takes on deeper resonance when the light leaves too. The children have incinerated three Christmas trees, at the last count, and when they do this the flames reach up high, and this and the crackle and pop of the pine needles sends those children screaming and squealing. They come, also, from far-off hidden open spaces to gather and collect at the burning of the trees. When it’s good and done, some short time later, with the black bones of the branches stuck in the pit like fish scraped of flesh, the children reel off again to wherever they’d come from, dispersing, and re-entangling into new knots of groupings unseen.

In the late morning, an act of developing satisfaction — as a word that best fits — is, strangely, that of the litter pick: especially so on a perfectly crisp, brittle-aired day. It’s easy to forget being in the middle, or along the spiral arm, of a city when on the quiet playground. The pick is not just a mindless pick. There is the dropping into something slow, sure, but this is an opening. There are all the hidden messages of the playground to be seen, in their great or minute details: things that have happened and that can be discerned and ‘listened’ to. I use this verb carefully and not totally in terms of the ‘conventionally heard’. The squeak of the spring of the litter picker seems to communicate with the playground: the birds, on occasion, seem to reply in the same tones. Grey squirrels hop along, watch me, hop along, climb. A cat might wander through and by.

In the old pond casing, which is now ensconced in the wooden block boat, which itself is fading from a drain of colours, as if slowly washing away, I see a silvery radio or CD player, incarcerated beneath the ice layer of the water. I know who put this there, even though I’ve not seen that play. I know this is an experiment, poor thing like a baby mammoth in the perma-frost, but I leave it be because I know all this. It waits too, for its near-future demise at the hands of the boy who likes to smash such things into the oblivion of techno-afterlife! It’s almost as if he’s teasing it, left out here in the cold as it has been.

The playground waits in other objects that have fallen, laying where they fell, whilst everything else moves on around it. The whiteboard that we propped against the fence has fallen, I saw, and the metal frame of the old bin shell that was a makeshift post to tie a rope around, early in November when we had the bonfire, lies exactly there on the concrete, still. I picked it up every so often, propped it up, like picking up a fallen old person from the ground. It ended up back where it was the next time I saw it. I’ve taken to leaving it. One child asked about it last week, in a general just-looking-out-that-way kind of way. We talked about the bonfire and the makeshift post and the rope. ‘Oh,’ she said.

In between the fallen, I’ve taken to tracking objects that I know are moving, and some that I wonder whether they might. There are deliberate considerations of placing before the children come, mapping and logging like an archaeologist, the next day, seeing where I find things. I don’t know what I’ll draw from this: a curiosity borne of noticing how one thing in particular has been moving (though, sadly, this is one thing now missing presumed dead). I looked in every place, for every trace, but it was gone. Such is the irony of something that has moved around almost ceaselessly but now, when I tag it, it loses its momentum and falls from the place by way of being deposited in the bin.

The playground waits amongst all of this. The January mud persists, and the expectation of darkness lingers. The frost or ice settles because the playground won’t move or shake it off, not like the summer bees around the rosemary bush, or the autumn breezes taking gold paper and other leaves to the very edges of the place, sticking them up against the fencing. The fire exerts its winter gravity on the children, and the playground’s objects lie or leave indentations or move almost silently. There is the possibility of seeing the wildlife attempting to listen in. There is more than meets the eye if we’re open to what’s around.

Connecting to the spin

When we observe play, or when we’re invited into it, we can lose sight of what that play feels like for the child. Perhaps, on the whole as playworkers, we don’t connect back enough to what any given instance of play actually feels like from the child’s point of view. Sure, if we’re invited into the play we have our own ‘in-the-moment’ feelings about what’s it’s like for us there and then, but this isn’t the same thing as trying to see the moment of play from the perspective of being a child. This is my build-up to ‘thinking about it as I write it’ on play I was a part of last week and something I said whilst there.

This story concerns the roundabout, which is towards one of the far corners of the playground. Sometimes some of the children like to be spun by one of the playworkers (despite the fact that, as observed, they can pick up even greater speed by having one child stand at the centre, holding the centre-piece, and rotating the boards with their feet). I was asked to spin, one day, by one of the younger children: I could see a few murky shapes of other children playing in the shadows of the middle of the site. ‘How fast?’ I asked the child who wanted to be spun, ‘Do you want fast, sick-fast, or super-sick-fast?’. ‘Super-sick-fast’, she told me, matter-of-factly, as if this was obvious. (I also had to factor in the possibility of the double-meaning of the local parlance version of ‘sick’, as in ‘good’, as I understand it).

She has good balance for her age. I’d seen this before but I still started off slowly (this is also necessary to work up the momentum!). ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Faster — this is rubbish’. So I went faster, really putting my back into it. She sat there, variously looking up at the spinning sky, putting her cheek against her hand, whose elbow was nonchalantly propped against the rail, spinning so fast that I was beginning to feel somewhat nauseous myself, just focusing on her zipping by every one third of a second or so! ‘Faster,’ she called. I couldn’t go any faster.

Soon enough, from out of the playground’s shadows, we were joined by more children. I put on the brakes so they could pile on. Pushing became somewhat more difficult, but I gave them the same speed options. They chose the fastest, naturally. One boy brought over the entrails of a tap and its tubed gubbings (a random piece of stuff, in the model of loose parts, that’s found its way on site). He hooked it over the rail and was simply and ridiculously excited to see the centrifugal force spin it out almost horizontally as the roundabout spun around. Other children told newer children, in their own words as they zipped round, about that centrifugal force, and how they’d found that they’d got stuck to the edge as they’d gone faster.

When the extra children had wandered off again after stopping (one really wanted the thing to stop), the first child demanded more spinning. She got her wishes, and after I’d stepped away to let the roundabout wind down of its own accord, and to give myself a breather, I said to the girl, ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that. I never did that when I was your age.’ She gave a sort of shrug.

Of course, however, in the moment I was feeling a little nauseous just watching the spin of her on the roundabout and thinking what it might be like if I, the adult me, were on there. Of course, I’d forgotten to remember the moments of being the child that I was because, I think, the adult sensibility of the moment was too strong. As a child I would roll down hills, spin till I felt almost sick, swing as high as I could, and so on. Here, now, away from the play and the playground, I think of Stuart Lester talking about ‘being in control of being out of control’, of Roger Caillois’ writing on ‘ilinx’, or ‘vertigo’, and the spin that this type of play is, and I think of Bob Hughes’ ‘problem immersion’ in which there is the advocation to think on what play feels like for the child, re-connecting to our own play as a child.

This is more difficult than it might at first seem. I find that the process of thinking about the roundabout has taken me from ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that; I never did that when I was your age’ to ‘I did that sort of thing’ to, now, ‘Why did I do that sort of thing?’ I really don’t know. Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?

Perhaps I rolled down the hill because it was there, because it was steep, because it was covered in hay, because it was sunny, because I wanted to win a race. Perhaps I stood and spun around as fast as I could till I felt physically sick because I wanted to see how far I could push myself, how fast I could go, if it was actually possible to be sick, to feel the nasty queasiness of the spinning world after I’d stopped, to have the sensation of the world slowly blurring and easing itself to a stop as I lay on the grass, to have everything come back to normal. Perhaps I swung as high as I could because I could, because I wanted to beat a world record, because I wanted to see if I could jump farther than I’d done before, because I knew I could be the master of the swing and control it, because it was like flying.

In truth, I really don’t know for sure what I was thinking when I was six or seven or however old I was when I rolled and spun and swung like this. Maybe it’s the same for the girl on the roundabout last week: she knew she wanted to go fast, she felt it when she spun fast, wanted to go faster still, but if asked directly ‘Why do you do this?’ she couldn’t really say. She just does it: because it’s there, because it’s something that can go fast, because there’s a world record to beat, because she wants to see if she really can be sick, because she can ‘win’, because she can be the master of the roundabout, because she wants to experience the blur of the world easing back to normal again around her: all or some or none of these. I won’t know for sure.

All I can do is stay on the edges, like I am when I spin the rail on the perimeter, watching on, thinking later, like now; then, I can think on this in the moment of play observation/play invited into, connecting back to my own play as a child to further try to ‘get’ the play of this child in the now. Then I’m better in the spin of it all, without taking it over, but knowing what it feels like and knowing what should and shouldn’t be done.

It’s the other side of the weekend after the children’s first week back at school and their first after-school week back on the playground. I’ve taken a few days to get round to writing: it takes a little time, playing catch up, this side of a long holiday. I’m a playworker always, but it’s true to say I’ve had a bit of a rest from the thinking. I’ve forgotten how much energy all this observing, thinking, making intervention/non-intervention decisions, writing, reading, talking it all through takes up. When you’re in it, you maintain it. When you rest, everything shifts.

‘Getting back on the horse’ is my phrase and thinking of the moment. The way to do this, for me these past few days, is to let things be, let the observations and the thoughts on the play seep in, then sit quietly and still: what comes to mind from the first week back on the playground? Getting back on the horse of writing involves writing it as it then comes. Later, another week, I may tackle analysis of General Comment 17 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 31. Maybe! To keep thinking on play, on our work as playworkers, on the place we maintain for the children to be able to play, we keep up the practising of observing. Here is what bubbled up from last week when I just let it be, sat quietly:
1. Why are your legs so long?
Myself and a younger girl were trailing behind the main group as we walked back from school. She opened up her conversation with this line: ‘Why are your legs so long?’ Umm, I thought. I didn’t know. I went for the jokey reply: ‘Well, if they weren’t so long, I wouldn’t reach the ground.’ She dismissed this. I said, ‘Hey, look at that guy there. He’s way taller than me.’ She shook her head. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I was talking about your legs, right?’ It was a way of making me concentrate, I guess: a way to focus on the things she was saying. We talked about other things I don’t fully recall that just seemed to need some saying on the way back from school. The words themselves may not have been so important.
2. What’s your name again?
A brother and sister who both know me well enough to know my name, or so I thought, independently of one another forgot my name in the midst of their play. It was, for each of them, one of those blind spots of thinking that we all have, maybe. Either way, the trick is to not take it personally. I reminded each of them, an hour apart, what my name was. To the girl I made play of it. ‘What’s your name again?’ I asked her, knowing what it was. I went through all the possible names I could make up in ten seconds. She scowled at me and I let it be.
3. A mask made from things just kicking around for weeks
At the end of last term, an old Apple Mac became the latest victim of having its innards smashed out with hammers. Some of the children like to do this to the old and no longer useful tech we offer them for this purpose. Part of that Mac survived by kicking around the playground for a few weeks without any love or attention. It became a legitimate piece of stuff, in the model of the theory of loose parts. It was ignored for a while, left in the wheelbarrow at the end of the day. One of the girls picked it up last week. Over the course of a few days she’d engaged in the project of using various tools to crimp and shape the metal innards into a mask. Things can have other value, eventually.
4. About the photos board
We’d spent the best part of the last day of last term tidying and cleaning and also sprucing up all the photos that line a couple of the walls indoors. The children often like to make use of the playground camera, taking it off for a whole session, taking stills and videos of play: you never know what’s going to come back at the end of the day! It’s like seeing what gets hauled up in the fishing net! We take plenty of photos of the play ourselves too. We’ve amassed a huge amount over a few years. Some of the children spent time last week just pouring over the A4 photos we’d printed out and pinned up. Some seemed to get a lot out of being reminded of the things they’ve got up to recently (and one photo from a few years back was of particular interest to one of the girls). Some of the photos were deliberately chosen to spark an intrigue of recall. A couple of the children, however, were dead-set against their photos being on the wall. We printed out others and swapped them in their place.
5. The continuation of favourite play frames
Before Christmas, one of the favourite things to do seemed to be playing indoor football with a soft plastic ball the children had found. It could be kicked hard against the walls, the furniture, the door frames and doors, and all was good. This side of Christmas, the indoor football carried on, almost as if there were no gap in between the last and the next play of it. Parents come in and get playworker protection, or they learn to duck!
6. Scavenging leftover Christmas trees
Last January or thereabouts, I remember, our Christmas tree found its way out onto the playground and was used for a few weeks by being dragged around, jumped in, and finally discarded. This week, again, our tree is outside, but we’ve seen others on the streets as well: want not, waste not. On the way back from school, there were three trees, variously left out, looking forlorn. One of the older children didn’t see the point of dragging one of the trees back and scowled at me when I asked if she thought we should have it. Another two trees were nearer by, however, and later myself and another child decided we should rescue them. We dragged them in, them shedding needles everywhere, and deposited them outside. Within an hour or so, all the trees had found their way into various dens. They might also burn up well in a few weeks’ time. For now, one graces the palette den which has taken on the form of an outside living room, armchair, tables and all; the others are secreted farther afield.
7. This is the children’s place
I have always known this but a short time away from the playground and a return can refresh the understanding. I picked up a sense of how the children’s expressions here are important to their inner balance (well-being, stability, release, a kind of therapy, call it what you will). Where else can they fling paint against the side of a whitewashed storage container, paint the door of the bin shed when, perhaps, they feel they’re out of the range of any given adult’s disapproval, write their quite clear words of whatever they’re feeling in the moment on the chalkboards recently found?
8. The normality of fire
This is something that’s really struck me this past week: the children here are used to the fire in the fire pit area (and sure, some are excitable around it and this requires extra playworker vigilance), but not only do we adults who are playworkers see this fire play as normal, so too do the parents. Many’s the time, in training work, that I’ve come across other adults (teachers, parents, any given other) who can’t link the possibility that children and fire play can work. The fire is more and more a part of the culture.
9. Eating popcorn made in a pot on the fire
One day, I was poking around the fire pit area when a small group of children came charging out from the door to the toilets and hall nearby, carrying a pot and its lid, shouting that they were going to do popcorn. We resurrected the makeshift upturned table frame that we used at the end of last term when cooking dinner, and we put the popcorn pot on. It took a while and plenty of trial and error, but they got some popcorn in the end. There’s more to be tried in cooking here.
10. A wheeled chair crashing into plastic chairs
One of the older boys, he of the fascination with smashing up old technology, was sat in the chair that one of my colleagues had bolted wheels to the base of last term. There was a rope for pulling a rider and the boy used this, initially, as a seat belt. I came indoors to see him sat there trying to manoeuvre himself around. I left him be. A little while later I came in and he was stacking plastic chairs in arrangements that reminded me of that scene from Poltergeist! He was trying to knock them down with a wooden block. There was no-one else in the room but I knew his play needs for destruction, so I said if there was anything else other than the block he could use. There wasn’t. A little later still, I came back in. He was sat in the wheeled chair as other children lined up the plastic seats and a colleague was pushing him so he crashed into them (not hard enough to cause damage to anyone or anything, but enough for the thrill). Other children needed to play to. I thought, where else could this happen?
11. Dancing and papers
There’s a six foot or so high wooden box construction in the middle of the playground. It’s been there for a couple of months now. The children climb in it and over the top of it. It’s developed a name from some of the children, but which I won’t tell because it’s a secret! I was talking to the mother of a boy who was stood up on top of the box when she came to collect him. He was dancing and acting out all his moves in dramatic fashion. We both observed. I told her about the other play I saw him engage in. I told her how he expressed himself in is play here. I haven’t told her yet how, on the first day back, he had scattered papers and pens as far as he could throw them outside! It’s all expression, and it’s all fine.
12. Children sat around in scavenged upright armchairs
In the last weeks of last term, the playground came into possession of half a dozen or so upright armchairs: the kind that probably line the rooms of old people’s homes. There’s a small area just beyond the fence, at one corner of the playground, where stuff like this tends to get left for collection and disposal. The chairs looked serviceable enough, so they became re-housed, and they scrubbed up OK (until one of the older boys of the open access group had come in on the last day of term, poking around as we tried to tidy, making a meal of ‘helping’ but really, probably, just needing to be there: he found a spray can and promptly went and sprayed things like ‘Don’t sit here’ on the chairs!). Now, the chairs are either in the dens outside or some have found their way into a circle indoors. I’ve often thought it would be great to have a place of play that was an old ramshackle country house, complete with these sorts of chairs and big old rugs thrown over rough bare timbers: the children sat around in the chairs indoors last week, eating their food or just lounging, being decadent, and talking. It had a kind of ‘country house’ feel to it!
13. To intervene or not?
Some of the boys’ — and sometimes the girls’ — playfighting can sometimes shift, if not into full-on fighting, then into teasing bordering on the possibility of bullying by repetition of the action. It’s always a tough call, this one: sometimes, when does the playfight shift? Sometimes, when does the teasing become more potent? Perhaps the children are getting used to being in their own place again because some play challenges this side of Christmas. A playworker has to get up to speed again. A small gang teased and harassed and then the boy who was at the thick end of it cried. I intervened but don’t know right now if I did it right, soon enough, should have done it all. Of another playfight/fight, I don’t know whether I got it right or not because of different results: I observed a brother and sister trying to get a length of pole from one another. I knew they’d had scraps before, so I observed carefully. It seemed to be play, but edgy enough. I was alert and twenty yards or so away. The children didn’t look at me. Then the girl was bundled over and wasn’t pleased. She came over to me and kicked me in the shin. She knew I was watching, I guessed then, and I told her that if she’d asked for help (tough as I see her as), I would have helped. She kicked me again and later punched me on the nose! I may have some ingratiating to do!
14. A quiet attempt at damaging
Whilst at the fire pit, listening out for popcorn kernels popping whilst leant against the palette wall, I saw a short distance away how our resident ‘destructo-boy’ had been quietly cellotaping up a shopping trolley so it couldn’t escape. It was nothing unusual because, as well as hammering the life out of bits of old metal and plastic, he does sometimes have a need to play this way too. I observed from the corner of my eye. A short time later he fetched the sledgehammer from nearby. He gave me the slightest look, long enough for him to register a disapproval that I might give. In the lack of any negative sign, he went about his quiet business of hefting the sledgehammer to try to damage the stricken trolley lying on its side in the mud. The sledge proved too heavy to inflict any pain! It amused me anyway.
15. The playground as home
Some of the children buzzed around me every now and then, one day, asking to have the gate to the ‘pitches’ opened (this being, actually, just one hard court pitch beyond the fence of the playground). There was a member of the public on there, but the children badgered and badgered me, so we asked permission and were allowed on. The children organised their own game as I loafed around the edges, my hands in my pockets to keep warm. They told me I was playing, and they told each other I counted for two as I was an adult. They put me in goal. One of our open access regulars soon turned up and slipped himself into the game. He hung around, not being part of the club, but being part of the scene: he’s part of the furniture. He often climbs over the fence to let us know he’s still around, running around when he knows he shouldn’t be in there (though, actually, it’s just as much his place too). When all the children had gone home, we de-briefed and went to go too. He was sat on the railing out front, waiting for the youth club to start. This playground feels like it could be home to some.

It’s closure time of the year. Just as the self-employed undertake a self-assessment for the paying of tax, I thought I’d undertake a playwork self-assessment for the year. I do this not to beat my own drum (there are some things to improve upon after all), but in the hope that other playwork people might be inspired to do it too (at the very least, in the privacy of their own thoughts or notebooks). Plenty has happened this year: there’s no way I can capture it all, so I aim to write a flavour overview as a means of sparking what might lie in others’ consciousnesses.
With due regards to time, with grace
I’m aware of the passing of seasons on the playground. Although I won’t write every section here like this one, I’m thinking clearly about that long, wet January when the place seemed underwater continuously, and when we developed a swamp in the centre of it all; February brought the realisation of how long the open-access children have to wait between the short times they get the playground for (October to February is a long winter). We waited so long for the first flowers, and then the grass grew long, and it grew through the scattered tyres. I resisted the cutting of the grass for a long time: there are hiding places to be had. In the end though, things change: this I know. Before long, those new long hot days of summer were on us. We had to adapt to the water bombs, to the spin of the play. The autumn stretched summer out into long shadows and the heat stayed on until one week when the winter came. The light left and the children played in the dark. The tree den became empty through the branches because all the leaves had gone. The fire pit became the centre-piece to plenty of the play.

In all of this, I find I needed resilience and the ability to cope with soaked denim — even when I asked for it not to be water bombed; I needed humour when I had no reserves left, and sugar (in the form of fizzy energy drinks and chocolate!) Overall, I was aware of the need for grace. Some days I find this deserts me; more days I realise that moments make up everything, and that I am in between, and that the slightest gesture carries weight. Grace, like time, is in the fabric of the playground.
I think of an eight-year-old who told me to fuck off, not so long ago, so I fucked off
I want to write it like this because it’s true. This boy told it to me straight (and it wasn’t this year, but this further thinking on it, on personal ‘ways of being’ progression, is of this year). There was a time when I would have objected to his words, for various socially absorbed reasons (that is, what I took on board, without questioning it, about what others told me I should think). So, when this boy told me I was wrong, in no uncertain terms, I realised I was wrong. I continue to think about ‘being wrong’.
I think of the good days in which I serve
Some people I’ve worked with have objected to my reasoning that I should ‘serve’ children. They seem to be saying that I shouldn’t be taking a stance that they themselves see as overly self-deprecating. I don’t see it this way. I see it, more and more, as essential in good quality playwork: I am in service of the play. My purpose is not to control, or to teach, or to dictate or direct. I can and have served in many ways: on good days. There are days when I’m not so on the ball, in honesty. These are the days I can work on, in my continuing thinking on ‘being better’. On good days, I serve the play directly, or indirectly, walking away. The children tell me with the looks in their eyes or with words I don’t expect . . .
I make some mistakes that I recognise
There’s a small difference between me using the word ‘that’ and the word ‘which’ in this heading: the former is my admission that there are some mistakes that I make and that are recognised and, therefore also, some that I may miss; I choose not to use ‘which’ because this implies to me that I recognise all of my mistakes. The mistakes I’ve made, I’m working on; those that I don’t yet recognise are those that may make themselves clearer in the fullness of time.
I listen to the indirect and direct problems that children bring me
On the whole, I’ve not been a great believer in the ‘playworker as always basically invisible’ school of thought. I did go through a phase of being more invisible than visible, but then the children I work with now got to know me better. I work in a human environment. In that environment, those children bring me their small and great issues of their day-to-days, on occasion. I don’t know what to do about this, often, because what can I do? So I listen when I can. Sometimes I might go about the listening process in ways the children don’t want (see my previous post about the boy on the roundabout). Generally though, these children here will bring me things if I am the one they wish to unload on. We might be sitting round the fire, or we might be just talking at the hatch to the kitchen, the children sat up on the counter (some of the girls see this, I think, as ‘their place’, sat up against the wall eating pasta straight from the pan, or the salad straight from the bowl!) I do my best to listen, and if I get it wrong the children tell me in no uncertain terms.
I get my hands filthy, my clothes wet and smoky
Really, I think, this year, playwork involves a fair degree of this. There’s no point standing around pretending to be interested, constantly checking your phone, looking at the clock, hugging the corners of the playground (or whatever the place might be termed as) in tight little lines of personal comfort zones: you’ll get found out. Children know. Your colleagues know. You might be the only one who doesn’t. One day, one week, if I’m on form (and we all get tired, sure), I earn my way this way of filthy hands, of wet and smoky clothes. There’s still nothing quite like getting on the Underground at the end of a summer session, covered in mud and paint, stinking to high heaven, still talking play, even though the day’s come and gone, and heading for the pub, drawing the attention of slightly freaked-out fellow commuters!
Some play concerns me; some play I’m required in
I use the word ‘concern’ in two senses: some play concerns me, as in ‘it troubles me’; some play concerns me, as in ‘my presence is required in it’. I find I’m fine with some children climbing some trees, but other children climbing other trees has its worries. What I do or don’t do is then important. I decide to consult with a colleague, and I step away from the play as she observes. Yet, some similar play doesn’t concern me at all: I watch on amazed as the older boys perform all their parkour moves way up above me, jumping off the highest platform points, rolling, and bouncing off and on again.

Some play concerns me, as in ‘I am required’. I often wonder, when cued to play, about the difference between ‘neediness’ and ‘being required’. I see these as different in quality. If I’m well-received for a quality of ‘being me’, one day, I’m a necessary aspect of the play. It isn’t my play, but I’m a part of it. When it’s done, it’s done, and I’m discarded like any other object of the loose parts variety. Some days, the play might not be this way inclined: I inherit a personal little shadow. I try to give that shadow away to a colleague, in hopefully sensitive ways. It is this aspect of ‘being required’ that I find some fascination in though.
I’ll step away and around the play that doesn’t concern me
This is something I have been aware of for a fair while. I think of it every time my intended path comes into contact with a play frame/instance of play in front of me. It doesn’t take long to stop, wait, choose the right moment to pass on around the play, where possible. What I have learned is that I think about this more and more. On the days I get it wrong, because I’m requested elsewhere quickly, or because I just mis-time it, I tell myself this for next time.
I continue to learn the tools of the playground, recognise my limitations and inabilities, recognise the skill of others
Is being a good playworker about knowing which end a sledgehammer, screwdriver, saw, or power drill operates from? My limitations have always been my use of such tools (ask my woodwork and metalwork teachers at school!) However, slowly, slowly, I learn where the ‘on’ button is for most things! I will always be useless at doing the things that others can just do, seemingly, without even being aware that they’re doing it. My hat is very much off to them. I’ll keep trying.
I de-personalise the children’s criticisms, but take their said and unsaid praise
On some occasions this year, children have told me that I’m in their face, I’m bugging them, I’m not needed, or I’m something I just don’t understand because I haven’t got the local child parlance quite off pat yet. Yes, sometimes I’ve felt aggrieved by things said, but more often than not I know that that is what was needed to be said by that child in that moment. Tomorrow always brings a different light. ‘Tomorrow’ might end up being a few months down the line.

In contrast, when children choose to say how much they appreciate you, it’s usually not a superficial communication. In some ways, the following example is the catalyst for this post today. In the last week of school term, one of the older girls had discussions with various playworkers about whether they were on her ‘nice list’ or not. (It transpired that she’d been to Spain, apparently, so she told me on her way back from school one day, where those not on the ‘nice list’ get lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings). I found myself on the ‘nice list’. She smiled at me and told me that I always opened the door to her and her friends, bowing, saying things like: ‘Hello, ladies’! It’s true: part in playfulness but also part, in truth, because this is my way of saying an honest welcome to them. The point is that these ways I take for granted, over time, hadn’t gone unnoticed by this child. It has made me think on plenty of other ways of ‘being playworker’.
I write carefully, mostly
‘Being playworker’, for me this year, involves ‘being writer’. Words are important because they can either heighten or destroy the possibility of meanings. I try to choose wisely because words have play in them too.

A short while ago, I came across some words attributed to Barry Schwartz, regarding the cultivation of ‘practical wisdom’ in a piece entitled ‘Our Loss of Wisdom’, which I believe can be found via the TED talks website. Schwartz discussed ‘being wise’, and I thought as I read this passage that I could transplant his words ‘a wise person’ with ‘a playworker’; here’s what I can leave you with for 2014:

‘A playworker knows when and how to make the exception to every rule . . . a playworker knows how to improvise . . . real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A playworker is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand . . . to serve other people, not to manipulate other people . . . and finally, perhaps most important[ly], a playworker is made, not born.

‘Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people [who] you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, [to] try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures . . . and you need to be mentored by wise teachers.’

I have my chosen teachers. Some are excellent playworkers, some are much younger . . .
Seasonal malarkey to you all. Playworkings will return in January.

Something I’ve long been very aware of is the potential magnitude of moments: the things that pass us by because we’re not wise enough to ‘read’ them correctly. I’m adding to my understanding of this all the time, in new things learned and in re-realisations. This week I re-realised that I’m tall. I’ve known this, obviously, for the duration of my entire adulthood, but this week I re-realised that — in our moments of adult-child relating — there’s more to physical height differences than just the visually apparent. I’m well used to sitting on floors in past places of work with children, and at home, but in the winter on this playground, I’ve been walking and not sitting much. When a girl came to the fire pit this week, in a grumpy mood about something in her day, firing all the ‘whatever’ attitude of her present state of mind at me, I wasn’t helping even though I tried to listen and joke with her.

She was telling me things of her day-to-days but it was laced with something simmering under the surface. It suddenly occurred to me to lower my height because I had been leant up against the palette wall to the fire pit. More than this, it suddenly occurred to me to crouch right down, leaning my lower back against the wood: she now stood over me. Her whole disposition shifted immediately. It wasn’t that I was consciously trying to engineer this change in her way of being, at that moment: it was that I realised, after, that I had been affecting her too.

The magnitude of the moment struck me. We should not underestimate such small stories as these. It leads me to think back a short while, to a story written of recently of visiting an after school club, indoors, where I was able to communicate non-verbally (or, as I felt it) with a younger child as we slid down the wall divider next to each other, together. It makes me re-think on the times when I’ve been lower than the physical height of children. There’s often a shift in communications.

Moments come in other shapes and flavours, not just those of height considerations, and they can also be misread. A few days later, the same girl was at the fire pit again and I already knew I was tired and I felt I wasn’t reading the play as well as I could have done. The girl had spent a fair amount of time just poking the embers that had settled there (the fire had been lit quite early on and it had had a chance to settle). When her mum came for her, the girl ran inside to her. There was no-one else around, she was one of the last to go, so I threw the water from the nearby bucket onto the fire to put it out. I went to get some more from the standpipe. When I came back, the girl came charging out again and saw the rising plume of smoke caused by the sodden embers. She called me all sorts of things. She stomped off, muttering under her breath words to the effect of hating me now. I realised that, although she didn’t say it in so many words, she’d wanted to show her mum the fire she’d been nurturing. I hadn’t read the play up till then well enough because I was tired.

This is a moment that I write in order to remember it. I write the following for the same reasons. On the bench outside, a boy was banging away at the innards of an ex-computer, which was pretty flat but he kept going anyway. He progressed to use of the sledgehammer, dropping it onto the circuitry from a small height. I stayed close by, wary of toes. The girl of the stories above came by: ‘I want to try; let me use the sledge.’ She hefted it, dropped it, a few times. The moment of magnitude in question was a reading of some small satisfaction.

Three children wanted wood for the fire and I sourced a palette for them which I’d put by earlier in the day. They started banging it with hammers to try to break it up but nothing would shift. They wanted the sledgehammer but when they each tried to lift it, it was too heavy for them. They succeeded, individually or by group effort, in raising it and letting it drop with a dull thud-plop onto the wood without much impact. In the end they resorted back to the hammers as I sledged the palette and as they hooked off the scraps. The children knew about health and safety well enough, I realised: ‘Hold on!’ one kept telling me, ‘Let me get out of the way’ (which she was, but I suppose she must have felt it necessary to tell me again).

A boy was being bugged by two others. I couldn’t see what the focus of the issue was, but the play of the two boys (which wasn’t so much play for the first boy) fell around inside and outside in sporadic bursts. Eventually, the bugged boy took himself off to the far side of the playground on his own. I watched him go, left him for a little while, but decided for some reason that I should go open up a conversation. I circled around towards the roundabout, pretending I was doing other things, but really, truthfully, I think he had me pinned almost immediately. He stayed there though, and I came to crouch down at the roundabout bars as he slowly spun around. I asked him if there was anything I could do. He blanked me completely. I asked again in other ways and I got the same response. Slowly, quietly, he slid the roundabout to a crawl, which allowed him to get off. He walked away without a word or a look my way. I crouched there on the bar, despite being below his eye height, slowly spinning on my own. I hadn’t read this one right, nor had I chosen the best course of action, despite my best intentions. Other children came over immediately and cued me to spin them, which I did. I watched the boy trudge off into the gloom of the middle of the playground. I didn’t take his blanking of me personally.

I write this small story, and others, here and now to remember about moments and their potential magnitude.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 98 other followers

%d bloggers like this: