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

Playworking plain-songs

Plain-song. Mus. [Rendering med. L. cantus planus, F. plain chant, It. canto piano.] A simple melody or theme.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

 
Playworking is replete with stories, which are songs, of simple wonder. We can allow ourselves to become over-burdened with all the anythings that circle around and through our time in amongst the children’s play; we can forget to see and listen to the songs that play themselves out around us. These are not literal songs I’m writing of, necessarily: these are songs that vibrate a little differently.

The moments of songs unfolding, recently, have been beautiful . . .
 
Plain-song 1
At last, we all said, a warm and sunny day. We were out on the wedge of grass beyond the playground. Children ran around and parents watched. Children hoarded things at the edges, in the bushes, and we saw this. A couple of maybe four year olds sat in the shade of the branches. They were alone on the clean, new tarpaulin, which we’d secured against the ever-present flap of the breeze with six small concrete blocks at its edges. A makeshift wind-break, made of a pegged-down sheet, slung over skipping ropes, tied between the trees, stopped the paper blowing away. Sat on the grass, nearby and behind them, I watched these two younger children: a boy and a girl. They had found the jam-jar of glue. They had found the glitter. They had found the small treasure of the mosaic tiles. I watched for quite some time as the children focused on the soupy glue they were mixing up, sat in their own world on the clean, new tarp with its makeshift wind-break.

A little later, a parent came to show them how to spread the glue properly, so that things could stick to other things, like paper.

Plain-song 2
We had brought small rectangles of wood to the wedge of grass beyond the playground. The blocks were half an inch thick and a little rough to the touch. We had brought hammers — both the heavy claw type and the pin type, whose shoddy build is clear enough when any average eight year old chooses not to use them for the con-struction of things. We had brought nails — both the tiny type and the long ones that have the wow factor. One of the girls had built a bird-house, or a house, or a box. I’d seen her use the tools before: when I came by again, she was sat on the tarp tapping nails into balls of plasticine, which she’d stuck to the outside of her bird-house, or house, or box. She didn’t look up when she told me, as she tapped:

‘I really like the feel of this.’

Plain-song 3
One of the younger girls communicates without so many words. One day, when I was laying hula hoops out in an arcing line — red, blue, yellow, green, red, green, blue, or similar, repeated, repeated — on the wedge of grass beyond the playground, the girl who communicates without so many words jumped into a hoop and smiled. I jumped out of my hoop and into the one laying next to it. The girl jumped into her next hoop and waited and smiled . . .

Later, after some antagonisms had almost played themselves out between her and her brother, I sat on the concrete table at the edge of the grass with my feet on the concrete chair. The girl who communicates without so many words, still fizzy from the fresh pesterings and provocations of her brother, climbed up onto the concrete table with me. She leant back against my arm and was still.

Plain-song 4
One boy was in the hall spinning a giant red beanbag around and around. I interrupted his play, though I shouldn’t have done, though he seemed to forgive the intrusion. He took it as a cue, of sorts, and a delicate play fight happened. When the boy who was spinning play fights, he hardly touches. When he fights, he’s a flurry of hand and wrist spins and other little actions. Outside on the playground, later, our play fight started up again, somehow. It must have blown in on the breeze. A thin flurry of willow-stick arms barely brushed against one another. When he glanced me on the edge of a bone, he walked away, looking back, smiling.

Plain-song 5
We were at school, on the playground, and footballs and basketballs and children were flying around. The noise echoed off the brick and concrete. One of the older children came by. She often says, ‘You never hear what I say properly’, or words like this. I wonder if I’m going slowly deaf. ‘It’s noisy here,’ I told her. I’m not going slowly deaf. She nodded. We talked about what would happen if an adult were to suffer an accident there, what with all the flying around. ‘I would so get in trouble,’ she said.

She said that wouldn’t happen with us, at our playground. Later, an adult, my colleague, got hit in the back of the head by a ball. It was fine, though for a moment the child concerned looked more than a little concerned.

Plain-song 6
I was accosted at the door that leads from the hall to the playground: usually, three or four or five of the girls will find me at some point in the session. Some of the three or four or five will run to me and smile and offer me the warmth of their belated hellos. The others will come and watch. I was accosted at the door by four of the girls coming to offer me their variety of hellos. I had dust in my eye. I had tried to wash it out but I’d only made it worse. My eye was red and I had to hold it open with my finger and my thumb. The children didn’t seem to see this. I knelt down to their level to say hello. ‘I have something in my eye,’ I also said. One of the girls started poking at her eyeball underneath its lid. She addressed her friends when she said, ‘If you do this, you can feel your whole eye.’

Within a minute, all the girls were standing around, screwing their eyelids shut, concentrating hard and trying to feel their whole eyeballs underneath. I still had dust in my eye.
 
 

Small stories of grace

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are. This word ‘grace’ comes up often in the general flow of my thinking when working with children, or soon after: if we’re aware of moments, as I’ve long advocated, we can see and feel some beautiful things. Children can be all the things that adults can be, and maybe more (chaotic, unpredictable, bored witless, incandescently angry, just-woken half-way through the day, and so on): in amongst it all they can show amazing grace.

In this grand sweep of thinking, I pick and choose my definitions but largely I’m seeing the graceful child as displaying tact and decency, an elegance of timing, considered courtesy and, all in all, a high emotional intelligence. I’m not suggesting that we, the adults, should be moulding children into displaying these traits of ‘civility’ (indoctrinating them into who and what to be); I’m saying that this grace is already there in these children and that we, the adults, have much that can be learned from them.

I see grace in such small but significant moments. Last week, at the open access play provision on the playground, the place was packed with children and many of them wanted to play their collective favourite chase-tap game of ‘Family Had’ again. The game involves the playworkers chasing after the children before they can get back to the sand pit. It had been raining and the wooden platforms of the structures were slippery. The children didn’t fall over, but I did. The chasees near me immediately stopped to ask if I was OK. When they found out I was alright (if a little bruised, inside and out!), they loudly started proclaiming my fall to the playground, but that was fine and all part of it. One of the girls, a nine year old who’d been a shadow near me most of the day, was quite concerned for me. A little while later, she came and sat by me, offering me a plaster. (On hearing the story later, a colleague said, ‘Oh, I wondered why she’d come to rummage in the first aid kit’).

Another day, near the end of the session, a boy of around 11 or 12 came onto the playground holding a water balloon and striding with intent towards another boy fifty yards or so away. I followed him and asked him not to attack anyone. The boy shrugged me off and largely ignored me. I repeated what I’d said, but we ended up rubbing each other up the wrong way. He talked with the other boy at a distance and turned and shouted a whole flow of his anger at me, calling me all the things you can imagine but which I won’t print here. He left the playground with his middle finger up. The next day, sometime in, I didn’t know he was on site. I was at the fire pit by the gate. He nodded at me, and it was a ‘making good’ and I apologised to him. We talked a little and went our separate ways. His grace was in his approach.

One of our newer children is about eight years of age, I suppose, and he has some degree of physical disability and learning difficulties, though I don’t know him well enough yet to know specifically what those needs might be. It doesn’t matter, in this respect. Every so often I observed this new boy playing and, resilient though he looks to be, I could see that all of the older children were looking after and out for him. One day, one of the older boys, a fifteen year old who’s had his moments of mischief on the playground, shall we say, bent down and tied the younger boy’s laces for him.

I can’t write about grace without mentioning probably the most graceful child I know. She’s around ten years of age and so full of love for her sister and her friends and, indeed, for us in the way that she treats people. She can find herself in the middle of small groups which, because they’re small, often end up ostracising one of their members for no apparent reason other than three’s a crowd or four’s one too many, and she’ll be upset but she’ll be as composed as she can be. She’ll find ways to put her sister or her friends first and I’m always amazed by her. She reads the play around her and the play she’s in herself and she’ll go with its flow. It isn’t some sort of ‘martyrdom’ here because she gets a lot of her own way too, but she just seems to often have that love for others that eases things over.

Towards the end of the last open access session last week, on Friday, I was coming out of the office and another girl of around 11 years old waved at me, slightly, lounging as she was on the sofa on the far side of the hall. She hadn’t been at the playground all week, as far as I knew, and I was pleased to see her again because I’ve known her for a few years. Slight waves and other hellos have a grace about them — as do words that are in between the words: words that aren’t said but which you know have been communicated, in a way. Sometimes children choose their adults carefully and tell us the things they need to tell just us, because it’s us, or because it’s the moment, or because, because . . .

Here, I’m not inferring things that need to be brought to the attention of the safeguarding officer; rather, I’m saying that words between words, given to a chosen adult, suggest that a certain child’s life may be a great deal more difficult than our own. Their grace is in the hint, in the unsaid words that you are the one I know will know, and in choosing not to give more because what more can be said?

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are.
 
 

In a manner similar to how you have to go through psychoanalysis to become a psychoanalyst, as I understand it, maybe as a playworker there’s a certain amount of analysis of one’s child-self that needs doing. A while ago I rediscovered a stash of old English language (grammar and punctuation and suchlike), Maths and ‘Writing’ (stories) books that span four years or so of my late primary years. I wrote here on this blog that I’d type the stories up one day. I’ve finally got round to doing that for some of them.

Reading the stories of the seven-year-old me, that first rediscovered time, and each time thereafter, leaves me with a real mix of emotions: first and foremost, I can’t stop laughing! This is closely followed by an absolute disconnect to the strange thinking processes I was going through at the time of writing them: I don’t remember the act of writing them, the thoughts and emotions I was having at that time of my life, or any significant issues I was struggling with. As far as I remember I was just a normal sort of seven-year-old, though I did seem to have a perturbing fixation with writing about ‘deadness’, and a lack of attention for finishing things off properly sometimes, letting stories amble and trail off into bored ramblings or unsatisfactory conclusions about northern football clubs I have absolutely no affiliation to whatsoever!

The serious paragraph of this post now follows: in playwork, work-inhabiting or passing by and in between the places where children play (some of whom are around about the age I was when I wrote the stories you’re about to read), we can sometimes forget that there’s a whole tangled world of thinking going on in those children’s heads. Not only is there the fantasy that we skirt by, learned from Bob Hughes’ infamous play types (and skirted by because we know how we just don’t know what that fantasy of the moment is in the child’s play), but there’s also all the emotions that manifest (and we see the explosions of this, though we don’t see the inner workings) and which may not be remembered later in that child’s life, all the feelings of love (yes, myself and colleagues talked last week about how we each fell in love at or around the age of seven!), all the sense of self-worth, all the effects of culture absorption, and so on. To be better playworkers (and to be better adults too, whether in playwork or not), maybe we ought to look back more on our seven-year-old selves’ ways of seeing the world. If we can’t remember, maybe our stories can help.

So, there follows a select eleven stories mined from the thin pale blue exercise book that’s on my desk and which is labelled, in careful unidentified teacher’s reddish felt tip ink, with my name on the front and ‘Writing March ‘77’. Stories are written up here as faithfully as possible to the original (with the pros of surprisingly good spelling, on the whole, I feel, but with the cons of not yet having grasped the benefits of punctuation — Kerouac might have approved!). The term [sic] dotted about is, I believe, short for sic erat scriptum (‘thus was it written’: that is, ‘directly as written in the original’). A short playworker’s note on his seven-year-old self is added after each story.
 
(i)
Once upon a time there was a girl called Sally and her two brohters [sic] Richard and Mark one day Mark said to Richard lets [sic] run away and take all of Sallys [sic] toys and they did they went to the beach on ship and then they went by bus But the man who owned the Bus said you can’t come on here with all that luggage and got put in the sea and killed them

Playworker’s note: I don’t ever remember anyone in my childhood called Sally. This story seems to be the start of a disturbing ‘deadness’ phase. What can make children think of these things even if they’re relatively stable? Is the ‘dead’ part of healthy fantasy? I’d like to make a note of vocabulary use (not in a teacher way!): it’s a serious point about how I’m often pleasantly surprised by the range of vocabulary that even young children have.

(ii)
Once upon a time there was a king and that king was good and one day in the night a monster came and the king and queen was worried and just then a fairy came and made a spell. This is what it was not worry my king and queen the monster will be dead by morning it was the fairy had made a spell on him to die.

Playworker’s note: The ‘deadness’ continues! Morality jumps out at me here too: how much does adult morality impinge on children’s own developing judgements?

(iii)
Once upon a time there was a dog called Pax and he liked to chase cats it was the cat who lived next door and one day Pax said to the cat let us go for a ride in the woods with lots to eat so they did they took dog and cat food and they went to sea and the waves were lovley [sic] and they got pushed of [sic] a boat and it killed them.

Playworker’s note: More of the ‘dead’! As far as I know, our dog didn’t go in for chasing cats at all. Children can ‘be’ animals much more readily than adults. Maybe someone looked at me funny that day and I anthropomorphised them into a cat to get them back (though I must have had a bout of guilt at the end and took myself off the edge as well, just to even it up!).

(iv)
There was once a volcano and it interrupted and it was bad it went all over a city and killed about 60 babys [sic] and the volcano was in africa and a man called John . . . [half a line of indecipherable gibberish, something about a crow?] and he was famous and he had a special gun to throw in the lava to make it go he did and everything was as before but 60 babys [sic] came alive.

Playworker’s note: Honestly, this one took so long to type up — I couldn’t stop laughing! (Not because of the death and calamity but because of the oddness of the boy whose eyes I was reading through). What’s with the ‘deadness’, younger me? Again though, he can’t kill them without feeling some sort of guilt about it!

(v)
Once upon a time there was a boy about 9 years old he lived Near to the sea and one Sunday his mum gave him two small fish and five loaves of bred [sic] and he had a picnic and he saw lots of people and he went over to them he saw Juses and Juses was talking to the people he talked and talked and talked and talked and by Night the people were hugry [sic] and the boy came upto Juses and gave him the five loaves and the 2 fish and he shared it out.

Playworker’s note: Half-way through reading this story for the first time, I suddenly said ‘Hang on!’: cultural plagiarism, religious imposition, etc. The things that adults can put into children’s minds. I’m glad I accidentally subverted the protagonist.

(vi)
One night John woke up and saw smoke coming under his bedroom door John quickly jumped out of bed there was lots of flames he telephoned for the fire engine to rescue John the fire engine came they used water to put the fire out they put water on the house with a hose pip [sic] and it went out with No burning flames.

Playworker’s note: Who is this John? He crops up in various stories. I don’t know if I ever knew anyone called John: maybe there was a neighbour. He does seem to get into calamity and saving situations. Do children’s imaginations and fantasies repeat and cycle round with similar scripts and scenarios? Do ours? Do they help?

(vii)
Smells

i like the smells of the flowers and i like the smells of mummys [sic] perfume and the sea smells nice too the sea is my favourite smell i like the smell of mummy cooking the onions for dinner and i love the smell of apple pie cooking in the oven and i like the smell of mummy making tea i like the smell of daddy [sic] after shave

Playworker’s note: This may have been a writing exercise, but it speaks to me of the simple pleasure of the affective, the sensory, in the environment that surrounds the playing and living child.

(viii)
i played at sword fighting on sunday with my dad we had sticks for sword [sic] and he went to get me and i moved out of the way i got him he had to fall down and count up to 20 then he can fight he killed me for about 1 time and i killed him for 0 times so my dad won in the end

Playworker’s note: Playing with parents (and, the heresy of it, with playworkers?!) can be important in a child’s life. When we play, as parents, or are invited to take part in play as playworkers, do we always know how important this apparently simple act of playing is for the child (that is, our input and ways of being in the play)?

(ix)
Stone Age Men

If i were a Stone Age boy and my dad was a Stone Age man i would go out with my dad i would Hunt for a wolly mammoth [sic] or a sabre-tooth-tiger and i would give the sabre-tooth-tiger a trap I would dig a hole and get some sticks and put a point on the top then i would put grass and sticks and when the sabre-tooth tiger steped [sic] in he would be dead then i would give the skin to my mummy then eat the insides of it

Playworker’s note: The return of the ‘dead’! Not only are children blessed with in-built invincibility but they often seem to have a high regard for their own abilities, e.g. survival skills! Perhaps it’s good that the world hasn’t fully got to them yet.

(x)
Once upon a time there was a king who had 3 sons one day the first son went to the woods he was just about to cut a tree down when a little man came in a little red car he said to the first son what are you making he said spons [sic] no sooner did he say it when spons came falling down up to his knees then the next son was just about to cut a tree down when the little man in the little car he said what are you making he said pens no sooner did he say it when pen where [sic] falling down from the tree It came to the start of his back(?) then the last son came he was just about to cut down a tree when the little man came in his car and said what are you making he said jumpers No sooner had he said it he was covered from toe to neck he went to his brothers and the first son got his spoons and put them in the pond so did the 2nd brother But the last son he gave the king 2 jumpers and 71 for the first one 72 to the 2nd son and 73 for him and the king said to the first brother you may have my maid you may have the 2nd maid he said to the 2nd brother and as for you he said to the last brother you may have my queen they all got marrid [sic] and lived Happily

Playworker’s note: Seven-year-old me obviously lost interest in this, quite frankly, confusing little vignette. Not only did his attention wander towards the end but he didn’t think it all through properly: the king gave the son his queen, who he married — so that would be his mother? The little man in his little car completely stumps me, but the random connections (which may or may not connect) are things I see happening in the play narratives of children I work with now (‘Do an earthquake on the netting with random words, like, custard, Jupiter, giraffe’). Also, ‘Happily Ever After’ has an awful lot to answer for.

(xi)
Once upon a time there was a boy who always asked questions on Sundays he asks questions a Bit like this how many stars is there do dinosaurs live now he always asks them to his daddy whos [sic] name was Richard Mon one sunday day he saw his girl friend he said Sally which was her name what do Bees do Sally said your [sic] playing a joke what do Bees do I don’t know thats [sic] why I told you your [sic] not playing a joke said Sally they do humming all day long and one sunday he stoped [sic] asking questions and he done [sic] that when he was 14 years old he grew up to Be a footballer he scored 7 Goals for Leeds 5 Goals he got the cup it was Gold he solded [sic] it and got a car

Playworker’s note: There’s Sally again, whoever she was. Imaginary Sally obviously didn’t pander to the seven-year-old narrator’s blathering foibles and so he took the easy route out of the story and went to play for a northern team he has no affiliation to, in a town he’s only ever visited once in his entire adult life, and he did what those who were forty years his senior were doing, selling up in the midst of a mid-life crisis, buying a flash car and disappearing without so much as a full stop to say goodbye! I don’t know: do children just up sticks in the middle of a story they were playing . . .?
 
 

A februariness of play

February half-term on the playground often seems to be a somewhat special or unique instalment of the various episodes of ‘open access’ that happen year-round. That is, in a simplistic way of looking at it, I tend to come back to the idea that October to February half-term is the longest period between open access provisions (us not currently being able to provide for Christmas), and this contributes to the feel of the place: most children just seem somewhat relieved to be able to get back into that play place. However, other factors must also feed into why February half-term often feels as if it has something a little extra, for me.

The weather plays its part, of course: it’s usually a little cold, definitely mostly coat or heavy jumper weather, but when the sun shines over the muddy, grassy and not yet enflowered open playground, and when the frosted ground not yet found by the weak late winter/early spring sun just sits and reminds you that the season hasn’t fully shifted yet, this has its ‘being out in the open’ positive affect. Working in the daylight is also a novelty in February: for several months of winter after school club, we watch the sun dipping over the roofs earlier and earlier on in the session, and recent memories of play get tinged with how that play recedes into the shadows of the far and dark reaches of the playground.

What strikes me most about the February half-term open access though is the unique magic of it. Sure, there’s magic in the summer months when children spend day after day throwing themselves down the water slide, or when the heat lends a different feel to the play, but February has the quality of smoke and a low sun. There are February days that are, and that have been, every bit as hectic as summer days (take last February’s moments of mayhem, for example), but all in all February has a special quality.

I’ve written plenty about play I’ve been invited into recently, but there follows some observed February play, which is connected to how February generally feels for me.
 
A moment that matters
I spent plenty of time by the fire pit last week, as myself and my colleagues all did, in turns, working more closely with an older boy with autism. He spent hours at or around the fire. Some long periods, when he’d got his fill of backwards and forwards returns to tip more cardboard and paper onto the fire, he sat on the bench and just watched the flames, or stared into space. I sat with him, talked with him, watched with him. One day, in a moment of quietness, as the pallets gently burned, I looked around and, behind me a few feet away, I just caught a few seconds of three girls standing around and laughing with one another, about whatever they were laughing about, in their own play in that part of the playground. It struck me that nothing else mattered to them, that this was a totally comfortable place for them, that this moment for them, and for me observing, was very special.
 
Painting yourself into a corner
Two brothers of about 8 and 10 or 11 spent hours and hours playing with each other, over the days. They didn’t seem to speak much to anyone, or to each other (or maybe I just didn’t hear it), but they just tumbled around the playground, doing their own thing in between the ‘doing their own things’ of all the other children. One day, the boys got really into the paints that had been left out. They painted a sizeable amount of the structures that occupy the middle of the playground (I remember seeing the youngest examining the undersides of his shoes as he stepped on somebody else’s freshly rainbow-painted top of a pallet construction: soon after, the boys were off painting the roofs of the other structures). Later, I was sitting with some children who were threading beads at the table bench nearby and the younger boy, I saw, had painted himself into a corner up there. He’d got his foot stuck, and he’d become immobilised by this and his inability or unwillingness to step on his freshly painted surface. What would he do? I wondered. His brother couldn’t offer any help or advice. The youngest was like a fly stuck on fly-paper! I got up and went over, holding onto his upper arm as he lent all his weight onto me, seeming to totally trust me and without speaking to me, him bending down to unwedge his foot. I set him up straight and off the boys went.
 
The organisation and administration of cookies
My colleague had brought out ingredients for the children to mix up and make cookies with. Things like this don’t get roundly and loudly announced on the playground: they just seem to happen. Some of the children do like to make and eat things. The trestle table gets set up outside, and before long, things get mixed, the kitchen gets used, food is made. I was at the fire pit again when I realised cookies were happening. A girl came over to me with a clipboard in her hand and asked me if the boy with autism wanted cookies (she could have asked him herself: he would have understood, but some children understand this and some children are gradually working it out). Later, when I looked round just to see what was going on on the playground, I saw another girl with the clipboard, pen poised efficiently, being excellently administrative and organised! It made me smile. It made me think, not for the first or last time, that the playground is these children’s, and they’re perfectly capable in their freedoms to be.
 
Sworn privilege
Another moment at the fire pit, I was sat up high nearby, up on the top of the tunnel made from two joined U-shapes of old fibre-glass slide. I was out of the way (though feeling a little conspicuous, in truth, seemingly lording it, as it were). It didn’t matter: one of the older girls came over and sat on the seated area (made from old bits of wood and carpeting) beneath me. She knew I was there, she couldn’t have not known, but she just needed to sound off to those around her about the things on her mind. She was angry and she swore her way through the conversation with the other children of her age. Where else can the children do this if not on their playground? I was not the least perturbed by it. If anything, I felt it a privilege that she should feel at ease, talking the way she did, with this adult in close proximity.
 
One small step, one giant leap
It took a session and a half for one girl to finally manage to jump from the pallet platform onto the cantilever swing. Her friend had taken an hour or so to pluck up the courage (the platform is only four or five feet high but, I guess, this develops a healthy emotional risk in children who are only four or five feet high themselves; the swing also does arc back fairly close to the platform, and this perhaps adds to the charge). The first girl made the jump, after a short while, and immediately went back for more, as I suspected she would. The second girl got up, got urged on by the other girls, steadied herself, chickened out, got down, repeated the whole process again and again. The next day, the same thing happened for a long time. One of the girls was the designated camera operator (on her phone): evidence as witness. The girl who wouldn’t jump was genuinely unsure of it, I felt, but I also suspect there was a fair amount of gaining attention taking place. I wanted to see her achieve the jump, but a combination of not wanting to wait around for ever and being shooed away meant I went elsewhere. A little while later, a huge scream and squeal sounded out across the playground! It was the group of girls by the cantilever swing: the unsure girl had done it! News reached me quickly. Later, the phone-camera girl showed me the seventeen seconds of evidence footage. ‘Yeh,’ she said, scrolling back through a long stream of clips of other aborted attempts, ‘but look at how many goes she had at it.’ After the first jump, the previously unsure girl had immediately gone back up to the pallet platform for more, as I suspected and hoped she might.
 
February half-term is bound up in the end of a long period away, in the weather and in being in the daylight, in smoke from the fire pit and in the low sun, but it’s also bound up in the magic of its particular moments. I haven’t really got an all-encompassing word for it, so I shall just have to invent one: I’ll call it ‘a februariness’ for now.
 
 

Being a playworker offers privileged insights into the many-faceted nature of play and, by extension, children’s culture. We, as the adults, are by definition on the outside looking into that culture. That said, the observant, the trusted and the fascinated can be subsumed: just as parliamentary privilege grants its members the leeway of undertaking certain protected actions, playworker privilege (or, at least, play-literate adult privilege) grants that playworker the luxury of being allowed to co-exist in the child’s play. This post, however, isn’t going to carry on about constitutions and the like: privileged insights on play, over time, manifest themselves into a form of grammar that can be seen to be taking place. This is it: play has its grammar.

First though, a quick explanation overview on the choice of title (feel free to read ahead if you know the difference between ‘restrictive’ and ‘non-restrictive’ clauses). Simply put, a restrictive clause is an element of a sentence that is essential for its meaning. A non-restrictive clause can be omitted without the sentence losing its meaning. For example, omitting ‘which is non-restrictive approach to action’ from the title doesn’t greatly shift its overall gist: ‘Play and its grammar’.

Play is non-restrictive, i.e. it doesn’t restrict the subject (that is, in this case, the playing child). If we shift the title of this post to include a restrictive clause, then we shift the meaning of it, e.g. ‘Play that is non-restrictive approach to action and its grammar’. Play that is non-restrictive suggests that there is a non-restrictive and a restrictive sort of play. If it’s restrictive (or restricting) for the player, is it play?

I’ll stop on that choice of title whilst I’m still marginally ahead! Over the years a playworker can amass several books’ worth of privileged insights into the grammar of play, as they’ve seen it. Anything I write here in the next thousand words or so will only scratch the surface. Suffice is to say though that there are lores and codes, the sense of the non-sensical, the necessary unnecessariness and vice versa, the repetitions and recreations, the shows and tells, the long lines of finding out, ridicule and ridiculousness, the not knowing and just staring out but just knowing . . .

Play, as observed, seems replete with ‘this is how it is-ness’. That is, those lores of ‘We got here first’ and ‘I invented this game’ are ingrained in the fabric of play from those players’ points of view. Recently, play had unfolded inside the hall, over the course of a few days, whereby a small group of children strung string or wool around like webs. Of course, this irritated other children who wanted to use that exact same area too. The stringers claimed the moral and play high ground by invoking the ‘we got here first’ clause. Clauses like this are written into the language of play.

Non-sense (written deliberately here with the hyphen) is not a trivial aspect of this language. Non-sense is a code in itself. When ‘Cops and Robbers’ happens on the playground, and when I’m the cop because that is my designation, some of the children will stop running and stand in the middle of the site, in the mud, with a finger placed across their upper lips (or, sometimes, it’s a twig or something else like this). This non-sense makes perfect sense to the players: all of us. The children standing with their fingers poised horizontally across their upper lips are in disguise, sporting moustaches. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ the situation requires me to say to any of the girls stood there, ‘but have you seen any robbers around here?’ The children will often say no, so I’ll say, ‘Oh, sorry to have bothered you, sir’ and this is their cue to take down their moustache disguises and the chase is on again! If you ‘write’ the play in other ways, sometimes, if you play it out other than expected, it doesn’t seem to read right.

Within play there are necessary unnecessaries and unnecessary necessaries. Glitter is a thing of the moment (a necessary necessary within the other lines of thinking, being, doing). One particular younger child attends our off-playground outreach sessions every day we’re out there. Every day, without fail and at some point, he’ll find the pot of glitter (which we take out there because the other children have been gluing and glittering and feathering pictures and plasticine and tables for weeks now). Every day we’re out there, as soon as he’s found the glitter pot, this younger child will pour it all out onto the nearest surface (usually the ground!). It seems absolutely, unnecessarily necessary for him to do this, or vice versa. I haven’t quite worked out which. Either way, it’s a twisted grammatical construction, as complex as it is: threading through and hanging in the play, the child has his own reasons. It is a dangling participle of the language of play.

Play like this happens again and again. I’ve written of repetitions and recreations of play many times here (yes, that is an intentional and considered previous two lines). In some form of necessary way, players often seem to need and want this repetition and recreation. Perhaps the play that has happened hasn’t strung itself out fully yet; perhaps the play just needs repeating in order to try to conjure the affective felt conditions of before (as I have written of before); perhaps, in the repetitions and recreations, in the grammar of these lines that thread through days, there is something of the ancient ritual, of the magic incantation, of magic protective circles, and the like. These are not necessarily about the extensions of play that happens (being the on-going concern of a play frame over days — like, for example, the cafés that currently unfold around the playground); these are clockwork repetitions. One boy with autism repeats the same actions at the fire, piling on cardboard and any paper sheets he can find, sitting and watching and saying over and over, ‘Little flames, little flames’ and ‘Strawberry jam’ or whatever I can’t translate from his Slovenian or Croatian. Other children, without autism, repeat their play at the swings, at the trampoline, at the netting, with the bikes, with the sand and mud pies, with the whatever is ‘in’ of the moment. It seems readable: as if there are messages within it all.

Some children create elaborate constructions of play and there are more messages embedded in all of these. These are shows and tells. The playworker has to be hyper-tuned to register the frequencies of what’s going on around him- or herself some days. There are wavelengths that are longer too though. Sometimes the amplitude, as it were, is so shallow, though the wavelength is so long, that the on-going play can be missed, unseen, entirely. The long lines of finding things out are written in the way that names and uses of them unfold, in the slow fluidity of shifts in friendships, in the ultra-local legends of very particular places within the place that is the playground. These are subject-verb agreements within the grammar of the play.

Some children, in the play, are objects of ridicule (because they don’t know or don’t care what and how they do things, or because they’ve chosen a way, or because they can only be that way, or because they’ve wanted to be). They act like punctuation marks because you know how they’ll affect the sentence of the play as a whole. They’re both needed and unneeded by the other children: an aspect of the selective descriptive grammar, in this case, rather than the prescribed ‘you must do this, be this, be that’. Ridicule is part of play but play also subverts and embraces ridiculousness. On the face of it, when does play start? It’s ridiculous to suggest that it either starts or ends when, sometimes, narrating (or prescribing) the play — what will happen (‘first I’ll do this, then you do that, then afterwards we’ll do this’) before it’s happened — is part of the play in itself. Then it shifts condition. The blocky adult perspective of ‘non-play action, non-play action, play, non-play action’ is the ridiculous here, which children are fluent in turning on its head. It’s a way of writing upside down. At the same time, play embraces the ridiculousness of being. ‘What would you like from our café, sir?’; ‘Octopus pie and a slice of hippo, no cucumber please’; ‘OK, just wait here.’ It’s mirror writing: through the looking glass.

Play, which is non-restrictive (or how can it be play?), has its grammar. This is, as I read it, a complex affair. It embraces other philosophies and fields in its ethics, in its amplitudes and wavelengths, in its calligraphies and natural magic. There are clauses in the lores, ways of reading, twisted constructions and hidden messages within it all; there are subject-verb agreements, objects in relation, subversions and subsummations of others’ ways of being. Play is a descriptive, non-restrictive, grammar because it won’t be exactly pinned.

Sometimes, all we can do (and sometimes all children need to do), in the just not knowing, is just a staring out, but just kind of knowing all the same . . .
 
 

(E)states of play

It’s high time I wrote again on this blog, and a number of areas of thinking have been knocking on the door and looking for some written attention: where to go first this new year though? Politics seems a likely candidate. Although I’ve long had some fairly strong political beliefs, I’ve not always written them here. Maybe that should change. A spot of Tory MP-bashing is in order (I’ve never met a playworker who owns up to also being a Conservative: those two circles don’t seem to share the same Venn diagram!) If you’re both of these yourself, you keep it quiet.

The Tories don’t get children. They don’t understand what they are and what they’re for, really. As far as your average Conservative MP is concerned, a child is a ‘social unit’ to be quantified, money-fied, educated in standard Tory ideals of dubious morality, behaviours, the thick end of a fountain pen and the business side of an abacus. Children, as far as a Tory is concerned, are unformed adults waiting to become profitable mortgage-holding, credit-worthy, taxable units in the societal sausage machine. ‘Play’, by extension, isn’t a word that your average Tory understands.

Where there’s play there is the formation of connection to the playable areas: places of affect and history are shaped; people shape people in their movements and moments. Children find all the cracks in the city, and the play lingers there, even after all those children have long grown up. Places form and remain. That is, until a Tory like Our Dear Leader, Mr Cameron, announces (BBC article) that he’d like to obliterate the council estates. Sure, there are some run-down areas, and sure, they may harbour crime, but there’s crime in other echelons too: MPs fiddle their expenses, the wealthy and knowledgeable siphon their money away from the taxman, corporates make dodgy deals, wars are created and arms sold, drugs get dealt. Shall we pull down all their houses of disrepute too?

It’s rather simplistic to make a point based on limited points of reference, but I’m going to do it anyway because the Tories seem to make use of this way of thinking in their staggering lack of connection to the people who they’re supposed to represent. The BBC journalist, in the article linked to above, writes of Cameron:

Writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Cameron said ‘brutal high-rise towers’ and ‘dark alleyways’ in the worst estates ‘were a gift to criminals and drug dealers’. He said 100 housing estates would be improved with the plan. Mr Cameron cited analysis which suggests almost three-quarters of people involved in the riots in England in 2011 came from such estates.

Starting over, a clean sweep, will cure all crime and cleanse the country of drug dealers and rioters, so it might seem, because everyone then will be viable social and economic units with their own mortgages and nuclear families, with their own socially acceptable housing units, and with these, their own reformed Tory-approved morality and behaviour. (That this might readily be seen as ‘make money, every man’s house is his castle, sell your own grandmother’ can be quietly swept under the Conservative Persian — made in the UK — Carpet here though).

Simplistically, regenerating an area’s urban fabric will not solve all of its actual or perceived social ills. The author of the BBC article writes:

Brian Robson, policy and research manager for housing at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation charity, said it was true that poor housing and run down estates could trap people in poverty.

But he said he worried the government . . . risked ‘pushing people out of the places where they have roots’.

Some estates may be dangerous, but many aren’t so: many are home. The article also quotes Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Shelter charity:

‘It is essential for the government to consult with the people who live in and around these developments as they develop their plans . . .’

Some people may like where they live. Some people may have attachments there. Some people may have a long-standing connection to the people, the area, the building that they live in, the markets and shops, the schools and the history and everything that that place is. Some people’s entire play lives are embedded in the bricks and the pathways, the hedges and the trees.

In the Sunday Times this month (another of the UK’s non-neutral media outlets), Cameron writes:

There’s another crucial dimension to our plans: social reform — bringing security to families who currently have none. As I said three months ago in Manchester, a central part of my second-term agenda is to wage an all-out assault on poverty and disadvantage.

This is a Tory assault. The implication of the rhetoric is not, as it might seem to Tory ears, a case of picking the country up by its old-fashioned braces, giving it a good hard character-building slap around the face, telling it to stand up and fight for Queen and country, get a job and ‘be normal’; no, the implication of the rhetoric is in ‘search and destroy’, not repair. For those who don’t care, this is fine.

If the Tories succeed in dismantling what they view as the ‘worst estates’, they’ll also have their eye further on ‘reformation’ of open spaces. Playing fields have been built on and continue to be seen as fair game. Maybe all schools (in a kind of Orwellian Tory future) will be academy business units whose tarmac rectangles (formerly known as playgrounds) are rented out to the highest bidders. Adventure playgrounds, those bastions of disorder and social connection, of ever-unfolding play, will be sold to ‘Be Gorillas in the Sky for £40 per hour’ ultra safe-climbing and instructor, character-building franchises (cf Battersea Adventure Playground), or they’ll be built over with a few more housing units (targets ticked, all the rich history buried, move on).

Of course, I’m biased in this last respect because I see so much play and what forms from this and in between this, every working day (as do my colleagues in the playwork sector, fighting similar battles as we all do). However, play does happen in all manner of other places too (places that become places because they’re played in), and this includes the cracks in the city, the estates, and the open public spaces in between.
 
 

As it’s nearing the end of the autumn/winter term and so the end of the calendar year, and as this post may well be the last one until the New Year, perhaps it’s time to take stock again of things considered along the way. Every now and then I like to do this: I’ll gather in my writings, re-read them, wonder who I was when I wrote this or that, or I’ll confuse myself with not remembering the writing of a piece in particular at all, and I’ll try to see what runs through it all this year. This is this process.
 
Refining spirals
Thinking and writing on play (or any other subject) is a refinement, but for this writer it’s also a spiral: ideas I picked up either early on or along the way stay with me. Some become stronger, and some benefit from new information. All benefit from being in the play, or just outside it, observing in. Some ideas fall away. There was a time when I was heavily theoretical. I thought I mixed it well with the practice, but actually I think I stopped thinking for myself. This year, perhaps, praxis is healthier. In the spiral, come back to what sustains you, by all means, is what I tell myself, but jettison anything that no longer makes sense or that you often blindly followed.
 
The relating or sometimes pastoral playworker: what our presence means to the children
I come back to the ‘relating playworker’ thinking time and again. It’s what I know from my experiences of working with children, from my observations of children with colleagues and with other adults, from some of the stories of other playworkers and from the stories of children. The children I know well tell me in so many ways what my presence means to them (often I’m accepted, though sometimes I get it wrong). Children I don’t know well, those I’ve met for only days at a time and with months or a year in between this and our next meeting, will sometimes tell me that my affect is something that they value. My affect can last for years. Of this I need to take continual notice.
 
Being in the play
What of my affect in being in the play, if the children want it that way? I’m cast in serving roles, in repeated roles, in necessity and in acceptance if I’m called away or delayed. The grace of these players, who may or may not be as aware of their own affect on adults, is a privileged offering. The children have their narratives and expectations but they can shift if they need to: they know I’m open to and for them. In the play I may be servicing the pulling or pushing of equipment, being the key character to enable the play to unfold, being several rapidly changing characters (the cop; the robber; the zombie; the ghost; the narrated-to, out of the play, on called-for ‘time-outs’; the earthquake maker; the storm; the prison guard, and so on and on). In the play I may be in the play of several frames at once. I may be completely subsumed by it or I may be bored by it. In the play, I’m in the play. I affect.
 
Repeated play
There has been such noticing of repeated play. Maybe the requests for my immersions, followed by my immersions, have resulted in closer inspection of that play. Maybe my relating to certain individuals and certain groups of children has strengthened: I’m able to see patterns I may not have seen so clearly before. Either way, or in both ways, the play replays over weeks and months. There is a certain need for this in the children, though maybe I’ll never know for sure what this is.
 
How we communicate/how we are
In this relating, how is it that I communicate with the children? How we are is read and children are often good at this, I find. They know. If I’m not honest, or if I’m weighed with other thoughts, or if I’m patronising or trying to illicit opinions from them by crafty means, they’ll know. This I’ve known for quite a while, and I write it often just to keep reminding myself.
 
Ways of seeing ‘playworker’
This thing called ‘playworker’ isn’t so clear-cut. We think we know what it is we are, and then we see from other angles and we find that we’re also pastoral, protection, support, and all the other lower-case lettered descriptors that sometimes surprise us. Others do this ‘playwork thing’ in places that are far more hostile than our own small territories, yet their ways of ‘being playworker’ have their similarities to our own, despite the apparent dissimilarities of our individual patches of geography.
 
The city as playground and playgrounds of the city
For city, read this also as ‘town’, ‘village’, ‘any given place’: walking around, being immersed in the greater place, I wonder what the quasi-Utopian version of it might be. Play in all its forms could recreate the city. What would that be like? In amongst it all, as it is, however, there are fenced-off areas where ‘play can happen’. These are designated areas, and the adults in the city accept this state of things. They get to play in all their ways, but the children are corralled. This year, I open my eyes more to the nature of the urban.
 
The playground as a source of beauty
Yet . . . even so, we have our gardens of play places, our territories within the greater cities, and we call them adventure playgrounds or the like, and yet, even so, we can call them beautiful: despite their apparent disorder, the messiness of their parts strewn and left for months in the long winter grass, soaking up the damp and rain, there’s beauty here in the seasons, in the light and dark, in the play that’s just folded in, embedded. The writing can and should reflect this.
 
Writing stories of play is still important
Writing is still important. It always will be. We may not always write our stories down, and some choose to keep them in their heads and in their conversations, but writing, for a writer, is necessary. Play is an endless source of fascination. There are endless stories to be told: there’s a huge book of play being written.
 
Three short stories for the telling
One child comes to me whenever she sees me and, with a big smile, carefully hugs me before spinning off again. She considers her sister and her friends. She shifts her own play needs and desires around those of everyone else. She is, right now, the most graceful child I know.

Some of the older boys greet me, out on the street, with a short quick word I can’t always catch. They hold their hands up for me to either shake or press my palm against. They walk on.

One younger girl was talking to me. ‘What about your day?’ she said. ‘Nothing special,’ I told her: yet, it is in this moment of open stillness that the specialness resides.
 
 

Play and (un)certainty

‘Children create situations of unbalance in an attempt to regain equilibrium (Spinka et al, 2001).’

— Lester and Russell (2008, p.62)

More or less, this line above is something I’ve been thinking about or gearing towards for a few weeks now. I knew of it, though not in any precision of word order, and when I looked it up and typed it down, it sat there and waited patiently as I sat there and looked rather ponderously at it for a few minutes. Taking it at face value, it doesn’t wholly fit. The quote comes from Play for a Change and relates to a section of writing on stress response systems and risk in play. ‘Risk’ is often seen predominately in terms of the ‘physical risk’ but the emotional and psychological aspects of risk also come into play. So, what if, for some children (or maybe even for all children), it’s certainty that they’re looking for in the risks of their play, rather than uncertainty in order to regain their equilibriums?

I write it like this because I don’t see the process of regaining balance (physically or emotionally/psychologically) as being the same thing as the seeking of certainty in play. Besides this, I know plenty of children who seek more and more ‘unbalancing’, as if this in itself is a form of certainty. The Play for a Change authors cite Caillois (1961) and Kailliala (2006) in referring to ‘dizzy play’, or vertigo, and some children I know often like to spin fast, and faster, on the roundabout — just for the spin of it, I suspect (not for the regaining of the stability of terra firma, and not for that particular sort of receding nausea that some of us also remember from our own childhoods). This dizzy play is for the sensory nature of being in it. Going fast is never fast enough.

However, this post is not particularly focused on such spin. It is the potential seeking of certainty in children’s play that draws the attention. A repeated play frame — an instance of play, or ‘a material or non-material boundary that keeps the play intact’ (Sturrock and Else, 1998), for those who’ve forgotten playwork terminology — repeated play frames such as those I’ve described in engagement with children’s play in recent posts, are a seeking for certainty in this context. This is how I’m reading the play. However, despite the possible best intentions of the players to faithfully reproduce the play of a previous time, conditions surrounding the new play aren’t going to be exactly the same as the previous instances: so, there will be differences in the play, new formations and directions; the players must be after the best fit of how the play felt. It does, perhaps, suffice to say that if ‘this, that and the other’ is replicated, as best as can be arranged, then ‘this, that and this’ is how the play is expected to feel or be.

I see this seeking of certainty, as I read it, time and again: if it’s not a near-as-damn-it replication of a previous play frame, then it’s a recreation and re-ordering of elements of that play frame; or it sometimes involves the repetitions of stories or it might be the re-positioning of new ‘actors’ into an old scene. It doesn’t always involve repetitions and recreations of previous play: the seeking of certainty, in this line of thinking, extends to the child who won’t jump from the jumping platform for fear of landing awkwardly, too hard, too far out, or for fear of hurting themselves in other ways, for example. Some adults throw themselves out of aeroplanes after they’ve thrown their parachutes out first, for the buzz of it (and good luck to them!); some children jump from swings or walls or platforms without seeming to look and without ever having jumped from that particular swing or wall or platform before. Isn’t there something just a little pathologically disturbed, however, about someone who doesn’t have even the slightest degree of confidence that they’re more ‘certain’ than ‘not certain’ to make that jump? (OK, so I’ve never jumped out of a plane: what do I know? Would you do it though if you thought you had no chance of landing in fewer than two whole pieces?!)

Our lives are uncertain, but this is all the more reason to seek some degree of reassurance that we won’t face death at every corner, or emotional torment or psychological ridicule every way we turn. Uncertainty does permeate through play, in its way, but it’s one thing saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my play; isn’t it exciting?’ and another thing saying ‘Everything I do in my play is a physical, emotional, or psychological rollercoaster that scares the living shit out of me’. One of Garvey’s (1977) prerequisites for play was that it be valued, or fun. Can play be play when it’s a constant engagement with things you can’t be even a little certain of?

I’m certain, in as far as I can be (yes, here’s a stick: hit me over the head with it!), that I’ll finish this post and write something else pretty soon (unless there’s a sudden meteor strike, or unless I suffer a stupendously unlucky imminent physical catastrophe, or the like); I’m pretty certain that if I don’t surpass my ‘optimum limit’ minus one for beer consumption, I won’t suffer for it in the morning; I’m certain that if I’m suddenly reacquainted with Walking in Memphis whilst driving, I’ll be singing loud like no-one can see me! This is all my play, and give or take a negligible percentage of conditions dictating that things won’t work out the way I think they will, things will work out the way I think they will.

What I’m not seeking is not to finish my writing or start any more writing ever again, to exceed my optimum beer consumption limit, or for Walking in Memphis to finish so I can drive like a grown-up again! I’m not supposing for a minute that children necessarily go into their play reflecting on the degree of certainty that will result from replicated play frames, or suchlike; however, I do suppose, here and now, that some (maybe all) children play with some internal nod towards certain possibilities.
 
References

Caillois, R. (1961, 2001), Man, play and games. Translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Garvey, C. (1977), Play: the developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books.

Kailliala, M. (2006), Play culture in a changing world. Berkshire: Open University Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. and Bekoff, M. (2001), Mammalian play: training for the unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 76(2): 141-168. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing (the Colorado paper). Leigh-on-Sea: Ludemos Press.
 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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