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

Play just is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another playworker, I have found, has just started putting stories to the screen, or pen to paper, or both, but any way you write or say it, the telling of stories of play has the potential of value. After reading this recent story of play (‘the potatoe [sic, children’s spelling] ghost’) about the children at a different adventure playground, I found myself thinking on how our playwork stories of play are told and what might lie beneath these tellings.

First things first though, why are such stories of potential value? It is because they connect us to the understanding that what we’re seeing is, in fact, play (as opposed to some other label we could graft onto it); they connect us to our own play as children, to the play that has been (for the children around us), and to the play that could be. When we see play, we start to open our eyes and our minds to the possibilities of more play. What was once, before, regarded as annoyances, loudnesses, unfathomable actions and behaviours and the like, are suddenly now all play. We can smile at this, maybe.

It isn’t just playwork people who tell stories of play: many parents will share their children’s curious assemblages of actions and utterances; play-literate passers-by will take note of children’s ways of being in public spaces; teachers or other teaching staff might relate a particular instance of their days. Play, of course, isn’t just confined to children’s worlds: adults play too, though a fair few will find other names for what they do. Adults will tell stories of other adults’ play, though they’ll wrap them up in other words.

Last week, on the night Tube, I found myself sat next to six or seven other adults who had spontaneously started singing, a cappella, songs they negotiated between them. They were doing it, it seemed, just for the love of singing, and they had no hands or cups held out for monetary reward at the end of each song. They’d just got through the first few lines of The Flying Pickets’ Only You when my stop came by too quickly. I thanked them because their singing really was something quite special in the moment of my listening. If I’d written this story another way, I could have said that I thanked them because their playing really was something quite special in the moment of my listening.

Adults play, as do children, but it’s the appreciation that ‘this is play’ that folds its way into what becomes the story. How we tell that story is a story in itself. What struck me about my fellow playworker’s writing about ‘the potatoe ghost’ was the feel of magic realism in it. Children’s communications and all the story’s ‘extraordinary magic’ (as the magic realist writers might have it) are written as ordinary sets of occurrences of the playground. Sure, the potato ghost had come (in the reality of the play) and stolen the potato, and haunted the playground, and this induced some fear, but these are details of details of the world of play: these ghosts exist, these regenerations and possessions that are related of the children’s narrations exist, and no-one questions this, not even (or especially) the story teller.

What this leads me to thinking about is the nature of the interactions between any given playworker (or any other play-literate adult) and the child. This then unfolds in the manner of the story telling. How might we, the story tellers, be? We might be invisible observer (or as invisible as we can be), relating the third person ‘facts’ as we perceive them; we might delve into the first person telling, or the second person conversational (as literary as this approach might be, and I’ve not seen this approach used too often in terms of story telling of play, to be honest), or we might tell in ways that are something yet more sophisticated than this. How we tell the story might suggest not only our level of engagement in the play, and/or our comprehension of it, but also our deeper wants and needs. I’m now veering into the realms of the general, and not the specific of the story telling linked to above.

I wonder how my own story telling might pan out, if I were to place all my written stories of play side by side, end to end, one after another!

There are other considerations in the story telling too (as well as that of point of view, level of engagement, comprehension, wants and needs): there is the question of how the stories are presented, that of style. How we write suggests not only the way our senses absorb the information of the play around and running through us but also the affect that that play has on us. I can only highlight what I mean by way of reference to the general styles, as popularly conceptualised, of other writers. First though, a baseline story of play, recently observed:

A couple of weeks ago, I was drinking morning coffee in a café on Shepherd’s Bush Green as the rush of the city of London, or that end of it at least, swamped past on the road outside. I was reading my notebook, or watching TV, when I saw a mother — presumably — come in with a girl who was, I guessed, no more than about two years old, probably less because she was a little wobbly on her feet. My attention began to be taken by the way the woman concentrated all her energies on the child, by the way that the child was given the space to explore her immediate vicinity (though she actually stayed close by, holding on to the edge of the coffee table), and by the way the mother talked softly with the child about the lights (they both examined the lighting rig high up above them), the cars, anything that took the child’s fancy. The woman paid very little attention to anything else in the café.

Another woman came in, again presumably a mother, with a girl who was a little older than the first, and who was a little more confident. The second child knelt on the chair that separated her from the coffee table and the younger girl. The older girl moved her teddy bear around. It was as if, I thought, she was trying to bring the other child to play, whilst respecting the fact that she was somewhat timid. The women exchanged a glance or two, and nothing much more than a smile. The older girl, eventually, sidled down and round to the table. She placed the bear on a glass there, and took her hand away. The younger girl didn’t look too sure. The older girl took the bear away and replaced it again. The children were ever-so slowly getting closer. They almost made it to physical contact play, but something of the older girl spooked the younger girl.

I found myself totally absorbed in observing this slow, careful, delicate play unfolding. I found myself taken by the actions of the women (or the non-actions, more precisely). I found myself looking on without any other fellow café member noticing I was observing the play, as far as I thought or was aware. I felt, for all intents and purposes, invisible in plain view. When the older child’s mother signalled a time to go, there was a slight wave from the older child to the younger, and then the younger child’s mother carried on with her quiet talking and seeing with her daughter.

I write it all like this (a baseline story), and I wonder what lies beneath that way of writing it. How we write suggests the affect that that play has on us. Use of other writers’ styles, as popularly conceptualised, might result in different significances below the story’s telling . . .
 
In the style of Jack Kerouac, for example, and in part of the telling of the above:

The cityslush morningrush all conspired to a wave jumped up washed up found myself at the café stop and washing down and down writing thinking writing, thinking ‘bout going home, being home, what is home, moving on — till of a sudden there’s a baby wobbling, and she’s looking up and there’s her love-done mum, all fullhappy, and out there there’s the city and in there there’s the TV and the lights and all of that and all of this and baby girl just wants all baby mum’s everyness — and she gets it and she gets it and I just think there I just get this and I fall in fall on, and nothing doesn’t matter anymore cos there’s baby girl and baby’s mum and all that cityrush and look at all that sunshine on the inside . . .
 
In the style of Kurt Vonnegut, in part:

This happened, mostly. I saw this guy was sat watching one child throwing looks at another. And the other girl really wanted that bear she had. You could tell. Really, it happened that way. But what the other guys I know say is ‘What do you know anyway?’ And I’m just an old fart watching the world go by. It happened that way. Time goes by, and I tell them I can travel in it and see things others can’t.
 
In the style of Italo Calvino, in part:

In the centre of Shepherd’s Bush, that triangular city within a city, is a small glass building where, travellers know, they can see things others can’t or won’t. If, when inside the transparency of the room, the traveller who knows how to look takes the moment to see, then he or she will notice their moment filled with play.
 
In the style of Suzanne Vega, in part:

The mother came whispering at lights and the cars
Where her city’s streets were alive but afar
And the child she held so soft in her arms
Listened to the ways of the world

Along came another who smiled from her chair
She offered her comfort and the love of her bear
But the girl who had whispers fall down on her head
Couldn’t come closer to words . . .
 
Lastly, in the style of Bashō (with apologies to haiku purists who may be upset at various technical shades of this re-telling):

two kittens
at coffee’s edge —
one spring . . .

Stories of play are there for the telling, because play is seen, because play and its stories connect us. In stories there are levels of engagement, play-literacy and comprehension to be ascertained, but also — potentially — the teller’s wants and needs, the story of how their senses absorb, the story of whether the play flows around them or around and through them, and the way that the play affects and moves them in the manner and style of their telling.

Stories run deeper than just the words.
 
 

I have several ‘soapboxes’ that I tend to wheel out (if you can do such a thing!) when it comes to setting up to spout on about general attitudes towards children and their play. All of what you about to receive shall be spouted out from the soapbox that’s labelled ‘how children, by large, come second’. Before I’ve written anything, it must be said that I am appreciative of the fact that we all share our urban and rural landscapes, adults and children alike, and that the former shouldn’t be neglected in their needs too; however, where children’s needs for use of those urban and rural areas are pretty much ignored or buried under the priority of the adult, this is the on-going concern.

Children occupy a strange position in UK society (maybe also in the US and other countries too): the dominant rhetoric towards children is one of protection, yet when it comes to hearing their voices (in terms of what they want and need, but also quite literally in hearing their voices), or when it comes to giving thought to children as equally deserving of consideration in terms of ‘space’ use, for example, children are often the poor relations. What was it that George Orwell wrote? It was something along the lines of ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.

The catalyst for this post is a photo I took whilst wandering the west London side streets and hidden bolt-hole squares, in a wide circumference around the adventure playground — scene of many of my recent-years’ writings. I was in the newer part of the ward, by the looks of things: a big tall perimeter wall separates a semi-private cul-de-sac from the main carriageway; small apartment blocks, arranged in neat semi-circles, flank this enclosed cul-de-sac side-road which extends for some way in traffic-less calm until it comes to a full stop against the end fence that abuts an empty grassed and hemmed-in lot. Along the cul-de-sac are parking bays. At intervals in each of these parking bays is this sign:

No Ball Games, No Skateboarding, Etc.

Including this photo in this post is in no way intended to be derogatory towards the people who live in this street. It is, rather, a statement on the attitudes towards children of those who built the housing development. On the one hand, sure, this ‘roadway’ is a ‘roadway’, and this car park is a car park; however, on the other hand, when I was ten, or thereabouts, this roadway and this car park would have been a pretty good approximation of a playground. When I was ten, or thereabouts, I rode my bike around my local estate’s roads and paths, and in between the houses along the alleyways (and if I’d have had a skateboard I’d probably have used that too, down the slopes, though I actually used some other fairly precarious contraptions found or contrived, speeding downhill, along the middle of the road, on my belly, my face three inches from the roadway, without brakes other than my shoes, with no means of turning other than with faith and blind luck, towards the hedge or the brick wall or the parked car, and so on). This photo doesn’t show a scene of a hill (alas), but the roadway is long with a few speed bumps, if I recall correctly (perfect for bike hops at speed, or kicking a ball along to see if it’ll go all the way to the end before touching a wall, or the like).

I’ve had a few informal and ad-hoc conversations with children recently about places of play. These are, admittedly, not part of any as-yet comprehensive study but, in discussion, the children tend towards the highlighting of what I’m thinking of as ‘destination places’: that is, parks, other large and bounded green spaces, other fenced-in environments such as school playgrounds and after school clubs. This is a shame, in some ways: what about all the other areas of in-between? What about, in the new interpretation, what I remember being told of what an old architecture school lecturer used to call ‘the toothpaste’ of a city (as opposed to its more tangible ‘monuments’)?

Children in the city (and in the rural areas, let’s not forget) can get overlooked. That is, the preferences of their play and where that might happen (if permitted a greater luxury of finding out for themselves), can be seen as just not important enough or even not properly thought about at all. I wonder how many children are genuinely consulted on matters of public space, in comparison to the consultation of groups who are routinely considered as they who ‘should be consulted on matters of urban change’ such as ‘residents’ (that is, adults), ‘the elderly’, ‘the ethnic minorities’, ‘the youth’ (that is, teenagers), and so on.

It’s not just the overlooking and ignoring that I find peculiar within this dominant combination rhetoric of ‘protection/lack of consultation or representation’: the general perspective on children could be seen to be children as ‘incapable’, ‘untrustable’, even borderline ‘stupid’.

Here’s a sight that made me think, in passing, which was why the photo needed taking:

Children Must Not Play on This Site

Whilst I’m not advocating that children should necessarily play on scaffolding, sure, what made me think is the sudden realisation of what would happen if I turned the sign on its head, as it were? That is, sure, ‘children must not play on this site’, but what about adults? Can they play on this site? There’s no sign on the scaffolding to say that they can’t. Adults, it must be supposed here, are either socially competent enough to know not to play on such a site without a sign telling them otherwise, or they’re not in need of a sign because adults don’t play (really?!), or actually adults are allowed to play there because there’s no sign to tell them otherwise. OK, so I’m being a little facetious, but in all seriousness it does beg the question as to the point of signs, and to the general attitude towards children as I perceive it.

There are some signs that do recognise that children will play in certain open areas, that they do play there, and that — perhaps — nothing can be done to change that, so the ‘powers that be’ acknowledge and accept it:

Children Playing Sign

It’s a start, but better still would be a state of affairs where there were no need for such signs at all: it being implicitly understood that children may be playing in any give place, designated ‘playground’ or not (OK, maybe not on the dual carriageway, but you get my point); it being implicitly understood that children’s choices of play and places to play in may be very different to adults’ own places of play (yes, adults play too), or different to adults’ ideas of children’s places of play. The protection rhetoric, counter-intuitively, might even be better served this way; children, within this, would also be better listened to in adults’ appreciations of their preferences.
 
 

Having just come out the other end of a full-on, hectic couple of weeks of open access Easter holidays on the playground, it’s safe to say that a few days rest has been very much needed. In such weeks of so much going on in the play, the not-so-play, and the not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. The playground has ebbed and flowed from the quiet first fifteen or twenty minutes each day of what, for a while now, I’ve called the children’s ‘poking around’ time, through the swell of the build-up of something taking shape in the group dynamic, right up to something (which in the moment feels) very edgy, teetering there either like the proverbial wave that won’t crash or falling over in some places like on stretches of the shore.

In this edgy, sometimes niggling, often fizzing state, the playground is one long anticipation of that something-ness that may or may not take off, when the day’s like this. These past few weeks there have been water balloons and factions, the hose pipe, water buckets (sometimes the buckets themselves being thrown), the filling of the pool table with water (‘for underwater pool’) and spadefuls of sand and dollops of paint thrown on for good measure too; there have been balls kicked blindly up high to land into crowds of unseen children on the other side of the site; the workmen in the road have had their patiences tested with children throwing bits of old piping over the foreman’s roof; palettes have been smashed; arguments have risen and fallen or grudges have sustained themselves over days. I often come back to the suggestion, when talking about playwork, that even on a calm day if you’re not going home mentally exhausted (from observing, at least), then maybe you’re not doing it right; the edgy days are even more exhausting.

In amongst all of this, we might be forgiven for missing the little moments of play that happen quickly, quietly, on the periphery of the dominant dynamic of it all. If we sit back and think though, it is possible to draw to the surface such moments that we’ve noted in passing (consciously or otherwise). It is such moments that this post is intended to celebrate: a recognition that they have been. In no particular order (I don’t know which days they happened for sure in many cases, which may add to the general celebration), there follows notes on small incidences of play that might otherwise have passed us by:
 
Of the ethereal
Not many of the children who attended this open access were also regular after school club children, but there were a few. One was a younger girl who I caught sight of, every now and then, as she just floated by and through the whole fizz and swill of everything else going on. I thought she might be bored or unsure. I don’t know, in truth. I offered her clay that was already out and stored on a high shelf, once, and she and her older sister took it to a corner of the playground and nothing of the edginess seemed to bother them out there. The younger sister had a serene disposition whenever she wandered through the place, as all manner of buckets and language flew around her and the playground. She wafted from one place to another, stopped (perhaps to see the way the world was from there) and disappeared for another hour or so.
 
Dandelion girl
The same girl picked dandelions at the edge of the site near the zipline. A colleague caught my attention to show me this because he’d never seen it here before. Later, the girl picked dandelions elsewhere at another edge of the playground. She gave them to my colleague, and she laid more out on a long stretch of carpet that I’d put there in our set-up, by the hammock swing, because perhaps someone might lie on it.
 
Circular dozing
Another girl had been asking me and asking me to find her some slime powder for a while, and I hadn’t been able to achieve this because of everything that was happening at that time. Finally, I found the powder and put it in my pocket ready for when she was ready again. I saw her at the roundabout. She was lying in the centre of it in the sun. The other children there said she was asleep. She was dozing for sure, as the roundabout went slowly round. I cast a small shadow over her as I watched on, I remember, in my curiosity. There was no slime till the next day.
 
The lucky hammer and the catapult
A boy carried a hammer around with him all day, banging away at whatever he could find. I remember thinking that maybe he was testing us, but none of us were saying ‘don’t do this’. He kept the hammer with him and the banging gradually decreased. Near the end of the session he told me it was his lucky hammer. Earlier, he’d badgered me to help him make what he called a slingshot (but which was, as I later understood, a desire for a catapult, and which I understood in the moment as a ‘see-saw’). He wanted to nail two pieces of wood together and I said go do that but maybe a Y-shaped strong piece of branch would work out for the task. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for finding this. After the weekend, he searched again and came back and back with progressively stronger Y-shaped wood. I wondered if he’d been thinking about it all that time. We fitted it with elastic bands and duct tape to tie them together. He had his catapult/slingshot, and the lucky hammer didn’t re-emerge.
 
Diwali boys
Three boys found the stash of powder paints in the storage container. I’d seen one of the boys in this sort of play before: that is, he likes to dip his hand into the paint and throw it to the breeze and cover himself in the process. The boys engaged in the powder paint play around the playground, getting themselves good and dusted in brown (being the choice of the moment). Later, the boys were in the container again and there was powder paint of various colours a good half-inch thick covering the floor. ‘What has happened here?’ I asked them in a manner I hoped would be taken for its intention as observation rather than admonishment. ‘Fun has happened here,’ said the boy. We’d noted the festival nature of the play in our conversations earlier.
 
A tidied corner
One day, and briefly, I caught sight of a small group of younger girls who had swept the boards that now cover the old fire pit, where we’d left a trestle table which had accumulated bits and bobs and which they’d removed. They’d positioned wooden cabinets at the corners, turned inwards, and neatly created some outside room without the walls. They were busy painting the furniture. I walked on by and didn’t see this again.
 
Ethics on the mound
Somewhere along the line, one of the boys decided that it would be a good idea to put a live worm in an old tin can and roast it alive on the fire. There were some brief discussions between myself and some of the children, though I left them to make their own decisions. Later, I was talking unconnected things with a parent nearby and, as I did so, I overheard two children behind me as they sat on the mound of earth at the entrance gate. They were digging for worms and I couldn’t concentrate so well on the parent because I wanted to hear what the children were saying. There was general talk of worms and God, and ethical scraps that passed me by, but which I wanted to hear more of.
 
Tales of swings
Two girls spent some considerable time, over a period of a couple of days, grappling with a socket set to extricate the bolts that held the tyres onto the swings. There was a general consensus of a small section of children that the swings would be better this way. The girls finally freed the tyres ready for a colleague to unhook the chains from the beams. Later, or another day, I caught sight of the swings going high without the extra weight of the tyres on them, sometimes with just one child swinging almost horizontally, sometimes with all of the swings used by children at the same time, synchronised to meet in the middle of the frame structure at their highest point, their toes. Once I heard, in passing, the lull of a song as a group of older girls swung.
 
An occasional piano
We have a piano positioned in the alcove between the tool shed and the main door towards the office and just behind where the children like to have the pool table out in the sun. Every so often a child could be seen or heard there, tinkling away at a few notes. One child, late in the week, diligently repeated the same refrain, over and over. It was a small repetition of notes and nobody bothered him. He came and went. I came and went.
 
A smiling smurf girl
It was the end of a session, one day, and one of the younger girls had found some blue powder paint near the fire exit and the storage container. She set about covering her skin with it as we bustled by, as children used up every last minute they had left on site in their darting to the toilet tap to fill up balloons, and as we were trying to usher everyone out. The girl stood in amongst it all with a big grin on her face. I stopped to see and she made me smile, her just looking like a big smurf, as she did! One of the older girls of her family screamed at her to ‘wash it off, now!’ She was in parental mode, as has often happened.
 
Just hammering
For a few days, for twenty minutes or so at a time, this same younger girl sat herself down on a low platform in the middle of the playground, after a quick trip to the tool shed, and proceeded to bang nails into the wood for no reason other than to bang nails into wood. When she was done she was done, until the next time.
 
One pan full of bubbles
A long time back at the very beginning of the open access days, one of the girls found a pan. I saw her a little while later with her pan filled with bubbles (or, as some children call the washing up liquid for the water slide: soap). She headed for a colleague who was sat on one of the old people’s chairs that was later to take a battering by having its back broken somehow. The girl smiled with her bubbles, looking at the hatless, hairless victim that was my colleague sat in the chair. My observations moved along . . .

In amongst the edginess, the hectic dynamic of the ebb and flow and swill and play, and not-so-play, and not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. There have been challenges these past few weeks, but there have been these moments too, and more. They rise to the surface.
 
 

During a recent trip to Berlin, Germany, I met old friends and submerged myself on the tourist trail (along which I readily engaged in what an old architecture school tutor used to call the obligatory ‘Kodak Spots’ — photographing the well-known places then moving on: Brandenburg Gate, what remains of the Berlin Wall, the site of Checkpoint Charlie); as I went though, I also felt a need to take passing photos of various playgrounds. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this documenting, as ad hoc as it was, or what conclusions I might draw from it. I’ve now had a little time to sit on it all and think it over a little.

When we pass by places set by for children to play or be in, we should trust that voice inside us that may tell us what we might feel like as a child in that place ourselves. Adults of the world too often dismiss the world of the child, and in so doing they forget about themselves: that is, they forget about the fact that they were once a child too. It wouldn’t do any harm to see the world through children’s eyes a little more. A good way to start is to look at the world through the eyes of the child that you were yourself.

As such, without any great in-the-moment analysis, my latent child’s interest in places set by for play was taken a couple of times in Berlin, for different reasons, although there were also occasions of the opposite happening too. It seems that this latter disaffection, created by a general adult disposition towards how to cater for children in the urban environment, is played out across many cities and countries.

Berlin Playground 1

Pockets of space are given over, sure, but it sometimes feels squeezed in, thought of after the buildings. The positive spin on this is at least there are pockets of space given over. There are questions of functional necessities (such as high fences for football pitches) . . .

Berlin Playground 2

. . . but when is a ‘pitch’ actually a ‘pitch’, and why do some function elements have to be so reminiscent of keeping ‘dangerous individuals’ (that is, here, children) away from the good and law-abiding others? I don’t know what the blobby dinosaur shapes are all about here, but maybe they’re intended to soften the blow of all of the above.

Fences and other means of protecting ‘defensible space’ are worth continued consideration in regard to play and urban environments. In 2012, on a study tour of Malmö and Stockholm, Sweden, we learned about the Swedish concept of ‘Allemansrätt’ (the right to roam) and a general lack of need for fences to divide areas. In Berlin, thinking on fences must have filtered through my photographic snapshots:

Berlin Playground 3

A lack of fences is all very well, but what the ground contains is also due some consideration.

Similarly, the surrounding environs of places given over to play (squeezed in, or ‘at least they are there’ spins, whichever you prefer) are also due some thought:

Berlin Playground 4

All cities seem to be forever changing themselves, turning themselves continuously inside-out in the building and re-building, but what then happens is little pieces of the city (and little pieces of the populace, e.g. children) get either marginalised or they cling on bloody-mindedly in amongst it all.

Where my latent child was stimulated somewhat in Berlin was in the chance discovery of a playground structure of some novelty to me:

Berlin Playground 5

Berlin Playground 6

Berlin Playground 7

Berlin Playground 8

My in-the-moment thinking was what it might be like to be up on these odd rubber walkways, but my adult analysis also kicked in when observing a lack of barriers above the UK fall height of two metres. I’ve only just noticed that there’s a child in one of these pictures looking out over the edge.

Novelty might only last so long, by definition, but the initial catching of attention could be a factor in design of fixed play equipment. A playground house caught my attention briefly, somewhere in Schöneberg perhaps, but I wouldn’t have played or at least stayed here long as a child:

Berlin Playground 9

Near Winterfeldtplatz we discovered what we read to be a school:

Berlin Playground 10

Berlin Playground 11

Here, it seems, is some form of fusion of thoughts on this latent child’s in-the-moment stimulus, fencing and defensible space, and considerations of the child in the city. As a child here I would probably have hid myself in amongst the trees, just to watch out and see! I was taken, in my relaxed state, by the design of the fences (which were, admittedly, still fences marking boundaries of areas in un-Swedish-like ways), replicating the landscape somewhat. The place felt, in the immediacy, more tangible to a human-ness of experiencing the world than many of the stark concrete blocks of the former East Berlin and the grandiose town houses of the former West of the city.

Berlin, in these snapshots, demarcates children’s useable/allowed space from that of the adults in the same way that probably every other city in the world does, though there are instances of novelty and stimulus to be found. What would be truly inspiring, however, is if the adult populace of cities (being the ones who currently exert formalised control over such things as urban planning) worked more towards acceptance of the blending of spatial needs: those of children as well as adults. Yes, this is somewhat Utopian but not impossible.

This is not to say that children aren’t being given the opportunity to play out there in the world at all (sitting in a pub at a busy intersection in Shepherd’s Bush, London, whilst the circus are camped out on the Green, on a late sunny afternoon during a school holiday, observing all the play between the roads and the circus fence, goes some way to showing this, though those children are still ‘hemmed in’ to a degree): what this all is to say is that tolerance of play should be the norm, not the exception; that children squeezed in to spaces between buildings, fenced off from the city for reasons of corralling, is disingenuous to the popular refrain of ‘putting children first’.
 
 

A small but significant aspect of playwork practice has been quietly playing itself in and out of my thoughts lately (that is to say, if the playwork in question is of the flavour that involves children’s wishes for the adult to participate to some degree in the play). Here’s the scenario: a child (more often than not, in my experience, this situation will involve a single child rather than a group of them, but not always) has invited or ‘cued’ the playworker into the play of the moment (say, one-touch ‘wallsy’ football against the fence, pushing on the roundabout, some variations of catch and throw); the child shows the signs that they’re reasonably happy that they’re being supported in their play choices; the playworker plays along; the child just keeps repeating or reinventing the play so that the playworker is expected to stay involved and so that the play can carry on; the playworker gets bored of it.

That’s the small but significant aspect of practice that’s been troubling me as of late. It comes and goes, and it doesn’t happen very often but when it does it sets up a whole string of processes of thinking. Boredom of repetition or involvement shifts from this to some other stimulation of the mind, but this is hardly the point: the playing child has chosen this playworker (for reasons of positive relating or sometimes for some attention, let’s face it, or for conditions in between), and so this playing child requires focus and consideration. Some of the processes of thinking are along the lines of ‘potential get-out clauses’: how do I remove myself from this scenario so that the play can still carry on in some way, or so that the playing child won’t be offended? When another child comes along and asks to play, or when they show signs that they might like to, there’s a small window of opportunity to leave quickly and quietly, but at just the right time, so that the fragile bubble of play can shift from one circumstance to the next without popping. When done well, then job done.

Some processes of thinking are along the lines of ‘when did this play shift from relating/being in the joint arena of play to the being relied upon?’ This can happen when some children are our personal shadows (those children who follow you around for whatever reason that they need to). Some shadows I’ve had know exactly what they’re doing and turn this, in itself, into play by following me precisely in every movement, and so I can reciprocate, and so this can unfold in different ways. However, when the shadows just follow because of other reasons, then this can become difficult, and when the shadows do everything they can to keep you contained within their play, then this becomes more difficult still. A colleague has spotted one of my occasional shadows and we’ve also talked about this in de-briefs too. Now he’ll call over to the child in question when he feels she’s shadowing, and he’ll spin her away into something else for a while. It’s a fine line though, sometimes, between the child relating and playing in probably mentally healthy ways with the playworker, and them falling into a brief grey zone of neediness. How do we know the threshold if it isn’t always so obvious or, in fact, if that shadowing/neediness time is brief? We have to develop an acuteness of awareness around certain children and their chosen ones.

The shadowing is an issue that sits alongside the main enquiry here: what to do, as the playworker, when you shift into a small boredom of the repetitions or reinventions of play that you’ve been involved in? Thinking in one respect, we shouldn’t get bored of the play, but we do. We’re human, and although much of play is a stimulation in the observation for the concerted playworker, some play troubles me (though not here for its ‘risky’ or expressive qualities, which seem to be those of the other end of some people’s ‘being troubled’ spectrum). Maybe some play operates at such a slow wavelength, as it were, that engaging with it proves personally difficult. Observing such play is fine, but being asked to be a part of it is a different thing. Maybe this is why I don’t work with babies: I have done and I found it slow and, frankly, uninspiring. I’ve always felt it takes a particular type of person to be able to work well with babies, and I’m not one of them.

If I find myself in the thinking situation that is the shift from ‘willing engagement because the child asks it so’ to ‘how do I get myself out of this now?’, quite often there’s a string of thinking that also plays through me along the lines of ‘I’ve been in this particular play too long’. It isn’t the case that I’m wanting to take over the play and change it for my own good; rather, it’s more to do with feeling that my presence should by now have outstayed its welcome. I’m no longer performing my role of being there for anyone else. I’m no longer in a position where I can observe the unfolding play that swills around, and I do like to be in a position where I can see as much as possible: it’s a means of fixing markers in my mind, but it’s also a means of being in-between, mostly, though ready if that needs to shift into something more specific to someone or some group or something on the playground.

This condition of shifts in states of mind isn’t as simple as just stating ‘OK, I’m bored now.’ There are plenty of processes of thinking that are strung through it all. It troubles me, in a low level kind of way (at the other end of the ‘troubling spectrum’ to someone blatting the life out of an ex-wooden thing with a claw hammer thrown back behind their heads, or someone standing up high on something slippery, or suchlike): are these moments of minor boredom justifiable in amongst all the stimulus of moving and thinking about play, observing it, being a part of it, relating with and laughing and wondering at the incredible inventiveness of expression and exploration that children often display in their play?

It doesn’t happen all that often, such a moment of minor boredom, but it happens every now and then, and its small but significant quietness scuffs and tumbles around inside — like it, itself, is a shadow-child trailing all my other thoughts.
 
 
Playworkings will be taking a break for a week or maybe a little longer (there are parts of the world to explore!)
 
 

Last week saw a trip out across the far reaches of the other side of the city of London (that is, a trip up the Victoria line, and then a fair hike up Tottenham High Road!) to pay a visit to Somerford Grove Adventure Playground. I have been to Somerford before, some seven or eight years ago, and I have some clear memories of the play that was taking place that day in the sun, but what struck me this time, from the vantage point of coming from within the playground culture of one part of west London, was that there are similarities in what’s at stake and what takes place in those playgrounds, and there are uniquenesses too.

Cathy and Tam at Somerford received us with plenty of stories, trials and tribulations, passions and celebrations, and there were plenty of these that I, for one, could relate to (if not always directly, then with a certain sympathy). I’ve met Cathy that once before, and I feel confident in saying we seem to be ‘of the same page’, as it were. Tottenham, as I read it through these stories in our short visit, is somewhat of a melting pot of cultures, and the playground is more than just the mere superficiality of that simple word. Later in the day, I was left reflecting on how this person called ‘playworker’ is, or can also be, someone to rely on, someone to support, someone to be pushy in the face of adversity, someone who stands up to a multitude of adult agendas, someone who might be (lower case initial letters) some form of ‘pastoral help’, ‘advisor’, ‘protector’: in short, much more than merely someone who’s seen in terms of ‘so, you put things out for children to play with’, as I paraphrase of many discussions I’ve had, or erroneously as ‘so, you teach children how to play?’

There are some similarities between the two playgrounds of north and west London here (as there are, perhaps, between all the playgrounds in the city and beyond): in this comparison of north and west alone, there are similarities in that there is a cultural mix, there are various peripheral groups, the potential for or actuality of gangs, to greater or lesser degrees, the continuity of the playworkers within it all, the ebb and flow and swill of the playground and its constituent parts. Where there are uniquenesses, I suppose (without a full understanding of Somerford) I concentrate on the particular comings and goings of individuals we know well, of the way of the local community, and of the general way of things farther out beyond the estate.

As an aside, on matters of a local flavour, I was surprised to overhear the contents of some workmen’s conversations the other day, whilst I was painting signs that are strung up on the outsides of our fences. They, the workmen, were hanging around in the street, in the preliminary stages of putting out road blocks in order to pedestrianise the street immediately to the side of our most public fence. One of their number was telling another, in a broad accent I couldn’t place, but which I figured not to be local to where we were, that (and I paraphrase) ‘these sorts of estates are full of crime, of course; we’ve got these sorts of places where I’m from’. I had to smile because I thought I have to say something. I waved my paintbrush in the air and I put on my best local accent (even though I’m ‘not from around here’ either!) and told him, sure, there were police stats (I’ve seen them) about recent crime levels, but a third of those were for ‘anti-social behaviour’ and I wondered out loud if that might not correlate to ‘play’ in our books!

The point is that (apart from my opportunity to blat on about play to some unsuspecting souls), we should rein in our preconceptions, shouldn’t we? Yes, the playground is dead-smack in the middle of rows of tenements and the estate is, pretty much, a zone in its own right, but let’s not discount everything and everyone therein because of what we think we might know about it and them. The playground, perhaps, also comes under this sort of scrutiny: people might well look through the fence and see all the half-mangled stuff and bits of wood and old tyres and general air of ‘disorder’ and think to themselves ‘well, that could do with a good scrub up’; however, what they’d completely miss is all the play therein, the possibilities and the histories of that play, and all the otherness of ‘being playworker’ that flows right through it, or could flow through it. That said, the term ‘playworker’ would, I suspect, not register on such thinking processes. There’s time to address this though.

I digress. Coming back from Tottenham, and on further reflection, I’m quite acutely aware of the challenges we all might face, and the privileges we’re afforded, in and around the playgrounds in the communities in which we work. I’m also aware of the fact that we are, or that we could be, or that we might someday be called upon to be, more than just, simplistically, ‘that person who puts out the gloop and the paint, and who makes sure the zipwire’s up, or who knocks up something out of an old palette, or who chops up a couple of days’ worth of wood for the fire’. There are considerations of gang influence to be had, as well as the possibilities of drugs, or of the affects of developing hormones in the older playground users and their peers; there are the skills needed to understand the varying needs and expressions, the disturbances and the inter-disturbances of individuals and groups who might aggregate in terms of gender, age, beliefs, family background and culture, or any combination of these and more; there are the constantly fluxing ways of interacting and understanding, or trying to understand, the agitations of the fads and fashions of growing up, or just being, in that place that those children are in; there is the need to be able to bring everything to a point of ‘being on the children’s side’ (as paraphrased of the attitude of A. S. Neill, of Summerhill School), putting aside personal difficulties for long enough to be significant in those children’s lives, indirectly, when fighting their corner with every other adult around. Some days might be smooth, some days might not be.

Play runs through it all, of course, and play will happen without us, but playworkers can help show that ‘this is play’ when others see it otherwise, or they can be that ‘something else’ (lower case initial letter, insert any given other here), if that play, as such, is so detrimental to the well-being of the individual, the group, or the community at large. This is not to say that playworkers should be (capital letters) ‘Teachers’, ‘Policers’, ‘Leaders of Social Reform Amongst the Young’; this is to say that they are, potentially, part of something larger than just the geographical and psychological area inside the fence. This is how I read the work of those at Somerford Grove, and potentially of others based at other playgrounds around and about. Thanks Cathy and Tam, if ever this writing finds its way to you: I trust there’ll be many more stories that can be shared.
 
 

It occurs to me that even though we happen to be speaking the same language, we may in fact be speaking different languages altogether. That is to say, when speaking about play, it might not be the thing itself that’s the contentious issue: it might just be the language that we speak to describe it. After all, isn’t the play itself the same thing no matter which way up you hold it? What the difference is is the person doing the viewing. I’m aware that I’ve tended to come around to the same subject matters plenty of times in my writing, but that’s all fine if those subject matters can be seen from different angles. When we discuss play, there’s often a playing with words itself to do this: I’m thinking this post will be no different in that respect, but the slight tweak is the view of languages used.

A small moment of minor epiphany arrived recently when I realised that, in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. My language, in this writing on these posts, is the language of ‘this is play, for the sake of play, for the hell of it, for no developmental outcomes or other future-looking gains’, or variations of this. None of us are perfect adults, all of us are continuing the process of being and are being in our becomingness, in the here and now: there’s no reason, in my language, why children shouldn’t be viewed in the same way. We’re occupied by the same genetic material, adults and children, and many adults tend to forget that they were children once too. They’ve forgotten because they think they’re fully formed, wise, more. These are not rational assumptions to have because none of us are, or ever will be, ‘complete’. We all occupy the same streets, and we all make our way, day by day. Here ends the brief précis of this language that I’ve been speaking for a while now.

However, it seems that in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. How, though, do we talk the languages of education, law and order, health, funding, and so on, whilst maintaining the core of what we believe to be true? These are questions for the asking, not answers yet for the giving. When I’m communicating with children, either by words or by gestures, but more often than not by play, I’m speaking their language, their codes and culture. We can speak more than one language within the overall language of the shared words and actions that we use. The task then is how to translate that skill into passionate advocacy for play with other adults who, by and large, don’t usually come to play from the same angle.

‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’, as attributed to Oscar Wilde (not as commonly misquoted of George Bernard Shaw), is testament to more than the words of an actual language themselves, of course, but is also relevant in this ‘adults coming to play’ discussion: what we know is that we all view it differently, and that we speak of it in different terms — what is so obvious that it hasn’t occurred too frequently though is that we do have the ability to speak others’ languages, as difficult as this may be. Or, at least, if that proves ethically tricky, we have the capability of listening.

We’re all right, of course, though. That is, we wouldn’t position ourselves so absolutely in our ethical or principled camps if we didn’t believe that what we were saying was ‘the truth’. Is it possible that there is more than one truth? Can we really be living in a more than binary world of right/wrong? When I talk of play I talk about its here-and-now-ness, and I have great concerns about the rhetoric others use in tub-thumping with equal fervour about all things only-developmental. This is a simple binary, though I know the picture is more complicated than this in reality. Could it be that children’s play offers them something for the future too, in conjunction with the just-now-ness? Yes, of course it does. Play has many benefits. Here, though, I break from the self-imposed attempt to see things in other ways, when saying: how about others seeing that same set of words in the last few lines the other way around too?

Back to the task in hand: how to see play by speaking others’ languages of it. The present UK government, and the possible next, sees children in terms of educable entities. Of this I’m convinced, judging by the rhetoric that comes directly from politicians and indirectly via media reports of their policies and statements. How can a here-and-now play person (I deliberately avoid the ‘playworker’ term here for now) speak the language of education without diluting the core belief that play is essentially made of magic? I don’t write this frivolously: if we are all made of carbon, if we are all made of star-dust, so it is that play is something ‘other’ than we might ordinarily always see. Play, from this perspective, is glitter that we can’t catch. Here we are again, back at the esoteric, the poetic, the speaking of languages not understood.

Yet, the epiphany still stands: in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. The question is not in the ‘what’ of the words (these we can say because we have them in common anyway, of sorts), but in the ‘how’ of them. Perhaps, as ‘developed’ as we consider our adult selves to be, as ‘fully formed’, as ‘wise’, as ‘more’, we can come round to the conclusion that we can understand more of the ‘how’ by learning from children. In my experience, children often seem fairly adaptable to the how of speaking the different languages of adults around them: sure, they can co-opt adults into their own language of play to assimilate them into the nature of their thoughts, but they can also be adept at role and character mimicry, and much more than this too. Children often seem skilful at playing the language of any given adult, which may be altruistic — if there is such a thing — but which may serve their needs all the more succinctly. Maybe it’s an evolutionary trait; maybe some of us, as fully formed as we think we are, un-develop it.
 
 

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.
 
 

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