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

‘You are not a God.’

— Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland)
Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory (1990)

 
I am not a teacher of children. That is, I am a playworker. We maybe have to identify with something and, recently, though I’ve known it for years, I sat on my ever-weakening knees, at four year-old height, surrounded by glue and glitter and feathers, and four year-olds, and this whole ‘playworkerness of being’ fell over me again. You’ll get it if you get that, as it were. I am not a teacher of children, though I dabble in the peripheral waters in aspects of my professional and personal lives: I’m engaged in consultations with children at school, in the classroom and in the playground, and I fall into history session constructions, compliant to a five year-old’s comprehension, at home (where I have to try hard not to muddy stuff with made up things!). What has struck me recently is, in the analogy, the gloopiness of the water when the Venn diagram of ‘teacher’ and ‘playworker’ slosh up against one another and overlap.

First things first though: playwork is not teaching. Playwork is working in service of children’s play opportunity. Sometimes, children at play around attendant playworkers might ask them how to do something or other. The playworker then has a choice to make: say or do something akin to ‘you work it out’, or show them how to do it. The latter is fraught with all sorts of adulterating, brain-forming by-pass complexities. Maybe it’s not so black and white after all. Maybe there’s a continuum at play. I’ve been fairly consistent over the years in saying that playworking isn’t something we should be diluting, or polluting, or shifting, by adding ‘teaching’ to it (though I do recognise that play can have a benefit of ‘working things out’ — I won’t write ‘learning’ here, as such, because that muddies the waters further). As can be seen, the sloshing waters of the respective Venn diagram circles of ‘teaching’ and ‘playworking’ can be pushed too dangerously together.

So, for clarity, playwork is not teaching: let’s start from this platform. Recently I’ve been involved in further children’s consultations in a local school. We’re investigating the use of their playground and that includes how the adults at school refer it and its play in their thinking and in their actions. In the classroom, this playworker-not-teacher can only be himself: children talk over me; some are quite happy to discuss things with their neighbours or stare out the window; some are intensely engaged in the areas for consultation; some probably don’t care. Sometimes, I find this all tolerable: I never was one for requiring children to listen to me, in stony silence, hands up, fingers on lips, if ever they wanted to interrupt my line of words. However, it is, admittedly, a tricky task to consult with thirty children of differing levels of engagement, understanding, attention span and so on, in a time limited way. I get why some teachers can become quite ragged!

At the end of one session, in which I said that I’m keen to investigate adults’ attitudes to play in school, one hand shot up and a voice from the depths of the classroom said, ‘What’s your attitude?’ It was an excellent question! What’s my attitude to play? I thought about it all week. On a good day (because we don’t always have those, do we?), I considered that I could see behaviours of all sorts as play, though I realised that by Friday I get frazzled too and the child who bangs piano keys five feet away from me, constantly, whilst I’m trying to sort food for twenty-five others, is somewhat testing! As I write, now, discordant piano play by feet, fingers, and bumps by the backside is, of course, all play.

On a good day, the children see my playworkerness: even if I’m not on the adventure playground. In the school playground, I was observing play, and then the teacher clanged the bell to indicate that it was time to go back to class. I could see that she was going to do it, so I sat down on my knees to get away from adult height and to offer her all the focus of that end of the space. The children all decided to come line up in front of me. Maybe I was, by chance, knelt down at the exact head of their usual line up place. I don’t know. It seemed odd and I felt somewhat incongruous there at the head of the queue that had morphed without any actual words, just a flow-on of play, in front of me. I stood up and took a step to the side. The queue rippled to follow me and I was, again, at the head of the line. Curiouser and curiouser, as it were. So, of course, the play cues had been inadvertently thrown: I hopped back, and the queue followed suit. I hopped the other way, and the children hopped too. The teacher asked me to lead the children back to class. I’d much rather have just walked with them, by their side, so I asked her, ‘Can I hop back?’

Play happens around the play-literate, or play-appreciative, or ‘good day’ playworker, I suppose. Play also happens around the periphery of the ‘play-illiterate’, or the ‘bad day’ anyone, but I’m thinking that there’s a different sort of qualitative engagement by the children: the adult is either merely tolerated in the space, or is ignored, or is blatantly or slyly teased. There are teachers who have good days and bad days, just as there are the rest of us who have the same, and I wonder how the ‘good day’ and ‘bad day’ teacher is differently treated in school by the children. I am aware that professional teaching isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about merely inputting information into the nascent, forming brain of the child; it is, or should be, about inspiring a desire to learn, to investigate and to explore. This is where the playworker/teacher gloopy overlapping Venn diagram waters slosh in again though: I believe that children will, and do, get so much more from a playful teacher, in the same way that they can ‘see’ the playworkerness of the playworker in any place that that playworker is.

At home, I watch the intensely concentrating face of Dino-Viking Boy as we go over the timeline of Romans to Saxons to Normans again, drawing it, playing it. He soaks it all up and thinks for a little while before saying: ‘The Normans? Who are the Normans? Did they beat the Romans?’ It’ll come.

My playworkerness and my dabbling in teaching are as muddled here as the late Saxon-Viking period of history itself! Playwork is not teaching, and I am a playworker. I’m also just me and I have my playworkerness, on a good day. Dino-Viking Boy punches me in the side of the head because we end up playfighting. I never was much good at fighting.
 
 

Community. n. A noun of quality from communis, meaning ‘fellowship, community of relations or feelings’; in med. L. it was like universitas, used concretely in the sense of ‘a body of fellows or fellow-townsmen’.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

 
What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? This short sentence does, of course, have embedded in it a few agitations for those inclined to think in such ways: as the advertising strapline about a book being ‘available in all good bookshops’ opens itself up to being played with (the possibility of stock being available in some ‘not so good ones’ can be tacked on to the end), maybe there are some ‘not so good adventure playgrounds’ out there too; however, by the same token, if it’s a ‘not so good adventure playground’ is it an adventure playground at all? What the real gist of this post is about though is the insinuation lurking underneath the word ‘community’ and, in stripping this away, about ‘proper community’ itself.

‘Community’ is such a widely bandied around word. It doesn’t mean anything if the ‘from the inside’ connections of people aren’t actually there, if the word becomes artificially grafted onto an area for the benefit of agencies feeling smug about ‘their patch’ (which is a patch in name only), seeking to look good to funders or each other because they’ve ‘helped’, or if anything other than ‘live, organic connections’ happen.

Once, over the course of a particular work contract, I had the misfortune of having to visit a certain town (which I won’t name here, just in case it comes back to bite me!). Although I appreciated I was an ‘outsider’, some of the people who I met there, going about my business, were blinded with utter faith that their town was the epitome of community Shangri-La. It was, to me, an utter hole. The best thing about the place was leaving it. It was a two hour drive home, but I was still leaving it and happy to be. Now, of course, there’s no way I could have known about any real community spirit there, but the point of the story is that the ‘feel’ of it all was just so artificial.

I can’t say the same about the adventure playground. In my experience, this playground that I write of regularly, and all other [good] playgrounds, is a breeding ground for live, organic connections. Sure, relationships are developed and nurtured, but these happen when they’re ready to happen, and sometimes they catch you by surprise. I like to think that children, most if not all, can spot a fake a mile off. If an adult visitor to the playground has integrity, playfulness, open-mindedness, honesty, the ability to listen, and so on, the children will know and go with the flow of this, sometimes before any real conversations are had at all. They’re not so needed. Conversely, the fakes can be spotted from a distance and toyed with! The children understand things on such levels, and so too do the play-literate and compassionate adults.

So unfolds the organic and real community. It has often pleasantly surprised me how individual like-minded adults can connect on first meeting one another: an artist will ‘know’ and ‘get’ another artist, of whatever flavour; a rebel will ‘get’ another rebel; an altruist (or as close as it’s possible to get to being such a thing) will ‘get’ another altruist; a playworker will ‘get’ another playworker. These are all states of being, I suppose, rather than job titles or the like: artist, rebel, altruist, playworker, and so on. The point is that we know each other when we meet one other. When we’re all embedded, either for our living or for our working, in a certain geographical area, in a ‘place’ (and I don’t use that word lightly), the ‘from the inside’ community can start to connect.

Community isn’t a thing to superimpose on an area because it isn’t anything that can be ‘placed down’, as such. Community is in the bricks and mortar, in the streets, in the stories, in the connections, in the evolution.

Last week, in the sun that had finally come to soak us, I looked out from the middle of the playground. Across the way there’s a hard court (what the children call ‘the pitches’), and farther out from that is a fixed play equipment park adjacent to the pedestrianised street. Surrounding the whole block are the tenements and the glass of their windows reflect the summer day down into the suntrap. I looked out and, in the combination of the adventure playground, the pitches, the fixed play equipment park, and the pedestrianised area, I couldn’t even begin to count how many children and their attendant adults there were. There was play in practically every corner. The day before, we’d been in the latter park with arts stuff, balls and hoops and mounds of fabric. There were children everywhere. They trailed long pink robes and various cardboard sea-creatures on skipping rope leads, made for them by my colleague, who’s a parent volunteer. At the far end of the park, where perhaps they thought no-one could see, a group of mothers played hula hoops and bat and ball with our stuff. At the other end of the park, a group of children spun around on the trolley we take out, on the flat half a pitch, for ages and ages. Then the ice-cream man came! Play was at the heart of it all.

On the adventure playground, like-minded parents come to volunteer, share coffee, talk, play. We support and are supported. I have the feeling that it all happens in the right place and at the right time, when it’s ready to happen. It is that live, organic connection in action: a social spontaneity, a kind of quantum readyness, popping into existence just at the exact point that it needs nurturing or is ready to give. It is this wanting to give to some person in need, or acquiescence in receipt of giving, that community grows outwards from. It is, to use a favourite word, ‘rhizomatic’: it spreads.

What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? In play, we both give and are in receipt. What is a good community if not a ‘playground’ of giving people?

Artificial ‘community superimposition’ is a game without the play.
 
 

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.
 
 

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