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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(E)states of play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play and (un)certainty

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

— Lester and Russell (2008, p.62)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with ‘the dead’

Last week some of the children found a dead pigeon on the playground. Well, to be honest, it was somewhat generous to give what was left the name of ‘pigeon’ because of the general carnage. A fox or a cat must have got it, I reckoned. I hadn’t seen it earlier, as I’d walked around the empty playground. When I’d got over to a couple of excitable children stood near the equally dead vestiges of the previous night’s bonfire, one of them was saying, ‘Look, there’s a leg, and over there’s the other leg, and a wing.’ That was about all that was left of the meat of it. There were feathers scattered at the burnt-out edge of the charcoal. Bits of bloodied sinew flopped from the dismembered legs.

I asked the children what they were going to do with it. They didn’t have a plan as yet. Some of their friends walked by outside the fence shortly before coming in, and the boys shouted out the find to them. They said they’d wait to show the others. I expected some sort of grave might be dug. Perhaps they might scoop out the middle of the charcoal of the previous night’s bonfire, deposit the bits of bird in there, and cover it over. I didn’t expect a solemn affair, though you never know. The playground has seen a few such graves or funerals over the years. Stories occasionally surface about such places or times. There was the bird that got a grave up on the slope behind the fire pit. There was the filmed funeral for some sort of creepy crawly behind the hammock swing, years ago (now, was it a butterfly or a caterpillar, a spider, or something else?). Stories of stories not experienced first hand can have a tendency to transform, if the teller isn’t careful. There was the grave dug for the ‘accidentally dropped’ phone, and there was the funeral procession for the cardboard box. There have been more.

Last week’s bird I expected to get a grave, but as far as I’m aware this didn’t happen. I sat back, at a distance I hoped was well enough out of the way. I was trying to observe, whilst another child asked me what it was I was doing: so I told her I thought that what they were doing was interesting. Why? she asked. I didn’t feel it proper to go into any level of analysis with her. As my focus returned fully to the episode of the bird at the burnt-out bonfire, I saw a boy come back to the scene waving a litter picker in the air. He was pulling and releasing the trigger over and over. I didn’t feel he’d be tidying up though. Sure enough, the dismembered wing was picked up in the litter picker and waved about. Then it was used to try to tease either the children on the nearby cantilever swing or my colleague who was pushing it. A saw came out but I couldn’t work out what the idea might be, and this was discarded again soon enough. After a short while, with no-one really being too disturbed by having a dismembered wing shoved close to their face on the end of a litter picker, the children tumbled off elsewhere, downing tools in the grass. The bird didn’t get its grave, I don’t think.

There is a certain fascination with dead things from certain children, just as there is a certain fascination with live things by those same or other children. The bird didn’t look too much like a bird by the time the children had found it, and I wonder if they had had any notion of the colossal scrap that must have happened for it to end up that way. Would that have made any difference to the way they’d played? I’m unsure what ‘dead’ means to children. It can be a difficult enough concept for many adults.

In the often abstract — though still somewhat symbolic — world of children’s play, ‘the dead’ is a motif that tends to come up time after time in various guises. It can be direct and it can be less so. After the bird-pickers had left the scene last week, and as I went up the slope to retrieve the discarded saw, a couple of girls who hadn’t been involved gravitated round me. We talked about how I wasn’t feeling well as of late and how I was finding it difficult to breathe and talk and do things. The conversation turned, morbidly enough, to something along the lines of ‘perhaps you’ll die’. It was matter-of-fact. What can you say to that? Short of getting all morose with them about the fate of all of us (sorry!), I just said, ‘Well, um, thanks mate, but don’t worry. I’m not going to die.’

‘Good,’ she told me. ‘I like you as a worker.’

‘What about as a person?’

‘Yes, that as well.’

I digress. ‘The dead’ was a direct conversation, though even so, it may be difficult to imagine what that actually means. Maybe this is why children play with such concepts in other ways. Maybe this is why they bury birds, or insects, or accidentally dropped phones, or bits of dismembered electrical equipment. Maybe this is why funerals for cardboard boxes happen.

The motif of ‘the dead’ emerges in other ways as well. These ways, however, somewhat side-step the whole point of what ‘dead’ is. Currently, children on the playground are playing variations of the classic chase-tap game (versions where playworkers are necessary as the chasers), but these variations include being hunted by werewolves, or vampires, or zombies, or combinations thereof. It’s the vestiges of Halloween’s shadow hanging around. Sometimes there are ghosts. These fantastical arrangements are all either of ‘the dead’ or ‘the undead’ or both. What ‘dead’ means though, let alone what ‘undead’ might mean, is side-stepped.

Children also cheat when they play these games: it’s part of the way to play, and it’s expected that they’ll do it anyway. When they get caught and ‘bitten’ by the vampire, they find a way to talk themselves out of it. Werewolves and zombies seem to fair no better. If there are guns or swords involved, children always seem invincible. The idea of ‘the dead’ is in and around these forms of play, but there’s always a way to cheat it. Invincibility (and perhaps the gift of the gab too) is a power, a mastery, taking control of things that would, otherwise, win.

I’ve seen plenty of play involving the motif of ‘the dead’: the teddy bear speared by a pole and soaked in red; the ‘dead’ electrical equipment spattered in red paint, having fallen from the bench; the chalk line outlines of people, arms out, one leg up at an angle, on the paving slabs; the effigy of ‘the silver man’ burnt on the bonfire (killing someone the children had, that day, been warned by school about); the ‘Charlie’ game involving contacting ‘Charlie’ with ‘pencils that move by themselves’ (Charlie’s name written in red on the fire escape door); the songs and stories of Bloody Mary told in quiet corners. There’s plenty wrapped up in all of this.

Graves for dismembered pigeons (or not, as the case may be), and other poor unfortunates, aren’t the be all and end all of play with the motif of ‘the dead’.
 
 

I have been sick for a while, and a consequence is that breathing, let alone thinking and writing, has been difficult! The things we take for granted when we don’t notice that they happen. The same can be said, I suppose, for all our interactions. As I’ve recovered a few brain cells as of late, I’ve had the gradual feeling that there’s an almost continuous ‘active’ aspect to my interactions with children. That is to say, whilst I don’t think I necessarily consciously go out of my way to be in a certain state when around them, there may be an unconscious me driving those interactions.

I like to think my conscious self is a natural me in my conversations, observations, and general being around the children I work with and for. That said, early on in this current illness it was noticeable how things didn’t seem to fit any more: maybe my unconscious drive had faltered. I became invisible in an unusual way, away from the playground and, being ill, I didn’t so much mind. Only when I stood in line at a cafe, a long way from home or work, one dull day (in the weather and in my head), did I start to realise such things: my attention was caught by the clearest, bluest eyes of a baby in a pushchair. Of course, the baby then became engrossed in my eye contact, and her mother said she (the baby) hardly ever looked at men this way. When she and the child left the cafe, I was sat at the door. The baby didn’t take her eyes off me as the mother pushed her out, smiling at me as she left.

I was no longer so invisible, but I was still unwell. On the playground the following week, my shortness of breath meant I needed to engage with my work in a slow way. I needed just to sit and observe to get my brain firing again, but also because doing all the things I’ve taken for granted was just too difficult. I was a walking zombie I was told. However, zombies are able to listen. I took up position in my various favourite observation spots: high enough to see as much as possible; hopefully unobtrusive enough not to seem like I was overtly spying. Every so often, one of the children would amble by. They’d say hello and sit down with me. They’d start conversations and, as I wasn’t much able to converse, I listened more. The various children told me significant insignificances (or vice versa) of their days or lives. New relations developed where, before, there weren’t really any to speak of. Other relations continued to strengthen.

I’ve always been confident that this relating is core to working with children. How often do they get the proverbial time of day from any given adult? It’s more than this though, more than a form of compensatory offer: children can and should be talked with on a level.

The usual me has been compromised these past few weeks: children I know well at the playground, and who in turn know me very well too, often come to me to repeat a conversation we had a few weeks back, in the same place that those conversations first took place, or to try to re-frame a particular instance of play. I suppose they do this because they enjoyed things the first time round, but there may be the level of wanting to re-engage with the adult of their choice because of the moment of that adult at that time. When the children come to me and want to repeat the storytelling about the Gorilla Thief or want to re-enact a scene of Cops and Thieves or want to replicate an instance of play in the netting, they don’t get what they fully want or need in my state of illness. At first, but briefly, they keep asking for the replications (albeit not entirely in a disbelieving of my illness, but in a wanting it not to be true kind of way). Shortly, something of the trust that’s been built over time kicks in: the children know I’m not lying to them.

The unconscious me must drive through all of this, but it must get damaged when I’m unwell. In such states, it’s difficult to think a straight line through and seeing what you’re seeing isn’t so easy either. Hopefully now though, the curve is an upward one. When we start to truly see again, we can think, and we can come back to ourselves.

This week we held a street playday and my observations of the play, in the general swill of all the things that were happening, brought me a little closer back to my unconscious self. My physical self is still unwell, but I smiled to see a small child kicking an empty tin can around, a boy tie himself to a lamp-post with a rope, an older boy with autism laughing as he smeared himself in what looked like shaving foam, a child walking around with a cardboard box on his head, a girl doing cartwheels and handstands, a baby playing with a potato masher, and so on.

What we may take for granted are things such as we will always engage with or be enlightened by the observations of play; we will be able to relate, in words and otherwise, with the children we find around us; we will be fit enough to carry around the resources for the opportunities for play; we will be able to think sharply and talk clearly and well on what usually inspires us. In varying degrees of reductions of these, like swills of sugar solutions, I find that writing helps.

Words start to come back within an illness that won’t fully shift. Observations of play fold in, thoughts on these wander by. Slowly, slowly, the unconscious self seems to be reforming, such is the feeling that the repair of the conscious self seems to conclude.
 
 

Connecting stories

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of observations that I called White City Play Stories. I’ve continued this thread of writing since then, but for some reason I’ve no longer tagged them as such. Stories, whatever you tag them or call them, are all stories of ‘worth’ though. Following on from last week’s writing on immersions in others’ play memory stories and on how we’re interwoven with place, I’m thinking of the play that surrounds us in our day-to-days. We’re embedded in it, even if we don’t realise this. Lines of stories flow in all the places we traverse. It’s like we’re enmeshed in a huge spiders’ web, where every thread is a story spun out, spun between the lines of other stories. It is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional weftwork, and we’re right in there in the middle of it.

We come from an oral culture and this part of us still survives, despite our written representations of language on pages and on screens, and despite our relatively recent cultural predisposition towards the instant photographic record. When we tell stories, we’re engaging with that old in-built desire to share and tell and to connect to other things as yet unsaid. Writing and photography have their places. When we write, we write sometimes because we may not be able to say, directly. When we write our stories, or when we display our photographs (and if we think of it this way), we try to shine a light on the weftwork that surrounds us in different ways. The spoken, the written, the imaged . . . everything is a story, or a fragment of a story, in the whole.

My observations, in and of the play, are written in the spirit of illuminating that part of the enmeshment that I see myself to be in. If the reader can appreciate the stories not directly experienced, as the listener of old oral tales was asked to do, maybe they can then see better the weftwork that they themselves are in. This, I suppose, is why I write my stories of play, though I’ve not articulated it in this way, precisely, before.

The following set of stories shall be tagged and categorised under ‘New White City Stories’: the whole is a multi-layered story for the finding.
 
A story about stories
I was in communication last week with someone from a local mobile library service regarding stories, books and children. From my experience of having worked with very small children, older pre-schoolers, and up to the older primary school years, I wasn’t so sure that the latter would engage so well with being read to from books. Sure, it can work out, but I said I found that these older-aged children generally engaged better with performance-story or the improvisational. As chance had it, that same week I was sitting in the sun on the outside sofa with one of the after school club children, just talking around, and we were soon joined by three other girls and the conversation turned, by them, to telling stories. We made up stories as we went (with no morals, with no real structure, with no concern for what might offend others). When the girls wanted me to talk, and when I’d managed to engage their attentions with a story line of their liking, I was very aware, in the moment, of the looks on their faces and of the focus of their body language. Stories about telling stories may well repeat over the following weeks.
 
Stories of repeated narratives
I feel sure that I’ve written something about repeated narratives somewhere before (which makes this story about a story a repeated narrative in itself!) Some children engage this adult in repetitions of service to the play, or in roles, or in layers beneath the surface of the immediately apparent. I’m not on the playground as much as I used to be and some children are aware of this and are patient for a Friday when I make sure I’m there and when the narratives that they seem to want and need to unfold can do so. Two children want/need engagement with ‘earthquakes’ on the netting (they also know that they, and only they, seem to have the capability of giving me static electric shocks because of their headscarves against the rope!) Another child’s trampolining is replete with other messages to other adults about her play (which, here, I can’t say — in entrustment of the moment!). The repeated narratives that entangle me in them are, I feel, all soaked in other messages.
 
Baby birds
I remember a story I told a few years back about feeling like the mechanism in service to certain play: that was, the pushing of children on the zipwire swing. There is a school of thinking that says that we adults shouldn’t be involved in this, which I can appreciate. However, there is another human level that can’t easily be resolved in playwork theory or in the dryness of qualifications literature: play is a connection, and sometimes we adults are very much connected with. Some children have recently played with the fine line between knowing exactly how to push themselves on the traditional swings and getting this adult to do it for them (or, rather, with them). The children know what they’re doing. This isn’t about laziness, this is about connection. They each take one of the swings on the hex-construction, facing inwards, and one after the other, like baby birds, they demand to be pushed, and high! I run around in service to their needs. When they get low, they squeal again! This is time spent connecting.
 
Playing the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘cops and thieves’, and other mutations
I can’t remember the exact order of the play that happened, this day when everything tumbled around, and when I seemed integral to things mixing and merging and mutating. One girl tried to cue me by inventing a valuable picture of mine (‘How much is it worth?’; ‘Oh, ten thousand’ [unspecified currency]). She found a slab of splash-painted wood. I couldn’t unfurl myself from other conversations though. A little later, she ‘stole’ my gold (made of gold paper, which apparently was mine). Cops and thieves took place. There are a number of ‘prisons’ currently on the playground. Some have names: ‘the Mansion’ is the hidey-hole with the other outside sofa in it, where children often sit and look out, in the dry, in comfort; the place that might become a fort is difficult for adults to traverse but easy for the children; the hut, which is even more difficult to get through, might become the ‘children’s world’. These prisons are ebbing and flowing in relative importance.

At some point, one boy shouted out ‘Who wants to play the Hunger Games?’ I didn’t know what this might entail, though I had a vague notion of the book and film. I wasn’t sure how many play frames were happening at once, what with the ebb and flow and take-up and fall-away of ‘cops and thieves’ and other play, but finger-guns, and stick-guns, and sword-guns made of a cross of wood pieces, and hockey sticks all appeared and were fired or whacked around. Children rarely act out being shot or sworded. They have in-built invincibility. One girl declared her invincibility outright and kept turning my finger-gun back on myself.

Where did the zombies come from, and why?! At some point, after I’d been shot or sworded for the umpteenth time, I must have become a ghost because one of the younger girls waved her hands around occasionally to ‘unghost’ me. Maybe the zombie mutation happened after this. Three children I know from the open access holiday scheme were pressing their noses up to the other side of the fence: this zombie adult was required to push some of the children on the roundabout (even though they were quite capable of doing this themselves) in the interior of the play and playground. The children outside looked on, engrossed. The zombie noticed this and threw cushions and old bread crates their way, poking his fingers through the small squares because it was dinner time for him! The children outside were somewhat in the play at this. They ran away and came back again. They knew me well enough as me, but they engaged with the character. Soon, somehow, the Hunger Games boy — having been cornered in open space by a small band of sword/gun wielding others — became involved with me in a stance of ‘no guts, no glory’. This adult, ex-zombie, was whacked several times on the thighs and on the backs of the knees by one of the warrior girls! These children play hard. The child in question stood off when I went down. She bowed like a Samurai, as I imagined, and left me alone . . .

These are just a few of the stories, connecting stories, of the multi-layered weftwork I’m in.
 
 

Stories of play can prove immersive. I didn’t write a blog post last week because of immersion in others’ memories. There’s more to a place than what, at first, meets the eye: this I’ve known for a long time, but when you start to dig down deeper and deeper into the recollections of others, you realise just how much has happened somewhere and how much you didn’t ever fully appreciate before. When we stop to look around a playground, how much play has happened there? When we stop to look around a city, how much play — likewise — has happened there? How much play continues to shape itself, even as we look and speak?

Of course, this is only part of the depth story. With play in any given place, there’s also the on-going formation of attachment. When I think of my own childhood play places, I think of the physical reality that they were, that they are, and of the emotional, psychological and social realities of myself as linked to there. We’re interwoven with ‘place’. This is why, when I found a whole treasure trove of west London play memory stories that stretched back some seventy or so years, I found myself immersed not only in the play of those stories but also in the social history that I was delving into.

When I walk around the estate in London where I work, I sometimes stop and have conversations with the children that I know there. They’ll ride by on their bikes, or they’ll be walking to or from school, or the parks, or catching a bus, and they’ll often stop to have a conversation. Last week this happened a few times (the children who, at first, I overheard whilst they were riding their bikes towards me, talking to each other about the water slide in the adventure playground; one of the girls from the open access holiday provision who opened up conversation as I dragged our stuff back from a play in the park session; the child who stopped me on the way to the playground so she could rummage in the bin shed of her flat, offering me some bits and bobs of loose parts play materials, and so on). None of these children had any adults in tow, and it made me realise that here, now, were recollections in formation. More than this though: here, now, was a layer that the ‘old timers’ had touched on in the stories that I’d read, though I put my own spin on it — this was a layer of the city that I had privileged access to, the layer that is the children’s city. This is something that not all adults can see, let alone be allowed to enter.

Sure, the layer that I talk about swills around some adults (almost as if they can hear the children at their feet, but they mean nothing in the greater scheme of things); for some adults, the layer of the children’s city is wrapped up in the language of the ‘anti-social’; for others, as I felt last week, it’s something much, much richer. Yes, there’s play, but there’s also the aspect of the conversational trust of certain adults, of the subtle conspiracy of understanding. It’s a reciprocal affair. The language is on a level, adult-adult, as open as it can be. There’s more to this again though: between the words and the actions there seems to be an implicit knowledge of things that don’t need to be said.

Perhaps there’s some of this in the stories that I’ve read, though I’ll have to read deeper in yet to see if this is true. There are stories of the children’s city that have tales of trusted adults mixed into them. There are all the characters of yesteryear pacing through the pages as if they still exist like that: which, in essence, perhaps they do because memories work this way. When I emerged from reading and when I found myself standing, back in the middle of the site of all these tales, it was like looking at the place I have known these past few years with magic glasses on! The things you can appreciate in between the buildings, in the streets, if you learn to see.

When I walk around the estate, now, I think about the stories that are forming in the children that I know. I wonder what the place will ‘look’ like in the memories of those children when they’re seventy or eighty years of age. What will the buildings and the streets be? Which areas will be strewn with play? What play will fizz still? Who will they be thinking of from those they played with? Which adults will they think of and why? What will the layer that is the children’s city of the now look like to them?

We can’t entertain the idea that none of this matters. Despite the negativity towards whatever depth of the children’s city any given adult might perceive, those adults often seem to forget one vital thing: they were all children once too. In this there’s also the truth that we have all been immersed in a layer of the local environments where we grew up, and this was ours; it was also, possibly, alien to many of the adults around us at that time. What is it that we lose along the way to mean we can’t at least appreciate, in peering in, that place where we once were?

That place is quite unique. I call it the layer of the children’s city, but it’s also the children’s ‘wherever that child is’. It’s full in ways that are often invisible to the as-yet uninformed adult. There are nuances and trusts, actions, inactions, and possibilities within it that only the privileged are allowed to see. It is a privilege, however, that must be earned. All cities have their many layers, and in the continual updating of their various histories the layer of the children’s city should be further written in. In this way, perhaps, we’ll begin to see a richer depth of what a place is, having greater reverence for the ‘social’ embedded in the streets, in the built, and in the built upon.
 
 

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