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

Archive for July, 2012

A snapshot of some state of play

I’m going to keep it simple today: pictures telling thousands of words, and all that (though first I have to explain a couple of things): I went out armed with a camera. It’s the second week of the school holidays and I wanted to find the things that children leave behind in their play. I thought ‘how hard will it be?’ I didn’t want to photograph children, just the things they left behind. I like to try to piece together ‘the play that happened here’. It’s a kind of forensic process, linked to the ghosts of play that I’ve seen unfold with my own eyes. I wanted to show that play happens.

However, I poked around off the beaten track in places I would have played in as a child (in the corners of car parks where the hedges are trampled down; down by the streams that filter through this city; on the wildlife reserve; in the places that others don’t really know are there). I was quite disturbed. I didn’t find a great deal of evidence of play that had happened here.

What I did find, on this only slightly drizzly day in the second week of the longest school holiday, were three totally empty fenced-in parks – this one at the recreation centre:

This one on an estate where there are plenty of children:

I thought: OK, I wouldn’t have played in these places either. Where were all the children though? I saw one or two with adults, two teenagers at the skate park, and that was it. Are they really all made of sugar, like parents must think they are, unwilling to let them out for fear of them dissolving in the rain?

The place was deserted . . .

. . . and not living up to advertised promise (I don’t want to give this company free advertising here, but these photos go hand in hand) . . .

Were the children all too engrossed in the equestrian events and all the excitement at the Olympics Aquatic Centre to venture outside?

I shall go out again to find these corners off the beaten track, to find ‘the play that happened here’ because I’m sure it must be out there somewhere. Mustn’t it? It must be. There must be streams bridged with dead branches, ropes slung and dangling from trees, old chalkings draped on paving slabs out there . . . somewhere, right?

So, in the meantime, my camera at hand, my focus shifted. You start seeing things when you really look hard. There really are a lot of signs that are ‘no-focused’ in this place:

Anti-climb? Really? That wouldn’t have stopped me. Maybe it should be amended:

All this no-focus makes me think about an ‘only-culture’ we might have: only play in the sun (and only then when it’s not too hot); only play in fenced-in areas (and only then when adults are around); only play in this way, and not in this or this or that way.

It came with some amusement, then, to find this:

My apologies if any sensibilities have been offended, but freedom of expression, play, small subversions, are welcome distractions!


Pieces of learning

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.

Translation as attributed to Socrates
Recent conversation, reading and online contact have all piled up into what I’m about to write. Today I have been poking and prodding at playwork training material, trying to tease out of my writings the potential for others’ learning. Just how do I get across what playwork is to those who don’t yet know what playwork is? Some people, many people, have never heard of playwork at all. My contacts in the US tell me that playwork is a difficult concept there. My experience in the UK tells me that playwork is often misinterpreted here. So, this post is, as I sit and type, forming towards (a) this thing called playwork, and (b) the learning experience.

For the past month I’ve been writing on these pages. I usually get up and have a fair idea of what I’m going to write about. Today, it’s the other way around: I got up, focused on reading training material, writing, trying to tease out the potential for others’ learning. Now I need to write something here. Write about learning. It’s only just becoming clear to me how learning isn’t all about information. So, better late than never in coming to this realisation! Learning involves asking the right questions of oneself. That day I sat and talked with Bob Hughes (for those readers unfamiliar to this name, Bob is someone almost universally revered in playwork circles), I asked him what he thought of my particular playwork issue of the moment. He thought about it and said: ‘Well, perhaps you’re not asking the right questions.’

What are the right questions? Keep asking. It’s a process. It’s a journey. Find out. So, if learning involves asking the right questions, so too must teaching? Several years ago I taught, and the same subjects came round and round and came and went and I just got so bogged down in trying to pull the same answers out of different learners. It became like pulling teeth. It was painful for all concerned. Today, reading, thinking, the preparation for teaching became a search for asking the right questions.

What is playwork? I’ve been asked this. Those of us in the playwork field can unfold our ‘what is playwork?’ definitions as readily as we can quote various definitions of ‘what is play?’ (The irony, of course, is that no-one has ever created a catch-all definition to that last question, and maybe no-one ever will). Maybe playwork is the same. We workers in play; playworkers; those of us who prefer the developmental, the psychoanalytical, the evolutionary stances; those of an adventure playground persuasion; those brought up to work in after school clubs; play rangers, and all the others: we’re playworkers (despite the tribal bickerings from one camp to another sometimes, hidden under the surface – yes, I see this happening in the shadows), we playwork. Ultimately, we work in the service of play.

Now I’m being too didactic. What is playwork? Is this the right question? Start elsewhere: What do you think of play? How is play for you? Are your children as play-rich as they can be? Maybe there is no right question. Maybe there are only small epiphanies that come together from small questions. Maybe the whole of the small realisations, or the whole forming, becomes the answer to this thing called playwork.

Of course, there is much to be said for reading, research, observing, talking, listening: these are all part of the whole. We should also ‘do’ though. When I’m not practising, I’m itchy. I feel fraudulent, in a way. I need to go out there and practice what I preach, to apply what I know, or what I think I know, to test my reading against the real world. I need to go out there and make mistakes. I have made mistakes (the stories I could tell . . .!) My mistakes are part of me. Somewhere, I absorbed that the definition of an expert is ‘someone who has made mistakes.’ Going around calling yourself an expert would be a huge mistake in itself, I think, but the art of making cock-ups is something that makes me richer (despite how painful some of those mistakes have been).

So, this learning that we do, that my learners do: I’ve long been of the opinion that someone really has to want to learn something. It’s that or it’s just cranking on the handle of the human sausage machine. We can pump information into little tubes but keeping it in there is another game. When I was at school (umpteen years ago), I seem to have learnt just three things: how to write, how to read, and how to use a calculator. (I may have learnt some other random facts, but I forget right now). However, when I got to University, the whole year group always turned up, without fail, to our History of Art classes! We wanted that.

I was asked, today, in conversation: Who are your blog’s readers? Who do you write for? I replied straight away: For everyone. What I meant was that everyone has played, everyone can relate to the expertise of their own play, everyone could come to put the small realisations together. However, specifically I write for my known readers, made up of parents, the odd so-called ‘higher-brow’ thinker, other playworkers and playwork trainers. I would like all others to read.

Whoever does read though will need to piece things together, have their own small realisations, apply the reading to their own experiences, ask the right questions, make their own mistakes, have a desire to ask – in their own way and in their own words – what is this thing called playwork?

Play stories of the late Fifties/Sixties (East Stour, north Dorset)

Continuing my occasional series, under the heading of ‘Play in the black and white days’, I asked Victoria to tell me some play stories of her childhood in a village in north Dorset. These stories I receive are reproduced here pretty much how they come (I just do my copy-editing bit). In this way, it’s always interesting to see how one play story snippet leads on to another and where the telling leads the teller. These are Victoria’s stories:

My earliest memories of playing are digging in the garden, probably from about the age of three: not only digging in the garden, but digging holes under the garden fence and passing things through to the boy next door, who I spent much of my growing up years with and we are still in touch.

I learnt to ride a bike around the age of four: my aunt had been an army wife and they had lived in Germany where my cousins – all boys and slightly older than me – had been bought a two-wheeled bike with wide white tyres. I remember it well. We had a slope in our back garden and I used to sit on the bike and lift my legs up and free wheel down the garden, and long before I learnt the art of steering I collided with the line post, the blackcurrant bushes, and anything else that got in my way: I can remember the grazes and bruises but was not one for giving up. I was an outdoor child and, if not outdoors playing, was a bit of a bookworm.

My mum bought endless elastic so that we could indulge in the craze of French skipping, which was great fun: we had skipping ropes and hula hoops. I had home-made stilts, which I spent hours on: always having been on the short side, I liked being that little bit taller and seemed very able at walking on them for long periods of time. My next step up from them was a pogo stick, which was most probably my favourite pastime. I would bounce away endlessly, clocking up hundreds without a break and driving everyone insane, but I loved it.

Damning streams, building camps, lying on your back in the middle of a field and cloud watching were all great fun, along with picking primroses for one of the elderly ladies in the village. A good game was standing either side of a trough and seeing if – by throwing large stones in – you could splash your friends on the other side. Climbing trees and playing football with the boys: there were more boys than girls in the village.

As a family we played Ludo, Snakes and Ladders and, as we got older, Monopoly, as well as card games such as Snap and Patience. I loved Spirograph and one of my all time favourite Christmas presents was a chemistry set. We did things like paint old tiles and decorate jars and pots with shells and pebbles.

I guess when I started comprehensive school I became interested in music, and we had our first reel-to-reel tape recorder, which my sister and I had between us for Christmas: we spent hours recording records and making up dance routines.

Then, to a degree, school took over. I used to ride my bike quite a bit and swim almost every day.

[A short while later . . .]

I forgot hopscotch: we spent hours drawing the boxes and playing the game. Great fun.

The speculative effect of playful adults on children’s culture

What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? I’ve been reading a research article on PlosOne, When the Transmission of Culture Is Child’s Play (2012). The question that this research asks is: How does culture get transmitted between children? The answer is obvious to playworkers: it’s through play, of course. The paper’s author, Mark Nielsen (of the School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane), defines culture by writing:

. . . in order for any behaviour to be considered ‘cultural’ it must propagate in a social group.

In other words, a spread of habits and traditions in that group. It’s no great surprise to me, reading the research, that children’s playing will develop those children’s culture: the culture of stories and habits, traditions and obsessions, will ripen and grow in the unfolding playing of the children. Nielsen himself writes:

[Children] entering into playful games with peers is much more about engaging with others than it is about acquiring object-related skills.

So, it’s more interesting when reading this paper, I think, to ask the question: What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? I ask this because Nielsen’s research is based on a simple task demonstrated by an adult. He and his colleagues conducted experiments with two groups of pre-schoolers: one group in Australia and one in Sri Lanka. They got an adult to demonstrate to one child how to open a box. The Australian and Sri Lankan children were split into different groups and then, individually, shown how to open the box by the adult in two different ways: for children in the first group, Nielsen calls the method ‘Functional’; the second way is called ‘Playful’. In the Functional way, the adult makes use of a key or a stick to show how to open the box. In the Playful way, the adult uses a toy car or a toy cow. In both the Functional and Playful ways, the demonstrating adult deliberately uses the object (key, stick, car, or cow) with some actions that are irrelevant to how the box can be opened. So, for example, the object is scraped along the box’s lid or round and round the ground next to the box. The box can only be opened by either pushing or sliding the opening mechanism. In the Functional way, the key or stick actions are reinforced with functional words. In the Playful way, the car or cow actions are reinforced with sounds like ‘vroom, vroom’ or ‘moo, moo’. The final piece of the experiment here is the ‘control’ children: these individuals aren’t shown how to open the box by the adult and are given the opportunity to poke around with the box and find out for themselves.

So, that’s the set-up of the science bit. What the researchers were looking at was, when the first child in each of the Functional, Playful and Control groups was then asked to show a second child what they could do with the box (i.e. open it) – and then the second child did the same for a third child, and so on down a chain – how many of the irrelevant actions, like scraping the object along the top of the box, demonstrated by the adult would be copied and kept going by the children down the chain.

The researchers found that the children down the Playful chain (i.e. the ones who started off with the adult using ‘moo, moo’ or ‘vroom, vroom’ sounds with cow/car) kept a lot more of the irrelevant actions going (even though ‘child three’ in the chain was copying from ‘child two’ and not from the initial adult).

In the Functional chain (basically where the adult was teaching in a rational ‘this is how to do it’ adult sort of way), the children quickly lost a lot of the irrelevant actions, i.e. the actions that didn’t help them open the box, like scraping a stick in the dirt around the outside of the box.

Not surprisingly perhaps, to the playworker, the Control children chain (who had no initial demonstration by the adult and were given the opportunity to work it out themselves), didn’t really copy the irrelevant actions of the other children. The adult was still present and encouraging the child though.

Nielsen writes:

We reasoned that the . . . lack of children’s over-imitation of other children might be attributable to the nature of the initial adult demonstration. That is, when an adult seeds the target action in the first child it is typically done in a serious, pedagogical manner. This might facilitate adult-child transmission but not subsequent child-child transmission; especially if children have little or no reason to view their peer model as an expert.

So, in other words, this research is saying that an adult who playfully shows a child how to do something, will be faithfully copied (over-imitation) by the children more than the adult who functionally teaches a child how to do something. The play in the action is the attractor. The functionally taught child will work out how to perform the action from the adult, but won’t pass on all the adults’ irrelevant actions to other children.

Nielsen goes on: 

In contrast, when playing, children will unhesitatingly adopt the non-functional, arbitrary actions and behaviours of their playmates.

So, playing children tend to copy other children’s irrelevant actions and arbitrary ‘make it up as you go along’-ness. This, then, is the children’s culture.

. . . in contrast to adult-child transmission, the reproduction of redundant actions [should] diminish or disappear in child-child transmission. This is precisely what happens.

In other words, because the child doesn’t see another child as an expert in what they’re doing, unlike the way they might see a functional adult, Nielsen reasons, redundant and irrelevant actions passed from functional adult to child, tend not to then be passed from child to child. However, children’s culture is such that that redundancy of action is passed on when no adult initiates things. This is how I understand this research.

Where does this leave us with my initial question? What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? Could it be that the playful adult is acting in the same cultural landscape as the adult-less child-child culture? That is, despite received wisdom in some of the playwork literature (that is, in effect, the adult must not pollute the children’s play by their actions), the playful adult may become ‘absorbed’, by the playing child, into their cultural landscape: aiding and abetting that culture’s formation and evolution – its ripening. The playful adult, according to this research, is more faithfully imitated (believed?), than the functional adult.

This may come as no surprise to some playworkers; it may be heresy to others.

Beyond being just out of sorts

How do you know your children are out of sorts? Or just slightly more than simply out of sorts? Sometimes they’re just not themselves, not there in themselves; something almost too tiny to spot for other people who don’t know them well. What do you see that, to others, just gets absorbed in the whole slop and swill of the play space they’re in? What tells you that you’re focused hard on your children as individuals?

Do they get spooked by strange things, things that don’t usually bother them? Just tiny agitations that others might ignore or not pick up on. Things like momentary, out of character and only very occasional selective mutism. Things like a fleeting irrational response (even more irrational than the irrationality that play is). Things like a sudden look or twitch?

Do they give up on their usual play cues? Are corners or other places in the environment – where unreturned or rejected cues happened – shied away from, ignored, taken aggressive grievance against? Can you see the usual manner of cues, for any individual child, shifting slightly into other types of cues?

Do the children you’re observing, focusing on, find it difficult to absorb themselves in the play flow? What’s causing this? Are they preoccupied, do you think? Is there too much or too little stuff? Are you in the way? Are you in the way even if you think you’re well out of the way? Following on from some of Bob Hughes’ thinking, in the quantum world – the science of the very small – at the atomic level, the instrument used to observe an electron (so, a light beam) affects that electron. Zoom back out: is it the very fact that you, the instrument of observation, are observing that child that affects their ability to drop into play flow? Is the child out of sorts because of you?

Is the child associating what happened with some play resource, on any other day, or in any other place with a similar play resource, in a negative way? Did the feel of that resource affect them, or the way it broke suddenly, or the way it fell down and trapped them underneath for a few seconds? Do your children seem to merge days and play and resources into one huge swill? Is it as if time and space and objects can be easily interchanged with other time/space/object constructs? That’s not to say your children can’t differentiate, simply put, one place or time from another; rather, I wonder how time and space runs through children.

Just how much are your children picking up on your own mood? You’re hot, you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re feeling slow to respond. You do respond, return cues; you do this in good time for your child to be vaguely satisfied, but it’s all vague, it’s all ‘not quite quality enough’ for them. They know you’re returning, though not in those words; they know you’re mostly there; they know you’re not totally with it. Their subsequent play cues aren’t exactly aberrant, dys-play, perceivable as aggressive, ‘wrong’: they’re just listless cues. They cue but they half-cue.

How do you know when your children are out of sorts? Do you know them well enough, within the context of the general slow-motion maelstrom or great huge whirl of the whole group, to be able to look beyond ‘they’re feeling tired, unwell, hot’? What’s unseen, beyond what we usually see?

Reflection cubed

Question everything. The subject of reflection has come up a couple of times in the last few days, and with different people, when discussing children’s play and playwork. When training, is it possible to teach someone how to think? (Of course, we all think, but thinking play and playwork is another thing altogether). Maybe we can teach the value of thinking, or the potential for thinking, about these things. Or can we ever teach anything at all? Question everything.

I’ve been thinking about reflection because the subject area and the act have been sparked into life in me by the conversations I’ve been having. However, in order to get my thoughts down here, I need to take this one step at a time (it could get messy if I’m not careful; it probably will get messy!) I’m thinking of levels, and I’ve got three levels going on so far (there is the possibility for more). It’s rather like the film, Inception, where DiCaprio goes down progressively deeper dream levels. So, to start off: an observation as story, partly also in observation of myself; a reflection:


Lulu (9) is walking from the car park with me and a small group of other children. We’ve parked the minibus at the other end of the site and have to walk all the way to where we usually are. We go down the alley where there’s a low wall. It’s about three feet at its highest, going down to about a foot and a half high as the path slopes up. I’m talking with some other children. I turn around, after I get to the end of the wall, and I see Lulu up on it and she’s doing cartwheels along it. She looks quite in control of her movement, flipping over, even able to balance her weight on one hand at the very top of the cycle and slowly lean her feet down before spinning on again. Even so, she’s doing this cartwheeling and has bounced off the end, landing on her feet, before I can even think what to say or raise myself to any action. I open my mouth, shrug, move on.

Reflection (Level 1a)

What did I do, and why? I stood and watched. I thought slowly. I thought about what words to use, and if I should use words at all. I thought if I should just understand that this was play in front of me and that Lulu was quite capable. I watched because I was torn between personally having no problem with how Lulu was choosing to manoeuvre through space and by feeling like others might look unfavourably on this. I shrugged because I was fine, because I was happy to have my instincts proved right, to be relieved.

Reflection (Level 1b)

Question everything. Why did I feel the way I felt? I felt as if I should trust Lulu; that Lulu wasn’t trusted by others passing by and who didn’t know her (‘children don’t know how to move safely’); that others would look unfavourably on me for ‘letting’ her cartwheel along the wall; that I would look unfavourably on myself if she fell off.

Reflection (Level 1c)

Why did I feel the need to feel these things? I worried that others might think poorly of me, that playwork practice might be seen as deficient or even negligent in some way; that I would question myself so much, if Lulu hurt herself, that I would stamp down unjustly, in the future, on even such low-level risky play as this. I felt the need to feel this way more because I was worried about how people would perceive Lulu, children, play, playwork and me, more than I was truly worried about Lulu hurting herself. I was concerned about her, a little, but she has so much more ability in her risky play than even her mother gives her credit for, in my observation and opinion.

Reflection about reflection (Level 2a)

If meta-data is ‘data about data’, and if meta-communication is ‘communication about communication’, then could meta-reflection be ‘reflection about reflection’? I’m sitting out in the sun, thinking. I’m thinking about the act of thinking. I’m reflecting about my reflections, such as above. Why do I reflect? What do I get from it? Isn’t it better just to ‘do’? I reflect to find out things I didn’t know, things I thought I knew, things I might know. I get further thoughts out of the act of reflecting; I get confused by the act of reflecting sometimes. When I just ‘do’ I wonder if I am just doing at all. Even if I’m not consciously thinking of playwork ideas or suchlike, is it all still swilling around in me, agitating, making me ‘just do’ in a certain way anyway?

Reflection about reflection (Level 2b)

Question everything. If I get confused, sometimes, by the act of reflecting after the action, or by my reflection-in-action, in the moment of the play taking place, why do it? Why reflect? It must be that I enjoy being caught up in webs in my thinking. Do I actively seek out conflicting thoughts, stimulus for thought? Or, are these webs out of my control? – it not being a matter of enjoying the creation of them; rather, some things happen, the web-making, and I can’t stop them, so I cope the best I can.  If I ‘just do’, because I’ve read a lot, or because I’ve done a lot, or because I’ve already made a lot of mistakes, do I need to read, or think, any more? Or, if I ‘just do’, am I not doing enough?

Reflection about ‘reflection about reflection’ (Level 3)

Or, in a simpler way: thinking about meta-reflection. Is this a superfluous level? What is the message I transmit to myself, and to others, in declaring thought about ‘reflecting on reflection’? Why ask questions like ‘why reflect?’? What can I hope to achieve by these questions . . . ?

Question everything . . . Quick, where’s my ‘kick’ to get me up, out of this level, back up to the surface world?!

Rules of play: part two of two

Eric Berne, M.D.’s Games People Play, the Psychology of Human Relationships (1964) is on my plate: my food for thought in respect of adults’ play. Adults play, of course they do. Berne knew this (though in different ways to the simple phrase that is: adults play). He called what we adults do ‘games’. We’re all wrapped up in games with one another. Berne listed whole categories of games: life games, marital games, ‘party’ games, sexual games, ‘underworld’ games, consulting room games, and ‘good’ games.

So, for the uninitiated in this area, paraphrasing Berne, a ‘game’ is, simply and generally, a communication between people with expected returns but also with hidden messages.

A quick overview of some of Berne’s games, for example:

How bad I’ve been; see if you can stop me.
I owe money; I have a purpose.
Why does this keep happening to me?; my misfortunes are worse than yours.
I’m only trying to help you; I’m covering up my feelings of inadequacy.
See if you can present a solution I can’t find fault with; gratify and reassure me, give me attention.

All these games we play! It’s a minefield. We need signs, rules to help us out. What if adults were confronted with rules all the time, like children are in their play? Of course, adults have to put up with rules on signs out there in the world (keep left, keep right, don’t cross, push here, no parking, don’t go in the Olympic Games Lanes, etc), but I’m not talking about having rules for adults in their driving, shopping or general day-to-day going about their business lives; what if adults had rules all over the streets that told them how to ‘be’? Children are told how to play, how not to play, how to conduct themselves . . . so, these are the rules for how the adult should be:

General rules:

Only work in the right places.
Work nicely.
Use your outdoor voices.
Respect your sofa, your Wii, and your toaster.
Share: the road with people who cut you up on the motorway; your stuff with people who steal your stuff; your house with people who squat in your house, even though you got there first.

Basic rules:

No running.
No swearing.
No fighting.
No chewing gum.
No shouting.
No ball games.
No ‘adult games’.

Deeper ‘games’ rules:

No drawing attention to yourself.
No being debt-free and happy.
No feeling sorry for yourself.
Don’t be inadequate.
No running your life constantly about you.

Existential rules:

No dreaming too loud.
No dreaming out loud.
No dreaming.
No wondering, pondering, brooding, questioning.
No naval-gazing* (or even navel-gazing!)
No philosophising on street corners.
No doubting.

These rules – and more – to be up on signs on every street, every wall, in every open space, in the work place, in pubs and other adult places of play, in taxis and on buses and on trains, in shops, on the little squares of grass wedged in between buildings on housing estates, etc.

The games adults play need rules: it’s for our own good, after all.

Rules of play: part one of two

Reading other people’s blogs helps kickstart the creative and thinking process. Vicky recently posted a photo from her day out: ‘rules of play’. I’ve taken the liberty of copying and pasting that photo here (I trust you’re OK with that, Vicky?!) because it’s a springboard for some thinking.

Thinking about my play in the virtual play frame of Vicky’s blog, I had to add my own:

(i) No playing beyond existential boundaries;
(ii) No sharp poetry in play areas;
(iii) No backflips off speculative ledges;
(iv) No saying no;
(v) Play nicely with the other primates;
(vi) Respect the other children’s atoms;
(vii) Only breathe in the right places, oh and have fun.

Let me put some of those in context. I’ve visited a lot of schools and out of school club settings and there are often ‘rules’ up on the wall somewhere. I’m pretty sure that most of what I’ve seen are not the children’s own rules, and even if they did have something to do with devising them (a) how much of the rule-making process was truly in their control?; (b) how much of the rule-making could be attributed to what the children themselves were saying, rather than being a mouthpiece for what they, the children, thought the teachers, or setting staff, or their parents wanted to hear?; (c) what’s the point of rules anyway?

So, one at a time: do children who are being ‘consulted’ with actually have the free rein to express what they truly would like to see on such a litany as ‘the rules’? That is, how much of what a child says to be a ‘rule’ won’t make the final cut? One child says they really don’t like another child and would like to ignore them at all costs. Will that fit neatly into any given school or setting’s social agenda?

How much of the rule-making is actually the child saying what the adults want to hear? I’ve seen it time and time again, potentially, with ‘rules’, dog-eared and cellotaped to the wall for quite some time, or laminated: No fighting, no swearing, no running, say please and thank you, etc. A small part of me suspects the children are wise to the game and know that something more interesting is waiting for them just as soon as this ‘rule-making activity’ is over.

What is the point of rules? They’re only going to get broken, used as the ‘law of the local land’, that which must be adhered to, or else: contributing to defiance, ‘rule testing’, perceived aggression, ‘disrespect’, or the like. ‘Ah, but we must have rules in society’ is the standard defence. Why don’t we try asking other people, those imposed upon by rules they didn’t invent or subscribe to, what they want? That means ‘really ask, and listen, and do something about it.’ That means making agreements, not imposing on others.

I once visited a school with a large empty playground. At the far end, on one wall, was a list of rules as long as (proverbially and actually) my arm. At around Rule 7, I will always remember, came something along the lines of: Only play in the right places. I have no idea what this means. The children who were there that day paid no visual attention to the sign. They played where they could. What does the sign mean? What are the right places for play? It was all the more confusing, this sign, when looking out across and beyond the playground to a tall chain link fence that separated the school from the local grass and park area. Just on the other side of the fence, literally, some free range children were climbing a tall tree, snubbing their noses up at the children inside the fenced area (the children not being allowed to play on the fixed play equipment in the school playground area). Was the tree a ‘right place’ outside the fence, but if inside that fence would it have become ‘not a right place’? I’m not so naïve as to believe that poor old ‘health and safety’ wasn’t being evoked again, dragged backwards daily through the school halls to the ringing incantation of ‘none shall so much as graze their knees on school property’; however, that really is the problem, isn’t it?

(Being a magpie again: this time lifted from Arthur’s blog).
Other conundrums of my ‘rules’ sign-reading travels:

(i) Play nicely. Really, this confuses me terribly, and always has done. What is the message here? Close synonyms for ‘nice’ are: pleasant, polite, lovely, fine, good. Play pleasantly, politely, lovely, well? Play sedately, idyllically, to a good standard? Anyone?

(ii) Use your indoor voices. I wasn’t aware I had different voices for different places. OK, yes on this occasion I do get the euphemism for ‘whisper’ or ‘talk quietly’ or ‘don’t shout’, but (a) why not just say what you mean, if you really have to? – children aren’t stupid; (b) sometimes shouting is absolutely necessary, as in ‘Yes! I just played really nicely!’

(iii) Respect the toys/furniture. Again, one of those ‘don’t say what you mean’ situations: how about, ‘please try not to break stuff’? (There’s no harm in adults using the ‘p’ word too, by the way). Respect the toys/furniture? Why? They don’t respect me.

(iv) Share the toys with the other children. Why? (my five year old self says). I got it first; he wasn’t anywhere near me when I got it; he didn’t want it when I first got hold of it, now he wants it only because I’ve got it; also, he smells funny, et cetera, et cetera.

Imagine adults having to act in such conditions!

Scene: United Nations.

Peace broker: So, Ambassador of [insert country #1 of your choice], you’re laying claim to this piece of desert/sand pit? Why don’t you just play nicely with the other countries?

Ambassador #1: What?? Anyway, I got there first. I want it. He didn’t want it when I wasn’t in it.

Ambassador #2 of [insert second country of your choice]: Not true. Liar, liar.

Peace broker: Sshh. Please. Use your indoor voices.

Ambassador #1: But it’s really echoey in here. And anyway . . . not fair, not fair. He started it.

Ambassador #2: Did not, but I’m starting this . . .

Peace broker: Please, Ambassador, don’t whack the other Ambassador round the head with that peace treaty. You’ve got to respect the heavy document, you know?

Ambassador #2: Why? It’s just a bunch of pages.

Peace broker: Now, Ambassador. And you, Ambassador. Why don’t you just share the sand pit?

Ambassador #1: Why? I got there first.
Ambassador #2: I got there second.

Peace broker: I’ll knock your bloody heads together.

Ambassador #1: And he smells . . .

[End scene]

Perhaps that’s how it does work! Who knows?

In celebration of play-friendliness

In celebration of the play-friendly space, rather than the child-friendly space (thank you, Lily, for the direction in the thinking here), a small descriptive scene. I’m busy varnishing the children’s chairs and table when they come, and the eldest, three, pokes her head gingerly out into the garden space (because she’s been foretold about what I’m doing). I finish off the last chair, leaving the bits and bobs of my previous hours’ focus on the paving slabs in the baking hot sun. The children have been told these things are sticky and they stay clear (though the youngest is sneaky and determined to find a way, once in a while, to stick himself to the table like the summer flies do).

Before long there’s a paddling pool out with a good array of stuff floating around in it: bits of guttering, tin cans and other things that will no doubt rust. I’d picked up the broken glass a little while earlier, but there are still the husks of dead snails’ shells piled up in the corner after the brutal salt massacre of a week or two ago. There’s an unfenced pond full of water so green it ceases to be green any more. Somewhere down there is Steve the Fish (after Steve McQueen, the motorcycle jump over the barbed wire fence? You can piece it all together from here).

The youngest, who’s not yet two, wobbles as he tries to climb the chunks of railway sleepers that are laid out as steps up to the inclined grass. He’s preoccupied with balls: any balls; he throws a foam one down the hill and falls after it, throwing himself after it too, just managing to avoid landing on his face. Last week, he landed on his face on the paving slabs wedged into the grass slope. He cried, got up and went mountaineering again. Today he reaches out for my hand and we do the mountaineering thing, paving slabbing (or whatever it is inside his head).

The shed door is open and the play stuff is piled up all on one side. The shed is also home to the usual paraphernalia of all good sheds: lawnmowers, nails and screws and hammers and various junk. We pull out paints and a good thirty brushes, more pots and cans and containers. The children paint stones and the eldest then wants to varnish them. I give her the sticky pot and she chooses five brushes to use, one after the other. One brush, apparently, is not enough to smear with and, once sticky, needs replacing. I remind her again how sticky things might get. She’s careful, but she manages to varnish her toes anyway.

At the top of the garden, the decking is getting overgrown with thistles. All the children pick their way around these whenever they’re up there. Sometimes, the big heavy wooden chairs will get climbed upon (and noses and chins making contact with hard surfaces are occupational hazards for those wishing to climb to the very top; tears get shed; snot gets wiped into adults’ t-shirts; children get deposited back at base camp on the decking and asked: OK, that didn’t work, which way up next?; chairs get climbed up again from the other side); the table will get climbed up onto and sat on.

The children know where the wobbly paving slab is, and navigate it carefully or jump on it; they have a healthy respect for the sharp fact that is the point where the grass stops and the steps and imminent downwards start; they know that the thin white fencing made of old bits of banisters is very close to being ineffective as a fence at all; they sometimes ignore their parents when walking into the shed with bare feet, not because of belligerence, I suspect, more because they’re watching where they’re stepping.

This play-friendliness is a work in progress. The adults in the space are understanding of the children’s play and that things are playable with. In contrast, there are two ‘play parks’ within easy walking distance of where I live. I use the term very loosely. Gack and I recently visited both. He only went to the things in the parks that moved (and, even then, only the things that were novel for him – he doesn’t do swings). So, for an hour non-stop, we fed the small steel circular contraption that looked like a tipped-over bird bath: we fed it grass and twigs and sticky weeds and Gack’s rucksack and Gack himself, and swirled it all around and spun it round and scooped it out and did it all over again. And again. And again. Gack contained his play in that small ten feet wide diameter of tarmac (later steering off to investigate the lifting, moving, squeaking whatever-it-was contraption, coming back again for more spinning) whilst a man stood smoking, waiting for his dog to do its business thirty feet away from us.

At the other ‘play park’, after we stopped in the middle of the pavement up the hill for Gack to rest his plastic ba-rarrow (wheelbarrow) and sit and have a replenishing sugar-hit of cake, Gack stood and surveyed the scene for a few seconds. He made for the moving parts of the fitness contraption, not being able to reach the bars himself, sliding the pads on their rails, back and forth, back and forth. He alternated between this and the static wooden truck, the saving grace of which being its moveable steering wheel. Gack didn’t even see the platform where the paltry ‘home corner’/den was built nearby. Nor did I, till I began to tire of the back and forth between truck and fitness contraption.

These ‘play parks’ are not so play-friendly. They have limited scope. It’s lucky for the park that Gack is so forgiving. He seems to get a lot more scope, despite its smaller space, out of the garden where he, and his cousins, can mountaineer, jump on wobbly slabs, balance on the edges of steps, run down the steep slope, poke around for snay-eels and slugs (and I swear we saw a grass snake last week), gawp at slug slime, slop watery purple paint into the pool, and varnish their own toes.

On knowing how best to be

The barmaid at my local is talking with a punter who’s obviously into her. He kisses her hand. When she’s near me, I ask her, ‘How do you do that?’ She says, ‘I smile.’ She gets me. She knows. You know? We know.

I’m still on my mystic kick. There are people out there in the play and playwork world who understand, of that I’m sure. Every so often I come across one of these fellow followers of this fashion of belief, or I re-find them and we talk these things, or linked things, which we haven’t talked before.

Arthur comments on a recent post of mine:

Penny Wilson knows this – this being the thing you said about those fellow human beings who are considered different from you or eye [sic] – she knows about that playfulness that powers, mediates, underpins and transmogrifies the play of the children ‘who are considered different from you or eye’. Maybe we should re-label the other children as ‘the children that we don’t feel the need to give a label to’.

Hugo Grinmore (who, once, under his other name, observed and analysed me in play connection with a child, a privilege to hear him tell me how I worked) wrote about children who he grouped as ‘scintillators’:

‘[Scintillators] are beyond neuro-typicality. My belief is that what we see is not a component part of [autism] spectrum disorder but rather a new emotionally transcendent type of human . . . These children have very highly developed emotional antennae. They are deeply sensitive to others’ emotional states and can respond accordingly . . . [These children] have and value knowledge that is centred on the notion of what we might properly call wisdom.’

Hugo Grinmore (2009), Scintillators. iP-Dip Magazine [print] Issue 14.

More succinctly, I sat with Eva Kane on the sofas in the car park at the International Play Association conference in Cardiff last summer. Eva, from the University of Stockholm, and I talked around this sort of thinking. She looked at me and agreed, saying: ‘Children know.’ That was all. That was all I needed to know there was affirmation of similar thoughts out there in the play and playwork world.

I was recently given a link (my dancer friend who knows about how play runs through us). She offered me the writings of O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D:

I’m not talking about teaching children what we know.  I’m suggesting something radically different.  I’m suggesting learning from children.

from Peace is Child’s Play

Donaldson is writing about learning peace from children. OK, so it’s a case, perhaps, of ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ in seeing all children all the time in this light, but the message to me is clear enough: we, adults, should not suppose we know how best to be.

‘What’s the biggest thing in the world?’ I asked a five year old, once, in a quiet moment. Without hesitation or thought, he looked me straight back in the eye and said: ‘Love.’

Donaldson writes:

Children bring with them four basic unadulterated raw materials of life: love, belonging, an urge to thrive, and a trust in the mystery of it all. These lessons have reality for me now as they have been ground into me like dirt into a young child’s [trousers].  I have found them throughout my play with children.

His play with children? He’s not a playworker, but wait here: the world I swim around in, when it’s a difficult swim, would think very warily of him. What’s he saying here? What’s he got to hide? What’s wrong with him? Stay clear.

Stand back from the edge though. Assume the best. Be child-like in understanding. In the spirit of ‘there is no such thing as absolute altruism’, what we get from our work with children is the glow of connecting with these higher beings (as Grinmore would have it). There is much to be learnt from them.

I walk into my local and I’m looking around at what I might want, and the barmaid is standing there, dutifully, respectfully, waiting a few steps back from the bar with her hands lightly held together in front of her. She’s smiling. I feel her smiling before I even register she’s physically there waiting for me. It’s genuine. It’s beyond any other communication. She seems to know this. I know this. It is a child-like openness.

These are things I’ve learnt.

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