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.