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

Archive for August, 2012

Play stories of the Twenties (Battersea, London)

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to have the opportunity to talk with Harry about what he remembers of being a child. Harry is 91. It’s not often that we get opportunities like this and I urge everyone to take these up when they arise.

This interview discussion (posted here with Harry’s permission) was originally intended to focus soley on play back in, what I term, the ‘black and white days’! However, for various reasons, which will hopefully become apparent, the final transcription is more of a wider view of life in the 1920s. I usually interview people for this series with just the opening question. In Harry’s case, it’s a fine line between asking leading questions and offering further prompts to jog the memory. I hope I’m just the right side of the line.

Harry is in his own home. For most of the discussion he’s sat in his armchair with one leg slung over its arm! Also present are his daughter and three nieces, all in their sixties and seventies themselves (who help out by asking Harry questions too, and who are shown below as ‘others’)

This is a fairly long interview and blog entry, but I post it in full (including exactly the way that words were said – offering insight in itself) because I hope and trust that those who stay the course will get something out of it, as I did.
Me: Harry, how did you play?

[Others]: What happened at Christmas?

Father Christmas came, so they tell me.

[Others]: What did he bring you?

That’s the question . . . you had your pillow case, hanging up. Din’t have . . . well you should put a sock up but we used be a bit greedy – put a sack up, might get a bit more. You had the orange, the apples, all the fruits, wassname, and sweets and tin a sharp toffees . . . oh, gawd blimey, oh Christ, you’re creating a whatname now for me . . .

[Others]: Come on, get your brain in gear!

That’s what I’m trying to do . . . [garbled laughing] . . . that far back . . .

[Others]: Didn’t you have little cars?

Little cars? No, what I think . . . what . . . [long pause] . . . I used to . . . kites, I used to go for kites, we used to fly kites a lot in them days. We all had different shapes and sizes . . . you know? And, um . . .

Me: So how old were you then?

Five. Four or five . . . cos I was really from Portsmouth. I was born in Portsmouth.

[Others]: There was something else you used to do. Mudlarking?

Oh, mudlarking. Yeh.

[Others]: Where they throw pennies off the ferries, wasn’t it? And you jump in the mud . . .

They used to throw pennies in. They used to jump in, down at the harbour [mumbled reminiscence that isn’t clear]. Portsmouth Harbour [long pause] Going back a few years now. Going back a few years. I’m afraid so, yeh. Yeh. Mmm. Mmm. I used to potter around with . . . with the . . . we always used to be car mad, we all had . . . even though we couldn’t drive, we still had cars round here and we used to potter around in, and repair, or make out we were repairing, you know? And time came when . . . er . . in the end I joined the . . . wassname . . . I joined the army, joined the Territorial Army. And that’s where I started getting about a bit. You know? Seeing things and doing things, you know? And in the end finished up abroad.

[Others]: So what did you used to do after school?

After school? [Mumbles] Oh, blimey. To be frank, I haven’t a . . .

[Others]: Not when you left school . . . at four o’clock.

At four o’clock? You stayed at Battersea Park, up in the park. On the swings. And, er, on the lake, on the boating lake. Well, you know, the general everyday things, nothing spectacular . . .

Me: Not looking for the spectacular . . . it’s all the normal play I’m looking at. All the things that you forget that you do. That’s the really important thing. It’s the little things that you do when you were a child.

[Others conversation about fishing].

No, din’t go fishing. Used to go to Battersea Park a lot . . . no, no, I can’t think of anything really, anything outstanding, you know . . .

[Others]: It’s nothing outstanding, just things that you’d do. Just how did you spend your time? Was there a gang of you, or just a couple? Cricket, did you . . .?

Oh, well, well, them games . . . football and anything you like and that sort of thing . . . in Battersea Park, swings there and . . . and . . . oh, gawd . . .

Me: What year is this roughly . . . ? What year were you born?

In the war?

[Others]: No, what year were you born?

Year I was born? 1920. [Goes on to tell the exact date].

Me: So these memories of Battersea Park, they’re in the Twenties, yeh?

Yeh, but I lived in Portsmouth for a long while.

Me: When did you move away from Portsmouth?

Erm, I think we were . . . I came up to London, when [pause, goes through a couple of addresses, longer pause]. No, I can’t say . . .

Me: Roughly how old were you when you moved to London?

When I came from Portsmouth . . . came up to London [pause] . . . five. Four, five.

Me: 1925?

Yeh. About five. I went to . . . that’s right . . . left school at fourteen.

Me: So, did you have cars? That’s such a naïve question here, but I know nothing about the Twenties. Did you have cars then?

Twenties? [long pause] It’s funny . . . it’s nothing there that’s . . . that stays with me.

Me: Whereabouts did you play? Was it in a street, or in a field, or . . .?

No, Battersea Park. It was . . .

Me: Down the river? Battersea’s not far from the river is it?

Oh, on the . . . well, the Thames. Yeh, edge of the . . . side of the Thames, Battersea Bridge, Battersea Bridge Road.

Me: Did you ever play on the bridge? Or, in boats on the river or anything like that?

Oh, no, no, no, no. No.

Me: I’m just guessing now!

Don’t forget there wasn’t cars, or . . .

Me: That’s what I mean.

[Others]: He was a goody-goody!

No, I weren’t a goody-goody. I was blooming . . . pulled up several times.

[Others]: Well, what did you do to get pulled up?


[Others]: What did you do?

Well that’s a secret for me [smiles].

[Others]: There was women in that Battersea Park, weren’t there?

Oh, no. Wasn’t anything to do with them! I din’t get sent down or anything like, just got a severe reprimand. You know?

Me: Now it’s getting juicy! What did you do? I need to know.

We used to do crazy bloody things . . .

Me: Did you used to do what she [pointing at Harry’s niece] used to do and run down knock the copper’s hat off?

[Others]: Didn’t you do anything like that? Knock the copper’s hat off?

Oh, no, no.

[Others]: You were a goody-goody.

No, no. Well, din’t have coppers in them days. They were very few and far between. Not like they are now. I use to see if I could remember . . . coming out of school to see me across the road . . .

[Others]: Lollipop man, they are now.

Well, lollipop man they are now, but they used to be the old copper in them days . . . but no, copper-wise, very few. Unless something happened, and then they seemed to come from somewhere. You know? [Long pause]

[Others]: Did you have a bike when you were little?

Bike? Yeh. Oh, yeh. Three-wheeler for starters, then the . . . two-wheeler, then the bigger one, then the motorbike, then the car . . .  then I drove the Guinness lorry, didn’t I? For forty years, forty-odd years, Guinness tanker. Where is she? There’s a model of her somewhere. Where the bloody hell is she? On the shelf, yeh . . .

[Goes on to tell a long account of work life on the Guinness tanker . . .]

Only had one serious accident . . . nobody was hurt. I just turned the tank over . . .

[Others]: Oh, well that’s all?! Just turned it over!

Well, we went down the ditch actually, and it just toppled over . . . got out alright . . . and the beer, no beer in it . . .

Me: No beer was harmed!

Din’t take a lot to pull it out . . . to be frank . . . even in the army it was, er, everyday sort of thing, you know, nothing spectacular . . .

Me: It’s just the everyday stuff in your childhood that I’m interested in.

Well, child, as I say, child . . .

[Others]: Did you have a special time when you had to be home by when you were a child?

I think my dad . . . cos he was a bit of a strict one, Dad . . . yeh . . . I think we were . . . we did have a wassname, but I can’t give you a clue as to . . . he was a bit of a strict one, you know, with the strap and all that. He got his belt . . .

[Others]: Was you ever late?

Oh, yeh. Two times. Oh, yeh, yeh. Yeh. But I was Mum’s favourite though. Mum used to take me up and I was alright. Yeh . . . yeh. But overall, I think going back over me life, I’ve got nothing to complain about . . . we’ve had our bits and pieces like everybody does in life, but they’ve just gone out the way, and I’m quite happy with what I’ve had. I’m happy . . . more than, more than happy. Yeh. Yeh. [Pause].

Me: What sort of things did you play with?

Play with?

[Others]: Yeh. What sort of toys, or . . .?

Well, as I say, kite in the early days. Was a kite. And . . . dunno. To play with?

Me: Did you play with things that you found? Or things that were bought for you? Things that were made for you? Things that you made yourself?

Grand-dad used to make us scooters. With the ball bearings. Ball bearings, they was ball bearings. What they used. Car blocks, that connected the two together . . . and, as I say, tricycles . . . the three-wheeler . . . box at the back, that’s right . . . must confess, haven’t got nothing really exciting to . . .

[Others recount some of their own play stories to jog the memory]

. . . playing Cowboys and Indians . . .   Oh, yeh.

Me: Back in the Nineteen-Twenties, linking to what you said about your father, what was, generally, the adults’ attitudes towards the children?

Very strict. Well, my dad was.

Me: What about all the other adults that you knew of? Were they all strict as well?

Mum . . . you ever got any trouble with Dad . . . smoothed it over.

Me: What about neighbours? Did neighbours look after you, or did they not care . . . ? What were their feelings towards you?

Er . . . [long pause] . . . I think in them days, that was family life, you know? . . . if you’d done . . . if the father thought you done something that he thought was . . . warranted a smack, you got it. But it was, as I say, then you always had Mum behind there, ready to smooth it all over. Then more and likely Dad would take you out and buy you something, a toy. He used to smooth that over and say, come on, take you down, and we used to go and buy . . . go in the shops and buy something for you.

Me: What sort of things did he buy? What sort of toys did he buy you?

Little cars. Little clockwork ones.

[Others recount some more of their own play stories]

[Others]: Knock down Ginger? Weren’t you naughty like I was . . .? You were a goody-goody!

No, I had a particular thing to do. Nothing like that. You know. Some of the things I did do, if I got caught I would have got sent down, I’ll tell you that much.

[Others]: That’s what we want to know! We want to know the stuff you did . . .

Oh, no, no . . . no. I’ve never spoke . . . talked about . . . no. That’s past memories. That’s . . . all that talking about it, it’s brought it back. You know . . . it’s gone, long while ago . . .

Me: That’s what happens when I talk with people about their childhoods: these things come back again.

But now, put it in its right perspective, it’s a bit of a problem now. You know. [Long pause].

Me: I need another question from someone.

[Others]: Did you have blonde hair?

Yeh, I was blonde, yeh. Fair, fair. Wasn’t called blonde.

[Others]: Funny how, when you see photos of children of that era, they’re all blonde with curly locks. And little smocks, and knickerbockers!

That’s right, yeh . . . oh, blimey . . . [laughs] . . . I was going to . . . drag me photos out and show you!

[Discussion on photos]

[Harry gets up to look for photos. Interview break.]
No. Nothing up there . . . might be under the drawers up there, laying loose . . .

[Further discussions on photos, and Harry promises to get more stories to his daughter when he’s had time to think on it all]

I got to be frank, but I’m losing it. You know. I sit here and . . . mind going round in a twirl.

Me: How do I say this? You’re more than twice the age of me and still with it!!

[Discussion on Harry trying to remember where he used to live in Portsmouth]

Now you brought it up, the wassname, it’s . . . I shall be up . . . it’ll be tormenting me now . . . I shall be . . . quietly be sitting in there, I shall go through all my papers and try and find . . . go back a bit, you know? See how far I can go back.

[Others]: If you find anything, write it down.

Yeh, I will do. Yeh.

Me: What is your earliest memory, without looking at your papers? What’s the furthest back you think?

My life?

Me: The youngest that you remember.

Well, er, down in Portsmouth, as you . . . then we moved up to London cos Dad got a job up there. He came out of the army from the First World War then. He come up and started working for, as I say, on steam wagons. You remember the . . . you remember them?

[All laugh]

Me: Yeh!!

The Sentinels. There was the Trojans, the Trojans with the chimney up the front . . . and we met with the driver and the fire-man, and as a youngster I used to go on the coal rocks. I used to sit on the coal, and . . . and we used to go steaming [?] . . . taking with Dad round the brewery, around the pubs, if you like, in them days . . . dropping off the hog’s heads and things like that.

Me: That’s how you got into driving the trucks then?


[Others]: Do you know what, that’s something else you did when you were young . . .

What’s that?

[Others] Going on the back of, sitting on the coal box . . .

Yeh. Yeh.

Me: How old were you there? Five, six seven?

Oh. Dear. [Pause]. Yeh . . . in them days, well about five, six, I suppose. Course, they din’t do long distance journeys then. It was only more local work, but it was still . . . it was the transport of them days. The steam wagon. Plus the pony and trap, and the horse and cart, and things like that. And the odd . . . small lorry that started to come in, but that’s the, er . . .

[Others]: There wasn’t any really cars on the street, was there?

Yeh. But then, as I say, steam wagons went out and more modern transport came in . . .

[Discussion on working for Guinness]

Me: So, when you were out on the coal . . . because there were no cars on the streets, were there children playing in the streets as well?

Yeh. Oh, yeh. Oh, yeh.

Me: Was there a lot of horse dung on the streets?

Played cricket. I mean even, wassname, used to play out on the street . . . and used to . . . you know. At Battersea, where we lived, there was a cul-de-sac, which was a, you know, dead end, sort of thing and, er . . .

[Harry goes off on a short tangent about people who lived there]

[Others]: But talking about horse dung, did you used to collect the horse dung . . .?

Oh, and flog it. Yeh.

Me: You used to collect it and make money out of horse dung?

Yeh. Yeh. Used to put it round the roses. It was smelly but . . . it paid.

Me: How much did you get for that then?

Only about thruppence. Three pee. Normally in them days, pennies and tuppences and you were well off. You had a couple of coppers in your pocket.

Me: How much . . . you got a bag for thruppence, or did you have to like, really . . .?

No, you might make . . . you might make, erm, a tanner [two and a half new pence]. You were a millionaire then, you were.

Me: So you used to collect the dung off the streets, stick it in a bag, go off and sell it to the gardeners?

Yeh. Used to, er . . . yeh. Well, we made a few coppers, you know? And, in them days, I mean, compared with now, if you made a sixpence in a day, you were a millionaire.

Me: What was the weekly wage?

If I remember . . . about four pound a week.

Me: So, if four pound a week is, like, average wage . . .

[Others]:No, that’s what his [Harry’s father’s] wage was.

Me: Well, yeh, I’m just trying to get an equivalent of . . . if you make . . . thruppence on a bag of horse dung, the equivalent to what that is to the weekly wage. How many pence in an old pound?

Pence? Pennies? Two hundred and forty pence.

Me: Two hundred and forty pence in an old pound, four pounds a week. That’s nine hundred and sixty pence, and you made thruppence on a bag of dung. That’s quite good pay actually when you think about it . . .

I mean, you were millionaires in them . . . when you got that amount of money . . . way back in them, I mean, compared with living . . . looking around now, I mean the houses were . . . how can I say? Just buildings, with four windows in, and a front door. And that was your house. Full stop. No gardens . . . lavvy, yeh [outside toilet] . . . when you went out to toilet, you took your candle and your stick, go out there in the dark. And the potty. Three of you using the potty at night, you can imagine in the morning . . . especially if someone missed their mark! They used to say to you, ‘Who done that?’; ‘I don’t know’; ‘Well, one of you done it’. You know . . .? ‘He did, he did.’

Me: Those are the sort of things I need to know about the Nineteen-Twenties, because that’s just, like, completely out of my sphere of understanding. I was born in the late Sixties, I know nothing about forty years before that.

Well, to be honest, it’s only very vague things that I can remember. Actually, it’s a time that I want to forget really because living was . . . it was existing really . . . weren’t living . . . I mean, Dad was working all hours for a poxy wage . . . I used to, er, I think we just, er . . . Sunday was the dinner day. We knew we was going to get a good dinner. Sunday. The rest of the week you just took a chance with what you come up with, you know? But Mum and Dad used to get their . . . make sure you had a good roast dinner . . . on Sunday . . . with pudding. Bit of rice pudding . . . milk pudding, rice was a favourite . . . if you had a rice pudding, you had a gay day [?]. Mum used to do a rice pudding. What was that you used to put in them . . .? Cinnamon. Nutmeg, weren’t it? Yeh. Nutmeg on it. Put nutmeg on it. Flavour it. Really lovely, yeh.

[Long discussion by others on various childhood drinks and feelings associated with these]

Me: I have another Nineteen-Twenties question, if you can remember this: school. Did you go to school? I don’t know.

Oh, I went to school alright, yeh.

Me: What was school like? Was it a good experience, bad experience . . .?

I was alright at school . . .

Me: What were the teachers like? Were the teachers strict or were they not, or good or bad or what?

Well, as far as I recall, I used to like school.

Me: What did you like about it?

Well, I think . . . when I was meeting the other boys and girls, of my age group. You know. But, as regards learning, no I don’t think I . . . well, I remember I used to get good reports . . .

[Others discuss their own school reports, and holidays]

We used to get the summer, used to get six, ten . . . no, about now [the same as now] . . .

[Others]: You never had these half terms . . .

Oh, no, no. Nothing like that. No.

[Others discuss the seasons, and playing with snow in the street]

Well, as I say, no traffic in them days, was there?

[Others discuss their own play stories, and Harry listens on . . .]
When it’s time to go, Harry stands and shakes my hand. It’s a warm handshake and I read a lot into it.


Short notes: observations on modern childhood

Not being ‘off-duty’ has its fringe benefits. Episodes of observation, amusement, fascination, non-comprehension, challenge, and something bordering on bewilderment can happen. A few short tales of not being ‘off-duty’ gathered in me as the week just gone passed by. I didn’t write them down at the time because, sometimes, letting stories float around inside for a few days allows them space to form.
What do you do?

I’ve had this question asked of me many times, in various ways, by adults in other areas of the children’s workforce sector. I’ve had it asked of me, once or twice, by children – an air of honest inquisition on their faces when they say ‘What is your job?’ (I remember a child once telling me, rationally enough, and in a particular moment of functional and frustrating playwork practice on my part: ‘Well, if you don’t like working here, just get another job’).

Whilst sitting around eating toast and cheese with the boys, the youngest asked – in German – what it was I did, professionally. I thought for a little while. It’s hard enough explaining it to English-speaking adults sometimes; it’s a difficult thing to tell an English-speaking child and without patronising or dumbing it down. How to explain playwork to a German child? I did the best I could, in English, because my German or my Deutschlish wasn’t up to it: I do my best to make sure that play can happen (or words to this effect). His mother translated. He screwed up his face and made a small noise that I can only transcribe, roughly, as ‘Eh??’

I thought some more. I couldn’t elaborate. Words and thoughts didn’t stretch that far. Later, I threw back to him the small stuffed white cow – Weisskuh – that comes with us on every trip, and I kept throwing it back and back each time it came my way; on the beach, each day, I gathered stones, stepped away, or built, as per requirements; I made passing comments to other adults on the site where we stayed, on notes of play; I made myself available for the children to arrange their play through me  – ‘Football or beach?’ (I fancied a trip to the sea, myself . . .) – ‘Football,’ the boys said, and I was necessary, apparently.

(As an aside, is an understanding exchange of no actual words between playworker and parent – such as the parent of the young girl who sat at the beach – a silent advocation for play?)

Overall here, sometimes – in attempting to answer questions – ‘doing’ is far better than saying.
A small inquisition

The youngest is having a conversation with his mother, in German. The rough gist of his questioning, as he eats, is this: ‘If you were a child now, would you prefer child labour or school?’

I don’t know where this conversation comes from; I have no context. I do know that the question intrigues me. I have no conclusions. I leave you to piece together your own. His mother is a teacher.
Modern love

Family meal times are a good source of information in the on-going study of the state of being ‘child’. The youngest is on fine form. The conversation is about girls. He has an ex-girlfriend, apparently. We should put this in context: he is adored, it would seem; he is an innocent; he has a stuffed white cow. We talk about the ex-girlfriend and he tells us how he was forced into the relationship. ‘How?’ we ask. ‘On Facebook’. He managed to get out of it online too.

Weisskuh, stunt-cow today, waits patiently with his feet jammed into the windows of a model Mini Cooper.
Modern dance

We adults are drinking beer. The eldest is deep in German conversation with his mother. The youngest is documenting everything in snapshots and short videos on his mobile phone. I don’t notice all of what he’s doing. There’s a dance floor, and it’s a family place so there are plenty of children around. The dance floor clears but one girl of about eight years old stays and dances on her own. The music is coming from a laptop on the stage; the laptop is hooked up to the amps. It’s some cheesy modern pop that I have no way of differentiating from any other such cheesy modern pop. It doesn’t matter. I notice that the girl on the dance floor also has a mobile phone. When she spins around as she dances, and although I’m a good thirty feet away, I see that she’s got the camera pointed towards herself (I see a close-up of her face on the screen, even from this distance). She’s dancing away in her own little bubble of a world, and she’s talking to her image on the screen. She waggles her finger at the image, playfully, as if she’s singing to it. Her image is her audience. She seems totally oblivious to everybody else in the room. She can obviously hear the music, but she chooses to block out everything but this and her own image.

I find this fascinating. On the one hand, modern technology has enhanced the play opportunity – developing the usual dance play into a dialogue between the actual self and the (literally and psychologically) projected self; on the other hand, I’m a little bit bothered – is there such a bond, such a dependence, on mobile phone technology in some of today’s children that they can’t, or won’t, see the world around them? Is the screen version of the world just better than the real thing?

She pops back into the real world, eventually. Maybe. Maybe she’s popped out of the real world of play.

Beach play: primitive understandings

Often, when I’m away from playwork practice in children’s settings, or reading, researching, writing playwork – when I’m ‘off-duty’ (as it were) – I’m not off-duty at all. Often, thinking on play just doesn’t leave! I’ve just spent a week in the West Country with German friends. We’ve known each other a long time, myself and these boys’ mother. The boys I’ve known half their lives. I’ve seen the way their play has evolved over the years. The eldest is now fourteen (complete with hoodie!). His younger brother is twelve.

Now the boys are older, they’ve learnt some English. Our communications have developed into a hybrid form of Deutschlish (although we can communicate in English, and sometimes my German stretches just enough to make myself understood in this way). Deutschlish it is though, for the most part. So, we’ll los to the Strand, or it might be essen time. Of course it’s a deliberate mashing of the languages, but it’s language play. Being ‘off-duty’ doesn’t last much longer than a few hours outside the airport.

We’ve all been up Ben Nevis in t-shirts and trainers, up a mountain in the former East Germany, up to all sorts of mastery play on beaches in Cornwall and along the European North Sea. This week, despite the boys getting older, beach play is again – apparently – necessary. Piecing together how individual children play is a journey in observation. Some years ago, the boys dug a hole in the sand in St Ives harbour. We left the beach for a while and, when we came back, the youngest asked why the hole had moved away from the sea. Once, the overflow pipe needed damming. It took quite a while.

The boys pull me into their play of futile mastery. They know, though, that the act of trying to stop the water, or the sea, is futile. This is nothing new to those who work with, or have their own, children. What’s new this time is the expression that peppers the boys’ beach play. ‘We will win!’

Each evening, when the beach has emptied and the tide is creeping up the shingle of the beach, we spend a couple of hours at the shoreline. The sun is setting; it’s still hot. There are handfuls of tourists poking around looking for fossils. The locals, perhaps, are the experts – armed with geologists’ pick hammers. The boys have a passing interest in time-frozen ammonites: if a small one crops up in the accidental finding, their mother is called out to. The boys have more pressing play concerns though: there are stones and boulders to be stacked, the sea to be held back, a tower to build.

We arrive at the beach and there are piles of standing stones, which have been left behind by others.

This is one of my strands of interest: the leftoverness of play. This leftoverness has an added extra layer here though: there are piles of these standing stones all over the beach and, I think, it harks back to our primitive roots. Our distant ancestors moved and piled stones: in rituals of worship and early honouring of the dead. On the Cornish coast, farther west, there are pyramids of stones on the cliff top. This stone use just seems to be something that hasn’t really left us, in some way.

When I walk on this beach, I’m very aware of the leftover artefacts of play: the stone piles (and sand holes and sand sculptures) should be revered. I walk around them because play has happened here. When the boys start building their own standing stone constructions, and when I’m part of the play frame too, I try not to take stones from structures that have been left by others.

If this sounds a little pretentious, a small play story observation here: as we build, I see a mother (presumably) and her son standing a few feet from a collection of other standing stones. These stones are his, and the sea is close to taking them. The mother seems to know the importance of ritual here. They stand and watch, silently. I appreciate her understanding. There’s more than just this here though: there seems to be some sacred importance to having the sea take back the stones (or letting it, or knowing that- or, standing aside and accepting that- it will take them back); washing around the stones’ bases, sweeping and sucking at the sand, slowly swallowing those stones.

We build our standing stones and there is then a great need to protect them from the rapidly encroaching sea.

The boys find large rocks and boulders. They build a wall between the standing stones and the water. The eldest throws rocks over. The youngest and I build them into the wall. The eldest pulls at a log that’s laying up-beach. Together we get it in place. We go back for the thick heavy tree branch, which we have to roll and man-handle. We don’t use English, German or Deutschlish in this period. The tide comes in. Now, the words: ‘We will win.’ The eldest is so competitive. However, he also seems to know that we can’t beat nature. When the tide is too strong and close, we stand back and watch.

The next evening, I’m instructed that ‘we’ll just build a wall’ tonight. We go about the repetition of shifting rocks and boulders. The log has washed up farther up the beach. The heavy branch is also close by. We use them both in the wall. After a while, as I’m poking around up-beach for rocks, I notice a young girl of about five come over and just sit herself down a few feet away from the wall, on the dry side. The boys build away and ignore her. She doesn’t communicate with them. I’m intrigued. I’m caught between two minds: on the one hand, does she want to be part of this?; on the other hand, maybe she just wants to watch. I take a wide berth around her, behind her, away from her. I don’t want to make eye contact in case it pops the bubble. I look around and there’s no apparent parent in sight. The girl sits there for quite some time. She fiddles with her shoes, watches the building play, looks out to sea. She’s very patient. There’s something very graceful about her.

Eventually, as I swill around in the gathering slosh of the shallows, I decide to take a chance: I wash off a rock. It’s an offering. I hold it out to her from about ten feet away. ‘Want to play?’ She can’t get up to join in quick enough! She doesn’t speak, and I don’t ask her her name. I keep my distance, and she travels far out on the beach in search of rocks: farther out than is strictly necessary – there are good rocks nearby and the tide is coming in quickly now. The boys absorb her into the play frame. Occasionally, she says a ‘yes’ or a similar quick response to a question or comment of mine. As she’s busy building the ramparts to try to stop the water coming in at the side, and as the boys and I are scooping sea-water out of the ever-deepening pool inside the curved wall in an act of great play futility – I look up to see a woman, presumably the girl’s mother – smiling on, up-beach. Some parents do understand. Some time later, the sea has won again. I look around and the girl has gone, without a word. Something beautiful has happened here.

The following evening, we are to build a stone tower. We should build it up-beach. It’s the plan of the eldest. The youngest goes with the flow. We choose a suitable site on the sand. There is, I soon realise, the ulterior motive of trying to build just beyond the high tide line. This is intended as a tower in defiance of the sea. We build with the largest rocks we can find and move, small pebbles, gritty sand, and clay that lies around the cliff base in abundance. The youngest applies the clay. The eldest rolls boulders up the sand. The tower takes time. It is an application of devotion. The sea rolls in and the site chosen is not beyond the high tide line after all. The eldest says that we should stay to watch the imminent destruction. We don’t stay so long, as it transpires, but the ritual is acknowledged.

In the wind-swept, rainy morning I try to find the remains of the boys’ tower. It is their tower. There’s nothing left of it, physically, but the beach is scattered with others’ standing stones, small stone circles, a burnt-out fire pit in the sand, feathers stood on end. The beach is scattered with the invisible play of days; of evenings holding off the tide, scattered across the sand.

White City stories: part four

A fourth instalment of stories from my recent playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London, takes the form of stories in pictures. I have some photographs left over, and which I wanted to make use of. I shall be back at White City in a couple of weeks’ time: things will, no doubt, have evolved; I will hear stories; I will learn more of play that happens. So now, this final instalment of my first week on the adventure playground marks another pause in my blogging. More of the land must be seen. I shall be back again in nine days.
Tools of Play

For some reason, I often find myself either amazed or fascinated (and sometimes, if I’m honest, a little concerned) when I see children using tools in their play. However, most of the time they do know what they’re doing. Some are a little cack-handed; some will not fully appreciate that sawing towards your own knee might hurt. Many, though, can use a wall stapler without hurting themselves or bang nails into a lump of wood with a hammer. It’s a matter of trust.

As an added extra, I couldn’t resist posting my favourite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

Play Spontaneity

Play can happen almost anywhere and with anything. It sometimes irritates the adults (for whatever reason), but play is something that just takes a hold. Here, I was amused to see what happened when two boys, spilt powder paint, a water hose, and some paving slabs all came together in one place!

If it’s Still There, Paint it

The dens at the side of the playground had started the week before I arrived on site. They’d been left intact in recent gang incursions onto the site. They seem to be almost part of the furniture the week I’m there. Maybe it’s only fitting then that they’ve earned the right to be painted.

Hassan’s Sculpture

One morning, Hassan hung some white sheets around the playground. ‘Welcome to the ghost town,’ he told us. The creative urge took him on a journey of some sculpture. It’s a sculpture because of the care and attention Hassan put into it. I thought, as he created, it had the makings of a possible totem, a point of playground reference. As it turned out, one of the children really took to the mask. A whole mask painting session flowed out of this. The ghost town became the occupied playground.

The Leftoverness of Play

A few weeks ago I wrote some sort of lament on the fact that I found it difficult to find leftover play where I live. Play such as handprints is what I was looking for then. I don’t know if these handprints are adults’ or children’s doing, or if they’re the leftover combined play frame of a day. It doesn’t matter. Play has happened here.

Unexpected Art

The children had slopped paint on the platform bridge. I hadn’t noticed on the day that they did it, but the paint had dribbled through and striped the wood chippings. This just appealed to my artistic self!

Seas in Unusual Places

The children had taken a lot of time to paint up here on the platform, I was told. The sea that will wash away in the rain. Play doesn’t mind: it can all happen again . . .

The Light Bridge

Connor and I found some wraps of coloured cellophane. The sun was already high and hot and I held the cellophane up and let the light fall through it. We have to try to get this up somewhere, I told him! So, maybe it was appealing to my own artistic desires and experiments somewhat, but these things need to be tried. We went through various ideas on how to get the thin sheets to stay in the light. In the end, and by accident, the simplest of ideas make themselves known: we stapled the cellophane to the wood! In the spirit of affective play spaces, I like to think that the transient space we created between the platforms was that much more enhanced by the colours that fell onto the wood chips.


White City stories: part three

A third instalment of notebook stories from my recent playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
Shepherd’s Bush Scavenging

Wednesday morning. Hassan and I go on the hunt for free scrap material and cardboard tubes. We go down to Shepherd’s Bush market and Hassan is the type of man who knows lots of people, will stop and talk with those he knows and those he doesn’t. He goes about the morning in this fashion: calling out to a man on his bike, ‘Hey, where’s my money?’; to a woman and her baby in the market with a hug and a smile; with a man at the suitcase stall about how he bought a case and the stitches came out. He’s playful but there’s the whole Moroccan haggling feel to his interactions. We go in and out of stalls in the canopy-covered alley down the side of the Tube tracks to Hammersmith overhead. Hassan opens up conversations with stallholders, saying how we work with children on the local estate and has he, the stallholder, got any ‘spare loose parts, scrap, anything we can use; doesn’t matter if it’s ripped’? We come back out into the daylight empty-handed on plenty of occasions, but Hassan never gives up. He’s making a mental map, I suspect, of places to come back to (some stallholders say to come back when the boss is around; some, Hassan thinks, are possibles for giving). He and I talk of coming back here, or here. I say to Hassan, as we come out onto the colourful streets of Shepherd’s Bush, that these stallholders and shopkeepers probably have no idea what he means by ‘loose parts’. He laughs.

He goes into a shop that’s being re-fitted by builders, looking for scraps of timber that the children can use to saw up, hammer and nail into, build things with. ‘Hello, my friend,’ he says. ‘Where’s the boss?’ Hassan isn’t put off by the builder’s grumpy disposition. He talks to the boss, who’s up the ladder and doesn’t come down. We go into shops manned by Indian shopkeepers, amidst piles and piles of beautiful shiny material for saris, lace and muslin. Indian women stand at the top of steps at the back of these places. Eventually, Hassan convinces one of the shopkeepers to scavenge around in the back for scraps of material and he comes out with a bagful. ‘Thank you,’ says Hassan. ‘You’re a gentleman’, (which he says to every shopkeeper anyway, as a courtesy, whether we come out with material or not). A little later, I say to Hassan how I’ve noticed that shopkeepers are more open to giving when they see we’ve already been given to by others. We seem to have formed a working partnership in this scavenge hunt: Hassan talks to the shopkeeper, and I sidle up to the man’s counter and place the heaving bag of material we’ve already collected gently on the surface. It’s a small insinuation! The shopkeeper ducks down under the counter and immediately comes up with another bagful for us.

Early on, we manage to secure a number of long cardboard tubes from a shop (used to wrap the lengths of cloth around) and Hassan asks to collect them later, which we do, and he hauls them on his shoulder as we go around the other shops, propping them up outside every other place we go into. We find just the one shop that’s manned by someone who smiles, a young man, and we tell him, ‘Thank you for smiling; it’s a beautiful day.’ He’d already agreed to give us some scraps of material for free so it wasn’t a means on our part to butter him up! The material scraps come from a rummage box on the shop floor and they’re already priced up to sell. ‘Don’t tell the boss,’ the young man says. ‘Thank you. You’re a gentleman!’ Hassan says.
Stones and Flowers

Every day on the playground I have a conversation with one of the children’s mother. She’s an amazing woman. She’s dressed in a long black jilbab robe and wears a hijab to cover her hair and neck. She’s eloquent, intelligent and humble. She starts off by praising the feel of the playground as it starts to transform, daily, from bare wooden structures to being powder-painted on, chalked on, stapled on, tied with fabric and other bits and pieces woven between the chains of the platform railings, the tall bamboo flags bending in the wind. It’s a festival feel, she says.

We get to talking about her son, who’s about 8, I guess. She says he and the family are bullied by some of the local children: these children throw stones at and through her window. Recently, the mother and her son were at the park and the older children were throwing stones at the ducklings. She says, when this group of children got bored of doing this, and when they noticed her and her son just watching on, they turned and threw stones at them instead. She says they push dog excrement through her door.

As I talk with her I just feel a wave of grace come off her. I am truly inspired as she tells me: ‘They throw stones at us, but we just throw flowers back.’
Over the Top

On Thursday, a handful of children are clammering to get in at 1pm, opening time. We can’t find the key so I rattle the gates and say they just have to climb over instead. I don’t expect them to actually try! One child gets to the top of the gate, and Hassan says, ‘Go on then, over the top.’ So the child does. He signs himself in (this clammering is part of the children’s urge to be first on the list, apparently; it’s something they’ve been trying to do for a couple of days). Rich finds the key and opens up.
About Forgiving

The mother I’ve been talking with all week comes into the playground with two new children as well as her own son (some parents drop the children off before coming back again at 4pm). In the conversation of this moment, I find out that these new children, brother and sister, are two of the group who’ve been attacking her and her son. They’d knocked on her door the previous night and apologised. She’d told them that that must have taken a lot of courage. The children had asked her if they could come to the playground with her the next day. So they do. I really am amazed by this woman.

White City stories: part two

A second instalment of notebook stories from my recent playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.

Good Morning, Adventure Playground

Mornings on the playground are a slow build up. Rich and I arrive at 8.30 every day, and Hassan is already there pottering around. We potter around too, talk, look. The tyre swing structure gets pondered over and poked, and the wood on one part is seen to be rotting. It’s made safer. Hassan takes his out-of-sight time at the edge of the playground, in the quiet early hours of the day; I sit and write morning haiku because morning on the playground is perfect for this. Connor comes in early on Thursday and I’m already putting up tarpaulins to create shade in the gathering heat – he walks over in the easy, calm manner he has and he says hello in that likewise easy London accent of his. I co-opt him into helping me put the tarps up and he goes with the flow. Between us we concoct a way of creating a more chilled-out space: I give him my roughed-out plan of ideas and we build on it, swapping ideas as we go, trying things out, using rolls of twine and bits of rope that we find. It all comes together.

[morning haiku]

flags flutter
ghost contemplations
empty playground

battling the powdered paint –
shoes blued

pacing platforms
parts unnoticed before –
unplayed on

half-painted platforms
before a day

first child heard
haiku thoughts . . .
shattering out

Later, when Sharon comes in, she and Connor go round the site with a clipboard and I guess they’re doing the daily health and safety hazard checks.

Every morning, the playground is used by a small group of disabled children and their one-to-one support staff. I stay clear of the children of this group to start with because they don’t know me and I don’t know their needs and preferences. I keep observing their play though, out of the corner of my eye, as I’m moving around the morning playground, pottering, finding playable stuff, climbing up into the attic spaces in the eaves, building and fixing, talking, etc. As the week goes on, I find myself engaged in some of the play frames of the children of this group; I find their one-to-one support staff are gradually pulling away from being right on top of the children all the time.

One of the younger boys in this group gets hooked on making use of the long cardboard tubes and guttering we’ve put out (Rich and I had talked about getting resources out for possible water play in the hot day). There are lots of foam tennis-ball sized balls around on the site and I put them in a bucket, up on the slope by the tubes and the platform house. The younger boy spends a good half hour or more rolling the balls down the tubes, which are linked together, and the balls end up in the crate at the bottom of the hill (sometimes!). I forget the way it happens, but I end up fetching the balls in a small tub to fill up his bucket on the platform. He makes eye contact, which is a first for the week, and asks me in short syllables to get more balls. He’s very polite and says thank you. I don’t ask for this or expect it, but it’s very sweet the way he says it.

On Thursday there are only a couple of children from this group on the playground. It’s morning and I’ve filled the garden sprayers up and placed one on the platform at my head height and one near the filled-up paddling pool. We know it’s going to be a hot day. Another of the younger boys walks past me on this quiet morning. There’s a soft light on the playground. I spray him a little as he walks past because it feels like he’s giving me a visual cue. He’d just been wandering around up till this point. Before long he’s got one of the sprayers and he’s standing up on the platform and shooting me from a distance. The spray is never going to reach me. He keeps shooting, and I shoot him back with my fingers. Then he throws the sprayer onto the parachute that Connor’s put up (Connor has suspended it between three bamboo canes and by tying the edges to the wooden platform columns). My first reaction, in my head, is an instant ‘Oh no, all that time that Connor took to make it stay up.’ That thought jumps out of my head as quickly as it comes though because I’m soon focused and I see the water pouring out of the sprayer and through the parachute. ‘Look,’ I say to the child, ‘you made a waterfall.’ His one-to-one staff support is over quickly though, and she takes him off somewhere else on site.
What’s Needed is Water

Later that same day, Rich and I have a plan to get out the tarpaulin waterslide. As we meet up in the middle of the afternoon on one of our occasional coming togethers (as we each wander round the playground, observing, being engaged in play frames, resourcing, repairing), Rich says that we know what’s going to happen – the waterslide – but the children don’t yet! When the waterslide is out, after a while, the younger boy who’d thrown the sprayer onto the parachute in the morning is standing at the top of the hill watching the other children getting wet in the water and washing-up liquid. The children slide down on their knees (taking run ups) or on their bellies, and they try to climb up the slide again. It’s a hectic area and lots of children are laughing and falling over one another, or pulling each other down. One or two bump themselves or scrape themselves on the mud where the tarp has slipped round, so Hassan and I ask them all to jump off for a short while so we can reposition it.

I’m left for a while to man the slide and, later, when Hassan comes back I ask him to take over from me so I can take a rest. It’s all a fluid staffing arrangement, which works. The younger boy is standing at the top of the waterslide when I’m up there, and I sense he wants to go down but can’t bring himself to do it. I ask him if he wants to go down and I put my hand out, figuring that here’s something that just needs to be done (me getting my backside wet too!). After a little while, he takes my hand and we go down together. I’m wet through and filthy. (Later, on the Tube back towards Hammersmith, I realise just how filthy, and sweaty, I really am!).

Soon the other children want to throw the emptied paddling pool down the slide (with them inside it). One of the morning support staff (who stays with her group’s children in the afternoon on the playground) tells the children ‘no’, but I over-rule her. I do it as carefully as I can, but I am hot and I am focused, and I say that this is play that’s happening here. She gives in quickly and the children, who aren’t really paying her any attention anyway, pile in and try to push themselves down the slope in the paddling pool. ‘There’s not enough soap,’ they say, and so I pass over the three-quarters full washing-up liquid bottle that’s slimy inside my side cargo pocket, and which Hassan threw over to me a little while earlier. The children soap up the slope and manage to get the paddling pool sliding downhill. Judging by the squeals and laughing going on, they’re loving it! They pull it up the grass to go again and again. The younger boy gets in every time, ignoring all social graces because, I suspect, he doesn’t understand. Some of the other children complain, so I tell them he doesn’t understand, but also maybe they should all just pile in too. So they do.

Some of the girls are watching on (the play frame has been mostly boys so far). One of the girls – who’s new for the day, and who’s busy stapling small squares of fabric onto the platform nearby with a proper wall stapler – watches on from her small height. I lean against the structure and she idly talks to me through the banisters. She says she’d like to go home to get her swimming costume on (it’s open access, so she can if she wants to). She says it to me as if she’s just checking this plan out. Then she says she’ll send her brother home to get the costume. Soon enough though she’s just going down the slide in the clothes she’s got on. Later, one of the other girls – who’s wearing a long dress – stands at the top of the waterslide. She doesn’t go down, she watches. Eventually, she just hooks up her skirt to her knees, sits down with her friend, and slides down.

The play tumbles on and around the waterslide. As we’re tidying up other parts of the playground near the end of the session, the last children on the waterslide have found a small storage crate and what looks like a younger children’s empty plastic sandpit. They use these to try to go down the waterslide with, despite the friction because of used up ‘soap’! They don’t seem to want the water play to end.

to be continued . . .

White City stories: part one

Practising playwork is always a privilege: last week I was invited by Rich Driffield to work at White City Adventure Playground in west London. Rich has recently taken on the team leader role after moving south from north Wales. I volunteered my time because it was a good opportunity for me to ‘walk the walk’; a chance to work in an area and with children and young people I wasn’t so familiar with; it was an opportunity to try to support Rich in this new venture.

Before I get into the scattered pages of my notebook, a quick word about the play project, as I understand it. Rich and the team I met last week, Hassan, Sharon and Connor . . .

are doing excellent work with the resources and environment they have. There are ups and downs, challenges and moments to celebrate, as there are on many playgrounds, I suspect. What makes this a little different is the newness of how it’s all forming. The school holiday sessions have been going on for just a couple of weeks and the vision for this open access playground is a playwork one: children should be able to play in their own ways and for their own reasons. There are adult agendas that circle around outside the playground, and sometimes find their way into it, but Rich is working hard to focus thinking on the children and their play. Good playwork practice and management can be difficult: there are so many balls to juggle.

Here is a flavour of my week on the playground, in no particular order, just as the words come tumbling out onto my notebook page . . .
White City Estate

The White City estate is wedged in next to Queen’s Park Rangers football ground and Shepherd’s Bush, pretty much, and round the back of BBC Centre on Wood Lane. It’s a fairly ethnically diverse area. The playground is overlooked by blocks of flats and, although these buildings aren’t right on top of the site, they could give the feel of being constantly seen. Having said that, when working on the playground I didn’t feel too looked upon: the playground is its own world.

Painted Days

Each day I’m there, Rich and I (either over an evening beer or in the pragmatic quiet morning on site) think and talk on how the playground could be set up, stuff that could be pulled out as playable with, the play itself and how some play is either building up or beginning to play itself out. The playground platforms start off as bare wood but, by Thursday, they’re powder-painted on, chalked on, have scraps of fabric stapled to the beams, pipecleaners threaded through the chain links. At the other end of the playground, a few girls spend an afternoon ‘decorating’ by stapling scraps of material to the fixed play equipment and the floor of the platform that leads to the slide. The girls say that there’s too much ‘boy stuff’ going on.

Monday is a full-on painting session. Rich says he’d like to see some children’s colour in the place. I fill up old tins and buckets and tubs I find lying around – roughed out approximations of powder paint. There’s a tap nearby in the corner and I swill in equally rough amounts of water. The red and blue and green and black stain around my fingernails all week. I leave the tubs of mixtures under the platforms and, at one end of the main fixed play structure, throw down some brushes and walk off, leave it till the afternoon. The children are due in at 1pm, plenty of time.

When the children come, I don’t know them or their play ways, or the ways of the playground. The whole ‘children doing their own thing’ vision isn’t how it’s always been here at the play project. Not knowing the children and the playground yet, I forget that the children are more than capable. I have it mind just to get them started off, if some of them want to paint the timber of the structure. We’re wary of what some of the parents might say about paint on the children’s clothes (it’s all new for the parents too, this way of being on the playground). We find some old scraps of material for the children to cut head holes into if they want to cover their clothes. Some do, but really it’s a pointless exercise as they’re just covered in paint soon enough! A couple of parents complain a little later. Two children have come in their white branded gear and got paint on it. They don’t come the next day and we talk about this and trust it’s just part of the process and that the children will be back.

Naively, I think the paint will just stay in the area under the platforms where I put it in the morning! Soon enough though, it gets taken up onto the platform and I observe, as the afternoon goes on, as various children come and go, mixing paints and water in spare containers that they’ve asked me to fetch for the job (containers scavenged the week before).

The mixtures go brown and sludgy. The children are focused on making it browner and sludgier! As the afternoon slides by, and as the mixture gets slopped over the wooden boards, the sun bakes the remains of sludge in the tubs into a thick black blue. Sharon gets painted good and early – t-shirt and all; Rich leaves his hands on the platform railing as he talks with children and they duly paint his arms in red and blue. One of the children calls me over with a smile and insists on painting me. He spreads my hands black and the sun bakes the paint hard and it cracks. Staff and children have painted cracked lizard-skin. One of the girls is particularly taken with the blue colour she’s smeared herself in. She says she looks like a smurf.

The painting play frame plays itself on and rolls itself out over a number of days. I put paint tubs elsewhere on the playground and sit with a brush painting a few strokes as the children start to arrive. I’m expecting one of them to wander by at some point, to stop, look, ask me what I’m doing. This is exactly what happens. The young boy squints in the sun. ‘I’m painting stuff,’ I tell him. ‘Want to do some?’ I hold out the brush, which he accepts, and I walk off. I’m just a little smugly pleased with myself by this!

Later, when the children are off elsewhere on the playground, we see sprays of powder paint on the tarmac path hill. A pair of shoes are left and covered blue.

Rich and I talk around this scene and this picture later, over beer. It’s both beautiful, in its own way, and a little disturbing in other interpretations. The picture says much to me. You should make up your own mind.
About Drilling

Hassan is fasting. I don’t know how he manages to have the energy to work on an empty stomach on the playground, in the gathering summer heat. In the morning he disappears to a corner of the playground, for some quiet time.

At the end of the Monday session, a group of older boys hurtle into the playground. There’s been hammering and drilling going on, and Hassan’s brought in one of his own drills. As the older boys run through the playground, I’m over at the sandpit area with a couple of girls who are banging nails into balsa and lumps of thicker wood. They’re unintentionally splitting them down the grain. One of the girls is telling me to hold the wood on end as she tries to bang the nail in. We talk about minding she doesn’t hit any fingers, especially mine! We’re building the play frame and we’re focused together and I’m also paying careful attention to another girl nearby with a saw (she’d been sawing the end of the wood, saw blade towards her, as I wandered past a little earlier, which is why I’m sat at the sandpit with the girls and get invited into the play by them).

The older boys come hurtling through the playground (they’re not boys who are known). I look up and see that one of them has a drill and he’s pointing it at another of his gang. It’s a playful act but I say to the drill boy that that’s probably not the best use of a drill. I’m in a bit of a quandary of weighing up priorities in my sudden dynamic risk assessment process: I hold out my free hand, not really expecting him to give me the drill, asking for it, still sat down, still with one hand holding up the wood being whacked by the girl’s hammer, still with a sawing girl close to my knee. The boy looks at me, ignores me, doesn’t give me the drill.

Connor is soon on the scene. He’s chilled out and doesn’t seem at all anxious. It’s an approach that doesn’t seem to irritate the older boys. Hassan is soon over too and he’s more forthright. The whole drill play frame tumbles away from me. Hassan is in tow and I’m left to concentrate on the hammering and sawing, watching as the boys flood off to the other end of the playground. As we’re tidying up, close to 4pm, Hassan can’t find his own drill. He’s frustrated. We look in the bushes and in the long grass and under the platforms and at the edges of the site because Hassan is convinced that the older boys have hidden it and are coming back for it later after we’ve pulled the shutters down and the site is open to the community.
Gang Play

Earlier that day, the very start of the gang’s use of the playground (thinking back on it), and their use of the streets immediately around the site, visible through the high perimeter fences, starts off with one boy who slips in and quietly sits in the corner of the playground where the vegetable patches used to be. He sits with the water hose, minding his own business, washing off a paint crate or aiming the water at the wall. I see him out of the corner of my eye and I don’t know if he’s a regular or not. I assume he is, but it turns out not to be the case. He seems contemplative. Rich goes over after a while, talks with him. Later, I’m standing observing the playground and I see an older boy of the gang-to-be shuffling around the site, and I sense something forming in the air. Soon enough, another of the gang has appeared near the entrance, up on the tarmac hill. He’s got his hoodie on and he’s trying to look inconspicuous, I think, but failing. The two boys talk quietly together. Something’s starting to happen, but I don’t know what. A bit of an edge is starting to develop. So I go and stand near the entrance, hoping to appear inconspicuous at the bottom of the tarmac hill, keeping a side-long view of the two older boys thirty yards or so away. I’m not inconspicuous at all. One of the boys comes down and starts poking around near me. I open up a conversation with him and he says he wants to know where the toilets are. They’re close by and I watch as he heads indoors and straight past the toilet door, which he can’t fail to see. He’s off trying to get in through the locked door at the end of the corridor, I guess. I just feel that some kind of distraction plan has been slowly unfolded around me! Between the staff, we manage to communicate to one another the edginess of the older boys’ growing engagement in the playground.

When we pack up at 4pm, we debate whether to leave out overnight the ten foot high bamboo flagpoles and flags that we and some of the children have made. We do leave them out, but in the morning only three of the seven are still left up there. I’m a little frustrated and annoyed. Hassan, however, says: ‘Three out of seven? That’s a result!’

There’s no activity from the gang for a day. We put the flags back up, figuring that we’ll just keep putting them up every day and the gang (if it is them) will get bored of it after a while. Wednesday brings the boys back though. We see them circling the tall perimeter fences, outside the site. They’re like vultures, I think! That afternoon they stay clear of the inside of the playground, but they’re definitely watching us, keeping an eye on all our activity: they climb up onto the roof of the neighbouring nursery school and laze around up there, watching. The women who work at the nursery don’t look too happy. Hassan goes out there and talks with the boys. He reports back to us later that the boys tell him he’s ‘a faggot’. It’s good to have Hassan around in this unfolding form of play: he’s been part of the local community for over twenty years. The older boys watch us. Perhaps they just want to come in and play. They’re a little too old for this session though. We talk about the need for a dedicated time for them on site.

to be continued . . .

Play and honour

Yesterday, the most honourable of my footballing team-mates asked, rhetorically, why people got so worked up by the Chinese, Korean and Indonesian Olympic badminton players’ recent ‘cheating’. These players, if you’ve been living on the Moon for a few days, all contrived to lose a game in order to get a better draw in the next round. To my footballing team-mate, what the badminton players did was just a way of gaining a sporting advantage; there is, he said, no rule against what they did.

As we were talking, that part of my brain that stores all the weird and wonderful information I often don’t mentally tag with references, kicked in; except this time, I had mentally tagged my previous reading – Johan Huizinga wrote about cheating:

The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ‘spoil-sport’. The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat [who] pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle [of the play’s rules].

Johan Huizinga (1950), Homo Ludens (Beacon Press reprint)

In other words, Huizinga is saying that the spoil-sport tends to be treated with disdain; the false player, or cheat, is tolerated more because they only bend the rules. I’m going to let the word ‘cheat’ go in this writing here because Huizinga’s definition has more of a playful, positive spin than our current society’s model of ‘the cheat as a negative’. Instead, I’m going to use ‘spoiler’ and ‘rule-bender’.

So, were the badminton players spoilers or rule-benders? The interpretations are two sides of the same coin. To the players, they were rule-benders (let’s ignore the fact for the moment that, apparently, there’s no actual rule that says they shouldn’t play badminton in the way that they did). The players were bending the unwritten, or unsaid, rules of the game, i.e. you play to win, try your best. To the spectators, however, the players were spoilers. The spectators inside the arena had entered into a social transaction with the athletes: in this case they’d paid money to watch them, in the expectation that the athletes would try their best in return.

Perhaps my footballing team-mate, who hadn’t paid money in that social transaction and had been spectating from home, didn’t therefore feel the need to be ‘paid back’ in return. He was then free to have sporting empathy for athletes who were merely bending the rules. For him, nothing had been spoiled.

Now, what about children’s play? There are social transactions in place here too: the unwritten, or unsaid, ‘rules’ – the agreements that just get acknowledged, that seem to be inherently known, without needing to be outlined to one another at the start of, or during, the play. However, as soon as any unwritten rule of play is bent so far as to be seen as broken, then things change.

When the child-law of ‘finders keepers’ kicks in, for example (e.g. when a ball that Johnny drops gets taken away by Jimmy), Johnny sees Jimmy as a spoiler because Johnny’s making use of the child-law of ‘I got it first’. Jimmy’s invoking the child-law of ‘finders keepers’, so he’s just bending the rules a little bit by finding and  – not just keeping but – running away with the ball as well. The spoiler and the rule-bender are two sides of the same coin in play.

I realise that this line of reasoning could be why I won’t say to any child: play fair. ‘Play fair’ means me coming down on the side of one child or the other. ‘Play fair’ means: (a) I’m drawing the line of what the unwritten/unsaid rules should be, making them into ‘said rules’; (b) I am, in effect, saying who shall be seen as ‘spoiler’; (c) I’m carelessly brushing at the intricate web of child-law, it having been diligently constructed over years and generations.

So, we come now to honour. What is this? You can’t make someone honour someone else, or be honourable. These are not written or said rules that you can impose on someone else. Honour is something that comes from within. The act of honour is something we choose to do because this honourable person is who we choose to be. My internal referencing system kicks in again at this point:

Last year, at the International Play Association conference in Cardiff, I listened to a presentation by Marc Bekoff, a leading American animal behaviourist. He was talking about morality in the animal kingdom and said that there are four basic ‘rules of animal play’: be honest; admit when you’re wrong; ask first; follow the rules. So, animal honour.

Being animal play rules, these are, of course, unwritten/unsaid rules. Animals play, and when any playing animal goes too far (is seen to be a spoiler) they tend to get thrown out of the group. This, says Bekoff, can have dire consequences because animals not in groups have a higher mortality rate. Animals, therefore, have an ulterior motive for honouring the four unwritten/unsaid rules of their play.

Children don’t like being left out either. There may not be the same consequences that animals face when children are thrown out of the group by other children, but maybe the same evolutionary mechanisms are still in place, hiding under the surface. That is, deep down, children may well have a feeling that being on your own is not a good place to be.

When the basic unwritten/unsaid rules of play are seen to be bent too far, or spoiled, it is a dishonourable act. Dishonour is treated with contempt.

Yesterday, as the spontaneity of a play session evolved into a full-blown affair of merging two gardens, creating a colourful sensory wind-blown fabric-strewn den-world, as neighbour-children came over to play, I found myself unintentionally acting dishonourably not once, but three times.

‘Gol,’ said Gack, standing at the wooden table, unable to reach the centre of it. ‘Helicopter’ (which was the toy he couldn’t reach). Of course, he wanted me to help him. I walked up, as if I was going to help, looked and said: ‘Oh right, yes’, before walking away. Gack shot me daggers. How dishonourable of me.

The eldest of the neighbours had wrapped himself up in the fabric and netting play (actually, and emotionally, I suspect). There was some rough and tumble. His shoe ended up on top of the parachute den, somehow, and he couldn’t reach it. He was not happy. I had not honoured the social play transaction.

Gack brought a chocolate biscuit to me and asked me to help him unwrap it. I was still caught up in the play. I unwrapped it and said thank you to him and pretended to start eating it. Gack was not happy at my action.

These might seem small things, but in three small instances I became a spoiler. I was fortunate to recover my worthiness of being honoured (perhaps by taking past good conduct into account, Your Honour).

When all is said and done, I can only look after my own actions, work on my own self, choose to be honourable or not, or try to rectify my dishonourable actions; I can’t impose on others that they be honourable, ‘play fair’, not be spoilers. When we impose our own ‘rules’ and expectations on children at play, we start to shape that intricate web of child-law into something less refined.

No matter how much I may not like the spoiling actions of the Chinese, Korean and Indonesian badminton players, it’s their own honour they’re affecting. In play, children find their own way too.


I shall be away from the screen for eight days now, to further find my own way. Playwork practice calls . . .


Dear play

A small missingness in relating

The other day I was in the library, in town, and I saw a child I’d known at a setting a few months ago. She’s about five years old. We looked at each other and I knew I recognised her, though it took me a few seconds to make sure. She was looking at me and I don’t know whether she was double-checking like I was, or whether she recognised me straight away and was just waiting for me to click in. Either way, the point of this story is that, when I had clicked in, she was happy, smiley, saying ‘hi’ and my name; I couldn’t remember her name though. This troubled me slightly.

I knew that I knew her, and I could remember some of her play. I remember her little sister, who was there at the library too, and I remembered her name – probably because, her being just two or three years of age, I remembered her poking a stick in a fire bowl I took to the setting once, before I worked there – her mother looking on, and me thinking, ‘excellent, a parent who’s cool with a younger child at the fire bowl.’

Now, the five year old (let’s call her Isla, for argument’s sake) – the fact that I couldn’t remember her name, when I’d spent time with her, troubled me. It’s all centred on my thinking on playworkers’ relationships with children. I do feel, and always have felt, deeply privileged to work with and for children. In places where play can happen, the child-adult relationship can be an exquisite thing. In my experience, children value the adult who ‘sees’ them. That is, from the very simple act of the adult getting down on their knees to communicate (my knees have taken some batterings on some hard floors over the years!), to the more abstract implicit comprehension that ‘this adult is acceptable.’ Some adults, to children, are merely tolerated; some are openly despised. Back to the positive, I would go as far as to say that some adults are regarded in the very highest esteem, even ‘loved’. Many children have love, and we adults can corrupt that word with our tedious manipulation of perceived sordid interpretation. What we can learn from the children . . .

I digress. In the library, Isla said ‘hi’ with a big smile and a wave from a short distance away (she even seemed to recognise the adult social conformity of adults who are adults in public spaces, as opposed to adults who are ‘playful others’ in the play setting).

Was the fact that I’d forgotten Isla’s name an indication that my play setting relationship with her wasn’t strong enough? That is, I had clearly affected her positively, but did she – quiet as she is – just get absorbed at the fringes of the chaotic swill of the other, more dominant characters of children there? Was the fact that I’d forgotten her name just an indication of time passing? If that’s the case, why can I still remember the names of children from twenty years ago?

Another small story digression. A couple of years ago, I was in a supermarket in a town a fair few miles away from home and other places I’d previously worked. I became aware that myself and my colleague, having been on the road and nipping in for lunch, were being trailed by a huge security guard. All of a sudden I heard: ‘Excuse me . . .’ The guard looked at me and asked me if I was who he thought me to be. He was right. Who was he? It turned out to be a former child I knew, when working in another city, who was obviously a lot smaller when I last saw him! My point: he’d grown, but I knew who he was when he told me his name, and I could see the child that he was in the adult that he’d become.

Time doesn’t always make us forget. Why did I not remember Isla’s name? Did I not work hard enough, well enough, freely enough when I was with her? Was I preoccupied by staffing matters, by resourcing and environmental modification matters? Was I just not being a good enough playworker? Or was I so wrapped up in trying to be ‘a playworker’ that I forgot to relate?

I really don’t know. I think I might know Isla’s actual name, but when this happens in everyday meetings with adults, I play through the possible names in my head (running through the letters of the alphabet till I get to one that ‘feels’ right for the name’s starting letter – I can’t explain it any other way – then I run through possible names till I get to one that also ‘feels’ right). The name I have for Isla kind of feels OK, but it doesn’t feel totally right.

Maybe, when I unlock why exactly I feel a little troubled at not remembering her name, I’ll be able to unlock her name. It’ll all kick in.

At the library, I smiled back at this five year old, and her mother, and said ‘hi’ to Isla with a small and also slightly distant wave, as adults who know about interactions with children in public spaces know to do. I would have had no qualms about getting on my knees there and then, in the middle of the library, if I’d remembered Isla’s name but, somehow, it didn’t feel right: a piece was missing.

I don’t know if Isla understood, but I suspect she had an inkling. My experience tells me that some children have uncanny comprehension in matters of small pieces, like names, missing.

%d bloggers like this: