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.

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.

On the language of child

Playwork has its own language (whether that’s a good thing or not is a subject up for review); play has its own language too. I think I’ve been interested in this, in a kind of non-conscious way, for a while now. It’s only whilst spending some time thinking about the language of playwork that I find myself thinking of the language of play and the child.

Of course, the language of play can be a many-layered thing. In this instance, I’m just thinking of the language of words (as opposed to ‘language’ in the sense of looking at movements in play, facial expressions, readings and interpretations, etc). I took this photo the other day because it amused me:

It amused me for several reasons: (i) Jesse is gay; (ii) Now, perhaps, it’s actually Rob who’s gay; (iii) The meaning of gay.

Those of us who work with children, or teenagers, or who are parents, or all of the above, have no doubt heard such phrases. Jesse is gay; until, now Jesse seems to have shifted in estimation, albeit only because Rob has reached the required level of gayness instead. Or maybe Jesse struck back, and this is a duel by post. ‘Jesse/Rob is gay’ may well be a reference to actually perceived sexual orientation, but it’s more likely to be that well-used term of mild provocation. Some children use the term ‘gay’ to mean something more like ‘not right, out of order, unfair’, as in ‘that’s really gay.’

Now beware, adult. Speak the Language of Child when they don’t expect it, or when you aren’t invited into the frame of play reference, and sour looks come your way!

Adult trying too hard: ‘Right. OK, that’s really gay, huh?’
Child: No words. Nada. Look of ‘whatever’ on their face. Steel and ice all rolled into one.

In a play setting a couple of months ago, I remember, I was talking around with Jody and she was doing the whole stereotypical (possibly ironic, I couldn’t tell – I wasn’t sophisticated enough in my understanding to work it out) ‘whatever, minger, loser’ thing*. You know, WML with the fingers on the forehead for each letter. Of course, I fell into the trap of thinking I was speaking the Language of Child, of thinking I was OK and she was OK with it, by trying the whole WML fingers thing in usual conversation. Hopeless. Jody has this withering, withering look: she could cut paper at a hundred yards. She didn’t need to say a single word: I got the whole ‘whatever’ thing in her eyes. I gave up the Language of Child at that moment with her. There’s no point trying to be on equal terms with a Supreme Master.

The Language of Child is also a secret yet open affair; an open yet secret thing. Here’s another photo I felt compelled to take:

Someone [hearts] Someone Very SXC. It’s a disclosure of love or lust, or something quite like whatever it is you feel when you’re that age (it was such a long time ago, what was it? It was something, for sure). It’s a secret (who is the writer, who is the someone?) It’s not such a secret that others shouldn’t know. Maybe there’s an underground thing going on in public parks: in the tribal way, those of the tribes recognise each other’s passings by the manner of the marking of territory.

Either way, Someone [hearts] Someone Very SXC, and I do understand and feel for them! We’ve been there, distantly.

The Language of Child is also direct. Playworkers, parents, others who’ve been around children for a while, we have countless tales amongst us of ‘those things that children say.’ Part of me thinks there’s some huge and unwritten, unspoken-of conspiracy that all children tap into: ‘Speak the Language of Child; make the adults think a bit; you are wise, Young Skywalker; or, at least, you can keep them on their toes!’

In a conversation that began to border on the deeply philosophical about religion, Gracey told me: ‘[Buddhists] Those are the orange ones, aren’t they?’

In the same conversation, Joss added: ‘Jesus was that magical man. He had special needs.’

No offence is intended to anyone with these quotes. I use them because they’re just so loaded, in the context of the conversation we were in.

Notebook, September:

Whilst eating, Lacey, Marcie, Lo, Lulu and Izzy are all chatting away about everything and nothing. I sit with them and Lacey starts to talk about her Polish babysitter/friend of the family who has a ‘Polish TV’ and she, Lacey, has to watch it. She says how she knows a plane crashed in the sea and killed the Polish President and how they put all the bodies in ‘dead boxes’.

This time, I’m accepted into the field around the Language of Child. I’m just there. I’m part of the background. The girls know I’m sitting there, of course, but they’re not bothered. It feels almost as if I’ve been absorbed into the private conversation, on special dispensation, or like when the gorillas on the mountainside choose to allow Attenborough into the fold and not eat him. This time.

The Language of Child is a specialist thing and, just like playworkers or plumbers talking with other playworkers or plumbers, those adults gathered around children better know the language they’re in (or choose to meekly just keep quiet!)
* You see, I even got this mixed up with another conversation I had with Jody because, in my memory too, I thought I was at least speaking some recognisable semblance of the Language of Child. Whatever, major loser.

The curious incident of the yellow snake in the day-time

Yesterday’s post turned into a lament for the leftover-ness of play. So, today’s post follows on, but in a different vein. You see, somehow a big yellow snake came to be chalked on the pavement. The minor workings of a pesky guerrilla playworker, no doubt . . .

I was intrigued, sat in my office within earshot of the passers-by, along the yellow-snaked path: I heard some children go by, on their way down to the shops, or the park, or towards town, or just going about their day on this, one of the main thorough-fares in the area. ‘Look,’ some children said, ‘a snake!’ or ‘It’s a snake!’

I wandered about indoors, or on my way to the car, going about the business of my day, and caught sight of a small child walking ponderously along, stopping, looking, jumping squarely on the snake’s head, both her feet between its eyes. Or, I saw children walk over it, look backwards as they trailed behind adults: they had puzzled looks on their faces, these particular individuals. I thought, strange, but then of course – this snake doesn’t look like a child’s yellow snake at all. It caught them wondering for a short while though.

Now I should report the actions of the adults. I only wandered around the business of my day, or pottered in the office, listening out, for a short while, but only one man paid attention to the child he was with when she told him: ‘Look, a snake.’ Well done to him. Every other adult didn’t see, didn’t hear: couldn’t see or hear? There was one child-less man who walked past, of the several child-less adults walking by . . . I didn’t really think a child-less adult would see a yellow snake on the pavement . . . (when I studied at university, years ago, it was suggested to us that only architects went around noticing things like roofs or anything else above eye-level in a cityscape; it’s a similar thing with anything below eye-level, perhaps, i.e. the leftover-ness of childness) . . . There was one man, one man who saw. He walked straight over, but at least he saw. I got in my car and left the scene to play itself out in any way it might happen to.

I write all of this because, although it might not seem a great deal to anyone who might be reading this outside of the playwork sphere, really that’s the point: it is a great deal. A yellow snake chalked on the pavement, even one that may just be there for a day until the rain comes, is a small significance. Yesterday I found little evidence of play leftover-ness. Readers should draw their own conclusions. Today, a yellow snake caught the attentions of some children, caused some minor fluctuations in the play-time continuum, had the potential for stirring some latent thoughts in one child’s adult, and in one child-less adult . . .

On this, National Play Day in the UK, the curious incident of the yellow snake was just a very, very minor moment of possible play formation. National Play Day is an event well worth supporting, every year; however, every day should be a Play Day, right? Raise your clenched chalks, comrades: make play possible!

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