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

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.


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