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.
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.
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.
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 . . .