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.
battling the powdered paint –
parts unnoticed before –
before a day
first child heard
haiku thoughts . . .
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 . . .