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

Archive for September, 2012

Moments and stories

Stories are moments, and moments become stories. I’ve had various conversations this week with play and playwork colleagues, and those conversations are always a chance to connect with stories. Being a good playworker involves doing this. Understanding play involves doing this. However, stories go much deeper: they connect us all. We come from traditions of oral histories, and we can’t afford to lose that story-telling.

I’d like to share some small stories about moments. These are stories about moments spent with children; they’re important because moments like these can often be overlooked. When we overlook the moments, we don’t truly see what we are, what others are, how we connect. How many moments of possible connection are there in every day? What do we miss if we don’t see moments at all?

Moments of quality with respected others

Moments, like atoms, are what we’re comprised of. In the context of moments of people – rather than places – experienced, others affect us (though they sometimes don’t realise it). In the playwork world, I’ve shared conversations with writers and thinkers and playworkers and they have left their moments on me. Morgan (who I know to read here), do you remember a conversation we had in a hotel lobby in Wolverhampton five years or so ago? You sparked my further thoughts about the leftoverness of play. Bob Hughes advised me to ‘ask the right question’, and to observe the background. Pete King said ‘write that book!’ Jess Milne simply said to take a banana when training, ‘for the brain’. Gordon Sturrock didn’t say anything: he just watched the way I worked – which was enough. Jacky Kilvington and I discussed the ‘allness’ of play. Eva Kane told me, simply but that was all that was needed, ‘children know’. Perry Else let me in on a sneak preview of his, then, new book over breakfast on a sunny morning when I wasn’t as awake as I could have been. Arthur (who also reads here), do you remember a conversation we once had at BoP, possibly involving whisky, in which neuro-linguistic programming was swilled around?

Perhaps none of these people remember any of these conversations with me. It doesn’t matter, because I remember them. This unashamed name-dropping isn’t a name-drop after all: plenty of those in playwork circles have had the opportunity to talk with plenty of the above as well; those outside of playwork circles won’t have heard of these people anyway. My point is that it’s the quality of the mark that’s left that counts.

So, we live on a planet of infinite possibilities of moment-making, and into that mix go the children. Here are four stories of moments, of connections: because stories are moments, and moments become stories that should be told:

The moment of a thunderstorm

A few years ago I was involved in a play day event. We were on a large field and a range of play opportunities were on offer. Myself and my colleague were manning the messy play resources. Children just came and went, covered themselves in paint and foodstuffs, got good and sticky and, well, messy! Then the rain came. Pretty much every other adult on the field scattered for cover, but we were doing the messy stuff: we stayed out there, barefoot on the grass. The children with us were soaked. This is the set-up for the moment in question.

When the children had had enough of the rain, the field cleared. I sat at the door to the pavilion, on the paving slabs outside and under the overhanging eaves. The rain was hammering down. The messy play stuff was left to disintegrate out on the field. All I could hear was the rain. I looked around and there gathered behind me were ten, fifteen, twenty or so children, all sat down wrapped up, quietly eating sandwiches, watching out like I was. We sat there and watched together as the thunderstorm rumbled over.

The moment of a small place found

It’s a wet and dreary afternoon. I’m sitting on the sofa, with my feet up on it, as Gack plays on the floor. We’ve been out walking and he’s been bouncing from one thing to another all day. He’s not focusing on anything in his play for very long: perhaps that’s just a part of being two years old. He suddenly picks up his dummy (that’s a pacifier, if you’re reading in American!) and climbs up over me, aiming for the gap between my body and the back of the sofa. He lies down there against me, saying: ‘Want tewwy on’. (Tewwy, being television), which I interpret as his way of saying ‘this calms me’. In a minute, I say. I smooth his hair.

It’s very quiet here. All there is to hear is the sound of the rain – coming from the open back door – and the clock ticking. We don’t say anything, and he lies there, and I stroke his hair. We both just listen. Gack slowly falls asleep. I sit there for a long time with him, and I’m trying not to move; the cramp sets in. His breathing matches mine, or maybe that’s the other way around. Either way, he’s there for a long time in the gap between me and the sofa.

The moment of a kerbside

I’m following Gack, one day, on his push-along car because he asks me to. He’s heading along the path of the cul-de-sac. He stops at the corner, at the kerb, so I sit down there too. He just watches the other children playing on their scooters and bikes in the road. We don’t say anything. Soon, some of the children come over (children who I’ve met before, briefly). They all sit around on the kerb too. We’re all just hanging out on the kerb, me and these two to five, six, seven year olds. There isn’t really a huge amount of conversation, we just hang out. I feel like I’m accepted. One of the children’s parents watches on from a short distance. I see this. I’m OK with this. The children are OK with me.

The moment of a wave

Recently, I came out of a fairly unproductive meeting. My head was just trying to get back into the ‘real world’ outside of the rarefied environment of political-speak and small, neat, clinically partitioned-off meeting rooms. I was walking down the street. I saw a big yellow school bus, which caught my attention, coming to a stop in traffic. As I walked past, one of the children inside smiled and waved at me. I wasn’t quick enough to wave back. I smiled. Two or three seats back on the bus, another child did the same. So, I smiled and waved back. He seemed pleased by my response. A few seats further back again, another child smiled and waved. I smiled and waved back to her. She seemed happy at this.

Children wave at people they don’t know. Maybe they know about moments and how the possibility of those moments being formed can mark them for a while. Knowing about moments allows a marking in me.

Moments become stories, and the story is a moment in itself.
 
 

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Parenting and this play now

Being immersed in the ‘parenting role’, for this playworker, has led me along two lines of reflection this week: that of looking from the ‘outside, in’, and that of looking from the ‘inside, out’. That is to say, thinking on how others perceive me, with child, and thinking on how I perceive others, with child. When I collect these strands of thinking into one place, I find that what I’m thinking about is ‘this play, now.’

The normal and the controlling

It’s a curious situation to occasionally see yourself through other people’s eyes. You know yourself and all the little things that make you who you are. I know that, sometimes, when I walk down the street people may not look me in the eye, or sometimes they’ll make playfully mocking comments based on the fact that they think I look like Jesus! (It’s always original when they say it, but it does get a little wearing for me, after a while!) Now, when I walk down the street with Gack, this two year old seems to have a transformational affect on who or what I’m perceived to be: I get smiled at, greeted by strangers saying hello, or stopped by benevolent old women telling me how good it is for him, Gack, to be playing out. I am, it would appear, suddenly ‘normal’.

We seem to have a general attitudinal confusion taking place in the UK (or that’s the way it seems to me, at least): on the one hand, there’s this perceived culture of ‘normalisation’, which goes hand in hand with the ‘protect the children at all costs’ collective consciousness; on the other hand, there’s the dominance of the ‘adult hierarchy over children’ way of living. For example, a couple of things overheard whilst out in the town centre recently:

‘He’s a walking liability at the moment.’ (A mother talking to another woman about her toddler, and said in what I took as a half-sneering but also half-joking/mocking manner, though without a hint of a smile).

‘No, you can’t go up those steps; we’ll get told off.’ (A mother talking to another toddler who clearly wanted to investigate a flight of concrete steps – which, incidentally, had no ‘keep out’ signs or barriers on them anyway).

So, here I am, observing from a distance in the town centre: thinking about how people perceive me when I’ve got Gack with me; thinking about how I perceive parents with their children.

Play experimentation and investigation

Play is many-coloured and many-shaped: play can be seen in all sorts of places and ways of behaving. So, play is jumping along between the paving slabs singing songs mashed together (‘Wind the Bobbin Up’ versus ‘Wheels on the Bus’ is a current favourite mash-up, for example); play is taking detours, on your scooter, into every empty car park along a route from A to B (wherever B will end up being), using the bumps in the tarmac to roll over; it’s even painting the toilet wall with the business end of the wet toilet brush (unfortunately!) – all of which have been playful pursuits of Gack’s recently.

Not everything the child does is going to be easily seen as play by the parent, of course (as we can see from the incidence of artistic flourish above!) However, tired and/or disgusted though the adult may be, it is play. It doesn’t make the act any the more agreeable sometimes, but taking a breath, standing back, understanding what this is, helps (I find). So, play is also investigating unusual places like a flight of concrete steps.

This play, now

Play is useful, and in this instance I’m not talking about its importance in brain growth, about the developmental benefits, about the health aspects, or about the therapeutic use of play, say, in healing processes. Play is useful for the child because it’s in the now, and it’s about what this now is. The ‘progress rhetoric’ of skills development for future use is one of many ways of looking at what play is useful for, but the future can’t happen without the now.

I recently wrote about the epigenetic affect of the environment around the playing child (that is, how our children’s children, and so on, are potentially affected by the conditions in the present). This thinking still stands. However, in this writing here I’m focusing on this now that the children (and their parents) live in.

The now is where play happens, where emotions form because of that play, where understanding of identity is created, etc. Perry Else taught me some basics about his understanding of neuro-linguistic programming: how the brain and body actions can be so much better connected. Think of a time when you felt positive; think of the actions you were undertaking at that time: replicate those actions at another time to connect back to that positive frame of mind. Without being conscious of it, I realised this takes place all the time in my day-to-day interactions with the world: the emotions I sense at a point along the river, and where and how I sat; the way I feel with certain tactile interactions with others; similarly, emotions around the house or garden. The same could be said about moments of play: this is the place where we hid in the woods; here is the room where we danced; this is the beach that was ours. (We hid like this, we danced this way, we played on the beach like this and this and this.)

Moments make us, and we build our moments of now into a repertoire, a library, which we can pick and choose from at a later time, linking our brains and our body actions. Yet, hold on: I’m writing about the now, not the future. The future can’t happen, though, without the now.

In some sense, the future won’t ever happen; it hasn’t ever happened: all we have is the now. Each now is a new now: sure, play may well take place because of similar play yesterday or last week, or play can be repeated over and over in one long burst, but each instance of play is new because it’s the play of now. It’s different every time. Now is all we have, in this sense.

Understanding moments

When I’m with Gack, I’m ‘normal’, apparently: except, of course, I’m not. Not in the way of the dominant ‘adult hierarchy over children’ scheme of things. Or so I like to think. People choose to see what they want: they just think I’m ‘normal’. What they don’t always see is the fact that Gack is going to take a route from A to B, but he’ll take diversions via most of the rest of the alphabet and I’m OK to follow him; that when Gack sees two dirty great big, brand-spanking new yellow JCBs parked up by the river (and which, strangely, I don’t see at first!), we have to cross the road, stop, watch the workmen (for a long time), and just gawp at those big yellow beasts shining in the sunlight; that when Gack refuses to talk with people he doesn’t know, like the friendly young woman serving in the milkshake bar, it’s not him being rude, it’s him just choosing not to communicate.

He does communicate, when he wants to: he sits on the toilet with a mischievous grin, asking why the carpet’s all dirty. I tell him about my recent work in the attic. Why? he says, and he starts the whole, ‘why, why, why’ game (you know the one) with that twinkle in his eye. I think, ‘play the game’, and ‘twist the game’. I still lose, but I play it.

It’s play in the moment. It is the play of now. It helps form moments of emotion, of connection to the body, and of connectedness with others.

When I observe some adults with children, I wonder at all of this. Sure, it’s tiring, this parenting business; sure, it’s sometimes frustrating and challenging. Understanding the now though, I think, can help.

Moments of play and beauty

There are moments of beauty to share, in observations of others. These moments should be passed on, I feel. In finishing here, for now, I pass these two moments on to you:

In the shopping arcade, on the long shallow slope that connects the upper and lower levels, a toddler decides to lie down on his belly as he and his mother (presumably) walk. Instead of shouting at him, ordering him to get up, or hurrying him along, she waits with her friend, smiling at the child. He lies there for a few moments, taking in the view down the slope, before getting up and running ahead.

Whilst walking down the riverside, I listen to a mother and her daughter behind me. The child is about three years old. The mother is talking with the child, pointing out the things she sees, things of possible interest. She talks about crunchy leaves as the child walks in them, and how the colours change in the Autumn and why, and about how things are slowing down, and how greens will be back in the Spring. They talk about the river, and they sing songs between them: I love you; no, I love you more, etc. When they come to the rose beds, where two men are pruning the bushes, the mother and the child go over to look at the flowers. I walk on and, when I look back, I see the mother bending a yellow rose down on its stem so the child can smell it. They both breathe it in deeply, then carry on their way.
 
 

Epigenetics and play

I recently delivered a presentation/workshop at the Beauty of Play (BoP) conference in Stone, Staffordshire. As I said at the time, in my pre-session taster, Perry* had asked me a couple of months ago to present something at BoP, and I had chosen the most challenging of the two suggestions! My subject matter for research, presentation and discussion was how the field of epigenetics can be seen in terms of children’s play. I’ve been thinking all week on how to write this presentation up in an easier to manage fashion. Here is that thinking.

What we are, in essence

Most of us have heard about ‘our genes’ and how we inherit these from our parents. We’ve heard about DNA and maybe even chromosomes. However, do we know what they actually are? When we have this understanding, we can start to look at what epigenetics is all about.

Our DNA is our basic ‘building blocks’ of life. That phrase has been around for a while. DNA is a collection of acids. We are, as I said in my presentation, essentially just a swill of chemicals floating around in sacks of skin! (The theme of BoP was ‘the essence of play’, and this phrase seemed to work quite well).

Our genes are sequences of DNA. Genes are instruction manuals for cell development and are contained in our chromosomes (which we have in every cell in our bodies). We have 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in total, which is – by the way – two fewer than the average potato!) Each chromosome has several hundred, sometimes several thousand, genes in them. All our genes are collectively called the genome, and we have around 25,000 genes in our genome.

So, our genes are instruction manuals that provide us with brown or blue eyes, height, weight, etc. What we inherit from both our parents combines to make us, us. What we also have, it’s been discovered, is the epigenome. This is additional cellular material that ‘sits above’ (‘epi’) the genome. I gather, once referred to as ‘junk DNA’ because it wasn’t clear what its function was, it’s now known that the epigenetic material acts as a switch, turning certain genes on or off. That is, the genes themselves don’t change, they’re just switched – or expressed – and that expression of on/off has huge implications.

Epigenetic marks

What does all of this have to do with children’s play? Well, for the moment, I shall just say that children are at a perfect point in life for the epigenetic on/off switch process to start taking place. I shall come back to this.

When chemical changes take place in the body, ‘epigenetic marks’ are left on the genes. These marks are then inherited. So, in a nutshell, the child – in formation – then passes on those epigenetic marks, as well as their genes, to their own children. It doesn’t stop there: those epigenetic marks are then passed on to their children’s children. The epigenetic marks are caused by what’s known as ‘environmental stressors’ (e.g. stress, starvation). So, in effect, what’s happening in the environment around the child will affect that child’s own grandchildren, even though those grandchildren aren’t subjected to the original environmental stressor themselves.

This is pretty profound to me. It makes me think of the huge responsibility we adults carry in affecting the children around us.

Research (Swedish harvests study)

The thinking on this environmental affect is bound up in plenty of research: in retrospective studies on human genetics (because artificial laboratory experiments on humans is unethical) and on laboratory animal studies (which others would say are just as unethical, but have been undertaken nonetheless).

A main study was one carried out by Swedish researcher, Lars Olov Bygren, and later added to by Marcus Pembrey, Professor of Clinical Genetics at the Institute of Child Health in London. The Swedish study of Överkalix parish’s records showed that the grandchildren of 19th century children – who were subjected to periods of famine and over-eating – were epigenetically affected: genes for life expectancy were affected so that, by and large, the grandchildren died some thirty years earlier than they would have done otherwise. In other words, their grandparents’ diets (as a result of their environment) affected the grandchildren, even though those grandchildren weren’t directly affected themselves.

Professor Pembrey’s 2006 study added to this thinking. He highlighted fathers who said they’d started smoking before the age of 11. This is a critical time for boys because, just before puberty, the boys’ sperm is in formation. This is an ideal time for epigenetic marks to be imprinted on the genes. Professor Pembrey’s study leads to the understanding that the sons of fathers who smoked in prepuberty are at higher risk of obesity and shorter life spans. It is the genetic switching process in action here.

Keep in mind how the adult environment affects children’s play. I will come back to this, but before I do . . .

Research (stress and pregnant women)

Pregnant women have long been advised about the dangers of smoking, drugs and alcohol on unborn children, and how stress can also affect the baby. However, when we think about epigenetic marks on the genes, we can start to realise that not only the baby, but that child’s own children can be affected. Take the Twin Towers attack in 2001 as an example of how pregnant women’s stress levels can dramatically alter. Studies by Rachel Yehuda, psychologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, suggest that children of women caught up in the Twin Towers attacks are more prone to stress. Their cortisol hormone levels are lower, making them more susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder. This gene switch may well pass down a further generation, even though the children of the children of the women at the Twin Towers weren’t there themselves.

Research (brain plasticity, mother-infant interactions)

It’s been known for a while in neuroscience how the environment affects what’s called the ‘plasticity of the brain’. Simply put, studies on rats in ‘rich environments’ shows that these environments are far better for the rats’ brains than ‘impoverished’ or boring environments. The brain grows by making use of itself. Play makes this happen. Adding an epigenetic twist to this thinking, studies in different mother-infant care quality in rats has shown an affect in the off-spring, and the off-spring’s offspring could be seen to be epigenetically affected too (here, in the case of poorer relationships).

Research (environmental toxins)

Now we get to an even more disturbing experiment on rats. Gestating rats were systematically exposed to various toxins (fungicide, pesticide, a plastic mixture, dioxin, and a hydrocarbon mixture). It was found, by a process of epigenetic marking or switching on/off of genes, that at least four generations of off-spring developed ovarian disease because of the toxins, even though those later generations weren’t directly exposed to the toxins themselves.

Research (affect on many generations)

Fruitfly and roundworm experiments showed that some 13 and 40 generations, respectively, were epigenetically affected by exposure to drugs in the original generation. Just to reiterate here, the DNA and genes weren’t changed; it was the genes that were switched on/off.

Does that mean that the environmental stressors are permanent on all future generations? Well, no. When the stressors (like starvation, diet, stress) aren’t there any more, the affect fades. Fading is a process though, and we can conclude from this that – even though there’s a fade out – the affects are still there to some degree.

Research (rich environments)

It’s not all doom and gloom. Experiments with some mice have shown that those mice exposed to rich environments showed better memory potential and this trait was epigenetically passed on to future generations, even though they themselves weren’t exposed to that rich (i.e. highly playable in) environment.

What this all means

So, we come back to children and their play and the environments around them. The huge responsibility we carry around with us, when we affect children, because we do do this, can be seen in physiological, psychological and sociological contexts:

Toxicants (outdoors and indoors) can affect the susceptibility to disease;

Children’s diets affect future generations’ life expectancies;

‘Modest stressors’, e.g. variations of natural light, extremes of temperature, etc, are beginning to be conditioned out in modern lifestyles. This results in an increased inability to cope with acute stress (there is an underactivation of the prefrontal cortex);

The adult care/interaction environment with children has the potential to affect children and their children:  

Hugely stressful environments for children can, potentially, alter their ability to regulate stress; excessively imposed restrictions/psychological restraint could result in biochemical changes, e.g. stress hormone, or reduction in brain plasticity;

A decreased neuronal plasticity (brain growth) due to impoverished mother-infant interactions and play environments;

‘Prolonged emotional stress in infancy may deactivate areas of the brain responsible for processing social information, impacting on emotion regulation’;

‘Attachment pathologies (breakdown or absence of secure attachments), leading to empathy disorders and a limited ability to read the emotions of others.’

‘Where [environmental] stress is prolonged . . . behaviours are likely to become more stereotypical, limited and limiting.’

Drugs use (e.g. Ritalin) causes dopamine changes in the brain (causing the more rational prefrontal cortex to over-ride the emotional limbic system – the emotional aspect being, as some might see it, the more natural state of the child); the effect being that doped-up children are easier to manage and to fit in with the ‘social construct’ of adults, making them more easily ‘educateable’, mouldable. When we think what the epigenetic affect could be, it’s scary. One research source claims that, in 2003, some 13 million US children were prescribed Ritalin! You should draw your own conclusions on the potential epigenetic affect here . . .

The environments we create, epigenetics, and the affect on generations

For the most part, this list above suggests a direct affect on the child. However, if we think of the epigenetic marking, the switching on/off of genes as a result of chemical changes, of how the children of the children exposed to the environments listed above are also affected – even though they weren’t directly exposed to those environments themselves – we can start to see the magnitude of all of this:

The environment we create, in which our children play and manoeuvre, will not only affect those children, but their children and their children’s children.

That, I think, is a huge responsibility for us to bear in mind.**
 
 
*For those readers not familiar with playwork circles, Perry Else is – according to his recent book (The Value of Play, 2009) – the course leader for BA Hons Children and Playwork at Sheffield Hallam University, and co-author of the Colorado Paper (1998) on psycholudics.

**As this is not an academic paper in itself, research material references have been left out. However, if any readers are interested, all references can be provided on request.
 
 

White City stories: part ten (reflections)

As a tenth and final instalment of stories from my summer’s playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London . . . a list, albeit a little long, of ‘reflective sparks’ based on my observations of play, discussions, practice and feelings.
 
Part one

New playwork-thinking projects can work and develop in places where, in recent times, more adult-structured thinking has been taking place. It’s a process, sure, but it’s a process well worth taking.

The old chestnut of ‘planning the play’ really ought to be wiped from the collective consciousness. I hold my hands up to having tried to ‘plan the play’, way back. It’s what we knew back then. Now, we know differently: ‘Planning for play’. This can, and does, happen in all sorts of weird and wonderful places: over a beer, on the train home, as the day goes by, whilst observing children at play, etc.

Messy play (like painting) is all about how the children want their space (and themselves!) to look. Armani best gear is not best gear for play! Dressed down children make for less stressful parents – play can be messy. Playworkers know this, not all parents do though.

Playwork is messy. Don’t come in your Armani best gear. Come dressed down.

Messy play gets everywhere. Don’t just think it’ll stay in one place. It won’t. So, indications that ‘this is the messy play area’ just don’t seem to fit with what play actually is.

A simple rule of thumb for children and colours: children won’t stop mixing paint till they get brown. Brown is the optimum colour. Brown is good.

Standing back and saying ‘go on, paint stuff’ means that stuff will get painted. Lots of stuff.

The play frames of older children can be challenging (like running around with a drill, for example). It’s still play to them though. That isn’t to say that that play is something that shouldn’t be paid careful attention to though. It’s a delicate balance.

Some playworkers are better at defusing potentially volatile play situations than others. That’s OK. Know what you’re best at. Be a team.

Groups of children and young people, who we adults often label as ‘gangs’, like to play too. Their play can be quite challenging, and it’s a lot easier in reflection than it is sometimes in the heat of the day on the playground. However, reflection on this sort of play is important. Talking about what the playground is for and how it can benefit the older children is crucial (no matter how much those older children challenge and push buttons).
 
Part two

Slow times on the playground, before the children get there, are the times when the base work is done (thinking about safety, informal discussions on previous observations of play, setting up play places and throwing around ideas, the possibility of writing about the feel of the place – this all helps to focus the mind on the gem that the playground is and can be). Time spent in this fashion isn’t wasted time, although others might not appreciate exactly what’s going on under the surface.

Some children take time to build up their knowledge and understanding of regular adults on the playground. Be patient: if it comes, it comes; children accept adults in their play spaces in their own time.

Some play cues can look, to the untrained eye, like the child is being [insert whatever negative word you feel appropriate here]. In reality, the child throwing a water sprayer might just be about the child finding out what happens next. Play cues take lots of different forms. Knowing that ‘this could be play’ is a special skill.

Teamwork that just happens, a natural flow, is far better than rigid, over-zealous attention to rotas of ‘manning’ certain areas. Just as play is fluid, so should staffing be. Keep talking as you go by.

Children have some great ideas about how they can shift their play into other play, e.g. using a paddling pool to go down the waterslide with. Some adults don’t understand this. Appreciate the play that’s unfolding around you.

Sometimes, children take a lot longer to get involved in a play frame than others: they need time to feel OK about that play. So, girls going down the waterslide in their dresses might be something those girls need time to contemplate first. Playworkers should have an appreciation of time and how it’s needed. They should be aware of what the moment is, when the moment finally comes . . .

Children can also come up with some mad ideas that, maybe, they just know won’t work so well, but they try them anyway, e.g. trying to go down the waterslide in friction-heavy plastic crates!
 
Part three

Scavenging is an art form that all playworkers should practice as readily as the actual work they do with the children. Learn from masters of the art. Be humble in admitting others have greater scavenging skills!

Things I can learn from a master of scavenging: be polite and courteous; call shopkeepers ‘sir’ and ‘gentleman’ (what would be a modern politeness to a female shopkeeper?!); be gracious (even if the shopkeepers don’t smile or make you happy); tell someone who smiles how they’ve lightened your day; there are opportunities for scavengeable material and resources in many unusual places – in shops, in skips, left to throw away in people’s gardens, in alleys, in shops being refitted.

Some people have amazing grace. Some people have stones thrown at them and yet are still humble and forgiving. I have no words to explain, still, how inspired I am by a woman I met who was all of this.

Some parents are so enthused by the work you do on the playground; give them time to tell you. Make time.

Sometimes, adults create risky play opportunities accidentally. ‘So, climb over the top of the gates.’ Perhaps it was meant as a joking challenge. Perhaps it was a serious challenge. Either way, a challenge is a challenge, and adults standing back, not being negative or repressive, is a catalyst for children to throw themselves in at the deep end.
 
Part four

Given the opportunity to make use of tools, children can be very proficient with them. As with many things, the only way you truly find out how to use or do something, you have to do or use it yourself.

Play can take place in all sorts of places. Sometimes, adults jump in too quickly, for all sorts of adult reasons, as to why play ‘can’t happen here’. A little patience, accepting what the place chosen for play affords the players, and magic can start to take shape.

Sometimes, created play places can only be ‘owned’ if those places have proved to have lasting power. Some places that children choose to play in get abandoned quickly. The ones that get ‘owned’ include the ones that others choose not to destroy.

Sometimes, adult ideas for sprucing up the space get taken on by children in other unexpected directions. Play takes this fluidity. Accept it.

Reading the signs of what children leave behind is a rich experience. It’s interpretative, sure, and the adult interpretation can sometimes be wrong; however, looking for what children leave behind is like forensic archaeology. It’s a process of piecing together clues, and I’m more and more fascinated by it. I don’t know what the product of what I’ll learn by doing this will be, but the process of doing it is a stimulation in itself. Just like play, I suppose (process not product).

Observing the on-going leftoverness of play is sometimes like observing accidental art forms taking shape. The art of play having a life of its own.

When we think about and set up places for playing, we can get hooked into the artiness of it all ourselves. Maybe the set up process is adult play: it’s OK because the children aren’t directly affected in their play? Playwork as art?
 
Part five

When the rain comes, which it will do, get on with it. Come prepared: put on your waterproofs and boots and get out there.

Be prepared in fixing up the playable places. You don’t need to watch the news, get all you need from the weather report.

We will probably get cold, as well as wet, in the rain, and so will the children. Playwork doesn’t mean not caring about the children. We may be living on a hostile planet (Bob Hughes), but we all live on that planet and we can all take care of one another. We can connect. We should connect. Give offerings such as warm things to wrap up in: it doesn’t make you any less of a playworker because you interpret the literature as saying ‘children should get on with things themselves’.

Older children can play like younger children too. Soak up the magic of this when it happens. If an older boy is ‘giving birth’ to a fabric baby, for example, hold onto this moment as magic happening. It’s not ‘inappropriate’ (say, because it’s non-gender stereotypical, ugly, ‘rude’, etc); it’s a removal from peer pressure.

Little pockets of magic like this can happen in lots of secret corners, or pass by in the blink of an eye. If the opportunity arises, take care to mentally note this play that’s happening. It all adds up to a bank of magic moments inside the playworker. Bank them: they’re stories that can be told over and over, and oral stories are part of human fabric.

You my be wet and cold and tired, but try hard to serve the children when their eyes light up about play (try hard to serve them when they’re feeling down too). Sometimes, it’s just not possible. Most times it is, and what are we on the playground for if not for the children?

After a time, the children’s language and local culture will seep into you. Maybe this is a sign of them having accepted you: a two-way vibe having formed.

Little things like raindrops on drums are often overlooked.
 
Part six

Sometimes, children ‘require’ playworkers to be a part of their play. Maybe playworkers who are asked, say, to push the children down the zip wire, are acting as the mechanism that affords that play to take place. Others say that children’s risky play is entirely their own business and that playworkers should not get involved. Certainly, on reflection, there’s something to be said for not getting involved because, on a different tangent to self-sufficiency, playworkers can accidentally cause risky play to tip over into being dangerous, or too risky for the children. However, this is one of those ‘you have to be there’ situations, I think. In the moment, on the days in question, I felt trusted, connected, myself as mechanism, play-needed, in a symbiotic arrangement.

Play objects, which don’t start off as play objects, mutate into different play objects on different days. I know this; others might not though.

Good playworkers keep talking with one another. Planning for play can happen accidentally. Take others’ observations and ideas gracefully.

A play frame that happens only briefly, no matter how much previous talking and thought has gone into setting up the playable place, is still a play frame that has happened. It’s all good.
 
Part seven

What happens behind the scenes can seem mundane and, sometimes (like banging nails through planks of wood), possibly even as an unnecessary use of time. This is necessary work. It should be appreciated by those outside the playwork sphere. It’s also to be appreciated in the moment by the playworker doing the work. Banging nails has a somewhat therapeutic and mind-focusing affect!

There are always better methods for even simple, mundane tasks like these. Accept that others can be learnt from in these ways too.

Pass-through spaces can be made into playable spaces if given enough thought.

A pile of playable resources (such as a tower of tyres and some planks of wood) can often prove irresistible to a child’s destructive drive. Destruction is not a negative in this sense: it’s the play that can happen.

Careful observation not only allows playworkers to learn about children’s play, but it also builds up a bank of possible outcomes to take ‘educated guesses’ about. Testing these banked observations is an adult mental play in itself. Playing this is fine; just accept that sometimes you will be wrong. Bank that too.

Little moments of deep play can happen (like being inside a tower of tyres). Playworkers can also be called upon to help this play happen, to support it. Take care here though: children’s wishes need to be heard and adhered to. Children’s trust shouldn’t be played with.

Maybe the act of observing children (with video equipment, but also just by sitting back to watch too) affects that play. Sensitive observation is the key. Get out of the way.

Sometimes, ideas like a spider’s web to play in and around need time to come to full fruition. They might then take unexpected shapes in the transformation into playable places and in the play itself. Play doesn’t always happen how you think it might.

Despite some adult reservations about play such as with tools, those reservations should be acknowledged as the adult’s issue. Sure, keep an eye on what’s going on, but accept that children can do all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
 
Part eight

Being invited into chasing and catching play is not always about catching. Sometimes it’s just the act of chasing that the children are after.

Taking care also means taking care of yourself on the playground. Remember to always keep a keen sense of your own size and capabilities and what this play actually is. It’s easy to forget this in the moment though.

Minor scrapes happen. Playworkers know this . . .

Sometimes, a playworker is required to be in multiple play frames at once. This is a difficult thing to do. It might look, to the outsider of the play frame, like the playworker is ‘just playing for himself’. What the outsider can’t see though is what’s going on inside the head of the playworker. By the same token, the playworker who’s hurtling around the playground should also be aware of the possibility of what’s happening inside the head of others as they watch on.

Being part of multiple play frames with the children should then also be extended to being aware of the children, their play, yourself and your size and speed, your actions on the children and their play, of how you look to other adults observing you. It’s not about playing for the playworker. Or it shouldn’t be.

It’s a fine line between creating a dependency situation in play frames and knowing that play frames might break down if you’re not there. Knowing when to pull out is a good skill. Sometimes it gets overlooked or forgotten.
 
Part nine

Children and fire can mix. Some children don’t have play experience of this element though. Despite knowledge of fire seemingly being part of our genetic make-up, inexperienced children’s play shouldn’t be taken for granted. Observe carefully.

Be aware of your own actions in this set-up though. You can forget how much of an affect you have. Sometimes you are the problem when children push others’ buttons. Know this and don’t take it personally. Accept that others can do better than you if you remove yourself from the situation.

Be aware that practice can get a little too inflexible if you’re focused too much on the inexperience of play in certain situations.

Tidy up as children play, if they’ve finished in that area. They’re still playing. You either get paid to serve, or you volunteer to serve. Either way, children are there for play.

Play doesn’t stop just because the shutters come down or because it’s the adult designated end of a period of time (like ‘the end of summer’). Play carries on. Just a reminder to self . . .!


 
 

White City stories: part nine

A ninth instalment of stories from my recent second summer week of playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
 
Thinking on fire play

For a couple of weeks now, Rich and I have been mulling over the possibility of making use of fire on the playground. It does work, and children can be very respectful of fire because it’s kind of built into us, as humans, to know about this essential element. For understandable reasons though, some people are cautious of mixing children and fire. As I understand it, the children on this playground haven’t had access to this sort of play opportunity before. They’ve had access to all the other elements (wind, water, earth), as well as engagement in risky play with tools and with height. Fire seems a logical next step.

We talk about starting off slowly, because unknown play opportunities (despite a fire knowledge seemingly being built into our genetic make-up), need a little getting used to. We talk around using tea lights and sand trays. As the week goes on though, we find we could do a barbecue on the last day. Not a conventional barbecue; rather one in which the children can engage with the fire, something small scale. Earlier in the week, I’d been talking with one of the girls – coincidentally – about food, and we got onto the subject of cooking bananas over a fire. I told her that we could see if we could do this, add in melted chocolate. She seemed intrigued. Every day she reminded me of the conversation.

So, Rich buys small barbecue trays, fruit, flour, chocolate, brownie mix. There are a fair amount of children on the playground on the final day. It’s warm and we choose the area near the trees, where the raised beds are, to set up an area before the children come.

Affecting play

It’s not an activity, as such (as in ‘adult-led’), but it does need a little more careful attention than some other play opportunities the children have engaged with recently. I’ve got my bowl of water out already, just in case we need it. It’s nearby. We use the mud area of the raised beds. I suggest to Connor that the children can use the matches themselves. The children are eager to try this. It only needs one or two lit matches to light the paper on the charcoal, but children want to light more. There are only a few children gathered around to start with: we don’t broadcast what we’re doing; we just bring out the barbecue trays. Children start to filter over though.

Now, maybe some factors have gathered in one place here for me because I’m not totally happy with my practice. I’ve done fire play with children before, plenty of times, and sometimes I’ve been more comfortable than others. It comes down to careful observation. Before long, you get an idea of what the children will do. At first here, though, maybe I’m too mindful of the conversations we’d been having about children on this playground not having engaged with fire play opportunities before. Maybe I could have been a little more out of the way. Either way, I affect the play.

One of the older boys is keen to get involved. He’s forceful and the other children all seem to bend to his will, though they don’t seem to want to. He takes the matches and lights them. Later, when the children have found frying pans to cook up their brownie mix, he monopolises the small barbecue. So, I set up the other barbecue tray on the other mud area for the younger children. The older boy comes over and takes over this one too. So, I’m getting frustrated. I’m getting hot. He starts playing with a flame on the very end of his stick by holding it against a long blade of grass. Normally, this is no problem at all. Here though, I’m frustrated because he has all the play of the barbecues. It’s not that I’m on the verge of saying ‘share’ to him, because those who know me know I lecture often on this! However, the other children just so want to get their own frying pans and bananas, which he’s pushed off, onto the grill too!

What does a playworker do? He comes to his senses, stands up, walks over to his colleague and says: ‘Connor, swap?’ The older boy is pushing my buttons, I know this. Connor swaps barbecues with me, sits down, and in a couple of minutes I say to him: ‘How did you do that?’ The older boy’s agitations have fizzled away. Of course, it was me who was agitating him, and vice versa. Sometimes, we just need to recognise that we’re part of the problem ourselves.
 
At the end of summer

Soon the area is a culinary mess! The children have melted mixtures of brown sludge in frying pans; bananas and oranges have been cut open, cooked and putrefied over the fire; marshmallows have been blackened or been gooed onto the grill. Some children use the kitchen microwave to cook up brownie mix. They bring it out in plastic cups for all to eat as they like. A tub of microwave-melted chocolate comes out, and children smear it over cooked fruit or swipe fingers around the tub, lick it up. We use up the plastic spoons quickly and so bring out metal ones, which instantly get caked in mud or buried! We’ve bought lemonade and use the ice-cream tubs in the freezer to make ‘ice-cream floaters’. I think I’m still a little in ‘agitation mode’ though, and I really should just let go of the lemonade more and leave the children to pour their own. Part of me thinks that it’ll all just get used up quickly though. Either way, remembering the children gathering around me like baby birds, I think: I can do this better.

Shortly though, sitting round the barbecue fires is another chance just to chill, to talk with the children, to ‘be’ amongst them. The sun is shining, the children seem happy. No-one puts their hand on the grill or into the hot charcoal. No-one picks up the barbecue trays and waves them around. No-one gets burnt.

Near the end of the session, the children pour the bowl of water over the barbecue charcoals and they fizzle. The children who are left around the scene scatter off. There are dead spoons lying around, melted banana skins, a well-scraped out chocolate tub, discarded ice-cream tubs and cups, bits of spat-out orange, the cooling charcoal trays. We tidy up as the children play.

Soon, it’s time to pull down the shutters for the last time this summer. The children are still on the playground. They don’t seem to want to go. I’ve only been around for a couple of weeks of the summer here, but I feel sad to be pulling down these shutters. Three or four children gurgle and laugh on the other side as the mechanism grinds down. They poke their feet under the slowly closing barrier in a small defiance, a small act of deep play perhaps. I say goodbye, goodbye. Then all that’s left to see is their toes pulling back. Then clunk, as the barrier touches the paving slabs. The children bang away on the other side. We bang back.

Summer’s over (our work on the playground, at least), but I hear the children scatter off. Out the window, I see them carrying on their play.
 
 

White City stories: part eight

An eighth instalment of stories from my recent second summer week of playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
 
Chasing, not catching

So, I’ve been invited – practically chain-ganged! – into being the runner for children on the zip wire, and we’ve all learnt each other’s names. I hear my name bounce around the playground. Names are important: it means we have connections with our fellow human beings.

It’s the rainy day. Small pockets of chasing and catching play start to bubble up. Except, this is the children’s construct and I find myself chasing, mostly not catching because these children are so slippery and fast, and even when I do catch, apparently I don’t. I just miss. Or, ‘No, I didn’t feel anything.’ Or, as these children are excellent at doing, they magic up a safe place, a ‘home’, from thin air. Or, on the point of being caught, they throw themselves to the ground, feigning tiredness, or feigning tripping over, or just ‘time out’ with a T shape made with both hands. I feel it only honourable not to catch someone who’s declared ‘time out’, or someone who’s magicked up a ‘home’ (or, as some of these children declare it: ‘homey’, which amuses me, but I don’t know why!)

The children are slippery and fast. They’re up on the top platform before I can even think of the quickest and least personally damaging route up there myself. Likewise, they’re slick as they jump off platforms or hurtle down the long route into an apparent dead-end, only to turn sharply like a fish and duck under the barrier at right angles! It’s a futile attempt to try to catch them: I don’t move like a fish. As I run around the platforms, I’m very conscious of ducking. When adults get pulled into children’s play frames, they sometimes forget that they’re still adults. They can hurtle around as if they’re a child too (physically and emotionally). Adults and low platforms (low to us, at least) don’t mix. I’ve clunked my head before and I don’t wish to do it again. So, this slows me down even more. As does the thought of scraping my back following children through their fishy right angles. As does the prospect of turning a corner on the wet wood and having my feet fly out from underneath me. It’s a precarious business, this chase and catch (or not catch, as the case may be!)

So, I manage to escape harm. That is, until the end of the day when I forget to concentrate. The children have mostly gone home. I take the shortcut down the wet slide, walking down not sliding, because it’s easier. I land on the small of my back. Safety on playgrounds: adults beware! No-one left on site pays my moaning any attention. I return to the zip wire. One of the girls tells me: ‘Well, you had more bumps and bruises when you were a child.’
 
Thinking on playground safety

Earlier in the week, I was talking with two staff who’d brought a small group of children from another setting to the playground. The staff opened up the conversation, in observation of the children’s play, by asking if the place was safe. We had a good long conversation about what the children were doing, about the fact that staff were observing, that we were all scattered around, that play is a process. These openings to conversations are ideal opportunities for playworkers to advocate for play. The staff seemed enthusiastic, by the end of the conversation.

It all leads me to reflect now on how the children played during my time on the playground. That is, considering the size of the playground, the dynamic interactions of the children, the use of tools and the access to height, the leftover bits and pieces, etc, it can be forgiven of someone if they assume such a place isn’t ‘safe’. However, I only saw a couple of accidents in my days on the playground, and these were only minor ones at that – accidents that children just have, accidents like we’ve all had: one child banged her knee; another got a splinter; another cut his finger on a piece of bamboo, didn’t moan or cry or wince, just washed the blood off and got on with things; one child learnt the effect of levers when stamping on a plank balanced on a tyre – the end bounced up into his face! He rubbed his head, got laughed at by a girl, adjusted his glasses and carried on, possibly making mental notes not to do that again!

On this playground, for the most part, the children seem confident and capable, in my observations, in manoeuvring around the space, picking themselves up from minor set-backs, working out how to safely use tools, navigating heights, etc. Trusting the children is key here.

The art of multiple attentions

It’s the second day of the zip wire play frame and I’m trying to step back from it a little more. The children have learnt my name and I hear it bounce around me. When I’m not at the zip wire, or when I’m not just standing back observing, I find myself being cued to be involved in chasing and catching again. The children poke out their tongues, or they stick their thumbs to the sides of their heads and waggle their fingers around. They stand there on the platforms in poses of readiness, their weight on their back heels ready to spring away. So, I find myself engaged in two play frames (the chasing and catching, and also my occasional returns to the zip wire).

Every so often, I pass a small group of boys up on the platform. The ‘leader’ of the group (that is, of the play, but also, possibly, of the peer group), sizes me up as I pass. It’s a playful looking up and down. He holds out his fingers in the manner of a guard with a gun. I put up my hands. He waves me on. I realise that, now, I’m in three overlapping play frames at once. Somewhere along the line, the boy with the finger-gun starts nodding at me and saying things like ‘Batman’, in some sort of acknowledgement. Sometimes, he nods his respectful greeting at me, like we’re two shady figures meeting briefly in the underworld, saying: ‘Joker.’ I don’t know what the play is, or if I’m Batman, Joker, Penguin, or whoever.

Small alliances form in this play frame. I have no idea whose ‘side’ I’ve been co-opted to be on. It doesn’t seem to matter to the children. I pass by, hold up my hands, or nod respectfully, greet my co-underworldee with a dutiful ‘Batman’ and move on. Or I free someone, on the spur of the moment, who’s got himself invisibly chained in the ‘prison’ where the balancing ropes are and who asks for me to help him out. I tap him out, because tapping out seems to be the universal mechanism of how to set someone free from invisible chains, and then I chase and don’t catch one of the slippery fish girls, and then I swing by the zip wire and serve a run on that, and then I run off to return the next cue . . .

Afterwards, and on subsequent days of thinking, I am aware of how my interactions might seem to others looking on: ‘Oh, he’s just playing for himself.’ It’s not the case. I’m engaged in the play, sure, but I’m tired and I really would like to sit down and have a cup of coffee. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that if I walk away from any of the play frames then, not only one, but maybe some or all of them might fall in on themselves. The play that’s happening, just doesn’t any more, or it fizzles out.

I can test this thinking: at one point, I am so tired that I do sidle off for a quick sit down. The girls have hid in the toilet, knowing that I can’t get them in there. Batman, Joker and the others are doing their whole Batman, Joker thing somewhere else in the underworld of the playground. The zip wire I’m not due to return to for a while. The play frames are stable enough without me, for now. It’s all fine. I’ve engineered myself out of things. When the girls come back out, they don’t see me, but I hear one of them ask the other: ‘Is he still playing?’ When I show myself, I am apparently still playing. They scatter off in opposite directions, screaming and laughing.

OK, so make of all of this what you will.

to be continued . . .
 
 

White City stories: part seven

A seventh instalment of stories from my recent second summer week of playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
 
The work behind the session

The first day I’m back on the playground this week, we go scavenging for useable things thrown out by the Early Years Centre over the road. Playworkers as Wombles! They’re having some rooms refitted over the road and so we poke around in the piles of leftover bits and bobs. There are panels of wood and stud partition lengths that are either loose or attached. I find an old umbrella, which is serviceable. Someone’s thrown out some fabric, and there are odds and sods of other bits and bobs too. We carry it all back to the playground.

I spend the morning banging nails into the wood pieces, bending them over so they won’t cause any harm. These are the little things that no-one sees being done in the job. Later in the week, Hassan’s got a different method. He bangs the nail right through the wood, turns it over, then hooks the nail out with the claw of the hammer. I spend another morning doing this to other panels. I pull apart a pallet because I want to get the planks from it. It takes a while. Other lengths of timber, I have to hammer the thick nails further down and in because they won’t come out.

So, all this banging and background work ends up with a series of lengths of wood, which I pile against all the tyres I’ve found and pulled out of the store room. The middle of the playground, from observations of the children’s use of it, seems to be more of a pass-through space than a played-in space. So, I pile up the tyres and wood there.

I leave it be for a couple of hours. When the children come in, I expect one or some of them – at some point – to see the pile and charge into it. When the children do come, it takes a while for the pile to be noticed, but I’ve called it right! One of the boys, with a big smile on his face, slams his shoulder into the pile. It wobbles.
 
Making calls

When setting up for playable spaces, or when observing children at play, I like to play the game of ‘what’ll happen next?’ It’s a kind of test of my intuition, my reading, my experiences. On the rainy day, over by the entrance, six or seven children are playing in the rope hammock, or watching on. One of the watchers has found the scavenged umbrella and has put it up to cover himself in the rain. It’s a large umbrella. Another child, I see, is making his way over there – he’s wobbling a little with the weight of a full tub of water. I stand in the middle of the playground with Rich. We observe that area from a hundred yards or so away. ‘What’ll happen there, do you think?’ I say. Rich watches on. I say: ‘I’m calling that the water in the tub goes over the top of the umbrella, not underneath it and at the child.’

The tub-wielding boy stops a couple of yards from the umbrella holder. I can’t hear what the communications are. There’s a drop of the shoulder, and at first it looks like the water is going in straight at the umbrella-child’s face. Then, at the last moment, the tub gets swivelled up and over the top of the umbrella! I can’t help feeling pleased, and smug, when I get it right, because sometimes I get it wrong too!
 
Planks and tyres

One of the children manages to knock the tyre tower down and he seems greatly pleased with himself! I’m stood nearby and, between us, the formation of the play frame that becomes him inside the tyre tower takes shape. He asks me to construct the tower around him. I realise that, even before I’ve lifted the last tyres into place, the child is going to be completely immersed in this upright rubber tube. I ask him if he wants the last tyres on. He says he does. As I look down at him, I think of this as maybe some form of deep play on his part. His shoulders touch the sides and there aren’t many easy ways out. He tries to climb up. I hold onto the tower after I’ve removed the top tyre, on his request. Eventually he gets up and out and balances up there. He seems pleased.

The next day, the tyres and planks are lying around. I’ve thrown them out again (artistically, I think!) because I see they have play value for some of these children.

At some point that I don’t see, two of the girls and a boy start using these materials to build with. They’ve also got long cardboard tubes. They construct low-level walkways between the tyres, in a way I anticipated when I was banging nails through the wood in the morning. I haven’t told them or guided them into this play in any way. After a while, only one of the girls is left here in the middle of the playground, moving tyres and tubes and planks around. I sit on one of the swings, just to observe. It is a fascination for a playworker to observe such play. As I observe, I think: Why is this fascinating?

The girl plays in this way for a long time, a good twenty minutes, I guess. During this time, photographs are being taken by various people, and a digital film is being recorded, as the occasional opportunity arises. Whilst Nick, the film-maker, is as unobtrusive as possible, not getting right in the girl’s face or in the way of the play frame, standing still and a respectful distance away, I do wonder: What affect might this form of (possibly) intrusive observation have on a child’s play? Does it change the play, making the child more conscious of what she’s doing?

As it turns out, my own observation of the girl at play (which could also be seen – I suppose – in such intrusive light) can’t decide over it being a case of: her choosing to ignore Nick; her seeing him but soon forgetting him; or her not even noticing him at all because she’s so into the flow of her play.

Thinking webs

I’d been thinking about the sandpit area for a few days. This is an enclosed area of thick wooden poles. I’d been thinking of rope spiders’ webs under the platforms on the other side of the playground. The two thinking lines came together after a roll of elastic thread came to light in the playground, one afternoon. The next morning, I wonder how an elastic web over the sandpit might get used, if at all. I weave the thread around the wooden poles a few times, in a long unbroken web. I tie it off and leave the scissors and the roll of thread there too. That afternoon, a couple of children come and stand on the wooden poles, looking down at the web. They start jumping between and into the gaps, onto the sand. Another child comes over and asks the others: ‘What do you have to do?’ Before long, the play frame has evolved into jumping over, crawling under, trying not to make the thread move. One of the children accidentally knocks over a thick cardboard tube that has been dug into the sand by other children who’d used the sandpit and left it there, stood up. The tube falls on the web and the boy marches straight over, without touching the lines, telling others: ‘That was easy!’ The other tube gets used in the same way. Children start to add more elastic thread and tie it off. ‘I’m going to jump into the smallest hole,’ one boy tells others.
 
More on tools

Tool use carries over from previous days. It’s not raining but the children use the same sheltered area of the building to keep banging screws into wood panels for their pin-board, which they’ll weave on. There are claw hammers and pin hammers, screwdrivers, saws for wood secured into a vice. The children dismantle wood and stick bits together with a hot glue gun. I help get some resources out and watch as one of the girls fixes a chunk of wood into the vice before going about the sawing. These children know how to use these tools.

to be continued . . .
 
 

White City stories: part six

A sixth instalment of stories from my recent second summer week of playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
 
Whose risk is this?

It’s coming towards the end of the session on the rainiest day of the summer so far. Rich says he’s glad that the rain has come: it gives a different feel to the playground. There’s still an hour or so to go though before we pull down the shutters, go inside, sit down tired and talk about whatever we can bring to the surface. It’s 3pm, an hour before the end of the session, and one of the older girls asks me to run her down the zip wire. She wants to go faster than she would do if she travelled down the zip wire on her own. I don’t see any reason why I can’t do this for her. I realise that I’m asked to be a factor in the play, something to enable that chosen play to happen.

She says that, at first, she wants to go ‘normal hahr (high), not really hahr.’ I take her lead and she steadies herself, up at the top of the zip wire slope, then lifts her feet and off we go. The slope I run down is slippery in the rain. I let go somewhere close to the point just before pushing her too hard and risking falling over flat on my own face. She goes normal hahr. She bounces back up the slope, on the momentum ride, with a look something along the lines of ‘Hmm.’ (After a few runs, she starts grading my efforts with a thumbs up, thumbs down or sideways). So, she’s gone normal hahr and now she wants to go ‘really hahr’. The normal hahr run, I also think – as she bounces back – is a tester of my own strength, and what will happen as the connecting line clacks into the barrier at the far end and she’s thrown upwards? Normal hahr doesn’t register too much of a bounce. It’s a retrospective thumbs sideways. So, really hahr it is. She tells me exactly when to let go of the line, and I let go at the point she tells me. I’m some sort of mechanism that she operates. She seems to have worked out the equation between the let-go point and the hahr-ness achieved.

After a while, after several runs of really hahr, bigger bounce-ups, more thumbs-up grades than down- or sideways grades, I become aware of exactly what I’m doing here (albeit just obeying requests): I’m running down a slippery slope, hurtling this girl towards a clack that’ll bounce her up, and maybe only good luck and her own tenacity in holding on is preventing a messy meeting with the ground and a visit from the first aid box! She’s good at holding on though. She screams at the really hahr bounces and smiles madly as she bounces way back up the length of the wire, even past the rubbish bin at the far end.

I’m getting tired but she keeps wanting more. Every time I try to pull away from the play frame, I’m called back with mock-sad looks or pleas. I don’t figure it as a dependence on her part; it’s just that I’ve become a necessary element. The insulation of fabric squares I’ve stuffed down my t-shirt is really working well by now! Soon, she says for me to hold the line while she goes off to get her friends. So I hold and wait. I daren’t move: it’s an unspoken promise that can’t be broken.

She comes back with others, and soon there are six or seven children all wanting to be pushed down. They squabble for places and ask me if they can go next, but I say: ‘I’m just the runner here. You sort it out.’ One of the other girls is wrapped in a towel. She’s lighter and bounces higher and the towel flies off her shoulders at the clack at the end of the line. She screams and comes back for more. I hold my breath when she bounces on the line and her feet end up higher than her head! The look on her face suggests that that was a good one! Even so, I’m more tentative with the next few runs. It’s a very fine line: the children want ‘hahr’; I don’t want to damage them; they can’t get hahr on their own; they give me low grades if it’s just normal hahr; I’m not looking for good grades; the children are!

I spend the best part of that last hour of the session being the runner, unable to pull back from the play frame because, I feel, I’m necessary to it. During this time, I get to know the children’s names better (and vice versa). It’s more than just being a necessary element: it’s a relationship forming time.

Before we finish up (after negotiations of: ‘eight more times’; ‘how about six?’ or ‘three more times’; ‘what about one and a half more times?’), the older girl who’d first started the zip wire play tells me that, as soon as she comes in tomorrow, I will run her down the zip wire again. Sure enough, she comes in the next day with a wide smile on her face. We don’t say anything to each other, but I nod in acknowledgement and we make our way to the zip wire. I’m thinking how I can spread myself around more today, or how I can observe more. I end up in periods of negotiation, the results of which are accepted: ‘I need to wander’, I say. ‘How about I come back in ten minutes?’ I do my best to keep my promises. On the zip wire, the first run of the day, the older girl says: ‘Ah’m (I’m) so excited. Ah (I) went home thinking about going really hahr today.’*
 
Transformations of objects in play

The day before the rain, the children use two parts of the playground to take apart an old computer. This object play continues, in various forms, over the days. Some children sit and use screwdrivers under the platforms on the far side of the site; some children smash the innards with hammers on the paving slabs! What’s left over, we collect into the sand tray crate and these leftovers find their way into other play later on: metal sheets for drumming on; or, I hang two pieces together under the trees (and they aren’t touched for a day, but the next day, for a few minutes one of the children make their clatter music on them, which pleases me). Left over things mutate into current things, suddenly, before leftoverness becomes them again. I find bits of motherboards, and other components I can’t give names to, in various nooks and crannies of the playground for the rest of the week.


 
Sometimes, it happens this way . . .

Sometimes, the possibilities for play happen by playworker contemplation and by chance of children’s later discovery. On the first session of the week, Sharon had been sat down with a fair amount of children around her. They had fabric spread around them and soon enough there was also paint and sugar paper. When I passed by later, I saw that paint-patterned fold-over butterflies were happening. I’d had an idea of the possibility of paint on the tyres, printed onto paper, but I got the next bit wrong. I wasn’t needed, nor was my spark, but I did it anyway. I left a part-painted tyre nearby. It was absolutely ignored. I shrugged and thought no more of it, apart from: Well, that was an unnecessary intrusion!

The next day, in the rain before the children come, Sharon and I talk about how we can make use of the elements. Sharon says maybe we can try the tyres and paint today. She noticed, and I hadn’t realised! So we have a discussion on where we can lay out a tarp. I favour the slight slope of the tarmac path because the tyres can roll for a long way, possibly. Sharon thinks the platforms might work well (there’s a long gradual slope on one of them), but we mull it over and decide that the possibility of a tyre falling off and landing on someone isn’t worth that chance. We settle on putting the tarp on the grass bank. We think on how to fix the tarp down in the wind. Sharon comes out of the store room with the last two tent pegs and a bent one! So she comes back out with screws and fixes the tarp down to the wooden rail at the pavement’s edge with these.

The rain comes down hard when the children are on the playground. This takes over their attentions for a while. Later, when one of the girls is standing on the upturned basket that Hassan has placed near to the drum kit so she can reach it, she bangs away for a good ten minutes or so. I dance to return her beats, sporadic body movements to the arrhythmic pounding. Then, after this, she stares out over my head. Her sight line, from this vantage point on the basket top, offers up the tarp we’ve put down, and the tub of poster paints nearby. We’ve thrown the tyres up onto the top of the slope as well. The girl asks if she can play with all of that up there. ‘Of course you can,’ I say. So I go over with her and rearrange things a little because the wind has blown the tarp up.

She squirts puddle after puddle of different coloured poster paint onto the tarp and then, when she’s ready, picks up a tyre and rolls it down. The tyre picks up paint in the pouring rain and slaps into the wooden wall at the bottom of the slope. ‘I’m an artist,’ she says with a big smile. Another couple of children come over and also smear paint onto the tarp, one after the other. The tyres roll off in random directions across the playground. It’s a play frame that’s over shortly, but it’s one borne of good intentions, albeit by initial misplaced playwork practice, good playwork interaction and discussion, and accidental discovery, I think.

to be continued . . .
 
* I realise that my input in the zip wire play frame might not be seen as playwork practice to some playworkers. I write it up though because I feel it has some importance, and because it might spark some further playwork thinking.
 
 

White City stories: part five

I returned to White City Adventure Playground, west London, last week for a second summer stint of playwork practice there. Here are my stories, in no particular chronological order: they just come as I write them.
 
Children, and playworkers, aren’t made of sugar!

It’s a rainy day on the playground and we don’t know how many children are going to turn up for the afternoon session. As it turns out, the regulars show up. We know it’s going to rain and we come prepared with shoes that won’t dissolve like trainers might, and waterproof coats. At just about 1pm, just after we’ve opened the gates, the sky opens up, as expected. The team pull out their waterproofs or just wear their t-shirts. Proper playworkers aren’t made of sugar!

The children are almost instantly soaked. Some of them grumble for a short while, but they soon get used to the rain.
 
Get all the news you need on the weather report

In the morning, I’d constructed a shelter area up on one of the platforms. It’s an act of preparedness. The wind doesn’t make it easy to tie the tarp down. Because of this I tie it down good and hard. Later, we decide it can stay up overnight because it’s easier to leave it up than take it down. It’s still there in the morning, surviving the elements and the attentions of whoever comes by, most nights, to pull apart whatever we leave up that isn’t tied down so well. The next morning, I don’t know if it’s the rain or the binding that protects the tarpaulin I’ve attached up there.

I lay strips of synthetic grass down on the platform under the tarp, on this windy morning, and throw in some beanbags and cushions. When the rain comes, later, I’m pleased to see the children using this area and not the other sheltered platform space with the built-in roof.

The rain seems to focus the children into play with water. A small waterfight breaks out, with tubs being filled at the tap. I hear one child, up on the platform, tell a mischievous other (who’s wielding the sloshing tub) that he doesn’t want the water in the tub to go over him because he isn’t allowed to get wet! This child is not well versed in irony!
 
Taking care

Some of the children get cold so they slowly start to congregate under the shelter of the roof of the storage area. They sit and look out. I’m cold too and I have a bright idea: why not shove these little squares of fabric (which we salvaged from the shops in Shepherd’s Bush) down your t-shirts for insulation?! I do just this to myself, making myself good and fat. A couple of the children follow suit. It’s a good plan. Two hours later and I’m still warm. Other children don’t want to do this for themselves though, so I rummage around in the fabric scraps crate looking for the driest material down at the bottom. Down there I find large pieces of cloth and I wrap some of the children up in pieces of this, warm flock-side inwards. They sit wrapped up, seemingly thankful.
 
Pregnant possibilities of play

One of the older boys (a boy who we see as on the edge of falling into gang peer pressure) is sitting down in the fabric crate as I pass by, en route to the tool store. He launches into a play frame of giving birth! I reckon this links to the stuffing of clothing with fabric squares, but you never know. Either way, I come out of the store room and he’s lying there in the crate with his legs splayed out and I don’t know what’s going on at first. He’s screaming. I wonder if he’s hurt. Others are standing around watching him. I then switch on to the possibility that some sort of play is happening here. Soon enough, he ‘gives birth’ to his little bundle of fabric joy! It spews out, however, like something out of the ‘Alien’ film! (That, though, is my own take on it!) Rich is looking on nearby and I see he’s amused by it all. I ask him, ‘dramatic play or socio-dramatic play?’ Either way, it’s a little magic moment on the playground because, for a short period at least, this boy isn’t trying to act up to the local ‘top dog’ boy; he isn’t trying to push our buttons by dominating the other children or by throwing his weight around: he’s just playing.

When I pass by the tarp-sheltered area later, when the children are all out and about on the playground, the children tell me that the tarp is ‘rubbish now’. The wind has dropped a little and the tarp isn’t blowing around as much as it had been in the morning. The children haven’t realised that the rainwater on top is weighing it down. At first they want me to sort it out for them. I’m on my way round (the rain is contributing to me just going with the flow, meekly yielding to the children’s wills, I guess). I’m on my way up along the far side to where I can get up to the higher level, but the children figure out how to get the water off by themselves. A little earlier, I’m talking in the middle of the playground and I notice five or six children up there under the tarp and, right at the back, another one of the boys is ‘giving birth’, loudly, to a pile of fabric!
 
Make play when it rains (like hay when it shines!)

Under the roof of the storage area, some of the children sit wrapped up in large pieces of cloth or in towels. Two of the girls ask me where the board with the nails banged into it is. It’s a large piece of wood which the children used to weave wool around. It was hanging up on the wall the last time I saw it, the last time I was at the playground. I tell them I don’t know, but that they can make another one. The girls’ eyes light up and they say, ‘What? Now? We can make one?’. ‘Sure,’ I say and I start looking around for the bits and bobs to make this happen there and then. ‘We need somewhere drahr to sit,’ they say. ‘Really drahr’ (by which they’re saying dry, but I document the accent here because, by the end of the week, I find myself talking and thinking this way too!)

So, I think quickly on how to make somewhere really drahr. Everywhere is really wet. ‘Why not go under the tarpaulin den up there?’ I say, pointing to the shelter I’d built in the morning. ‘Or the house over there with the roof on?’ (the platform with the built-in roof). ‘Nah,’ the girls tell me. ‘That roof leaks. We need somewhere really drahr.’ We can all see that the tarp of the other shelter is also bulging downwards under the weight of rainwater. By luck, when I pull away a nearby plastic sand tray crate (into which we’ve piled all the broken bits of old computer innards that the children smashed to object play oblivion the day before), there’s the only really drahr place in the whole playground underneath. I put down strips of the synthetic grass, which have been kicking around for days, and the girls and I search for wood. We find screws (because there’s a real premium on useable nails on the playground, this being the last week of the summer), hammers and screwdrivers. The girls sit, wrapped up, and bang in screws, or mash them into the wood with the screwdrivers. Other children watch on, and soon enough there are plenty of children around the area, using tools or watching on, wrapped in towels or cloth, as the rain continues to come down.
 
Raindrops and drums

The rain carries on for most of the session, and it’s something that is just part of the day. The children venture out: they sit under the tarp shelter, or run around, or throw themselves down the zip wire, or play wet table tennis. Raindrops bounce off the makeshift drum-kit that evolves over the course of the week. The children slap it with bamboo pieces, lengths of balsa wood and the handles of hammers, and I wish I have my camera to hand to photograph the little droplets that pop up on each bang! (Imagine a beautiful slow-motion display of scattered droplets bouncing upwards. There: no camera needed!) Hassan sees the play and comes back with a large nail, which he bangs into the side of the wooden bench nearby, fixing an old frying pan to it. I find bits of metal sheeting, left over from the computer bits, and clatter them onto the paving slabs, and the rained-on children bang away on all of this. They don’t seem bothered by the downpour any more. The frying pans make their way onto the drum-kit later in the week.

to be continued . . .
 
 

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