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.
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).
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .!