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.


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.

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