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!
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 . . .