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, 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.