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.
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.
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 . . .