An eighth instalment of stories from my recent second summer week of playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
Chasing, not catching
So, I’ve been invited – practically chain-ganged! – into being the runner for children on the zip wire, and we’ve all learnt each other’s names. I hear my name bounce around the playground. Names are important: it means we have connections with our fellow human beings.
It’s the rainy day. Small pockets of chasing and catching play start to bubble up. Except, this is the children’s construct and I find myself chasing, mostly not catching because these children are so slippery and fast, and even when I do catch, apparently I don’t. I just miss. Or, ‘No, I didn’t feel anything.’ Or, as these children are excellent at doing, they magic up a safe place, a ‘home’, from thin air. Or, on the point of being caught, they throw themselves to the ground, feigning tiredness, or feigning tripping over, or just ‘time out’ with a T shape made with both hands. I feel it only honourable not to catch someone who’s declared ‘time out’, or someone who’s magicked up a ‘home’ (or, as some of these children declare it: ‘homey’, which amuses me, but I don’t know why!)
The children are slippery and fast. They’re up on the top platform before I can even think of the quickest and least personally damaging route up there myself. Likewise, they’re slick as they jump off platforms or hurtle down the long route into an apparent dead-end, only to turn sharply like a fish and duck under the barrier at right angles! It’s a futile attempt to try to catch them: I don’t move like a fish. As I run around the platforms, I’m very conscious of ducking. When adults get pulled into children’s play frames, they sometimes forget that they’re still adults. They can hurtle around as if they’re a child too (physically and emotionally). Adults and low platforms (low to us, at least) don’t mix. I’ve clunked my head before and I don’t wish to do it again. So, this slows me down even more. As does the thought of scraping my back following children through their fishy right angles. As does the prospect of turning a corner on the wet wood and having my feet fly out from underneath me. It’s a precarious business, this chase and catch (or not catch, as the case may be!)
So, I manage to escape harm. That is, until the end of the day when I forget to concentrate. The children have mostly gone home. I take the shortcut down the wet slide, walking down not sliding, because it’s easier. I land on the small of my back. Safety on playgrounds: adults beware! No-one left on site pays my moaning any attention. I return to the zip wire. One of the girls tells me: ‘Well, you had more bumps and bruises when you were a child.’
Thinking on playground safety
Earlier in the week, I was talking with two staff who’d brought a small group of children from another setting to the playground. The staff opened up the conversation, in observation of the children’s play, by asking if the place was safe. We had a good long conversation about what the children were doing, about the fact that staff were observing, that we were all scattered around, that play is a process. These openings to conversations are ideal opportunities for playworkers to advocate for play. The staff seemed enthusiastic, by the end of the conversation.
It all leads me to reflect now on how the children played during my time on the playground. That is, considering the size of the playground, the dynamic interactions of the children, the use of tools and the access to height, the leftover bits and pieces, etc, it can be forgiven of someone if they assume such a place isn’t ‘safe’. However, I only saw a couple of accidents in my days on the playground, and these were only minor ones at that – accidents that children just have, accidents like we’ve all had: one child banged her knee; another got a splinter; another cut his finger on a piece of bamboo, didn’t moan or cry or wince, just washed the blood off and got on with things; one child learnt the effect of levers when stamping on a plank balanced on a tyre – the end bounced up into his face! He rubbed his head, got laughed at by a girl, adjusted his glasses and carried on, possibly making mental notes not to do that again!
On this playground, for the most part, the children seem confident and capable, in my observations, in manoeuvring around the space, picking themselves up from minor set-backs, working out how to safely use tools, navigating heights, etc. Trusting the children is key here.
The art of multiple attentions
It’s the second day of the zip wire play frame and I’m trying to step back from it a little more. The children have learnt my name and I hear it bounce around me. When I’m not at the zip wire, or when I’m not just standing back observing, I find myself being cued to be involved in chasing and catching again. The children poke out their tongues, or they stick their thumbs to the sides of their heads and waggle their fingers around. They stand there on the platforms in poses of readiness, their weight on their back heels ready to spring away. So, I find myself engaged in two play frames (the chasing and catching, and also my occasional returns to the zip wire).
Every so often, I pass a small group of boys up on the platform. The ‘leader’ of the group (that is, of the play, but also, possibly, of the peer group), sizes me up as I pass. It’s a playful looking up and down. He holds out his fingers in the manner of a guard with a gun. I put up my hands. He waves me on. I realise that, now, I’m in three overlapping play frames at once. Somewhere along the line, the boy with the finger-gun starts nodding at me and saying things like ‘Batman’, in some sort of acknowledgement. Sometimes, he nods his respectful greeting at me, like we’re two shady figures meeting briefly in the underworld, saying: ‘Joker.’ I don’t know what the play is, or if I’m Batman, Joker, Penguin, or whoever.
Small alliances form in this play frame. I have no idea whose ‘side’ I’ve been co-opted to be on. It doesn’t seem to matter to the children. I pass by, hold up my hands, or nod respectfully, greet my co-underworldee with a dutiful ‘Batman’ and move on. Or I free someone, on the spur of the moment, who’s got himself invisibly chained in the ‘prison’ where the balancing ropes are and who asks for me to help him out. I tap him out, because tapping out seems to be the universal mechanism of how to set someone free from invisible chains, and then I chase and don’t catch one of the slippery fish girls, and then I swing by the zip wire and serve a run on that, and then I run off to return the next cue . . .
Afterwards, and on subsequent days of thinking, I am aware of how my interactions might seem to others looking on: ‘Oh, he’s just playing for himself.’ It’s not the case. I’m engaged in the play, sure, but I’m tired and I really would like to sit down and have a cup of coffee. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that if I walk away from any of the play frames then, not only one, but maybe some or all of them might fall in on themselves. The play that’s happening, just doesn’t any more, or it fizzles out.
I can test this thinking: at one point, I am so tired that I do sidle off for a quick sit down. The girls have hid in the toilet, knowing that I can’t get them in there. Batman, Joker and the others are doing their whole Batman, Joker thing somewhere else in the underworld of the playground. The zip wire I’m not due to return to for a while. The play frames are stable enough without me, for now. It’s all fine. I’ve engineered myself out of things. When the girls come back out, they don’t see me, but I hear one of them ask the other: ‘Is he still playing?’ When I show myself, I am apparently still playing. They scatter off in opposite directions, screaming and laughing.
OK, so make of all of this what you will.
to be continued . . .