A ninth instalment of stories from my recent second summer week of playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
Thinking on fire play
For a couple of weeks now, Rich and I have been mulling over the possibility of making use of fire on the playground. It does work, and children can be very respectful of fire because it’s kind of built into us, as humans, to know about this essential element. For understandable reasons though, some people are cautious of mixing children and fire. As I understand it, the children on this playground haven’t had access to this sort of play opportunity before. They’ve had access to all the other elements (wind, water, earth), as well as engagement in risky play with tools and with height. Fire seems a logical next step.
We talk about starting off slowly, because unknown play opportunities (despite a fire knowledge seemingly being built into our genetic make-up), need a little getting used to. We talk around using tea lights and sand trays. As the week goes on though, we find we could do a barbecue on the last day. Not a conventional barbecue; rather one in which the children can engage with the fire, something small scale. Earlier in the week, I’d been talking with one of the girls – coincidentally – about food, and we got onto the subject of cooking bananas over a fire. I told her that we could see if we could do this, add in melted chocolate. She seemed intrigued. Every day she reminded me of the conversation.
So, Rich buys small barbecue trays, fruit, flour, chocolate, brownie mix. There are a fair amount of children on the playground on the final day. It’s warm and we choose the area near the trees, where the raised beds are, to set up an area before the children come.
It’s not an activity, as such (as in ‘adult-led’), but it does need a little more careful attention than some other play opportunities the children have engaged with recently. I’ve got my bowl of water out already, just in case we need it. It’s nearby. We use the mud area of the raised beds. I suggest to Connor that the children can use the matches themselves. The children are eager to try this. It only needs one or two lit matches to light the paper on the charcoal, but children want to light more. There are only a few children gathered around to start with: we don’t broadcast what we’re doing; we just bring out the barbecue trays. Children start to filter over though.
Now, maybe some factors have gathered in one place here for me because I’m not totally happy with my practice. I’ve done fire play with children before, plenty of times, and sometimes I’ve been more comfortable than others. It comes down to careful observation. Before long, you get an idea of what the children will do. At first here, though, maybe I’m too mindful of the conversations we’d been having about children on this playground not having engaged with fire play opportunities before. Maybe I could have been a little more out of the way. Either way, I affect the play.
One of the older boys is keen to get involved. He’s forceful and the other children all seem to bend to his will, though they don’t seem to want to. He takes the matches and lights them. Later, when the children have found frying pans to cook up their brownie mix, he monopolises the small barbecue. So, I set up the other barbecue tray on the other mud area for the younger children. The older boy comes over and takes over this one too. So, I’m getting frustrated. I’m getting hot. He starts playing with a flame on the very end of his stick by holding it against a long blade of grass. Normally, this is no problem at all. Here though, I’m frustrated because he has all the play of the barbecues. It’s not that I’m on the verge of saying ‘share’ to him, because those who know me know I lecture often on this! However, the other children just so want to get their own frying pans and bananas, which he’s pushed off, onto the grill too!
What does a playworker do? He comes to his senses, stands up, walks over to his colleague and says: ‘Connor, swap?’ The older boy is pushing my buttons, I know this. Connor swaps barbecues with me, sits down, and in a couple of minutes I say to him: ‘How did you do that?’ The older boy’s agitations have fizzled away. Of course, it was me who was agitating him, and vice versa. Sometimes, we just need to recognise that we’re part of the problem ourselves.
At the end of summer
Soon the area is a culinary mess! The children have melted mixtures of brown sludge in frying pans; bananas and oranges have been cut open, cooked and putrefied over the fire; marshmallows have been blackened or been gooed onto the grill. Some children use the kitchen microwave to cook up brownie mix. They bring it out in plastic cups for all to eat as they like. A tub of microwave-melted chocolate comes out, and children smear it over cooked fruit or swipe fingers around the tub, lick it up. We use up the plastic spoons quickly and so bring out metal ones, which instantly get caked in mud or buried! We’ve bought lemonade and use the ice-cream tubs in the freezer to make ‘ice-cream floaters’. I think I’m still a little in ‘agitation mode’ though, and I really should just let go of the lemonade more and leave the children to pour their own. Part of me thinks that it’ll all just get used up quickly though. Either way, remembering the children gathering around me like baby birds, I think: I can do this better.
Shortly though, sitting round the barbecue fires is another chance just to chill, to talk with the children, to ‘be’ amongst them. The sun is shining, the children seem happy. No-one puts their hand on the grill or into the hot charcoal. No-one picks up the barbecue trays and waves them around. No-one gets burnt.
Near the end of the session, the children pour the bowl of water over the barbecue charcoals and they fizzle. The children who are left around the scene scatter off. There are dead spoons lying around, melted banana skins, a well-scraped out chocolate tub, discarded ice-cream tubs and cups, bits of spat-out orange, the cooling charcoal trays. We tidy up as the children play.
Soon, it’s time to pull down the shutters for the last time this summer. The children are still on the playground. They don’t seem to want to go. I’ve only been around for a couple of weeks of the summer here, but I feel sad to be pulling down these shutters. Three or four children gurgle and laugh on the other side as the mechanism grinds down. They poke their feet under the slowly closing barrier in a small defiance, a small act of deep play perhaps. I say goodbye, goodbye. Then all that’s left to see is their toes pulling back. Then clunk, as the barrier touches the paving slabs. The children bang away on the other side. We bang back.
Summer’s over (our work on the playground, at least), but I hear the children scatter off. Out the window, I see them carrying on their play.