Being immersed in the ‘parenting role’, for this playworker, has led me along two lines of reflection this week: that of looking from the ‘outside, in’, and that of looking from the ‘inside, out’. That is to say, thinking on how others perceive me, with child, and thinking on how I perceive others, with child. When I collect these strands of thinking into one place, I find that what I’m thinking about is ‘this play, now.’
The normal and the controlling
It’s a curious situation to occasionally see yourself through other people’s eyes. You know yourself and all the little things that make you who you are. I know that, sometimes, when I walk down the street people may not look me in the eye, or sometimes they’ll make playfully mocking comments based on the fact that they think I look like Jesus! (It’s always original when they say it, but it does get a little wearing for me, after a while!) Now, when I walk down the street with Gack, this two year old seems to have a transformational affect on who or what I’m perceived to be: I get smiled at, greeted by strangers saying hello, or stopped by benevolent old women telling me how good it is for him, Gack, to be playing out. I am, it would appear, suddenly ‘normal’.
We seem to have a general attitudinal confusion taking place in the UK (or that’s the way it seems to me, at least): on the one hand, there’s this perceived culture of ‘normalisation’, which goes hand in hand with the ‘protect the children at all costs’ collective consciousness; on the other hand, there’s the dominance of the ‘adult hierarchy over children’ way of living. For example, a couple of things overheard whilst out in the town centre recently:
‘He’s a walking liability at the moment.’ (A mother talking to another woman about her toddler, and said in what I took as a half-sneering but also half-joking/mocking manner, though without a hint of a smile).
‘No, you can’t go up those steps; we’ll get told off.’ (A mother talking to another toddler who clearly wanted to investigate a flight of concrete steps – which, incidentally, had no ‘keep out’ signs or barriers on them anyway).
So, here I am, observing from a distance in the town centre: thinking about how people perceive me when I’ve got Gack with me; thinking about how I perceive parents with their children.
Play experimentation and investigation
Play is many-coloured and many-shaped: play can be seen in all sorts of places and ways of behaving. So, play is jumping along between the paving slabs singing songs mashed together (‘Wind the Bobbin Up’ versus ‘Wheels on the Bus’ is a current favourite mash-up, for example); play is taking detours, on your scooter, into every empty car park along a route from A to B (wherever B will end up being), using the bumps in the tarmac to roll over; it’s even painting the toilet wall with the business end of the wet toilet brush (unfortunately!) – all of which have been playful pursuits of Gack’s recently.
Not everything the child does is going to be easily seen as play by the parent, of course (as we can see from the incidence of artistic flourish above!) However, tired and/or disgusted though the adult may be, it is play. It doesn’t make the act any the more agreeable sometimes, but taking a breath, standing back, understanding what this is, helps (I find). So, play is also investigating unusual places like a flight of concrete steps.
This play, now
Play is useful, and in this instance I’m not talking about its importance in brain growth, about the developmental benefits, about the health aspects, or about the therapeutic use of play, say, in healing processes. Play is useful for the child because it’s in the now, and it’s about what this now is. The ‘progress rhetoric’ of skills development for future use is one of many ways of looking at what play is useful for, but the future can’t happen without the now.
I recently wrote about the epigenetic affect of the environment around the playing child (that is, how our children’s children, and so on, are potentially affected by the conditions in the present). This thinking still stands. However, in this writing here I’m focusing on this now that the children (and their parents) live in.
The now is where play happens, where emotions form because of that play, where understanding of identity is created, etc. Perry Else taught me some basics about his understanding of neuro-linguistic programming: how the brain and body actions can be so much better connected. Think of a time when you felt positive; think of the actions you were undertaking at that time: replicate those actions at another time to connect back to that positive frame of mind. Without being conscious of it, I realised this takes place all the time in my day-to-day interactions with the world: the emotions I sense at a point along the river, and where and how I sat; the way I feel with certain tactile interactions with others; similarly, emotions around the house or garden. The same could be said about moments of play: this is the place where we hid in the woods; here is the room where we danced; this is the beach that was ours. (We hid like this, we danced this way, we played on the beach like this and this and this.)
Moments make us, and we build our moments of now into a repertoire, a library, which we can pick and choose from at a later time, linking our brains and our body actions. Yet, hold on: I’m writing about the now, not the future. The future can’t happen, though, without the now.
In some sense, the future won’t ever happen; it hasn’t ever happened: all we have is the now. Each now is a new now: sure, play may well take place because of similar play yesterday or last week, or play can be repeated over and over in one long burst, but each instance of play is new because it’s the play of now. It’s different every time. Now is all we have, in this sense.
When I’m with Gack, I’m ‘normal’, apparently: except, of course, I’m not. Not in the way of the dominant ‘adult hierarchy over children’ scheme of things. Or so I like to think. People choose to see what they want: they just think I’m ‘normal’. What they don’t always see is the fact that Gack is going to take a route from A to B, but he’ll take diversions via most of the rest of the alphabet and I’m OK to follow him; that when Gack sees two dirty great big, brand-spanking new yellow JCBs parked up by the river (and which, strangely, I don’t see at first!), we have to cross the road, stop, watch the workmen (for a long time), and just gawp at those big yellow beasts shining in the sunlight; that when Gack refuses to talk with people he doesn’t know, like the friendly young woman serving in the milkshake bar, it’s not him being rude, it’s him just choosing not to communicate.
He does communicate, when he wants to: he sits on the toilet with a mischievous grin, asking why the carpet’s all dirty. I tell him about my recent work in the attic. Why? he says, and he starts the whole, ‘why, why, why’ game (you know the one) with that twinkle in his eye. I think, ‘play the game’, and ‘twist the game’. I still lose, but I play it.
It’s play in the moment. It is the play of now. It helps form moments of emotion, of connection to the body, and of connectedness with others.
When I observe some adults with children, I wonder at all of this. Sure, it’s tiring, this parenting business; sure, it’s sometimes frustrating and challenging. Understanding the now though, I think, can help.
Moments of play and beauty
There are moments of beauty to share, in observations of others. These moments should be passed on, I feel. In finishing here, for now, I pass these two moments on to you:
In the shopping arcade, on the long shallow slope that connects the upper and lower levels, a toddler decides to lie down on his belly as he and his mother (presumably) walk. Instead of shouting at him, ordering him to get up, or hurrying him along, she waits with her friend, smiling at the child. He lies there for a few moments, taking in the view down the slope, before getting up and running ahead.
Whilst walking down the riverside, I listen to a mother and her daughter behind me. The child is about three years old. The mother is talking with the child, pointing out the things she sees, things of possible interest. She talks about crunchy leaves as the child walks in them, and how the colours change in the Autumn and why, and about how things are slowing down, and how greens will be back in the Spring. They talk about the river, and they sing songs between them: I love you; no, I love you more, etc. When they come to the rose beds, where two men are pruning the bushes, the mother and the child go over to look at the flowers. I walk on and, when I look back, I see the mother bending a yellow rose down on its stem so the child can smell it. They both breathe it in deeply, then carry on their way.