Continuing the stories from my recent after school sessions playworking week at White City Adventure Playground, London.
Come down at the end of the week
Friday is much calmer than ‘Mad Thursday’. Before the children arrive we think more on the space. The boxes are piled away (perhaps they were a catalyst for some of yesterday’s wild play), as are the plastic grass strips which the children use as a kind of playfighting arena. We’ve cleared out the room where the art stuff is kept, ready for some units to go in next week, and we’ve left an old metal storage cabinet in the main room — not specifically as a play object, just out of the way. Hassan chops wood in preparation for the possibility of a fire. When the children come they seem calmer. Maybe it’s the group dynamic, maybe it’s the way the space is today. I don’t know.
There’s some chase play going on. M. (a boy, not M. the Catholic girl!) immediately finds the plank that Rich has left on the tyres. M. takes it away and soon enough he’s trying to bang it into a wooden post with a hammer and a long screw he’s found. I go bring him some long nails, which he accepts. He finds it difficult to get through the wood still though. After a while he tells me, ‘I’ve had enough of that now.’
Inside, the children have found the metal cabinet and they climb in two at a time. Others shut the door. Others bang on top of it by climbing up onto another smaller cabinet. This play goes on and around for quite a while. I’m walking in and out, and every time I come in there’s a group of children doing this: this is an accidental play resource.
Hassan brings some mod-roc out and some of the children get into this. Others are keen on using the computers. Later Rich starts off a small fire in the mud area of the planters outside. He doesn’t call out for children to come over. One or two take note and come over when they want to. He stands back. Others come and go.
There’s no playfighting that I can see today, though M. and J. have a conversation, whilst banging the plank into the post, about yesterday: ‘Do you remember that fighting yesterday?’; ‘Yeh, it was brilliant.’ Little fish A. is playing football with me and Ja. and another child. A. moans to me that Ja. has pushed him as they go in for a tackle together. I tell A. that football’s a contact sport and he should man up. Later, as I’m poking around at the fire, I find it amusing as I hear Ja. tell A. during more football: ‘Hey, A., just like Joel said, man up!’
The chase play is a constant play theme of the week. The children make up ‘time outs’ and the standard ‘homey’ is the roundabout. I hear them say, behind me when I’m far enough away in the chase don’t catch, ‘OK, time in.’ Six or seven children pile onto homey and I spin them, as I did the other day (a day where we talked at the roundabout about going so fast they might throw up). I tell them it’s ‘puke day’ but I can’t spin them fast at all. One of the older girls says ‘it’s rubbish’, but she says it playfully.
In concluding the stories of my latest week at the playground, in these after school sessions: sure, this is different in some ways to the open access holidays, but there are still a lot of positives that can be drawn from the way things are here. Children come in straight from school and there are always going to be transitions from one environment to another for them to go through. The children are free to play though.
There’s no rigid structure that could oppress the children or contribute to a build-up of stress (as I’ve seen in many other after school facilities). There are stressful times here, for the adults and for the children alike, just as there may be at many other after school places; however, for the most part, the children’s use of the space suggests that this is their space and maybe we adults have to find coping strategies.
There are pockets of ‘things to do’ but these are very far from rigid adult-led ‘activities’: children come and go or ignore as they see fit. Food time, similarly, isn’t a specific rigid arrangement. Food comes out and children get it or make it when they’re ready. Playworkers remind children that it’s available. Children eat it where they like. It’s all a lot more stress-free this way.
At the end of the week, we’re tired though. If anyone thinks this work is easy, perhaps they’re not doing it right! There are some challenging aspects to some of the children’s play — though ‘challenging’ is, of course, a subjective term, individual to each adult. I was challenged by not knowing some of the children’s abilities and sensibilities with, for example, use of a power drill, playfighting spilling over into aggression, etc. My colleagues had other challenges like observing multiple playfight play frames, children banging on the metal cabinet, some children’s antagonisms of others.
We talked about these things, as colleagues, before, during and after the session, informally. The children have fluid arrangements of issues with one another, sometimes with staff, sometimes with school escorts or with school staff. This, I think, is to be expected in environments where many people are jammed together. The key to working with children in this playwork way is, perhaps, listening, accepting our own feelings, accepting the children for who they are on any given day, and knowing that — whatever day today has been, excellent or challenging — tomorrow is another day.