plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Archive for March, 2013

The good, the bad, and the PE teacher: or, the saving grace of play

The other day I met a fine arts student, and her ‘art world’ and my ‘play world’ came together in the conversation. She told me that she’d recently attended a lecture in which the subject of play (in order for art to become) was prominent. This was interesting in itself to me (I said I wish I could have sat in on that); however, she also said she thought that ‘playing gets taught out of you.’ She’s twenty. This all triggered my thinking.

The subject of creativity in education has been tackled before, but I’m going to touch on it from perspectives of a fictional near future and an actual distant past. Let’s imagine that, here in the UK, the current Coalition government has morphed — in x Parliaments’ time — into a full-on post-Govian shock to the system: ‘back to basics’ learning by rote, no-one gets out without heavily ink-stained fingers and their twenty-five times tables weighing down their blazer pockets. I am fictionalising, you understand; yet, here, where is the love in play and the art of finding out?

This is not going to be a post about teacher bashing (though there will be some teacher bashing involved). There are good teachers out there. I know this. I also have friends who are teachers, family in teaching, and I’m a teacher too (albeit an adult education teacher, but I still teach). This is going to be a post that directs to the ‘love’ and the ‘art’ of play.

In the actual distant past (way back in a land that time forgot, i.e. the 1970s and into the 80s — yes, I know some of you readers are even longer in the educational tooth, but bear with me here), I learned maybe three ‘academic’ things in my school life. I often like to joke about this, but I think I could be right. I learned how to read, how to write, and how to use a calculator (including the ability to add up in the head first to check that the calculator would be roughly in the same ball park). That’s it. Really. I may have had some good teachers (by which I mean ‘good people’), but I don’t remember them teaching me anything useful apart from these things. There were a lot more teachers, and the contents of their possibly coffee-stained lesson plans, who completely passed me by:

I remember coming away from classes run by endless nameless supply teachers (we were the guinea pig class) with my prune-skinned fingers stained black-purple: the fault of splodgy fountain pens which we were chain-ganged into squelching out repetitions and repetitions of the same cursive lines with. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote.

I remember sitting at, for then, hi-tech desks with (if memory serves me right) individual clunky big cassette slots, in which I watched units the size of whole Betamax machines spool round as I lip-synched any old rubbish that sounded vaguely French, sitting there with my enormous elephantine headphones on (the kind that would probably pass as ‘fashionable’ these days). Je suis m’appelle a la vive le une banane et un baguette, s’il vous plait. Or something like that. It was the style of French teaching back in the day, you understand.

I remember some old guy with white hair and a white coat droning on about . . . something, but it was broadly labelled as ‘physics’ and it seemed to involve a lot of wheeled contraptions which could have smashed into one another to prove something, but I don’t remember that they ever did.

I didn’t see the point of endless repetition (I already knew how to write), French (with the best will in the world to those who do see the point of this), and with no apologies to anyone, the dull grey world of early 80s physics. Throwing things ‘up’ invariably ended up in things coming ‘down’: that was all I ever needed to know on the subject.

So, from the nameless and the forgotten to the good. Dear Mrs McCoombe. I loved her very much. She was old (well, I was five, and everyone’s old when you’re five). She may now be sixty, or she may be ninety, or she may no longer be with us. I don’t remember a thing she taught me, but I do remember I could play with clay, and I do remember being ruthlessly turfed out of her class (not by her), my little tray of worldly belongings in my hand, sent packing across the playground to find somewhere else to exist, one year. It probably didn’t happen exactly like that in reality, but it’s how a five-year-old’s memory is stored. She was my favourite because she cared.

I do remember, at the age of seventeen and at college, I was having a tough time. I stood in the corridor and my tutor looked me in the eye with that almost Buddha-like calm he had, and he smiled. He said: ‘You can do anything.’ I don’t remember anything he taught in class. Thanks, Trevor, wherever you are now.

I do remember good old Mr Lodge. He was tall, very tall (everyone’s tall when you’re short) and he had enormous hands. I saw him on TV a few years back. He was on one of those public forum studio shows. He’d made it to head teacher, and he still had huge hands. I have no idea what he taught me, but once he promoted me to the school football team’s A-team. I got to wear the home yellow, instead of the red with blue shorts of the B-team (which I never felt quite worked as a football kit!) We played our local rivals. We lost 6-0 and, whilst trying to clear the ball in the heroic last minute, I managed to score an inglorious yet spectacular overhead own-goal from a good inch and a half out. I don’t remember playing for the A-team again, but I played once and Mr. L didn’t make me feel bad.

So, we come to the slush pile. Unlike the good I’ll protect their identities, because I’m decent like that . . .

There were teachers like the biology teacher who gave me my first detention for the slight misdemeanour of failing to hand in my (pointless) homework: she watched me diligently do my antiquated lines; naïve as I was, because I handed them to her fully expecting her to read them, or something, anything but just rip them up like she did and throw them away, dismissing me as she did so. Witch. What’s the point of cutting up frogs anyway?

There were teachers like the stereotypical PE teacher, sadist as he was (we’ve all had them, right?), who used to stand there with his hands on his hips, whistle round his neck, skinny t-shirt pulled over his six-pack whilst we shivered in the bleating winter’s indifference, on the ice-cold, rock-hard rugby/hockey/pointless all-sports field, him saying: ‘So, you lot who want to play football [barely controlling his contempt], over there . . . those who are real men, over here for rugby!’ I chose football, partly because the man was clearly a moron, and partly because rugby was pointless.

It’s a good job I spent a lot of my non-school time out in the fields, in the woods, in the streams and lakes, up on roofs, burrowing through hedges, hurtling down hills, etc. Without the freedom to play, I’d have been caught in a world that could have turned me into a repetitive drone, a non-thinking yes-man, half-heartedly blathering along to pointless things I didn’t ever believe in in the first place. Skip forward several decades and into a fictionalised future . . .

I worry about the possibility of what could come. That is, in a fictionalised future where children’s play space (space to play) is frittered away, replaced by ‘don’t think, just learn’, playing could well and truly be taught out of them; creativity gets redefined as the ability to say ‘yes, sir’ in a slightly unacceptable manner. Of course, I’m going too far . . . perhaps.

So, finally: one of my nephews is two years old. Some of his ‘things’ at the moment are spinning around till he falls over, and licking people! I’d be sad to see his playing get taught out of him when he reaches ‘schoolable’ age, just two years from now. His is the art of play, a love with which he plays and with which his play is seen. Play is art in itself, and you can’t teach it. Let’s not teach playing out of them.
 
 

Whoops, that hurt (a guest blog script)

This week’s post is a guest blog, reproduced with permission of the writer and his teacher. I was drawn to this writing because it amused me; because it shows the flow we can get into in the creative process; because it shines a light, and opens a small window, into the thoughts of this particular individual with autism. The writer is Matthew, and his teacher insists that I reproduce his script unedited, which I have done (except for replacing specific place names, until advised otherwise, with [. . .]* and removing a few surnames). Matthew’s teacher writes:

Matthew is a 19 year old who has a diagnosis of ASD (profound) and ADHD, with a Vineland mental age of 2:5 (Vineland is a standardised method interpreting functional mental age. 2:5 basically means that he’s functioning at a two year old emotional level but 5 year old academically). Within his diagnosis, it is acknowledged that he has a severe lack of understanding of social communication and imagination. His learning objective was to produce a script for a TV show/movie of his choice. With support from the teaching staff at college, he produced this script incorporating aspects from his everyday life and his fascination with all things chaotic.

Whoops, That Hurt

INTRODUCTION
ROGER AND MATTHEW ARE IN THE CLASSROOM

MATTHEW
– Come here please Roger
ROGER
– OK.
ROGER TRIPS OVER AND BANGS HIS HEAD ON THE DOOR
ROGER
– Whoops – Ouch, that hurt
MATTHEW COMES OVER TO HELP AND TRIPS TOO THEN PHONES AN
AMBULANCE
MATTHEW
– Can I have an ambulance at [. . .]* please? My teacher
has banged his head.
YOU CAN HEAR SIRENS
FADE OUT

SCENE 1
THE AMBULANCE IS DRIVING DOWN THE LANE.
THE AMBULANCE CRASHES INTO A TREE
AMBULANCE DRIVER
– Whoops – Ouch, That hurt
THE AMBULANCE CATCHES FIRE
– Help help, my ambulance is on fire. Quick call the
fireman
THE AMBULANCE DRIVER PHONES 999 AND ASKS FOR THE FIRE
BRIGADE
FADE OUT

SCENE 2
A FIRE ENGINE IS DRIVING OUT OF [. . .]* AND THE FIREMAN
IS WORRIED.
– I hope the ambulance driver is OK. He’s my friend.
THE FIRE ENGINE STOPS NEXT NOT THE AMBULANCE ON FIRE.
THE FIREMAN LOOKS HEARS A NOISE AND LOOKS UP AND SEES A
PLANE.
– That plane is too low. It’s going to crash
TTHE PLANE CRASHES NEXT TO MATTHEW
MATTHEW
– Whoops – Ouch, That Hurt
THE PILLOT JUMPS OUT OF THE PLANE AND RUNS TOWARDS A CAR
THE PILOT AND MATTHEW PUT A BOMB THE CAR AND RUN AWAY
LAUGHING
THE CAR BLOWS UP
MATTHEW
– Whoops – Ouch, That Hurt haha
FADE OUT TO ROGER LYING ON THE FLOOR IN THE CLASSROOM
CRYING
ROGER
– My head hurts… I need to go to hospital.
MATTHEW RUNS BACK TO THE CLASSROOM AND THROWS ANOTHER BOMB
THE BOMB BLOWS UP AND SETS FIRE TO THE CLASSROOM AND SETS
THE FIRE ALARM OFF.
FADE OUT

SCENE 3
EVERYONE IS OUTSIDE FOR THE FIRE ALARM
DONNA IS SAYING EVERYONE’S NAME TO MAKE SURE THEY ARE SAFE
DONNA
– William – here
– Dennis – here
– Paul – here
– Matthew -here
– Roger – where’s roger?
MATTHEW
– roger is in the blown up classroom. He banged his head
and the ambulance cauht fire.
DONNA
– Where are the fireman?
MATTHEW
– A plane crashed and the fireman are helping them.
DONNA
– how did the fire start?
MATTHEW
– I blew a car up and put a bomb in my classroom. I didn’t
want to do writing
DONNA SHAKES HER FINGER AT MATTHEW WHILE TELLING HIM OFF
DONNA
– That was very dangerous Matthew. Someone could get hurt.
Lucky it’s only roger.
MATTHEW LAUGHS AND RUNS ONTO THE GRASS AND BUMPS HIS HEAD
ON THE TREE and falls into a puddle.
MAATTHEW
– Whoops, – ouch that hurt. Roger, come here please.
DOMNA
– Roger can’t help you he’s in the class that you bombed
MATTHEW
oh dear. My head hurts
MATTHEW TRIES TO STAND UP BUT IS ALL DIZZY AND BUMPS INTO
STUART. STUART FELLD OVER AND DROPPED HIS TEA
ON HIS FOOT. NATALIE RUNNED OVER TO HELP ANDSLIPPED ON THE
TEA. HER CAR KETS FALL DOWN THE DRAIN.
FADE OUT

SCENE 4
MATTHEW IS RUNNING THROUGH THE CAR PARK TOWARDS THE LANE
ROGER OPENS THE FRONT DOOR OF THE HOUSE
DONNA
– I thought you were blowed up
ROGER
– nearly. Where’s Matthew? I want to tell him off.
MATTHEW STOPS AND LOOKS AT ROGER
MATTHEW
– uh oh
ROGER
– Ill give you uh oh. Can you come here please?
MATTHEW
– no moving on form.im runneding away
MATTHEW RUNS OUT OF THE GATE AND DOWN THE LANE
ROGER
– Natalie can you give me a lift to catch MATTHEW. My head
hurts
NATALIE
– yes. Get in my car
ROGER
– I can’t open the door
NATALIE TRIES TO FIND HER KEYS BUT CAN’T
ROGER SHOUTS AT NATALIE AND PULLS THE HANDLE VERY HARD.
THE HANDLE FELLD OFF AND HITS ROGER IN THE TUMMY.
ROGER FALLS OVER IN A MUD
ROGER
– Ouch, that hurt. This isn’t a good day.
ROGER CRIES AGAIN
 
 
(Playworkings is taking a break next week. Back to blogging on March 29).
 
 

Play and time and the art of sitting around

It has been conference week in the playwork ‘world’ (as you who were also there are aware!) Conferences are often odd affairs: they never seem to last long enough, or you never get to participate in everything you like the look of, or they leave you tired and playing catch up for the rest of the week; yet, you will bring away something. This year I brought away fragments I’m now piecing together after sitting around at conference.

I mean that literally. The past few years, when I’ve attended, I’ve facilitated workshops, or I’ve built and manned adult play rooms, or I’ve run around in the background with set-ups and helping to keep it going, or I’ve snatched times here and there to listen to someone speak. My position has changed. This year there is time. This is a post about time.

Others who attended this week have already posted up, or will no doubt post up, their experiences and learnings (I’ve just read Vicky Edwards’ reflections on her experience of conference — good stuff, Vicky, by the way). I have been thinking for a couple of days. It’s been background thinking because the drive was long; because the experience of being surrounded by hundreds of others of similar mindsets can overwhelm (in a positive way); because the beer buzz affects the molecules! I have been thinking of time.

I did facilitate again, with Arthur, and the space was a different space to those I’m used to: it was a space, as I reflect on it, of depths and uncertainties. The subject was love, or thereabouts. When we talk about love in accepting spaces, strange things can happen: love begets love, love causes love. There were moments of being on the cusp of something, or so I perceived, and moments where I saw eyes glisten. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas though; the first rule of Fight Club is that we don’t talk about Fight Club, etc . . . So, what happened were small weightnesses of time.

This is what I’ve been thinking about, and it’s only now that I type it that I think I know what it is: moments happen. I had every intention to go listen to others in their presentations and facilitations and machinations of ideas; yet other forces had other ways of influencing me. The structure of the conference timetable just fell away. I saw and talked with my playwork friends when it was just time enough for that to happen. This is all about time.

I sat down at a table in the main conference hall (one of those large round tables) waiting for the coffee to kick in and for the ability to make a decision likewise. There comes a point though that neither really happens, and so we just give in to the flow of things. I sat with Rich and Arthur and Lily and others, and then when some had gone, Eddie joined us, and Lisa came, so did Morgan, and others came and went. There were lazy discussions on nothing much, and lazy discussions on nothing more, and discussions on playwork thinking and reflections of childhood, and minor rants, and silly playground humour (the best kind of humour!), and plenty of otherness. Two or three or four hours in I said; ‘Eddie, I’ve just had a moment, an epiphany! This is all an ebb and flow, a tide: people come and go, and it all comes to us’. Or words to that effect. I sat at that table for the very best part of four or five hours, watching, talking, learning, eating, drinking coffee, floating along. This is all about time, you see.

It strikes me, thinking and writing here, and thinking in my background way in the last few days, that there’s a correlation here with this and with the play of children. Take time — I mean this in several senses: take time to see the time taken by children; take time, have time, as children, to play in the lazy flowing, sometimes intense, sometimes over-tired silliness, sometimes ranting, sometimes love-friendly way that play can manifest as; take time . . . take time, take it away, out of the equation — see that ‘structure this, structure that, organise here, activity there’ can just squeeze all the possibility of play from the children before it can even take root. Play happens in its own time.

In my play at conference I took time from it. I took time and found that there are other ways of lovingworkingplaying (thanks Arthur); that others have deeper respect than I ever appreciated (thanks Lily); that there are common experiences, hopes and thinking, which were kind of known but not known (thanks Eddie, Morgan); that other appreciations also remain, after years (thanks Vicky, Neil, Rikki, Polly . . . and others).

I have been thinking of time: its ebb and flow, its depths and weightnesses, its way — if you’ll let it — of just taking you along. I let it play through me.
 
 

Play: soul, substance and belief

What you believe is true. Richard Garcia’s writing (The heart and soul of play) is the starting point for this post. Richard writes about play and love and soul and spirit which, after some time settling as a bookmarked ‘thing to remember’, I finally got round to commenting about. Richard’s writing has led me to think more on play, in this way. I’ve also been communicating with Arthur about haibun (you’ll need to look up haibun if you don’t know), and this thinking is also going to colour parts of what I’m about to write, I suspect.

My thinking has taken me on tracks of philosophy, phenomenology, word definitions, and the like: so I need to be clear here with all the tangled lines. This is the opening of it: what is it that this ‘soul’ of play is? Or rather, what is it that this soul of play appears to be? You see, we all see different things, of course.

It’s evening, just as the sun sets over the hill to the west. There’s a pastel red smear on the sky, which is sort of milky. I stand on the hill in the east and look down on the city. Orange lights are just starting to come on, here and there. I hear the sounds of skateboarders’ wheels before I see the skaters. They’re on the top level of the empty car park below me. They use the ramp from that level down to the next. I don’t hear them speak: they either don’t, or I’m too far away. No-one else can see them: they’re up above the city.

I watch them for twenty minutes. I think that this is play, though they themselves may not call it this. It’s play to me. What is it to them? I hear the sirens of an ambulance, or a fire engine, I can’t tell; then I see the blue lights in between the buildings somewhere in the city. I see the headlights of cars, nearer down there, and how they seem to be, with the nearby branches between me and them. I think how this interaction wouldn’t be if I were to stand a step to the side.

This isn’t a haibun, above, but haibun writing informs it. I’m also going to do a very unhaibun thing here and give a commentary on what I’ve just written. Here it is: ‘the skaters played’ because it appeared to me that this is what they were doing; likewise, the lights of the ambulance, or the fire engine, I couldn’t tell, played in between the buildings; the headlights of the cars played against the branches of the tree, from my perspective. Play was everywhere, perhaps.

I’m going to delve down a philosophical avenue now. If play is everywhere, that would imply that it is a ‘something’, that it is a ‘material’ thing: some substance in the universe, like particles. How can this be? I need to go back to the thinking of Descartes (and here I shall also loop back to what Richard Garcia wrote in ‘the heart and soul of play’): Descartes’ thinking on ‘soul’, as I understand it, was as an ‘immaterial substance’ (i.e. not the physical substance of the body). There is a link between ‘soul’ and ‘mind’: a brain has mass, but a mind does not.

Simply, if there are ‘material substances’ (like bodies) and ‘immaterial substances’ (like minds), what is play? It must be immaterial, right? Play isn’t comprised of physical particles, as the rest of the universe is. Yet, what is dark energy? Theoretical physicists say it’s essential in the universe, but they can’t say what it is (or what it’s made of). So, is play energy? It’s in all of us, after all.

What caused those skaters to skate, the lights of that ambulance (or fire engine, I couldn’t tell) to play between the buildings, the headlights to play against the branches? Was it the play energy of the universe? In a non-theological, non-religious way, if we humans can be seen to have a soul/mind, which isn’t a material substance like a body (i.e. there is an immaterial substance/something ‘in’ us), then immaterial substances do exist and can exist ‘out there’.

There is a word I’m rather taken with at the moment: immanence. This is about the idea of ‘being contained within’. In a religious sense, ‘God is within’. I’m not religious, so treat that as a metaphor. Play is within. Play is immanent, perhaps. At the same time, in this thinking, play is within everything — everything — and we live within play. It’s not a case of ‘now it’s play time’ because play is in all of this that we are, it is the fabric of our existence, and it is the fabric in which we exist.

We just have to see it, that’s the trick. It’s a matter of perspective, of seeing that the play of the skaters is play (in our view); that the play of the lights of the ambulance or the fire engine (whichever these lights actually belong to), between the buildings, is play; that the play of headlights against the branch, is play: it’s all some play. If we step to the side, we don’t see that play . . .

At the end of the day, what we believe is true.
 
 

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