I’ve been at the playground again in White City, London, for the Easter holidays. I have the intention to document some moments of stories from the week. It’s been a full-on day, but I’m on the train and I need, and want, to write whilst it’s still here in my head. Moments are important.
The week has been — by and large — about paint and fires and running around, and today (Friday) was a mass den building spontaneity of action. I’m often pleasantly surprised by what children find and how they make use of that stuff. The rain came down but it didn’t deter the children. It was an opportunity to build shelters, so there was a frantic scrabbling around for stuff: ‘We need wood, big bits of wood’; and ‘We need hammers, and nails, and those things . . .’ They didn’t know the word but they needed tarpaulins.
Various children kept coming, rooting around, finding things. Before long there were two pallet dens being constructed on opposite sides of the site (one of which involved a small army of labour banging nails into the fixed equipment, banging sheets of chipboard and other wood to make the walls). They had a tarp ready for something but it never made it on. I turned my attention elsewhere for a while and saw one of the boys trying to smash a nail into the wooden beams with a sledgehammer! I suggested it was probably a bit heavy for the job.
The other den ended up as a roofed, carpeted, clean affair by the fire pit: ‘No shoes, no shoes.’ One of the boys building it marched off to the other shelter being slung up after his mate had left the construction. He was going to ‘hire’ some other, more reliable, labour he was saying. The shelter was later abandoned. It just needed to be built, it seemed. At the other side of the playground, one of the older boys, on his own, was struggling to bang a nail into a piece of upright chipboard that was slowly mulching in the rain. He asked me to hold it for him while he banged. Eventually he punched a hole in the board as it caved in and splintered. ‘What’s the hole for?’ I asked. ‘It’s just a hole’, he told me. He looked at it and shrugged. ‘My work is done here,’ he said and downed tools to go off and do something else.
Back over at the fire pit in the corner of the playground, for a few days whilst I’ve been on site, the children have had fires going. Each fire has had a different feel. Tuesday I sit at the edge of the mud area, which is bordered by a rectangle of wooden sleepers. At one point I count eight boys sat around on plastic chairs and on the wooden bench seats which have been made previously, placed there. I watch the boys as they watch the fire. I don’t say anything much, and I’m quiet for pretty much most of the fire play this day. It seems to be what’s needed. The children come and go: sometimes boisterous, sometimes just poking around. One of the boys starts talking to me, telling me how he likes fires because when he’s with his whole family back in Ireland they make a big fire out in the field. This moment I sit and think how this job, when you’ve got it right, also involves creating the possibility, somehow, for magic to happen.
The fire play on other days maybe has different qualities because other staff are there around it, not me. I watch on on these days, from a distance, thinking about how I feel about the fire from this vantage point and how different it feels when in that play frame. Friday’s fire, I’m in the play frame again. One of the younger girls shows me her way of building it: we’ve both scrunched up newspaper balls and we’ve filled the hole I dug this morning (it’s a charcoal hole now, and the earth is way down). We have no kindling, though earlier I did saw up a load of dry two-by-fours which were in the store. The younger girl piles the dry wood up in a pyramid and I hand her the matches. When it’s lit other children gravitate over.
Before long they’ve all found long poles, which they wrap one end of with masking tape to make fire brands, or Olympic torches, as they call them. The other day we put some rosemary clumps on the fire — rosemary, I think! — found from the bush nearby. The smoke wafted up with a lush full smell and the children couldn’t get enough of it. I have to suggest they don’t rip up the whole bush and burn it because they start to hack off whole branches!
Today, before long, I see some of the children have taped sprigs of the stuff to the ends of their poles and they dangle it in the fire. They keep lifting the poles up high or at eye level and I find myself concentrating really hard on seven, eight, nine hot pole ends; the intentions on the faces of the children; the children who are ducking down briefly; the clothing of the children as they move towards the pit (to their credit though, they do mostly stay well clear), etc. I think of the children’s play, their clothes, their hair, and mine, and skins, and the slippery sleepers wet from last night’s rain, and the growing antagonistic mood of one of the older boys. It gets a little edgy. I ask Rich for an extra pair of eyes. In a moment, as it happens, Rich manages to start a conversation with the older boy about his tadpoles (he, the boy, and others, had gone out of the playground yesterday and come back with tubfuls of the eggs, ‘liberated’, shall we say, from a well-known news corporation’s grounds nearby!)
Rich and the boy go off to do whatever needs doing in the large planting tub by the door, which has become flooded, and thus — apparently — needed tadpoles. The rest of the children continue to poke the fire with their fire brand poles/torches and they load on more and more cardboard, as they did the other day, blowing oxygen into the embers with other cardboard sheets (or ‘winding it’, as they say). ‘Why not put more wood on?’ I ask. ‘Because cardboard burns faster,’ I’m told. Instant gratification culture!
Earlier, when it was raining: we had a load of powder paint mixed in trays and it was used by the children to smear onto, and to paint, wooden boards propped up against plastic chairs. The paint stuck for a while then slowly drained off, leaving multi-coloured smears on the paving slabs. It was transitory art. There was clay out on the bench in the downpour. It was an inspired move, I felt: the rain soaked the clay as the children moulded and squelched it into shapes.
There’s a buzz on the playground. Later, now, I think how the playworker is just in the dead smack middle of everything that is and could be happening, but just floating by sort of dead smack in it. One of the boys comes up to me, in passing, and takes my hands, saying: ‘Let’s dance. I’ll show you how to waltz.’ So we waltz for thirty seconds or so, and he wanders off someplace else!
At the clay, one of the girls’ hands are thick with the stuff. I go fetch her a bucket of warm soapy water and I tell her then that I recognise her from last summer, when I saw her last. She says she recognises me too, though she can’t remember my name. She tells me a little later how I had my hair dyed red back then. We see each other in passing throughout the session. I tell her she has splatters of paint on her face, so she shrugs. Later, near the end, she ambles across my line of ambling. She tells me she can’t remember my name, so I tell her and she spells it out. She has a piece of chalk in her hand. ‘I’m writing a list of VIPs on the wood over there,’ she says. She tells me she has all the playworkers on it already, and just has an out-loud conversation with herself about who else might go up there.
The end of the session gets somewhat hectic. It’s the last day of the Easter holidays and maybe the children are feeling it, or feeling the imminent prospect of school again next week. I don’t know. It’s a speculation. There are over thirty children on site and they’ve all been playing a chase-catch game with each other. I feel in the middle of something special: though I’m just tidying, not playing. When the game dissolves, one of the boys teases one of the girls by kicking a ball at her. She’s not happy and there’s a different form of chase-catch now going on. The playground becomes a swill of sensibilities, mixed emotions, allegiances and protections, shifting patterns of children seemingly wanting to do whatever they need to do to not have all this melt away. It’s how I read it.
We stay on site for longer than usual. Personally, I don’t know whether it’s best for us to stay till all the fractious activity fizzles out or just to lock up and let them get on with it. In the end it simmers down and we lock up. Another school holiday on the playground is over.
It’s been raining, it’s been edgy, it’s had its ups and downs but still the children come: it’s what’s needed because the children come — they keep their fingers on the door-buzzer five minutes before the gates are due to open and as we’re finishing up our lunches; we go around the corner to the gate and they’re pressing their faces to the holes in the fencing and poking their fingers through it, telling us to hurry up, get the keys, telling us things like how we owe them time at the end because we’re so many minutes late in opening up.
The playground is full of moments happening, having happened, and possible moments to come.