In the observation of play, what is it that we feel? Or rather, why is it that we feel the way we do about that play? I ask these questions of myself, this week, but I also ask them of others in passing: there often seems to be a mutual adult appreciation of children’s play. Call it ‘appreciation’, ‘wonder’, ‘awe’, or any other word. Why is that?
Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t always apply. When children’s play becomes just a little too ‘beyond the edges’ of coping of any given adult, there’s no such appreciation. These adult edges are individual to each adult but often seem to have common themes: children’s physically risky play, play that involves a minor or major subversion of the norm or ‘the rules’, children swearing, children throwing things around, not sharing things, or any other sort of ‘not doing what’s generally seen as agreeable’. Just the other day I was walking down the street, in my own world, when I saw a couple of children playing out in the cul-de-sac. A woman soon appeared, shoving a pushchair up the road (presumably the mother), and she yelled at the children to stop jumping around. One child told her, without whining, just matter-of-factly, that they were dancing. The two children carried on dancing, much to the woman’s annoyance.
I hadn’t registered that they were dancing; I hadn’t stopped; I hadn’t even had a chance to consciously recognise that this was play here in front of me. I had, however, and on reflection, unconsciously recognised that something unusually usual was taking place here.
Take your children to the swimming pool and pay attention to what happens: you see adults diligently doing lengths, up and down, up and down, plodding away joylessly, and presumably with some self-improving goal in mind; turn your attention back to the children and there’s a bag of eels slopping around in all sorts of unpredictable configurations, in and out of the water, over the floats, and in and out of the pool.
Observing the play of children is like trying to keep track of the eddies and flow of a stream: you try to see where it all begins, or where it’s going, or how patterns might be forming in the flow, and it doesn’t matter how long you do that for because you’ll never find it. When we observe play, we can get hypnotised. What are we looking for in it all?
In playwork observation we know we observe for various reasons: to learn about play more than we know about it now; to try to understand about the use of various resources and environments; to inform our reflections on how we can best work to support and respond to the play. There’s something more to it too though: whisper it quietly because, although we know (or we should know) that children’s play is not about us, that we’re in service to the play . . . there is a small part of us that’s fascinated by the play that we’re seeing. It’s not just confined to the playworkers of the world: if it’s play that a non-playworker can accept as being play, then there’s that same appreciation, wonder, awe on their faces.
It might be wrapped up in phrases such as ‘that’s nice’, ‘how lovely’, or the like, but the core of it’s still along the lines of wonder. Why is that? Perhaps the whole ‘unplayed-out material’ thing (as Gordon Sturrock has it) does come into force here: that adults have an appreciation of their own child-play, deep down, and maybe there’s a need for it to be reignited again (even if only briefly). Some adults take this to the extreme, of course, and impact on the play of the children to such a degree that the children don’t get a look in. Do all adults have a certain degree of unplayed-out material?
Perhaps there’s a deep-seated need in all of us to escape the confines of what we call the real world. We escape sometimes by way of our own adult play; sometimes by impinging on the play of children to the extent of ruining it all for them; sometimes by observation of the possibilities of those ‘infinite variabilities’ of play. That we’re somewhat locked in to largely inflexible patterns in our adult lives (or so we might feel), may well lead us to those dopey-eyed expressions of wonder in the observation of children’s play. We’re troubled because we feel contained, and we’ve lost our naiveties. That naivety will never come back, so all we can do is envy and admire those who are more advanced in their fantasy creations than we are.
This notion of unpredictability might also come into the reckoning: it’s somewhat ironic to think that many adults seem to like the idea of a well-ordered, structured society in which everything ticks along for the good of everyone, yet in some deeper realm might they be in desperate personal need of a little of the opposite? In the seemingly chaotic scheme of things — under the control of the child player — unpredictability is embraced and tackled as it comes (not feared and shunned, as it tends to be in the adult world).
If we dare to delve just a little deeper, might we find a lurking desire to be in contact with all that is a subversion of the ‘norm’? That is, ticking along is all well and good and suits many people, but isn’t it all a little . . . dull? Subversion is exciting and full of life. Play is a rebellion in itself. How much do we each have a desire to rebel?
We might observe in order to learn about play, and to understand the use of resources and environments, but we might also be in a state of wonder, awe, appreciation because we have our rebellious streaks; because we envy the ability to embrace the unpredictable; because we admire the creative impulses; because we’re still driven — at least in part, even as adults — by the innate need to play, or at least to be in visual contact with it. Knowing how not to let our own play drives obliterate, or even slightly deflect the play of children, is key here though.
This week I made observations of a student for her playwork studies at the play setting where she works. As we were talking, and over her shoulder, my attention was caught by the sight of one of the younger boys as he grappled with some large Jenga blocks. He was building with them, but then he started skidding them along the floor. I don’t know why. He was soon joined by some other children. I don’t know what I was looking for when I observed this, nor do I know where or how it all shifted or where it was going. I just know that the play took my attention.
I spent a good part of this afternoon sat in the sun, up on the decking at the top of the garden and sat at the wooden table: a two year old and a four year old were flipping mounds of little plastic counters around, before they graduated to poking them through the holes in the boards, and then the youngest got up onto the table to scatter the whole array of coloured counters, buttons, various plastic pegs and paper and tin foil plates and boxes across the table and benches and onto the ground. He looked greatly pleased with himself, as a baby dinosaur might do if munching his way through a herd of weaker, smaller mammals not destined to evolve. I felt fine in returning the play cues, being part of the whole scheme of things at the children’s behest . . . and then there was just one moment of quite consciously needing things not to get poked into holes (though I really don’t know why) before the moment evaporated. Many more things got scattered and thrown around and poked into holes and slots between the boards. Que sera sera . . .
I was part of it, of course, but I was also able to watch on from a short distance: it was a small incidence of rebellion; of unpredictability; of admiration of the creative impulse in the development of the play frame (and in the destructive); of a need to be in visual contact with that play. The play wasn’t about me, but the observation of the play did affect me, and I have a need to know why this is and why it seems to affect many adults in similar ways.