It’s late at night and I’m just leaving for home. It’s not children I’m working with in this instance but adults with learning difficulties. I have a conversation with one young man: we’ve seen each other around and somewhat kept our distances. We say goodbye and then I shake hands with him. Another day and, again towards the end of the session, I see him going out the door. I’m looking out through the window and he makes a deliberate point of showing me the toy he’s taking out. Ten seconds later, and for a fraction of a second before he leaves — by way of the slight opening in the doorway — he sticks his tongue out at me.
It is a moment in which I instantly think: here is play. It’s also a moment in which I think that this is about the formation of relationship making. I write this story because of continuing thoughts on the nature of connections between people. This story is about two adults, both of whom seem to understand play in various ways; I use it to form a springboard into more writing on relationships between adults and children. Or, rather than this word ‘relationship’, as I was advised by a very good friend a very long time ago, shouldn’t we be thinking more about the idea of ‘relating’?
This post isn’t specifically about playwork thinking, though of course there will be links into it. This post concerns relating and play just ‘out there’. That said, it’s worth taking a quick poke around some playwork thinking. For a long time I was uncomfortable about this idea of the ‘phantom playworker’ (he or she who pretty much stays in the background and isn’t really noticed). In my experience, children could generally communicate with adults without the latter necessarily upsetting their play. Maybe I wasn’t doing playwork right? I don’t know. I just know that the idea didn’t always tally with my experience. I read more, met more people engaged in the practice, read more again, talked more, etc. I understood more. I got sucked into playwork. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
I got to thinking more about it all and so I write how it is ‘out there’. I started wondering if all the literature on playwork wasn’t missing something kind of important; that is, yes, let’s consider the play itself, and the space, and the playing children, and even the playing child . . . but what about considering the child as an individual? What about considering how this individual playworker relates with this individual child?
Co-incidentally, and annoyingly, this thought has popped up — in passing — even just this morning in my inbox. In an e-zine on playwork matters, the editor has suggested that play is often seen as more important than the child. OK, so maybe there’s a point to be had there. However, the editorial also includes the suggestion that maybe the child at play shouldn’t be what’s focused on; that is, the adults who are concerned with play should be worked with instead. At least I think that this is what it’s trying to say.
I haven’t formed an opinion yet on these thoughts. I’m still concerned with relating. Even the occupational standards in playwork (which learners for qualifications are assessed by) talk about developing and maintaining relationships with children and young people. So, on the one hand we’ve got some playwork writers who advocate a stand-off approach, and on the other hand we’ve got course learners expected to develop a good rapport with children, help them to respect other people’s feelings, and help them understand about positive relationships with others.
We need to cut to the chase: without relating we live in individual caves. Children can be very social creatures, and they can also be incredibly intuitive and astute. In our predominately ‘western/first world’ ways of thinking, children often get isolated from adults’ thinking processes. What the individual and particular child has to offer can be ignored. In other cultures, the connection between adult and child is much stronger (according to studies I’ve read on some indigenous tribal communities, Hispanic families, etc).
I have many stories I can tell (as all of us who’ve worked with children no doubt have). Arthur highlighted to me recently about the importance of titles for stories: so my working title for the following story is Show Me the Money. I will always remember this story because it still makes me laugh with a sort of gallows humour. A while ago I was visiting a holiday playscheme. It wasn’t a very popular scheme and, in fact, only a handful of children were in that day (all sat around a table colouring in ‘worksheets’, or whatever they were). It was a horrible windowless room. I knew one of the older girls from when she used to attend the schemes I worked at in the same town. I also knew this girl, Lizzy, when she was a lot younger: she was the one who was always climbing over the seats on the minibus when we parked up, banging the ceiling, and throwing things around when we were in the play setting. Then she got doped up and that sucked the play life out of her. Lizzy sat, doped up (I could tell), colouring in dutifully. She looked up at a member of staff at the playscheme I was visiting and asked him matter-of-factly: ‘Why do you work here? Is it because of the money?’
She said exactly what I wanted to say because later, when I was talking with him and his colleagues away from the children, he told me that he thought that children should basically be instructed on how to respect adults (i.e. him) and if they didn’t it would end in social meltdown all round! Lizzy, I still salute you!
This is, of course, also about anti-relating, as it were. If we bother to consider the individual child, what might we see? Here are some more stories (because there are many):
The Story of Words and No Words
A very long time ago, maybe twenty years ago or more now, I sat on the step of the hall with Pippa, who was about five at the time. It was a Saturday morning. We watched the way of the world and she told me she was ‘all roasting hot, like a chicken’! Later, I was still sat there, though I don’t recall what else was going on. Pippa passed by, giving me a look (summing up her approximation of my mood, I suppose), gave me a quick hug, and off she went.
The Story of Facts and Bees
Not so far back, but still a long time ago, Tom (ten years old) sat with me and told me what it felt like to be in his head. He had a condition that made him get very angry very quickly, almost without warning. Or rather, as Tom explained it eloquently: ‘It’s like my head is full of bees and I can’t get them out.’ He would go through his necessary frustrations, fighting it all the way, grabbing hold of my hand or arm, then when it was over he would sit down, breathe, and go on to recite all the FA Cup winners for the past eighty years or so, or other amazing football trivia. Tom was amazing in many ways.
The Story of the Return of the Sith
At White City adventure playground in London, one of the children recently took to calling me Dooku (after Count Dooku, apparently, from Star Wars!) I don’t know why. The last time I was there, each day we prepared to open the gates for the afternoon session and I would hear the playful teasing of ‘Come on, Dooku. Open up.’ During the session, wandering round, I might get sucked into a game of football by hearing something like ‘Oh, it’s Dooku on the wing, great pass out, ping it back in, Dooku . . .’ I’m thinking ahead in this story: I fully expect the full Dooku treatment the next time I’m there. (It makes a change from having conversations about ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ — I have long hair, you see! — or the teenage observation of how I look like Jesus, or — on one occasion — a group of younger children asked me to role play being ‘Bad Jesus’, which I still can’t fully get my head around!)
It’s relating that marks us out as important to one another, and play feeds right into that whole scheme of things. That one person can ‘see’ another by way of playful interactions is something special. Better a world of truly playful connections (between any adults, or between adults and children), no matter how fleeting, than the ego-political posturing and games we see around us all the time in the adult world.