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

Archive for July, 2013

How far a small matter of trust goes

It was the last day of the school term, but that doesn’t matter when you’re a three year old doing a tour of the local parks. We made our way, by random child’s choice, from the least used park (a poor, hidden, under-used little place at the bottom of my road), via another, to the most open and full park on the circuit. The latter of these, although just as dull in fixed play equipment to my adult eyes as the others, filled with the overflow of variously aged school-children released for the holidays. In short, there were plenty of people there of different ages and genders.

After a while of sitting in the sun, observing Gack’s usual comings and goings about the place, something just a little out of the ordinary took place. I thought that here was something I needed to write about. Here’s the build-up: Gack saw another boy of about his age pushing himself around the tarmac areas of the park on what must have been, to Gack, a wondrous sight; something coveted; something needed — a four-wheeled scooter! Not the ordinary common or garden two-wheeler, like his, not even the three-wheeler ‘two at the front, one at the back’ variety — a full-on four-wheeler! Gack needed to ride that scooter. He told me so.

It’s not yours, I told him. Deal with it. ‘But I want to have a go,’ he said straight up, though not taking his eyes off it. ‘So go ask.’ I sat on the grass and refused to do anything to help him because this was something he ought to man up about and just do. After a short while, it seemed, Gack realised I wasn’t going to do anything. The other boy was scooting around, oblivious to the desperate need of this other child a few yards from him. Eventually, Gack’s little voice peeked out from somewhere in the entrails of the static wooden train structure. The other boy rode past. ‘He didn’t hear me,’ Gack said on coming back to report to me. I shrugged. He went off and tried again.

Again and again the other boy circled around in his oblivious way. Eventually, there was eye contact, smiles, something connecting taking place. Somehow, the next scoot round the train was Gack scooting round with the other (laughing) boy in tow. The play took hold, and the other boy made use of Gack’s two-wheeler scooter in return (even having a need to wear Gack’s bike helmet). I watched on, slightly surprised that all this had taken place, and the play tumbled around and around.

That’s the build-up because at some point soon after this I started taking more notice of what the other boy’s father was doing: or rather, I started taking notice of what he wasn’t doing. He wasn’t doing anything. He sat about twenty yards from me: him on the bench under the tree, me on the grass. We both couldn’t see both of the boys all of the time. He wasn’t doing anything to get in the way of the play, and he especially didn’t do anything (apart from knowing where his boy was) when the child gravitated over to me. This happens (the gravity thing) sometimes, I find. It’s almost as if some children can sense the playworker sensibility. I don’t know. Maybe.

The other child didn’t speak with me at first: he just wandered closer and I sensed that he was curious, or then he wanted his scooter back for a while, or that he was checking to see if I was paying attention, or something like this. When the boy came over and sat with me and Gack, out of the corner of my eye I sensed from his father . . . just no panic. When the two children and me chatted on the grass, the boy’s father could see us but didn’t call his son over. He didn’t change the way he sat. He didn’t show any agitation or alarm of any sort. There was no negative vibe (not even when his son asked me to help him put Gack’s helmet on — I thought quickly about this, but in the moment it felt OK). I wondered if I should make at least eye contact with the boy’s father, but I didn’t because I knew it wasn’t needed: he didn’t seem to need me to ask for distant affirmation that this was OK, and I didn’t need him to say so in so many words. It was just fine. When Gack and the other boy wandered over and chatted with the other boy’s father, it was all fine.

Why am I surprised by all of this? Frankly, I see and feel a lot of the opposite when out and about in the parks with Gack on any other day. Generally speaking it’s the maternal protection instinct that I feel come at me in waves (even when with a three year old who, even if it’s not always clear that I’m related to him, then at least it’s evident that I’m on ‘snot-smearing on bare arms’ terms with!) I’m sorry to say that (although not by a long shot always) I’ve had enough knee-jerk ‘man in the playground’ reactions from over-protective mothers to warrant being pleasantly surprised by a father’s ‘everything’s fine’ approach (though the female au pairs and suchlike don’t seem to be as bothered as the mothers).

After a while, when Gack and I needed to get on, and when the boys had swapped their scooters back again, I did talk briefly with the other man. He’d come over to support his boy and I told him a quick story about what I’d seen earlier in the play. That was all. I didn’t feel it necessary to say thank you for the trust, or suchlike. It was all implicit within the overall communication. Off we all went on our separate ways.

What had happened here? Was I lucky enough to come across an unusually understanding play-appreciative and, most importantly, trusting father? Are the adult genders so far apart really in protective stances towards their children? I can only tell it the way I felt it at the time.

Gack and I left the park to go hunt down a bus. The heaps of released and variously aged school-children who were also in the park also didn’t seem to have any concerns about any of the adults around them. Trust, in a society that a lot of adults seem to have forgotten about how to do, goes a long way.


Think of all the bubbles in time we made

Two very spontaneous, and relatively short-lived, instances of play this week form the soapy skin of the words that will fall and float below this sentence. I write it this way because I don’t know what I’m about to write, exactly, though the words and thoughts and interconnections have been drifting around in me for a few days now. Actually, truth be told, some of this has been drifting and floating around in me for many years now. It is the subject of human connections that I’m looking at here, and bubbles are my vehicle of choice.

Earlier in the week I was sat out in the shade of some trees at an after school club. It was a ferociously hot day (like that summer of ’76, back when I was a child and all summers became defined by the legend of that time in the sun). It was so hot this week that simply moving from the shade to the sun (where some younger children played with water and some old bulbous metal kettles, seemingly oblivious to the heat) was like moving between climates for me. I sat in the shade and observed the slow way of the play on this hot day.

From within a pile of play stuff in the middle of the grass, under the tree, I saw how one younger girl found a wide strip of bubble wrap. I hadn’t seen it and so I was as intrigued by it, and by what she would do with it, as she seemed to be by finding it. The bubble wrap was maybe as tall as she was and, it transpired later, made a serviceable cape — wide enough as it was. As she first wandered with it though she found that the large clear plastic bubbles made a pleasing popping sound. To my ears they were deep pops and, I admit, I really had the urge to pop them myself as well. I had to hold back. I don’t know what it is about this very modern phenomenon that is the human/bubble wrap attraction!

The bubbles clearly excited and amused the girl. Soon enough a few other girls became attracted to the bubble wrap too. Earlier, these girls had softly (but significantly) rejected the first girl in their play. Now, they had every need to do some popping too; so they just let their fingers do the asking. Within a short time after this, the bubble wrap had been laid on the grass and the girls were jumping on it, a little way from me. The pops seemed instantly gratifying to all sets of ears involved in the playing and in the nearby observation. There was a musicality to it all, a soft sensory slightly destructive, ridiculous minor magic in the moment.

The next day I was in my own garden with Gack, who — regular readers will know — is three. The heat still hung over us as the week slowly progressed, and Gack was in an odd indecisive sort of mood. The shed of play stuff didn’t get tipped out as it usually does, and the home-made plastic-coated fish we’d cut out and made some weeks back were just bobbing around in the paddling pool, forlorn and untroubled by Gack’s equally home-made half a piece of plastic, string, and metal weights concoction of a fishing rod.

There were some new bubble guns to try out though. So we both spent a while keeping our fingers on the triggers, churning out the factory-produced soap juice mixture: me waiting to see what would run out first — the juice or the batteries. The bottom of the garden filled with purple-green, uniformly-shaped bubbles (odd, that: standard juice equalled standard bubbles! I digress). Then we progressed to pomegranate flavoured washing-up liquid and tap water, which didn’t juice up so well: instead spewing out a frothy bilge of mutant misshapen bubbles over our hands and sometimes spurting lamely off into the air. Gack didn’t seem to mind. He just went with the bubble flow.

He experimented by laying the bubbles onto the paddling pool water, which had been heat-stewing overnight and all morning. It became an oily frog-spawny pool. In a short while, we somehow found that we could form huge monstrosities of mutant half-bubbles on the slippery water surface and then get our hands and toes inside them from underneath without popping them. Gack stood in the pool, his trousers soaked because he’d had a random desire earlier to just sit down in the water in them. We spent a while just trying to mix the bubbles of each of our guns on the palms of one another’s hands, or on our arms. ‘I know,’ Gack said suddenly but matter-of-factly, ‘we can make beards.’ It was a good idea, I thought. So we tried to make beards, but our skins weren’t slippery enough. We made some other bubbles instead, then Gack floated off and did some other stuff.

A while ago, whilst out and about in the course of training, advising and so forth, I (rightly or wrongly) fell into a way of explaining the playwork term of ‘play frame’ as kind of like bubbles of play. I apologise here to the writers of the paper I was trying, in part, to explain (and for my contribution to the reduction of some more complex playwork thinking to simplified terms). I’m not one for deliberately dumbing things down. However, my experience at the time told me that people often found the word ‘frame’ to represent something a little more rigid than the more fluid psychological entity I read into The Colorado Paper (Sturrock and Else, 1998). So, somehow, this analogy of ‘bubbles or instances of play’ came to be born. I hadn’t thought of it in so many ways back then (and this is only a few years ago in any case), but these bubbles of play can be rather like soap bubbles we enter, trying not to pop them, or they’re like bubbles that might join together.

Now, I say we but there’s still a fair amount of playwork people who might well say we adults aren’t there to join the play at all. I’m not fully going down that road here and now, but I am thinking that we all share this planet. Play has been seen to be the guarded right of children, and only children, in some quarters. That we are adults seems to preclude the notion that we can or should play. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should be ‘allowed’ (by the laws of the playwork gospels) to go in and dominate and control and all other ways of ruining children’s play (I stand by this), but we can connect through play. In play we are ageless.

The key (and the message is consistent here) is that we’re conscious of the play and of ourselves and of our actions. If we’re invited into the bubble of play, or if the bubble forms around us of its own accord, or if we observe the musicality of the moment from a short distance, we should know what this all is: we should do everything we can not to deliberately or accidentally pop that bubble; or we should resist the urge to involve ourselves where not appropriate, which is tantamount to the same thing.

When I was writing some (very) rough notes on this piece of writing a few days back, I stopped in the gloopy sun oozing through the window in search of ‘a hook’. What’s the hook here? That morning I’d had a dream (not of the Luther King variety!): I’d woken, before the alarm went off, with the dream just swilling around in the dense clarity of logic that only the liminal space of just before fully waking can be (where mostly everything was fully within grasp, though dissipating slowly, but where one small element was missing: it was an important, significant, small element, and I had mislaid it). Here was the hook as I wrote my notes: in the bubbles of play that we might deliberately or accidentally pop, that significant discovery of play is lost, like the dream fragment. In the play, the child or children or even us, may not even know what’s being looked for (in the deep popping of large bubble wrap plastic pods, in the fusing of mutant soap mixture bubbles, in the getting inside of half-bubbles from under the water); in the sudden destruction of the bubble, something significant — some significant fragment — is now just out of reach and fading slowly.

That we can, and do, connect in these bubbles of forming play makes them potentially all the richer. We should be conscious of them, and of ourselves and our connections, of the spontaneity of the moment, and of the world turned purple-green for just then. We can and do connect because, in play, we’re ageless.

On affective interaction

Good quality interaction isn’t always appreciated and understood. I’ve worn several of my many hats this week, but a thread that’s run through all these recent days is how we can positively affect and be affected by way of such quality. I’ve seen this both in meaningful contact and by observation of poorer quality interaction. In a week in which some members of the playwork world discussed matters regarding ‘the argument for playwork’ at Sheffield Hallam University, it strikes me as serendipitous that my own playwork thinking this week has been focused on interactions: as playworkers we’re more than simply creators of environments that support play and advocates for children’s rights to access those environments. This is my experience.

This area of quality of interaction could be seen to be subjective, and sure, what’s good for someone might not necessarily be good for another; however, being well used to observing over the years and in various job roles, when I observe a child’s total disassociation from the moment in question, say, because of poor quality adult interaction, then subjectivity all but gets taken out of the equation . . . this then is a case of actual poor quality taking place. More of this later. First, some positives.

I spent some time this week engaged in conversations with a young man with learning difficulties. We were out and about and something clicked. We had random conversations on matters which clearly stimulated him and which he wanted to know more about or tell me about. Did I know, for example, that brown sauce is made of sausages? Or did I know that the stuff in the fields, that yellow stuff, makes Wheatabix? Strawberries grow underground, perhaps. Jam is fantastic. Chickens lay eggs. How far is the moon from the Earth? Some towers are very tall, etc.

The point to this preamble is that in conversation with him I didn’t talk down to him or try to fix him with what I might have felt to be more important or less random subject matters. I felt ‘in the moment’, in the flow, on a level, and it was the right level because jam is fantastic, brown sauce does seem as if sausages could be involved, some towers are tall, the moon is (it turns out) some 240,000 miles from the Earth. We were in the same emotional and imaginative space at the same time and it felt necessary and right and the only place that we could be.

I also had another conversation of quality that day with a young man in a wheelchair. We were sitting in an outside café area and he manoeuvred his chair next to my bench and raised his seat up so our head levels were the same. We sat in the sun just talking of this and that, and then he started telling me about the difficulties in his everyday life. He wasn’t moaning, he was just saying. He told me about his medical difficulties and so I asked, ‘What’s that like?’ He was matter of fact and articulate in explaining things. He told me how he gets annoyed when people don’t talk with him just because he’s in a wheelchair. I came away thinking something along the lines of ‘there but for the grace of whatever we believe in go we’, but I also had a sense that some significant interaction of some sort had been made here.

Earlier in the week, however, others’ interactions (this time with children) didn’t feel so right in the moment. When I’m able to work in a field, literally, on a sunny day, I realise there are many people who would like to be in this position. I observed a good playworker’s work with a group of school children; then, when I had all the information I needed here, I found my attention turning to the interactions of teaching staff also present. The children had been on a day out of school: building fires, catching bugs in nets, climbing trees, whittling with knives and so on. It was, however, all a little anxiety-infused by the teaching staff come the end of the session.

If you are that playworker reading here, and I know you have done in the past, you have done well. When the children were asked to tidy things away, you managed to slip my observation for a few moments, ghosting quietly and respectfully through the long grassy space as you did. The teachers — these teachers in particular (this isn’t, as ever, a blanket perspective on the profession), however, decided to get across their planned-in teaching objective (of ‘teamwork’) via their late session anxiety: that is, as they hurried the children along to finish ‘on time’ they sat and pointed, proclaiming ‘teamwork’ loudly at a child who evidently wasn’t showing this; or they told individual children ‘responsibility’, or such-like whilst not assisting the children themselves. Such was the poor quality of interaction here (and yes, they had also used a whistle on various occasions — one of my personal pet hates) that one child I observed, bringing his hand-drill and circle of wood to a teacher, finding her doing it all for him (threading it into a necklace for him too), stood and looked up at the sky with a visible sigh. What, I wondered, had he learned here?

What I re-learned here was that our interactions are important because of the moment, but also because they can partially or wholly define any other person. We can hold memories of others either by our first impressions (the ‘primacy error’: everything thereafter being used by our brains to try to ‘prove’ our first impressions) or by accumulation of interactions of quality, or equally by those lacking in such. We form our bases of trust and love, or fear and other failures, of others; we build up our layers. Quality of interaction, here in these examples, is such because of how that interaction affects — or seems to affect — both parties.

When I wore another of my hats this week, out in another field, training on playworking ways, I worked hard — consciously — to be the best I could be in my interactions with the young people of that group. Perhaps I succeeded in places, and I know where I also came unstuck. This all had nothing to do with a feeling of ego needing to ‘win out’; it had everything to do with a sense of quality of interaction, of those I worked with deserving this, of a realisation that I too could learn and gain from them.

Good quality interaction can have significant and powerful affects both ways: the moments stay with us.

On factoring fear in

It was with a certain sense of curiosity, whilst out walking, that I came across a small group of boys (of about ten years of age) a short way ahead and in the middle of the path. One boy was on a bike and the others were fluidly gathered around. I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. My attention was drawn that way when another boy, who turned out to be part of their group, lurched into a sprint towards them just ahead of me: I wondered if, as a child myself, I could ever run with such sustained speed on such a hot day as this. Play doesn’t always care for the heat. Anyway, my attention was taken to the group farther up the path and I wondered, as I approached, if they would show any sort of fear or apprehension of me, this stranger, coming towards them.

Should I cross the road, keep an even set course, walk through the group, walk around them on the grass . . .? I decided that I’d just keep going. It was the way I was heading and the boys hadn’t shown any indication of awareness of me. My decision about whether to divert around or plough straight through was made for me when the boys swilled my way, down the hill, and parted around me before reforming behind me and going on their way. Such small incidences can prove significant in the thinking: this led me to realising that there was no adult with them (shock, horror!), and that the boys were also unperturbed by an adult they didn’t know walking right through their group (albeit they swarmed and reformed around me!)

It was refreshing to see this. After all, there’s certainly been a fair amount of fear pumped into children over the years about (though not restricted to) ‘stranger danger’. A little while later, on another hill as it transpired, I saw a parent (presumably) followed by a girl of about four years of age on her stabilised bike. What I actually saw first though — from around the corner as I came — were two other children, stationary on bikes and without an adult close by. My thoughts were refreshed from earlier on. It turned out that these children were attached to the parent of the stabiliser-bike girl, but they were just waiting around for her out of sight. Stabiliser girl didn’t wear a helmet and ‘mum’ didn’t seem worried about this. Nor did she fret about the wobbliness of the girl on the steep hill: also refreshing on all counts.

I mention this story because, like the thinking about the bike boys, it led me to consider the conditioning that goes on in society. I’ve written in these areas before, notably back in February in a piece titled Uncommon sense:

[E]verybody knows the received wisdom of what they’ve been told. They absorb that knowledge without question: children will fall and hurt themselves at height; children will fall and hurt themselves, at speed, without safety gear; children will hurt themselves on sharp and hot things.

This received wisdom is the conditioning: strangers are bad; if you go up high you’ll fall, and it’ll hurt; if you don’t wear a helmet, you’ll have to go to hospital, etc. The other day I was on a spontaneous trip to a local touch farm, as instructed by Gack who, in his three-year-old randomness, declared it to be a day to see animals. Sitting on a bench in a (pleasingly) unfenced designated play area, surrounded by chickens, watching the way of the world, gives ample time to reflect on the neuroses, which manifest in the space, of other adults/parents.

Poor little (let’s call him) Thomas, whose mother — I suspect — exhibited, in one afternoon, all the man-in-the-playground-fearing traits her boy could reasonably expect to need to last a lifetime: Gack made friends with Thomas and another boy some fifty yards away. I could hear him telling them my name and I felt a wave of ‘what does that mean?’ coming off them, before Gack insisted they come over to say hello. ‘Hello,’ I said and counted in my head, wondering how long it would be before . . . ‘Thomas, Thomas, come here . . .’ I shrugged at the boys and they scattered off and Gack and I sat on the bench and pondered our individual ponderings.

A group of pre-schoolers had been floating around the farm all day. They were dressed in bright yellow fluorescent see-you-a-mile-off jackets with equally bright pink and green strips for added visibility, dutifully holding hands like rows of battery-ducklings. When they were let loose in the playground (though ‘let loose’ only in closely adult-attended grouplets), I saw and heard one boy shouting ten yards across to (what I heard as) Mrs Snowfield (though that surname seems a dubious possibility to me). Three times he shouted it, but Mrs Snowfield was otherwise oblivious for whatever reason. She eventually turned around and saw her charge seven feet up on a platform. ‘How did you get up there?’ she asked him, with a little concern in her voice. (Well, Mrs Snowfield, I thought, because you weren’t watching — though I mean that not in terms of a dereliction of duty on her part, rather in terms of how he was able to get up there because her watching it might well have prevented it in the first place). ‘Be careful,’ she added. ‘You might fall.’ That he might, though now he knows it even more.

To be fair here, I realise I find myself saying things like this to Gack sometimes too. When I haven’t worked out yet what he might be able to achieve on something new to him, I sometimes have a moment of reminding him that slippery socks plus metal rungs might equal pain to some part of the body. Of course, in his three year old way, that subtle maybe-suggestion to put some shoes on isn’t picked up on: there’s no outward acknowledgement whatsoever from Gack, who seems to take my words as some affirmation that climbing higher is absolutely the most appropriate thing to do in these circumstances. Gack doesn’t fall and I question myself and the neurotic introjection I sometimes absorb when surrounded by parents of the cotton-wool variety.

Adults condition children into thinking in certain ways. We know this, and it was brought into focus for me this week when I also watched a documentary on human emotions. Michael Mosley presented The brain: a secret history. I was drawn to it, in passing, by hearing references to practitioners in neuroscience and psychology (such as Antonio Damasio, Harry Harlow, Albert Bandura), some of whom have been linked into playwork literature over the years. When Harlow’s name came up, my internal referencing system immediately led me to Suomi and Harlow (1971, I believe, though I cite this only from memory) and studies on monkeys’ relationships with one another. Harlow’s experiments led the documentary makers to present on the emotion of ‘love’ in human children. Bandura’s rather alarming experiments with an inflatable toy, and adult aggression towards it, showed how children would copy this aggression if seeing the adults engaged in it. What was most striking was the case of ‘Little Albert’ who, Mosley related, had fear induced in him by an experimenter named John Watson. Little Albert, a baby in the early 20s, was shown to learn fear of certain things if Watson banged loudly behind him when he engaged with those objects, or if Watson wore a frightening clown’s mask. Little Albert must have become damaged for his short life (he died at the age of six) — though nobody knows for sure.

Extremely questionable experiments aside, that we learn fear, and aggression, as children places a huge responsibility on the adults around those children. Emotions of fear and love and so forth contribute to (but don’t solely define) our human-ness, though how much of that is innate? How much of that do we ‘know’ from the start? That is, is any of it in our genes? Do we learn from the point of birth (or even in the nine months before), or are we absolutely blank of anything until such time as we can start to form our earliest neuroses? I wonder if the first face-to-face interaction of a mother (or whoever the baby sees first) with that baby, smile or aggression, makes any difference to them. Maybe a midwife can tell me this.

As a further aside, I was a little disturbed to see how Little Albert didn’t seem scared by fire on his first encounter with it. He was shown to reach for it when offered it by John Watson. Surely appreciation of fire is ‘in our genes’ and has been so for countless generations? That there was no appreciation of its potential affects, in Little Albert, might be cause for concern in some small corner of playwork-land (albeit this being just one demonstrable case).

If fear is pumped into us as children by fearful neurotic adults, we know what adults those children are likely to grow into. Again, this is not new thinking, but it’s worth pointing out here. Even small incidences of fear projection can alter the internal reckoning of those children — small incidences such as: unattendant adults suddenly realising the actuality of their charges being seven feet up on a platform; or of over-cautious pressure put on young children after seeing their curiosity at ‘worthwhile to investigate’ unknown adults.

I don’t know if the presumed parent of the stabiliser-bike girl with no helmet just hadn’t thought of the consequences of her falling off, or if she wasn’t concerned because she knew her child would be OK either way; I don’t know if the boys on the bikes had had ‘stranger danger’ alerts pumped into them from an early age (I suspect not, given their actions), or if they’d just chosen to ignore them, preferring to trust their own judgements. I don’t know the backgrounds to these particular children’s and adults’ stories, but I do know that the apparent lack of fear in both cases was refreshing to see.

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