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.