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.