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

Archive for August, 2013

A theory of the real (part one of some)

For most of the summer I’ve been concerned with thoughts on playworking in terms of a ‘theory of the real’. It’s a work in progress, and I know I’m not alone in such ways of thinking. There was a time when I knew nothing of playwork and I happily trotted along in my work with children, ignorant of all the things that were happening in the sector around me; there was then a time when I called myself a playworker but really, honestly, I didn’t know what that meant (in terms of the playwork writing that had happened and was continuing to be written); then I read some books — plenty of books; now I call myself better read but, despite this, not always comfortable with it all.

Sure, the books have helped — there’s no escaping that fact — but the trouble is, as I’ve touched on before in other writings, we can blindly follow things we read or things we’re told and not question them. We can look out into the world we work in, or live in, or co-exist in (or all of these) and we can think: so-and-so wrote this and he says this about that, so that must be true (despite what our eyes and ears and feelings are telling us, in the moment). In some obscure inner workings of the mind, it’s the same sort of thinking with the use of papers such as policies and procedures and risk assessments and so on and so on: what is written in such documents might well work at one point in time (that exact time in space when they were written), but things have a habit of shifting along.

Thinking about a recent impromptu day out at the park with family children, having seen them climb up and over and all around various pieces of static equipment, I also wander back to my own childhood. Did the designers of such equipment expect me to spin around on the swings, helicopter fashion, tightening the chains so much that they began to constrict my movements till I let go, zipping around? Did they factor that into their swinging risk assessments? (I don’t even know if such things took place in 1960s and 70s designers’ offices, or ‘parks created by management committee’ rooms, or the like; though that’s another story).

Whilst working this week, I swapped stories with colleagues about swing play when we were all children. There were tales (possibly tall tales, personal mythologies and legendary anecdotes) of how someone managed to flip right over the bar on the swings once. I found it hard to believe. I think I may have tried it when I was a child too, though I could never get high enough or fast enough to achieve it. The experience of trying and failing must have planted a permanent ‘not possible’ category onto my play memory. I moved on to other play challenges. If it was possible for this other person to flip right over the bar, once a long time ago, I don’t know if the swing’s designers factored that possibility of endeavour into the equipment. Obviously they didn’t, otherwise the legend (which was apparently true) would never have taken place.

When truly observing play, when deeply engaged in the unfolding actions and in the possible formation of verbal legendary narratives, it becomes clearer to me that something other than dry ‘on paper’ play is taking place. Something ‘very other’ takes place, in fact. Policies and procedures and risk assessments are easy enough to take a swipe at in this ‘dry paper’ way, but sometimes I read some playwork books and I start to wander down similar avenues of thinking. Can it really be true that what was happening in playworking ways circa 1973, for example, is still relevant in the same ways in 2013? Is [insert highly regarded playwork writer’s name here]’s opinion on dealing with conflict in children’s play, for example, really going to work in the heat of the moment? What’s the deal with the dogma many seem to have blindly taken on as gospel truths? It’s not entirely fair to place this question squarely at the feet of the writers: I used to think Dylan sang ‘Don’t follow leaders, walking parking meters’, which would have been a much better line, and so I use it here . . .

This ‘theory of the real’ is fraught with difficulties: not least of these is the potential for those who ‘buy in’ to the idea of ‘doing it for real’ having a total disregard for all that’s been researched and written. There is the potential for some who work in the sector to disregard the literature purely out of laziness or to conceal their apathy at reading. They might say, ‘Why listen to people who write books, or who wrote about this stuff when they were working with children all those years ago? What would they do about five-year-old Johnny’s concerns about educational attainment?; or what about twelve-year-old Gary, who can’t butter his own bread because Mummy’s always been worried about him using sharp things without close supervision?’

These are just examples! I could equally have written, ‘What would happen if little Johnny came out of nowhere and told the playworker/writer how much they loved them? What if Gary had insisted and insisted that the playworker/writer had shown him how to work the hose?’ Did these things happen in 1973? I don’t know; I was barely out of my ‘why, why, why’ questions phase and nylon brown shorts back then! Maybe some of my other playwork colleagues can tell me . . .

This ‘theory of the real’ looks to me, at the moment, something like an amalgamation of several ways of working: as I’m prone to do in such cases, I often paraphrase thinking (attributed to Picasso or the Dalai Lama?) — that ‘rules’ can, of course, be broken, but to do this the ‘rules’ need to be known in the first place. Or, in other words, sure we can say let’s disregard this or that from the playwork literature, but only if we’ve read and understood it in the first place. Only if we can be sure(ish) that something from what we’ve read ‘doesn’t fit’, because we’ve observed and felt the contrary, can we say ‘no, this doesn’t work.’

This (particular) theory of the real is a work in progress. It includes the things I’ve read, the things I’ve observed, the things I thought I knew when I thought I was a playworker, and the things I just did before I knew anything at all. What I know very much includes what I’ve seen: this is how children (including me when I was younger) play and have played; this (communication, magic, love, call it what you might) is what these children here and now show. I don’t always read what I’ve observed in some of the literature . . . and policies, procedures, risk assessments and so on are too dry for such real world concerns.
 
 

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A momentary lapse/rescued by the observation of alchemical play

There’s something very basic I forgot about play this week. I re-learned it, in the moment, just in the nick of time. I’d been invited to be part of a playscheme day and my brief was to bring some things, for outside, that children might want to play with. My immediate first thought (a few weeks ago) was not to plan the play, but to plan for play. I didn’t have any information on the children’s play needs or preferences, which might have made it a little easier, but I did have a rough idea about the space and how it might be used (by talking with some of the staff before the scheme started). So, I went out on an intuitive limb (if there can be such a thing), and decided to go for something bubble-orientated. I had some other stuff too, just in case the play wanted to go that way! However, I had forgotten something quite basic . . .

Maybe my own recent thinking and observation around bubbles and bubble play had influenced the few days before the playscheme day, and maybe I could just have taken a car load of stuff and tipped it out (as I have been known to do at other such sessions, or on ad hoc street play before). This wasn’t, directly, the thing I’d forgotten about play though. Once I’d decided on fixing up some bubble goings-on possibilities, I spent a couple of days beforehand here and there just trying to get a mixture going that would be . . . what? Good, perfect, right? Something like this. It was a process of exact measures of water, corn flour, baking powder, a little gelling agent, concentrated or non-concentrated washing up liquid decisions, settling periods, working out possible ways of making bubbles with various home-made contraptions. I had several batches of mixtures on the go and the patio turned white in places with the various residue spillages. My concoctions weren’t working the way I’d hoped they might, and my bubble-making equipment just wasn’t cutting it.

Eventually, I gave up on perfecting the mix and had a beer! It would be what it would be the next day, at the playscheme, and I crossed my fingers that it might be something! So I turned up at the playscheme session with a car load of general stuff and a crate full of more general stuff and some possible ingredients for possible bubbles. Batch number three had settled and stewed in the car overnight and I had just enough raw materials left over for possible batches four and five, or so.

‘What you doing?’ one boy asked as he wandered by the wedge of paving slabs between the grass and the football pitch where I’d set up my chemical wares. ‘Thinking about how to make bubbles,’ I said. ‘Want to try?’ He nodded and quickly started poking around the tubs of little bits and pieces, bottles and other ingredients I’d emptied out onto the picnic table and on the floor around it. I was pleasantly surprised by his dedication because the bubbles weren’t taking at first. Within a short while he’d progressed to making his own mixture. I told him that I had some other stuff (the powdery stuff was, as it were, ‘under the table’ at this point). Perhaps this was the start of what I’d forgotten about play: it wasn’t so much me trying to hide the baking powder and the corn flour from the children; it was more that I was trying to protect the possibility of batches four- and five’s evolution. OK, hands up, I was looking to save a little so I could carry on the experimenting from the previous day: not deliberately in play for me, but so that play for them might happen.

The boy didn’t tip all the powders in though, and he knew that there was only a little glycerine left; though it appeared necessary for the washing up liquid to be squirted in in quantity! Here’s the point on what I’d forgotten about play: despite my best intentions in planning for play (being a little protective over preserving the ingredients so that a better bubble mixture might be made, i.e. by me), the boy and the next boy to come along — as if alchemists — squirted in their unmeasured washing up liquid, spooned and shook in the various powders, scooped in water in random quantities, mixed it up with fingers, sploshed it around to foam it up (despite my research telling me not to!), and lo and presto, without any settling time to speak of (my notes and experiments had told me to wait at least an hour, possibly two), presto, there was a working bubble mix that produced, after a short while, consistently gloop-heavy, wobbly, large bubbles fairly often!

How did that happen? Of course I know how that happened, but I’d forgotten it: the process of play was what was happening here; play as the great experiment. The same experimenting happened with things to make the bubbles with: the boys used sodden pipe cleaners, bits of other wire, string, sticks, some things I’d thought of, some things they’d adapted from mine, some concoctions of their own. It didn’t matter: the process was what seemed to take them deeper and deeper into the play. When children nearby started spilling out onto the grass with lunch in hand, one of the boys looked out and said: ‘What? Lunch already?’

What the children say is always a good ‘observation’ to make: consulting with children is all very well and noble, but listening can give you a lot of what you need. One of the bubble boys said in passing, without prompting, ‘We should do bubbles all the time.’

Later, when some girls came over, poking around, I invited them in and they accepted. They too had that experimental tendency: they made bubble-makers out of some old bits of tubing I’d forgotten I’d brought along, effective as it was. What struck me most about their play though (so much so that I consciously stopped myself doing what I was doing and told myself that this is something I just needed to sit and observe for a few moments) was that they decided that they could and should just blow bubbles through O-shapes in their clenched hands! All the time we sometimes take in designing things that could be played with, and children use the simplest method possible. It was a beautiful moment to look up and see the girls laughing as they held up their cupped hands so that they were each blowing into the other’s possible bubble. I realised that they were trying to form double-bubbles and bubbles through bubbles and other bubbles I couldn’t guess at. One girl ended up wearing the bubble mixture on her face each time, but it didn’t matter! Then that bubble of play popped and the girls scattered off.

As time went by I also realised that whenever I bring stuff to play with on days like these, I invariably end up having sparked off something messy! I looked around at the wedge of paving slabs between the grass and the football pitch, and the corn flour was caking the surfaces of the ground and the table and bench; the chalks had been found and mixed into thick ‘paint’ and smeared onto other surfaces; the vestiges of used experimental apparatus were strewn around the space. To me it felt like a little oasis of mess. I don’t know what it felt like to the children who played there, but I do know that the experiments had been play-worthy (because some of the children had told me so in so many words, and because some of the children had shown me so in the way they’d used the space and its ingredients).

What I’d forgotten to know, for a short while, was that play takes its own form (this was never conceived as an ‘activity’ — adult-led — as such, but the day did cause me to reflect a little more on the play of the moment).
 
 

An adult’s journey in magic/play

The other week I was delivering some basic playwork training when I was taken slightly aback by a comment I really didn’t expect. There were a couple of eleven/twelve year old boys involved in the adult group, as a first rung into this field of work I suppose. I asked the group for their general ideas on play. One of the boys confidently told me that he saw play to be ‘for education’. This troubled me in the moment, and it still does now (on later reflection). Was this what this boy really saw play as? Or was it what he thought I wanted to hear? Was this a case of him being, shall we say, softly conditioned into thinking in such a way? Play is for education? In truth, I’m not even sure I know what that means entirely.

Here’s how I see play (I mean that in two ways: (i) here’s what I think about play; (ii) here’s an example of play that I’ve observed recently). I was sitting outside a pub in London, drinking an after-training beer. It was a crowded thoroughfare and plenty of people swilled past. I didn’t pay them as individuals too much attention. Then I saw a young girl of about three years old. She was being pushed along in a pushchair. I only caught sight of her for a few seconds before she was out of view amongst the plethora of legs and other moving bodies out there. She just sat and swung her frizzy-haired head around, eyes closed or at least seemingly not focused on anything in the outside world. It was almost as if she was dancing along, sat down, to her own internal music. Then she was gone.

Little moments like these are magic. I mean that literally. This word ‘literally’ often gets used inaccurately in modern ways. I mean to use it accurately: little moments like these are magic. There is real magic in the world, and this area of thinking seems to be taking up a lot of my various writing avenues at present. In this context of play, magic is all around us. This isn’t the ‘magic’ of illusion I’m writing about here: this is the magic that we can see if we look with our deeper selves. Play is for education? No, play is (if not ‘for’, then) of magic.

Attempting to find a deeper way into this whole frame of thinking, I went about developing ideas of magic in some recent discussions with other playworkers. Conversations about various historic places of astounding personal value presented us with the thinking that such places could be ‘found’ or ‘created’. Perhaps this is nothing new, yet we sometimes need to have such conversations to be reminded of such things. In fact, it proved to be the case that these deep recollections of personal value also started spawning other such buried treasures. I’m not talking about the trainer’s usual device of digging into play memories to excavate why play is here: this is a whole conversation that needs delving into for other reasons.

I’m not sure everyone I spoke to in these conversations was exactly on the same wavelength as me (we can’t, perhaps, fully describe something so elusive as the ‘magic of the moment’); though I hoped everyone was at least on some path to having some inkling as to what on earth I was trying to say. Magic is real, this I’m sure of; though describing it is maybe on a par with what Thelonious Monk is attributed to having once said about jazz: writing/talking about jazz is like dancing about architecture.

Somewhen back around 2007, I guess, when I first met Morgan, I remember being taken by her research (Morgan, correct me if I’m wrong in my recollections here!) along the lines of some sort of forensic archaeology of children’s post-play den structures. In my assimilation of that sort of thinking (processing it through my own experiences of taking a tired ten minutes or so at the end of a play session just to sit and look out on the ghosts of the space and the play that had happened here), I think of the magic that fizzes because of that play that has happened.

Recently, Marc Armitage wrote about children and stones, and it made me think about all the little offerings that have (over the years, and on occasion) found their way into the long side pockets of my own camo-trousers when working ‘out in the field’. When I was a child, I remember I also had plenty of random found objects which had some ineffable magic quality about them. I stored them. I was a hoarder child. Children, in my experience, don’t give their magic-infused (or otherwise special) objects lightly. Sometimes I don’t know why I’ve been entrusted with, or given, certain high value objects. Last year, in Sweden (stop me if you’ve heard or read this story before, but it’s becoming a small personal legend to me — in the same way that retold stories become exceptionally infused), I was at a forest school, observing, and without English, was privileged to receive a made-offering bracelet from found scrap things from some older girls. I still don’t know why. Something beautiful took place.

I have a thousand stories of magic, if I dig down, though I don’t know what most of them mean (apart from the fact that something took place). Perhaps I’m not meant to know. All I can do is try to recognise the tiny things that fizz, like a swarm of neutrinos sluicing by, gone in an instant. There’s far more that happens than meets, or passes, the eye. We can be seen; we can be given objects; we can be seen to recognise objects of significant value (though not the monetary kind); we can appreciate found and created, evidently sacred places; we can be known as someone who walks lightly on the earth when it comes to where play is . . .

I shall take away the term ‘playworker’ at this point and replace it briefly with . . . something . . . Play appreciator? Play receptive? Play-wise? It doesn’t matter: what matters, I’ve felt for a while now, is that this person is this something deep down, and can be seen to be so, if they know to walk around the play that’s forming (not dead straight through it); to leave be the found and created sacred places; to accept with good grace the offerings entrusted or given to them; to keep those offerings safe and with the reverence they deserve.

Play is for education? Only if this means the education, the journey, of the adult who sees some of the magic of the world.
 
 

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