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.