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).