Whilst hard at playwork at the White City playground in London again this week, I began thinking about what struck me as the incidental ‘play frames’. That is, the little but significant play happenings or sightings in the passing. Maybe this word ‘incidental’ doesn’t do the play that happens justice, but it’s something that I’d been thinking of — in the observation — as opposed to play that takes longer periods of time to unwind itself. Maybe there’s a different word that could be used, but for now I use the ‘incidental’ phrase to describe the ‘just in passing’ play, the moments of uniqueness, the pockets of maybe-magic.
First a little preamble. I’d been standing in the sun of the playground as the play just flowed around me. I was off to the side, trying to keep out of the way, trying to see as much as possible. My colleagues were variously busy at their playwork and it struck me that they were all doing this playwork but in slightly different ‘flavours’. That is, between us all, there were various manifestations of resourcing, of engaging in play, of supporting play, of observing. In observing the whole space, I was aware of observing as much of the whole as I could: the play that was happening in various ways in various places on site; the way the weather conditions were, or might be, shifting the play; the way the play props were scattered, and chanced-on things became found- and played-with things; the way that individual children interacted with other individual children; the way that my colleagues interacted with the space and with the children and with others and with me; the way that I affected things around me. The playground was several layers deep.
In my observing I noticed that sometimes my colleagues might anticipate what play was forming, or could be, and they’d be finding the playable things and setting them by to be found; or they’d simply be poking around on the edges of the playground, and that was a resourcing process in itself. Sometimes my colleagues would be actively engaged in the play, at the children’s request, withdrawing when appropriate (occasionally I lost track of one colleague’s involvement in the play, looked around and they were out of it; yet the play carried on). Sometimes my colleagues would be supporting the play, just nearby, just poking around at the edges of it, holding some tool or piece of scrap material, talking with children, moving on. Sometimes I could see, across the playground, that they were sat and observing deeply too.
So, in this framework of ways that we adults were on the playground, over the days, I started becoming very aware of what I’m calling — for now — the incidental play that took place. This happens everywhere — not just on the designated playgrounds: I see it on the Underground, in the streets, in shops, etc. Here’s what my observations on the playground threw up though:
The children had the waterslide out on the slope at the back of the site. One of the older girls was kneeling down, having been knocked down, and the older boy who’d caused it seemed to know that he shouldn’t tangle with her (I wouldn’t!): even though she was on her knees and he was stood up, she seemed to make him think twice by his making up of nonsense songs, there and then, as a way of deflecting her anger. The dynamic made me smile.
One of the younger girls walked across the playground towards a colleague, who called out her name. She called back, and he called her again. This to and fro of names and replies carried on for a few seconds, and then just floated away. To the outside observer this could have been seen as something aggressive going on, but I knew and sensed that it was two-way play that just popped up and was gone again.
Later on the waterslide, a group of older children sat in the slop of washing-up liquid and water that had collected in the hollow at the bottom. I could see them through the wooden structures’ poles in between them and me, from where I sat on the sofa outside and under the main building’s eaves. I was a long way off and I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I could see them just idly sploshing water around for a short while.
The idleness of play in this way could also be seen on several other occasions. The children made use of a huge beanbag that several of them could comfortably sit on at once. They shifted it around the wood-chipped area of the site and sometimes flopped around on it: they just looked out on the space, until a whole Wrestlemania session materialised, or jumping from the climbing wall onto it popped into being, and so on.
One day, a colleague had planted a long thin plastic pole into the wood-chipped area and bent it over so it formed an arch about four feet high. He left it there. I was sitting nearby, feeling suitably invisible, when I heard a girl wander over to it and say out loud, ‘Hmm, I wonder what I can do with this.’ (Maybe I wasn’t that invisible after all, or maybe she really was talking to herself out loud). Several other times, the slightest incidental play took place here: a child would walk by and trail his or her hand over the arched pole, then let it go, letting it wobble before moving on.
Two children had found the wheelbarrow. I was sat on the sofa again (from where I could observe a good slice of that end of the playground without feeling like I was in the way). From behind the wall, blindside, I saw an older boy come trundling out, pushing the wheelbarrow along the paving slabs with a younger boy in it. They made a turn at the sofa and the younger boy looked straight at me and grinned. Then off they went again, out of my view. A few minutes later, they came back and the same thing happened. Then it didn’t happen again. That was the highlight of my day that day — it was a little flash of magic in the moment.
What looked like a small black plastic pond casing was rested on chunks of wood at the edge of the playground. I walked by and saw a boy sitting in it, fully clothed, whilst another boy diligently filled it up with buckets of water. I walked back by a little later and the boys were gone.
One day, when several children were up in the platform house near where the waterslide takes place, one boy lay in the grass just behind the metal fixed slide. I walked behind, over the hill, and I don’t think he even noticed me. He was holding on to the slide and lying down, sort of crouching, but definitely trying to stay hidden. He was smiling and watching something or someone or trying not to be watched by something or someone, somewhere out there on the playground. I didn’t ever work out what that something or someone was.
During the children’s poking around period, one morning (I’d noticed there was this poking around going on for the first twenty minutes or so, each day: finding out, looking, pondering perhaps), I stood up on the platforms whilst some boys laid on the crash mat below. They started talking to me because one of the boys has taken to calling me Dooku, or Count Dooku (apparantly I resemble Christopher Lee — the acting credit I’ve just had a need to Google! — because I have some grey hair going on!) The children never made reference to the actor. We had conversatons about my Dooku-ness. Later in the day, I heard the occasional calling of ‘Oi, Dooku,’ or ‘Count Dooku’ coming from nearby, and the children were using it in the tone of it actually being my name. Little things like these have other layers.
There was a younger Spanish girl onsite for some days. She didn’t speak much English but I was impressed by her tenacity, and perhaps bravery, in overcoming this and coming to this playground full of strangely speaking people. When I first said hello, I got down on my knees and she said hello back and added, ‘No English.’ Another day, she insisted herself into the play of some older (and frankly much tougher) boys (though she had her own toughness, I guess). I was hanging around supporting what needed to be played in the piling up of tyres. The Spanish girl suddenly took my hat and placed it on herself, then gave it back: a small but significant play confidence.
I was waiting around with the Spanish girl, at the end of the day. It’s technically open access but her mother had said she’d come to collect her and she hadn’t shown up. The girl grabbed my hand and insisted that we do some chalking. We communicated with words of some sort of language, and with play, briefly. When she showed me cartwheels and her hopscotch ways, she jumped up with a little unprompted ‘ta da!’
One of the older girls had a camera one day. She was taking pictures of staff and play. She came up close and pushed the camera into my face. She came back a few times and did this, smiling as she did so. She seemed satisfied.
I walked down the slope at the hammock/entrance end of the playground. Two younger girls came up towards me, talking with one another. They were arm in arm and seemed deeply engaged with whatever they were saying. I moved around them as they went on towards the zip wire. I just felt, in the moment, that here was something important happening, though I don’t know what: it was a need to know basis and I didn’t need to know. I also felt that this was their playground, they used it, and they moved around in it in their own ways.
There are many, many more examples of incidental aspects of play on the playground. There’s one to end up with here though, for now, as related by my colleagues, and which I didn’t see directly myself: some children were filling up (what were) empty drinking water containers (the type you get on water coolers). They were using a hose and soon the container was full to the brim. When the hose was taken off, the water spurted up in a fountain. The children may well have been greatly amused. My colleagues seemed to be!
That, I think, is as good a way as any to highlight how moments of seemingly insignificant (yet actually potentially highly significant) play take place. Observe everything in the play that happens, everywhere that play does happen: little incidental moments build up and build up, and we might find we’re comprised of them, and then we can see they keep on filling us up and out.