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

Archive for October, 2013

A naivety of love/play as the antidote

A play story, of sorts, and of certain significance to me, tends to come back into my thinking time and time again. I may have written about this before, but I wanted to start with it again here. Every time I tell it I think it must shift a little (such is the nature of tales told), but the essence is pretty much consistent.

This is it: a few years ago, when working at a holiday scheme, a group of children and me were out on a large field, which the pavilion base building was situated at one end of. That day it rained. It bucketed down. A few brave souls stayed out for as long as they could take it, but then, eventually, everyone came indoors. Towels came out. Hair was dried. I remember sitting down on the floor in the doorway of the pavilion, looking out on the field and the rain. I was eating my sandwiches. After a short while I felt the need to look around. Behind me, quietly, a mound of soggy children were also sat down eating their sandwiches, looking out on the rain-soaked field with me. It was kind of beautiful in its own way.

I write this story because there are the most amazingly beautiful things that can happen when engaged in this line of work. I’m not even sure I consider this to even be work, if we think of work as something we’re obliged to do in order to gain something sadly necessary in return. I write this story above, to cut to the chase, because I sometimes feel more than a little frustrated with the microcosms we live in and with the ways of the world as a whole. I get run down by the petty politics we all have to wade through, by tokenistic political correctness, by the dishonesty and lack of integrity of corporate greed and managerial self-protection.

I’m not so naïve as to think that all the world’s major and minor ills are going to change by this time tomorrow; call me hopeful though that things don’t have to be the way they are. A friend of mine (someone for whom, and for whose wisdom of teachings and advice, I have the utmost regard) recently told me of her belief that, given a groundswell shift in understanding, a spontaneity of action can and will take place. If this is naïve, I want to be part of this naivety.

What has this to do with play? There are two strands I’m following here: the first is the sudden comprehension that, the play believers — evangelical us — have been chipping away at the non-believers, to a greater or lesser extent, for quite a while now and the groundswell isn’t happening yet (is our society just so skewed that it refuses to accept the play of children, whilst simultaneously ‘protecting’ them to almost fanatical extent?); the second strand here is play (in its action and in its observation) can be the antithesis, the antidote, of and for the greedy, self-obsessed, politically-warped world we struggle to swim around in.

Yesterday I was at an after school club. A couple of the younger children had poked around the edges of the space I was occupying, me trying to stay out of their way. They circled in, stood and stared with quizzical squints, and we ended up chatting. One of these younger girls soon laughed and had an urgent need to demonstrate her frogness of being (as it were)! Later, I found myself in a spontaneous episode of ‘side-scotch’ (you know, paving slabs, some hopping, a bit of falling over, and so on). ‘Why are you twisting all right round?’ I was asked. I thought about it. I didn’t know. ‘It’s just the way it is,’ I said. We went on to hop off the wall.

I’m tired of adults’ lies and manipulations: other days I have to wade through the seemingly endless flow of ‘follow these rules’, ‘fill in this form’, ‘observe this health and safety protocol’, ‘tell this to this person and not to this one’, ‘clock in here, read this, do that, tread carefully here because this team colleague will get offended if that person knows this information . . .’ Really: enough of this. Enough of ‘when will I get paid, when will you respect me, when will this petty little interaction finally disappear off its own event horizon . . .?’ That’s just this little microcosm around me. What about the petty squabbling of men out there with guns, the defendants of variously sized gods, the extent of what’s in the suit trousers of other men with non-jobs or, at least, not jobs the plebeians would have? Really: enough of this.

Yes, this naivety of love for the beautiful moments is what I subscribe to here today, these last few weeks and months, and on. I feel it and I see it, on occasion, on the faces of others passing by. The other day, I said to Gack, ‘It’s raining, do you want to go out anyway?’ We went out. After wading through a puddle he didn’t expect to be as deep as it was, later, Gack directed me to walking with him in the gutter, through the deep narrow water channel building up there. I declined but he was fine with what he was doing. A woman passed us by and she knew everything was fine too.

Earlier, Gack had chosen the park at the bottom of the road. There was no-one there but us (as there was, one bus trip later, at the park in the town centre: the one usually piled with toddlers). Gack navigated the slippery wooden structures and, as usual, investigated the ‘outdoor gym’ equipment, rarely used by anyone else as far as I can see. He sat on everything because raindrops didn’t bother him. Up the slide, we flicked drops of rain around and he laughed his (already soggy) socks off at that, for some reason. It was a moment of right there and beautifully so. He stood on a tree stump and looked up at the sodden straight tall pines around us. ‘It’s so tall.’ Later we found we could be blown down the mountain of the hill.

A few days earlier, at the weekend, I concocted lunch with a four year old and a two old balancing on stools beside me. Some bread was somehow spread. We found ourselves, more by accident than design, sat on the kitchen doorstep, looking out on the garden. The children wedged themselves in next to me and we sat and ate food from plates on our knees. We didn’t say anything for a while. Everything was just as it could only have been. We contemplated the clouds together. It was a moment of beautiful arrangement.

This is the antidote to a pernicious world.



Stories of war and play and the innocence of us

A few years ago I found myself half-way up a mountain in the former East Germany, sat in a small open-walled cabin structure as the rain lashed down onto the trees and brutally deforested slopes around me. In that cabin were some other hikers and climbers, one of which was a man who — it transpired — grew up in the former East, in the pre-unified years. We exchanged about this much information, in English, but what I wanted to do, and didn’t do for some reason, was ask him more about his childhood and play experiences back then. Since then, every chance I can get to ask someone who I meet from other (and to me unusual) times and places about their play as a child, I do.

I recently met a woman who was a child in pre-World War II Germany in the 1930s, under the shadow of Hitler’s influence. I’ve had discussions with her a few times since our first meeting some twenty years ago, but this was the first time I’d had the inclination to ask her about what things were like back then for her. I didn’t have my dictaphone with me at the time, so what follows is a reported account of what she told me rather than actual word for word. A lot of the play memories I listened to were familiar (leading me to think on the universal aspect of play), but their unfamiliar context, for me at least, gave me a little further food for thought.

I was invited to take a look at a few photos from the 1930s, stored on computer, and the narration of each brought them to life. Stories are always appreciated, as told by the teller, but I found that the faces of children looking out at me from some 75 or 80 years or so ago added something different again. There’s something that we sometimes forget: these people who are maybe twice our own age were once half the height we are now and just forming their own ideas and feelings on the world.

On the screen I saw a black and white photo of a school classroom. The children were diligently sat at desks with slate boards in front of them. I’m guessing the photo dated back to about the mid or late 1930s. I was immediately struck by the telling of the tale that, every day in class, the children were required to salute. It was, of course, the Nazi salute. ‘We gave the salute; though we had no idea what we were really doing. We did as we were told.’ I was shown a picture of a young girl in uniform. I guessed it wasn’t a school uniform. These children looked no different to any other child I’ve seen, in essence. Why should they? My host was matter-of-fact in the narration of her story memories. It led me to draw my own conclusions.

She went on to speak with great fondness of the boys she always played with. Always the boys, she said; although ‘these two are now dead; these two are alive still.’ There was a photo of her, clear and seemingly happy, sat in the middle of the boys somewhen about maybe 1938 or 1940. I’m guessing here. She and the boys built houses, as she called them: they posed with wooden boxes spread around them. I thought of the pallet creations that the children I know of today build in the play-dedicated spaces of west London. Then, here they all were in the winter next to a massive snowman.

I was shown a series of family photos of the time and the stories to them, and later the stories unfolded without the need for photographic evidence. I imagined the scene as I was given snippets: I imagined the field landscapes I saw in the snow photos, and in them there were hunter’s dogs (I was told) — one big and one small, the latter for going down fox holes. The bigger dog was the one my host and her play friends would dress up in a hat and clothes and shoes. She would climb trees, as was once — I suspect — something almost universal. On her very first day at school, all that time ago, a clear story about rabbits emerged: a friend at school invited her home to see some rabbits, and so she agreed, and so her mother was angry at her.

There was a story embedded into the whole about kites. The children used to make these from two cross-members and a paper skin. They added tails and flew them in the maize fields. There was a certain happiness shining out at the telling of the part where the children would attach writing paper to the kites’ tails (‘We would write things on that paper: I like Gert, or something like this’). The kites would take the paper messages up and up and scatter them away.

It was during the war years, I was told, that this child was given her own family job: the family had to grow their own food and they needed someone to scare the sparrows away. Returning to the photos, I was shown a picture of a school line-up after the war. These were the nuns who presided over her school. This one, I was told, with a definite clarity, was the worst! There was, apparently, an Englishman who was sent to the school (here, this was him) who checked that ‘no bad ideas were taught to the children after everything.’ The matter-of-factness of the tone was an indicator of the years gone by.

We came back to that first photograph again: the one with the children and the saluting in the classroom. It took us a while to work out the English word for the slate boards. As we did I looked at the faces of those children, thinking about their innocence and what was expected of and imposed upon them. Now, as I write, I wonder how many are still alive, how many are well into their old age.

When I hear stories of play and childhood from decades gone by, I’m always fascinated because there are similarities to now, and because there are peculiarities particular to that time and space. When I see photographs from times gone by, with children engaged in just what they do staring or smiling out, I sometimes stop and stare in deeper still: all of us are children, somehow, in some realm of time and space. We’re all real still.

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