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

Archive for November, 2013

For Dad

After a long fight with Alzheimer’s dementia and then, finally, with other complications, my father died last Friday. How he did fight and fight too. This is the start of words, because words can help: where better than to start with what I know? I have been thinking of Dad and me when I was a child, and of his play, my play, our play. This is the start of words and I want to mark his passing in this sad surreal turmoil that we find ourselves in.

So I’m sitting here on the train as I write, heading for the playground, thinking of play and of that little hospital room and of lots of 1970-somethings, of some 1980-somewhens . . . in between places and times. Focus. Back and back through adult conversations we finally had; back through those awkward teenage years of mine when neither of us really knew how and what to do with one another; back to a time of play indelibly marking at least one of us (and who knows what remained, floating around in the depths of Dad’s memory during the disintegrating ravages of such awful disease as his).

Back and back. I won’t be able to capture everything here but this is just the start of words. There is no order — this is how it comes. Dad was a bricoleur: he often made things of just what he found lying around. His creations didn’t always stay up or stay stable but, once, I came home (maybe from school, I don’t fully remember for sure) and there he was, on the dining room floor, putting the finishing touches to a bike he’d made for me: cobbled together, bits grafted on from other bikes, painted black and white zebra fashion. I don’t remember what happened to the bike — I just remember that he made it for me. He cobbled together other contraptions and he made up games: board games from blocks of wood, and he was looking for a game he could sell, perhaps. He made up a simple game with cushions and hidden objects, which I passed on and on, it having stood the test of time.

On the beach, we dug the biggest hole I’ve ever been involved with! I got in and we poured the sand in and I was stuck. The sand pressed against my chest and it hurt. I remember Dad doing that calm sort of panic that I recognise now in myself sometimes: the one where you need to keep the finer details of how you feel away from the children! Dad dug me out and I can feel his relief here as I write. He gave to us children all those wide, high-skied beaches and secret coves of the far west of Cornwall: I have passed these on too.

Twice Dad managed to hide from me: maybe more in his play, but these particular times are most prominent here in me. Once, on a hot summer day when I must have been quite young, on a crowded beach promenade, when he was younger than I am now, he hid momentarily behind an advertising pillar. As I went round one way looking for him, panicking, he must have tracked me round out of sight. Another time, maybe when I was a little older, we were walking in the woods (me, one of my sisters, Dad, maybe my brother too). Dad played his hiding game behind a tree and I just kicked into big brother protection mode! I told my sister not to worry, I’d get her home. I don’t know if she remembers this! I have a vague recollection that I was blagging it. Dad jumped out and told me how proud he was of me.

He used to have a motorbike that he parked just outside the kitchen window. I have no idea what type it was but I remember sitting pillion, flying across the Devon and Cornwall moors, clinging on for dear life and wearing an ill-fitting helmet! Risky play, perhaps. It was the Seventies, or sometime around then. We did things differently! There’s a certain amount of manning up that can be done at or around the age of double figures. We toured the back lanes of leafy little Hampshire villages on that bike. Dad introduced me to the mystical world of pubs, where adults resided in the dark spaces I wasn’t allowed to go into: the hoppy, sweet, warm smell wafting out to me as I sat in the beer garden with shandy and crisps.

He told me about girls, of course, but in his own way: his conversations on the matter were a way of softening the blow of moving from the house and town of my childhood, all I’d ever really known up till that point. My youngest sister arrived when I was just into secondary school. Dad’s cooking skills, whilst Mum was in hospital giving birth, are now family legend! How could we ever forget his creations? Spaghetti bolognaise and crisps followed by ‘crunchy jelly’ with a chocolate bar wedged into it (something he was claiming deliberate creation of, perhaps, having put it in the freezer to set!). We all survived though and, I’m told, he was the one to look after the baby me when my other sister was born. Apparently, Dad and me would go feed the ducks in Walpole Park, or walk to the shops, though he’d be frustrated at the slowness of my pace. Others’ stories are just as important as my own.

My own stories have their own punctuated significances: it’s 1981 and, a few weeks before my birthday, Dad had a surprise for me. On some long November evening, we travelled by coach to the old Wembley stadium. He took me to watch England versus Hungary. I remember standing on the terraces of the old stadium, behind the goal, surrounded by the sweaty press and noise of men. I watched Keegan, Hoddle, Coppell play, and Mariner scored the only goal at our end. The next year, I watched the football World Cup, Spain ’82, on TV with Dad. I lounged on the sofa and grunted my pre-adolescent acknowledgments to his continuing brief match analyses. A few years earlier, I’d laid on the sofa with him as we watched Borg and Connors and McEnroe at Wimbledon. Always, it seemed, of a Saturday night we watched the football on the TV. These little significances come back to me.

Dad was the only one to ever deliberately use a certain form of my name. I don’t take that from anyone else (though I tolerate mispronunciations, even from the children I work with now, though I always correct them). Dad used this form of my name when he was well, and I don’t know why it mattered but it mattered. When we were able to talk, he would ask me when I was going to get a ‘proper job’! He never got the hang of the fact that I didn’t ever own a Mazda sports car (it was a Toyota, Dad!). I put it down to some form of communication play, forms of relating. ‘Work with your brain, son, not with your hands; everyone else on the road is an idiot.’ The things you keep with you.

Once, twice now, we didn’t so much need words: I don’t remember for sure how old I was when I sliced a lump of flesh from my knee playing football on my own up against a wall. Again, the late 70s or early 80s? Dad had the motorbike and the stories had circulated amongst the local children on the estate of how I’d had a terrible accident and broken my leg. They’d mangled it all up and exaggerated it, as children can sometimes do. Dad had pulled up on his motorbike and been greeted by all this chaotic traumatic excitement. I hadn’t broken my leg: it was a hanging lump of flesh sliced by a piece of flint. Mum had patched me up after I’d limped home feeling sorry for myself and somewhat in shock, and then I was lying down, being stitched up by some doctor. It hurt and Dad held my hand as the stitches went in.

Thirty-odd years later, last week, in a small hospital room in a soulless little town I never want to set foot in again in my life, I held Dad’s hand as he lay in a drug-induced sleep. There, quietly, I told him the story I’ve just told you. Things then went quiet for a while.

This is not all there is: this is just the start of words. This is the sad surreal slow-motion state of things this side of last Friday. We think we have time, but we forget about time: he was just 65.

Dad and Toddler Joel

Goodbye, Dad x



Cardboard adventures . . . guest post

I’ve had a series of face-to-face conversations and online communications recently with people who either grew up in various parts of the world or who have worked there. Stories of play from around the world are always intriguing. Sometimes I find similarities in the play that I’ve seen and taken part in in my own country; sometimes there seems to be some sort of exotic otherness to it all. I’m hoping to be able to pull together some of those stories in the not too distant future. Either way, I have a ‘world play’ section on this blog already and adding to it every so often has always been the plan.

To that end, I asked the permission of another blogger, Stuart M. Perkins, to share one of his play stories. I found this story a few weeks ago. Stuart’s in Virginia, USA, and has given his permission to reproduce something that I liked the feel of: Cardboard Adventures. This is one those play stories that feels familiar, rather than ‘exotic’, but that’s why I wanted to post it up here. I usually shift American spelling to suit a UK audience in things I find, but I think I might just leave this one be here. It’s Stuart’s voice, after all! He writes:

Riding the bus home from work this afternoon, about two stops from my apartment, a mother and her young teenage son got on and sat behind me. The son had apparently just come from the dentist and was still a bit whiny from the experience.

His mother said, ‘I know it was rough, but when you get home you can go upstairs and play with your Xbox.’

A nice day like this and she instructed her son to go inside and play with his Xbox?

When I was his age, Mama told me to go outside and play with a cardboard box.

Not just any cardboard box. One of the huge cardboard boxes from the T.V. shop.

When my sisters and I were kids, there was a T.V. shop across the field. As new televisions were delivered for display, the huge cardboard boxes they were shipped in were then stacked behind the shop for disposal. If we promised to ask the owner first, Mama would occasionally allow us to drag one across the field to our backyard. Along the way, we attracted the attention of cousins playing outside and they joined the fun.

Although Mama allowed us to drag a box home from time to time, she did so reluctantly, knowing that ultimately she would be left to dispose of the ragged remains. Sooner or later we would be done with the box. Sooner if it rained. Rain is cardboard’s enemy.

Those huge boxes easily held me, a sister, and one of the smaller cousins all at the same time. An old rusty pair of scissors in Daddy’s garage helped us shape each box into the fantasy of the day. Once, we cut portholes in a seaworthy box and hacked off the top to make an open air deck. We crawled inside and waited for tidal waves.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked as she walked by to pick tomatoes, clearly wondering how long it would be before she had to dispose of our creation.

‘A cruise ship!’ we answered back.

‘No. It’s trash is what it is,’ she said.

We once hooked two boxes together and made a train. We cut away the front of one box so the engineer could wave to cars, and we cut away the back of the second box so that passengers could wave from the caboose. We crawled inside and waited to arrive at the station.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked as she swept the sidewalk.

‘A train!’ we answered back.

‘No. It’s trash is what it is,’ she said.

One particularly grand box that had held a console television made a perfect army tank. We cut a lookout hole in the top, made several holes in the walls to shoot from, and we crawled inside and waited for the enemy.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked as she carried in groceries.

‘A tank!’ we answered back.

‘No. It’s trash is what it is,’ she said.

There was a period when we’d gone quite a while without cardboard adventures. It was during this bleak time that a Sears delivery truck backed into my neighbor’s driveway. As we watched the truck maneuver closer to the back door, one of my cousins was the first to realize the magnitude of the event.

‘Mrs. Brenneman’s getting a new refrigerator,’ the cousin whispered, so as not to hex this dream come true.

We salivated.

After what seemed an eternity, one of the delivery men appeared with the empty cardboard box that had held the refrigerator. With some effort, he dragged it into our neighbor’s yard and went back inside.

Four of us kids, working like ants carrying bread, managed to slide, drag, and inch the massive cardboard box over to our backyard. We climbed in to savor the smell and experience the silence. The silence was momentarily broken as our collie pushed her way in, licked each of us in the face and left. Even she seemed amazed by our good fortune.

We sat there inside the cavernous box trying to decide what to turn this gift into. Before we reached a consensus it got dark outside. Cousins had to go home and my sisters and I had to go inside.

The morning came and horror of all horrors, it had rained in the night.  We ran outside to check on our massive cardboard box. The rain hadn’t ruined it completely, but the once stately walls now sagged, corners were rounded over by the rainwater, and the smooth outside was now wrinkled and peeling.

A couple of cousins walked up. We stood looking at our sagging mound of a box, not wanting to believe our prize was ruined, but it appeared to be so.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked on her way to get the mail.

‘It’s trash is what it is,’ we answered back, resigned to the truth.

‘No. It’s an igloo,’ Mama said.

We looked at each other and grinned. We ran to the rounded shell of a box, molded the wet cardboard so as to give us one long tunnel as an entrance, and we crawled inside and waited for polar bears.

I suppose as I type this, the young teenager just back from the dentist is playing alone with his Xbox. I never had an Xbox, but unless it came in packaging large enough for cousins and me to fashion a cruise ship, train, tank, and an igloo, I don’t know that I would have wanted one.

Play, and working with/in it, outside the playground

Congratulations to the White City Play Project for winning the award for Most Innovative Playground at the London Adventure Play Awards 2013. On Friday, three of us took nine children to the Park Theatre off Finsbury Park for the awards. It was an adventure on the Underground, a day out, a day trip, and I really looked forward to it! What would it be like to take this group through Oxford Circus at rush hour? What would the play be? What would we be? I write it that way because I’ve been thinking about the playworker mentality, about being a playworker outside the gates of the playground, about my general everyday play acceptance — or not. We’d find out.

Despite being crammed nose-to-window on the Tube train (literally!) on the early morning westward trip to the playground to meet the children (which was the only point where I thought that, actually, this might just be somewhat challenging if the line was this rammed on the trip back eastwards along the Central line with those children), we left the playground and I felt fine about it all. The group were in good spirits and we had our emergency plans in place, just in case. I felt relaxed.

We were sharp, we were alert. We did a bit of herding on and off of trains. Were we being playworkers? At Oxford Circus, as we gathered the children by the wall, and as the stream of London passed us by on the platform, I heard one of the children say, as a throwaway remark, that ‘this is like a school trip’, which made me feel a little saddened; though they added, apparently, ‘though you’re better than the teachers.’ Some of the children developed new ways of standing on the underground trains because they couldn’t reach the ceiling handrails easily, or maybe just because they were playing: they deliberately didn’t hold on to the vertical handrails and they let themselves be lurched sideways (sometimes into passengers who were doing a good job of completely ignoring them, plugged into their screens and headphones as they were); the children surfed as the train picked up speed! They sat around, and games of Truth or Dare popped up. The dares were done in full public view!

We ran around in Finsbury Park because we were early. In the tiny auditorium at the Park Theatre, as the entertainer/presenter jumped around a couple of feet away in his ‘Saturday morning TV’-type costume and manner, the White City children started throwing paper aeroplanes at him and heckling him from the front row. It was a play event and it was fine. He did a lot of filling in and making it up as he went along. He threw out ‘fart whistles’ and then, when all the children in the auditorium kept blowing these (think of the sound of fifty mosquitoes or mini-vuvuzelas from the World Cup in South Africa 2010!), he tried in vain to get the children to listen up to the next award presentation! Well, lessons to be learned there methinks: give a bunch of children fart whistles and you know what’s going to happen! Was the guy up front being a playworker?

Apparently, the guy who was due to sort out the screen for the presentation of the photos and films the children had made was late (‘had forgotten to get out of bed’). So the set up of that was all somewhat haphazard when he did get there. The children in the auditorium all seemed to take it in their stride though. They didn’t seem to mind that the projector was shaking all over the place and that the screen was regularly off at angles. The White City children waited and waited for their slide-show to come up. Eventually it did and they gave a big scream.

The organisers fed the children popcorn and sugared jam doughnuts (OK, there was fruit there too, to be fair, and bagels), which was fine by me, though I wondered how long it would take before the sugar kicked in. It was about two stops after Oxford Circus, on the way home, as it happens! There was more Truth or Dare and then there was hanging from the ceiling handrails! I was sitting on the floor on the train and didn’t stop it: it was play forming. Perhaps we could have stepped in a little earlier than we did (would that have been a playwork response?) The train was clearing towards the end of the line, but there was a guy who was keeping an eye on things from the end of the carriage. He had a high-vis jacket on. He might have worked for ‘the authorities’.

For what it was worth though, the children were buzzing. They were laughing and jumping around and it was play ‘out there’. It was something I think I secretly hoped for. I didn’t tell the children to do it, nor did I say they shouldn’t (though I did ease one of the girls off the handrail when the doors opened so she wouldn’t accidentally swing herself outside!) There were no other passengers near us. It would have been different, maybe, if there had have been. Was I being a playworker or should I have intervened sooner? If I had have intervened sooner, would I still have been in playwork mode — even though there was no obvious danger as the train was between stations?

Before we got back to the end of the line, Rich made (what was, in retrospect) the good judgement call of asking the children to settle a little (which they did with good grace). When we got off they tumbled off, still sugared up. They were good-natured but loud. Our exit back onto the street wasn’t as slick as our entrance to the station in the morning! I felt about as relaxed as I could be, but OK fair enough I wasn’t the one who was leading our expedition, as it were. Maybe I would have felt differently had I been this.

It was a playful day. It was a good day. We won an award and there was play out on the streets and on the Underground of London. Were we playworkers outside the gates of the playground? We could have done some things differently, we got a lot right; we supported the opportunities for play to happen; we observed carefully and plenty. Perhaps working with play, in play, for play, is a mindset.

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