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.