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

Archive for January, 2014

The 13th commandment of playwork: thou shalt not educate

Following on from my previous speculation on the ‘Ten-ish commandments of playwork’ (which were well received, all things considered), I realise I forgot one. Well, maybe I forgot a lot and I need to keep adding to these as the thinking happens. We’ll see. Anyway, for now the one I forgot is the one about education. Let’s call it the 13th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not educate’ (if we’re talking from a playworker’s point of view, that is). Education is for others, concerns of play is for us. That’s a given if we’re working in the field of children’s play for play’s sake, right?

Maybe it isn’t so cut and dried. The thing we adults don’t tend to do so well regarding children is resist the urge to ‘help’; the passing on of what we like to perceive as our individual and collective wisdoms; just show the way. It can be frustrating watching the minor struggles of everyday play taking the most circuitous of routes to achieve the desired next part (I won’t push my luck and stretch that to ‘the desired end’, because play is not about ‘product’): take the example of, say, the six-ish year old who can’t find the end of the cellotape because she hasn’t worked out that folding it over after each cut-off (or bite-off) of a strip will mean no lost end; or maybe a child can’t figure out the way to light the matchstick when trying to get the tealight burning, holding it at unworkable angles against the matchbox; maybe a child can’t work out how to get the water from the full container to the guttering, wanting to bring the mountain to the sandpit, as it were, instead of the bucket to the pond.

All of these play situations I’ve been party to in recent weeks. Sometimes we just get it wrong, according to the ‘Playwork Scripture’: give the opportunity to discover and experiment over to the children; they can make their own mistakes and find out their own ways of doing things.

At the playground the other day I was asked for help by a younger girl who was making some sort of bag: she’d been hoarding apparent essentials away, for possibly a few days before that, in a cardboard box (you know, other smaller boxes, bits of shiny paper, paper and glue-smeared things); now she needed a bag. She didn’t know how to make it, and she couldn’t find the end of the cellotape. I said for her to give it all a try (I didn’t know what she wanted her bag to be anyway). She’s quite self-sufficient in most things and doesn’t seem to need too much attention. She made the bag’s shiny blue handles (which I thought wouldn’t carry the weight of glue-smeared smaller boxes and so forth, but what do I know?) She just didn’t know how to get her bag started. I knew. I had to fight the urge to ‘educate’ her on it. I tried to walk away, in a supportive ‘I’ll be back’ kind of way, but she wouldn’t have it: she kept calling me back. I started a bag off for her (heinous playwork sin!). I left it part way through though because I knew she was more than capable of finishing it off. She did, but she didn’t tape up the bottom of it. I fought the urge to tell her. I told her (another heinous sin). I said, ‘You haven’t got a bottom to your bag.’ She piled her glue-smeared box and shiny paper and other essentials into it anyway.

The other week, I knelt down in the gathering gloom as the children huddled round and attempted to light matchsticks to light their tealights. They were all very patient and waited for the matchbox to come their way. One of the younger children just wasn’t getting it though. She was somewhat tentative with the matchstick, which I could appreciate (after all, the playground is probably the only place she’d get to do this). I’d discussed the fact that this wasn’t to be done at home, don’t worry. The girl dragged the matchstick slowly towards her. I said to do it away from her. She held the matchstick at a flat angle and dragged it away from her several times. I said maybe strike it at a different angle. Nothing happened several times over. I knew exactly how to light the matchstick. This is frustrating for the adult.

On another day, an older boy had found the guttering I’d put out in the sandpit area. I’d set up deliberately that day because, for a few weeks I’d been observing how some of the children had been poking around the discarded plastic pond moulding that had filled up with rainwater. I filled it up with clean water and the happy co-incidence of finding the guttering round the back of the site added to the idea. I put it out there with some pots and pans and flower pots with holes in them and so forth and left it be. I was a little surprised to find the older boys getting so into it later. One of these boys said to me, in passing, that he was ‘building a facility’. I don’t know what sort of facility it was! Another day, when the play was still happening there, he needed the pond water close by the sandpit. It was heavy and a bucket to the pond would have been easier, but no, the pond had to come over. He didn’t get the idea though that two of us pulling was easier than one of us pulling and one pushing. I let him in on the secret (shh).

So these are just small examples and maybe the children got what they wanted or needed from my actions in their play before I left them be again. Maybe, though, my presence and my actions stopped something else from happening: that self-discovery. Thou shalt not educate, so says the scripture, because that ‘compound flexibility’ effect (odd playwork-leaning phrase towards self-confidence and self-esteem) may be being curtailed; also here I think mainly of Bob Hughes’ writing on neuronal short-cutting when we also add Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) into the mix.

Some playwork literature/scripture to add in here then: Hughes (2012, p281) quotes Smith (1994): ‘The ZPD is the difference between what the child can achieve unaided and what he or she can do with the aid of a more experienced, probably older person to help.’

Hughes later adds (p282): ‘However, the biggest problem with the ‘zone of proximal development’ approach is that adult help will introduce ‘short-cuts’ to learning that will leave the child with gaps in its understanding or in the neuronal pathways that are formed as a consequence of new learning, that may make it difficult or impossible for the child to undertake similar tasks unaided.’

I’ve taught adults from the playwork scriptures for a fair few years now. I preach to my students not to do things for the children (sometimes quoting Hughes and sometimes going as far as looking at neuroscientific research into brain growth, and so on). I’ve got no reason to doubt what these books tell me; I tell my students and anyone who’ll listen that play isn’t about children going into their play specifically to learn things (did you do that as a child?) However, sometimes we adults do have an urgent need to help, to just chivvy things along a little, to get things going for them before walking away. Sometimes children ask for that help.

Here Hughes also adds (and its buried away so that I haven’t fully taken this on-board before — blinded as I have been by the ‘weighty neuroscience’): ‘Certainly if the child initiates an intervention then limited help should be given.’ The focus on onus in these passages though is still on the child. Can it be that unsticking the end of the cellotape and kick-starting a bag design, helping with the lighting of a matchstick, or showing a way to bring a pond full of water to a sandpit (in their minor moments) all contributed to this neural short-cutting? Or were these forms of a ‘play education’ that were desired by those children? Certainly I’m still against the wholesale education of children in their play settings: they get plenty of educational input from school, and maybe also from their parents; they’re not at their play setting to ‘get educated’; it is their play setting after all, or it should be.

So, thou shalt not educate: should we grit our teeth and bare the frustration of the obvious solution to the children’s play problems staring us in the face?; or should we just accept that we’re there in the play setting, us adults, so we might as well ‘help’, pass on our perceived individual and collective wisdoms, show the way?

Speaking ill of the playwork literature/scripture doesn’t sit easily for me sometimes; yet, in the ‘real world’ of the playground, I know I also get just slightly frustrated at clumsy cellotape-‘not thinking ahead’-ness, at awkward tools use, say, and at failures to spot the blindingly obvious (well, the blindingly obvious to me, at least).

Thou shalt not educate (even on a small scale) may well be a tension for lots of people who work in playwork: some though also go off way down the road towards Education (with the capital E) and should therefore, perhaps, relinquish the playworker title altogether. Where, though, is that line in the sand?

Hughes, B. (2012), Evolutionary playwork. 2nd edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Smith, P. K. (1994), Play training: an overview in Hellendoorn, J., van der Kooij, R., and Sutton-Smith, B. (eds), Play and intervention. Albany: State University of New York Press. Cited in Hughes, B. (2012)

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Tokenism’s leak into the real world

I had a brief brush with one of those ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms this week. They’re usually decorated with a line to the effect of the giving of such information as ‘ethnic origins’ being voluntary, and I usually volunteer no such information. This week though, on the form proffered to me before seeing the dental consultant, I decided I’d keep to my oft-vented tub thumping that ‘I was born in England, that makes me White English not White British’. I amended the box and handed it in.

Later I realised that what I should have written, rather than ‘White English’, was more accurately: ‘White ish, also nominally English, of various extraction via the possibility of Spain, Scotland, Ireland — maybe — Morocco or Algeria, depending on the accuracy of my late Grandmother’s stories, and then, four or five generations back, or more, it’s anyone’s guess really, though if Stephen Fry is to be believed (via that font of all reliable modern trivia, QI), descended, as we all are by the principle of mathematical certainty, from King Charlemagne of France ish; also maybe Mongol via Genghis Khan’. That is, in summary, member of the human race. That, or something quite like it, is what I should have written. Maybe next time.

The point here is that I have always abhorred tokenism. These ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms have always seemed somewhat tokenistic to me. What does it matter how many people of Caribbean, Bangladeshi or Chinese origin (whatever that turns out to be) are pumped through the sausage machine of any given service? It may be possible that I’m entirely of the persuasion that amounts to ‘missing the point’. However, in the real world (by which, here, I mean the diverse children’s playground), in my experience, children are generally oblivious to the overtures of tokenistic adult agendas.

Sure, there are tensions between children in such playgrounds, and some of these tensions can then dissolve into a focus of ‘difference’ in appearance or beliefs or ways of being, but in the more diverse community of west London I’ve not yet come across racial tension. It may be that I’ve not yet heard any comments between children, or directed at children by other children; however, from what I see, the children treat each other as just other children, irrespective of their skin colour, family language or country of origin, and why shouldn’t they?

It’s in the play settings of, say, 95% white communities where the true scale of token effort and affect come into play. I’ve never heard a child in west London revert to the ‘race card’ that is: ‘Is it because I’m black?’ In contrast, I’ve heard this a fair few times more from children in settings where they’re the only non-white child in attendance or on the roll. Children suck up the sensibilities of the adults around them: so, when they’re fed a diet of ‘you’re different to the majority here and we’re going to highlight that’ (albeit under the banner of ‘equal opportunities’), it isn’t any wonder that they start subverting that message via a persecution complex.

The message is out there constantly. The other day I was reading the Metro newspaper on the train. On the sports pages there was an article about how Clarence Seedorf, a Dutch footballer, had been appointed manager of AC Milan in the Italian top division. When I first heard that news the day before on the TV, I thought ‘OK, I remember his playing days’ and thought no more on it. The Metro chose to highlight that Seedorf was only the second black manager in the league’s history.

It’s a general statement on professional football and a specific one on the Italian league, sure, but the reinforcement of such statements only helps to perpetuate the potential for feelings of persecution. There are racial issues in sport, communities, society, yes; however, this approach of the media and institutions (who want their equal opportunities forms filled in to tick some boxes, no doubt), is counterproductive.

Allow me a moment of facetious indulgence: does the same box ticking happen in New Delhi; in Kingston, Jamaica; in Abuja, Accra or Addis Ababa? Is there a concerted effort in those places to monitor and ‘help’ the isolated white community members in some token gesture of equal opportunities?

The other day I was at an after school club setting, just visiting. The main room was jam packed with children; it was getting hot in there; the children went about their play in genteel manner. Something, however, was odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while. I looked around the room, at the children playing, at their play, but it wasn’t necessarily the calmness of it all that was the oddness. Then it hit me: there were forty white faces in one room. That’s not the fault of the setting — if the make-up of the community is like this, then this is what it is.

What this observation did do though was spark the thinking, later, on how quite a few settings I’ve seen ‘address’ the 95% or 100% white face scenario with a token play resource (very much the singular): a black baby doll, a sari, or suchlike. They’ll have a watered down nod towards Diwali or the Chinese New Year, or invariably a poster saying ‘Welcome’ in 32 different languages like Urdu, Swahili and Welsh. That’s it — job done. Box ticked. It drives me mad and has done for quite a while. I’m pretty sure the Diwali Festival of Lights amounts to more than a few paper lanterns and pretty patterns sprinkled on the floor, as I’m pretty sure Chinese New Year (and, by extension, Chinese culture) is about more than a blank colouring-in sheet of a dragon.

Token gestures and misplaced media focus can’t be helping the matter that is the equality of opportunity for all individuals. Let’s not ‘treat everyone the same’; let’s treat each other as individuals. When I’m out and about interacting in London, when I watch the football on TV, or when I observe and listen to the children on the playground, I’m thinking of those people of my focus as those people of my focus. I’m not thinking black, white, Chinese, Bangladeshi, and so on. In the tokenistic world where there are white majorities, however, messages are distributed and absorbed. Children, as we know, can be like sponges.

Comparing children’s play in Alexandria, South Sinai, and Brunei Darussalam, Borneo (guest blog)

Every so often the opportunity to develop greater understandings of children’s play in different parts of the world comes along. In recent months I’ve been fortunate to have had correspondence with a fellow writer, Val Cameron, an experienced teacher who’s now based in South Sinai. Val has taught widely overseas in places I can only dream of visiting, and her angle on children, their play, and the socio-political frameworks in which they play and engage with one another is just one of those opportunities to take up.

The following is a guest blog written by Val, as requested by myself, and interspersed (i.e. edited in) with further notes from our various communications (published following the author’s final approval). I trust I’ve sewn everything that she’s written for me together in a way that best represents her extensive experience.  
Author biography

Valerie Cameron has been teaching English language for 35 years, mainly overseas. She considers herself lucky that her ‘career’ has been a protracted working holiday. She started in Europe and then travelled around West Africa for three months. Crossing the Sahara desert on a sheep lorry, Val says she found peace in its silent emptiness. A year after ‘the Wall’ came down, she worked in an industrial town in north eastern Hungary. Afterwards — in Salalah, South Oman — she was able to camp out with Bedouins, observing their disappearing way of life. More recently she has spent two years teacher training in a large government school in post-revolutionary Egypt. When the job was suspended due to unrest, she moved to Dahab in South Sinai, where she volunteers in a local nursery. She is interested in traditional cultures: particularly desert tribes.
Children’s play in South Sinai and Alexandria

Dahab, on the south east coast of the Sinai peninsula, is far from the unrest of Egyptian cities. Previously under Israeli rule, it became popular as a hippie-hangout. Today it is one of the Lonely Planet’s top ten places to chill. Traffic is light and most drivers never reach fourth gear.

I pick my way over the stony ground in the lane that leads to my house, past   children playing marbles: this is their playground. An occasional truck stops play, otherwise goats keep to the fringes. These games make me feel nostalgic. They are reminiscent of Britain in the 50s, before cars took over. The lanes are quiet and safe; every child is known to the community. Commercial toys are unusual and children make do with what’s there.

Left to their own devices, Bedouin children in South Sinai play with bits and pieces that Western children might ignore, e.g. bicycle tyres for rolling, rocks, cardboard and wood. There are games with stones.

They go swimming here, boys and girls together, running around in bare feet. It’s certainly freer than the Gulf countries. In the Middle East, after puberty, girls have to stay at home and must be accompanied by their brothers or another male family member if they go out: so no playing outside, or going out with their friends (hence the popularity of going to college — escape!)

Egypt is more liberal than the Gulf countries and teenage girls can go out in groups like the boys. Since the revolution though, the teenagers in the street can be menacing and threatening. You don’t see many children playing on the streets. I never saw young girls on the street playing. Fights are commonplace among boys. Rarely you see them playing football due to lack of play areas. In the Gulf countries, boys play football since there is space. You do not see girls playing on the street, only boys.

Sinai is a poor region and has more traditional play than petro-rich Brunei (below). Favourite games in Sinai include sega marbles. This is played on level ground in side streets or lanes. Equally popular is kika: children throw stones at a target of a pile of stones. Depending on the number that fall, the player must hopscotch along squares in the sand. Each square is numbered. When they get to their number, they have to jump 360 degrees and return. The winner has the most stones down. Smaller children play hide and seek. At the edge of tarred roads, a popular game is rolling a hoop or bicycle tyre.

There is a difference in behaviour between the Bedouin children in South Sinai (who come from largely illiterate backgrounds but have the run of their areas) and the children in Alexandria, Egypt. I was often shocked by the roughness of city boys, pounding each other on the ground, bullying; crying was very common (at school too). School playgrounds are battlefields. Classroom assistants control fights by hitting the children with rubber pipes, sticks or even kicking them. Teachers do not often interfere since they are afraid of being injured.

The majority of urban Egyptians live in tower blocks and the streets are choked with traffic. Undoubtedly, the combination of being cooped up all day in school and in a flat with no garden leads to frustration. By contrast, Bedouin children in general do not fight so much with each other. They come from large families where the average number of children is ten. Relatives tend to live nearby. They swim in the summer and play outside all year. Alexandrian children who can afford computers spend hours surfing the net. On the other hand, the Mediterranean is a resource for swimming, fishing, and for boys to climb over concrete breakwaters: not so the girls. Children visit each others’ homes or go out to the city’s Royal Park along the coast. They play hide and seek, tag, and ball games. There are some private beaches where it’s safe to swim.

In Sinai, the weather is benign except for a few exceptionally hot weeks in the summer. The local population is poor, relying on tourism which shores up the south, sidelined by the Egyptian government. It was taken back from Israel after the Camp David Treaty in 1979. Since the revolution, businesses have gone under and financial difficulties are widespread. Children use their imaginations and each other to entertain themselves.
Children at play in Brunei Darussalam, Borneo

I also spent three years in Borneo among Muslim Malays. Brunei Darussalam is a small country in north west Borneo, on the coast of the South China Sea. It is a multi-ethnic society with three main groups: Malay, Chinese and tribal. The Malays are Muslim, while the Chinese are Buddhist and Christian. The tribal groups of Iban, Dayak and Kelabit traditionally live up-river and are animist. The groups, to a large extent, fall into two categories, namely: tribal and town-dwellers.

Tribal Borneans tend to live in longhouses along the country’s rivers which are its roads. The settlements are permanent. Children play outside in the river and jungle. They keep unusual pets such as monkeys, lizards or birds. At a young age boys go hunting with the men, who use blowpipes, while girls help with the cooking, which is played out in ‘make-believe’ games. They play with woven and wooden toys and objects found in the river or forest.

In these rural areas, where there is less money to buy the latest high-tech gadgets, children are more likely to play traditional games such as congkak, getah, spinning tops, ketingting, wau kites, and marbles (guli).

Ketingting is similar to hopscotch. It cannot be played on grass, which is unsuitable for marking with chalk. Sometimes children play on the veranda of a longhouse.

In getah children jump over an elastic band held across the floor. It is raised gradually by two helpers on either side. The winner is the one who manages to jump the highest without touching it.

Wau kites are made from bamboo sticks soaked in water for up to two weeks. Paper is placed over the frame; rice paper is cut out and stuck onto the wings of the kite.

Congkak is a game for two and popular throughout south east Asia. It consists of a board which has seven holes on either side, ‘houses’, and two larger holes, ‘storehouses’, at either end. The objective of the game is to gather as many congkak seeds into the ‘storehouses’ on the player’s side. Each ‘house’ hole is filled with seven rubber seeds or cowrie shells before the game. On a turn, a player removes all pieces from one of the seven holes on his side. He then distributes them clockwise — one in each hole to the left of this hole — in a process called sowing. Sowing skips an opponent’s ‘home’ but not a player’s own ‘home’. If the last piece falls into an occupied hole, then all the pieces are removed from that hole and are sown in the same way (clockwise from that hole) in another round. This player’s (current) turn ends when the last piece falls into an empty hole on the opponent’s side. The game ends when no pieces are left in any hole on both sides of the board. The players now count the number of pieces in their own ‘home’ and see who has won.

Brunei Darussalam has a high per capita income. Expats from Europe and Asia work in the oilfields. Children living in air-conditioned townhouses have adopted more modern pastimes such as Playstation and computers. Ideas for reviving traditional games include games showcasing at weddings and school games clubs.

The Chinese are freer and tend to have more extra-curricular activities like music or sports lessons.

(Author’s note: these views have been recorded after personal observation and are not based on academic research).

Valerie’s blog can be found via

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