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)


Ten (ish) commandments of playwork: offers for thinking about

For the people of a playwork persuasion out there, I offer up a first draft addition to the well-worn Playwork Principles (they that shall be followed, and not scrutinised: the Holy Scripture as it were), which I shall provisionally call ‘The Ten Commandments of Playwork’. (OK, so the list is longer than this, but ten is a whole number, see!) We can be a bit of a closed shop in playwork circles (and this post may or may not go some way towards perpetuating that; you decide). So if it gets the non-playworkers of the world thinking ‘what is this guy talking about?’, also good, but really the ‘Ten’ Commandments list is looking at where we’re at in this field of work with children, and maybe parts of where we could be at, but mostly just asking for a little more thinking from playwork and potential playwork people (in the spirit of continuing to examine what’s real on the playground and what’s just theory).

If you’re reading (as a regular non-playwork reader here, or if you’ve just stumbled across this blog), advanced apologies for some of the ‘in-house’ jargon and references to the acknowledged luminaries of playwork. (Hence I prove my point on closed-shop-ness, but you’ll find out about ‘the names’ if you want to). So, to the Commandments (unaccustomed as I am to the use of capital letters dead smack in the middle of sentences, this capital letter here seemed appropriate):
1. Thou shalt know the Playwork Principles in spirit, if not by heart.
2. Thou shalt not commit adulteration.
3. Thou shalt believe wholly in Saint Bob of Hughes.
4. Thou shalt walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbourly playground’s loose parts.
6. Thou shalt know not of the ‘circle of play’ (as spoken by pretend believers) but of the ‘play cycle’.
7. Thou shalt be recalcitrant.
8. Thou shalt challenge and be challenged.
9. Thou shalt not lie with dishonesty about thy feelings on play.
10. Thou shalt be observant.
11. Thou shalt not encourage ‘play nicely’, ‘share toys’, good citizenship, or practising fine motor skills.
12. Thou shalt be excellent to one another (dude!): reference Bill and Ted, those of such notable age!

(And lo, some other stuff too!)

So, discuss.
1. Thou shalt know the Playwork Principles in spirit, if not by heart

These Principles are still the cornerstone of what we do, getting on for ten years old now in their present form, but ask most playwork students who are a good halfway through their course what the Principles are and I’m willing to bet that they’re not totally up to speed with them. Maybe, as trainers of the discipline (or whatever we like to call ourselves) we’d be wrong to impose a Michael Gove-style rote-learning of the Principles on our learners (by pain of the promise of extra lines, chalk dust, and red ink scrawled in wallpaper-decorated exercise books: ‘see me after class’). Can any qualified playworker cite the Holy Scripture of the Principles word for word? (No looking now: only you know, and you’d only be cheating yourself if you were to lie).

So, if a playwork student or a post studentdom playworker can’t (or won’t) quote the Principles verbatim, is it too much to expect them to know what they mean in spirit? Shouldn’t they at least be able to reduce it down to numbers? Principle number 1 is roughly about this, Principle 2 is something along the lines of . . . and so on. Or is that too difficult? Maybe there should just be a rough idea of the fact that the Principles exist, that by and large they’re a good thing (maybe), and that we don’t really need to pay too much attention to them in the ‘real world’ of the playground or after school setting. After all, we can get our qualification, much like our spanking by the irregular and feared Mr or Mrs Ofsted, then we can forget all about it. Can’t we?
2. Thou shalt not commit adulteration

Now, in the ‘real world’ doesn’t children’s play get ‘adulterated’ all the time? That is, adults exist in amongst the things that children do (in the physical spaces, in the psychological and emotional zones that develop around the playing child or children), so maybe we should just all accept that and realise that children are much better off with adult instruction (being for their own good in the long run, after all) . . . OK, regular readers here know I can’t go on with that line of thinking. I can only go so far in a certain direction when playing Devil’s Advocate! If I’m thinking on this seriously, I do often reflect back on my own work with children and wonder if my actions are a hindrance, or something other, for them. Children do sometimes ask for direct adult input into their play (including, but not limited to, ideas and so forth) . . . I’m on thin scriptural ice here. This needs more thinking about.
3. Thou shalt believe wholly in Saint Bob of Hughes

Playwork people: just because Bob’s been around since play began (a few epochs before the invention of gravity), it doesn’t mean he can’t be challenged. I’m pretty sure he’d welcome that. Bob has written some good playwork stuff (‘good’ because no-one’s out-trumped his play types thinking yet, for example), but surely you can only ‘believe’ if you also ‘do’, and so then come to the conclusion that your ‘doing’ matches what the ‘scriptures’ say. Right? If they don’t match, then don’t believe, but say it and say why. Basically what I’m trying to say here is, in using Bob as vehicle for an argument: too many playwork people blindly follow too many other playwork people.
4. Thou shalt walk the walk as well as talk the talk

If you’re thinking about playwork and calling yourself a playworker, it follows that you’re doing playwork, right? Clean soft hands, undirtied and unpaint-stained clothes, focused only on the vast amounts of money pouring in at the end of the month (in playwork? Right!) . . . you talk it well in your studies, but maybe that study ought to connect more to the mud- and paint- and rain- and glue- and gob-spattered reality of the playground.
5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbourly playground’s loose parts

Does it really matter that the children down the road are lavished with all sorts of wondrous objects with which they can investigate those objects’ inner lives (the standard sports equipment prevalent in many after school facilities might once or twice get used as something else). You have a whole heap of things that children can build with, horde away, destroy and throw around. Machine guns and swords might happen, or things that could even challenge playworkers . . .

There are two arguments here in the reality of the playground: that not enough variety of random ‘stuff’ is on offer for children; that actually, contrary to scripture that harks back to the building sites of the 70s and before, children also like playing with little plastic things. I know, I don’t like that thought because it rattles the ‘odds and sods’ part of my playworker self, but it happens. Hmm. Is it because the staff aren’t thinking hard enough, or is it because we think we know best what children want to play with?
6. Thou shalt know not of the ‘circle of play’ (as spoken by pretend believers) but of the ‘play cycle’

Saint Sturrock and Saint Else once penned the Book of Psycholudics. And lo, it was written that, after the metaphorical equivalent of forty days and forty nights in the desert, the Book of Psycholudics withered to its easily digestible ‘just the play cycle bit’. And lo more, it came to pass that, somehow, along the road to Damnation, the ‘just the play cycle bit’ fell further into disrepute by way of transcription into playwork course literature and by the watering down of many a playwork trainer (some of which came from the land of Early Years and didn’t always grasp it fully) . . . basically, I’m fed up of the process that seems to have passed from a fairly hefty academic paper to some student’s work that has turned it all into just a ‘circle of play’.

If we have playwork literature, should we just accept that, like language, it gets transformed into what’s out there on the street rather than what’s in the books? Or should we be striving for the Govian ‘slap them round the back of the head with a wet towel until they get it’ compulsory learning approach?
7. Thou shalt be recalcitrant

Can you really be a playworker if you don’t have at least one finger up to ‘the system’? How does that tally with all the checks and balances and hoops-jumping of the modern play ‘setting’?
8. Thou shalt challenge and be challenged

If you’re not thinking, you’re just drifting. Is that a good thing in today’s society of endless over-stimulation, pressures, targets, and Michael Gove? (Or Ofsted, or the boss, or your playwork assessor, or any other given hassle you have). Wouldn’t it just be a good thing all round if you were just drifting? You’d be happier; the children you work with would be happier not to have such a grim fairy as you moping round the place when you’re on your off day; your colleagues wouldn’t have to put up with your bad hair days, your bad boss days, your ‘today is not your lucky day’ days . . .

Or, maybe thinking about what’s going on about play can be a stimulation in itself . . .
9. Thou shalt not lie with dishonesty about thy feelings on play

Let’s face it, it’s easier not to have to tell yourself what you really think about when the children are charging around with sharp sticks, smacking the little ones in the face just because they can, kicking their mates on the sly and then saying ‘What, what? It wasn’t me. I was just standing here’, even though you watched them from five yards away. If we just didn’t own up to ourselves we wouldn’t have to own up to anybody else. Things would happen, we’d sort them out, we’d go home. Job done.

Job done . . .?
10. Thou shalt be observant

Why? What can we possibly gain from watching the way the children play on the playground? I mean, surely, everything they can get up to they already have done? What good will watching it all again do us? I will be honest with myself here (and with you) by confessing to the thought that is: have I seen everything now? What can I learn from what’s happening here?

It soon often goes though, that thought: observing, you see, is a reward in itself. It’s like play for the player: if play is for play’s sake, observing can sometimes be like this. Observing rewards by grounding the observer in the moment. You’ll have to walk the walk for yourself on that one though.
11. Thou shalt not encourage ‘play nicely’, ‘share toys’, good citizenship, or practising fine motor skills

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it till I get bored of it: what does ‘play nicely’ mean? Really. So this is all about adult agendas and not about play, as played by the child, for the child’s own reasons (standard playwork scripture). What if I were to try to be Devil’s Advocate here though? What if ‘play nicely’ (whatever that turns out to be), sharing your toys, a religious practising of fine motor skills, and so forth, actually do turn out to make you good citizens in a perfect future society? Just think, no more war, no more greedy capitalism, no more crime . . . it’ll be great. Hang on, how long has this ‘let’s build perfect future citizens’ thinking been kicking about . . .? Are we there yet . . .? Cynical? Me? Nah. (Not much).
12. Thou shalt be excellent to one another (dude!): reference Bill and Ted, those of such notable age!

This is not about good future citizenship: this is just a suggestion for being, now. (No future perfect progress rhetoric intended here). Be excellent to the children though, even if all else fails. Why? Well, because you can. Or because you could.

You decide (though I hope you’ll just give it a little thought).

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).

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In parent-playworker mode

It’s just gone mid-day-ish and the bus driver at the station nods at me and says ‘Good luck’. I’m in parent mode with two under-fives (the youngest of which having just been a dog — in the way that young children can actually be the things they role play — in the middle of the town centre precinct). The children fly off towards the back of the bus — hence the ‘good luck’ — (I haven’t been on a bus yet with a child who doesn’t do this), and I tell the bus driver I’m already exhausted. We intended to make a trip to a park, but ended up on a bit of a detour (into the ‘castle’ where the princess is, apparently; into the puddles; in search of ice-cream). The bus driver nods.

This is the new year and I’m just starting to turn over in my head plenty of thinking I’ve previously gone through. That is to say, here, thinking on parent mode. I’m a playworker (that always strikes me as something faintly akin to being at an AA meeting when I state it in ways like this!). I’m a playworker first and foremost. I go into parent mode when I have Gack or his cousins around me (because Gack is Gack here, I’m going to call the other children Princess K and Dino-Boy). Those who read here and already know them will know who they are!

I sit in the local Children’s Centre that day with Princess K and Dino-Boy. I take them in to meet a friend who works there whilst we wait for the bus into town. We’ve missed the first bus because Dino-Boy, the youngest, has had the urgent need to examine the fallen mushy red berries on the pavement. None of us know what they are, but we agree there are a lot of red berry trees around that we’ve never noticed before. We’ve missed the bus and the children decide it would be a good idea to take up my suggestion and go wait for the next one, in the warm, in the Children’s Centre. We’re the only ones there and, whilst the children play, I discuss parent mode with my friend.

Of course, on the face of it, there are differences in being a playworker in a play provision (somewhere specifically set by for focusing on children’s play) and being in parent mode. Space, for one thing, comes to mind: that is, physical space where the acts of ‘being playworker’ and ‘being parent’ take place. On the playground, play can be rich; out on the street, in the home, play might not always have this form. We have to also consider ‘head space’ though, or so I’ve been of the opinion for a fair time now. It’s at this point that I need to state clearly enough that I know there are plenty of other things to also think about in parent mode. (Maybe that goes for playworker mode too though?) I know there are considerations of planning ahead in parent mode, of feeding and clothing and sleeping, and issues such as little brother or sister not kicking the shit out of the other sibling just because they feel like it!

However . . . I try and try to keep ‘being playworker’ when out on the street in parent mode. Sometimes it works excellently. There is, for example, great observational interest in how Dino-Boy finds the longest stick with the dangliest end bit and then proceeds to go fishing with it in every muddy puddle he sees in the Cathedral grounds. Some people are not best pleased that he comes within a few feet of inadvertently catching them with the fishing rod, and some people are pleasantly amused by the play. When he’s being a dog, on all fours, in the town centre precinct, I really don’t see anyone else around us (though I know they’re there). It’s fine.

Sometimes, ‘being playworker’ in parent mode has its challenges. When Princess K sees a pink dressing up costume, all shiny and mostly tutu, in the toy shop window, her excitement is just a little way short of being able to communicate with dolphins! ‘Eeeeeeee’ is what I take to mean ‘I need to go see that dress’. She likes shiny, girly, dressy-up: the works. So, OK, let’s go see, but let’s not think about the exit plan from said shop for her little brother a little while later! It’s all very well pointing him the way of the train set because I know that will excite him, but I don’t factor into the equation that the children consider this new and exciting play space to be just that and not, in fact, a shop, with profit margins and so forth.

The shop-keepers are very tolerant of the play though (which, on the whole, is a good thing for owners of a toy shop). I’m just about teetering on the edge of the playworker-parent mode divide: I’m fine with the play, I know the play is play and that the children need to do it right here and right now; I’m also aware though that there’s probably a finite amount of time that can be spent in toy shops not actually buying. If Dino-Boy could stay there all day, poking the battery-operated train engine that goes uphill on the train track, all on its own, all afternoon, I’m sure he would do. Princess K would, no doubt, be more than pleased to knock up an imaginary four course meal in the oversized play kitchen, and she would definitely try on the whole rack of sparkly, shiny princess dresses if the shop-keepers’ tolerances are proven to be of the infinite variety.

The only exit strategy that comes about is one of intense negotiation coupled with a spot of very non-playwork adulteration of the train play. (Maybe I got that one wrong). Maybe what I should have done is just stayed in that shop till the shop-keepers’ visual daggers actually did start to fly my way. Maybe I’ll brave that one out next time. Luckily, Princess K and Dino-Boy are children who are soon stimulated by other things as well (it’s amazing what you can see when you look through a child’s eyes: the glass roof of the shopping centre, how the Christmas lights come down from it, the ride in the glass lift, all the various Christmas trees in the streets, the lights of the ambulance, small yappy dogs with coats on, street musicians, and so on).

Yes, parent mode is exhausting. I bow down to those who do it more often than me. That said though, I often spend hours at a time on my feet on the playground, ‘being playworker’, and my body and my head do tend to hurt from movement (of body and mind). Maybe I’m getting old! Yes, parent mode is exhausting, and so is parent-playworker mode.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been frustrated (and exhausted) at parents who I’ve discussed the idea of ‘boundaries’ with: invariably these conversations are started by those parents who are controlling and not as child-centred as their children might like them to be. ‘Boundaries’ is about the parent, not the child. ‘Boundaries’ is a word that is out of place. A parent of a one year old I used to work with was always adamant that children should be enforced to follow the adult rules, using his own parenting style as a way of working with the school age children we worked with. It used to irritate the hell out of me. Boundaries, rules, control, order: let’s have another way of thinking so that we can realise we’re all on the same planet and can all get on: children and parents alike.

If I use his word here, in my parent-playworker thinking mode, these ‘boundaries’ are very flexible. Or rather, something like these slippages of who’s currently shouting loudest are flexible. In reality, if we’re thinking in terms of ‘who’s in control’ I don’t think the balance tips my way. Sure, I get the children on and off the bus, make sure they don’t walk off into the road, make judgement calls on moments when they can’t resolve things for themselves (I’m talking things like ‘Come on, we all need to get off to the toilet before your sister bursts’, not things like full-on fist-fights in the High Street or the like); however, the children are largely in control of the decisions on what happens next, they decide on what they play and where, they tell me in no uncertain terms when they’re bored of somewhere. It’s up to parent-playworker me to allow time for unknown futures to happen in the day.

So, sitting talking about parent mode with a friend in the Children’s Centre, whilst waiting for the bus because we were examining curious mushy red berries on the pavement, led me to thinking on parent mode, playworker mode, parent-playworker mode and so forth. Later that day, getting back on the bus at the bus station, and with a knowing nod from the driver, I sit down at the back with the children and realise that yes, this is exhausting, isn’t it? Yes, though what a privilege.

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