Looking out over the playground, over the new and already evolving fire pit in the foreground, through its upright palette wall and the drift of woodsmoke, into the hazy sun, the crisp blue February sky over the recently sodden site, there is a sudden sense of wonder. It isn’t new, this feeling, but it returns in moments made both of clarity in its general whole and in a certain inability to capture all its constituent elements there and then. It is a well-being of the spirit. It’s a moment like a haiku. Later, when I think on it all, I try to do it justice with words that don’t seem to quite sum it up so well.
So, the woodsmoke drifts up, and beyond this in the middle distance there is a multitude of pockets of play (frames of play, if you will, in ‘playwork parlance’): there are piles and swarms and conglomerations of children up on the platform structures and in the newly hung netting, in the incidental movements of players on the palettes and boards slapped over the swamp area in the middle of the playground, around the fringes in amongst cornflour gloop and paint and chalkings. There is the blending in of the sounds of laughter. It comes from everywhere. There are pockets of reflection, of children poking the fire, and there are the dartings around of others. I have the sudden feeling, without the exact words as such, in that moment in time, that I belong.
It is the half term holidays on the playground and, for the children (and for us, in many ways) it’s been a long four months or so since the last time they could come in, come and go, just be at peace and play — to a certain extent — in this way. On the first day we’re swamped early on by children needing to get in. They spend a good half hour re-assimilating themselves into the fabric of the place: we’ve made changes, plenty of changes, in the time they’ve been away (there’s a fire bowl dug into the ground near the main entrance, there’s the new netting on the platform structures, the swamp has grown, the playworkers have grown: it’s all organic). The children poke around, amalgamate their focus on one half of the site: we all seem to face away from the sun as we, the children and us, slope around trying to fit back in to the flow of this.
Soon enough, everything falls back into what I come to see as ‘playground time’: it all has its own pace, its own rhythm and texture. Play evolves and shifts and gets repeated. Relationships build. Everything flows richer and deeper, even in the slim breadth of just a few days this half term, as playground time unfolds. One of the older boys who’s been nurturing the fire for a couple of days, all day in each case, asks why we can’t just open up for longer, you know, he says, just on the last day maybe? Quietly, I register, he bemoans the usuality of life away from here.
This is the children’s space, although we — of course — punctuate its presence. Sometimes we’re a ringing intrusion in certain individuals’ worlds (no, we won’t stand idly by if you choose to slap that half-baked potato into the back of your mate- or enemy’s head!) Sometimes we’re necessary in such fundamental and loved ways: the game the children call ‘Family Had’ (as in ‘you’ve been had/caught’/chase-tap) doesn’t seem to function so well without one or more of us playworkers being the chasers (the faster the playworker, it would seem, the better the buzz). There is, however, a finite amount of time any given playworker can remain able to run, get anywhere close to catching, not slipping over in the mud/making an impossible turn, not hitting their head on any number of obstacles. When we call our own ‘time outs’, the children greet it with disdain.
When I’m not involved in concentrating on how not to end up backside up, or worse, in the mud, I wander the site. Each time I return to the fire bowl area, and I lean on the palette wall just to see, the older boy, guardian of the fire, looks up and tells me, ‘I made that fire; it’s still going,’ or words to this effect. I nod and walk off again.
On the far side of the playground, a small group of girls spend days at a time homebuilding. It is a literal affair because once, when I walk over, they ask me if I have any more black paint and I see that they’re renovating the board house that went up last summer and which seems just to have been dormant, waiting for them, over the winter months. I come back with a jar of acrylic paint and attempt to siphon some off into their tin. It doesn’t come easily so I just hand them the jar. The girls are ridiculously polite in thanking me. I come back later and see that they’ve splatter-painted inside and outside: various colours on the black. They tell me their plans for the following day: they’re going to put up a hammock. The next day, on bringing the girls hammers and nails, and later screws and a saw and duct tape (and a colleague fixes a new tarpaulin roof for them, which they then nail into place), and I bring out a tarpaulin floor, after discussion with them, which they also nail into the mud with practically a whole shop’s worth of ironmongery, they tell me they’re building an extension. This is the wood they’ll be needing.
Later, I see that they’ve concocted several hammocks, tied and nailed to the walls. The girls show me how the hammocks work by getting into them. Earlier they took round a sheet of paper, saying to all the playworkers in turn, ‘Sign this’. ‘What am I signing for?’ I asked. ‘Just sign it,’ they smile. Later still I see that the paper with all our signatures on is placed in the centre of the main internal wall. On the final day, the girls have to leave early. It’s a shame, I think. The play has just been ended after days of concentrated focus. I wish that they’d had longer on it.
As the week evolves, we all get to know one another’s names (although I ask one boy to remind me of his, on the last day, and he declares that he has been here all week! I know this, I know, I tell him: I just have a lot of names to figure out, and sorry!) As the chase games evolve (the children work out playworkers’ running/catching abilities, and they also evolve the rules to an extent that I think, at one point, that I don’t actually know what we’re playing here, and then, ‘Oh, so those are the rules, and the sandpit is ‘homey’ — a local colloquialism for ‘home’ — and once they’re in it, they’re not coming out. I think), relationships build and for one reason or another a few of the children start calling me ‘Grandpa’! Perhaps I’m old to them, with grey in my beard (but still in my forties, so still able to run!); perhaps all adults are old, but anyway Hassan is older than me! Perhaps ‘Grandpa’ happened because it was a play taunt of slowness (though later in the week, I overhear one boy say to another that I am, apparently, really fast, and by inference that I am, actually, worthy of involvement in the play).
Before long, more children start calling me ‘Grandpa’ in the running around game, and then it becomes ‘Grandad’ and then it becomes either/or. At some point I can’t define exactly, it becomes my general name on the playground, even as the children go about their wanderings on site and in their general greetings and requests of me. I feel both pleased to have become ‘Grandpa/Grandad’ and a little nostalgic, in truth, for my nickname of last summer (that of Dooku, Count Dooku, or the like!) One day, my old nicknamer (who has taken just to calling me by my actual name) calls across the site in greeting, as of old, ‘Dooku’. I salute him. As the children go about their ‘Grandpa’ callings, in chase-tap (‘Grandpa, you’re so slow’) and in general, I start to say things like, ‘Yes, my grandchild?’ It’s all good!
There are difficulties on the playground that we anticipate and that we deal with, as perhaps there are on all such places which forty-odd children of various ages, backgrounds, tolerances towards one another, and moods, will inevitably produce. These tensions are, however, outweighed heavily by the moments of magic that can be felt and seen. I’m of the opinion that this ‘magic’ that I sometimes write of, difficult to really truly define as it is, is everywhere in any case: it always is. It’s just that we need to be open to its presence, then it starts to fizz in front of our eyes . . .
One day, I hear a rhythmic chanting, a sing-song, over and over. It’s a predominately girl-pitched sound and it’s coming from the netting that a group of children are lounging around in under the shade of a tarpaulin. It sounds like they might really be being unkind to one of the younger boys, with the word ‘baby’ and his name repeated over and over, slowly and melodically. I listen in and I observe. The boy in question is in the middle of the netting and he’s being gently rolled and rocked around by the sway of the netting and by the girls on it. I see his face and he’s smiling. The sing-song wafts across the hazy playground as other children conduct an archaeological exploration of some edge of the paving lost under the mud in the middle of the site.
Another time, we playworkers stand around observing and talking, and we see three of the younger boys all in a line as they navigate the muddy area en route to somewhere. They each have a full packet of jammy dodgers in their hands. We think they look like a row of jammy dodger ducklings! Every day the boys receive their packet of jammy dodgers from one of their relatives as she calls to them from the threshold of the playground mid-way through the session. Every day the jammy dodger ducklings can be seen waddling around, oblivious to our amusement. We see the close bonds the boys build up with one another, and it all merges into the magic fabric.
We get out cornflour and, at first, I don’t appreciate how the children have such a desire to play with it. Even the older boys who I don’t expect to get involved come wandering over to poke around at the tray that’s been left out. One of the girls needs pink paint to mix in. The children find tin cans that we’ve been stockpiling for whatever tin cans can be used for. They start to make their own cornflour and water/paint gloop individual concoctions in the tin cans and there’s fascination with the ‘now it’s liquid, now it’s more like solid’ experimentation. We get more cornflour for the next day, and I fill up a bucket of water and a biscuit tin of pink paint, just in case. Blue or pasty puce seem to be the colours of the day though. Some children tentatively ask for help, in passing, as the gloop stuff is left out for them to find sometime: they say they don’t know what to do with gloop. I think maybe there’s a thing we can call ‘gloop deprivation’. How can children not get gloop? Haven’t they all played with it when younger? Maybe not, after all. Gloop in tin cans, in turns out, comes close to the magic appeal of a day-long nurtured fire.
When the shovels disappear off behind the wooden house on top of the hill, where I’ve not seen them go before, I wonder what might be happening there. Later I go closer and I see that an excavation is taking place. The children there look up and tell me (despite me having tried to sidle away without being noticed) that, look, they’ve dug up all these rocks they’ve found. Later, an older girl is earnestly shovelling mud there. She has a container, which I notice when she looks up and tells me that she’s digging for worms. There, in the container, are several long thin, oily caramel-brown invertebrates. The girl seems pleased in her play!
When the last splutterings of this winter’s current series of storms briefly open up on the playground, the children hardly seem to notice. The clouds clear away again and the sky is blue, the woodsmoke continues to filter into the air, the mud is just a part of where we are. There is magic in the fabric, threaded through here with day-long nurtured flames and smoke, mud and song, paint and gloop, repetitions of play and evolutions of play, the building of relations and the not wanting to leave. The Easter holidays will be here soon and we’ll be open longer, I tell the boy who I think of as the master of the fire.