Children can affect us in all sorts of ways. It’s something I push hard when I’m teaching playwork practice: acknowledging, and reflecting on, just how children can make us feel. Sometimes children can affect us in quite simple ways, though not insignificant because of this: they can send us home with that afterglow of amusement or feeling of a job well done; or they may frustrate or frighten us in some way because of the way they choose to play. This week though I happened to overhear one younger boy, who I work with on the playground, say to another younger boy, almost conspiratorially, that he thought I was mean.
This has affected me. On the one hand, I’m big enough and old enough now not to take this as personally as I used to (after all, immediately after this overheard conversation I was drawn into a couple of other play conversations by other children because I was someone they must have felt they could say what they said to); on the other hand, however, this overheard conversation leaves me wondering why I’ve been perceived this way by this child. I know I’ve not gone out to be mean to anyone on the playground up to this point, and in truth I suspect my ‘meanness of being’ here is levelled entirely at last week’s simple situation: that is, the asking of this particular boy to please catch up with the rest of the crowd, as he pushed his bike along during our short walk back from school to the playground. I’d asked him two or three times and he blanked me each time. The last time I asked him, he turned around and told me firmly: ‘Will you stop directing me?!’ There. That was me told!
What troubles me here is, despite our best intentions, small things such as these can stick in children’s minds (I certainly remember plenty of small things about various adults from my own childhood). Small things stick. Just as there’s a ‘halo effect’ in psychology (whereby one positive trait in a person can serve to improve the perception of all of his or her other traits), there is the negative ‘devil effect’: here, one perceived flaw in personality can serve to taint everything else, no matter what, of that person perceived. I wonder if there’s any remedying of this one situation for me and this child. Generally, I think I’m hardened to it all, but actually I’m probably still soft in the centre!
It’s worth noting, if only in passing, that an hour later, the boy in question — left somewhat high and dry in his play interactions by accident, by a colleague, who was engaged in some form of chase-tap play with him and others before being diverted away — suddenly declared me the play ‘monster’ (I was the nearest adult), and he screamed at a pitch to wake the dolphins! Off he ran and off I ran after him because it was necessary, apparently.
I don’t really know what my meanness is or was with him. Perhaps I never will. What remains is the truth that is ‘children affect us in many ways’, and the danger that, if not checked by careful reflection, it could become an unconsciously self-fulfilling prophecy. This ‘children affect us’ statement goes deeper than just ‘happy, sad, amused, frustrated, fearful’. I direct my students, in the first instance, towards Playwork Principle 7: ‘Playworkers recognise their own impact on the play space and also the impact of children and young people’s play on the playworker’.
Why is it that we feel the way we feel when children tell us (or their friends) something ‘true’ to them about us? We put a lot of physical and mental time and energy into what becomes their opportunities to play. Is there an undertow of ‘how ungrateful’ here? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think the children truly know how much thinking, talking, resourcing, sometimes hand-wringing, certainly focused beer-drinking, and so forth goes into ‘this play session on the playground’. Even now, as I write in a notebook (ready for typing up later) I’m sitting thinking, concerned about play, in the pub! No, children don’t get all that, and why should they? So, if that all passes them by, why should we expect gratitude for it?
Perhaps we feel the way we feel when children tell us that we’re ‘mean’, or whatever they feel, because we’re caught unawares by how different children can perceive the same ‘us’ in unexpected ways. Over the years I’ve got used to children seeing the ‘unusualness’ of me in their play settings: many’s the time I’ve caught the vibe from individual children, or small groups, along the lines not of ‘who is that?’, rather ‘what is that?’! I don’t take offence by this: I find it quite amusing. Sometimes it comes down to simply being a man in the room; sometimes it’s more along the lines of ‘What, a man with long hair and a beard? I don’t get it’; sometimes it’s ‘What, a man, a man with long hair and a beard who’s sitting on the floor and who doesn’t mind me sticking my tongue out at him?!’ It’s usually all good. Children have often drifted over to me in play settings I’m just visiting, asking me if I’m a boy or a girl, or have squinted at me from a short distance before deciding something like ‘He’s alright’ and either offering me a token gift or their entire life histories.
This week I was also at a play setting, visiting a student (a place I’d been to several times before) and a small girl just came over to me, offering me cardboard cake and so forth, whilst others obviously ‘knew’ me in their heads, waving and telling me what my name was. Plenty of other times I’ve been to play settings just the once and I get automatic life histories, glue spread on my arms, or ultra-focused vibes of ‘you’ll do’.
However, I’m not used to children saying things to their friends, as overheard, that I’m mean. It just knocked me a little. You know? What can I do about this? How can we resolve a perception of ourselves when we have no definite knowledge of its origin? It’s like plugging a hole when we don’t know where the hole is.
In such situations we could easily just dismiss it, or brood on it for days. We can double our efforts at providing for all the children’s play needs and preferences, or we could settle and write about it. Maybe the thing we can’t actually affect by design and plan is how certain children feel about us. We can do everything we can to be the best we can be for individuals and for the group as a whole, but we can’t legislate for the ‘taste of the moment’, ‘flavour of the day’, how this play turns out to play through us. Maybe it’s all we can know that we are differently perceived by every individual child, and so we need to be aware of the thirty different versions of us, for the thirty different children, say, present on any given day.
It’s all we can know that we’re differently perceived: the ‘authentic’ definitive us is not enough. Maybe.