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

Archive for March, 2014

How we might connect

Yesterday, I waited on the train — having got to the platform early — and in the seats nearby sat a mother and her young son. He was about two, or just about three. I was tired but not too tired to see that a player of the world had just boarded. They spoke bits of Chinese, maybe, and he spoke some pieces of English. He was bright and alert and happy. I looked over and caught his eye. His mother was busying herself at the pushchair. The boy had that quizzical look on his face, that look I’m used to: so I closed one eye at him, opened it up, closed the other. After a second or so he repeated the gestures, only with the sort of careful exaggerations that young children often apply to their imitations of adults. I smiled. It was a mutual hello.

I write this here because I find these minor moments extremely beautiful, significant, full. For the rest of the journey we made no more contact with one another: only when I was packing my bag to get ready to go, down at his level as his mother got the pushchair and child ready to disembark, did he flash a look to say something along the lines of ‘You get that I want to play with this tambourine here, don’t you?’ It was small and plastic and, frankly, not worth the hassle his mother had imbued into not taking it out of the cellophane packet for him. He didn’t kick up too much of a fuss: he just looked at me, and that was that.

Moments, as I’ve written about plenty in these posts, are worth more than many will ever know: first they have to be seen though. This is a small aside. The thought of the boy on the train, ‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’ (being my story’s working title), led me to sit down here and think about other small appreciations that have taken place in the past couple of weeks. Being so fleeting, these moments of appreciation — from child to adult — are registered on some level at the time in question; when taken as pieces in something a little larger though, it becomes clearer that there are other levels.

I may be thinking in such ways at the moment because I still have several Tove Jansson books filtering around in my recent reading experience: that sparse, clean Scandinavian writing style, extolling the beauty of seemingly slight instances yet, collectively, beneath it all is something flowing a little deeper. I shall need some slight examples, and here they are:

Once, this week, a seven year old came to me and held up her finger to show me a paper cut. The line was bright red but not bleeding. ‘What can I do about this?’ I asked her, whilst also empathising. ‘You could get me a plaster,’ she said. I was in the middle of doing three or four things at once and I needed to do all of them together, including find her a plaster, or I’d forget one of them. She followed me round for a few minutes and I reminded her that I hadn’t forgotten. After a while we checked her forms and I figured ‘yes, this is fine’. I found a plaster and the paper cut was covered over. She didn’t look at me but, as she turned to leave the room and as I turned to throw away the paper rubbish, she gave the slightest thank you.

Some of the older children come to the after school session later than the others: they have school clubs on before they get to us, and so the rest of the children and us are all settled into play and observing by the time these older children get there. This week, I wandered back inside after having been out observing the general flow of the playground, and in the corner one of the older boys was slouched in a chair, relaxed, feet up, picking at a plate of food. He raised his chin to me as he saw me. I put up my thumb to him. A week or so earlier, one of the older girls was lying on the sofa as I walked in, me not having seen her arrive either. She put up her thumb at me.

The other day, I was sat on the tyre swing observing another older girl poking around with an old umbrella she’d found. She stood up on the bench and made an exaggerated play of preparing herself to jump off with the umbrella, which she then did. She turned to me and said that I should watch this. So I did. There followed a small experiment in how long it might take her to reach the ground with and without the umbrella. ‘Like Mary Poppins?’ I said, still sat idly by on the tyre swing. I don’t think she got the reference. She showed me that, look, it was quicker to the ground without the umbrella (she’d taken a smaller arc of a leap to demonstrate this though). She said for me to follow her, and she went and stood up on one of the fixed structures around the corner, five feet or so off the ground, looking to repeat the experiment (as if, in my mind, gravity was differently predisposed here!) We had a conversation about stopwatches and about my archaic little mobile phone that she couldn’t believe was older than she was. All these little interactions were wrapped up in a common appreciation of equals, or that’s how it felt to me.

One boy, a boy I wrote about recently (he who had perceived me as mean to his friend), didn’t look at me as I put the juice out so he and the others around him had easy reach of it. He gulped it down, saying a straight (that is, not sarcastic or otherwise negatively loaded) thank you. It was the tiniest little touch to reach me.

All these slightest stories (‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’, ‘the plaster girl who didn’t look up with her thank you’, ‘the thumbs-up older children’, ‘the equal-umbrella girl’, ‘the boy who once thought me mean’) are stories that are greater than they might at first seem. That’s the way I see them, anyway. Of course I’m not going out of my way to make children say thank you, or to ‘respect me’ out of force, or to listen to me because I have something to say or ‘things they have to know’: these children’s various appreciations have come in their own time. To them they may just be the moment that has now passed (which they are), but to me they also build into a greater story.

The thought of the interaction with the boy on the train, the boy with the exaggerated gestures, can also be analogous: there’s a whole different level of view to be seen with one eye closed, albeit briefly.
Playworkings will be taking a week off to do the tourist thing (maybe a couple of weeks, but we’ll see).


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What’s the point of baby chicks?

Something small and fluffy has happened on the playground. When I arrived there this week, after a few days away, I found an incubator full of eggs had been installed. I’m not great with animals, it must be said (even with the small, fluffy, too cute kind), but I found myself looking in on the pile of unhatched eggs, gently basking in the tropical conditions of the small glass box plugged into the wall, looking in more and more from — what I now see to be — a child’s perspective. Here were all these marker pen numbered eggs and they needed the watching, looking out for, looking after even, for them to hatch into full-blown chickness.

One of the chicks was already out so it seemed natural to me to name him Jeff (everything — be it animal, inanimate object needing a name, unborn niece, and so on — is good with the name Jeff for me! I don’t know why: it just is). I named him Jeff (he turned out to be a ‘he’ after all: the children told me so later because they’d read the glossy notes on gender identification pinned on the wall), and so I unconsciously bought into ‘ownership’, albeit loosely so, by way of anthropomorphising something. Jeff found his feet and soon enough there were cracks forming in a sibling egg.

We watched on before the children arrived (and now I realise how I, for one, was beginning to see the contents of the incubator through a child’s eyes), and urged Jeff’s brother/sister on. It seems to be a monumental struggle to get yourself out from inside an egg. When the newly hatched one finally flopped out, all dark brown stringy fur and little stubby wings and half closed black eyes, it was just sort of — well — disgusting really! Jeff’s brother/sister/half formed thing-mate with no name yet took its time to adjust to being part of the world. It kept getting its beak stuck in the grill and its legs stuck down the side between the grill and the glass. Welcome to the world, chick, mate, I thought. It’s amazing how quickly these little bundles of goo transform into fluff though. They dry out within an hour or two. Then they sleep.

When the children came in for the after school session that afternoon there was plenty of excitement. Small clusters of them (the children) came in from time to time to check in, to watch, to will the eggs on. One of the girls kept vigil in the art room that was the incubator’s home for the whole session. She took a sheet of paper and a pen and started drawing and leaving spaces for names-to-be. I’d had random conversations with some of the children in there about how Jeff had been first out. It wasn’t so much a way of saying ‘Jeff’s mine’; rather just talking about Jeff. The children, to my great amusement it must be said, started calling Jeff by name, asking which one Jeff was, and so on! They began naming chicks-to-be, staking claims on eggs: soon we had Jeff and Clara and Max out, and number four egg, who would be next out — judging by the cracks and beak showing through — was to be called ‘KFC’, apparently.

KFC took a long time eating himself/herself out. By the end of the session we had five chicks out. The next morning, when I came in to work, overnight another five had popped out. Jeff and a couple of others had been moved into the larger container overnight, but the incubator was full of nervous fluff again. Number one egg, sadly, still sat on his/her own, refusing to crack. When the children came in again for the session that day, they were just as excited (if not more so) than the day before. They wanted to touch and stroke and pick up the chicks. One of the children asked ‘When can we play with them?’

A couple of times I reminded the children that the chicks weren’t toys: that they were living things, just a day or so old. Jeff and Clara and Max and KFC could no longer be differentiated (though one of the children had noted that Jeff did have rather large toes): the chicks all huddled underneath the glow of the single bare light bulb, an inch or so above their heads — a single living mass of fidgety, nervous fluff gluing itself together under the gaze of several huge but equally fidgety Godzilla-like children-things, all desperate to get their hands on them and squeeze them senseless (in a loving way, no doubt).

How do you work with baby chicks? I have no idea. I mean, the closest I’ve come to this sort of thing is the occasional visit to a touch farm, or the zoo, or when some strange man or woman with an unhealthily odd deficit in squeamishness brings a snake to a nursery school to freak the living daylights out of small children and/or staff members. In close proximity to animals of any kind, I usually stand back a good distance whilst the children poke and prod because, frankly, to me animals have always been somewhat useless things capable only of being smelly or creepy or anything but cute or loveable! The best tactic, I found out with the baby chicks, was to make it up as I went along and not to let the children know what I was doing.

The children came and went and so did we, and sometimes we just shut the door on the art room because the chicks probably deserved a bit of a breather. Whenever I was in there with the children, there was a clamour to get their hands on the fluffy things in the container. I reckoned they ought to do it one at a time. Sometimes the children listened to this advice and sometimes they just went ahead and dug right in because chicks are more interesting than listening to an adult. With the exception of one of the younger girls, when I was in the room, the children didn’t really know how to approach the chicks (they weren’t alone in this!): there was some tentative touching and stroking as the chicks darted back to the safety in numbers of mass fluff under the bare light bulb; there was some outright poking, which was just the kinder side of the full-on equivalent of a dig in the ribs to you or me, but still, a dark sort of teasing nonetheless. I reminded the children in question that these were living things.

One of the girls wasn’t tentative at all. She put her hand right in and scooped up a chick and held it firmly, though without squeezing till it was agitated. She seemed to have got it just about right because the chick just calmed down. If she squeezed too hard or held it too high or too lightly it started chirping and wriggling (and so she dropped it the few inches back to the sawdust, which was still probably a little traumatic in its own way). I told her how I’d seen her handle them for them to be calm, and she started telling everyone how she was the expert.

All the chicks looked the same now (except that some were lemony yellow and some were more brown): that is, a day before we could just about figure out which one Jeff was and which one was Clara or KFC. We nearly lost one, whoever it was, over the edge though. Our expert held out a chick to another child and I asked the children to hold it over the table top because it was a long drop to the floor. There was a momentary lapse though and the chick wriggled and flapped and flopped out, bounced off the table top, and headed downwards. Reflex kicked in and I caught him or her and managed to scramble the chick back up onto the table, whereupon I said to my expert chick-handler ‘I think you better put this one back in the box for me’. (I didn’t want to touch it any more than I needed to). Chick hitting the floor would have been messy. The chicks all huddled together — in a mass of little heart-beating agitation, no doubt — and I thought it best I shuffle the huddle of children out of the room for a short while.

I said a very odd thing. I didn’t think about it: it just came out. As the children were quietly pleading for more handling time (to which I promised more time later, but the chicks needed a bit of a breather), I said to one of the girls looking up at me with big eyes: ‘I usually think of you children first, but now I have to think of the chicks.’ I don’t know where that came from. What good are chicks anyway? Horrible, smelly, creepy, useless things. What are chicks for? What can they do?

The children affected their sadnesses at leaving for the time being (though they chirped up to show their parents when they came). I went to wash my hands after The Incident with the Unknown Chick and the Very Near Calamity from a Significant Height. Later, I noticed that the biggest chick did seem to have big toes and that meant he was probably Jeff. Number one egg was still very still, all alone now in the incubator. I don’t know if he’s made it yet . . .

Playwork — a Rolling Stones moment (guest blog)

As I grow increasingly aware of the readership (and of the potential readership) of this blog on (if not ‘all’ then ‘many’ things) play and playwork, I’m becoming more and more open to it also being a platform for guest blogs on and around the subject matter. So, to that end, there follows a guest blog from my playwork colleague and occasional partner-in-beer, fellow ‘putter-of-the-world-to-rights’, Rich Driffield. We both attended the 12th National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne this week and being part of that community again seems to have had an affect on both of us (though I shall reserve my own extended thoughts here for a time when I’ve fully processed them).

Suffice is to say that what we do, fellow playworkers reading here (and also those of you who have found your way back here or who’ve come here for the first time, from any field that you find yourself in), what we do is something very special. When I looked around the conference hall and saw playworkers who could relate to the things I do on the playground without any difficulty of explanation, I too felt part of a unique band of people. The opportunity to talk about the taboo and difficult subjects in rational safety with people who’ve also been around for many years in the field, or to have incidental or depth discussions again with fellow playworkers, fellow writers, other trainers, lecturers or professors in the ‘salon’ area we set up, or in the pub, was inspiring.

My head was spinning for two and a half days because of the intensity of discussions, because of listening, because of focus. It also became clear to me that, within the support network out there in the playwork field, some individuals are even more appreciative of the thoughts and words of writers such as myself than I’d fully appreciated. To this end, a quick note here is made in appreciation and acknowledgement of those supporters in my being bestowed the Playwork Writer Award 2014. Also, very great specific thanks are sent the way of Captain Complexity, ‘Wing Commander’ Arthur Battram (he of the excellent title blag!) in agreeing to collect this award on my behalf!

So, without further ado, it’s over to m’learned colleague Rich Driffield and his guest blog regarding his take on the conference and on being part of this community of playwork people. Rich writes:
It was with a hint of sadness that I boarded the train back to London Victoria on Wednesday afternoon. I have been encouraged to blog before but I have never really felt the need until now. Anyway, it was not the type of sadness that brought tears but instead a kind of sadness that brought a huge sense of pride and of belonging to something. I am talking about my feelings in response to ‘hanging out’ at the Playwork Conference in Eastbourne, mainly in the ‘salon’ amongst a unique group of people.

This year I got a lot out of conference: not that I didn’t in previous years but, in 2014, Eastbourne was exactly what I needed. The various conversations I engaged in, listened to, the old friends I caught up with, those people whose faces I knew but not their names, who I finally had the opportunity to speak to, led to time very well spent. It was a productive two days: I learnt things, spoke about nonsense, and laughed. But more importantly, I felt part of something again.

I sat around, mostly in the ‘salon’, and felt totally at ease. I went to a number of workshops and felt like I had something to give and something to be given. The majority of people I spent my time with totally enthralled me. This assemblage of personalities, new and old, led me to feel proud. The ten or so individuals I spent most of my time with inspired me: I hope in some way they got something from me too. In an increasingly difficult world, it is crucial that — as playworkers — we continue to stick together because we are an amazing bunch of people who do a bloody hard job.

This togetherness is something that really struck me over the last few days, and it led to the sadness I felt when leaving. It is something I have struggled to find in the past two years since moving on to a new place. Hurdles upon hurdles have been put in place, and there have been times when I’ve felt surrounded by thoughts on learning, safety and control rather than the children, who should always come first. As I boarded the train I felt I was leaving on my own again back to the ‘real world’ of seriousness and, as Eddie alluded to in his workshop, ‘bullshit’.

As I sat writing this at my kitchen table, I listened to Radio Two and a Rolling Stones track came on. This to me was a mini-celebration and, as I reviewed the last few days with the music playing, it honestly felt really good. I was back; I have discovered what it feels like to be a playworker again; I felt part of a much wider team, and I thank all the people I met for getting me back to this point!

So, what from here? Will I forget this warm fuzzy feeling in a week or so and revert back to the ‘bullshit real world’, becoming frustrated all over again? Well, maybe a little, but an important thing for me is to keep my fellow colleagues close, work on what we know, continue to develop our thinking, and pick each other up when we are down. That is what playworkers should do, and we should be confident in what we believe in. As to those who work away from here who I met: let’s talk occasionally, moan and joke on social networks, but also remember that we are playworkers, and that’s crucial to remember in times of peril.

On the writing of real children

In my continuing thinking on play between generations, I find myself very much absorbed between the pages of a particular book. This is not a playwork theory book, but a work of fiction based — as it is — on real people who are clearly loved. What draws me to write here is that, as I read that book, I became more and more aware of how I was, in part, reading with my playworker’s sensibility in place. The book in question is The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (my review of which can be found on my other site, here).

The Summer Book was written in 1972, originally in Swedish, and it’s the loosely connected reflections of the author regarding the relationship between six year old Sophia and her Grandmother on a little island in the Gulf of Finland. The playworker in me slowly started to make his conscious appearance as I read and as I began to realise that here, in these pages, were plenty of things we might reflect on in our modern play settings and on play in general: Sophia engages in physical play that makes her Grandmother anxious; she connects with nature and living and dead creatures; she sucks up the comments, or teachings, or ways of being of her Grandmother, and so on. It is, however, to one chapter in particular, and my linking of it to the playground, that my thinking is mainly concerned with here as I write.

Towards the end of the book is an account of around eight pages in length (titled Of Angleworms and Others) in which Sophia becomes suddenly afraid of all the small creatures of the island. She accidentally cuts an angleworm in half with a spade and this causes her some distress. Her Grandmother (who only goes by the character name that is ‘Grandmother’ throughout) takes an interesting approach to try to deflect Sophia’s anxiety: after her initial attempts to calm the child’s concerns fail (she says of the two halves of the angleworm ‘They’ll grow out again’), Grandmother then says, ‘You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever taken a sufficient interest in angleworms. Someone who’s really interested ought to write a book about them.’ Later that evening, in the narrative, Sophia starts to write a book about angleworms.

As I read this part of Jansson’s story, I thought on the sparking of play. I read Grandmother’s approach as a subtle means of alleviating and deflecting concerns but also of opening up a door to some form of therapeutic play to take place. The opposite, perhaps (seen many a time in play settings of various flavours of play-comprehension), is the sledgehammer adult-directed approach that is something along the lines of: now, we shall make Mother’s Day cards; now we shall do cooking (and it shall be chocolate brownies); now we’ll all get out jigsaw puzzles. (How I loathe the ‘jigsaw puzzles on the trestle table and nothing else out to play with’ approach!)

Jansson wrote the Moomin books for children (which I’ve heard of but never read), so I don’t wonder at the sensitivity shown in her writing here. What does make me think here though is a string of unfolding flowers: the ‘rose-tintedness’ of 1970s play, in its generalised form, is often denounced — play is no less worse off now, it’s said — but Jansson’s 70s writing here treats the perspective of children differently; could it be that the Scandinavian approach is, and has always been, just ‘better’?; some writers just understand more, in their non-playworkerness, than some who use the ‘playworker’ term do.

In Of Angleworms and Others in The Summer Book, Jansson writes how Sophia dictates her own book, which the latter calls A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart. Grandmother writes Sophia’s increasingly frantic thoughts and, in so doing, supports the whole play process. Sophia is flowing in her concern and in her subject matter, sometimes terse in her communications with her Grandmother because of her absolute focus in the moment, and she is a little precocious too. In this narrative device that is Sophia’s dictation, her speech, and in other aspects of The Summer Book as a whole, I began to wonder about whether Sophia represented a ‘real child’, as I knew children to be. That is, could Jansson avoid the trap of writing a child character as a stereotyped form?

You’ll need to read yourself and draw your own conclusions here, but my reasoning for writing this above, here and now, is that it made me think of the playwork books I’ve read. I’m more and more engaged in the thinking, in my work on the playground, that I’m calling ‘the theory of the real’ and whether what I’ve read and re-read in the playwork literature can be seen to relate to what still happens ‘out there’. What seems to be lacking in the playwork books is a general deficit of real children. Sure, there are reflections and stories scattered here and there (Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood’s Reflective Playwork, and Bob Hughes’ Evolutionary Playwork and Reflective Analytic Practice spring to mind, and there are moments in other books of collated offerings by various authors), but by and large I miss the real children in the general body of literature. Theory is all very well (and it is appreciated that sometimes concepts need to be explained as such), but without the individual children, the individual child, without Mikey or Livvy or Adam (all of whom I find instantly floating up from my long-stored memories of real children), then isn’t it all in danger of being somewhat dry?

There are issues around child protection or children at risk, and confidentiality of information in such cases and so forth, of course, (and it’s a great shame that we often have to think about changing the names of certain children we’ve observed and written about in public arenas), but bear with me here and come along with the thinking that is: what if there were more real stories of real play, engaged in by real children, real characters, for us to try to understand all that we study as playworkers?

Fiction offerings sometimes come along and leave us speechless (such as Jansson’s Summer Book did for me) though thoughtful: could Sophia be a real child (by which I mean, not ‘is she based on a real child?’, but ‘could she be real ‘out there’?’) At other times, fiction offerings completely miss what childness is (in the stereotyping, in the inability to see play, or in the treating of its child characters as merely minor unformed adult beings in waiting). If the ‘real child’ is written in the fiction, and by extension in the playwork books, then the possibility of real relations between generations starts to form: that is, if you can write a ‘real child’ you can comprehend the ‘theory of the real’ aspect that is, in my experience, the shifting fluidity of acceptances between the playworker and a child, this child, that child, Lucy, Ryan, Laura . . .

In A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart, in Of Angleworms and Others, in The Summer Book, the fictional Sophia (based on a real Sophia) dictates a passage that, to me, reads as an allusion towards the child’s concerns over a separation from her Grandmother (the analogy that is the splitting in two of the angleworm). The writer in me wants to believe this as a very real and possible way in which deeply buried concerns can manifest themselves; the playworker in me rejects the fictional writer and asks, ‘would a child think so deeply and so analagously as this?’, before reminding himself that yes, of course, a child can think deeply. (I remember, I think, a story written by Bob Hughes regarding a child’s drawing of a wedding dress and blood). It is more of the ‘real child’ that needs writing, more of this child, of that child . . .

Once, maybe twenty years ago (I forget for sure), Janey (who I only guess now as having been about eight or nine years old, because I didn’t write it all down at the time), brought a matchbox into the hall where the children played. Inside the matchbox was a dead spider and she was keeping it safe. Janey’s father, I knew, had just recently died. We didn’t talk much about it, but we both knew about the spider.

Stories on play, of real children, stories that stay with us, make us richer in ourselves and in our relations between generations.

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