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), Jaimie (who I only guess now as being 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. Jaimie’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.