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

Archive for April, 2014

A theory of the real (part two of some)

Back in August 2013 I wrote a post and called it ‘A theory of the real (part one of some)’. Coming off the back of a summer of direct playwork practice, matters of ‘walking the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’ were very much at the forefront of my mind. I’ve just come out of another intense period of open access playwork over Easter and I find that the ‘theory of the real’ is again percolating through. This time, however, it seems that a slightly different angle is trying to nudge itself into my conscious thinking.

Eight months ago I wrote (with regards to what’s written down in playwork books, for example):

When truly observing play, when deeply engaged in the unfolding actions and in the possible formation of verbal legendary narratives, it becomes clearer to me that something other than dry ‘on paper’ play is taking place. Something ‘very other’ takes place, in fact.

This ‘theory of the real’ is fraught with difficulties: not least of these is the potential for those who ‘buy in’ to the idea of ‘doing it for real’ having a total disregard for all that’s been researched and written. There is the potential for some who work in the sector to disregard the literature purely out of laziness or to conceal their apathy at reading.

All of this still registers as ‘true’ to me (or ‘true’ from my particular perspective); however, my reflection on my own recent practice and my observations of my colleagues’ practice directs me towards looking at the work of the team rather than just any given individual — how a good, effective blend of skills/knowledge is essential. My reading of the playwork literature isn’t that the books suggest that every playworker must be whatever that book in question says they should be, though it could be read that way I suppose; it is, rather, that in the reality of the playground (rarefied space, magic fabric), that good team blendedness is difficult to grasp in between pages.

Something other than dry ‘on paper’ playwork takes place, in reality; though something of the book pages is also needed in the mix of the team and its work too. This isn’t a contradiction of what I wrote previously in part one of this occasional series; on the contrary, it compliments the sentiments of that second quoted paragraph, I feel — we must first understand the playwork pages in order to see if they crackle with dryness or with the flickerings of possibility. Total disregard of the literature, out of laziness or apathy, is a little like saying let’s make it all up as we go along because we can.

Once, I made it all up as I went along and I had a great time. That’s just it though: it was me to have a great time and I don’t know about anyone else. Why are we there, on the playground, if not for the children? (As an aside, as I was opening up one morning this week, one of the children on the other side of the gate started questioning me: ‘Do you get paid to work here? How much? Why do you work here? Do you like it?’ To which I answered, respectively: ‘Yes; I’m not telling you; because it’s what I do; absolutely’). Once, I made it all up as I went along, but then I started realising more about my affect on the children I worked with.

So this brings me round, via my affect on the children, to my affect on my colleagues, and my colleagues’ affects on me, and on our affect, as a team, on the children. I thought this week on what sort of playworkers we could be and what any given playworker could be described as. The phrase ‘technical playworker’ has been bouncing around for a while in my head. I’m thinking of it in terms of ‘technical footballer’ (whatever that is, but it’s a phrase I hear plenty of times in sports commentary). There seems to be a sort of praise going on for the technical footballer, by the commentator, an admiration, but also perhaps a suggestion wrapped up in this that is ‘well, the technical footballer (read ‘playworker’) may have the skills-knowledge and general application but lacks in a certain something’. He knows how to ping a seventy yard cross-field pass, inch perfect with the outside of his boot, but can he judge a type of tackle from his repertoire of one when he’s employed as a ‘creative midfielder’? (Apologies to those not up to speed with my footballing analogy!) To bring it back to the playwork:

Perhaps the technical playworker knows what’s what from the books, can observe minutely and at length, can tell their play types apart and why, but has a one-knot repertoire which they use on temporary tarpaulin rain shelters, or when fixing rope swings to branches, much to the vexation of their ‘more than one knot’ repertoired colleagues!

I’m a one-knot playworker, I admit! The technical playworker aspect of me isn’t so cut and dried though. I also know that ‘relating’ is essential on the playground. Those children who want to relate to this adult in their space will find someone who knows that the child with the smiling eyes bouncing up and down at the start of the day is smiling because she really is happy to see him today, and he’ll respond to this because it’s needed; or, the child who offers this playworker just something that they’ve made (a concoction of felt and glue and glitter and feathers), in lieu of perfect English, because the playworker has made time for them for their play to happen, perhaps, should be thanked and have their offering taken seriously. The offering was made that way after all. I haven’t come across such things in the playwork literature yet.

When I see such relating taking place between my colleagues and children, I find myself just stopping to see from a distance. I watched for several minutes, one day this week, stood in the middle of the playground with it all flowing around me as, in the middle distance, up on the hill, I could see a small group of children gathered around a colleague who seemed to be engaged in some sort of play involving self-defence! One of the children, a spiky, funny character by and large, did all the moves (and I couldn’t hear any of the words) and she finished it off with a flourish at my colleague, along the lines of — in the interpretation — ‘Yeah, OK, whatever, girlfriend.’ You know? She seemed to be totally focused on my colleague’s relating to her.

So we have the technical and the relating playworker (the theory of the real thinking hasn’t suggested a better title for the latter yet), but these two personas can come wrapped in the same person. The blend is in the individual but also in the collection of individuals in the team. What I lack in my knots repertoire or in my ability to knock up anything quickly with a few lengths of wood and a power drill, I fill with other skills. Every playwork team, perhaps, needs creatives and builders, relaters and observers, the go-to soft policer, the scavenger or blagger, the overseer, the consultees or sounding boards for ideas, the makers of decisions, those who mix paint, and those who instinctively know a hundred and three variations of messy play that could happen, and so on.

Also, importantly, every team needs a good blend of men and women. What happens when too many men get together in one play place without female balancing is the potential for gorilla (not ‘guerrilla’) action; what happens when too many women get together in one play place without male balancing is the potential for mumsiness. (Both are stereotypes, but both I’ve seen happening in various places).

So, this theory of the real in playwork, as it stands, is a blended affair: read but don’t be a robot to it all; question the books and theories, but only when those books and theories are understood; be as many things as one person can be, but know that being all things is probably impossible; accepting our own strengths and limitations also, perhaps, feeds into seeing the strengths in colleagues; we can compliment our colleagues and vice versa; this team needs many skills to function . . .

Within it, there is the appreciation of what a happy bundle of smiling eyes is, and there is a useful knowledge of a range of different knots; there is the ability to defuse an argument between pre-pubescent teenagers, enraged at unfair pool table etiquette, and there is the ability to mix the exact right shades of paint that will inspire for that day; there is the calming influence of the overseeing observer, and there is the artful scavenger with another car full of things nobody else can see the play value in.

Playwork is many-faceted in the theory of the real, and it would be a static affair if we were all the same, robotically reproducing the same actions, reactions, interactions.


Play as movement

A long time ago I’d come to the conclusion that play pretty much boiled down to ‘movement’. That is to say, not necessarily confined — in the definition — to physical movement, but as related to all sorts of movement: of the body, sometimes, yes, but also of the mind, also of what some might call the spirit, also of abstract and not fully formed ideas inside us, and so forth. I had this conversation a few years back with a very good friend of many years, a dancer, as we walked along the Weser in Bremen. ‘Play’, she said, had also formed part of her study thesis in her field, her vocation, and ‘play as movement’ was the same conclusion she’d come to. Back to the present, and the motion of travel and being part of a huge metropolis has absorbed plenty of my waking hours recently: sometimes this all just stops you from seeing the woods for the trees. So I focused in, now that I’m still for a few days: I see that, within play as movement, is the great experimentation of the now that is play.

I’m always at great pains to try not to use the word ‘learning’ in the same breath as ‘play’. Sure, ‘learning’ can take place, but ‘learning’ is such an adult-heavy word: it’s full of intention for the future, of being something that you’re not quite- or very far from yet, of being better, and so on. Whatever happened to the aspect of experimentation that amounts to ‘just for the hell of it’? When I was a child I climbed up onto a flat roof of a derelict house down the street; I threw eggs into the garden from up there, just for the hell of it. I don’t know what I learned. It didn’t make me into a better or worse citizen. It added to my general stock of stories and ‘me’-ness, but I didn’t go into it for these reasons. I climbed a roof because I could, and I threw eggs because I found them.

The great experiment of play is an on-going venture. It happens because it can (sometimes, if adults just back off and butt out). A couple of weeks ago I did the tourist thing in the huge metropolis of London. I say it like this because I forget that London underground is a different place to London on the ground, in the open air: people don’t squirt around in long thin tubes up there and the place is full of everyone, every sound, every energy, non-stop. In the city, there are (what I remember being told at architecture school many, many years ago) ‘monuments’ and ‘toothpaste’ (the latter being the streets in between). In amongst the toothpaste, if you believe in and reckon on the city that way, it’s hard to stop and see. The other week, we tourists ventured out along the Docklands Light Railway to the eastern wastelands of somewhere near Stratford, en route towards the newly re-opened Olympic Park.

It is here that a great experiment of play was seen. Wedged between the mothership Westfield shopping centre and the vacant Olympic Stadium, overseen by the grotesquely singular-purposed ArcelorMittal Orbit ‘sculpture’ tower, is a flat area of concrete with a series of circular grills set into it. When we came over the grass bank and saw the place full with children, I knew that here was a huge experiment of play taking place. Each grill was a fountain spout that sent a column of water into the air before it tumbled back over itself.

Olympic Park, London I

Children ran around shouting and screaming and laughing as they navigated between the spouts and as those water spouts rose and fell in various synchronisations. To observe it was fascinating, but what could it have been like to actually be in there? The water rose and then it fell away: all the fountains went still and dry. The spray sound fell away and sent a weird sort of almost-silence over the place for a few moments. There was a tension in the air. The children waited and readied themselves to run. Suddenly, the fountains all spurted on and a loud collective squeal went up. The children chased the on-off formation that now took place as the fountains buzzed along the routeways. Every child in the area was soaked.

Olympic Park, London II

Here is experimentation and movement (externally and internally) and here is play just for the hell of it. What was going on inside the heads of the players, of course, I will never know. Maybe it was all about nothing but the moment; maybe there were other symbolic, ritual, or myth-magical aspects starting to take place. In the observation I interpreted possibilities: children might be in a rain-dance, in a sun-dance, in a let’s just see dance . . .

Olympic Park, London III

The moment circles away, sploshes into something else, falls like a fountain gush. The movement of play, the great experiment, re-shapes itself. This photo makes me sit up and pay attention: it makes me think, but it also tells me that this is a moment that might have been something, that soon became something else, that in the end is just an interpretation, and how do I know what’s what in it at all because, actually, I was only on the outside looking in. This photo is also an oddity, a paradox: it’s a freeze frame of something moving, which in the freeze isn’t now moving at all.

Play is movement: not necessarily just of body (children stood still in waiting for the fountains to spurt up again, and who knows what movements of the mind and spirit were there within it all?). Play is just for the hell of it. Play is the great experiment, and what children learn in the classroom can in no way equate to what the dance between the fountains gives them. What that latter is, I don’t know. What I remember of what was going on in the moment, internally, when I threw eggs from a roof, too many years ago to remember exactly when, I can’t say for sure. I observe my child-self like I observe the children at the fountains: on the outside looking in.

What I do know is that it was all necessary there and then. Play is movement; play moves us.

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