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.
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.
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 . . .
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.