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

Archive for May, 2014

On the origin of play memes

Whilst busying myself in the kitchen the other day, I overheard the children next door playing. The youngest is about three or four years old and she was playing on the trampoline which is behind the shed. I couldn’t see her or who she played with, or how they played, but I could hear their play. The point to this preamble is that I heard her enacting being a baby to her friend and it was exactly the following in the enactment: ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga.’ This was exactly the same play-words that I’d heard Princess K. and Dino Boy using a short while back whilst in my garden and whilst they also enacted baby play. When I thought about it, I realised that pretty much all the children I’d ever heard in this sort of baby-play used this exact ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ phrase.

Where does it come from? Real babies don’t go ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’: they gurgle and splutter and laugh, and strange alien word-formations start to come from their mouths, but I’ve never heard a real baby ever say ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’. Maybe I haven’t heard enough babies, but let’s just run with the assumption that real babies don’t go ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’. Someone, somewhere, must have started the whole ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing (or maybe, in the same way as evolution has a way of coming up with similar solutions to environmental challenges in different parts of the planet, ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ spontaneously arrived independently of other similar utterings elsewhere).

It’s the same with ‘being teacher’ role play: whenever I see children engaged in the socio-dramatic art-form that is the recreation of their teacher, or a teacher, I’m fairly confident in saying that it’s going to involve chairs, desks, usually some sort of a board, a register on a clipboard and, importantly, a fair amount of finger wagging. I’ve never seen a teacher wag their finger at a child or a group of children, I don’t think. I’ve seen some stood up, arms crossed, with stern looks on their faces, and I’ve seen some doing the whole ‘Errrrm’ thing at a pitch high enough and at a volume great enough to wake the dead and to reach into the far recesses of the playground, but I’ve never seen the finger wagging thing. Where do children get this from?

When I started thinking of the origins of such actions and phrases as finger wagging and ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’, I made a quick loop round the idea of ‘memes’. I tried to find a workable definition, and the one that follows is cobbled together from various places such as Oxford Dictionaries, Urban Dictionary and Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:

An element of a culture; an idea, belief, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture from one individual to another, by imitation for example, either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)

A pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; especially contagious to children and the impressionable.

These play memes that are ‘being baby by using goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga’, or ‘being teacher by finger wagging’ seem to be culturally transmitted between children. This transmission process keeps those memes alive. The more they get transmitted, the stronger they become, i.e. the more embedded they become in the play reportoire of a mass of children. The individual elements of this mass of children don’t have to know one another: children in the north and children in the south engage in the memes, for example. Such is the strength of such play memes that children can essentially speak the language of play to a complete stranger-child and still not have to engage in the language that their family uses, as it were. Many times I’ve seen children from various countries capably comprehend one another in their play.

So, the strong memes survive and, just like natural selection, the weaker memes die out. Children engaged in ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play, or ‘being at the vets’, or ‘being the doctor’, or such like, still tend to spend more time narrating what’s about to happen rather than immersing in the ‘what’s about to happen’ actually happening. This narration meme is strong still, whereas what’s happened to the old ‘locking together of fingers, index fingers up in a point, open the gate of the thumbs, turn the hands upside down, and wiggle the other fingers to show all the people in the church’? I don’t know why we used to do this when we were younger, but we did, and it was almost like a form of currency, one child to the other. Yesterday I saw a child do the old ‘High-five up above, on the side, down below . . . you’re too slow’ thing to a colleague, and I’m glad that meme is still hanging in there!

The question is though, and it’s one I can’t answer, so I’m just typing it out to throw it out there: where did such memes start? Or rather, how did they start? Of course, we’ll never know because as far as we know nobody’s fully documented the infinite depths of children’s culture. It is, also, another way of opening the door again here on the thinking on magic and legend and play and the depth level of our culture, of which children are such a part, but which they aren’t always fully credited for.

The play memes of children transmit themselves through the cultural whole but we can go about our adult lives ignorant of the nuances that surround us: the replication of ‘goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ (both in terms of how different children use the same phrase and, in my experience, that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ is itself often a double ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’); the interpretation of the actual or archetypal teacher in all its finger-wagging satire and caricaturising; the essential narration before/as some play (like indoor/outside space: is it?/isn’t it?); church steeples as known actions; high-five configurations as means of joking, relating, power-shifting, perhaps.

We can trace the memes back, maybe, but they’re of folklore so can we even find their beginnings? So, I ask the question rather more in rhetorical manner: where did that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing come from?

In celebration of beautiful moments in the service of play

Recently, on the playground, I had cause to just stop and watch the beautiful way in which a colleague of mine was working. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to me what I saw unfolding had a beauty of its own. I shall come to this story shortly. First, a preamble though: my thinking back on this observing of a colleague is, in part, inspired by something that I read this week. In her blog, fellow playworker Morgan Leichter-Saxby writes about some things she’s seen as excellent playwork practice. I was somewhat taken by one of these observations (both for its story and for the prose that Morgan uses). Of someone once seen, Morgan writes:

Trained as a professional dancer, he moved quiet and sure, with a tiger’s grace.  Children in difficulties would sometimes come and stand near him, touch him lightly on the arm and breathe deeply.

Recently, on the playground, I had cause to just stop and watch the beautiful way in which Hassan worked. I’m hopeful that he won’t mind me telling you. We can sometimes fall foul of being critical of the world and its inhabitants, forgetting that we aren’t actually the perfect and highest authority on how to be, act, or interact: so maybe it’s good that we consciously stop ourselves to see what’s going on around us when something amazing takes place. It’s in praise that I write because we don’t do this enough.

One of the girls had written and drawn a sign on an A4 sheet of paper, along the lines of ‘kick me’, though with more words than this and, truthfully, I forget the exact phrasing but that’s neither here nor there. She was looking around for someone to tape it onto. I was paying periphery attention at this time, tidying around the edges of the room as this was taking place. Hassan, of course, became the chosen one. Before long the sign maker had been joined by some other children, giggling, plotting, trying to distract Hass as he leant over at the table. I started to pay more attention, leaning on my broom.

With the sign having been stealthily and duly taped to his back, Hass went about his usual comings and goings. The girls held their hands to their mouths and tried to suppress their laughing. Hass moved out and back into the room again. There was a flow in all of this. At some point the sign came off, or a new one was created, maybe to ramp up the play. I don’t know for sure. The exact order of these events is fuzzy. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hassan, with deadpan expression bordering on fake annoyance, turned around to the girls every so often, with good timing, to say ‘What? What? What’s the problem here?’ and suchlike. This only made the children giggle more.

In between signs he screwed up his face and stretched, leaning over the table. The children gathered around and he said that they should just bang his back, you know, that would help with the aching there, or words and actions to this effect. The children duly obliged. Hass thanked them and walked off, newly taped with another ‘kick me’ type sign. I watched and I smiled. I tipped my metaphorical hat. This all flowed backwards and forwards for, I guess, something like twenty minutes or so.

Hass was, of course, playing the game. He was returning the cues, keeping it going, giving children what they wanted at that time. Part of me wondered if the children knew that he knew. Maybe that was part of the whole magic of the piece. I don’t know. In the moment of that twenty minutes or so, maybe less, I just knew it was a beautiful thing to see. I told Hass so later because it just felt right to say that, but also because we don’t tell each other such things often enough. It’s easy to criticise others, but it’s not always so easy to say, ‘Yes, that was beautiful. Thank you.’

I have some shorter stories digging back and back: I once visited an after school club where there was a large field, part of a tree trunk laying in a wide muddy puddle at the far end, twenty five or so children, and the surface water of the previous night’s rain. (Maybe I’ve told this story before somewhere on these pages, I don’t remember. Stories like this stick around though). The ingredients were primed for a perfect storm: by which I mean the combination of muddy puddle and excitable children! Soon enough there were children in their school uniforms sat down in the puddle, jumping off the tree trunk after some tentative trial runs, and some children actually swam in the inch or two deep surface water covering the grass a little further away! I didn’t do anything, just being there in my observational capacity (though maybe, on reflection, my presence had influenced the team’s decision making). That said though, the point of my story is that play happened and was given every chance to go on happening. I made a point, later, of telling the team how impressed I was by their collective bravery because I felt it just needed saying.

Someone I should have told about the beauty of what they did, but didn’t, was a one-to-one support worker I observed in Stockholm a couple of years back. The children were having lessons out in the forest and we accompanied them and their teachers, trekking out and up a steep hill to the chosen site. In our party was this woman, whose name I never took, who with amazing strength, tirelessness and grace, pushed one of the children in a specially constructed wheelchair up this hill and over the rocky terrain up there, wherever the other children went, all day. The boy communicated with his tongue, pointing to symbols on a card she held up, as I remember it. Her dedication to his needs, his play, his involvement, just left me very, very humbled.

I should have told her what I saw, not because she didn’t know what she did or because it would have made her life the richer for it, maybe, but because such things just deserve such tellings. So, belatedly, and publicly I say thank you to her (although I doubt she’ll come across these words), and I also celebrate Lynda and her team for their bravery in the field with the puddle and the tree trunk, and Hassan for playing along with the moment. There are others, and there will be others too.

Thank you, Morgan, for your quiet words which are also loud.

Why play? (An appearance of transformative soup)

Something has troubled me for a long time about play: or rather, something has troubled me about how play can be made use of. What it boils down to, this disturbance, is the idea of play being used in the pursuit of ignoble social engineering: let us create our perfect society by manipulating play. ‘Perfection’, of course, is subjective, and this is another problem, but the focus of my disturbance is others’ conscious envisioning of play as a means of, a tool for, the dubious shaping of society. I shall write this post in a deliberately philosophical manner, but it’s inspired by two brief observations of play that took place recently.

In the garden, I was sat in a chair and just relaxing as play took place around me. Princess K. and Dino Boy (who are nearly five and three, respectively) were sat in deckchairs nearby when a spontaneity of ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play broke out. I was co-opted into the play of the moment: ‘You be Daddy’, I was told. She, Princess K., would be ‘Mummy’, and Dino Boy (a.k.a. her younger brother) would be ‘Baby’. This was all nothing new in the observation, and I tried to stay somewhat out of it anyway because, frankly, I was more interested in the observing than in the energy involved in order to be an active participant. I was passive ‘Daddy’. What struck me here most of all though was the voices the two children used to narrate the set-up of the scene to myself and to each other, and in the continuation of that scene: the pitch of their voices went up to a higher degree and stayed there, in role. It was almost like young children enacting what they perceived to be young children: quite odd.

Play, I later considered, had transformed the children’s usual selves. It is to this transformative effect that I shall return later. First though, another brief observation involving the same two children a day later at the local park: both children busied themselves by stuffing various found things (fir cones, bits of grass, sticks, feathers, and so on) into an up-tilted metal spinning device. They were, apparently, making soup. ‘Soup’ feeds into the current philosophical thinking . . .

Play, I’m proposing, can be seen in terms of verb and noun: that is, ‘to play’ (verb) and play as a thing in itself (noun). It is to the latter that my attention is drawn. In making use of play (as noun), as a tool or a medium, the social engineers are bending it to their will (in the building of a society they wish to create): in this model of operating, play is something that can be discarded when the product (child as configured future adult) has been realised (created). This leaves a somewhat disagreeable taste: use play to create fit and healthy people who don’t drain the future economy; use play to develop a literate future workforce; use play to manufacture a society just happy enough with their material assets not to resort to active mass dissent at the ruling few. I’m being cynical, but close analysis of modern society might well justify these statements.

Alternatively, I propose, play (as noun), as thing in itself, ‘is’ the soup we live in. Play is not the tool, the medium, to be discarded after its engineering use is spent: play is the medium in which we live. It’s always there around us, in us, through us: play transforms us, continuously. This begs the question: is this ‘transforming’ what play is for? Further to this, there’s the consideration of the distinction between what play is ‘for’ and what play ‘is’ (or, at least, what it ‘appears’ to be).

Those who make use of play for the building of the great utopian future-society seem to miss the point of what play ‘is’: play is the soup, the fabric, the magic in which we all live. Admittedly, this is a subjective perspective because the best any of us can hope to perceive is what play ‘appears’ to be to them, rather than what it ‘is’, per se. However, all my study, all that I’ve been taught, and most importantly all that I’ve witnessed and personally felt about, and in, play leads me to this conclusion. This is where I position myself. Play should be given the chance to flourish in individuals, in collectives, in the built environments of cities and so forth. Why?

Simply, in asking ‘why play?’, we might as well be asking ‘why breath?’ (Note: I do mean ‘breath’ as noun here, not ‘breathe’ as verb). Play transforms us: not for economic, socio-economic, or passive-consumer purposes, but just because that is what play (this soup, this fabric, this magic in which we live) does. If it is ‘for’ anything, then surely it’s for this, as follows: in our momentary transformation is the moment that is play’s potential to continue, to roll and cycle on, to keep being. Play appears to me to be something that needs to keep moving, swilling, in order for it to be. To attempt to manipulate play for social engineering purposes, to try to mould it into something in order to hammer an object (this child, that child) into a perfect-future product is disagreeable.

What though might we think of ‘noble’ manipulations of play? That is to say, play as therapeutic tool, for example. Children traumatised by abuse, bereavement, ill-health, and so on, can surely be led upon the road to recovery via altruistic mindful therapeutic support? It is to the question of what constitutes ‘noble’ that I focus in on here in trying to make a way through this conundrum. If play is acknowledged, given a chance to be, in the noble aim (yes, again my own subjective analysis) of truly supporting the individual, then play is not manipulated as such but seen. If (‘therapeutic’) play is used in terms of conditioning individuals out of ‘undesirable’ traits, then this also leaves a disagreeable taste.

I know a boy who’s maybe thirteen or fourteen. He’s the big fish in the little pond that is the playground. One day we were surprised to see him in the sand pit. I hadn’t noticed him for a while up till then. It wasn’t that he was in the sand pit that was surprising: he was there for a good twenty or thirty minutes, at a guess; he was with another boy of about the same age; they were poking around with sand and water, and with things to mix one with the other; the boy was actually playing — this was the surprise. Play, that soup, that fabric, that magic, had swilled around and in him. He was absorbed. It was rare and special.

The point of this story diversion is that there is a difference between the over-engineered and the natural. It is the chance for play to take place, to take root, to flow, that we should be engineering, not the children, or the moulding of their play. Why should we being doing this? Isn’t this the same as saying that we’re trying to create a better future society? No, we should be looking to see what’s already here. Play is here. If we look, we’ll see; if we listen, we’ll hear.

Why play? What is it for? Play is transformative for its own ends. Why play? Why breath (noun, thing in itself)?

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