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.