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

Archive for June, 2014

Small ways of working: towards playworkerness

Playwork is not the only way of working with children. This has become clearer over the years, in the way that the blindingly obvious has a tendency to secrete itself in full view. This is to say, playwork is a methodology of working, and other methodologies are available. However (there’s always a ‘however’), playwork seems to me (and many others of similar experiences) the most ‘authentic’, integrous, soulful, connected way of working when treading in the children’s space.

Last week I wrote about fences. It was both a thing-in-itself and a means of jumping into further writing. I am aware of the tub-thumping I do here on the screen and — despite the rational part of my brain spinning away in the background of my day to day interactions — I’m aware of my sometimes awkward tub-thumping ways out and about: I know that the world in which we live won’t change just like that, despite all my advocacy for play and for the world of ‘wouldn’t it be great if . . .’ I know this, but I keep on thinking ‘what if?’

Last week I wrote:

What would it all be like if there were no fence here at all, and (this is a pre-condition of that scenario, I suppose) if our society were much more pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of that society — respected better, listened to more, considered?

If we were able to treat our children differently, better, with more considered thought, with all the time and grace we expect others to treat us as we go about our day to days . . . if we were to do this . . .

So things don’t happen overnight, but we can start small and locally. Playwork methodology, for me, holds within it the greatness of the small: the small moment, the small beauty, the small anxiety, or the small nuance of enormous subtlety. Where such seeds are sown, strange and wondrous fruits may sprout instantaneously, and they’ll stay rooted. The child who ‘gets’ the playworker because the playworker gets them, their play, their reasons for being or saying or doing, is someone who may well recognise that playworkerness of being in others too.

Playworkers work with the child’s way of being, doing, playing, choices, fears and dreamings and schemings, and so on. Some days playworkers get their practice wrong, but they can call themselves playworkers if they acknowledge what they’ve got wrong, why, how, when; they can take it on the chin when their fellow playworkers tell them what they’ve seen or felt or intuitively understood. They make good where they can. Some days I’ve got it wrong. Some days I’ve got it right . . .

A few weeks ago, a small moment happened on the playground, a moment that may have gone absolutely unrecognised by anybody else, including the child that this story relates to (right there and then, at least, though I’m trusting that the affect of the moment stays with her in her continuing acknowledgement of playworkerness). It was this: I was walking towards the corner of the building, out on the playground; I heard her but couldn’t see her; I knew she was coming my way and I knew how she would enter that space which I currently occupied. I stopped quickly, and she hurtled around the corner, sped past me with just the briefest form of acknowledgement of my presence, and then was gone in the play somewhere else. I’d got it right because, I immediately recalled, the story told to me of someone somewhere else who’d not stopped, despite the child about to career around the corner on the pedal car, slamming into that adult someone; the child got blamed and was subsequently prevented from playing there and with that again.

It should be the other way around: this is the child’s space of play, stop, wait. When I see colleagues who are playworkers, or people who aren’t playworkers but are in the space of play, walking around the children’s play (their ‘play frames’) instead of straight through them, I sense someone pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of this society — respected better, listened to more, considered. It is to these small instances of understanding that I’m often drawn.

When ‘the rules’ are ‘broken’ by adults (playworkers or otherwise) because ‘the rules’ aren’t fit for purpose, are there because they’ve always been there, or because they serve mainly to reduce the anxiety of adults or are subservient to those adults’ tolerance levels for play, I applaud inwardly: noting, nodding. In the same way that children ‘get’ that archetypal playworkerness, which can manifest in various adults, and they seem to grow more comfortable with those adults, I too note that playworkerness of others. I can get myself in trouble with the whole ‘let’s not worry about those ‘rules’ today’ thinking: I’ve recognised this and it has happened. If it happens though, it happens because what I feel and see and think about is: ‘this here is play.’

Playworkerness, in its small richnesses of occurence, I think of when I see or sense adults knowing what’s around them, or around corners, and actively doing something about this, when they walk around the edges of the play frame, when they aren’t slaves to ‘the rules’. I see it also when they show they know that any manner of things can pollute or ruin the play (not shouting out to children to do this or that; not pushing their noses in to see/be part of/teach children ‘better ways’ of play; not trying to grab the ‘play setting’ by the temporal edges, as it were, and fling it back around so all its energy of play stops and then slowly spins the other way, all around that adult at its centre — that is, there is playworkerness in not saying, implying or insisting that ‘it’s all about me’).

It’s not about the adult, but the child seems to know that the adult who serves the playness is an adult who is embraced into that playness. Anything else, in the context of the ‘play setting’, and the adult is left at the edges of ‘necessarily being there’ but not ‘being necessary’.

Playwork methodology, in the particulars of its small graces, in its ‘authentic’, integrous, soulful, connected way of working when treading in the children’s space, is a starter disposition for a society that could do better, I feel.

What if we could take down all the fences and walk around, not through, the play of children’s space within the whole space?
 
 

The simple complexity of children behind fences

A while ago my work took me to a few of those ‘maximum security’ schools: you know the type — those with the fifteen feet high fences and slowly sliding sky-high entrance panels (‘door’ isn’t the most appropriate word here); or those with three levels of entrance stage, through narrow chain-linked spaces with no immediately visible ways of getting back out once the door behind has shut clicked closed (like descending into the realms of lower Earth, or like a progressively demonic trial by increasingly impossible inquisition towards eventual and inevitable doom!)

All melodrama aside, it reminded me of the simple question that’s often nagged me when it comes to fences around schools and designated places for play: are the fences to keep security threats out, or are they to keep the children in?

Maybe the easy answer is to say that it’s a bit of both really. This, however, throws up deeper questions: why do we, as a society, feel the need to imprison children behind such fences in the name of ‘security’?; why do we feel the need to ear-mark small parcels of land where play is deemed ‘acceptable’, but only there?

When it comes to the first question, I make a starting point of referring to Tim Gill’s book No fear: growing up in a risk averse society (2007). In it, Gill states (p.49):

Home Office data . . . gives the numbers and ages of murder victims, aged under 16 years, killed by strangers in England and Wales for each year between 1995 and 2004/5. It shows that in 1995 not a single child between 5 and 11 was killed by a stranger. By contrast, in 2002/3 four children of primary school age were killed by a stranger. But there is no trend: in each of the two years following 2002/3 there was just one case. The annual figure changes randomly throughout the 11-year period.

In fact, the figures have been at around their current level for decades. Precisely because the crime is so rare, it can be stated with near certainty that there are no more predatory child killers at large today than there were in 1990 or 1975. These statistics categorically refute the dominant media message that dangerous, predatory strangers represent a significant or growing threat to children.

As Gill goes on to state, despite this extremely low percentage of cases, this is still no consolation to the parents of those children who are the victims, and this should of course be borne in mind. However, the over-riding personal feeling towards the barricading of children behind fences is that the society that we live in would rather that they be conveniently corralled for the benefit of the adults in that society (for adults’ comfort, reduction of anxiety, and so forth), yet the emotive concern of ‘children’s security’ will always win out and acts as a kind of smokescreen.

Children’s security is important, but what needs to be addressed is adults’ attitudes towards children in order for children to be better off. That is to say, a better general acceptance that children are part of that society, have opinions and expressions, are human beings even (and I don’t think I exaggerate here too much regarding some adults’ attitudes towards children!) — all of this will contribute to a richer way of living for all.

Two contrasting examples of physically defined space, regarding ways in which children and adults co-exist, can be drawn from personal experiences in Sweden and London. Whilst Sweden undoubtedly has its social problems, like every other country, a notable personal experience was the oft-repeated story of a visit to a school in Malmö, where the boundary between the school playground and the public grass was a line of trees with a playable dirt space beneath (no fence in sight); in contrast (and apart from the obvious examples of maximum security schools to be found in many towns and cities in the UK), there’s an odd little arrangement of designated play areas taking place on Shepherd’s Bush Green in West London. On both sides of one of the footpaths through the Green, there’s a designated fixed equipment play area, each with an admittedly low fence surrounding them. What always strikes me when I walk along this path is that I’m bisecting two separated groups of playing children, hemmed in by fences, on an otherwise wide and open public green space.

Why are the fences there? I can only conclude that it’s to keep the children in. Perhaps the psychological aspect of ‘defensible space’ ought really to be added in to the mix here though. That is, as picked up from my long-lost days at architecture school and the study of public and private space (e.g. the streets on which we live), there’s often a physical ‘barrier’ that marks the limits of our land (the end of our gardens, front or back), though this might not even be a fence — it could just be a line where the grass stops. It is, however, still a psychological barrier other people are often reluctant to cross, or it’s a line we expect others not to go over because this space is our space, and the street is all of our space.

Is the low, barred fence around many designated places for play also a barrier signifying the ‘defensible space’ of children? Would children choose to ring their play places with fences if they were designing them themselves?

Perhaps sometimes children do feel safer when behind the fences of school or the playgrounds they frequent, embedded as the latter often are in otherwise wide or open public space. Perhaps, though, in modern UK society’s fixation with security at all costs, these children know no different and blindly accept the fence (similar to the alarming trend of forgetting the art of handwriting or reading a real book because touch- and slide-screen technology is rendering these things obsolete, but that’s another story). Children now may just never have experienced play without fences, or play without the hovering adult, or play that hasn’t been channelled by a society fearful or anxious or just plain annoyed by it . . . Let us box our children in containable units, just as we box our consumer-society products. We do live in a convenience world, after all. What was the Dead Kennedy’s comment all those years ago? Give me convenience or give me death. There we go: melodrama again!

I admit that the playground where I work has a high fence around it. I didn’t put it there. I look at it some days, before the children have arrived or after they’ve gone: I try to work out what I feel about it. Some days it has its purpose: it encloses a sanctuary where the man screaming at the traffic warden in the street just beyond can’t overspill his angst into the ‘children’s space’; it provides that ‘defensible space’ for us playworkers, perhaps, because I’ve noticed that even when the gates are open during the open-access weeks, adults are often reluctant to cross the invisible threshold line; it says that this space is sacred; or, last week, the adjacent similar fencing around the public multi-sports area (‘the pitches’ as the children call it), was used by other children to climb up, hang from like monkeys, and jump onto the roof of the next building from!

What would it all be like if there were no fence here at all, and (this is a pre-condition of that scenario, I suppose) if our society were much more pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of that society — respected better, listened to more, considered?

Fences are a cause of some reflection: are they to keep security threats out, to keep the children in, or both, and what else lies beneath all of this?
 
 

The state of being in play

Here’s a story (because stories are what surround us, what humanity used to thrive on directly, and what we — if we look closely — need in our modern lives): this is a small story but one that affected me greatly. A few weeks ago I found myself at a school I’d never been to before to meet a playwork student. I was early and so I sat down by the big glass front door, as directed, and waited for a few minutes. Before long a string of children came into the small courtyard beyond the glass, bubbly enough, but then they all just fell into line and hushed up. As the teacher opened the door, the children all filed in, duckling-style but dead quiet. It was slightly unnerving, but that’s not my story. My story is this: I was just sitting there being ‘normal’ (whatever that is), as the children filed past; the last child, who was maybe eight or nine, I guess, gave me some direct eye contact, smiled, then winked at me. Off the string of quiet children went around the corner, disappearing into the innards of the school, and I sat there very much amused and very much thinking ‘now, what just happened there?’

This is nothing new, in some ways, because this sort of thing has a habit of happening. I do, however, try sometimes to have an air of ‘being normal’ about me. I sit there or I don’t say anything or I think I affect some look on my face that suggests ‘play has gone out to lunch, back later’. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong: I try too hard. Even the children in my own family seem to have a sense of me as ‘non-normalness’. That is, not in a sense of ‘that weird black sheep of the family’; no, more in the sense of ‘it’s OK, he gets it’.

I get the ‘rude’ words whispered at me because, I suppose, the children know that I know they’re only words, but also that there are other meanings to the whisperings and to the words, and that’s all fine; I get all manner of play cues, some of which other adults might find disagreeable; I get Dino Boy putting his three-year old fists up at me, scrunched into a tight ball the wrong way round to hit with, that look of play-serious intent on his face, demanding me to ‘Come on, let’s fight!’, or he’ll wipe his snot over my t-shirt, or jump on me when I’m not looking; or I’ll be invited to help Princess K. sort Barbie’s clothes out, or ‘Quick! Come see, there’s a snail!’ (and one of the children is about to bash its shell in with a plastic spade as I do come see), or a slug, or a dead thing of some indeterminate fascination. Do normal people engage in such things?

Of course, this is somewhat tongue in cheek, but my point here is that whether I’ve got my play-focus tuned in or not, it doesn’t seem to matter much some days: adults can walk me by and not notice me, but children have a tendency to catch some riff. That said, a strange thing happened at the park the other day. Gack and I had taken a trip out of town, down to the next city on the train line, to the ‘sand park’ (names being important in the evolving personal mythology of the child). I sat in the sun as Gack went and accosted various unknown children to hassle them into playing with their buckets and spades, or to talk about whatever four year-olds talk about when out of adults’ hearing range. After a while he managed to find a girl he took a shine to and off they went to the other side of the park. I thought I’d better stay somewhere he could see me, so I trailed along with the remains of the chocolate dipper that had been melting in the heat, the half-devoured lunchbox, and drinks, and I sat down elsewhere. Gack was telling his new friend that he was at the park with me, that I had a bright pink t-shirt on. The girl looked and looked for me: ‘Where? Where?’ she asked him. I was ten feet away, at the most, right in front of her. She couldn’t see me. It occurred to me that she must have seen this adult here, me, but that she was actually looking for another child.

Such is the way that Gack must have got his description of me across that I became invisible. It was a strange reversal of the usual predicament: visibility to the child is bound in the observed object (in this case, the adult) having some play value, playability, playness, call it what you will. If there’s an extra layer of the expectation that the play object is a child not an adult, as with the girl at the park, then the playness might get cloaked. I’m making unscientific ramblings. Suffice is to say, it’s another story for the collection.

The other week, I was walking down along the road just beyond the playground in London, heading for the Tube station, when a bus pulled up just to my side. Off got a handful of children and I recognised them all straight away as children who attended the open access holiday scheme. There were no adults with them as they tumbled off and, as they did so, one of them called out to me, ‘Hi Grandpa’ (it’s what they call me!). The other children looked up and smiled and called out the same. ‘Hi, my grandchildren,’ I said, or words to this effect. They tumbled off down the street towards the football stadium, laughing and smiling and waving. The point of this small story is that my grandpa-ness has transcended the playground fences now, and I liked this. None of the passers-by may have noticed me in my ‘just another London being’ way, but the children knew something about me, and that something wasn’t just confined to the rough large rectangle of land in the middle of the housing estate that we all call their play space.

These stories aren’t really about me at all: they’re about the state of being in play, whether we try to be or not, about the idea of ‘normal’ and the idea of ‘being something’, be that a word like ‘special’, ‘loved’, ‘approved’, ‘known’, or the like. These stories are also about the idea of stories in themselves.
 
 

A personal tribute to Perry Else

Playwork has lost another of its own. This week Professor Perry Else passed away: I wanted to add my own thoughts following those who’ve already taken the time to reflect and write. In a sector that has a certain intensity in its discussion, ideas, experiences, conflicts of perspective, depth of thinking, there is also a cohesion just because of all of that. Perry was one of our own. Of course, playwork has lost others over recent years, but on a personal note Perry’s passing was a little different because I knew him, or at least, I had the privilege to hold discussions with- and be listened to by him. When I heard the sad news on Sunday this week, I was shocked. I knew that he wasn’t well, that there was some treatment involved, but I didn’t know the nature of his illness or the true extent of it: Perry didn’t seem to need to say it to everyone.

So this post is my tribute to Perry, based on the short time that I knew him and on the affect he has had on me. I don’t remember for sure the first time I met Perry: it may have been at Beauty of Play in 2007, or it may have been at another playwork event or conference somewhere around the country. It doesn’t so much matter because what matters is that, having read the Colorado Paper I was at once inspired to be in the presence of one of its authors (it remains a seminal text in the playwork field, if not totally comprehended by all) and also at ease in his presence. Perry had a way of concentrating on what you had to say, listening in, respecting the opinion, before taking the conversation on. I always knew I was in for a challenge of my own concentration when we talked though.

A few years back, at Beauty of Play one year, Perry sat down with me over breakfast, at the table overlooking the trees in the dip at the back of the old country house in Stone, Staffordshire. He was already alert at 8am (which might have been an earthly hour for him, but which has always been an unearthly hour for this playworker!) I had to concentrate especially hard as he talked about his latest writing, his thinking on play, and so forth. Some of it went in but that was my fault for getting out of my tent before double figures in the morning. I remember that Perry said to me that morning that he’d appreciate it if I didn’t tell anyone yet about the contents of that conversation (and he’d had conversations with others, of course) because he was still working on it. I didn’t, as requested.

In the summer of 2012, if memory serves me correctly, Perry and I had a conversation about me delivering a session at Beauty of Play that September. I’d presented before at the event and that year I needed to go but couldn’t fund it so well. Perry offered me a deal and then suggested some research subjects to work on over the summer ready for the event. We agreed that I’d take up the study of epigenetics, and how it related to play. Perry supported my research, offered advice, and took the time to talk things through with me. I really did appreciate his mentoring.

Every so often I would cross paths with him at other events. One year I was tasked with trying to explain parts of psycholudics at the National Playwork Conference and Perry must have been doing the advanced psycholudics discussions, in the same track. It felt like being his ‘warm up man’, either way, and in a way, even though it wasn’t a straight me and then the next guy gig! It focused me. It made me realise I had to get everything spot on for my own audience because they might well then head on to Perry and find out about this psycholudics thing straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Another year Perry and I were both in amongst a large group of playwork colleagues at the Playwork Conference, listening to a colleague discussing the play cycle. It must have been strange, in a way, for him to sit mostly in silence as others discussed the writing that he and Gordon Sturrock had done years before; there again, maybe he’d got used to it. He listened carefully, as seemed to be his way. That session, I related an observation of play that I’d once mentally taken (never having fully written it down), of children lounging around on the platforms of an adventure playground I’d visited in London a few years previously: I used it to explain some learners’ ways of understanding the ‘metalude’. Perry carefully made corrections at this point. He explained the metalude not, as he perceived the example, in terms of a whole ‘thinking process’ taking place in the playing child, but more as a kind of ‘presence’. I didn’t focus well enough to capture his exact words. I wish I’d raised it again with him when I saw him last, in March, at this year’s Playwork Conference.

What transpired was that I collared Professor Else after the workshop, sitting on the floor, in a small group of playwork colleagues, explaining my experience of a number of years of attempting to teach the finer nuances of psycholudics, as I understood it, and how it all seemed to feel like the Colorado Paper had been diluted down to ‘just the play cycle’ bit (through a combination of teaching methods and learner comprehension). Perry listened, accepted the stance, and my memory is of a good discussion held with a man who seemed to respect the contributors, the feedback, the material, the possibilities and consequences.

This year, at the Playwork Conference, towards the end of the day I sat on the sofas that myself and Arthur Battram had set up specifically to engage some salon dialogue. I was tired, having talked with and concentrated on listening to my peers all day. Perry came by and sat down on the sofa. I was instantly aware of concentrating hard (not because Perry spoke a different language, as it were, though others might playfully disagree!) but because I always felt inspired to focus in his presence. There are things, now, that I wish I’d asked him more about.

My deepest condolences go out to Millie, Perry’s daughter, who I met at Beauty of Play, she of the most beautiful singing voice. Perry would tell long tales around the campfire down there at the edge of the woods: tales we’d often heard the year before, story-jokes that wound about with that particularly languid tone of voice he had. Millie would later sing, and I hope she’ll sing a beautiful song for her Dad.

Of course, we can never have known someone as a family member might, though the passing of one of playwork’s own is significant: it’s tinged with extra pertinence if that person has directly affected any other.

Peace be, Professor Else, sir.

Joel with Perry (2012)
 
 

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