Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Larmer Tree music festival in Wiltshire, working with some of the children there (hence my lack of writing for a short period). As these events can tend to be, it was hot and sometimes hectic, sometimes calm and lazy, powered by intense thunderstorms, impromptu musical sets on the corners of pathways, and of course play. I wanted to write about the play, but first I needed to recover from days out in a field, days following this in travel, and the first days of summer on the playground in London.
In all my work and play with children (I don’t treat my family children as work!), I do tend to think along the lines of playworking these days. It wasn’t always this way. Perhaps I didn’t have a depth level understanding; perhaps it didn’t seem to matter so much. Now it does. Having said that though, I’m growing more and more aware of the argument that ‘other methodologies are available!’ Of course I know that those who work with children do so in a number of different ways: it’s just that having been immersed in playwork thinking and doing for a fair number of years now, the playworker-self tends to get dug in. Last weekend, in a return to my younger days of being a focal point in the games play of children, I took part in some sessions at Larmer Tree (it’s all good, as we shall see).
There’s a caveat to this: whereas before I might have planned out the play, now I like to think I was responding in the moment to the needs and preferences of the children who chose to take part. Sure, I had ideas about what they might like, but it had to change as the play inclinations shifted. For some of our sessions we occupied the centre of a flag circle out on the main field where the periphery stages, shops and bar areas were: on a hot summer afternoon, children took up the long rope we were using and shifted the play into a big tug of war. We went with the flow.
So, this is the set-up, but I wanted to write about the play moments I saw around the festival, as well as some play moments in the Flag Circle or in the marquee (our other venue), as the morning rain hammered down outside. I write these without drawn-out conclusions, just being observations with maybe a few first thoughts attached: small stories of play in a transient arena for the weekend.
The story of feeling fine bringing this play to an end — or, the futility of trying to be fine? (after Oscar Wilde)
As we set up in the marquee (some bits and bobs of play stuff were spread out and my colleagues opened up a small parachute for the pre-schoolers who were beginning to gather), I watched on from the edges of the humid space we were in. Too many of us, I felt, wouldn’t have been conducive to play. Gradually the children drifted in. I trod my way in carefully, sat down nearby, knowing the effect I can sometimes have on younger children (‘what is that?’ they sometimes seem to be saying at me as they stand and ponder what this me is!) In a short time though, I found I was being thrown all sorts of cues and was surrounded by a small group of younger children. Their parents (I presume) hovered nearby. My colleagues were variously engaged in skipping or limbo rope play behind me.
My story relates to the final minutes of the session though: some children’s entertainers had come in to set up for their set in the marquee, but they were setting up almost in the middle of the play. We were gradually over-run by families gathering to watch them perform. I was immersed in the play frame of a child who was using circular plastic sports markers, but I didn’t just want to gather them in and pack her back off to her parents. How to bring this to a playful close? We started making a trail with the small amount of markers we had. She placed the first ones down and I picked up the end of the line and handed them back to her. We trailed all the way back to the edge of the marquee, round seated people, through seated people, over their feet, and so on, back to the corner where we stored all the play stuff. I thanked her, as we finished the trail with a flourish and a ta-da! Dad, presumably, hovered and whisked her back to the entertainers who promptly kicked in with some strange song about mechanics or odd-job men fixing things, or whatever that was. The marquee was full and the rain continued.
The story of the ego in the circle
At the Flag Circle on a roasting Sunday afternoon, I was using up all the energy I’d gathered that morning as we all sat around at the campsite talking and relaxing. The children were engaged in a run-around game and I stood by ready to be involved if need be. All of a sudden there was a small commotion on the far side of the circle. It was none of the group of children who were playing but some teenage girls who were squealing excitably inside the flag circle of play, which was a convenient invisible periphery to the area we’d occupied. There was a man nearby too, just inside the circle, and the girls had been using their cameras with him. Without thinking about it I called out to the group (the man and his entourage) that if they were inside the circle they were playing, that they were welcome to join in, but they were considered as playing! They didn’t take up the offer, leaving promptly. It turned out that the man was the lead act on the Sunday evening main stage. I still don’t know who he was: I’ve never heard of him before. Egos don’t impress playworkers!
The story of entrances, exits, and crossings through
As my colleague and I walked from the Flag Circle area to the beer tent at the far end of the field after a play session, I said that I was taking a small detour around the frisbee play that was taking place a few yards in front of us. Why? she said. It’s what I think I should do, I said, or words like these. Walking around the play frames that are taking place, where possible, whether it’s children or adults or both playing, is kind of steeped into me now. That said, others can wander in (as above) or concoct a raiding mission into play frames that I’m involved in with the children I’m working with, and I have to then think quickly, or spontaneously, about how to react. Once, in the Flag Circle, the large parachute in mid-flap and surrounded by a group of children, a couple of men ran through the circle and underneath it, emerging the other side with big smiles on their faces! I felt they’d been weighing it up for a short while. They were in and through and out before I could say or do anything, the children didn’t seem perturbed, the place was a festival. Play continued on. Entrances, exits, understanding of ‘this is play’ all spring to mind . . .
Small incidences of play that might have been missed
There were plenty of small incidences of play that may have passed others by (and there were certainly many incidences that I missed too). When I spot such smallnesses I make a mental note so I might write about them later:
I was sat in the beer tent and I looked over to the bar area to see a younger girl who’d laid herself down on the floor. She had her head positioned so that she was looking directly up the central tent pole, high into the canvas roof space where there was a small circular opening to the sky. Children’s perspectives can fascinate sometimes.
Similarly, at one of the main stage sets, waiting for the band to get ready, I stood at the back of the crowd and scanned the scene in front of me. There was a child out near the front (it wasn’t a huge area, so I could see she was about seven or eight years old). She was sat up on someone’s shoulders, and she was the only person up that high in the whole crowd, but she was facing the back of it towards me, not the stage, scanning the place just as I was. She held her hands up and just seemed to me to be absolutely peaceful with her position and view.
I walked along the row of shop stalls, one day after the rain. In the mud, on his knees and dressed in waterproofs, was a young boy who was pushing a plastic tractor and trailer around. I stopped to observe whilst being far enough away, I hoped, not to disturb him. I looked around, but I didn’t see any adult or parent watching out for him intently.
At the food stalls area near the main stage, I sat at a table and ate. There were people piled into the small triangle of land, sat at tables or on rugs on the grass, or just lazing around. The place was packed full, but my attention was taken by two children who’d found the A-frame advertising board of one of the eateries in the middle of the space. The children were weaving in and out of the pyramid space the board had made, seemingly oblivious to the mass of people all around them.
Back at the beer tent, a father (presumably) came in with a girl of about two sat on his shoulders. He approached the bar. She wasn’t holding on to his hands or his head, and he didn’t hold her ankles, hands or knees. The child was gripping with her thighs and, as he ordered at the bar, she was smiling and testing her own limits by leaning backwards and backwards, sitting up again, leaning back further, and so on. Her father didn’t seem concerned. She was well-versed in balancing by the looks of it.
At the fringes of the main stage area there were sections of trees contained as quieter areas or art or poetry areas. I wandered through a few times at night time because that was when all the uplights came on and cast shadows in the low branches. Families walked in and around the small labyrinth. One evening, two older girls ran past me, back towards the adults they had in tow, to tell them with great excitement about the ‘secret garden’ they’d found. I looked back to where they’d come from and saw no secret gardens, of course. I had to find out. Round the corner, off the main track, I found what they’d been excited about: the trees there had been decorated with large versions of liquorice allsorts sweets hung from the lower branches.
In another area of the quieter woods, I wandered into a small enclosure to find that a strange sort of three-way hammock tented contraption had been hung about six feet up in the branches. Inside and in-between the small nodes these hammocks created were a group of children scurrying around like hamsters, squeaking and squealing in the half-light of the evening.
At the campsite I sat and watched the evening sky and clouds a day after the torrential downpour of the storm that clattered the car tops. Two younger girls and a boy ran along the grass track that doubled up as a road. The girls each had a balloon (an animal shape with feet, which scudded along the ground); the boy was balloonless. The children ran down the track, ignoring me, a bundle of energy and balloons, and disappeared around the cars at the far end. A few minutes later they appeared again on the next track, and repeated the whole chase and run-around several times. Eventually the boy gave up, still balloonless. The girls continued on and on. As with the tractor boy in the mud, no adults hovered by. There is play that just happens, adultless, unknown about by parents perhaps, and there is play that is ‘parent-approved’, hovered upon.
Other methodologies are available, of course, but I do find myself wandering and observing by coming back to what I know . . .