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

Archive for July, 2014

Small stories of festival play

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 . . .

Considering children and respect

I find myself considering the rationale on ‘respect’ again here as I sit down to write. This has come this week via some personal interactions on the playground, some conversations on the subject with a group of playwork learners, and out and about whilst in ‘parent mode’, as it were.

I often find my writings nudging up to this ‘respect’ word. My default position is always on the side of the child when it comes to hearing the repeated position of many adults, i.e. something along the lines of ‘children have to learn to respect adults/others/me’. I play the child-game of ‘but why?’ here: ‘respect adults/others/me’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I said so’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I’m the adult’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I got here first’, ‘but why?’, ‘because that’s causality for you’, ‘but why?’, ‘because time, as far as we know it, goes only one way’, ‘but why?’, ‘because . . .’ The ‘respect adults/others/me because I demand it’ argument tends to descend into such ludicrous levels to me.

I find myself needing to consider this whole ‘respect’ thing further though. Of course, we’d all like to have some respect in the world, wouldn’t we? We work hard, we often do our best, and we find that others just don’t care. Does that give us the right to demand that others respect us though? This is pretty much my default response when setting up a debate on the subject matter. It then follows that we can only earn another person’s respect, that we have to work at it, just as we have to work on ourselves, and only we can do that. We often hate this, of course, because others who just don’t care, or do us wrong, then ‘get away with it’: the whole ‘where’s the fairness in the world?’ thinking kicks in. We can only work on ourselves though. Let others sleep easily or not.

When it comes to children though, we adults often think we have a right to demand of them what we like and we try to make them act in the ways we want them to. That is, we seem to follow some bizarre but rationalised version of the ‘but why?’ game logic, if not in so many words, but the end result being something along the lines of ‘I got here first, I know best, don’t question it, so show me some respect’. Children’s choices, ideas, thinking, likes and dislikes, annoyances and grievances, can often largely be ignored: ‘I don’t like liver and onions’, ‘well, try it anyway because it’s good for you’; or ‘I don’t like him, he always wants the things I’ve got’, ‘well, try playing with him, you never know you might like him then’; or ‘I don’t want to speak to you today,’ ‘show me some respect’.

Well, so goes the adult-logic, we can’t possibly have children making decisions and getting their own way all the time, can we? Whatever next? They need to learn a thing or two about life. To which I suggest: so should the adults, and there’s a saying about people and glass houses . . .

Here I am again: on the side of the child. Of course, in ‘parent mode’ it’s difficult to be constantly taking on the ‘I want, I need, he won’t/she won’t’ all the time. Of course, as a playworker it’s also difficult to take on the agitations that can happen between children, the arguments and tears, the various difficulties of being six or eight or twelve. Sometimes we slip into ‘now stop’. We say it, in playworker mode or parent mode, and we may or may not then think why it is we said it. Is it because ‘now it’s time to stop and show me a little consideration, respect, call it what you will?’ . . . but why . . .?

I wrote two brief stories of ‘play that has happened’ to a colleague this week (you know who you are!) These stories link in to all of the above and I paraphrase them again here. A few days ago we were wrapping up in debrief time on the playground after all the children had gone home. Suddenly there was a loud bang from outside. We soon realised that someone was onsite, on the playground out there. Opening up the shutters (and I was advised to stand back in case something else was thrown underneath them as I ducked down), there were three logs lying on the paving slabs. The logs used to be part of the small fencing by the walkways. There was no-one around, so we split up to search. Then, over the bank on the far side two faces peaked up, saw us, then scarpered, climbing the fence and over the other side quicker than we could move (on a side note, and thinking on fences again, so much for fences, and fences maybe don’t keep security risks out or children in!) I recognised two of our usual boys, who we see at open access times, as the runners. My first thought was, I admit, ‘What’s going on here? Why can’t they just show a little appreciation for this place?’ This, however, was quickly followed by the realisation that this was some sort of play cue and that they might just be saying something like, ‘Hey, we’re still around and it’s near the end of term, and we need to come in again.’

The other story is about a girl at after school club. She was upset one day recently. She’d not received an award at school, which all her friends had got, and I don’t think she was best pleased by the attention she’d received from adults bringing her from school to club that day either. I sat with her a while and listened to her woes through her tears. A little later, happy smiley her returned. She followed me to the kitchen and, unexpectedly and without coming in, she leaned over and held the door open for me. ‘Thank you, madam,’ I said. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she replied. I didn’t ask for this or demand it. It didn’t matter to me if she did or didn’t do or say what she did, but she did, and that matters to me now, but not because of ‘things she should learn’. There are other levels to this.

When in ‘parent mode’, out and about, crossing the river on a summer day, having smelled all the flowers, and watched snails, and poked around at the farmers’ market, and played around in shops, and having gone up the escalators to jump off the top, and having gone down one floor in the glass lift because it was a glass lift, and so on and so forth, Dino Boy at the age of three refused to move any further than the rock to watch the ducks and say he wasn’t ready to go home yet: I knew deep down what he was saying . . . yet, I was tired and hungry and his sister needed my attention and I just needed to go home now . . . ‘Please now’, perhaps, kicks in in times like these. So this is where taking stock needs to happen. Let’s breathe, and let’s look at the riverweed and throw a stick in, then we can climb a mountain and smell some more flowers, and we can keep playing as we go . . .

Sometimes children’s decisions are much more rational than ours: I don’t want to go home because I haven’t finished playing yet; I want to hold this door open for you because you listened to me; I want to throw this log at the shutters because, in a strange sort of way, it’s my way of saying I know you do care about me; I want to respect you because I choose it, not because you tell me to.

This week immersed

A week immersed in the life of a playground, in discussions about play, in teaching the arts of playwork — as they appear to this playworker — can be a long time. The immersion is akin to the immersion of being in play: plenty happens, plenty has the potential for happening, plenty awaits just at the edges of perception. I started the week thinking on ‘rules’ (that is, the rules we adults often want to apply to the children’s ways of being), but I got distracted into thinking on playworker action and inaction, about being in the middle of the play-swill whilst observing, about being in the play and how and when to walk away, and how playwork is just so much more than the view that some might have that is ‘just playing with children’.
The rules

Adults can get so weighed down by ‘the rules’. What are these rules, and who wrote them anyway? That is, things like: you must walk this way, act that way, treat each other like this, share that, behave in this manner, stand or sit or talk or eat or listen in this or that way, and so on. I came to the conclusion that some children will blindly follow these ‘rules’ simply because they know no other way of operating in the adult-heavy world. This way of adult imposition becomes ‘normalised’. The ‘rules’ become absorbed, the children grow up, and they pass ‘the rules’ on to the next generation. No thought or challenge takes place. I’ve certainly met young adults who have regurgitated ‘the rules’, as they’ve absorbed them from adults around them, in unthinking ways. When these young adults are challenged to justify why any given ‘rule’ is in place, they look blankly at you, incredulously, and say something like ‘It’s the rule: without it there’d be chaos, anarchy, social meltdown’ or whatever phrase best fits.

There’s a deeper level of consideration to be had in all of this (civil liberties, governance, rights and responsibilities, and so on), and greater minds have already had and continue to have those discussions. What strikes me here though, in the context of children and their places of adult-staffed places of play, is that often ‘the rules’ are either blanket-written into a policy statement or two, or they’re listed in adult-imposed restrictions and diktats on the walls (with little or no child consultation), or they’re just not written down at all and children are expected to follow whatever the adult says because that is what the adult has said.

Policies often gather dust and fail to reflect the dynamically shifting sentiments of the playground; consultation exercises often become just that — ‘exercises’ in ‘doing the right thing’; how I loathe anything on a wall with the word ‘golden’ attached to it (‘golden time’, ‘golden rules’) — gold is the highest standard here, but it suits the adult; children challenge all the time, and adults could be better at realising that sometimes, just sometimes, children are right in what they challenge about ‘the rules’.
Action and inaction

When we turn a blind eye to a ‘breaking of the rules’, what’s happening here? We’re not being negligent (unless we choose to ignore, say, a child attacking another with a sharp stick and a plank of two-by-four); we’re understanding the playfulness of a situation; the children are communicating that ‘the ‘rule’ in this case is perfectly well understood but we choose to ignore it because it’s stupid and makes no sense in the context of this play that we’re doing right now, in this particular place, with this particular object or other person’.

Our playworker inaction can, often, be perceived by the children as the perfect action. When a child walked outside this week with a disposable cup full of water, I was stood leaning against the open double door frame just watching out over the flow of things. The boy took the water away from the inside areas and threw it, and the plastic cup, down onto the wood chips. He turned around and smiled at me and made to walk back inside. He knew, I trust, that I knew it was play. I didn’t feel the need to say, ‘Oi, pick that cup up’. Why would I need to have done that? I don’t know why he did it other than it was play. It did no harm. Others may see the scenario differently.

When we, as adults on the playground, start to let these play occurrences get to us though, they build and build. I’m certainly sometimes prone to the build-up of challenges of play, dynamics and niggles between individual children, teasings and deeper agitations: we are human, let’s not forget. However, when we forget to step back from the edge, the edge takes us in before we realise it. Tensions in individual adults can pass between team members and before long ‘action’ surpasses ‘inaction’ as the dominant response. ‘The rules’ get added to as a means of trying to step back from the edge. Our ‘action’, our interferences and insistences, dilute the play and the potential for play.
Observation in the middle of the play-swill

I use this phrase not to infer a negative (play is not an allusion to ‘pig-swill’), but rather to suggest the nature of a swirl. Our ‘inaction’, our deeply understood comprehension that this play is play, and this play needs to happen, here, with this, with these people, and without me, now, is essential. One day this week, a day when we were all calm as a team because everyone seemed to be in the position, to me, of comprehension of that play at that time, in tune, when the sun was out, when all the dynamics of the children just slotted together, I stood up on the platform in the middle of the playground and observed. I got in no-one’s way. I was a camera in the midst of it all. I turned around to see the whole panoramic view.

Nearby, and up on this level under the tree on the hill, a colleague was sat with a small group of children who had laid a box beneath the tree. One of the girls was kneeling before it and was saying a prayer. My colleague had a paper cone in her hand, and she waited patiently as she sat. Soon, the group were walking slowly along the platform levels, my colleague carrying the stricken box above her head, with what I termed in my thinking ‘professional wailers’ trailing in mock sorrow! They walked all around to the wobbly bench and then to the sand pit. The box was left under the tree there. Later, I found out it was a funeral for the dead cardboard box robot.

As I turned to follow this play taking place, I knew that down below me another small group of children had found a long spool of ribbon-like material from inside and had started wrapping it around the playground, beneath and between, and separate to, the funeral entourage. They were seeing how far it could get before it snapped, then starting again. Beyond that, at the sand pit, some children were continuing to dig what turned out to be the River Thames: the hose pipe trailed from the stand pipe, via the old sunken bath, and into the length of the pit where there was plenty of tubes and guttering channels and bits and bobs for the engineering with. On the opposite side of the playground, on the makeshift small football pitch nearby, between the platforms and the zipline, there was a match going on. I felt in the midst of it all up there but that I should stand carefully and still for a while: comprehension of ‘action’ and ‘inaction’ being what they are.
About being in the play and how and when to walk away

‘Doing it’ and ‘teaching it’ are different animals. This week, when I taught (or told stories), I attempted to continue the idea of ‘this is children’s play, not yours’ but found myself in the area of ‘play cues and responding to them’. Like learning how to write, we make plenty of mistakes when beginning the process of this art form that is playwork. We continue to make mistakes as we get better at it, but at least we recognise our errors and what we might do about them. I was particularly heartened to hear one learner tell me how he knows that sometimes he just gets so absorbed in the play that he forgets to see anything else going on. I didn’t expect that at this stage. His task, like all of ours, is to now think what he can do about it when he gets absorbed again. I thought about my week on the playground. I hadn’t thought about it so much at the time, but the teaching focused me on my practice and I think I’m pleased with the way the details of this small story to come turned out. I said (the edited highlights of the following):

One day this week, an older boy wanted me to play football with him. His usual partner in play wasn’t around and the boy needed me to play. As it turned out, he didn’t need me that day (because the next day he needed a colleague): I stood in the big goal (the children have the big goal and the small, palette board goal, but they don’t seem concerned by the discrepancy) and he wanted me to ‘play to win’ because he’d told me, the week before, ‘so let’s start again because I know you’re not playing as hard as you can and we should play properly now’. We played for a short while and then some other boys came over and just blended into the game. It was with a sudden epiphany that the play had not stopped, broken down, or been corrupted in any way, and that I was now surplus to requirements, that I stood still at the edge of the makeshift pitch. I waited a second or two, just in case, then quietly snuck off. There was positive ‘action’ and ‘inaction’, observation in amongst it all, and a non-adherence to ‘the rules’ of social interaction and football in general. I reflect that I got it right.
Just playing with children

Some days I get it right, some days I get it wrong. Some days ‘my wrong’ affects the children, my colleagues, myself, to such an extent that I question whether I’ve got the hang of this playwork way of working at all. Some days I know I’ve got it right because I haven’t dictated to the children, imposed unjustifiable ‘rules’ on them, I’ve listened to them and consulted with them, I’ve admitted that I got such and such wrong to them, and done something about it, I’ve observed play because it’s play and not got riled by the things I’ve seen, I’ve stood still and carefully, or I’ve given the child exactly what they need at that time, in that place, and then I’ve left. This week, I figure, it’s about grace and timing, levels of comprehension, turning a blind eye, and knowing, always knowing, that it’s not about us. ‘Just playing with children’ has long since disappeared from my beginner’s thinking.

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