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’.
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.