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

Archive for August, 2014

Learning: what children want

What can you possibly learn at school? OK, now I have your attention if you’re a teacher, or a teaching assistant, or a parent, or anyone else with a vested interest in the whole ‘learning’ arena, I should clarify that this post is intended towards the system and not the individual professional. I also like to live in a more idealised world than the one I often perceive around me, but there’s no harm in saying it how you think it should be. I like it in that idealised world: things don’t have to be the way they are. So, what is it that the schooling system is able to give children? How to hold a pen and form the basic units of words, the rudimentary aspects of mathematics, some stuff about gravity, or sedimentary rock structures, or something about the Industrial Revolution which, in context, probably has no real context . . .?

I admit that these examples are drawn from my own learning experience, but the point still remains: the things we actually learn are the things we want to learn. I hated doing endless handwriting practice with a blotchy old fountain pen that turned your fingers purple and pruney (looking back on my handwriting exercise books and later letters now, I don’t think I mastered anything close to handwriting skills until about the age of twenty five!); what I learned in maths class was pretty much contained within the following — I don’t and won’t ever need standard deviation, quadratic equations, or logarithms, and here’s how to use a calculator; I have a fair idea of the principles of gravity, but only through practical experimentation; I know that there are different types of rock, but really, a rock is a rock; the Industrial Revolution has no context to my life on account of its dullness.

I was having a pub conversation about play with a colleague the other day, and teaching came into the range of things. I referenced A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, as I tend to do when I talk around these sorts of things, and I’ve written around this subject before, but it’s worth revisiting. Neill was way ahead of his time. If the children want to learn what they want to learn, they will, is what I take from my readings. It’s of some coincidence then that I found myself sat around at the weekend with Dino Boy (3) and his sister, Princess K. (5), as they sucked up all the information I could give them on the subjects they were interested in.

It’s a great responsibility to give information to children, as good teachers will no doubt agree. How do you give information without trying to also sway their opinions on any given subject area? I fail sometimes in this respect. I catch myself in time on other occasions. Despite these intentions, I do find that the children often absorb my conscious and unconscious sensibilities and preferences and they repeat them. I trust, in time, that they’ll have all the information they need from all the sources they look to, to form their own opinions as often as possible.

So, we talk about skeletons and various bones and what our insides look like, and what does the inside of an elephant look like? A few weeks ago I was asked ‘What does snow mean?’ (which, after a battery of questions returned in order to try to reinterpret the question, responded in turn with ‘No, what does snow mean?’ in ever agitated tones, I finally cracked as being ‘What is snow made of?’). I’m then asked days later ‘What does beer mean?’ Trying to explain the fermentation process in beer-making to a three year old is tricky, but apparently acceptable. We watch the football on the TV, and Dino Boy studies the game before asking where all the girls are, which we talk about, and we move on to the purpose of the guy in the middle wearing white when everyone else is wearing blue or yellow.

When we’re out and about we discuss whether aeroplanes need wheels, whether we need to apologise to snails we accidentally step on and crunch in wet weather when they come out, and just how squelchy dead dried up slugs we find really are. The children take in all the information of the world around them, as well as stories of my past adventures and misdemeanours. They listen intently to tales of accidents involving blood and stitches and hospital visits, and they’ll gladly put aside books of pseudo-Barbie Amelia’s politically-correct and anodyne unadventures with the pasty wolf (who’s sorry for being so greedy but who’s ultimately forgiven and corrects the errors of his ways), in favour of the real Little Red Riding Hood, a story with big teeth and all, ‘from inside your head’.

Blood and guts and the workings of frogs’ stomachs, or the like, or how dead things became dead, feature plenty, as does the refrain (re: dinosaurs) of ‘Is that one dead?’ Yes, that one’s dead; they’re all dead; dinosaurs died millions of years ago. The concept of ‘millions’ is difficult for adults, let alone three year olds. ‘How did they all die?’ Translating concepts obviously has its point where information goes astray because comets and meteorites are different things! ‘What’s a comic?’ Dino Boy replied. ‘Not a comic, a comet . . .’ (though I need to revisit this one when he tells me next time that a comet wiped out the dinosaurs, and that doesn’t even take into account the other theories!)

Often, when I ask family children or children I work with what they’ve learned at school today (as a means of conversation starter), there’s usually a quiet pause and a reply along the lines of ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Nothing, really.’ That can’t be the case, can it? Or is it more the fact that children want to block out the things they’ve been told they have to learn? The system wants xyz in their heads; children want what they want. Sometimes the two can cross paths, though I tend to find that this is often when there’s something like pizza making in the offering.

When it comes to it, the information on its own isn’t as important as the connection that’s built in good positive child-adult relationships. Children will take on what they want to learn from those they want to learn it from. Some teachers may have very good relationships with children; some may not. When I see children at after school club in apparent diligent concentration on finishing homework tasks before they go off (or go back) to play, I often sense their action more out of duty. Children despair at having to define their lists of words, or learn the order and constituent elements of the planets of the Solar System when none of this interests them. The work is done not, I feel, because they care about the subject or the subject-master or mistress.

In my idealised world, which isn’t so very far from the one we live in (but maybe just a little too radical for many to entertain), children learn the arts of beautiful handwriting when they want to link the aesthetic of well-formed and meaningful stories to the visual (though, of course, the art of handling pens starts far earlier, though also when they’re ready for it); numbers one to ten are graspable in everyday life, but so too are larger ones, and even made-up ones because we should never underestimate the power of thirty-hundred or a ‘brillion’; the concept of gravity comes to those who wait; a rock is just a rock, unless — or especially, if — you’re hit by one or if you have an urgent early need to understand geology, in which case here’s a hammer; the Industrial Revolution is something that happened a million years ago, or it might as well have done, and it may have helped lay the foundations for the iPad, or mobile phones, or something . . .
 
 

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Working with or in play that threatens

Play can sometimes take on more threatening forms. I use this word deliberately because I was going to write ‘darker forms’ but realise that that might not amount to anything clear. ‘Dark play’ has been thought about before, and it conjures up possibilities of what it could be, I suppose, but play can be threatening: it’s this that I’m thinking of when I consider the potential adult playworker response. On the playground recently there has been cause for some of us to go into what we’re tentatively terming as ‘self-sacrificial’ mode.

Play is a process of the moment, but it can also come loaded with the moments that have already been: the play that has happened on previous days, inside or outside the fence; the tensions and complications between children; the rivalries and shifting allegiances; the dynamic of children finding their place in the midst of it all. The moment that arrives can be more than just a response to another child’s ‘cussing my mum’ (a major concern, it seems, on this playground), or being caught unawares by an apparently errant or aberrant play cue, or a momentary agitation. The accumulation of moments of the playground can pile up to cause the potential for a perfect storm in itself. One child throws a water balloon at another, smacking him hard in the face, or on the bare arm, the assailant running away laughing, all for example, and there’s more here than can be fully appreciated in the split second.

Should playworkers intervene? Stopping the play is fraught with all manner of practical and theoretical difficulties. Rational conversation attempts can be (and were, in one case) responded to by this playworker being caught full in the face by a loaded bucket of water. Breathe, I told myself. It’s OK to be angry, inside, but breathe; think quickly. What should playworkers do if the rights of others to play are being impinged upon, when the integrity of the playground’s inherent ‘balance’ is threatened with collapse, when what was play could easily become what may not be so playfully-infused?

So far, we reflect, the ‘self-sacrificial’ approach has its benefits. Turning the mischievous intent or the rebellious reply of the child into ‘this is play cue action’, going through the playworker’s own anger or other emotions, and out the other side, in sudden clarity afforded by breathing, is a start; however, if filling a bucket in return of that cue becomes a protracted hunting down of the play-perpetrator around the playground, a ‘revenge’ mission, then the adult-playworker becomes bully. The only way, perhaps, to resolve the tension of mischievous/rebellious recalcitrant intent (bordering on ‘no longer play’, threat-turned-to-unbalanced playground), and not lurch into revenge, is to self-sacrifice. The play happens, and stays as play, of a kind, the players are focused, the players are not bullied, the playground’s ‘psychological security’ is maintained: the playworker accepts their position as moving target for the good of the whole.

Spending the entire session in wet clothes (especially jeans) is somewhat disagreeable, shall we say. I don’t like getting wet and I don’t want to do it. I’ve resisted it for a while: most of summer, perhaps. Sometimes the getting wet happens in the cueing of the playworker by what has happened here before (once children here get a whiff of unspoken agreement, target-practice is on): that is, sometimes the playworker isn’t giving the vibe off, in the now, that it’s OK to be flattened on the blindside by a stinging fat water balloon to the ribs, or to the lower back, or skimming off the shoulder, whizzing past the ear. React or return? That is the question.

Others, on certain days, are better at the whole delicate holding of it all than me. Even if the initial return is playfully done, there’s still the reflective recognition that this is done in light of the threat that the play can become; there’s still the potential for knowledge, reflection-in-action, that this is not about ‘win’, ‘adult bully’, ‘adult play back’ — it’s wrapped up in some holding function, or words quite like these; there’s still the possibility that the children’s play cues might become ever more insistent, harder, faster, more durable than the playworker’s capacity to keep just the right side of everything.

‘How do you get out of this?’ I asked a colleague in passing as I manfully ran away, soaked, cold, verging on being somewhat fed up and tired from moving and watching for all manner of elaborate visible and invisible ambushes. Perhaps you hide yourself away; perhaps you hold up your hands and trust that saying you’re done won’t prove as fragile and precarious a position as being ‘unarmed’ and honest in the middle of the playground actually is; perhaps you offer never to fire first, even when given gilt-edged chances to drench one of the original assailants (hoping that the fragile trust will hold).

Trust can go a long way. When I go to shake Parkour Boy’s hand, full bucket in my other hand and with no honest intention to get him or to cause him psychological concern, and I say to him I won’t get him, but instead here ‘good battle’, I trust that in that moment something happens. When I find myself backing out of an easy shot, knowing that that might come back to get me twice as wet later (if that’s possible!), I trust that here too is something forming. In the end, the ‘how to get out of this’ can be smoothed by a combination of breathing, playing it out till it needs to be done, or holding hands up when really I’m done, trusting all manner of dynamics, hiding in full view by the fire to get warm, knowing that if need be a colleague, this colleague in particular, will take on the form of accepting target.

When the dirt and water have settled, when the play peters out, having wound its way around the playground’s other hundred play frames that day, not having battered directly into them too much, we can sit and talk about the play that has happened here, the children that have needed whatever they’ve needed, the acts of necessity or of realisation of playworkers who’ve variously got parts right, or nearly right, or right enough, or any or all or none of the above.
 
 

Draft thoughts on depth immersion, play observation

Once, I remember a conversation with Bob Hughes along the lines of: observe the background. As the summer season on the playground is now in full swing, this advice comes back to me time and again as I stand in a position in the middle of the edge of things, out of the way, looking for the optimum ‘X marks the spot’ widest cone of vision. When you find the sweet spot, invisibility can kick in. Why does this matter? Sometimes, often, children can change the way they play, the way they act (as in ‘action’ and as in ‘perform’), the way they are, with the metaphorical lens firmly directed their way. Why is it then that this ‘purest of play, unadulterated by us’-ness is important?

In discussion this week with a colleague, the conversation flowed into the idea of ‘better play’. We’re there to make sure that ‘better play’ can happen, was the suggestion; to which I responded, how can there be a distinction between ‘play’ and ‘better play’? Can we put a qualitative value on any given instance of play observed? We can make better play environments by way of consideration of the space use, resources, our own actions, interactions, interventions and so on, but play is play, surely? There is ‘better play as observed’ and ‘better play from the perspective of the playing child’ to also consider here. When I think back to my own play as a child, how can I say that my bike riding of a hundred laps of the local square was ‘better play’ than my hiding in the bushes, or better than my standing leaning over the prospect of a sheer vertical drop, or better than my playing ‘anything goes football-rugby’ in the dining room?

So now, as I write, I write about the ‘purest of play’. Which is it to be? Is this pure, unadulterated, observed but not imposed upon play of the background on the playground ‘better’, or more desirable, than the close-by ‘changed because it’s being observed’ play of the foreground? Who is it more desirable to? That is, sure children may want to play in their own way, for their own reasons, without undue interruption by adults (which is desirable for them), but playworkers also have an urgent need for children to play in that way too. What’s in this for us? That is, why do we have this need to observe children playing without our interruption?

When teaching the whole ‘why observe?’ thing, it’s difficult to go any deeper in than really scratching the surface. Sure, we can say that we observe to learn about play, to consider individual play needs and preferences, to comprehend the impact of resources and colleagues on the play, to make judgements about access to various play types, and so on, but we can’t really teach that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that many playworkers seem to have in the moment of observation: that is, that sense, emotion, feeling, immersion, connection, call it what you will (and I don’t even know what to call it here) that goes far deeper than observing in order to learn about play, individual play needs and preferences, comprehension of resources, colleagues’ impact, play types, etc. Explaining what this ‘je ne sais quoi’ is is like trying to teach empathy . . .

Let’s just say that, for me, observation of play is an immersive experience that is necessary. In the moment I may not ‘learn’ any great insight, but a book is not made of just one page. In fact, the analogy is apt because when reading a book, if it’s a book that intrigues, the world outside those covers no longer matters. The world outside still impacts on the reading experience, but it can be put on hold and ignored for a while. The playground as book. For some of us the book’s covers aren’t defined by the playground’s perimeter fence: the book doesn’t close.

The other day I tried to explain what I did for a living to a family member I’d not seen for a while. I didn’t go into any of the above, but I did say that I work on the playground and I observe. I added that it wasn’t as simple as I made it sound. In a way, that conversation was also a catalyst for this writing today. The other elements to feed in here are recent considerations of various playwork styles (and by extension, our cones of vision in the observing on the playground), and our other developing ways of observing.

I’m aware that I like to wander the playground to see as much as I can at any given moment. Colleagues, I notice, might do the same, or I might do a visual sweep of the playground and find them sat quietly up on some steps watching out, or they’re immersed in conversation or play invitation with a child or small group of children, or they’re running, chasing, being chased with water balloons, or tidying, resourcing, heads up, or heads down, or building, or fixing. What they see I can’t say: that is, they see the play, they feel it, sense it, as I do, but what that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of observing for them is, I can’t say. I don’t yet know how to frame the question to them.

In our other developing ways of observing, we sometimes sit with the ‘video’ button on on the camera. Observing the background in this way benefits at least two-fold: in the first instance, children are less aware of it from a hundred yards or so away, if at all; in the second instance, the things that were clearly in front of the camera-holder at the time, foreground or background, but which only become apparent on play-back, can be a fascination in themselves. However, unless the camera becomes as invisible as the unobtrusive playworker, it will often be an instrument that will change the play.

Does this matter? Is the play any worse off for being observed, either by eye or by camera? Some play happens because the act of observation makes it happen, when it wouldn’t have happened without the observing taking place. In the end, here, I can’t draw any definite conclusions. I offer up these thoughts on observation as a means of reflection and as a means of suggestion to other playworkers, asking: What is it that observation is for you? What is the ‘je ne sais quoi’ you get from it? Observation goes deeper than just seeing the play.
 
 

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