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.