It’s half-way through the summer school holidays, or thereabouts, and it seems a suitable time to think back on play that has happened on the playground in the past few weeks. We’ve taken plenty of photos and some video observations at White City Adventure Playground, so I wanted to look back on things that haven’t been captured so much in these ways. What’s also knocking around in my thoughts is that I sometimes write these play observations and then leave them be, or I might feel that I’m getting a little over-bearing with the whole ‘hey, this is play’ message I speak about with others I know. With this in mind, it’s occurred to me to publish up some recent stories and also reflect on them for my own benefit (yours too, if you want it that way, but mostly for the here and now of reflection/writing to find out what I feel).
A caveat to self (and others if you want it) before I start to write though: the following is about what can be seen, learned, reflected upon for the benefit of this playworker in question, but it’s not an exercise in ‘what happens on the playground is about me’. That attitude is a circle I find very hard to square. As a playworker, I’m in service of the play, the children, the playground as a place or amalgamation of places where children can come to, can be; as such, I’m at the edges of it, not the centre of it, even when I am — physically and momentarily — right there in the middle of the site! I digress, as I find myself in ‘hey, this is play’ preaching mode again!
I ask my playwork learners to undertake observations of play as part of their on-going studies, and then I ask that they reflect on them with regards to how they feel about the play. (We should recognise our feelings towards the play in order to be better in tune with it, and to be in tune with our capabilities of doing and comprehending, with knowing when we’re wrong to interrupt, and so on). So, as I ask my learners, I should ask myself. I do this, in my usual practice, in the privacy of my head as I walk the playground or when I interact with children, or when I observe, or in the time we have in open discussions with my colleagues, but I do this now too, in public written words because, in part, playworkers who are truly playworkers out there — I trust — will connect with it.
Three stories about play and playwork, for half-way through summer starters . . .
About being a taxi driver
Over the repeated play frames of days, on occasions, children ask to be pushed around in the wheelbarrow. One of the children will ask, quite casually, ‘Where’s that wheelbarrow?’, and I’ll look around and say I saw it over there half an hour ago, or something like this; then, ‘I need a taxi,’ will be a typical response from the child. That child will get into the wheelbarrow (sometimes with and sometimes without cushions) and I’ll lift up the fare by the handles of the contraption and ask, ‘Where to, Guv?’ I’ll get a reply that’s either, ‘To the waterslide’ or ‘To the benches’, but mostly it’s ‘Everywhere.’ ‘Everywhere, Guv?’ I’ll say. ‘Right-o. Do you want to go the easy way or the hard way?’ They’ve asked for the hard way, or the long way, every time so far. So, this’ll be up the hill, through the long grass, or down the bank or along the edge of it, or over the platforms (sharp right-bank round the corner at the bottom), through the tyre swings, round the back of the pool table, slalom through the dormant tyres on the ground (or whatever combination of route happens because of other play frames to weave around). Often, at set-down point, there’s another child eager to get in and the whole ‘Where to, Guv?’ starts again.
Feelings and reflections on the play
This play may have started, this time round, one day when it was really hot and the wheelbarrow was just lying around at the top of the waterslide not being used. I did the circuit and ended up depositing the child in question down the waterslide by tipping them out. It seemed like a play cue waiting to be made use of, I suppose. Of course, that only meant that the whole frame needed repeating, and three times round the playground on a hot day, going the tricky/hard/‘dangerous’ way every time is pretty tiring. It’s good to be in service of play in this pretty direct way, but it’s not about ‘being needed’, as such, I don’t think: it’s about knowing that sometimes children have a use for you that can just as easily be extinguished the second you put the wheelbarrow down. Some days it’s the opposite though, and children need more and more taxis: team members can resort to a kind of tag-team ‘new taxi driver’ support of one another.
The children seem to like the convoluted, twisting route: narrowly avoiding swinging tyres and the like, squealing and shouting for more. Maybe it gives them a buzz. ‘Look,’ said one boy as we passed an ex-taxi driver busy at writing up an observation one day, ‘see, this is much better,’ as we swung through a narrow gap between benches and which I wasn’t absolutely certain we’d get through without knuckles or ankles being scraped. Going down the incline on the platforms is also interesting because we pick up speed and I know from experience that the wheelbarrow handles come off if you’re not careful (which causes the potential for a fright or two, though not necessarily in this respect a fright of the children’s). I change my grip there and execute a sharp right-angle turn at the bottom: it’s almost as if driver and fare are performing this symbiotic trust thing up there — the fare trusts that the driver won’t accidentally tip him or her out, and the driver trusts that the fare won’t lean so far as to be tipped out. The children in the wheelbarrow seem to actively encourage this driver’s extreme tipping sideways of the taxi though. Perhaps it’s part of the whole ‘playing with vertigo’ thinking. Every so often the fare is required to shift their centre of gravity. Double rides make things even more tricky, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted! I started charging fifty-seven million and one or two dollars for a ride round the playground, but it soon didn’t need the invisible money. The role play didn’t seem to need so much of my role in the play for it to still be valued.
About poking around time
It was quiet one morning just after we’d opened the gates. It often is this way as the children come in and poke around for half an hour or so. I decided to stand up on the platform and just watch the way the interactions and ‘poking around’ happened that day. From that vantage point up above the tyre climbing wall, I could see pretty much the whole site, give or take. I observed as one of the older boys came in and I made a mental tracking of his route from the main gate, taking a left onto the paving slabs of the main patio area, over to the pool table there. The rest of the playground was ignored at this time by this child. This zone he moved in was where the other children initially gathered around in small clumps, mainly. He moved between these small groups of children, announcing his presence quietly by either poking his face close into the communications or just standing near and then moving on. After a short while he ghosted past the pool table, leaned over and took the white ball, slotting it into his pocket. Nonchalantly, a minute or two later, he asked the other children nearby where the white was. They didn’t know. He then said to a younger girl with a pool cue that, hold on, there was a white ball in her ear. I couldn’t see her face. He proceeded to pull off the ‘white ball from the back of her ear magic trick’. She appeared happy enough at this. The older boy wandered off.
Feelings and reflections on the play
I’ve long been interested in that early ‘poking around’ time on the playground, this playground. It seems to happen with regularity: children seem to settle themselves into the late morning, early part of the session, slowly, even though most of them are regulars and know the site and each other well enough. Observing this older boy here was also interesting because we’ve acknowledged that there seems to be a kind of Alpha Male thing going on, but it often changes according to who’s in. The older boy was top dog on that day, or at least for that first part of it. Standing right up out of the way allowed me to see what was happening without being in the direct eye-line/psychological awareness of the child in question. I’ve no doubt he knew I was there because he’s smart enough when it comes to knowing what’s around him, I think, but he didn’t know what I was looking out for in the way that I was looking at it.
I was amused to see how he wandered in, poked around, disrupted some play but then seemed to put it right again. It was a definite letting others know he was there, but not in a malicious edgy way: it was playful, but deliberate. I wondered if, in his head, he was also trying to make up for something there and then. I’ll never know, I guess. Why does ‘poking around time’ happen like this? Every day’s different, I suppose, and though some play frames do get repeated, and play narratives follow children and playworkers around during the week, it’s as if the playground is being reset for the session to come. That is, this resetting isn’t a wiping clean of what’s happened entirely; it’s more of an Etch-a-Sketch shaking (you know, you can still see the grainy lines of what was drawn there previously underneath). Does that analogy work? It works in the here and now for me.
About a happy girl with a play patch
A girl who was new to me was standing at the gate about half-way through the session one day. She didn’t come in but stood there patiently, waiting. I noticed her from a distance and because my colleagues hadn’t yet seen her I walked over to say hello. I got her signed up and invited her in. She smiled. She knew another child later, when he was signed up too, so she wasn’t lost completely. She was fairly independent but then came over to me, still smiling, and hanging at my elbow. She gave me some very direct play cues: ‘Let’s play on the roundabout’; ‘Let’s play on table football.’ So I returned the cues. After a short while of her beating me on the football table (though I was trying but evidently not good enough with my left-handed defenders), some more children wandered over and watched. One boy invited himself in to be my defenders, and I agreed. Soon, others involved themselves and I quietly stepped away. The girl was still smiling as she played and I snuck off. A little while later, I saw that she was cueing a colleague by inviting him into various play frames she was trying to set up just for the two of them.
Feelings and reflections on the play
I choose the phrase ‘play patch’ for this story because, on reflection, it seemed that that was what I was doing: I provided a patch for her to transition from being involved in play frames with me to being comfortable, so it seemed, with other children. I was initially comfortable with her choice of me (which may well have been because I did my best to make her feel at ease when signing her up for the sessions), but then it felt like she was looking at me as one of the children with her ‘Let’s play xyz’ play cues. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to support her: I began to feel a little more uncomfortable when she repeated the cues at me and didn’t seem to spin off into her own play. I get that way if closed into any given play frame these days: it feels like I can’t then observe the whole space well enough. It was a quandary: how to support, return the cues, and subtly pull away without it all falling apart for her. I also felt maybe she was stopping me from doing my job well (that is, the observing of the whole); though now, of course, I know that my support was exactly part of that job. I knew this all along, but I forgot in the moment.
So, when the good fortune of the other children’s arrival at the football table came, I chose my moment carefully and I chose well. She barely registered that I’d left, which was good. She didn’t show any agitation, as I saw it, that I’d left her be (this being a very conscious concern as I chose that moment that I chose). The play patch had worked, though maybe I could have kept a closer eye on things, or done more/something else because she repeated the communication/needs with a colleague. What his thinking on his interactions with her are, I don’t yet know. I’d like to delve in deeper to find out what my colleagues feel about their interactions with various individual children: though summer is a rush of plenty of thought processes, actions, various reflections, and we’ve yet to talk on this particular play of this particular child. There’s never enough time to talk about all the things I’d like to talk about . . .
So sometimes I write.