Five weeks of playwork on the playground has come to an end, and it’s taken its physical and emotional toll (even not having worked every single day of it, as I haven’t). Between us we’ve lumped around crash mats and other large equipment, put up and taken down swings and tarpaulins and suchlike, mixed up buckets of paint and gloop and slime; we’ve dealt with the sun and rain, with mad-hectic children buzzing off the play, and with ebbing and flowing gangs and all the psychological difficulties that this has brought to various people on-site; we’ve seen lots of weird and wonderful play, and we’ve drunk a few beers afterwards!
In no particular order, and with no direct reference to which is which, here’s a sampling of things I’ve learned this summer and things I remembered to re-learn about this hectic, challenging, stimulating, exhausting thing we call playwork and about the play that has been . . .
When teams work
When the team is in a flow, when its members have worked with each other long enough (whatever that length of time may be — for some weeks, or with those who slot right in, for some hours), amazing things can happen. Honesty with one another is key. Don’t take things personally. Trust the instincts and abilities of one another. Check that others are OK, because they will have down times; make sure you say what you have to say if it needs saying and not because it makes you feel appeased. If it can wait, it can wait. There is time for everything. Watch the flow when it’s in operation and appreciate it. Communicate. Apologise for cock-ups. Make the tea!
Ingredients for play
Of course play sessions can take place without conventional ‘toys’. The children used no board games, or plastic manufactured single-use things, as far as I saw, all summer (unless you count loom bands here). Of course there were loom bands, because loom bands are everywhere, but I don’t recall a single football game or organised sports-type play. In fact, the only use of balls I saw were the occasional bouncing of a basketball; or delivery of a basketball to the net whilst shooting from inside the speeding wheelbarrow on a fly-by; the football taped to the rope inside the tyre circle; the tennis ball bound to the makeshift swingball set-up (upturned old bin); or a small ball or three being lobbed at playground visitors in a way of saying, perhaps, ‘Oi, this is our playground!’
Five weeks of play can happen perfectly easily with access to the fire pit, crash mats to jump onto from height or wrestle on, the trampoline to use as a mechanism to flip or bundle from, trays and buckets of slime, a wheelbarrow, a bag or nine of water balloons, some drills and saws, the old drum kit, and plenty of bits and bobs in the style of loose parts. An essential ingredient, of course, is playworker understanding/acceptance that this thing they see, this thing the children use the way they choose to use it, is play.
Play that happens in slow motion
Some play happens in slow motion. That is to say, the on-looking playwork team members are, one minute, talking with each other, catching the flow of the play that’s happening or forming, anticipating what will happen next, or just not quite at that point yet; play happens and the playworkers see it, feel it, can’t move quick enough for what’s taking shape, or just end up scratching their heads and laughing because what they’ve seen has happened, gone by, all done and moved on . . .
One older boy pushed his younger brother up onto the platforms in the wheelbarrow. All fine and good. We watched on from a short distance away, down at ground level. The older boy stood at the top of the wide slide with his brother in the wheelbarrow. He isn’t . . . ? I thought. The look on colleagues’ faces suggested they shared my thoughts. He isn’t . . . he did. The younger brother didn’t look too concerned by the prospect. The older brother shoved him and the wheelbarrow down. He landed fine, sliding to a halt before we could react. Expect the unexpected.
Another day, later in the summer, we watched the playground background as a boy was engaged with an old metal barbecue frame he’d found. He dragged it around for a while. He dragged it up the slope. I watched him try to haul it up over the wooden platform’s edge. I was passing by. I looked over the edge to the ground. ‘Watch out there’s no-one coming,’ I said. He nodded. The barbecue went over the edge. I looked down and shrugged as it bounced off the woodchips. ‘Uh-huh,’ I said. ‘That did it.’ He looked over the edge too. ‘Uh-huh,’ he said. Always expect the unexpected. Later, I saw him bashing the life out of the poor thing with a rubber mallet.
For what we are about to receive
Being sharp to ‘what we are about to receive’, even when running on sugar fumes at the end of a day at the end of summer, is essential. On one such day I was observing from up on the platforms (a place some of us have taken to, to stay out of the way, but which feels a little aloof sometimes too because it has the feel of a castle ramparts). I was up there because I’d been running around on (yet) another mad-futile attempt at catching the older free-runner boys in their daily play that’s called, locally, ‘Family Had’. It’s ‘tag’ or ‘it’, but with a particular set of words you have to say if you catch a runner, or the catch is invalidated, apparently. It’s almost impossible to catch a free-runner who’s younger, faster, ridiculously fearless as he jumps off high platforms sideways without looking (but then, the point of the play, I suspect, is just the chase!)
I stood up on the castle ramparts on the top of the tyre climbing wall for a few minutes, taking a breather, when I saw tension brewing by the gate some distance away. Anticipation is key. I got down the tyre wall and across to the gate area just as an older girl emerged from the storage container with a full bucket of red powder paint that was, quite obviously, going over the head of one of the boys I thought had been teasing her (‘for what he was about to receive’). I gently made contact with the bucket and relieved her of it, surprised that she let go so easily, in what felt like almost a dance movement pirouette. When I returned to the scene after setting the bucket back down in the container, not quite sure of what might be happening out there, there was a commotion that resulted in her chasing a pack of boys down the street with a bread crate! There’s being sharper, and there’s being even sharper!
More ingredients for play
Before any such venture into summer schemes with children, buy lots of cornflour (because it’s not just early years age children who seem to get a lot out of ‘gloop’ play), and plenty of ready-made pink paint; accept that red paint and cornflour gloop work well to make ‘blood’ and internal organs, and that black paint and gloop makes zombified hands, and, well just proper mess; heated wax finger dunkings go down well, as do mod-roc ‘plaster cast’ arms; cakes are often good for the making, especially if leaving the children to make their own icing (it’ll be blue, and very slimy, and taste somewhat eggy!); children don’t mind eating blue things (iced cakes; or those big old rock-hard things we used to call gobstoppers, but which they have a different name for; or they’ll eat sticks of blue things that look suspiciously like roll-on under-arm deodorants!); if you have a secret stash of water balloons, do not accidentally reveal where you keep them (you won’t have any left and once the secret’s out, there’s no going back!)
Some children spent practically all day, every day, even the rainy days, creating and nurturing the fires that they’d made. Old sofas were sacrificed along with palettes smashed up with sledgehammers, all the old wood lying around, some perfectly serviceable wooden blocks that were sitting quietly in the storage container minding their own business, someone’s old vest (found and ruthlessly burned!), and attempted burnings of aerosol cans. ‘Why can’t we put them on the fire?’ was the protest when we found them. ‘Umm. Really? You need to be told?’ were various responses. So the same children attempted to burn foam they’d found, with the same playworker reaction, and as if the world was out of all the wood it once ever had, on one occasion a swift intervention at the sight of a few puffs of black smoke revealed that the innards of a small cushion were being put to the flames. By and large, the children knew about the fire and were respectful of it; they needed more and more stimulus though: things we need to be prepared for.
Free-running’s part in relationship-building
The older boys, the free-runners, gained our respect for their physical skills, and we theirs, I think, for our attempts to catch them: though that’s not all. The free-runners knew that some of us are older than, and not as fit as, them (that’ll be me!), and even younger playworkers (well, younger and fitter than me, at least) get exhausted too. After days of repeated play (and probably from the start of it), the boys respected our calls for time-out breaks to catch our breaths. The children call ‘time-out’ if they’re in imminent danger of getting caught, or if the younger children are tangled up in the netting bridge, flopping around like fish; we call our time-outs if we’re in danger of collapsing! We stood around talking with the older boys on our catch-up breathers. The relationship-building seemed to me to get stronger every day: though that’s not all. The older boys looked after the younger children in the play. They called out to others if we were almost behind them, and they took it on themselves to help the younger ones who flopped around in the nets!
Playwork embraces knowing about the play that has happened and that might happen on the playground. It also embraces the idea of knowing that change can stimulate, but sometimes — some of us discussed later in the summer — things to play on and with find their natural ‘best place to be’. The drum kit can work in the circular intersections of pathways up the slopes, which act as kind of amphitheatres, or under the slide, but sat on the boards over the old fire pit area, there’s a kind of stage that children used every so often; the children liked to jump from the three ledges of various heights on the platforms and onto the crash mats, and so that ended up being a place the crash mats ‘belonged’; the trampoline was often dragged there too if we didn’t put it there, and flips and so on happened (I see this area as a sort of arena, with its square gallery sides, with children hanging off the balconies looking down, almost like a version of Shakespeare’s Globe) — the play is largely self-regulated here.
Servicing the play
There are conflicts on playgrounds, of course, and sometimes these get resolved by the children themselves, and sometimes someone swinging a shovel at someone else needs a swift, quiet intervention, or sometimes children just need us to be someone to shout out their frustrations at. What is clear though, after another summer on the playground, is that the majority of the play and interactions is self-regulated by those children: they don’t need us to make up the ‘rules’ for them; that said though, as with the free-runner/Family Had game, some play seems to be better appreciated if the playworkers are involved. This I see as another form of ‘servicing the play’. It isn’t our play, though we’re in it. Sometimes we’re the chasers, as in this play, and sometimes we’re the prey, as it were, the targets, as with water balloons.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this summer on the playground. Those who know playwork and who read here, those converted to whom I preach, will know there are a hundred other stories and realisations/learnings and re-learnings in between those words and days I write about above.
Suffice is to say, to those not yet privileged in having the opportunity to work in this field, that despite the difficult conversations that must be had (on those who might be bullying, on those who are affected or blaring out their signals of whatever lies beneath the surface of their agitations), that despite the physical challenges of shifting the heavy equipment and the standing in the heat or the running after free-runners, or the endless demands of returning the play cue that is ‘push me in the wheelbarrow, once more round the playground’ followed by ‘me next, me next’, despite the gangs that form and disperse and shift into new conditions, there are always those slow-burning relationships building, trust and faith, understandings of play and commitments to the cause that is ‘this is the children’s place’; there is the beauty of the stories children tell, in passing, the faith they have in any given playworker, the smile that says hello, or the quiet passing ‘shush’ behind a colleague’s back as they prepare to flatten them with a water balloon!; there’s the unexpectedness of play that forms in front of your eyes (wheelbarrows and old barbecues and experiments on the fire); there’s the salute from the older boys at the end of summer, saying, ‘See you in October’; there’s the looking out on the playground, after the children have gone each day, thinking, ‘Play has happened here; we have created a space and place for play.’