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

Archive for October, 2014

Serious playwork: opposing the liberal accusation

In 2010 I delivered a two-day basic playwork block of training, and what I remember most of those sessions will always be the comments made by one attendee towards the end of the second day. He was extremely angry and struggled to keep it in check as he told me, in no uncertain terms, how he saw what I was teaching to be some maladjusted misinformed ‘1970s liberalism’. His vehement opinion really knocked me back. I defended myself at the time by saying that I didn’t write the stuff I was teaching (despite believing in it), that it was developed from those respected playwork writers who’d already put their observations, reflections and theories down on paper, but it was to little avail. The ‘liberal accusation’ is an on-going accusation, I find.

That is to say, the more I learn about my observations of children at play, my re-readings of older texts and readings of new texts, my conversations and correspondences with other playwork-minded people, and how all of this allows for more nuanced understandings of my own and others’ practices, offering other lenses to see through, the more I recognise the ‘liberal accusation’. Towards one end of the ignorance spectrum (ignorance is bliss, perhaps?) is the only slightly annoying but still somewhat pervading commentary that is, ‘So, you play with children; how hard can it be?’ Towards the other end of the spectrum are comments such as, ‘You can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: there will be anarchy’, and ‘Children need discipline, order, direction’, or comments from people who say they’re playworkers, and the like, along the lines of getting the whole playwork thing but that, now then, back in the real world . . . (add in any given adult construct of whatever the opposite of ‘just playing around’ can be seen as).

We’re not just playing around in playwork. This is serious stuff. Children play, and their play is also serious stuff. Sure, play can be funny, ridiculous, cute and fluffy, but play also includes the urgent need to destroy, the fervent need to win, the desperate need to be included, the subtle need to just be near this adult in this ‘just right now’ for just a few moments, the sometimes almost imperceptible need to be heard and taken seriously: all of this and an infinite arrangement of other needs too. When I hear the ‘liberal accusation’ come my way, in light of all of the above and everything else I’ve not got the space to write out here, I can’t help the virtual soapbox from coming up out of the ground beneath me and, before I’ve had enough time to think the situation through, there I am, quietly indignant and letting others know it.

The attendee at the 2010 training sessions who shot his ‘1970s liberalism’ accusation at me, if I remember correctly, also went on to extend his thinking (which had, no doubt, been brewing for most of the two days in that room with me and his learner colleagues): his view was along the lines of how you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want because there’ll be ‘anarchy’. ‘Anarchy’ has got a bad press in the minds of ‘liberal accusers’. The word is often used as a general catch-all that represents the comprehensive meltdown of society as we know it, and the meltdown of the micro-societies of children’s adult-led ‘play settings’ (or, as one girl of about ten, who I used to know, once told me of the after school club she attended, and where I then worked, ‘I don’t want to go the children’s farm today’).

There’s plenty to be diverted by in that last paragraph, plenty to be ‘unpacked’: perhaps there’s material for future writing here but, for now, suffice is to say that I’m starting to understand some playwork colleagues’ indifference for the term ‘play setting’. It does rather conjure up the image of something somewhat lifeless, sterile, in the process of fossilising, setting . . . I’m more interested in the idea of ‘place’. Sure, we do have these things we call ‘compensatory spaces for play’, i.e. the bits inside the fence where play is given the opportunity to be; we may work in these as playworkers, but the place is greater than the space because, amongst other things, there is the playwork mindset at work.

Back to my anarchy-fearing anti-liberalist, and his kindred spirits, and his view that you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: the simple response is often just ‘Why?’ Of course, this will be a red flag to a bull, more often than not, and can be used with mischievous intent. However, the question is valid, I think. That is, why can’t children make decisions about what they want to do, and how they do it, and why they want to do it the way that they choose? Is it valid to say that you, an adult, should not be allowed to make decisions about whether to go to the café or the pub or stay at home, whether to go by bus or cycle, or to decide that you need to go to a gig because you’re feeling a certain way? You’re not stupid: you can make your own choices. Children aren’t stupid either: adults tend to treat them as if they are though.

Now, it is fair to say that sometimes children may not perceive the hazards inherent in a situation (but let’s face it, there are plenty of adults who don’t see hazards either: I’m currently of the opinion that if I’m walking down a street and a fellow adult is engaged in phone-zombie mode, eyes on the screen in their hand, head down, ears blocked up with whatever their musical thing is that’s pouring through their earphones, then I’ll just walk-aim for them; call it mischievous intent, call it play!) Back to the children and their occasional inability to see the hazard because (just like the phone-zombie) they’re so into their play: I have been known to point out the hazard if the child hasn’t seen it, or to ask children to remove themselves from an area. Is this adult control? Last week, when a girl was just so hyped up around the fire pit, not noticing that (in my opinion) her play was a potential hazard to the other children around her as well as to herself, I asked her to leave for a while. The children will put plenty of cardboard on the fire because it’s instant gratification, which wood alone can’t give, and because they actively seek out the ‘biggest fire ever’, but they don’t sometimes see the way the fire comes close to their trousers as they jostle for ‘king or queen of the fire’ status. I continue to reflect, a few days on, about whether I did the right thing by her (she refused to leave the fire pit area because, I suspect, she was embarrassed, put out, angry at me, I’d disrupted her play). We settled into a compromise.

This is not a ‘liberal, anarchic, anything goes and hang the idea of danger, let them get on with it’ approach. Apparently, as was told to myself and a colleague by another colleague, a passer-by outside the playground took offence at the fire pit as was seen by peering through the fence: the inference being, as I read it, that children and fire do not, should not, mix and that it’s all very, very wrong. It’s all far too slack and liberal. Children should be given discipline, order, direction, not left to their own devices in obviously unsafe, anything goes havens of anarchic meltdown . . .

In places of play, where play can actually happen, skilled playworkers know when to stay out of things, when to keep a careful eye on the constantly shifting play, when to observe closely from afar or almost imperceptibly from close by; they know that they’re repeating cycles of dynamic risk assessments in their heads, they can sometimes anticipate the play before it’s happened because they know this play frame from other occurrences, they know these children on this playground, they’ve seen the affects of this weather, this play resource, this dynamic of children, or they can make a near-as-makes-no-odds assessment of combined factors of experience in new situations; they can read the stories unfolding, they can hold up their hands if they get it wrong (because that’s what happens in the continual cycle of learning and understanding: we misinterpret sometimes, we realise that we could have been ten seconds sharper, we see that one thing we said or did led to other things that might not have happened otherwise) . . . all of this and more.

I often say to playwork learners that if, by the end of a session, you’re not mentally worn out (and sometimes physically exhausted too), then maybe you’re not doing it right. Being a playworker doesn’t mean that this ‘1970s liberalism’, anything goes slack culture, as I read the accusation, is the norm — being a playworker doesn’t mean that we don’t take children’s physical safety, or safeguarding of welfare, or stances on bullying and the like lightly; the ‘liberal accusation’ cannot, or will not, see the nuances of all that is observed, felt, intuited, there and then considered, in-the-moment referenced from the playwork literature, experienced, reflected upon, that the on-going deliberation and action that the practice of playwork is. Just as children’s play is serious, so is playwork.
 
 

Relating to meaning

It’s a bright autumn day on the playground: there are twenty or so children spread around, but it feels like even fewer because they’re spread out: there are a handful of children poking around at the fire pit; some are at the tree swing, attempting to climb up to it, then getting stuck; some are pushing the shopping trolley we found around the platforms, over the woodchips and down any slope they can find; some children are hoarding a pile of pans and cushions, old money collection pots, and a well-used A-frame board up in the hill-house; some children are hanging out beyond the tyre wall, talking out of earshot about whatever children talk about out of earshot of adults. I’m sitting on the bench looking out on all of the above, over the shoulder of a ten year old I’m sat there with as she does her homework with the pages flapping about in the breeze.

I am required here. That is, I’ve been asked to ‘help’ but really, I think, this child knows well enough how to do what her teacher’s asked her to do. I tell her I’m not a children’s teacher, and she knows. She just shrugs. It seems, in a way, that even though this is school homework, and even though we’re not a ‘sit down and do your school homework organised club’, this has an element of play about it too. I, this adult, me this week, am required. I ask her how she’s been taught to do fractions at school, i.e. I’m not looking to teach, I’m looking to respond to whatever’s needed of me. I get another shrug and a line along the lines of ‘I haven’t’. I’m not sure that’s true, but you never know. ‘How are you supposed to be able to convert this fraction to decimals then?’ I ask. It doesn’t seem to be that important.

A little later, as I keep a periphery eye on the comings and goings of other playing children over her shoulder still, I’m asked to do the spellings thing: same as last week — give the word from the list, turn the page down, she writes it. The breeze is playing havoc with the system so we go inside where a handful of children are jumping on the old red sofa, from on top of the chest of drawers, or poking around in the art store cupboard. We settle down for spellings. I read, as asked, then walk off for a minute or so to multi-task. It seems to work, though I remember from the previous week that she’s got a system which we both know is kind of rote learning. I tell her this. She’s smart enough to know what I see and what she’s doing.

This week she has to put the given words into a sentence, in correct context. She insists on trying to form sentences with the given word at the start of every line. It doesn’t work so well the way she wants to do it but she keeps on trying, and I figure that she’s being as obstinate as she can: she knows full well what these words mean and their context. She tells me that she’s using other longer words too to make it interesting for her teacher, or words to this effect. She strikes out sentences we both laugh at and she writes a new one. It is in this, I feel, amongst other strategies within it all, that I have a sense of ‘being required’. She’s in need of this person’s time and most of his focus. Even when I wander off, she seems to know I’ll come back, as promised.

She gets bored of homework and wanders off outside again. She says for me to push her on the zipline. OK, I say. I don’t feel any great waves of ‘neediness’ coming from her, of over-reliance on the adult. We continue to laugh and joke at the zipline for a while and I tell her (because I then think I should spend time elsewhere soon) that I’ll give her one more push and then I’ll leave her to it. She says ‘OK, fine’ but that I should have a push too. So this happens and, as I’m setting off down the line without the ability to jump off, she wanders off and leaves me be, smiling and laughing to herself. This week it has been me; other weeks it will be other colleagues.

Not only is there meaning, representation, in play but there is meaning in relationship. This child relates to this playworker in the moment and/or over time. I feel extremely privileged when I think of my playwork interactions in this way. I’m on maybe thirty journeys at once with these maybe thirty children (which represents the term-time children I know at the playground), and that’s not yet to mention the ‘x’ amount more journeys engaged in, of different stages, with the children who come to school holiday-time open access, and the children I’ve also met here who I see out and around the area, outside the fence, who may also be part of other groups to use the building we’re based in.

Part of all the journeys is honesty. If the children ask why a colleague is grumpy one day, I’ll tell them as much of the truth as I’m able to; if I’m tired or frustrated or over-stretched, and it starts to impact on the children and their play, I’ll tell them what’s wrong if I can, and I’ll apologise if I’ve wronged them in their play; if I can’t play ‘Family Had’ (or ‘Hadder’ as it’s morphed into in some quarters!), I’ll say why — that wood is slippery today, I really can’t run today, I will if you find others but let me do this first. If I can’t join in when I’m required, I get grumbled at, but I’m being honest so I feel no playwork guilt. I see my responses as being part of the on-going journey of this child and this playworker.

Sometimes my journey renders me invisible. That is to say, I can often find myself close in to the play (like at the tyre swings circle where a handful of children are jumping around in the spare tyres on the floor, or like at the football table — me in the kitchen, just listening in a few yards away — one child swearing at another with a laugh, the other child laugh-swearing back) . . . I’m close in and no child seems concerned by my presence. I take it as a form of ‘this adult is accepted’. This often doesn’t happen overnight. One journey currently involves a younger child who I’m just now getting eye contact and laughs from after a few weeks. Already her journey of relating to some colleagues is more advanced than her journey with me. It is the way it is. I’m on my way to the potential for invisibility with her.

Being required may take the form of dedicated adult attention, or it may be the requirement of invisibility, both built in trust and moments of play over time/s; or it may be anything in between. The ability to accept the play of the child, and the child themselves, must be an integral part of this process of adult development, and maybe this ‘adult fine tuning’ is also part of the reason why some children can just ‘get’ some adults they’ve only just met. The children know. Suffice is to say, for now, that there is meaning not only in play, but in the choice of interaction of children towards adults.
 
 

Back to basics playwork: the simple how and why one child climbs a tree

Some days when with, or around, children at play, I find myself taken back to basics. That is, through the interaction or the observation I remind myself about what play is or what it could be. Last week, on the playground I found myself in the presence of a child’s sheer determination to achieve what she’d set out to do, her ability to perfectly well risk manage her own play, and the coming together of a small collection of ‘ingredients’ to enable her to problem solve in her play.

In the last hour or so of the after school session, one of the older girls was talking with me and she shoved her new thick winter gloves into my coat pocket. It was an action of trust, as I saw it, but also of continued connection. She decided she wanted to climb the tree at the top of the bank where I’d been standing because, perhaps, a couple of other children had been jumping around in the lower base branches of it. Ordinarily, I think, I’d have been more OK with this because I like to think I get the idea that children’s play often includes some experimentation, risk taking, and exploration at height. On this occasion, however, I had a little concern because the tree may not be in the best shape for climbing. I also had to factor in whether the child in question was a good tree climber or not. I didn’t know, but in retrospect should have known because I have seen her climbing around and balancing on other structures with ease.

Up she climbed and I watched as the branches gave a little under her weight. It made me wonder what it was like up there for her. Even so, after a while, I suggested that maybe she ought to come down now, though I shouldn’t have done: it was, at this stage, more about my own comfort levels than hers. She was more than capable of climbing. She placed her feet carefully on each branch before testing its bend or rigidity, and she moved on up. Then, it transpired, she spotted the basketball stuck high up in the furthest branches. It wasn’t clear what was happening to start with, but I soon realised, as she talked with me, that she was reaching up for an already broken-off thin long branch to use as a prodder. She couldn’t turn it around up there, so she passed it to me and asked that I hand it back to her the other way up.

She took the prodding branch from me and edged her way up and outwards more. She stretched the branch up to try to reach the basketball, but she was still some way short of it. ‘Can you see it?’ she asked. I said that I could. I moved away from the base of the tree, and I realised that I was much more comfortable with the play now because I’d observed for time enough to see the way she could move. We talked together about the ball, the branches she was standing on or wanting to stand on, the possibility of shaking certain branches by hand, how far off the ball she was from my perspective down below. She took my suggestions on board, tried out the ones I guess she thought might be useful, carefully moved her feet to other branches.

At one point she put a foot on one branch that really did look like it wanted to splay out sideways on her contact. I wasn’t sure she appreciated this. I said that her left foot looked unstable up there to me. She tested her weight, and moved her foot to another branch. Although I wasn’t so worried about her by this time, I did wonder what I might, or could, do if she fell. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to catch her or how many branches she’d bounce off, if any, on the way down! The experiment exploration lasted for a good twenty minutes or so. I kept my periphery eye on the rest of the playground, though most of the other children were elsewhere, and I knew a colleague had a distant eye on the tree too, but mostly I was focused on the child in her determination to reach the basketball.

Eventually she got close enough with the four- or five-foot long prodding branch to touch the ball. It didn’t shift. She tried out all manner of ways to knock it down: pushing hard, short prods, moving the branches underneath. She didn’t show frustration, just bloody-minded determination! Then the ball moved, but it got stuck a little further down. She adjusted her position and kept trying. Eventually, the basketball fell and bounced down the hill to land at the palette wall of the fire pit. The child shouted her triumph. She carefully climbed down towards me and passed me the branch, saying for me to ‘look after this: it’s my lucky stick!’

When she came down, and when I passed her back the lucky stick, I asked her if she wanted the ball. It had become almost an after-thought in her mind, or so it seemed. She asked where it had gone, but it didn’t seem to be that important. It was the act, the problem solving, that was the reward in itself. She ran in to tell others what had happened. Later, I saw her lucky stick laid on the table tennis table, as if in a museum (though her mum really didn’t fancy taking it home when she came to collect!). I wanted to tell her the story, but another time.

There are three main things I draw from all of this: the first is the immediate thinking/reminder to self, there and then, about the playwork world’s concept of compound flexibility being in operation (i.e., in short, the flexibility of variables or ‘ingredients’, as termed above, of an environment — things can be used in various ways — supports experimentation in play, leading to self-confidence and self-awareness, leading to greater ability to problem solve, leading to more flexible play environments, and so on); the second thing to consider, back to basics, is that children’s play is or could be this experimentation, exploration, self risk management (play is this, rather than what we think it should be); thirdly, and similarly back to basics, we can trust those children because they know perfectly well what their play is about.
 
 

Further draft workings: hyper-focus, time, and about the very now

Something strange happens to time when you’re hyper-focused: it doesn’t reel out in quite the same way as the norm. ‘Time’ seems to be one of those themes in this writer’s writing: something that recurs. Here, I’m thinking about the time in a talk-discussion given/entered into, and I’m thinking about what I’ve previously called ‘playground time’. Firstly, and again, thank you to Lauren at the South London Gallery (SLG) for inviting me to explore (an indulgence for me) on many of the lines of my current thinking, this past week via the monthly Play Local talks. I’ve still yet to process everything that was said, and that wasn’t said, that evening, but it’ll come.

The kick-start for this particular piece of writing here is a story I told at the SLG talk. I told the tale of Beowulf, or my own oratory version of it, but it was told at length, or so it seemed. Perhaps it did go on for a while, but when I checked in with the clock soon after, nothing of the time I’d thought had passed had actually passed. It’s the same, or similar, often on the playground. When the children are playing, when all is as fine as it is and can be in that moment, when I check in on the clock just to see out of curiosity, time has a habit of being strange. This is kind of the opposite of ‘time flies when you’re having fun’.

Last week the sun was shining again. We have been spoilt these past weeks after summer has bled into the start of the new term. It’s had its positive affects on the children, or so it seems. I remember standing in the middle of the playground, as the play has happened, sometimes slowly, sometimes in bursts of action, sometimes ponderously, and I remember this on several occasions, and I thought how ‘very now’ it all was. This isn’t the phrase my ‘in the moment’ thinking took, exactly (I don’t even think there were words at all, as such), but there was the sentiment of ‘very now-ness’. This is both something I’ve written about before, here, and something I thought about maybe bringing up at the SLG talk, though I didn’t because it wasn’t the discussion that was forming.

Here’s what I wrote in my SLG notes, taken from the former blog post, but redefined in more visual form:

About the Very Now

So, here I am revisiting the ‘very now’. When I stand in the middle of the playground and I see the children scatter, on coming in from school, like (in my current writing simile, though not in the thinking of the then as it was) they’re pieces of paper released, I feel the ‘very now’ but without the words to describe it as such; I feel it when I see the children wandering around tucking into fat ‘fish finger and ketchup’ sandwiches, or when I see them engrossed in experiments of squeezing the end of the hose pipe to see which way the water goes, and how far, in the hazy sunlight; I feel the ‘very now’ when I watch the intense concentration of one boy, one day, as he carefully dissects an old computer with a screwdriver, peering into its innards from close quarters as if inspecting the very essence of its life-force itself.

I don’t know what time’s doing in the heads of the playing children; what time does in me is something strange though. Nothing at all else matters. If I’m in a story, as I was when I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying or was about to say next when telling Beowulf, or if I’m observing the play that is happening and not thinking about the play that was or will be, there is no time. This isn’t to say that in these moments I’m not thinking: far from it, but I don’t have the words still or perhaps ever.

I’m reminded of something else said at the SLG talk: I was told, from the perspective of one seer there, that once you start trying to define this thing we’re calling magic, it loses its magic, or it isn’t there. She pushed away a tea cup! It’s like this. When I’m on the playground, and if I try to define what this ‘very now-ness’ is, as it is, there, it may cease to be. So, I try now with words to describe what I shouldn’t be trying to describe, because then, what I’m trying to describe gets lost.

Perhaps this is a particular problem of ‘those who see play’: ‘those who never will see play’ can’t be swayed because there are no words succinct enough. Yet, we try. Perhaps what we should do instead is smile benevolently (though some will no doubt see this as patronisingly) and not say anything at all. That’s difficult when you believe in something so strongly. Perhaps we should show this ‘seeing play’ by sitting and ‘just seeing play’. Others might follow suit, you never know. When you bother to look you just might see.

I had thought about telling another story at SLG, but never did. It was a brief version of Ernest Scott’s telling of Baba Ram Dass (formerly Dr Richard Alpert) when he trekked into the Himalayas to meet the guru sitting in the field. Scott writes that Alpert, as he then was, wanted to know what the whole deal was about LSD and that he thought the guru would know. The guru, an old man who’d never experienced such narcotics before, apparently, took several times the ‘starter’ dose, and Alpert waited anxiously for the inevitability of the after-effects. Nothing happened. The guru didn’t need the drugs: he was already there. So the story goes. You can connect your own dots . . .

When I’m hyper-focused on the play, or in the discussions, or in the thinking, or in the moment of the moment that is, there is no time. There is only ‘very now’. Stories help to fill in the edges of what we can’t fully describe, but ultimately what we feel, in the moment, should be acknowledged. All stories are true: they become things in themselves; moments, though, are tea cups that can disappear.
 
 

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