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.