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.