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

Archive for November, 2014

Working with children and emotions in the human environment

Two children are having an argument over something and they just can’t let it go or get over it: what do you do? That is, you’re an adult watching on, a playworker perhaps, or you’re of a playwork-minded persuasion — even if you don’t know it — and you see all this bottled-up aggression unfold in front of you: When do you step in? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all?

My playground noticings for this week have formed around some children’s antagonisms, their righteous anger, and their focused interpretations on fairness — for the benefits of the self — resulting in cyclical arrangements of revenge. This all sounds fairly heavy-duty and negative, but thinking about interactions of this kind, in and around play, and a few days on from them, I file this post under the draft working title of ‘the human tendency to push others’ buttons and have others push our own’. That is, adult or child alike, none of us are, or ever will be, perfect and we will irritate, and be irritated by, others.

A playworker, who understands that they can just as equally push children’s buttons as vice versa, also understands that a reasoned process should take place when thinking on children’s various interactions with one another. I’m not an advocate of the school of thinking that promotes such direct verbal mantras as ‘Now, was that kind?’, ‘Share your toys’, ‘Say sorry’, ‘Don’t be mean’, and so on. That’s not to say that a little human kindness, sharing, sincerity and love wouldn’t go a long way in this world; it is to say though that forcing things on children may well only turn them into people of automatic responses that lack thought and true emotion.

Children will have arguments, just as baby birds will fall from trees, and just as you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself sharing a train carriage with someone with an annoying ringtone, a propensity to eat crisps loudly, or someone blessed with the most pathetically irritating cough in the whole wide world! The trick, or the sleight of mind, for the playworker — or playwork-minded person — when around the arguing children, is in trying to know what best to do and when.

Last week I watched on as a group of footballers cheated outrageously to get the oldest of them out of the game. She, the oldest, was not best pleased when the ones who were ‘already through’ to the next round conspired against her, but to her credit she tried every pressure, persuasion and conceit to get herself reinstated before finally taking on her erstwhile opponent and winning through again in a replay. The boy she beat stomped off in a flurry of self-defeat (because, in truth, he’d got it into his head that he couldn’t beat her fair and square before the replay anyway). The girl then took it on herself, after celebrating, to go and have it out with another child who was the chief cheat.

At what point do you step in when the two are literally at each other’s throats? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all? Eventually, for the boy’s protection, I stepped in (because I think she was only really holding him off and could easily have done him some proper damage if she’d tried). Was I right to even step in at all? ‘Play nicely’ (whatever that means) didn’t even enter my head (nor would it ever do), nor did ‘respect each other’ or ‘is this kind?’ These are education system mantras, which I understand to have some safeguarding intent but also, perhaps, some eye on crowd control. I stepped in when I judged it necessary but I don’t know if my judgement was correct.

I’m not advocating children go all out to hurt each other and adults just watch on and do nothing. I’m thinking around the relative benefits of adults not controlling the every emotion that children are expected to display. What was in my head at the time of the intervention was one of protection for the boy (the girl could easily look after herself, I think, and would probably have held her own against the whole group — all in it against her together — if she’d had to): I had no agenda of the children making peace with one another. What transpired was odd: I was aware of the heightened state of agitation that the boy was in after the older girl had left the scene of her own accord, and I sat down on the grass bank with him just so he could ‘come down’; a few of the other footballers came over and sat with us. One of them, another younger girl, shouted at me from just a few feet away, trying to tell me what had happened. She was also highly agitated. There’s no point in trying to be rational with people who are so ‘up’ emotionally, though I said quietly to the shouting girl, ‘Hey, I’m just here, this far away,’ but she didn’t hear me . . .

The oddness was in how the children came over, sat down calmly enough and tried to explain away the group’s actions (their cheating, as perceived by the aggrieved-against, and as observed by me): I hadn’t asked them to come over, and it struck me that they might have felt a need to justify actions when no justification had been asked for. Is this symptomatic of a social system in which children are often told how to behave?

This same week, another group of children were running around chasing after another boy and I observed it all flow around the playground and around me. As I observed, I felt something beginning to bubble up: I could see the boy was being ganged up on, even though the group appeared to be in ‘play mode’ — maliciously, softly, perhaps. I asked the boy, in passing, if he was annoyed because I felt he was. He said he was. Now, we need to know the children around us and I could sense that this individual was past the point of his own ability to deal with the situation. I intervened. I asked the gang to come listen to the fact that the boy was at this point. They didn’t listen. I tried to come at it again by a change in surroundings. They didn’t listen. It hit me that I was doing it wrong: it looked like I was trying to impose my adult views on the children, of how I expected them to be, or that’s how I felt it. I realised that this was a gripe between the aggrieved boy and the gang leader (who, it turned out, was also aggrieved): so I took these two to another room, reducing the stimulus, where they could tell each other what they felt.

This was, again, not a case of ‘respect each other’, ‘play nicely’, or ‘is this kind?’ This was a means of opening a dialogue, and whatever was said was whatever was said. I said nothing. I knelt down in the doorway and feigned disinterest. The boys took it in turns to resolve things for themselves. I shrugged when they’d stopped talking. They went. I got lucky, but I also came out with a few more thoughts on conflict, interventions and interactions.

I’m not always calm inside when children push my buttons. This happens, because we’re humans, and humans will have a tendency to do this to one another sometimes. It doesn’t happen very often, but life is not always sweet and rosy on the playground: it would be boring if it were. No matter how old or experienced we get at being around these unpredictable creatures that are the children we work with, there are occasions when buttons will be pressed: it is an on-going process of learning about the self in the ways that we deal with these moments. It should also be remembered that we will annoy the hell out of some children sometimes too. This week, I was wandering the playground when I saw two children at the sand pit: the girl was sat in a big hole and the boy nearby. He suddenly shouted at me: ‘Hey, Joe [he calls me this], go away. We need some sand privacy.’ I knew I’d bugged him just by my presence, and he knew I was observing. I tried some banter but it fell flat on its face. I moved away.

We need to be careful in our observations, but they are key not only to understanding individuals at play (and how we might be in all of that: present or absent) but also in further thoughts on how the adult world at large impacts on children. I see children on the playground sometimes engaged in cycles of revenge, never seeming to reach a point of karmic fulfilment, as it were, returning and returning in always attempting to have the ‘last word’ by trying to trip someone up, playing at throwing paint over them, a little shove here or there, and so on: I wonder at the unfulfilled needs wrapped up in all of this, where adults have previously imposed the ‘this is how to feel and be’ full stop to the argument of the day — children keep pushing and pushing buttons because they haven’t been allowed to work out for themselves the point of ‘this is enough; I have my balance; I am avenged.’

Arguments will happen and buttons will be pressed because we interact in a human environment: it’s how we deal with this that is important. If we’re an adult who’s bugging the children, or being bugged by the children, if/when should we walk away?; if we’re observing arguments or aggressions of cycles of revenge, if/when should we step in? Maybe my interventions this week worked well; or maybe, when it comes to emotion comprehension and regulation, I’m also part of the adult problem for these children.
 
 

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Letter to Dad: about my work

This weekend marks a year to the day since my father’s passing. I wanted to write to mark this very newest of first anniversaries and I’ve realised I’ve been writing to Dad in my head, as I’ve been working, all week. I have been thinking of what I do in my work, and I’ve been thinking of Dad as the day drew ever closer, and the two lines of thinking coincided at some small point I can’t fully pinpoint. So then, Dad, this is a letter to you, because I wanted to tell you things, have always wanted to tell you things, and for a long time now never could (except at the end when I didn’t know for sure if you could hear, but told myself you could, and because of the long slow deterioration that your illness was).

Dad, I think you always were a little confused at my decision not to go on and become an architect: I don’t think I ever took that as disappointment or annoyance, just a genuine inability to understand. We would have our conversations about what I was doing with my life and you’d say things like, ‘So, son, when are you going to get a proper job?’ I didn’t take it so harshly: it was just that you never got the idea of playwork. The truth is, nor did I, really, back then. Still, we talked about my work, in roundabout sorts of ways, and you told me your stories, and we both nodded and we moved on.

I’m in a much better position to be able to tell you what I do now. You know, you always said to me, ‘Son, work with your brain, not with your hands’ (because, I think you spent a lot of time doing the latter yourself). Well, I guess I do both. This is all one week in what I do: this week I’ve done the brain work and I’ve done the ‘grunt work’! I don’t expect you to get everything I’m going to tell you, but that’s fine, because frankly not everybody does anyway.

What I know you do get, because you’ve done it, is me shovelling a ton of sand, although you’d probably say, ‘Why do that yourself, son?’ Well, it was there, I was there, someone had to do it, and the children are basically who I work for, as it were. You know? You used to say, ‘Why have a dog and bark yourself?’ The way I see it, Dad, sometimes I’m there to do that grunt work because, strange as it might sound, I do get a buzz out of getting things sorted so the children can play. I reckon you kind of get that because, in your own way, you used to do some things like that for me . . .

So, I’ve shifted sand to the sandpit and I’ve done other things for the children’s play too: I’ve been noticing recently that there’s a lot of war play going on (you know, guns and swords and bombs and that sort of thing: you made a bombs game up when we were younger, I remember). I spent some time one day this week just strapping up old bits of foam with ‘duck tape’ and making them into foam bashers. I put these and a load of hockey sticks all in one place, slotted into upright palettes round by the fire pit (and in my head I called this the ‘arsenal’), and I hid a few bucket-loads of ‘bombs’ (plastic ball-pit balls) around the place. When the children came in that day, I went outside and saw they’d found the bashers and so on and one girl told another child she was the ‘weaponeer’ and that the stash was the ‘weaponry’, which made me smile. I didn’t tell her what was in my head, honest!

I’ve been bashed a fair amount this week, by various children with various lengths of basher (even your grandchildren, at home, seem to want to playfight lots too! Must be something in the air!) We’ve also had fires at the fire pit, and I’ve been in and out and around these with the children there. They can’t seem to get enough of it these early winter dark nights, especially when they see green flames, or when they see that the flames look pink if they look at them through the camera. There’s always plenty of play going on and I’m invited into it quite a lot by various children, or I’m just in it and the children seem fine with this. This week, apart from being bashed a lot, I’ve been in ‘parallel world’ play (those are the words the girl I was with used — she’s got a lot of imagination, as you can see! — we try to keep track of interesting quotes from children too, and I spent some time this week reading up on these and adding some more); I’ve been an artist with the camera and that same girl and another, on a different day; I’ve sat around with tea lights with a small group of children, floating them (the tea lights, that is, not the children!) in a pan of water on a cold evening; I’ve slopped out big bowls of watery powder paint so a child can make a giant sand volcano; I’ve tried to help an older child who was so upset by other footballers that he couldn’t speak straight because of the tears.

There’s a lot of just watching on too, though (I do try not to get so involved it stops being about the children’s play): for a couple of days running, some of the children played with some rubber gloves that they filled with water and stretched out the fingers in shapes that made them laugh. They say things like, ‘Man, that’s sick!’ and they mean, ‘That’s good,’ or something like that, I think. I think I gave up trying to know exactly what children’s language actually was a short while after getting looks like ‘What is this weirdo trying to say?’ (when I tried to use that language back at them!). I’ve seen plenty of other play and it’ll come back to me after a while, but there’s so much there that if I don’t write it all down, or take a mental picture of it, you know, it kind of blurs. It comes back again, after a while, but sometimes I have to be standing there in the mud to see it.

So, that’s all that, but I’ve also had a few conversations about something I’m writing for a book, and I’ve been doing plenty of reading for that too: there are so many books in the world and not enough time. I spend time every week on the computer, reading stuff, and there’s always time on the train to open a book. When I find I’m in London with a spare couple of hours (which isn’t often, but does happen some weeks), I try to make good use of my time. I’ve been going to the art gallery along the Thames (the Tate Modern): there’s a room I find myself at every time I go there and I went there this week again too — I sit there and just think about the paintings and about how I’m thinking and about how it all links in to my writing, and that sort of thing.

I’ve got some students too. I’ve been teaching them and seeing how they work, where they work, and holding tutorials and writing up plans for them. In between all this I talk about play with people I work with: this week I talked about my play as a child and where we lived and about how that little bit of land that was the estate where we lived was our territory, and how it had pretty much all we needed in it — trees, lakes, grass, slopes, secret places . . . I sometimes wonder who I’d have been if we’d moved somewhere else when I was young.

Maybe where I grew up and how I grew up contributed in some way to what I do today. Of course it does, somehow, but I mean that maybe I’d have been a different type of playworker if I’d grown up somewhere else. I don’t know. Anyway, what I do know is that what I’ve done this week is about everything I’ve said so far and it’s also about a couple of days of mopping out the toilets after the rubber gloves split, about making food for the children on the day that it was my turn, about going out with a colleague to scavenge for wood from builders doing up a house, about dealing with (or, actually, really, not dealing with!) a bunch of older children who’d come to tease us, gate-crashing at the end of the session at the end of the week when we were all tired, climbing over the fence and wanting to run rings round us before we just decided to ignore them! I wash up, tidy up, talk with parents, talk with anyone who pops in about play, and then I write about it all . . .

So, Dad, being an architect never worked out for me, but I’ll tell you what (‘I’ll tell you what’ is what you always used to say when I was younger and it always got me going, ‘What? What?’), I’ll tell you what . . . being a playworker is alright. I’m working with my brain, sure, like you said, but also a bit with my hands, and that’s all OK as long as my knees and back hold out!

Over and out, for now, Old Man. Wish we could have done this more; hey, let’s do it more.
 
 

Trust in play

I was recently put in prison, again, by a couple of nine- and ten-year-olds who, in the play, described themselves as the amalgam that was ‘The Child Terror’. It was one of those play frames (that is, occurrences of play) which I’ve been noticing lately whereby the play shifts and flows into one narrative after another, and continues over days. Somewhere along the line, this week, I took to responding to every whim of these girls, and others, with the playful response that was ‘Yes, Master’. I forget the exact order of events these days on, as of before in the purely observational, but I generally and variously became — in the naming now — the ‘play slave’ (retrieving the things that were to be played with), the captive, and the co-conspirator.

At one point I was needed by another child, outside of this play, to visit the room where the art supplies are kept. I said to my captors, in a voice just a deliberate degree shifted out of the construct of the ‘Child Terror’ play, that I would need to leave the sofa prison for a few moments but that I would be back. ‘Promise?’ the girls asked with a very exact look in their eyes. ‘Promise,’ I told them. I crossed my heart, as required in the lore of the playground, and swore on my own life. Off I went, temporarily released. I knew, even at the time I was proposing my small escape, and also when I was in the art room, and then when I was coming out of it again, that there was no way I could break the girls’ trust. Herein lies something small but very important.

Around other play, when we had the fire lit at the end of the week, the circular area at that end of the playground all orange and hot in the dark of the early winter after school session, one of the younger girls handed me her long charred ‘poking stick’ and said, ‘Will you look after this for me?’ (such sticks being at a premium that day). She went off to the toilet. I was needed elsewhere: I handed her stick to a colleague with the information that it was hers, and thus I transferred the trust, which he accepted and delivered when she came back.

At home, when Dino Boy wants to playfight (which, at the age of the upper end of three, is most days), he runs off to retrieve a weapon of choice for each of us — cardboard tubes lately — and we fight, kendo style, him trusting that I won’t accidentally get him on the knuckles. Once, this happened, and I thought ‘well, that’s the playfighting ways of us just taken a few steps backwards’. He is, however, more resilient than I’d given him credit for: he came back for more, and therein lies something small but perhaps even greater still.

Of course, this trust is a two-way thing. I build up my knowledge of the children I work with: them as individuals, them within the collective dynamic. My default state with them, I suppose, is one of trust: even though I know full well that certain children I know are supreme blaggers! It is what it is though: when a child I know outside the fence asked to borrow a football, I went with the playground-lore-like ritual of ‘shaking on it’, through the fence, trusting that the football would come back, knowing full well that it might not. It didn’t seem to matter: objects find their way on and off the playground all the time. What’s more though, what goes around comes around: trust can play itself out in long time-frames sometimes.

I’m reminded of a short story I often tell, and one I may have told in these posts elsewhere: the gist of the story is that I once visited a playscheme provision run in a sports centre and, I remember this well, myself and one of the staff there were having a conversation about working relationships with children. I was getting a little annoyed by his somewhat controlling attitude towards the children, in honesty, but I kept calm enough in our post-session debrief: I said something along the lines of, ‘Can’t you trust your children?’ He, a young man with what I supposed to be a somewhat already-set outlook on life, replied quickly and earnestly, looking me dead in the eye: ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘They’re children!’ You can imagine how I ranted for several days afterwards to anyone who would listen.

Without trust where would we be? That is, when we work with children, and when children play around us, trust will result in moments of magic that are difficult to truly tell on the page, and in trust we have the seeds of potential other futures and future offerings between this adult and this child. Despite the difficulties of truly capturing the look in the ‘Child Terror’ girls’ eyes, their willingness to suspend the play for a few minutes, their just-as-is-right acceptance of the self-returned captive’s suppliant wrists, such trust should be written into ‘the standards’ by which learners of the trade are assessed.

These standards refer to trust and building relationships, but really, they’re so dry. At level 2, for example, learners new to playwork are asked to show that they can:

‘Develop an effective rapport with children and young people in a play environment.’

‘Treat children and young people in a play environment with honesty, respect, trust and fairness.’

‘Communicate with the children and young people in a way that is appropriate to the individual, using both conventional languages and body language.’

Excuse me: I was yawning. Who wrote this stuff? How dry are they? (that is, the standards and the people) — as an aside, one of the ‘Child Terror’ girls told me this week, on meeting at the start of the session, that I was ‘so dry; you’re so dead.’ I smiled because I really don’t know what this means! I have to factor in that the local child parlance that is ‘That’s sick’ actually means ‘That’s good’, apparently, but really I’m still none the wiser. If it’s an insult, that’s fine, because that — in itself — is part of the non-dryness of actual relationship-building that the level 2 standards, for example, are not.

I propose, instead of the above sort of criteria examples, that it be written into a learner’s ‘be able to’ standards towards competence, the suchlike of the following:

‘Have grace in the moment of play.’

‘Communicate only with the glint of an eye.’

‘Trust in what is.’

Or words like these, as difficult as capturing the trust inherent in being captured, released for a few minutes, returned to the play, actually is.
 
 

Interactions and involvements within and around war play

Late one after-school session last week, in the post-‘clocks-go-back’ dark, I found myself stood on top of the six foot high or so box structure/recent addition to the playground, having been ordered to walk the plank by a boy with a cardboard sword, and up there with me I was sure I heard a younger girl tell me: ‘OK, you be the Buddhist.’ I laughed. ‘I’m not the Buddhist,’ I told her. ‘No,’ she said, repeating her actual words again: ‘You be the Baddie.’

For a good portion of the session, one of the dominant play frames had been some sort of war play. It tumbled around the darkening playground after maybe starting somewhere indoors with the inspiration afforded by some curvy lengths of train track, which became guns. I don’t know for sure how it started: I didn’t see the actual beginnings — often we don’t, and pinpointing the moment of ‘now’, which becomes ‘everything else’, is difficult. Before this, I had been closely observing, from a high up vantage point, the interactions and attempts at play of one particular older boy. He had annoyed some of his peers on the walk back from school, just by bugging them and pushing their buttons over and over, and when the children got back to the playground, he was still pushing and bugging. Perhaps he needed their attention and any attention is better than none at all. Anyway, I observed him almost exclusively as he wandered around the place, trying and often failing to ingratiate himself into the already established play frames that were taking place. He fell into one, was rejected, bounced off somewhere else, and the cycle repeated. Eventually, after losing track of him for a short while, I saw that he was playing war.

He seemed to have found a group and a form of play in which he was fairly accepted. The boys in the play made use of the train tracks (and other parts of the train set as grenades), and then they also used the rods of the old football table, an umbrella, and later cardboard swords and daggers. Some of the girls joined in. The play tumbled around in variations of allegiances and alliances. Inside, early on, I stood at the doorway to the playground, out of the way, and observed how one boy found himself surrounded by three or four others: they all opened fire at once and the boy fell dramatically to the floor. He got up and play carried on.

As the war play was taking place, as some children sat around the fire pit in the dark, as other children continued hoarding their office chairs and who-knows-what-else up in the hill-house, I was called over to the hammock swing by three girls. ‘Push us,’ they said. So I pushed and we concocted made-up lullabies (involving fallen baby birds) together. I tried to extract myself every so often, but every time I was called back. ‘Push us more.’ So on I pushed, and on we sung. Extracting oneself from the play is also a difficult thing: do it too soon and the play may break down, or the children may become dissatisfied; do it too late and the latter may also take place . . .

Earlier in the week, I was supporting an older girl with her play on the go-kart, which she was using down the slope where the zipline is. I was in service of the play, pulling the kart back up the hill for her. I did contemplate whether I should just say, ‘Hey, you do it’, but the moment was what the moment was. I pulled the kart up the hill for the umpteenth time and she paused to talk with other children. I went to pull the kart up a little farther, and to turn it round for the next ride down the slope, but the girl put her hand up and told me, forcibly: ‘No. You can just sit over there now’, or words to that effect. I felt like I’d overstepped the mark. I was in the play too long, even though I felt like I was in servicing mode. Maybe I was seen as part of the play itself.

Back to the hammock swing girls: in attempting to extract myself from the play too early for the children’s satisfactions, I found myself chased and physically pulled back to the swing. A new play frame evolved, and soon enough I was deeply in the play. I found myself variously captured and re-captured, marched off to some prison that the girls were making up the existence of as they went along, and then it felt like I was bridging two play frames at once, without the two really fully merging: the boys’ war play still tumbled around with shots fired and guns and swords interchanging in their hands, even though the objects themselves were the same ones; the girls who had captured me were, I felt, softly trying to be a part of that war play too.

At one point I was sat on the tyre swing, in between capturings, and a small group of boys came up to me with cardboard daggers. One put his dagger a few inches to my throat and told me not to move. What struck me immediately was the way that he played it: he wasn’t aggressive in his play, and he was respectful of the distance between his dagger and my neck. He played out his role of the moment and so did I. The girls’ capturings of me evolved into us teaming up against the unknown enemy. At first this was us all running and hiding from one particular boy (whether he knew he was cast as the aggressor, I don’t know). We hid in the shadows of the dark evening on the playground. It felt like the girls were trying to merge into the war play, but it also felt like their play actually ran parallel to it. Then we were clearly not being chased or sought by anyone. Maybe we never had been. The play shifted into swinging on the tyres. A colleague said to me in passing: ‘Playing are we?’ or words like these, and it’s this that made me realise that I was deeply in the children’s play, at their request and need, despite having tried to extract myself from it several times.

‘You be the Buddhist,’ one of the girls had told me, or so I thought I’d heard, in the middle of the depth involvement. Children tend to cast themselves as the ‘goodie’, I find, even when their play actions suggest otherwise. Perhaps that’s some sort of social indoctrination at play: only the ‘goodies’ can win. So, on another level, it’s amusing to think of ‘the Buddhist’ being cast in lieu of ‘the Baddie’. All this is an aside. What this post points to most is the war play of the children, to the play frames that come together but don’t quite merge, to the ‘self extraction’ of the playworker from the play, or to the attempts and failures of this, for various reasons.

It’s only play, some say. Sure: if you like.
 
 

Celebrating White City APG as London Play’s ‘Adventure Playground of the Year’

There’s only one place to start writing this week: that is that our place, White City Adventure Playground, has been officially chosen as London Play’s Adventure Playground of the Year for 2014! Many of you in the playwork sector will already know this, but some of you may not: so here’s the celebration on this platform. It’s pleasing to highlight years of development and hard work with the receipt of this award, but it’s also particularly satisfying to hear that the children of last year’s award winners, Shakespeare Walk in Hackney, chose White City as — presumably — the place they’d most like to play, out of the short-listed entries. Our film is here, and this is London Play’s edited highlights of the event.

When I write ‘our place’, of course the playground is the children’s but without the hard work and dedication of my current and former colleagues, this essential square of land in the middle of these tenement blocks could have drifted into something else entirely. The more I work on this patch, the more I see it as an important part of the lives of all the children it gives essential breathing and being space to. There are those children who drift on by and who, to be honest, drift in and out and smile and play and drift away again, but there are also those who have every other need to come in and we see the gradual build up of this as term time slides by and half terms get ever closer. To have an open access place all year round would work for so many children in the area (so, funders out there . . .), but the after school sessions as we have them are full of children’s own play too. This is an important point: I have seen many (and I mean ‘many’, across several counties and boroughs) after school provisions, and the play in a great deal of those is heavily weighed upon by adult agendas of all manner of flavours. This play is not ours: I’ve said this many times. Let the children play to their own designs.

As per last year’s London Play Awards blog piece (where we received the 2013 Innovation Award), there follows a few play notes about getting to and from and being at the ceremony. This year we took a small bunch of children, via the underground, up north of Camden to East Finchley and to a small cinema to see all the short-listed films for various awards. Despite there being a great green fence around the perimeter of the playground, some of us are of the opinion that play doesn’t stop when the line of the gate is crossed back out onto the street again: chancing our luck via King’s Cross instead of the central line, we came out into the sunshine of north London and the children fell around the street in good song and humour, parkouring (if there is such a verb!) up the paving slab inclines to the side of the street.

We thought we were fashionably late, but some were more fashionably late than us. It didn’t matter. Things seemed to be taking place in an ‘as and when’ way, and by and by our compere arrived, dressed this year in at least four costumes all one on top of the other. The man must have been full of energy drinks and other sugared stimulants because I don’t know how he managed to keep up the jumping around in various monkey, bear and other guises, under the house lights, for an hour and a half! The children in the cinema seats duly jumped around and heckled and the like, but despite this, I have my older self to blame for a nagging disdain of all things ‘wacky, zany’!

Personal preferences aside, play happened (face painting on stage, a hundred odd beach balls flung around, dancing, and generally lots of sugared up energy all round!). We were up for a few awards, and as each award went by and we hadn’t won any of them, the children near me from White City started getting a little despondent: ‘We’re not going to win anything,’ they told me (raise expectations and there are after-effects!) I said for them not to worry, we might get a shot at ‘the big one’. They asked me if we’d win it, and I said I really didn’t know. Despite all this, it pleasantly surprised me that when a soundtrack to another playground’s film came on, a song they knew and seemed to like, the children went from building despondency to instant sing-and-dance-along in their seats.

When finally the last trophy on the stage was reached, it seemed a long pause but it probably wasn’t, ‘And the winner is . . . White City Adventure Playground’. The White City children jumped up, and I said to those near me, ‘Go, go up on stage.’ There’s something to be said for being humble in receiving an award and our children were, shall we say, blessed with other attributes! We can’t tell them what to feel though, this is playwork: there was shouting into the microphone that ‘We won!’ and an acceptance speech that just made me laugh because a Hollywood starlet was born, complete with a flourish in her thanks!

I see it all as play. There were other attendees who didn’t win anything, but truly for me there looked to be some great places to play shown up there on the screen. It’s a tribute to all the playworkers out there who are doing such work with such dedication: some will be getting paid nowhere near what they deserve (but they do it anyway because they need to), some will be experiencing a rough ride with the parlous current general state of playworking affairs, they will be giving all they have (physically and emotionally) to see that the children in their areas get to play how they want and need to play. This cannot be overstated enough. I think there should be a campaign (I start it now) aimed at the non-playworker-but-sympathiser: if you ever ask a stranger at the bar what they do and they say ‘I’m a playworker’, buy them a pint! You never know, they just might be giving their all to support your child to play.

I digress. After the ceremony at the cinema, the children were interviewed for press releases, and we must have made the photographer wait an age as the children chatted around in the lobby, ate their lunch, and just soaked it all up. They played on the underground train back via King’s Cross (hanging from the handrails, plastic spiders, beach ball headers and catches in the carriage), and when we came out into the west London sunshine, the children concocted a plan to try to ‘look sad’ to our colleagues who were working with the day’s open access children on the playground. We entered the gates and the children managed to keep up the pretence for a good thirty seconds or so!

It was beautiful on the playground, there’s no other way of describing it. It was calm and flowing, quietly hectic and bubbling away, everything was possible and full of light and warmth. The sun makes such a difference in late October. The children we took on the journey to north London blended into the general playground scene to play. It took me a while to re-acclimatise after the bustle of the city: here, I thought, is an enclave of play amongst the tenements; here is privilege.

In celebrating White City’s award, I also celebrate the dedication of my playworker colleagues, in all the places where they work ‘out there’ so that children can play in the way that they want and need to: keep on doing what you do and know that you are appreciated.
 
 

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