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

Archive for November, 2014

Protected: Working with children and emotions in the human environment

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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 ‘duct tape’ and making them into foam bashers. I put these and a load of hockey sticks all in one place, slotted into upright pallets 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.