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.