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

Archive for December, 2014

A playworker’s end of year self assessment

It’s closure time of the year. Just as the self-employed undertake a self-assessment for the paying of tax, I thought I’d undertake a playwork self-assessment for the year. I do this not to beat my own drum (there are some things to improve upon after all), but in the hope that other playwork people might be inspired to do it too (at the very least, in the privacy of their own thoughts or notebooks). Plenty has happened this year: there’s no way I can capture it all, so I aim to write a flavour overview as a means of sparking what might lie in others’ consciousnesses.
 
With due regards to time, with grace
I’m aware of the passing of seasons on the playground. Although I won’t write every section here like this one, I’m thinking clearly about that long, wet January when the place seemed underwater continuously, and when we developed a swamp in the centre of it all; February brought the realisation of how long the open-access children have to wait between the short times they get the playground for (October to February is a long winter). We waited so long for the first flowers, and then the grass grew long, and it grew through the scattered tyres. I resisted the cutting of the grass for a long time: there are hiding places to be had. In the end though, things change: this I know. Before long, those new long hot days of summer were on us. We had to adapt to the water bombs, to the spin of the play. The autumn stretched summer out into long shadows and the heat stayed on until one week when the winter came. The light left and the children played in the dark. The tree den became empty through the branches because all the leaves had gone. The fire pit became the centre-piece to plenty of the play.

In all of this, I find I needed resilience and the ability to cope with soaked denim — even when I asked for it not to be water bombed; I needed humour when I had no reserves left, and sugar (in the form of fizzy energy drinks and chocolate!) Overall, I was aware of the need for grace. Some days I find this deserts me; more days I realise that moments make up everything, and that I am in between, and that the slightest gesture carries weight. Grace, like time, is in the fabric of the playground.
 
I think of an eight-year-old who told me to fuck off, not so long ago, so I fucked off
I want to write it like this because it’s true. This boy told it to me straight (and it wasn’t this year, but this further thinking on it, on personal ‘ways of being’ progression, is of this year). There was a time when I would have objected to his words, for various socially absorbed reasons (that is, what I took on board, without questioning it, about what others told me I should think). So, when this boy told me I was wrong, in no uncertain terms, I realised I was wrong. I continue to think about ‘being wrong’.
 
I think of the good days in which I serve
Some people I’ve worked with have objected to my reasoning that I should ‘serve’ children. They seem to be saying that I shouldn’t be taking a stance that they themselves see as overly self-deprecating. I don’t see it this way. I see it, more and more, as essential in good quality playwork: I am in service of the play. My purpose is not to control, or to teach, or to dictate or direct. I can and have served in many ways: on good days. There are days when I’m not so on the ball, in honesty. These are the days I can work on, in my continuing thinking on ‘being better’. On good days, I serve the play directly, or indirectly, walking away. The children tell me with the looks in their eyes or with words I don’t expect . . .
 
I make some mistakes that I recognise
There’s a small difference between me using the word ‘that’ and the word ‘which’ in this heading: the former is my admission that there are some mistakes that I make and that are recognised and, therefore also, some that I may miss; I choose not to use ‘which’ because this implies to me that I recognise all of my mistakes. The mistakes I’ve made, I’m working on; those that I don’t yet recognise are those that may make themselves clearer in the fullness of time.
 
I listen to the indirect and direct problems that children bring me
On the whole, I’ve not been a great believer in the ‘playworker as always basically invisible’ school of thought. I did go through a phase of being more invisible than visible, but then the children I work with now got to know me better. I work in a human environment. In that environment, those children bring me their small and great issues of their day-to-days, on occasion. I don’t know what to do about this, often, because what can I do? So I listen when I can. Sometimes I might go about the listening process in ways the children don’t want (see my previous post about the boy on the roundabout). Generally though, these children here will bring me things if I am the one they wish to unload on. We might be sitting round the fire, or we might be just talking at the hatch to the kitchen, the children sat up on the counter (some of the girls see this, I think, as ‘their place’, sat up against the wall eating pasta straight from the pan, or the salad straight from the bowl!) I do my best to listen, and if I get it wrong the children tell me in no uncertain terms.
 
I get my hands filthy, my clothes wet and smoky
Really, I think, this year, playwork involves a fair degree of this. There’s no point standing around pretending to be interested, constantly checking your phone, looking at the clock, hugging the corners of the playground (or whatever the place might be termed as) in tight little lines of personal comfort zones: you’ll get found out. Children know. Your colleagues know. You might be the only one who doesn’t. One day, one week, if I’m on form (and we all get tired, sure), I earn my way this way of filthy hands, of wet and smoky clothes. There’s still nothing quite like getting on the Underground at the end of a summer session, covered in mud and paint, stinking to high heaven, still talking play, even though the day’s come and gone, and heading for the pub, drawing the attention of slightly freaked-out fellow commuters!
 
Some play concerns me; some play I’m required in
I use the word ‘concern’ in two senses: some play concerns me, as in ‘it troubles me’; some play concerns me, as in ‘my presence is required in it’. I find I’m fine with some children climbing some trees, but other children climbing other trees has its worries. What I do or don’t do is then important. I decide to consult with a colleague, and I step away from the play as she observes. Yet, some similar play doesn’t concern me at all: I watch on amazed as the older boys perform all their parkour moves way up above me, jumping off the highest platform points, rolling, and bouncing off and on again.

Some play concerns me, as in ‘I am required’. I often wonder, when cued to play, about the difference between ‘neediness’ and ‘being required’. I see these as different in quality. If I’m well-received for a quality of ‘being me’, one day, I’m a necessary aspect of the play. It isn’t my play, but I’m a part of it. When it’s done, it’s done, and I’m discarded like any other object of the loose parts variety. Some days, the play might not be this way inclined: I inherit a personal little shadow. I try to give that shadow away to a colleague, in hopefully sensitive ways. It is this aspect of ‘being required’ that I find some fascination in though.
 
I’ll step away and around the play that doesn’t concern me
This is something I have been aware of for a fair while. I think of it every time my intended path comes into contact with a play frame/instance of play in front of me. It doesn’t take long to stop, wait, choose the right moment to pass on around the play, where possible. What I have learned is that I think about this more and more. On the days I get it wrong, because I’m requested elsewhere quickly, or because I just mis-time it, I tell myself this for next time.
 
I continue to learn the tools of the playground, recognise my limitations and inabilities, recognise the skill of others
Is being a good playworker about knowing which end a sledgehammer, screwdriver, saw, or power drill operates from? My limitations have always been my use of such tools (ask my woodwork and metalwork teachers at school!) However, slowly, slowly, I learn where the ‘on’ button is for most things! I will always be useless at doing the things that others can just do, seemingly, without even being aware that they’re doing it. My hat is very much off to them. I’ll keep trying.
 
I de-personalise the children’s criticisms, but take their said and unsaid praise
On some occasions this year, children have told me that I’m in their face, I’m bugging them, I’m not needed, or I’m something I just don’t understand because I haven’t got the local child parlance quite off pat yet. Yes, sometimes I’ve felt aggrieved by things said, but more often than not I know that that is what was needed to be said by that child in that moment. Tomorrow always brings a different light. ‘Tomorrow’ might end up being a few months down the line.

In contrast, when children choose to say how much they appreciate you, it’s usually not a superficial communication. In some ways, the following example is the catalyst for this post today. In the last week of school term, one of the older girls had discussions with various playworkers about whether they were on her ‘nice list’ or not. (It transpired that she’d been to Spain, apparently, so she told me on her way back from school one day, where those not on the ‘nice list’ get lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings). I found myself on the ‘nice list’. She smiled at me and told me that I always opened the door to her and her friends, bowing, saying things like: ‘Hello, ladies’! It’s true: part in playfulness but also part, in truth, because this is my way of saying an honest welcome to them. The point is that these ways I take for granted, over time, hadn’t gone unnoticed by this child. It has made me think on plenty of other ways of ‘being playworker’.
 
I write carefully, mostly
‘Being playworker’, for me this year, involves ‘being writer’. Words are important because they can either heighten or destroy the possibility of meanings. I try to choose wisely because words have play in them too.

A short while ago, I came across some words attributed to Barry Schwartz, regarding the cultivation of ‘practical wisdom’ in a piece entitled ‘Our Loss of Wisdom’, which I believe can be found via the TED talks website. Schwartz discussed ‘being wise’, and I thought as I read this passage that I could transplant his words ‘a wise person’ with ‘a playworker’; here’s what I can leave you with for 2014:

‘A playworker knows when and how to make the exception to every rule . . . a playworker knows how to improvise . . . real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A playworker is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand . . . to serve other people, not to manipulate other people . . . and finally, perhaps most important[ly], a playworker is made, not born.

‘Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people [who] you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, [to] try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures . . . and you need to be mentored by wise teachers.’

I have my chosen teachers. Some are excellent playworkers, some are much younger . . .
 
 
Seasonal malarkey to you all. Playworkings will return in January.
 
 

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The potential magnitude of moments

Something I’ve long been very aware of is the potential magnitude of moments: the things that pass us by because we’re not wise enough to ‘read’ them correctly. I’m adding to my understanding of this all the time, in new things learned and in re-realisations. This week I re-realised that I’m tall. I’ve known this, obviously, for the duration of my entire adulthood, but this week I re-realised that — in our moments of adult-child relating — there’s more to physical height differences than just the visually apparent. I’m well used to sitting on floors in past places of work with children, and at home, but in the winter on this playground, I’ve been walking and not sitting much. When a girl came to the fire pit this week, in a grumpy mood about something in her day, firing all the ‘whatever’ attitude of her present state of mind at me, I wasn’t helping even though I tried to listen and joke with her.

She was telling me things of her day-to-days but it was laced with something simmering under the surface. It suddenly occurred to me to lower my height because I had been leant up against the palette wall to the fire pit. More than this, it suddenly occurred to me to crouch right down, leaning my lower back against the wood: she now stood over me. Her whole disposition shifted immediately. It wasn’t that I was consciously trying to engineer this change in her way of being, at that moment: it was that I realised, after, that I had been affecting her too.

The magnitude of the moment struck me. We should not underestimate such small stories as these. It leads me to think back a short while, to a story written of recently of visiting an after school club, indoors, where I was able to communicate non-verbally (or, as I felt it) with a younger child as we slid down the wall divider next to each other, together. It makes me re-think on the times when I’ve been lower than the physical height of children. There’s often a shift in communications.

Moments come in other shapes and flavours, not just those of height considerations, and they can also be misread. A few days later, the same girl was at the fire pit again and I already knew I was tired and I felt I wasn’t reading the play as well as I could have done. The girl had spent a fair amount of time just poking the embers that had settled there (the fire had been lit quite early on and it had had a chance to settle). When her mum came for her, the girl ran inside to her. There was no-one else around, she was one of the last to go, so I threw the water from the nearby bucket onto the fire to put it out. I went to get some more from the standpipe. When I came back, the girl came charging out again and saw the rising plume of smoke caused by the sodden embers. She called me all sorts of things. She stomped off, muttering under her breath words to the effect of hating me now. I realised that, although she didn’t say it in so many words, she’d wanted to show her mum the fire she’d been nurturing. I hadn’t read the play up till then well enough because I was tired.

This is a moment that I write in order to remember it. I write the following for the same reasons. On the bench outside, a boy was banging away at the innards of an ex-computer, which was pretty flat but he kept going anyway. He progressed to use of the sledgehammer, dropping it onto the circuitry from a small height. I stayed close by, wary of toes. The girl of the stories above came by: ‘I want to try; let me use the sledge.’ She hefted it, dropped it, a few times. The moment of magnitude in question was a reading of some small satisfaction.

Three children wanted wood for the fire and I sourced a palette for them which I’d put by earlier in the day. They started banging it with hammers to try to break it up but nothing would shift. They wanted the sledgehammer but when they each tried to lift it, it was too heavy for them. They succeeded, individually or by group effort, in raising it and letting it drop with a dull thud-plop onto the wood without much impact. In the end they resorted back to the hammers as I sledged the palette and as they hooked off the scraps. The children knew about health and safety well enough, I realised: ‘Hold on!’ one kept telling me, ‘Let me get out of the way’ (which she was, but I suppose she must have felt it necessary to tell me again).

A boy was being bugged by two others. I couldn’t see what the focus of the issue was, but the play of the two boys (which wasn’t so much play for the first boy) fell around inside and outside in sporadic bursts. Eventually, the bugged boy took himself off to the far side of the playground on his own. I watched him go, left him for a little while, but decided for some reason that I should go open up a conversation. I circled around towards the roundabout, pretending I was doing other things, but really, truthfully, I think he had me pinned almost immediately. He stayed there though, and I came to crouch down at the roundabout bars as he slowly spun around. I asked him if there was anything I could do. He blanked me completely. I asked again in other ways and I got the same response. Slowly, quietly, he slid the roundabout to a crawl, which allowed him to get off. He walked away without a word or a look my way. I crouched there on the bar, despite being below his eye height, slowly spinning on my own. I hadn’t read this one right, nor had I chosen the best course of action, despite my best intentions. Other children came over immediately and cued me to spin them, which I did. I watched the boy trudge off into the gloom of the middle of the playground. I didn’t take his blanking of me personally.

I write this small story, and others, here and now to remember about moments and their potential magnitude.
 
 

In the spirit of provocation: playwork as a mindedness

‘Playwork’, I think (this week, at least, and returning in part to previous writings) is not a job, as such: it’s a way of thinking, a way of being. I would say it’s a ‘mindset’ but, just as the term ‘play setting’ continues to seem to me to be something rather akin to ‘somewhere in the process of becoming concrete’, a ‘mindset’ probably isn’t the right word: playwork is mindfulness, mindedness. It is an approach to seeing/perceiving children and play. Within the seeing comes the visibility shone on the seer by the child: this adult gets it; within the seeing comes the possibility of being brought into the play, or comes the insult without any huge consequence, or comes the possibility of confidence (as in ‘to be confided in’), etc.

I write this because I’m aware there are those who don’t call themselves ‘playworkers’ but who show, sometimes, a mindedness towards play in their actions; equally, there are those who do call themselves ‘playworkers’ but who really, at that time, have less focus on the children and play than they have on other things (say, any given adult agenda). Within the field of those who call themselves playworkers, we’re never going to come to a consensus on exactly how to work: there will always be different ‘flavours’ of playwork-minded people, which is fine, because it takes all sorts. However, there are confusions bound up in all of this: of which, I shall address a few a little later.

We can only truly embrace the flavours (to continue the metaphor) of those we think of as playwork-minded, perhaps, in those we see to be on parallel tracks to our own: if we think of ourselves as anything, then perhaps we can only compare others to our own flavour. Close enough is good enough; too far away isn’t the ‘real deal’. Of course, we may be wrong about ourselves in the first place, but we can always re-model our thinking to take in what we newly learn.

I see playwork-mindedness in others who children take to easily; or in those who children seem to test out with actual- or mock-insults or interrogations, which the playwork-minded accept with humour and good grace. In fact, it’s this grace that I perceive in others who, through their reflection-in-action (through what they do and how they do it, which highlights in some way how they think of the children at play), that I think I value most. I have known and worked with some people who have had astounding grace. If I think I’ve done well, one day, any day, I may have been perceived as with grace; at other times, I aspire to it.

Playwork-mindedness isn’t just the above though: I see it in those, on a good day, in a good minute, to whom children show in various ways that they’re seen and approved, accepted (even, or especially, just after that adult has lost their composure for a short while). I see playwork-mindedness in looks in the eye, without words; I see it in words and banter developed between the child and the adult; I see it in the ways that some children will say some things only to some adults. There is trust.

This is all written so far in terms of child-adult relating, but I see playwork-mindedness also in the ways that some adults will talk or write to one another; I see it in the ways that an adult will go out of their way, disrupting the usual patterns of their day, to provide for, to resource for, the play; I see it in the small and large building or preparations for play, and I see it in the ways that adults of this mindedness will step around the play, not through it, without a word.

Playwork-mindedness, as I see it, isn’t the exclusive preserve of the adventure playground. I met someone recently who indicated that he thought I thought this way. I was at an after school club. ‘Playwork is a mindset’, I told him of my opinion, based on my experience (though my thinking, as I write it now, has become a little more refined since then). Playwork-mindedness can happen in other places where children come to play, it can happen on the street, it can happen at home.

Playwork-mindedness is all of the above, as I see it, and plenty more. However, there are confusions bound up in what I perceive to lie outside the range of playwork-minded flavours though (we can only compare with what we know to create our range). Overt-developmentalism, soft- or hard-educationist agendas, play in terms of social control or future-proofing have all found their way into some who call themselves playworkers and their strands of playwork. These are no strands my experience tells me as being ‘playwork-minded’.

We haven’t even touched on the difficulty of ‘ego’ yet either. This is a bit of a misnomer though, really: that is, we use this ‘ego’ word in our increasingly soundbite-afflicted modern culture (and I’m guilty of perpetuating that here now too), but we tend to use it in terms of ‘the inflation of who we are’, ‘increasing our own stock’, or ‘over-selling ourselves’. Actually, in Freudian terms (as I understand it), the ‘ego’ is a ‘mask’ we wear. Actually, actually, in Buddhist terms (also as I understand it), we must first accept that there is no ego.

‘Those-who-would-be-playworkers’ may well have a propensity towards increasing their own stock, above the drive to serve the children. The playwork-minded will have no concern for ego (or, let’s be fair, little concern — because absolute perfection is unattainable and enlightenment is then a fair way off for most of us). Service is, I suggest, essential. Without any degree of service (not ‘servitude’, ‘slavery’), we treat children as lower than ourselves.

When I’m ‘playworking’, on a good day, in a good moment, I consider myself mindful and minded of the play. The ‘I’ is problematic, in terms of the ‘ego’ (which may or may not exist), so this minded person has the approach of service: he may interact with perceived grace; he may smile at an insult, or a kick to the shin, or any other provocation; he may be asked into the play. Certainly, at that moment, in that conversation, or with that look in the eye, he’ll share that moment as one of ‘mutual gettingness’. He may be confided in, and he’ll know who can and can’t be told things and why. He may be ignored but he’ll not take it to heart and he’ll walk around the play (whether that play’s on the playground, or in any other place where play can be: on school premises, in the street, at home, and so on). When the playwork-minded is ‘playworking’ he or she will see the reflection-in-action of others of similar flavours. The mindful-minded will smile, because they’ll know . . . and, of knowing, so too will the children, quietly.
 
 

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