It’s the other side of the weekend after the children’s first week back at school and their first after-school week back on the playground. I’ve taken a few days to get round to writing: it takes a little time, playing catch up, this side of a long holiday. I’m a playworker always, but it’s true to say I’ve had a bit of a rest from the thinking. I’ve forgotten how much energy all this observing, thinking, making intervention/non-intervention decisions, writing, reading, talking it all through takes up. When you’re in it, you maintain it. When you rest, everything shifts.
‘Getting back on the horse’ is my phrase and thinking of the moment. The way to do this, for me these past few days, is to let things be, let the observations and the thoughts on the play seep in, then sit quietly and still: what comes to mind from the first week back on the playground? Getting back on the horse of writing involves writing it as it then comes. Later, another week, I may tackle analysis of General Comment 17 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 31. Maybe! To keep thinking on play, on our work as playworkers, on the place we maintain for the children to be able to play, we keep up the practising of observing. Here is what bubbled up from last week when I just let it be, sat quietly:
1. Why are your legs so long?
Myself and a younger girl were trailing behind the main group as we walked back from school. She opened up her conversation with this line: ‘Why are your legs so long?’ Umm, I thought. I didn’t know. I went for the jokey reply: ‘Well, if they weren’t so long, I wouldn’t reach the ground.’ She dismissed this. I said, ‘Hey, look at that guy there. He’s way taller than me.’ She shook her head. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I was talking about your legs, right?’ It was a way of making me concentrate, I guess: a way to focus on the things she was saying. We talked about other things I don’t fully recall that just seemed to need some saying on the way back from school. The words themselves may not have been so important.
2. What’s your name again?
A brother and sister who both know me well enough to know my name, or so I thought, independently of one another forgot my name in the midst of their play. It was, for each of them, one of those blind spots of thinking that we all have, maybe. Either way, the trick is to not take it personally. I reminded each of them, an hour apart, what my name was. To the girl I made play of it. ‘What’s your name again?’ I asked her, knowing what it was. I went through all the possible names I could make up in ten seconds. She scowled at me and I let it be.
3. A mask made from things just kicking around for weeks
At the end of last term, an old Apple Mac became the latest victim of having its innards smashed out with hammers. Some of the children like to do this to the old and no longer useful tech we offer them for this purpose. Part of that Mac survived by kicking around the playground for a few weeks without any love or attention. It became a legitimate piece of stuff, in the model of the theory of loose parts. It was ignored for a while, left in the wheelbarrow at the end of the day. One of the girls picked it up last week. Over the course of a few days she’d engaged in the project of using various tools to crimp and shape the metal innards into a mask. Things can have other value, eventually.
4. About the photos board
We’d spent the best part of the last day of last term tidying and cleaning and also sprucing up all the photos that line a couple of the walls indoors. The children often like to make use of the playground camera, taking it off for a whole session, taking stills and videos of play: you never know what’s going to come back at the end of the day! It’s like seeing what gets hauled up in the fishing net! We take plenty of photos of the play ourselves too. We’ve amassed a huge amount over a few years. Some of the children spent time last week just pouring over the A4 photos we’d printed out and pinned up. Some seemed to get a lot out of being reminded of the things they’ve got up to recently (and one photo from a few years back was of particular interest to one of the girls). Some of the photos were deliberately chosen to spark an intrigue of recall. A couple of the children, however, were dead-set against their photos being on the wall. We printed out others and swapped them in their place.
5. The continuation of favourite play frames
Before Christmas, one of the favourite things to do seemed to be playing indoor football with a soft plastic ball the children had found. It could be kicked hard against the walls, the furniture, the door frames and doors, and all was good. This side of Christmas, the indoor football carried on, almost as if there were no gap in between the last and the next play of it. Parents come in and get playworker protection, or they learn to duck!
6. Scavenging leftover Christmas trees
Last January or thereabouts, I remember, our Christmas tree found its way out onto the playground and was used for a few weeks by being dragged around, jumped in, and finally discarded. This week, again, our tree is outside, but we’ve seen others on the streets as well: want not, waste not. On the way back from school, there were three trees, variously left out, looking forlorn. One of the older children didn’t see the point of dragging one of the trees back and scowled at me when I asked if she thought we should have it. Another two trees were nearer by, however, and later myself and another child decided we should rescue them. We dragged them in, them shedding needles everywhere, and deposited them outside. Within an hour or so, all the trees had found their way into various dens. They might also burn up well in a few weeks’ time. For now, one graces the pallet den which has taken on the form of an outside living room, armchair, tables and all; the others are secreted farther afield.
7. This is the children’s place
I have always known this but a short time away from the playground and a return can refresh the understanding. I picked up a sense of how the children’s expressions here are important to their inner balance (well-being, stability, release, a kind of therapy, call it what you will). Where else can they fling paint against the side of a whitewashed storage container, paint the door of the bin shed when, perhaps, they feel they’re out of the range of any given adult’s disapproval, write their quite clear words of whatever they’re feeling in the moment on the chalkboards recently found?
8. The normality of fire
This is something that’s really struck me this past week: the children here are used to the fire in the fire pit area (and sure, some are excitable around it and this requires extra playworker vigilance), but not only do we adults who are playworkers see this fire play as normal, so too do the parents. Many’s the time, in training work, that I’ve come across other adults who can’t link the possibility that children and fire play can work. The fire is more and more a part of the culture.
9. Eating popcorn made in a pot on the fire
One day, I was poking around the fire pit area when a small group of children came charging out from the door to the toilets and hall nearby, carrying a pot and its lid, shouting that they were going to do popcorn. We resurrected the makeshift upturned table frame that we used at the end of last term when cooking dinner, and we put the popcorn pot on. It took a while and plenty of trial and error, but they got some popcorn in the end. There’s more to be tried in cooking here.
10. A wheeled chair crashing into plastic chairs
One of the older boys, he of the fascination with smashing up old technology, was sat in the chair that one of my colleagues had bolted wheels to the base of last term. There was a rope for pulling a rider and the boy used this, initially, as a seat belt. I came indoors to see him sat there trying to manoeuvre himself around. I left him be. A little while later I came in and he was stacking plastic chairs in arrangements that reminded me of that scene from Poltergeist! He was trying to knock them down with a wooden block. There was no-one else in the room but I knew his play needs for destruction, so I said if there was anything else other than the block he could use. There wasn’t. A little later still, I came back in. He was sat in the wheeled chair as other children lined up the plastic seats and a colleague was pushing him so he crashed into them (not hard enough to cause damage to anyone or anything, but enough for the thrill). Other children needed to play to. I thought, where else could this happen?
11. Dancing and papers
There’s a six foot or so high wooden box construction in the middle of the playground. It’s been there for a couple of months now. The children climb in it and over the top of it. It’s developed a name from some of the children, but which I won’t tell because it’s a secret! I was talking to the mother of a boy who was stood up on top of the box when she came to collect him. He was dancing and acting out all his moves in dramatic fashion. We both observed. I told her about the other play I saw him engage in. I told her how he expressed himself in his play here. I haven’t told her yet how, on the first day back, he had scattered papers and pens as far as he could throw them outside! It’s all expression, and it’s all fine.
12. Children sat around in scavenged upright armchairs
In the last weeks of last term, the playground came into possession of half a dozen or so upright armchairs: the kind that probably line the rooms of old people’s homes. There’s a small area just beyond the fence, at one corner of the playground, where stuff like this tends to get left for collection and disposal. The chairs looked serviceable enough, so they became re-housed, and they scrubbed up OK (until one of the older boys of the open access group had come in on the last day of term, poking around as we tried to tidy, making a meal of ‘helping’ but really, probably, just needing to be there: he found a spray can and promptly went and sprayed things like ‘Don’t sit here’ on the chairs!). Now, the chairs are either in the dens outside or some have found their way into a circle indoors. I’ve often thought it would be great to have a place of play that was an old ramshackle country house, complete with these sorts of chairs and big old rugs thrown over rough bare timbers: the children sat around in the chairs indoors last week, eating their food or just lounging, being decadent, and talking. It had a kind of ‘country house’ feel to it!
13. To intervene or not?
Some of the boys’ — and sometimes the girls’ — playfighting can sometimes shift, if not into full-on fighting, then into teasing bordering on the possibility of bullying by repetition of the action. It’s always a tough call, this one: sometimes, when does the playfight shift? Sometimes, when does the teasing become more potent? Perhaps the children are getting used to being in their own place again because some play challenges this side of Christmas. A playworker has to get up to speed again. A small gang teased and harassed and then the boy who was at the thick end of it cried. I intervened but don’t know right now if I did it right, soon enough, should have done it all. Of another playfight/fight, I don’t know whether I got it right or not because of different results: I observed a brother and sister trying to get a length of pole from one another. I knew they’d had scraps before, so I observed carefully. It seemed to be play, but edgy enough. I was alert and twenty yards or so away. The children didn’t look at me. Then the girl was bundled over and wasn’t pleased. She came over to me and kicked me in the shin. She knew I was watching, I guessed then, and I told her that if she’d asked for help (tough as I see her as), I would have helped. She kicked me again and later punched me on the nose! I may have some ingratiating to do!
14. A quiet attempt at damaging
Whilst at the fire pit, listening out for popcorn kernels popping whilst leant against the pallet wall, I saw a short distance away how our resident ‘destructo-boy’ had been quietly cellotaping up a shopping trolley so it couldn’t escape. It was nothing unusual because, as well as hammering the life out of bits of old metal and plastic, he does sometimes have a need to play this way too. I observed from the corner of my eye. A short time later he fetched the sledgehammer from nearby. He gave me the slightest look, long enough for him to register a disapproval that I might give. In the lack of any negative sign, he went about his quiet business of hefting the sledgehammer to try to damage the stricken trolley lying on its side in the mud. The sledge proved too heavy to inflict any pain! It amused me anyway.
15. The playground as home
Some of the children buzzed around me every now and then, one day, asking to have the gate to the ‘pitches’ opened (this being, actually, just one hard court pitch beyond the fence of the playground). There was a member of the public on there, but the children badgered and badgered me, so we asked permission and were allowed on. The children organised their own game as I loafed around the edges, my hands in my pockets to keep warm. They told me I was playing, and they told each other I counted for two as I was an adult. They put me in goal. One of our open access regulars soon turned up and slipped himself into the game. He hung around, not being part of the club, but being part of the scene: he’s part of the furniture. He often climbs over the fence to let us know he’s still around, running around when he knows he shouldn’t be in there (though, actually, it’s just as much his place too). When all the children had gone home, we de-briefed and went to go too. He was sat on the railing out front, waiting for the youth club to start. This playground feels like it could be home to some.