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

Archive for January, 2015

The playground wintering: of being open to what’s around

In the January mud, the playground has that winter quality of waiting. The light at the end of the day extends ever that little bit longer, before there’s a sudden tipping into darkness as the sun falls behind the tenement roofs. The playground seems to be waiting for its mudded roots to dry out. It lies, not growing, just breathing. Last week, one day late still in the morning, the hardest frost I’ve known there lay on the mud-woodchips. The sand in the sand-pit was solid in the shade of the thinned-out tree that was once the fully-leaved cover of a now-dormant den. The sand crunched under the weight of my extra boot pressure. The sun sliced up laboriously and sheered the frost on the bench into a very slow wave of thawing. I had a need for a few photographs just to nudge me again of this in future summerness.

When one of the children asked me to help her with moving the tyres so she could make a castle (though in a queenly manner, she pointed and said ‘put that one in the wheelbarrow’), I saw the deep marks they left because they haven’t moved for months. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘you move some’. She made a feeble attempt at shifting one, then shook her head as if in actual fact regal. I imagine rings of small depressions where the playground lets out little long wheezes of air, just there where the tyres were, in appreciations no-one will really see.

Darkness is a feature of the playground wintering. Even when it’s light, there’s the expectation of light’s absence. This isn’t to suggest a negative. When the light has shifted over the roofs, and the individual and collected tumblings of children, once clearly seen, seep into shadows of only possible people known somewhere out by the tyre swings, the playground offers up the secrecies of hiding in open space. The children are out there somewhere. The fire takes on deeper resonance when the light leaves too. The children have incinerated three Christmas trees, at the last count, and when they do this the flames reach up high, and this and the crackle and pop of the pine needles sends those children screaming and squealing. They come, also, from far-off hidden open spaces to gather and collect at the burning of the trees. When it’s good and done, some short time later, with the black bones of the branches stuck in the pit like fish scraped of flesh, the children reel off again to wherever they’d come from, dispersing, and re-entangling into new knots of groupings unseen.

In the late morning, an act of developing satisfaction — as a word that best fits — is, strangely, that of the litter pick: especially so on a perfectly crisp, brittle-aired day. It’s easy to forget being in the middle, or along the spiral arm, of a city when on the quiet playground. The pick is not just a mindless pick. There is the dropping into something slow, sure, but this is an opening. There are all the hidden messages of the playground to be seen, in their great or minute details: things that have happened and that can be discerned and ‘listened’ to. I use this verb carefully and not totally in terms of the ‘conventionally heard’. The squeak of the spring of the litter picker seems to communicate with the playground: the birds, on occasion, seem to reply in the same tones. Grey squirrels hop along, watch me, hop along, climb. A cat might wander through and by.

In the old pond casing, which is now ensconced in the wooden block boat, which itself is fading from a drain of colours, as if slowly washing away, I see a silvery radio or CD player, incarcerated beneath the ice layer of the water. I know who put this there, even though I’ve not seen that play. I know this is an experiment, poor thing like a baby mammoth in the perma-frost, but I leave it be because I know all this. It waits too, for its near-future demise at the hands of the boy who likes to smash such things into the oblivion of techno-afterlife! It’s almost as if he’s teasing it, left out here in the cold as it has been.

The playground waits in other objects that have fallen, laying where they fell, whilst everything else moves on around it. The whiteboard that we propped against the fence has fallen, I saw, and the metal frame of the old bin shell that was a makeshift post to tie a rope around, early in November when we had the bonfire, lies exactly there on the concrete, still. I picked it up every so often, propped it up, like picking up a fallen old person from the ground. It ended up back where it was the next time I saw it. I’ve taken to leaving it. One child asked about it last week, in a general just-looking-out-that-way kind of way. We talked about the bonfire and the makeshift post and the rope. ‘Oh,’ she said.

In between the fallen, I’ve taken to tracking objects that I know are moving, and some that I wonder whether they might. There are deliberate considerations of placing before the children come, mapping and logging like an archaeologist, the next day, seeing where I find things. I don’t know what I’ll draw from this: a curiosity borne of noticing how one thing in particular has been moving (though, sadly, this is one thing now missing presumed dead). I looked in every place, for every trace, but it was gone. Such is the irony of something that has moved around almost ceaselessly but now, when I tag it, it loses its momentum and falls from the place by way of being deposited in the bin.

The playground waits amongst all of this. The January mud persists, and the expectation of darkness lingers. The frost or ice settles because the playground won’t move or shake it off, not like the summer bees around the rosemary bush, or the autumn breezes taking gold paper and other leaves to the very edges of the place, sticking them up against the fencing. The fire exerts its winter gravity on the children, and the playground’s objects lie or leave indentations or move almost silently. There is the possibility of seeing the wildlife attempting to listen in. There is more than meets the eye if we’re open to what’s around.
 
 

Connecting to the spin

When we observe play, or when we’re invited into it, we can lose sight of what that play feels like for the child. Perhaps, on the whole as playworkers, we don’t connect back enough to what any given instance of play actually feels like from the child’s point of view. Sure, if we’re invited into the play we have our own ‘in-the-moment’ feelings about what’s it’s like for us there and then, but this isn’t the same thing as trying to see the moment of play from the perspective of being a child. This is my build-up to ‘thinking about it as I write it’ on play I was a part of last week and something I said whilst there.

This story concerns the roundabout, which is towards one of the far corners of the playground. Sometimes some of the children like to be spun by one of the playworkers (despite the fact that, as observed, they can pick up even greater speed by having one child stand at the centre, holding the centre-piece, and rotating the boards with their feet). I was asked to spin, one day, by one of the younger children: I could see a few murky shapes of other children playing in the shadows of the middle of the site. ‘How fast?’ I asked the child who wanted to be spun, ‘Do you want fast, sick-fast, or super-sick-fast?’. ‘Super-sick-fast’, she told me, matter-of-factly, as if this was obvious. (I also had to factor in the possibility of the double-meaning of the local parlance version of ‘sick’, as in ‘good’, as I understand it).

She has good balance for her age. I’d seen this before but I still started off slowly (this is also necessary to work up the momentum!). ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Faster — this is rubbish’. So I went faster, really putting my back into it. She sat there, variously looking up at the spinning sky, putting her cheek against her hand, whose elbow was nonchalantly propped against the rail, spinning so fast that I was beginning to feel somewhat nauseous myself, just focusing on her zipping by every one third of a second or so! ‘Faster,’ she called. I couldn’t go any faster.

Soon enough, from out of the playground’s shadows, we were joined by more children. I put on the brakes so they could pile on. Pushing became somewhat more difficult, but I gave them the same speed options. They chose the fastest, naturally. One boy brought over the entrails of a tap and its tubed gubbings (a random piece of stuff, in the model of loose parts, that’s found its way on site). He hooked it over the rail and was simply and ridiculously excited to see the centrifugal force spin it out almost horizontally as the roundabout spun around. Other children told newer children, in their own words as they zipped round, about that centrifugal force, and how they’d found that they’d got stuck to the edge as they’d gone faster.

When the extra children had wandered off again after stopping (one really wanted the thing to stop), the first child demanded more spinning. She got her wishes, and after I’d stepped away to let the roundabout wind down of its own accord, and to give myself a breather, I said to the girl, ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that. I never did that when I was your age.’ She gave a sort of shrug.

Of course, however, in the moment I was feeling a little nauseous just watching the spin of her on the roundabout and thinking what it might be like if I, the adult me, were on there. Of course, I’d forgotten to remember the moments of being the child that I was because, I think, the adult sensibility of the moment was too strong. As a child I would roll down hills, spin till I felt almost sick, swing as high as I could, and so on. Here, now, away from the play and the playground, I think of Stuart Lester talking about ‘being in control of being out of control’, of Roger Caillois’ writing on ‘ilinx’, or ‘vertigo’, and the spin that this type of play is, and I think of Bob Hughes’ ‘problem immersion’ in which there is the advocation to think on what play feels like for the child, re-connecting to our own play as a child.

This is more difficult than it might at first seem. I find that the process of thinking about the roundabout has taken me from ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that; I never did that when I was your age’ to ‘I did that sort of thing’ to, now, ‘Why did I do that sort of thing?’ I really don’t know. Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?

Perhaps I rolled down the hill because it was there, because it was steep, because it was covered in hay, because it was sunny, because I wanted to win a race. Perhaps I stood and spun around as fast as I could till I felt physically sick because I wanted to see how far I could push myself, how fast I could go, if it was actually possible to be sick, to feel the nasty queasiness of the spinning world after I’d stopped, to have the sensation of the world slowly blurring and easing itself to a stop as I lay on the grass, to have everything come back to normal. Perhaps I swung as high as I could because I could, because I wanted to beat a world record, because I wanted to see if I could jump farther than I’d done before, because I knew I could be the master of the swing and control it, because it was like flying.

In truth, I really don’t know for sure what I was thinking when I was six or seven or however old I was when I rolled and spun and swung like this. Maybe it’s the same for the girl on the roundabout last week: she knew she wanted to go fast, she felt it when she spun fast, wanted to go faster still, but if asked directly ‘Why do you do this?’ she couldn’t really say. She just does it: because it’s there, because it’s something that can go fast, because there’s a world record to beat, because she wants to see if she really can be sick, because she can ‘win’, because she can be the master of the roundabout, because she wants to experience the blur of the world easing back to normal again around her: all or some or none of these. I won’t know for sure.

All I can do is stay on the edges, like I am when I spin the rail on the perimeter, watching on, thinking later, like now; then, I can think on this in the moment of play observation/play invited into, connecting back to my own play as a child to further try to ‘get’ the play of this child in the now. Then I’m better in the spin of it all, without taking it over, but knowing what it feels like and knowing what should and shouldn’t be done.
 
 

Fifteen short observations/reflections to get back into playwork thinking and writing

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 palette 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 (teachers, parents, any given other) 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 is 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 palette 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.
 
 

%d bloggers like this: