October to February is such a long time in the waiting for the children who needed to get back onto the playground again last week. It was the first half term of the year and so that meant ‘open access’ was back. The signs have been up for a couple of weeks on the sides of the fences, but you never know if they’ve been acknowledged. They had been. Plenty of our regulars came back, after some seemed to melt into the background of the estate for all this time. Plenty of new children came too: as always seems to be, we have a fair amount of newly filled-in forms at the end of every open access week.
On the whole, these weeks are psychologically or maybe also emotionally, and certainly physically fairly exhausting, but studded through and through with the sense, at the end of it, that this has been well worth all that energy. There have been water balloons (as there always seem to be, every open access, whatever the weather, resulting in the toilets turning into swamps where the children fill up their wares), there has been mud on a par — in places — with the fields at Glastonbury, and there has been paint and gloop and slime, man-traps being dug, the flying around of the ubiquitous Family Had game, plenty of hammers and saws and screwdrivers, the sledgehammer, the axe, fire and go-karting, jumping from high places, rolling in low places, sitting on the top of the hut in a plastic chair just looking out, and what seems to have been something akin to the ritual slaughter of a sofa!
It is this that draws my thoughts right now. This long wait over winter, October to February, may have been a contributing factor to a difficult first afternoon. Thereafter, after we’d all settled (staff and children) later in the week, things just seemed to shift back into playground time, a playgroundness of being. No matter how many times you’ve done this, as a playworker, this open access or this whatever half term is for you, there is the possibility that a certain ‘getting back into gear’ needs to take place. The rain came down, we were certain staff down, some of the children must have sensed a moment in time: when a couple of the boys wanted to chop up the old sofa, we gave them the tools to do this. All was fine at that time. When the dynamics of the playground shifted on the arrival of other children who often seem to need to cause a psychological edge, the sofa didn’t stand a chance! The fire was nearby and bits of foam were being filleted from the furniture and taken to the flames. We said not to put it on, but this fell on deaf ears. Before long, the sofa was being ripped apart by hand, literally, as the foam was being yanked out in great handfuls. I joked that the children involved, older boys, were like vultures, but I wasn’t feeling like joking inside.
No rational course of conversation was being heeded, so I said to a colleague that we’d take the sofa out of the equation, or what was left of it. As we lifted it to take it out of sight and out of mind, the entrails were still being taken from the carcass! I write this, partly in playful manner, because on reflection it is somewhat amusing to think of the poor thing having its guts ripped out (but this is a gallows type of humour, because in the moment this play is difficult to comprehend, deal with, and connect to the anticipation of how it will affect everything else on site).
I know I’m not alone in experiencing such tips into the potential for actual chaos (this episode being, as I observed it, the catalyst for a further flow of darker play interactions that afternoon, some of which also veered towards bullying). A recent story posted by an experienced playworker to an online site frequented by many of us in the field is testament to the shared sense of ‘what do we do here now in amongst all of this?’ on different playground sites. Some readers here will recognise this (though I keep it anonymous because the post was to a private readership): on experiencing a story of some chaotic nature, he, the other playworker, decided to make the next day as boring as possible (I paraphrase), so that the apparent chaos could be realigned (my words, not his). This is, admittedly, not something I’d considered, and I’m still chewing that one over as to the relative merits or otherwise. Sometimes we have to deviate from what the ‘playwork mantras’ say: that first day we discussed it all, after that session, and again before the next one, and we decided that a certain firmness was necessary with certain individuals. It seemed to work. The next few days were beautiful.
Not only is it difficult in the moment of such experiences, but it’s also difficult in the veering away from all you think you know about how to be a good playworker, principles of good practice, or to put it bluntly, not throwing your weight around. What we do need to consider though, after much further reflection, is how the play of all children is affected by the play (and it was this, as truncated as it was, or deviant or aggressive or whatever word we might care to use) of other individuals. There’s still plenty to consider in all of this.
I do need to finish here with a brief story of something beautiful though. That is, as I hold up my hand to a difficult experience, I also recognise that I need to balance this in myself with the understanding that this was a relatively short episode within the context of the whole week, and plenty of very beautiful things happened, many more than the difficulties, and these stories are the ones to balance us.
I have chosen my balancing story but it could easily have been something else (such as the boy who, mainly as engineer, built great steps out of tyres and a whole mound of children climbed to the top of the boundary fence; or such as the way that chalkings appeared on the chalkboard declaring a need to fart or that such-and-such loves so-and-so; or the way that two older children, boy and girl, were observed to be sharing earphones all week, in each other’s pockets, as it were; or the girl who I saw just painting the steps to the ‘tree-house’ blue, on her own, humming away; or the way that that same girl, shivering from being cold, was quietly appeciative of the warm bowl of water I put out, as she put her hands in it to warm up, and how that bowl just stayed there on the floor not being thrown around by others like I’d expected it to be; or the way that Family Had happened and the older boy who was the fastest forgot that the man-trap had been dug on the route to the sandpit ‘homey’, racing straight over it and into it!)
My balancing story though is this one: one day, in the sunshine, a girl of about nine who always says hello with a small dance and a smile, gently cued me into play on the wobbly bench. This is a low plank mounted on two springs, which a colleague built a sort of rodeo seat onto some months back. The girl stood on the bench and we just talked of nothing and something and whatever the moment was, and the play became me wobbling my feet so that she balanced or fell off. It turned into a sort of dance, and flowed and repeated, and I remember thinking part way through this, well into this, that here I was and I was totally focused in this dance with her. I didn’t look out onto the playground like I usually do, trying to capture all the play as it happened, trying to see where my colleagues were, trying just to take everything in at once (hence the emotional and psychological, as well as physical exhaustion because of mud and lifting crash mats and the like).
There I was, and I was totally absorbed in the moment. Was this then partly my play? I don’t know, maybe; or maybe I was reflecting all that she needed at that moment. Suffice is to say that I was received with good grace by this dancing girl, who seemed to still have control of everything she was doing, and we connected in the dance of the wobbly bench, and all seemed good for her, and all was good for me, and the playground was fine in that moment because I didn’t sense otherwise, and this was a balancing in more ways than one.