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

Archive for February, 2015

Balancing after a slaughter of the sofa

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.

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On words and of ways of using them when with children

Is it fair to say that any and every one of us is a different ‘us’ according to the person that we’re speaking with at any given time? That is, in essence we’re still the same, but we present/come across as just that slightly different when with different people. It’s not always a conscious act of wilful change of being I’m talking about here: this is often an operation below that conscious level, on the automatic level. I had such thoughts when thinking about friends in my social circle going back some twenty odd years ago now. A recent colleague conversation touched on the subject again, and this has now led me to thinking how is it that I am with various different children? Do I communicate consistently with every one of them, or do I shift my intonation or other manners of speaking and being when with each of them?

I really don’t know for sure. I’m too close and in the middle of it. How is this different to my awareness of how I’m different, still, with various other adults in my life? Of course I present in different ways when with work colleagues or with family, when meeting others for the first time or when communicating with other professionals I make contact with. However, I thought I was fairly consistent when with the children I know and share parts of my life with, work and family, but now I’m not so sure. I do make every effort not to (actually or seemingly) talk down to children, though I also make efforts to use words I suppose are part of their vocabulary; I also understand that words in children’s worlds shouldn’t just be restricted to those they already know though, and I like to think I talk with the knowledge that this particular word I’m using might be a new one for them. Family children, being younger than the children I work with, are sucking up all the new words they find and they ask questions, so I give answers. I’m also sometimes slightly amused and amazed at some of the words that, say, six and seven year olds at the playground use in everyday conversation.

Words aren’t the whole of it though: the way that I use them in my inflections comes into this. Whilst I appreciate the ways that almost sing-song, lilting ‘mummying’ language can have in bonding with very small children, it irritates me to hear that sing-song of adults with children who are older: I would hate to think I ever fell into that mode with a child who might, for example, be experiencing a need for sympathy. It can take on the mode of being patronising.

On the playground I also often have in-the-moment-of-play thoughts about the accents and the ‘local language’ of the children I’m with. By this I don’t necessarily mean the cultural background of that child or their family, I mean the wider all-embracing culture of that particular place in that particular part of London. The ‘local language’ is made up of a melge of slang (both enduring and in passing) and other fabrications that come from the play directly or get fused into it via films or TV. The point to all of this here is that I think now, as I write, that I must also become a part of that local language when in that part of London, as opposed to the place that is my home town. I have written about the children’s local accents before, being quite evident to my as-then untuned ear when I first worked at the playground. Now, though, a few years on, I think I must slip into that manner of speaking more naturally. If I push my luck though, I might end up sounding like someone who’s just trying to fit in. From some of the children here, there is a particular use of the slang word ‘innit’, I find. I haven’t yet mastered the finer nuances of this, as I hear it! I’ll keep listening until I’ve absorbed it more fully.

This is strange. I’ve had plenty of conversations in the pubs thereabouts with people who just strike up conversation asking where I’m from, and I slip easily and consciously into my London accent when I hear theirs, and I tell them that I’m from just up the road (which I am, technically, having been born not far from there). I don’t see it necessarily as an insincerity to be talking with an accent that isn’t quite what I normally go about my day with; it’s more a sort of ‘when in Rome’, a form of respectful acknowledgement, perhaps. This is how I see it with the random other adults I meet. With children, though, it seems a little more disingenuous to do this.

Recently, I recognised the way I often communicate with a particular six year old I know. I hadn’t realised this properly before I’d had those colleague conversations about how we are when with other adults. With this six year old in question, I find that I talk with her just as I would an adult. I thought I did this with all the children I work with, but with her it seems, on closer inspection, that I do this even more so. Perhaps it’s because she’s quite often got a serious look on her face, but I know her well enough to know this isn’t because of any sourness of being: it’s because she’s listening and sucking up everything that’s being said around her. She concentrates a lot. She knows some longer words I hadn’t given her credit for. She tells me things about conversations we’ve had or which she’s overheard some days on. I didn’t realise she took in so much. So, I have conversations with her about whatever’s important that day, and the words aren’t too complex but neither are they dumbed-down, and my tone is often even with her, though, as it seems, it’s more even with her than with other children.

What can we take from all of this? I think there are words, and ways of saying words, and ways of using local languages, and sincerities and insincerities, or the possibilities of either, that need plenty of thinking on, both during and after being around the children I’m with. I think there are ways we could think about how we are, more . . .

Keeping things together

On some occasions on the playground, our adult presence in the play is essential to keeping it together at that particular time. This is obviously fraught with difficulties for the playworker who knows that the play is not theirs, and who knows that they shouldn’t find themselves wrapped up in it so much that it starts to become theirs. That said, a certain immersion is sometimes required of us by the playing children. There have been times when I’ve found myself in and between several instances of play (play frames), all at the same time; perhaps I’m seen by the children concerned as uniquely positioned in each of these — those children being seemingly oblivious to my role and progress and position in the other play frames! Other times it’s slightly easier.

That said, when you find yourself in a play frame you can become a somewhat essential aspect of it: try to fold yourself out of it at the wrong time and you may get shouted at, physically hauled back, or petitioned with all sorts of bribes and baubles. Last week, at the dark end of the after-school session, I wandered past a group of three girls who’d set up a café or a restaurant on the paving slabs just outside the main back door onto the playground. They’d created tables from bread crates piled up in twos, and they’d found plastic garden chairs or old computer swivel chairs to sit on. In the gaps in the upturned bread crates, as I walked past, they’d already elegantly shoved pieces of red A4 paper for napkins. One girl was sat waiting to be served. Another, it transpired, was the manager. A third girl was the waitress. She was making menus, serving the customer, sweeping the floor, and so on, all at the same time. The manager watched on.

As I walked past (now I wish I could remember what was said by whom for me to become part of it: I must pay more attention to the possibility of how play might unfold, in the moment), I soon found myself part of the play. I somehow became co-opted into the role of waiter (with all the multi-tasking of menu writing, serving, and sweeping, demanded by the manager). Earlier, one of this group and another girl talked with me as we walked back from school. They were following up on a previous day’s play of castles and kings and queens, and they said that today I would be a king. The narration was almost the play in itself, except that the expectation was that the play would happen when we got back to the playground. In the end, the play fizzled into something else because of other distractions, but my point here is that I seem to be cast in some serving capacity quite often by these children, so king was unusual!

Back as the type-cast, in my waitering role, there was a glimpse in my mind — as I engaged with the role-play/socio-dramatic play — of what it would be like in the real service industry! I made play of it by asking the girl who was waitress, but who was now boss, for some time off. She said no, and I was instructed to make more menus, specifically drinks ones, and ‘boys and girls magazines’ for the waiting customers. The children instructed me to fill the magazines with gender stereotyped material, which was an interesting aside in itself.

I tried to extricate myself from the play because I felt I’d been there too long. The decision was too early for the children. I was told to come back in as I ‘went to look for a broom’. I found a hockey stick and that was broom enough. I became the customer and between us, we concocted extensions to the menu. The children brought me sand on a plate (which was my octopus pie). I looked for other ways out. The menu making was carrying on, the girl who was customer sat and started to shiver but she ordered food diligently and read the gender-stereotyped magazines carefully. A boy came along to be served. I thought that it would be OK to ‘go to the toilet’. The manager insisted that I be escorted there!

I sat myself down indoors and she hovered over me, telling me in no uncertain terms not to move. I watched her go out the door, waited for a few seconds, then scarpered! The three girls were in their play and I was away: or so I thought. I escaped to the fire pit and made a play of trying to keep warm. The manager/waitress (in truth, the flux of the role play didn’t allow me to keep good track) found me. She came and stood by my side, saying that she needed me back again. I said that I needed to keep warm for a little while. My colleague was there at the fire pit and I co-erced him into giving me a ‘job in the fire brigade’ because the restaurant manager didn’t pay me enough. The girl then said she’d pay me a thousand pounds. I upped it. We negotiated and settled on four thousand pounds. I was already back in the play from before the offer of joining the fire brigade!

I took up my old role again with renewed energy. I was needed here because the play wasn’t done. It occurs to me, as I write, that the multi-tasking of the service industry role play has its analogies with being in several play frames at once, but that’s also an aside! Later, when the play came indoors because it was just too cold for the remaining customer, the children set up bread crate tables and chairs, plus red paper napkins and menus, at the far end of the hall space. They said I was still required here. I said, when you’ve set up, because I was engaged in the play frame of the football table with another child. It was here that I needed to maintain this play’s existence, and be ‘in’ the play of the restaurant — even if just by distance for now — at the same time, without letting either play frame fold in because I’d ‘left it’.

These skills I see to be important to the relating playworker, and when we add into this mix the on-going in-the-moment thinking about what’s happening and why, and the after-the-event reflection, as well as the knowledge of previous play that has happened or play that might happen, by these children, on this playground, in this season, with these objects, there are plenty of layers to start to cause some fatigue of the mind as well as the fatigue of the feet (of which service industry personnel might well also experience!).

The moments of keeping things together, being part of one or more play frames, may only be some small part of an entire session, pockets of play that come and go: in between, though, there are other things to think and do . . .

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