After poking around the playground one morning this week, I sat down on one of the old people’s home chairs that seems to have become a regular part of external furniture now. I sat perched there, wrapped up in coat and hat, whilst looking out over the sand pit area thinking about the playwork ideas of ‘environmental modification’ and ‘the theory of loose parts’. I was just unblurring my focus there, tapping my palm with a drumstick I’d found out on the other side of the site, when I saw a police transit van crawl past on the road just beyond the fence.
There’s been a higher police presence on the estate these past days what with this van, a patrol car or two earlier, and the local wardens making an appearance and asking to do a ‘hidden knife search’ on the playground the day before. ‘Sure,’ we said, in the spirit of community relations, ‘have a look around, but do it before the children get here if you don’t mind.’ I digress.
So, I sat there tapping my drumstick, watching the police van go round, when I was distracted by the phone in my pocket. As I talked on the phone, three fully uniformed policemen came onto the playground (it turned out later, apparently, that they’d managed to ‘freak out’ the little children in the crèche room nearby, but that’s another story). I motioned that I’d be right with the policemen, but then they left. They piled back into the van and were about to go when I caught up with them. ‘Can I help?’ I asked. There looked like there was a van-load of policemen in the dark behind the officer who was just trying to shut the door, and it was him who told me that they’d come in because they’d seen me there on the playground (looking shifty was the inference; ‘Oh, I work here’, I said), me with what appeared to be an offensive weapon in my hand. I held up said object. ‘You mean this drumstick, officer?’ I asked. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Years ago, I remember, I was walking down the street taking a ball gown back to the hire shop for a friend (don’t ask!), when I was apprehended. ‘Is this your dress, sir?’ was the line of enquiry. ‘Umm . . .’ I said. I don’t know whether it was an offensive dress or an offensive me! Anyway, back to the present story . . .
Now, my fellow playworkers, what might happen next? Well, we might advocate. I asked if the officer knew what it was that happened on the playground. He said no and that they weren’t really from around here. So I asked if he wanted to know. He indicated that I could tell him. I said that children could play how they wanted and needed to here: you know, graffiti and suchlike . . .? He did go a little pale at this, in truth, so I thought it best not to give any more examples of what the children might get up to in their play. The policemen wanted to go, mistakes are made, so I waved goodbye to them with my drumstick. Play has its props and I was very respectful, I trusted, throughout our conversations.
The moral of my story, in part, and all joking aside, is that there might be plenty to do ‘out there’ for play to be recognised as such, for what children use as objects of play, for what places of play are (and for what playworkers do, and for what they look like too, as shifty as we might seem sometimes!) On the subject of objects of play, the wardens who didn’t find any hidden knives did raise a query about an old shopping trolley chain they’d found (something that a playwork colleague had detached in the making of our state-of-the-art fire grill, the chain then being left in plain view lying on the grass for several weeks now, so far ignored by children but still with play potential). The wardens, presumably, thought it to be weaponisable, nunchuck style, or something.
There might be plenty to do ‘out there’. There are all sorts of professionals who might have contact with children, or who indirectly affect them, who might be offered the ‘good word of play’ (I write it like this, in this instance, as a deliberate but playful act of some small provocation). I quite often feel the need for advocacy rising when I hear (well-intentioned or otherwise), professionals speak of play in terms of ‘activities’ they suppose children only get up to, or should be doing, or in terms of ‘getting them off the streets’ (part of the constructive-productive be-better-future-economic-units agenda), or as part of ‘controlled behaviours’ for the benefit of, well, everyone except the playing child maybe.
To be fair, there are those who are trying to see and engage with play too. We’ve had a couple of visits from a local policeman who the children flock around to talk to and who, to his credit, gets involved in the play if the children want him to. They poke him and his radio, and once they ran off with his helmet which caused him a little consternation but he held out well enough! We helped him out by locking his official gear in the office for a while, and he was quite happy to run around playing the children’s favourite game of ‘Family Had’ with them in the dark of the playground. Fair play to you, officer! There are after school children’s parents who get it (play) and there are often others from around and about (like the local bin men, or builders) who’ll tell stories of their own childhood play, unprompted, apart from a quick ‘this is what we do’ opener to resource-blagging by us. In the pubs, people sometimes talk with similar tales. The other day, at the bar, a man looked at me, seeming to see something, and told me — totally unprompted — that ‘You’ve got to play, mate, haven’t you?’
I do understand though that one person’s play is not always going to be appreciated by another person as play; however, a step in a good direction to benefit children is general development of adults’ understanding that this action, this behaviour, this expression or exhibition that’s being seen or heard, at any given time, is this child or children’s play. Children play in all sorts of ways and with all sorts of things. Not everything is an offensive weapon (though a sharp stick in the wrong context would give some cause for concern). In context though, a drumstick on a playground is an object of play, as is all the leftover stuff that the children leave lying around. It would be great if the streets of any given town or city had more potential for general play in them, but there’s also still work to be done on the whole recognition of ‘this here is play’ in the first place. The ‘average Joe’ can get it, this being a positive term (and here, the playworker is an ‘average Joe’ too); others — insert your own professional or any other given person — seeing beyond the necessary strictures of their own positions might also benefit the children too though.