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

Archive for March, 2015

Quiet: thoughts on playworker boredom in some children’s play

A small but significant aspect of playwork practice has been quietly playing itself in and out of my thoughts lately (that is to say, if the playwork in question is of the flavour that involves children’s wishes for the adult to participate to some degree in the play). Here’s the scenario: a child (more often than not, in my experience, this situation will involve a single child rather than a group of them, but not always) has invited or ‘cued’ the playworker into the play of the moment (say, one-touch ‘wallsy’ football against the fence, pushing on the roundabout, some variations of catch and throw); the child shows the signs that they’re reasonably happy that they’re being supported in their play choices; the playworker plays along; the child just keeps repeating or reinventing the play so that the playworker is expected to stay involved and so that the play can carry on; the playworker gets bored of it.

That’s the small but significant aspect of practice that’s been troubling me as of late. It comes and goes, and it doesn’t happen very often but when it does it sets up a whole string of processes of thinking. Boredom of repetition or involvement shifts from this to some other stimulation of the mind, but this is hardly the point: the playing child has chosen this playworker (for reasons of positive relating or sometimes for some attention, let’s face it, or for conditions in between), and so this playing child requires focus and consideration. Some of the processes of thinking are along the lines of ‘potential get-out clauses’: how do I remove myself from this scenario so that the play can still carry on in some way, or so that the playing child won’t be offended? When another child comes along and asks to play, or when they show signs that they might like to, there’s a small window of opportunity to leave quickly and quietly, but at just the right time, so that the fragile bubble of play can shift from one circumstance to the next without popping. When done well, then job done.

Some processes of thinking are along the lines of ‘when did this play shift from relating/being in the joint arena of play to the being relied upon?’ This can happen when some children are our personal shadows (those children who follow you around for whatever reason that they need to). Some shadows I’ve had know exactly what they’re doing and turn this, in itself, into play by following me precisely in every movement, and so I can reciprocate, and so this can unfold in different ways. However, when the shadows just follow because of other reasons, then this can become difficult, and when the shadows do everything they can to keep you contained within their play, then this becomes more difficult still. A colleague has spotted one of my occasional shadows and we’ve also talked about this in de-briefs too. Now he’ll call over to the child in question when he feels she’s shadowing, and he’ll spin her away into something else for a while. It’s a fine line though, sometimes, between the child relating and playing in probably mentally healthy ways with the playworker, and them falling into a brief grey zone of neediness. How do we know the threshold if it isn’t always so obvious or, in fact, if that shadowing/neediness time is brief? We have to develop an acuteness of awareness around certain children and their chosen ones.

The shadowing is an issue that sits alongside the main enquiry here: what to do, as the playworker, when you shift into a small boredom of the repetitions or reinventions of play that you’ve been involved in? Thinking in one respect, we shouldn’t get bored of the play, but we do. We’re human, and although much of play is a stimulation in the observation for the concerted playworker, some play troubles me (though not here for its ‘risky’ or expressive qualities, which seem to be those of the other end of some people’s ‘being troubled’ spectrum). Maybe some play operates at such a slow wavelength, as it were, that engaging with it proves personally difficult. Observing such play is fine, but being asked to be a part of it is a different thing. Maybe this is why I don’t work with babies: I have done and I found it slow and, frankly, uninspiring. I’ve always felt it takes a particular type of person to be able to work well with babies, and I’m not one of them.

If I find myself in the thinking situation that is the shift from ‘willing engagement because the child asks it so’ to ‘how do I get myself out of this now?’, quite often there’s a string of thinking that also plays through me along the lines of ‘I’ve been in this particular play too long’. It isn’t the case that I’m wanting to take over the play and change it for my own good; rather, it’s more to do with feeling that my presence should by now have outstayed its welcome. I’m no longer performing my role of being there for anyone else. I’m no longer in a position where I can observe the unfolding play that swills around, and I do like to be in a position where I can see as much as possible: it’s a means of fixing markers in my mind, but it’s also a means of being in-between, mostly, though ready if that needs to shift into something more specific to someone or some group or something on the playground.

This condition of shifts in states of mind isn’t as simple as just stating ‘OK, I’m bored now.’ There are plenty of processes of thinking that are strung through it all. It troubles me, in a low level kind of way (at the other end of the ‘troubling spectrum’ to someone blatting the life out of an ex-wooden thing with a claw hammer thrown back behind their heads, or someone standing up high on something slippery, or suchlike): are these moments of minor boredom justifiable in amongst all the stimulus of moving and thinking about play, observing it, being a part of it, relating with and laughing and wondering at the incredible inventiveness of expression and exploration that children often display in their play?

It doesn’t happen all that often, such a moment of minor boredom, but it happens every now and then, and its small but significant quietness scuffs and tumbles around inside — like it, itself, is a shadow-child trailing all my other thoughts.
Playworkings will be taking a break for a week or maybe a little longer (there are parts of the world to explore!)

Reflections of a playworker in Tottenham

Last week saw a trip out across the far reaches of the other side of the city of London (that is, a trip up the Victoria line, and then a fair hike up Tottenham High Road!) to pay a visit to Somerford Grove Adventure Playground. I have been to Somerford before, some seven or eight years ago, and I have some clear memories of the play that was taking place that day in the sun, but what struck me this time, from the vantage point of coming from within the playground culture of one part of west London, was that there are similarities in what’s at stake and what takes place in those playgrounds, and there are uniquenesses too.

Cathy and Tam at Somerford received us with plenty of stories, trials and tribulations, passions and celebrations, and there were plenty of these that I, for one, could relate to (if not always directly, then with a certain sympathy). I’ve met Cathy that once before, and I feel confident in saying we seem to be ‘of the same page’, as it were. Tottenham, as I read it through these stories in our short visit, is somewhat of a melting pot of cultures, and the playground is more than just the mere superficiality of that simple word. Later in the day, I was left reflecting on how this person called ‘playworker’ is, or can also be, someone to rely on, someone to support, someone to be pushy in the face of adversity, someone who stands up to a multitude of adult agendas, someone who might be (lower case initial letters) some form of ‘pastoral help’, ‘advisor’, ‘protector’: in short, much more than merely someone who’s seen in terms of ‘so, you put things out for children to play with’, as I paraphrase of many discussions I’ve had, or erroneously as ‘so, you teach children how to play?’

There are some similarities between the two playgrounds of north and west London here (as there are, perhaps, between all the playgrounds in the city and beyond): in this comparison of north and west alone, there are similarities in that there is a cultural mix, there are various peripheral groups, the potential for or actuality of gangs, to greater or lesser degrees, the continuity of the playworkers within it all, the ebb and flow and swill of the playground and its constituent parts. Where there are uniquenesses, I suppose (without a full understanding of Somerford) I concentrate on the particular comings and goings of individuals we know well, of the way of the local community, and of the general way of things farther out beyond the estate.

As an aside, on matters of a local flavour, I was surprised to overhear the contents of some workmen’s conversations the other day, whilst I was painting signs that are strung up on the outsides of our fences. They, the workmen, were hanging around in the street, in the preliminary stages of putting out road blocks in order to pedestrianise the street immediately to the side of our most public fence. One of their number was telling another, in a broad accent I couldn’t place, but which I figured not to be local to where we were, that (and I paraphrase) ‘these sorts of estates are full of crime, of course; we’ve got these sorts of places where I’m from’. I had to smile because I thought I have to say something. I waved my paintbrush in the air and I put on my best local accent (even though I’m ‘not from around here’ either!) and told him, sure, there were police stats (I’ve seen them) about recent crime levels, but a third of those were for ‘anti-social behaviour’ and I wondered out loud if that might not correlate to ‘play’ in our books!

The point is that (apart from my opportunity to blat on about play to some unsuspecting souls), we should rein in our preconceptions, shouldn’t we? Yes, the playground is dead-smack in the middle of rows of tenements and the estate is, pretty much, a zone in its own right, but let’s not discount everything and everyone therein because of what we think we might know about it and them. The playground, perhaps, also comes under this sort of scrutiny: people might well look through the fence and see all the half-mangled stuff and bits of wood and old tyres and general air of ‘disorder’ and think to themselves ‘well, that could do with a good scrub up’; however, what they’d completely miss is all the play therein, the possibilities and the histories of that play, and all the otherness of ‘being playworker’ that flows right through it, or could flow through it. That said, the term ‘playworker’ would, I suspect, not register on such thinking processes. There’s time to address this though.

I digress. Coming back from Tottenham, and on further reflection, I’m quite acutely aware of the challenges we all might face, and the privileges we’re afforded, in and around the playgrounds in the communities in which we work. I’m also aware of the fact that we are, or that we could be, or that we might someday be called upon to be, more than just, simplistically, ‘that person who puts out the gloop and the paint, and who makes sure the zipwire’s up, or who knocks up something out of an old palette, or who chops up a couple of days’ worth of wood for the fire’. There are considerations of gang influence to be had, as well as the possibilities of drugs, or of the affects of developing hormones in the older playground users and their peers; there are the skills needed to understand the varying needs and expressions, the disturbances and the inter-disturbances of individuals and groups who might aggregate in terms of gender, age, beliefs, family background and culture, or any combination of these and more; there are the constantly fluxing ways of interacting and understanding, or trying to understand, the agitations of the fads and fashions of growing up, or just being, in that place that those children are in; there is the need to be able to bring everything to a point of ‘being on the children’s side’ (as paraphrased of the attitude of A. S. Neill, of Summerhill School), putting aside personal difficulties for long enough to be significant in those children’s lives, indirectly, when fighting their corner with every other adult around. Some days might be smooth, some days might not be.

Play runs through it all, of course, and play will happen without us, but playworkers can help show that ‘this is play’ when others see it otherwise, or they can be that ‘something else’ (lower case initial letter, insert any given other here), if that play, as such, is so detrimental to the well-being of the individual, the group, or the community at large. This is not to say that playworkers should be (capital letters) ‘Teachers’, ‘Policers’, ‘Leaders of Social Reform Amongst the Young’; this is to say that they are, potentially, part of something larger than just the geographical and psychological area inside the fence. This is how I read the work of those at Somerford Grove, and potentially of others based at other playgrounds around and about. Thanks Cathy and Tam, if ever this writing finds its way to you: I trust there’ll be many more stories that can be shared.

The question of the how of speaking other languages about play

It occurs to me that even though we happen to be speaking the same language, we may in fact be speaking different languages altogether. That is to say, when speaking about play, it might not be the thing itself that’s the contentious issue: it might just be the language that we speak to describe it. After all, isn’t the play itself the same thing no matter which way up you hold it? What the difference is is the person doing the viewing. I’m aware that I’ve tended to come around to the same subject matters plenty of times in my writing, but that’s all fine if those subject matters can be seen from different angles. When we discuss play, there’s often a playing with words itself to do this: I’m thinking this post will be no different in that respect, but the slight tweak is the view of languages used.

A small moment of minor epiphany arrived recently when I realised that, in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. My language, in this writing on these posts, is the language of ‘this is play, for the sake of play, for the hell of it, for no developmental outcomes or other future-looking gains’, or variations of this. None of us are perfect adults, all of us are continuing the process of being and are being in our becomingness, in the here and now: there’s no reason, in my language, why children shouldn’t be viewed in the same way. We’re occupied by the same genetic material, adults and children, and many adults tend to forget that they were children once too. They’ve forgotten because they think they’re fully formed, wise, more. These are not rational assumptions to have because none of us are, or ever will be, ‘complete’. We all occupy the same streets, and we all make our way, day by day. Here ends the brief précis of this language that I’ve been speaking for a while now.

However, it seems that in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. How, though, do we talk the languages of education, law and order, health, funding, and so on, whilst maintaining the core of what we believe to be true? These are questions for the asking, not answers yet for the giving. When I’m communicating with children, either by words or by gestures, but more often than not by play, I’m speaking their language, their codes and culture. We can speak more than one language within the overall language of the shared words and actions that we use. The task then is how to translate that skill into passionate advocacy for play with other adults who, by and large, don’t usually come to play from the same angle.

‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’, as attributed to Oscar Wilde (not as commonly misquoted of George Bernard Shaw), is testament to more than the words of an actual language themselves, of course, but is also relevant in this ‘adults coming to play’ discussion: what we know is that we all view it differently, and that we speak of it in different terms — what is so obvious that it hasn’t occurred too frequently though is that we do have the ability to speak others’ languages, as difficult as this may be. Or, at least, if that proves ethically tricky, we have the capability of listening.

We’re all right, of course, though. That is, we wouldn’t position ourselves so absolutely in our ethical or principled camps if we didn’t believe that what we were saying was ‘the truth’. Is it possible that there is more than one truth? Can we really be living in a more than binary world of right/wrong? When I talk of play I talk about its here-and-now-ness, and I have great concerns about the rhetoric others use in tub-thumping with equal fervour about all things only-developmental. This is a simple binary, though I know the picture is more complicated than this in reality. Could it be that children’s play offers them something for the future too, in conjunction with the just-now-ness? Yes, of course it does. Play has many benefits. Here, though, I break from the self-imposed attempt to see things in other ways, when saying: how about others seeing that same set of words in the last few lines the other way around too?

Back to the task in hand: how to see play by speaking others’ languages of it. The present UK government, and the possible next, sees children in terms of educable entities. Of this I’m convinced, judging by the rhetoric that comes directly from politicians and indirectly via media reports of their policies and statements. How can a here-and-now play person (I deliberately avoid the ‘playworker’ term here for now) speak the language of education without diluting the core belief that play is essentially made of magic? I don’t write this frivolously: if we are all made of carbon, if we are all made of star-dust, so it is that play is something ‘other’ than we might ordinarily always see. Play, from this perspective, is glitter that we can’t catch. Here we are again, back at the esoteric, the poetic, the speaking of languages not understood.

Yet, the epiphany still stands: in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. The question is not in the ‘what’ of the words (these we can say because we have them in common anyway, of sorts), but in the ‘how’ of them. Perhaps, as ‘developed’ as we consider our adult selves to be, as ‘fully formed’, as ‘wise’, as ‘more’, we can come round to the conclusion that we can understand more of the ‘how’ by learning from children. In my experience, children often seem fairly adaptable to the how of speaking the different languages of adults around them: sure, they can co-opt adults into their own language of play to assimilate them into the nature of their thoughts, but they can also be adept at role and character mimicry, and much more than this too. Children often seem skilful at playing the language of any given adult, which may be altruistic — if there is such a thing — but which may serve their needs all the more succinctly. Maybe it’s an evolutionary trait; maybe some of us, as fully formed as we think we are, un-develop it.

Embracing interactions and tolerances

With the advent of the annual playworkers’ conference this week, and with so many people who go by the title ‘playworker’ (or who have links to playwork) there, I’m wondering what this playwork thing looks like to the people at the centre of it all: that is, the children. We in the field of playwork have, and continue to have, debates about what it is we do, why we do it, what its worth is, whether we’re needed at all, and so on, but how much do we know of what the children say? We do, after all, profess to putting them first.

I’ve read a fair few books on playwork practice, and these include theories for ways of working, stories of play observed, ideas on what play is good for, what it helps or does, and so on, but I’m not so sure the sum total of writing on ‘playwork from the child’s perspective’ is any great percentage of that whole. What do the children care about developmental, evolutionary, or therapeutic angles on adults working with them? What they care about, I’m prepared to stick my neck out here, is that adults who they happen to have to share their places of play with should be: people who they can get along with; who are fun to be around (though not in any overtly ‘wacky, zany’ sort of way); who listen when they should listen; who tell stories when they should tell stories; who know when not to say something to someone else, and who know which stories of the children’s they should keep quiet about; who will be honest with them; who will help and protect them if they want that; who won’t jump down their throats if they choose to swear, stick up their middle finger, or fling a paint brush loaded with paint up into the air or against the wall just because they feel like it . . .

Whilst there are aspects of the playwork books that certainly point towards such tolerance, they don’t all frame it in terms of relating. In my experience, this relating is essential to the children. They tell it in the stories and play they present, in the looks in their eyes, in the way that some may take an adult’s hand or rest their elbow on their shoulder when that adult’s knelt down. The children tell it in the things they don’t say directly about the playworker in question too: I’ve often had children tell me of their ‘teacher’s bad day, every day’, or the like, or how certain other adults in their lives just annoy them. Maybe I annoy them too, some days, but that day that I’m not part of the story in question, when being told the story in question, this I take as the children saying to me, ‘You’ll do’.

Plenty of the playwork literature links to thinking on standing back from the play, being invisible, retreating into the background, servicing and resourcing and making the environment good for play, whatever that play may be: this all happens, and can take great skill and self-discipline on the part of the playworker, but the children don’t always want just this. Sure, some days they want nothing more than for the adults to just butt out, stay back, get out of the way, turn a blind eye, and generally kindly do as they’re told! However, they’ll also often have half an eye on the adult (in staffed provisions) just being around, just in case, for dealing with emergencies, for sorting out being ganged up on if they can’t eventually resolve it themselves, or if the gang pressure outweighs the risk of social ridicule by them then not being able to sort out their own problems. ‘Resilience’ is too simplistic a word here: children often cope, to a point, and then there are finer social nuances to have to contend with.

In terms of play, I’m pretty confident from my experiences of observing it, of being invited into it, and of listening to the stories of it, that children — by and large — don’t go into their play for outcome attainment (developmental milestones, cognitive and motor skills enhancement, the roping in of obesity, with awareness of their health, with concern for their future citizenship in terms of their good consumer unit potential, or with an eye on reduction of the national health service’s cost savings per capita!) I am being somewhat facetious, but the point is that children will go into their play because it is play. They’ll call it play if they’re not told to do it (‘doing homework’ isn’t play, as the children I’ve related to say it, even if the child likes the subject, because someone is still imposing on that child’s time to play).

In my experience, children have quite a sophisticated view of when their play is: it is that quality time that isn’t imposed upon by others, though it can also be the moments of possibility within that imposition (homework can morph out of being homework and into spontaneous play away from it). Often, unimposed time is squeezed in between other things (‘work’, ‘structured dedicated times for sport’, and so on) and children have the ability to view time in between times, as well as time within imposed upon time, as time that’s playable. Plenty of adults don’t see this. The children, meanwhile, often express the need to be around others who appreciate their in between time, as well as that time that is given over entirely for play: these others will be other children, but it will also be those adults who ‘just get it’.

Whether those adults call themselves playworkers or not, children will often directly express a preference for their company (whether the old-schoolers of playwork literature like this or not), or children will indirectly express who the adults who ‘get them’, and their play, are. By ‘company’ I’m not talking about ‘best mates’, though I’ve certainly known children who’ve chosen to call me ‘friend’: by ‘company’ I’m referring to anything from just keeping an eye on the fact that the adult is there or thereabouts, to actively pursuing play cues and returns with that adult, deeply engaging them in the fantasies and flows, narratives and confidences of the play. It isn’t about a replacement of another playing child, in its most sophisticated form: it is, as I register it, an acknowledgement of relating, of shared histories of space and place, of a development of mutual knowing.

Children will play without adults being directly around, but the fact is that adults are indirectly around them in the urban and the rural landscapes of society as we know it, even if those adults don’t directly witness that play itself. Playworking embraces tolerances. Playworking also embraces interactions. It is this, in my experience, in my observation, in my listening, and in my relating, that I suggest as a way of seeing how playwork looks from children’s perspectives.

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