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!)