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

Archive for May, 2015

Mark-making on children’s lives

In deepest Kent last weekend, a long way from home, and a year on from my last time there, I was greeted by a girl of about seven or eight with a line that was a story. I’d met her last year, out wild camping as we all were, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, near the clearing where all the families and their children were. It was a small event, and I was there to support the children’s opportunities to play. The greeting the girl gave me was something along the lines of: ‘Hi. What’s the biggest thing in the world? The solar system.’ On its own, this doesn’t make much sense. In context, the story is this:

Last year, in the forest (and beyond the wardrobe we’d set up as an entrance into the children’s own place), I sat with this girl and some other children as they variously pottered with bits and pieces of things we’d brought, and as they rubbed face paint into one another’s skins, as we made up stories and asked and answered questions with one another, and I said ‘What’s the biggest thing in the world?’, to which she’d replied that it was the solar system. This year, when she came over to us as we were setting up, in a different part of the forest, as the other children played on the rope swings and planks that were already there, getting good and dusty in the pit and on the mounds, the girl said hello by remembering a conversation we’d had from a full twelve months ago. It took me a few seconds to comprehend what she was saying to me at first. I looked at her, thinking that I recognised her face though I couldn’t remember her name, and then the whole sitting around of last year came back to me in an instant.

I spent the day feeling somewhat humbled and privileged that that play of words had stayed with that child, and that my face had reignited that memory for her. It’s made me think. Twelve months have gone by and time has passed but, so it seems, that hasn’t mattered at all: play just picked up where it was left off. I’ve found this often happens in the short term, but to find it spread here over a year, in interaction with a child I hardly know, is unusual. Children I know well (those I work with or family children) have been seen to return to certain play over months, or over longer periods, but this girl’s greeting line struck me as something special in other ways: what it’s opened up in my mind, not for the first time, but here in a very concentrated way, is the potential significance that adults might have in the play memories of children. That, in itself, is a responsibility.

Plenty of adults may well think that children aren’t so very present and nothing remains into adulthood (why would those adults seek to control or belittle the children if that weren’t the case?); however, if we all look back into our own childhoods, they may well be punctuated, or threaded through, with significant moments of adult presence. I’ve often had fellow adults approach me in the street, greeting me, telling me that they were one of the children I used to work with twenty or twenty-five years ago or so, and it strikes an odd chord in me to meet them because I still remember them as they were. I thought, on those occasions, of that younger me, and I skim over the responsibility of that ‘him’ in his affects on them. Now, I’m growing ever more aware of the possible affect of this present me on these present children I encounter in my day to days.

This is a huge responsibility: for me and for all of us who work with and for children. I need to pause for a short while to let that sink in for myself, let alone for the reader who might also be in a similar working situation . . . what we do as adults may well stay with the child. All the work we do that we think is of ‘great importance in its grand sweep’ may not be so important — the little moments may last longer, and stronger, and brighter. So, when a girl I meet only for the second short time, by a clearing in deepest Kent, briefly repeats a line that holds a whole story of play we shared some twelve months earlier, I feel the possible weight of its moment.

It encourages me to think again about treading carefully, especially with regards to the times when I know I’ve failed to do this for whatever reason. It tells me that the moments I might just pass off as things passing by, might be loaded already with the potential to remain: times stick, or graze, or mark, and we have a great responsibility for recognising our subtle impact of interaction with the children that we’re with.

When I think on this, I start to uncover other ways that this mark-making takes place. Last week, during half term open access on the playground in London, two brief but significant moments caught my attention in this respect. A girl of about nine or ten was lightly irritated by the older boys who were spraying water from the hose around. This had happened earlier in the year and, that time, I remember, between us we concocted the plan to turn the tap off, and this developed into her spending twenty minutes or so turning the tap on and off until the boys got the message about not spraying her and everyone else. Last week, and this is my suspicion though I can’t prove it, she caught my eye as the boys sprayed the water, and the glint in hers was evident, and we said nothing, and she turned the tap off and on again, off and on again . . .

Also last week, again with an interpretation that can’t be proved and must be taken on faith, an older boy returned to the playground after a year or so away, after a colleague’s gradual discussions with his father, after the boy had had a bad experience with another older lad that long way back, and it was good to see him again, and I didn’t recognise him at first with his hood up, standing under the shutter out of the rain, and he nodded and said, ‘Dooku’, and it was all about this for me: him being the only one to call me that, it’s his name, his creation for me, it’s one way of him returning to the playground, to this place that he left a year or so ago, picking up the pieces of the play that he was forced away from by the other boy’s attack.

These instances were all significant: the boy in the hood who nodded my given name, the girl with the glint in her eye and the plan repeated from months gone by, the girl camping with the line from a year ago she used to say hello. We have responsibility as adults because we can affect children subtly and cause what remains in them, but as I think on here, the children also affect the adult who sees and feels that responsibility and privilege. Times stick, or graze, or mark us all.
 
 

Play just is

I really am growing very tired of the constant over-emphasis, in the proclamations of adults in general, that ‘play aids children’s learning’, or variations on the theme (‘play reduces obesity’, ‘play aids social skills’, ‘play teaches children right from wrong’, and so on). What is consistently missed in all this ‘be a better person’ rhetoric is the whole experience of being a child. If, firstly, in the case of playwork (though not too overwhelmed by the above notions), the sector takes pride (and yes, pride before a fall) in being ‘the only adults in the children’s workforce who try to see things from the child’s perspective’ (as I was taught), then there should be a lot more discussion on ‘trying to see things from the child’s perspective’ going on.

The playwork sector aside, I sometimes find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact that children’s play is their play and that those children do it, by and large, because they want to, because such and such is there to spark off that play, because it’s just what needs to be done, there and then, because . . . well, just because — or because (as children have often insinuated or directly pointed out to me), ‘because, I don’t know why.’

I’ve been in this writing area many times before, but the message just keeps coming back and demanding to be repeated. Sure, and I say this often in deference to those who tell me that children learn things in their play, sure they learn stuff, as a kind of by-product, and sure they can look back on experiences and find that they do things differently or modify their expressions or ways of being because of what’s already taken place (in their play), but here’s the point: from the child’s perspective, play is something to be engaged in just because (not because of any adult-designed outcome). Play just is.

When you were six or seven, maybe, did you start your play with definite outcomes in mind? That is, say, ‘by the end of this session I will have understood how to adequately make use of gross motor skills in order to balance on this railing without knocking my teeth out’, or ‘I will have successfully developed the ability to share so that my friend won’t end up screaming that I’ve taken all his cards’. You might well have had some vague abstract aim of not knocking your teeth out, or not being the cause of a commotion, but these were no doubt all part of the trial and error of the moment. You didn’t get any certificates or awards or pats on the head from approving adults for the play that was your play. If you did or didn’t knock your teeth out, or if you did or didn’t cause a commotion, sure you may have learned stuff, but you didn’t go into that play with the targeted aim of ascertaining that outcome of learning something. If it was your play, you did it just because. You might have gone into your play with the aim of beating your own world record of batting a ball against a wall, balancing along a railing without falling off, or riding your bike around in circles, for as long as possible without stopping, and before your legs turned to jelly, but you did all that just because.

There has been plenty written on the importance of play in terms of its evolutionary, neurological, physical, sociological, psychological, and so on benefits, and these outward-looking-in perspectives are appreciated. However, these are all adult researcher constructs. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff around in the literature on play theory, playwork theory, healthiness and well-being, psychology and psychoanalysis, child development, even zoological study and animal behaviourism. Where is the depth of literature that records what play is (as opposed to what it’s for, or what it’s good for) to the real experts on the subject? We’ve all been children, and so we’ve all been experts (past tense). Now, the real experts’ perspectives are under-represented.

There are studies that have taken on board what children say about their play: the what and the how and the where. There are not enough though to adequately affect the dominant political-media presentation (thus influencing the broad sweep of socio-cultural opinion) on what play is. Instead we have a skewed view that play is only good for certain things: for supplementing the ‘learning and acceptable morals’ diet fed to children through early education, schools, youth provision, and through the socialisation tactics of the government; for reduction of pressure on the national health system, ultimately resulting in economic benefits for government coffers, via the obesity agenda; for containment and moulding of acceptable opinion, ways of being and behaving, suppression of traits likely to result in mass conflict aimed at the ruling minority. Call me cynical, but there’s an argument to say that ‘play’ is moderated by the puppet-masters who wish to engineer a certain society that’s beneficial to a certain few.

I digress. Play is used to help mould the individual and the collective. There is a counter-argument to suggest that the activist for play (for play’s sake) is also looking to engineer a society into a certain form. This is, however, viewed from the play activist’s screen as acceptable, because the message is not ‘let them be how I contain them to be’ but rather ‘let them be.’ From the children’s perspective, if given fair representation to express their views, wouldn’t they also express their views on their play, by and large, in similar terms? Let us be. Let it be. Play just is.

There are difficulties in gaining children’s perspectives on play: sure, they have the right to express their opinions (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12) and the right to play (Article 31) — though really, does the UK government actually take these seriously? — but asking children about their play might mean, essentially, disrupting that very play to ask them about it. Even if we think we’re working ethically enough and not disrupting that play, we can make mistakes. I recently made the assumption that I was on even ground with a couple of children I was working with: we were sat around talking, and they were talking about play in a way that I assumed was OK for me to say something to the effect of, ‘Play happens all the time, right?’ It was, on reflection, a moral imposition. They looked at me and one said, ‘Er, no. There’s school, and home, and going to school, and . . .’ What I understood from her was that play was very much parcelled up for her into ‘allowable time’, but also that even here in this assumed-to-be even ground, I’d overstepped the mark and trodden on the talking play that was happening.

We can get children’s views and opinions, but we just have to be careful about the how of doing that. When we’ve worked out how to do that, we’re in a good position to get the (non-token) views of these experts: this is what’s largely missing from all the talk on play out there. There is some opinion from those who matter most — stay focused, the children! — in the written literature, and there’s more in the anecdotal material that potentially floods every playground (though often this is either missed, or not recorded, or not fully registered, or stored in memories that need to be tapped); however, this material isn’t yet flooding the national socio-political consciousness.

I’m confident, from anecdotal collection, observation- and personal- experience, when I say that, by and large, for children play just is. This is a simple message at the end of a lengthy post. I find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact of it. We should, I suggest, all try seeing things from children’s perspectives more: we might be surprised at what we find.
 
 

A natural therapy for political dis-ease

As unanimously expressed by playworkers who I have so far read, or heard, to relay an opinion, last Friday’s media declaration of the UK general election results was somewhat sobering: five more years of Conservative (Tory) rule. (Is it even possible to call oneself a playworker if you vote Tory? No-one I’ve come across in various playworker circles has yet put a Tory head above the parapet). I dislike the popular media rhetoric of a governing party that ‘rules’ or, as it’s often framed, the party ‘in power’, but ‘ruling’ is what it feels like will come about. This doesn’t sit easily with the way I like to live my personal and playwork lives. Friday’s media declaration was somewhat sobering.

The Tory perspective on children seems to me to be, by and large, one of ‘those who shall be educated, civilised, made into future economic units capable of sustaining the capitalist mantra of work hard, work harder, make money, every man, or woman, for themselves’. Although the late but eminent Professor Brian Sutton-Smith stated that the opposite of play is not work, but rather it’s depression (which is a stance that is appreciated), the ‘hard-working’ sound-bite ethic is detrimental to the natural elegance of play. (Where, incidentally, is the dividing line between someone who is ‘working’ and another who is ‘hard-working? I’m left somewhat anaemic, as it were, by the constant ‘hard-working’ rhetoric to fall from politicians’ mouths these past weeks).

There is a saving grace to be had though, and this is the start point in the thinking for this piece today (anathema to the Tory ideal): play has been a part of the natural flow of the world for far, far longer than Tory capitalism and material self-interest has been . . . and it will out-last them too.

In opposition to play, I had been feeling a little depressed (not, and very far from, in clinical terms, but rather in the manner of being pressed upon). Now where did I read of the exaltation of walking? It is something I’ve done for a long time: walk and be in the world. There is, you’ll find out, play out there. Here are themes I return to: that is to say, play is in the now, in the being and in the being here; play is part of the world and, in this respect, is not just of children. I walk because it helps me re-ground, re-live, but also because it helps me to think (even if I’m not consciously mapping out all the Xs and Ys of things to work through).

Something I’ve been background thinking about for a while, ‘out there’, whenever walking in the world that plays, is what would the places that we live in look like if we were to map them just by their trees? The place where I live is full of trees. When we really look at the things we’ve always taken for granted, we start to see in different ways. I walked out of town and along the river, south of all the buildings. There was copper-coloured bark, and there were trees that had been there far, far longer than anyone could really say. I sat at the edge of the shallow, narrow, slow-moving water, near to where a few birds played beneath and around a stone bridge (even man-made creations can add to the scene). The birds did play. There were two small ones (I have no idea what they were, but they moved fast and turned at impossible speeds). I watched as they skipped a few feet from the water’s surface: they flapped then dipped, flapped up, then dipped, zipped up then sheered around — all of this in erratic and totally non-efficient movements. They didn’t seem to be looking for food, or escaping from anything, or even undertaking elaborate mating dances: they seemed to be wasting their energies just because they could fly.

Of course, this is an interpretation, but I watched one of the birds (who was alone for a good five or ten minutes), and it did all the same movements over and around, and up and down, and round and round, never getting too far away, before suddenly turning hard in mid-air to dive-bomb underneath the bridge. Up again, and the whole thing repeated. Wouldn’t you do that too if you had wings?!

Up on the top of the hill, where the old Iron Age fort used to be, the start of this place way and far, far back, there is a clump of trees. The old earthworks are still heaped around the mid-drift of the site, but the wooden defences are long gone, and these trees are not the trees that used to be here, though they might as well be. I sat and just tried to listen. I write it like this because it is how it was, but I was pleased to later find, in synchronicity and serendipity, that my virtual world was offered this insight into some of the thinking of the writer Hermann Hesse (thank you Syl!):

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

Hermann Hesse, Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte
 
You old hippy, I can just hear some readers saying (though I know others are smiling!). I tried to listen to the trees, though they don’t speak in words we can lay down easily. Nevertheless, the trees — in their time, in their just-being-here-ness, in their just-looking-out-ness — had the play of the world in them, as did the birds and the bugs above the water, as did the shallow, narrow, slow-moving river, as did the day, the afternoon beyond the buildings: across the grasses and fields, and across the weeds and the late spring flowers, and into the middle distance trees, there are more greens in one place than we can ever really drop colours into our seeing minds . . .

This is all ‘walking and sitting and seeing and being’ therapy. We can move from positions of sobriety of spirit, of feeling pressed upon, to those of faith: we need only the time and space to walk (or to go out and find where we can walk), to see and to listen. We can know we’re not bound by the ethic of work yourself dry in ever depleting circles, attempting enforced attainment of future ‘economic unit’ status. We can see the play of the world, and we can know that it has been here far, far longer than the rhetorics of material greed and power, and that it will out-last all of this . . .

On the playground, I see children spinning slowly on the roundabout, looking up into the sky, and I don’t disturb them . . .

One day, we can hope that a Tory might get released into the wild: an epiphany could happen . . . or he or she might spend their breaths, by means and ways, trying to straighten up the trees, trying to fix the futures of their days.
 
 

Underneath our stories of play

Another playworker, I have found, has just started putting stories to the screen, or pen to paper, or both, but any way you write or say it, the telling of stories of play has the potential of value. After reading this recent story of play (‘the potatoe [sic, children’s spelling] ghost’) about the children at a different adventure playground, I found myself thinking on how our playwork stories of play are told and what might lie beneath these tellings.

First things first though, why are such stories of potential value? It is because they connect us to the understanding that what we’re seeing is, in fact, play (as opposed to some other label we could graft onto it); they connect us to our own play as children, to the play that has been (for the children around us), and to the play that could be. When we see play, we start to open our eyes and our minds to the possibilities of more play. What was once, before, regarded as annoyances, loudnesses, unfathomable actions and behaviours and the like, are suddenly now all play. We can smile at this, maybe.

It isn’t just playwork people who tell stories of play: many parents will share their children’s curious assemblages of actions and utterances; play-literate passers-by will take note of children’s ways of being in public spaces; teachers or other teaching staff might relate a particular instance of their days. Play, of course, isn’t just confined to children’s worlds: adults play too, though a fair few will find other names for what they do. Adults will tell stories of other adults’ play, though they’ll wrap them up in other words.

Last week, on the night Tube, I found myself sat next to six or seven other adults who had spontaneously started singing, a cappella, songs they negotiated between them. They were doing it, it seemed, just for the love of singing, and they had no hands or cups held out for monetary reward at the end of each song. They’d just got through the first few lines of The Flying Pickets’ Only You when my stop came by too quickly. I thanked them because their singing really was something quite special in the moment of my listening. If I’d written this story another way, I could have said that I thanked them because their playing really was something quite special in the moment of my listening.

Adults play, as do children, but it’s the appreciation that ‘this is play’ that folds its way into what becomes the story. How we tell that story is a story in itself. What struck me about my fellow playworker’s writing about ‘the potatoe ghost’ was the feel of magic realism in it. Children’s communications and all the story’s ‘extraordinary magic’ (as the magic realist writers might have it) are written as ordinary sets of occurrences of the playground. Sure, the potato ghost had come (in the reality of the play) and stolen the potato, and haunted the playground, and this induced some fear, but these are details of details of the world of play: these ghosts exist, these regenerations and possessions that are related of the children’s narrations exist, and no-one questions this, not even (or especially) the story teller.

What this leads me to thinking about is the nature of the interactions between any given playworker (or any other play-literate adult) and the child. This then unfolds in the manner of the story telling. How might we, the story tellers, be? We might be invisible observer (or as invisible as we can be), relating the third person ‘facts’ as we perceive them; we might delve into the first person telling, or the second person conversational (as literary as this approach might be, and I’ve not seen this approach used too often in terms of story telling of play, to be honest), or we might tell in ways that are something yet more sophisticated than this. How we tell the story might suggest not only our level of engagement in the play, and/or our comprehension of it, but also our deeper wants and needs. I’m now veering into the realms of the general, and not the specific of the story telling linked to above.

I wonder how my own story telling might pan out, if I were to place all my written stories of play side by side, end to end, one after another!

There are other considerations in the story telling too (as well as that of point of view, level of engagement, comprehension, wants and needs): there is the question of how the stories are presented, that of style. How we write suggests not only the way our senses absorb the information of the play around and running through us but also the affect that that play has on us. I can only highlight what I mean by way of reference to the general styles, as popularly conceptualised, of other writers. First though, a baseline story of play, recently observed:

A couple of weeks ago, I was drinking morning coffee in a café on Shepherd’s Bush Green as the rush of the city of London, or that end of it at least, swamped past on the road outside. I was reading my notebook, or watching TV, when I saw a mother — presumably — come in with a girl who was, I guessed, no more than about two years old, probably less because she was a little wobbly on her feet. My attention began to be taken by the way the woman concentrated all her energies on the child, by the way that the child was given the space to explore her immediate vicinity (though she actually stayed close by, holding on to the edge of the coffee table), and by the way the mother talked softly with the child about the lights (they both examined the lighting rig high up above them), the cars, anything that took the child’s fancy. The woman paid very little attention to anything else in the café.

Another woman came in, again presumably a mother, with a girl who was a little older than the first, and who was a little more confident. The second child knelt on the chair that separated her from the coffee table and the younger girl. The older girl moved her teddy bear around. It was as if, I thought, she was trying to bring the other child to play, whilst respecting the fact that she was somewhat timid. The women exchanged a glance or two, and nothing much more than a smile. The older girl, eventually, sidled down and round to the table. She placed the bear on a glass there, and took her hand away. The younger girl didn’t look too sure. The older girl took the bear away and replaced it again. The children were ever-so slowly getting closer. They almost made it to physical contact play, but something of the older girl spooked the younger girl.

I found myself totally absorbed in observing this slow, careful, delicate play unfolding. I found myself taken by the actions of the women (or the non-actions, more precisely). I found myself looking on without any other fellow café member noticing I was observing the play, as far as I thought or was aware. I felt, for all intents and purposes, invisible in plain view. When the older child’s mother signalled a time to go, there was a slight wave from the older child to the younger, and then the younger child’s mother carried on with her quiet talking and seeing with her daughter.

I write it all like this (a baseline story), and I wonder what lies beneath that way of writing it. How we write suggests the affect that that play has on us. Use of other writers’ styles, as popularly conceptualised, might result in different significances below the story’s telling . . .
 
In the style of Jack Kerouac, for example, and in part of the telling of the above:

The cityslush morningrush all conspired to a wave jumped up washed up found myself at the café stop and washing down and down writing thinking writing, thinking ‘bout going home, being home, what is home, moving on — till of a sudden there’s a baby wobbling, and she’s looking up and there’s her love-done mum, all fullhappy, and out there there’s the city and in there there’s the TV and the lights and all of that and all of this and baby girl just wants all baby mum’s everyness — and she gets it and she gets it and I just think there I just get this and I fall in fall on, and nothing doesn’t matter anymore cos there’s baby girl and baby’s mum and all that cityrush and look at all that sunshine on the inside . . .
 
In the style of Kurt Vonnegut, in part:

This happened, mostly. I saw this guy was sat watching one child throwing looks at another. And the other girl really wanted that bear she had. You could tell. Really, it happened that way. But what the other guys I know say is ‘What do you know anyway?’ And I’m just an old fart watching the world go by. It happened that way. Time goes by, and I tell them I can travel in it and see things others can’t.
 
In the style of Italo Calvino, in part:

In the centre of Shepherd’s Bush, that triangular city within a city, is a small glass building where, travellers know, they can see things others can’t or won’t. If, when inside the transparency of the room, the traveller who knows how to look takes the moment to see, then he or she will notice their moment filled with play.
 
In the style of Suzanne Vega, in part:

The mother came whispering at lights and the cars
Where her city’s streets were alive but afar
And the child she held so soft in her arms
Listened to the ways of the world

Along came another who smiled from her chair
She offered her comfort and the love of her bear
But the girl who had whispers fall down on her head
Couldn’t come closer to words . . .
 
Lastly, in the style of Bashō (with apologies to haiku purists who may be upset at various technical shades of this re-telling):

two kittens
at coffee’s edge —
one spring . . .

Stories of play are there for the telling, because play is seen, because play and its stories connect us. In stories there are levels of engagement, play-literacy and comprehension to be ascertained, but also — potentially — the teller’s wants and needs, the story of how their senses absorb, the story of whether the play flows around them or around and through them, and the way that the play affects and moves them in the manner and style of their telling.

Stories run deeper than just the words.
 
 

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