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.