Archive for June, 2015
Last week, on the Underground, on my Friday evening way home, I think I managed to make some small difference, in the moment, in the play. It was a packed Tube train on the Jubilee Line and there was standing room only, as usual at that time of the day. I wedged myself into the small corridor between seats, as people piled in behind me, and I balanced there with all my bags slung around me, holding onto the rails above my head. Two boys of about four or five were sat on seats immediately to my left. As we rumbled along, as tends to happen a fair amount of time on public transport, I caught one of the children’s eyes. He was looking at me with that hint of curiosity (that, ‘what is it?-ness’ that I get sometimes!). I returned his visual cue, and he kept on looking when I turned my eyes away. I knew because I could feel it, but also because he was still doing it when I looked back. So, here was play starting.
I like to think I’m quite careful in situations like this. Play wants an outlet, and here I am, but this child and me don’t know each other . . . anyway, I squinted a few times, closing one eye and then the other (because this is not a usual adult thing to do); then I turned down my lips; then I raised my eyebrows, and other facial movements. The boy watched for a while, then started copying a little here and there. The other boy looked up. The play of slight distance repeated itself. The first boy stretched out his leg and it almost touched mine. I moved my leg so that it just slightly knocked his foot as it dangled there in space (he wasn’t tall enough to touch the floor). Perhaps it was the rolling of the train carriage that made this happen? Perhaps the train made me do it again.
Whatever the cause, the boy stretched out again, and the play repeated over, everso slightly, everso slowly, everso knowingly. Sometimes, no-one talks on the Tube. Play talks in its own way, and I was in it, and commuters didn’t seem to register for a short while between stops. I looked up just before I was due to get off. I caught the small smile of a woman who was sat to the boys’ right. I didn’t take her as the children’s mother (who I assumed to be the woman on the boys’ left — though she was ignoring them, and me). The woman who smiled seemed momentarily taken away from the commuter day-to-day.
My stop came. The boys and me exchanged small waves goodbye. I squeezed off onto the platform, and the commuter swill behind me slooped back into place (like I was extricating myself from jelly, which reformed after my exit!). I felt that something small and significant had taken place.
It is these small instances of significance in play that are fascinating me again right now. The grand and the visible exhibitions of play are all well and good (that is, for the children involved and for the adults observing, possibly thinking, ‘well this is all good that the children can play’). How the small gets forgotten though. Last week, I was out and about around the estate, trying to work out the landscape, the cityscape, of how the children used this small parcel of London streets, when I met a child I knew, by chance. He stopped to ask me questions about what I was doing. Over his shoulder, as I told him, I saw small moments of children climbing onto a wall as the adults they were with got talking to each other (and I don’t know for sure if the adults acknowledged the play that was happening behind their backs!)
What might we see if we look? Children might balance on the kerb, or along the cracks in the paving slabs for a few yards at a time (or, they’ll avoid the cracks, for reasons that you really should strive to remember!). They might run their fingertips along a railing or a textured wall, stop to pick a flower, kick a can or the like down the street, get distracted by any ordinary extraordinariness . . . on the same train journey, earlier on Friday evening, I was sat down as a woman with a buggy came on-board, parking the young child up facing the curved window. I don’t know if this was deliberate, but I hope it was, in retrospect, because the girl in the buggy tentatively put her hand up to wave to her reflection in the dark glass. This caught her attention for another minute or so after that.
Such minor details matter, accidentally placed children or otherwise. I’m saddened to say that the opposite happens too. Last week, one day, I was walking when I was passed by a small child of about three. She was ahead of her mother (or so I presumed the woman to be), who I could hear talking loudly on her phone, about twenty steps behind me. The girl ran up to a door, which obviously took her fancy, though I don’t know why because it was grey and plain, though it did offer a small noise in return for her light tap on it, the possibility of which may have been why she decided to do this. Suddenly I heard the woman, presumably the child’s mother, bark at her in the middle of her phone conversation: ‘Stop banging on that door’. Sadly, the child’s moment fell from her face.
Children will play all sorts of urban apparatus in their finding out about the sounds of the things in the streets, and in their experiments of texture, smells and sights. I once walked with a child who would trail his fingers along the flowers, every so often, bringing his fingers to his nostrils for a very small moment every now and then. In the spring, this year, for a few weeks when the trees were full of pink and white, some of the children on the after school club walk, from school to the playground, would demand of me that I shake the blossom from the trees we passed onto them; or I’d be needed to pull off a small bunch of blossom petals for them. Another child on the walk, a younger one, pulled me over to a tree I hadn’t seen, a place where he played, not our playground, just so I could shake the blossom down onto him.
So, in wrapping up here, my challenge to the reading adult is two-fold: take note of the small incidences and significances of play you see (the sensory playing of the city in moments, walking on walls or cracks, avoiding cracks, reflections that play the player in the dark glass, moments of possible connection between child and play-literate adult — others or you); if you see the possibility that you’re invited into a momentary significance of play, know that you can help make that moment possible.
Moments, as I have written of before, are significant . . .
Back in September, I told the story of telling a story about mermaids. It was a way into writing about ‘myth-narratives’ and ‘oral histories’, which our modern selves may well have forgotten all about in our technological, world-unconnected modern ways. I have a tendency to return to favourite themes and ideas, and so I find myself thinking this week about oral histories and stories, not this time of mermaids, but of Vikings.
Princess K., at home in September, wasn’t too perturbed by my suggestion that mermaids don’t exist. Her younger brother is also sucking up everything he can about the ‘real stories’ I can tell him. He has the moniker here of ‘Dino Boy’ because that’s what he was into when he was younger. Now, having passed into his Marvel Comics ‘Superheroes’ stage (with a particular focus on Hulk and Thor), he wants to know all about the Vikings. He seems to like the blood and guts of it. A while back I told the children the legend of Beowulf (with as much gore as I could paste into it!). Now, we’re onto stories of Ivárr the Boneless, and by extension (hopping around in time), King Alfred, and the like.
I don’t know too many Ivárr the Boneless stories, but we’ve both latched onto this character as someone of great villainous potential. Viking Boy, as I may have to now call him here, stops me every so often, mid-story, or when I’ve reached a natural pause, to ask, ‘So, who are the Goodies and who are the Baddies?’ Things seem to be so binary in this four-year-old’s world. Maybe that’s a result of modern televisual renditions of older stories. Maybe it’s a modern sign of the times. Occasionally I answer him by saying, ‘Well, who the Goodies and the Baddies are kind of depends on which side you’re on?’ but I don’t think he really gets the significance of this. So, for all intents and purposes, King Alfred is the ‘Goodie’ here, and any given Viking is the ‘Baddie’.
Just like stories of mermaids, stories of Vikings are important. As I inferred in September, we risk losing the richness of traditional tales if we stop telling them. Why tell stories of Vikings if we’re not ‘Viking’ ourselves? Well, as I said to Viking Boy when he asked me ‘are there any Vikings now?’, where we live (that is, England) we might all be a bit Viking. The mechanics of descendancy may also have passed him over.
In our stories, I’ve told how King Alfred fought the Vikings, and how he ran away to the marshlands of Somerset. Viking Boy knows now how King Alfred was supposed to have burned the cakes there. He’s listened to speculations on why Ivárr the Boneless was ‘boneless’, and sucked up everything I know about the Danelaw and the division of the north and the south, longships, the legend of King Cnut, Viking swords, and Jorvik, embellished in places, of course, with plenty of blood and guts in waves of early Viking raids. There’ll be more to tell.
A few weeks back, I got into drawing the battles with him. He watched closely at first, his face pressed near to the paper where I was telling the story as I lined up Alfred’s men against some unnamed Vikings. Viking Boy named the Vikings: there was Jeff the Viking, Jeff the Boneless, Andy the Boneless, and — for some strange and so far unfathomable reason — Locust the Viking! Then he laid into the men of both sides with felt tip pen, which was the blood and guts and gore. We had a similar battle, later, and later in history, with Harold’s men against the Normans (‘sort of Vikings’, being the only way I could describe descendancy) on the fields at what came to be known as Senlac, being better known as the Battle of Hastings. Viking Boy confused his own history at this point, but we still needed to go into graphic and particular detail on the legend of Harold’s gory demise (possibly, in a four-year-old’s head, due to the archers of Ivárr the Boneless: this adult listener forgiving the mash-up of a horde of time travelling Vikings!).
I think we’re still a little way from being able to mutually agree on what is legend, alleged history, and what is ‘truth’; Viking Boy has a binary mindset when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and when it comes to ‘made up’ and ‘real’. To him, it seems, the stories are ‘real’ if I tell them and if, when he asks ‘is this true?’, I tell him yes. I make room in the answer for the potential for alleged legend, but just like another strapline (Marvel’s Spiderman), with great power comes great responsibility! With story-telling comes great responsibility. Viking Boy looks at me with wide eyes, sucking up the ‘truth’ of what I say.
Later, when we drive past one of the old stone gates out of town, he pipes up from the back seat, asking what that’s about. It leads me into a story of King Alfred and his fortified burhs. Viking Boy listens carefully. Every so often, when we talk about the time we went to the cathedral, he brings up the story of all the kings there and ‘can we see the bones all mixed up in the boxes?’ because these are the stories I’ve given him. Stories get absorbed. When he runs into the room brandishing two thick cardboard tubes, jumping in front of me, proffering me one of them with a ready stance, he says ‘Can we play fight?’ (he leaves a small gap between the ‘play’ and the ‘fight’). Sometimes he follows this with a ‘You be the Goodie and I’ll be the Baddie’; sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s no in between, and he’ll often whack me on the knuckles as soon as I’m weaponised, or he’ll bundle in with his feet and arms waving: sometimes there’ll be a flying jump and no apparent plan regarding a landing strategy (other than maximum ‘enemy’ damage). ‘Do you know? Do you know?’ he sometimes says in a pause in the attack, ‘You be Alfred, and I be the Viking.’ I suppose that means he’s the Baddie again.
Stories get sucked up and played out. Is this playworking? I don’t know, though there is the engaging with the play material of the child in it; is this teaching? Perhaps — there is the engaging with the factual (and mythic) material, as requested by the child, in it. I don’t know if Vikings are on the syllabus of the national curriculum, but if they are (or, when they are), I’d like to know how that goes for Viking Boy’s teachers. Maybe he’ll have moved on further in his absorption needs by then.
Some of the children I know actively go out of their way to bring us adults, playworkers, into their play. I write it like this, as a definite and opening sentence all on its own, because people still have the tendency to write things that they suppose children want or like (such as, for example, ‘children want and need to play in adult-free ways’). Sure, being free of adults and their sometimes restrictions is something children sometimes seem to seek out: in their hiding away, in their roaming, or in the various other secrets of their play; however, to suggest that children don’t want adults around at all is contrary to what my experience tells me.
We have to be careful at this point: I’m not advocating taking over children’s play. What I am suggesting though is that, often, children seek out certain adults to be a part of the play for whatever reason (and I’m also mindful of the fact that, in context, this writing refers to children attending a staffed provision). Some children I know return to particular narratives and ways of playing day after day, and this can involve me. It is, at times, almost as if there’s a message underneath the cues that will repeat the play of previous days, and I can’t read that message well enough (as subtle as it may be). As far as I know, one girl will only jump with me, at the trampoline, in a certain manner; another girl will ask me to play a version of a game at the netting, styled in this way because of my presence; one boy played some nearly-rough and tumble/fantasy hybrid with me, and this may shape repeat into something, in this particular form, between me and him only: maybe.
Of course, our particular adult returns to children’s cues are to be noted here: I will return cues in ways only I can, as will my colleagues to the children who cue them. I can’t return a cue as my colleague can, and vice versa. It follows that my fellow playworkers will also have engagements in children’s play, at those children’s direct requests or non-verbal cues, that I won’t or can’t have. Children choose their adults, and we may be none the wiser as to why we’re chosen. If we think back hard, we may be able to find a memory of exactly when a play relationship shifted from something to something more significant; that though is a trick in itself. How do we know what caused a spark in any other?
In this sense then, it’s even more presumptuous to assume that we adults can know what children want or need. Blanket coverage doesn’t fit at the best of times, let alone in the infinitesimally succinct moments of spark that form ‘something’ into ‘something more’: from ‘you’re OK’ to ‘you’re the one I need to play this with’. Maybe it’s not even ‘play with’ in operation here: maybe it’s more along the lines of the adult being the play shell, the container of play, the vessel, the conduit, something like this.
Last week, just a short while after surfacing from the office (my head firmly lost in a screen for a good couple of hours after the children had come in), one of the girls came up to me and asked me to play ‘Earthquake Technology’ with her. She plays versions of this, at the netting that hangs from one end of the platform structures, with colleagues — I think — and with me she calls it this: I have no idea where the ‘technology’ bit comes from, but the ‘earthquake’ involves me pulling the netting as she lies or stands on it. She’s very light and tends to fly! Other children often soon get on, which makes the servicing of the play on my part that much more difficult! Netting-earthquakes are less seismic when weighed down by four or five children.
Last week, this play took place, again. Sometimes the other children will add in other ‘natural disasters’, and maybe other colleagues have seen this too. So, as well as being the earthquake, I was required to be the ‘shark attack’, the ‘volcano’, and the ‘tornado’, and on occasion I’ve also been the ‘tsunami’. The trick to this, from the point of view of the ‘natural disaster’-maker, is not to stop! Stopping means you realise how tiring it can all get. In the middle of all of this, in what felt like holding together the play, a boy came towards me with a big smile and acted out some form of ‘natural disaster’-maker attacker role. He became anti-natural disaster boy. He came at me with a spade and then a bread crate, and he backed me into corners, though he never really touched. He was in some form of nearly-rough and tumble play. His play took on a shape of its own: it linked to the disasters still happening on the netting, but it was also just slightly removed.
There was a point that I realised, whilst picking at the toes of sock-wearing children (in shark mode), whilst run-ducking underneath the netting in some sort of wave, whilst being a volcano, whilst being earthquake aftershocks, and whilst succumbing to a plastic crystal found by anti-disaster boy, that I was holding together two play frames (these instances of disaster and anti-disaster play) at the same time. It was a case of don’t stop.
Somehow I found myself in the netting, though I don’t recall exactly how. Maybe I was running away. Another boy threw himself at me. His rough and tumble was careful but more full-on. I tried to get out but, really, I was like a stranded turtle! Eventually, after struggling free and finding myself on terra firma once again, I declared myself honestly unable to earthquake the netting any more that day. I set off to sit down somewhere, but another boy bounced past saying he wanted to challenge me to a wrestling match on the crash mats. I really couldn’t. I directed him towards a colleague, telling him how he, my colleague, is younger and fitter than me. On this occasion, I was allowed my rejected play cue.
Children don’t want or need adults around them, so it’s said. Sure, often this may be true, but often other times there are certain adults who will only do, or who will do instead. There are messages beneath and in between the repetitions of the cues.
I got to sit down for a little while, until the trampoline girl said, ‘Come’ (she says this in exactly this way, as a play cue), taking my finger. She has a way of jumping really high because she’s developed this way with me. I’ve not yet seen her do this with any of my colleagues. There are, no doubt, other ways I don’t know which she shares with them.