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 . . .