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

Archive for July, 2015

The art of skipping

Whilst sitting in a field last week at a music festival, lazing around in decadent sloth in the sun, I was told I analyse too much. It’s sometimes true, I guess. We were there to provide some play opportunity sessions for the children at the festival and, in between gigs (as some in the playwork world call their own work sessions!), in alternating teams, I lazed around and thought about the world going by. During the play sessions though, I found that I also did some good quality analysing. Hence the title of this piece!

If we’re engaged in the play of the moment with children, how often do we really consider the what and how of what we’re doing? We did eight sessions (‘gigs’!) in all: half in the more secluded and dedicated children’s area (though much more relaxed and small-scale than the heavy-duty Glastonbury Kidz Field — as an aside, I do wish that that ‘z’ weren’t used, or the word ‘kid’: it’s all too dumbed-down); we did the other half of our sessions in the ‘flag circle’ of the main festival area. In the latter, what transpired was plenty of skipping. We took some big long ropes and, probably because it was much more visible than the other site, this tended to draw people (younger and older) in.

Now, during this plenty of skipping time (which repeated over the days), I came to feel very aware of exactly what I was doing. That is, I found myself analysing the actions of my body in the way that I was in service to the play. Skipping (or, more precisely, being the rope swinger) is not a simple affair. I’ve known certain aspects of the following in previous play engagement, but it all seemed very immediate last week when I thought of things in terms of a collation of actions:

Older children came by and some were very proficient skippers: so, of course, this allowed for greater skip speeds. The dynamic changes when more than one older skipper plays. There are then, almost inevitably, a range of skipping abilities and styles that must be accounted for by the rope swinger. The speed of the rope has to be taken into account, as well as the arc (for skippers’ head heights), and the degree of rope scuff across the grass to account for the different heights that each skipper jumps their feet (that is, there is that range of skipping styles to allow for: jump height, the confident one spring with no intermediate half-spring in between, or the half-springers — the rope swinger has to watch the skippers’ feet carefully, they have to anticipate the full or the half-spring). Then, to add to this, there are the straying skippers who might be involved in the play. I found that this tended to happen with the younger children and can best be described here as the child in question progressively jumping backwards or sideways, usually, or sometimes forwards, out of alignment with the rope and/or the other skippers. The rope swinger has to shift position (and arc, and scuff height, and possibly speed) to allow for this drift. If skippers choose to ‘run in’ to the already swinging rope, the rope swinger has to judge their speed, their hesitation, their confident assertion, or any mix of these, and readjust the rope around that run. Additional difficulties lie in a mix of older and younger skippers, with differing abilities, head heights, jump height and style of skipping, and drift. The rope swinging has to allow for all of these variables to try to ensure that all skippers have the best chance of making it over the rope every time. Then things get a little more complex.

The rope swinger, up to this stage of the writing, has been related in terms of the singular because, although it takes two (usually) to service such play (unless one end is tied to a bench or some other sort of static object), this rope swinger is the dominant of the two. In effect, there are two sorts of rope swingers in each incidence of skipping play (well, there was when I was doing it, at least!): there is the dominant rope swinger (who undertakes the above actions and more), and there is the stable end rope swinger. The role of the latter is to be a consistent mechanism against which the dominant rope swinger can continuously re-calibrate the rope (whether they know it or not!). Whether servicing skipping can work with two dominant rope swingers or with two stable end rope swingers, I don’t know: I’d have to analyse that through observation more. It’s difficult to know, first hand, because I realise I tend towards being the dominant rope swinger. The dominant rope swinger also continually re-calibrates the feed of the rope: that is, there are readjustments of the length of the rope in the play, to account for the skippers’ heights and how they’re spaced out, and there are readjustments of the give in the slack, as well as in the ways of holding the rope in dominant and non-dominant hands, which best facilitate that feed.

Now, all of the above gets further ramped up when the odd adult comes over to play. Adults play too, and we found that the skipping in the flag circle was a draw for them as well. Some parents went out of their way to thank me, in conversation afterwards, not only for their children’s play opportunities here but for their own. The rope needs to go higher, or faster if the skipper is a father with a point to prove, say! The rope needs to allow for the additional adult re-engagement in their own play (that is to say, some adults seemed to have a vague memory of skipping but had forgotten what they used to do; some didn’t really know in the first place and just made it up as they went along, but without the practice that children put in, over and over; some adults got cocky and tried things that are second nature to their twelve year old daughters — full 360 degree turns, and suchlike — but which probably work out better without the mix of sun and alcohol!)

Back to the children: counting skips can work both ways. That is, it can act as a drive, a target, but also as a distraction. One day, three older girls and three older boys developed a friendly rivalry. The play shifted into girls versus boys (in the writing now, it reminds me of a sort of street dance-off). The play evolved into each group raising the other, or calling how many jumps they’d make: the boys were ambitious, calling higher and higher each time, even though they’d consistently failed to get past four. The girls, on the other hand, reached twelve, called higher, reached their limit for the moment, and re-assessed with one another before dropping their next target, eventually hitting the twenties. With the younger children, something strange happened with the numbers: at one stage we were counting in animals (giraffe, hippo, elephant, etc., and one boy said matter-of-factly what the next animal would be, as if we really were counting in a definite order); at another time in the play, one younger boy couldn’t get past four skips as we counted in numbers — for some reason I then started counting in German. ‘How many did I get to?’ he asked when he ran out of jumps. ‘Twenty two,’ I told him. Comprehensible numbers can distract, or so it seems.

So, I analyse too much, or so I’m told. Skipping has much more to it though than just standing there holding the rope or jumping up and down. I took a turn in the middle. The fuzz of the background just blurred as I jumped. I couldn’t really focus on anything but the moment. Some strange alignment seemed to take place: I don’t know how many I got to (not that it mattered anyway), but I felt like I was skipping for far longer than was strictly possible for someone of my age, height, jump style (ungamely!), and ability. I found I could jump without touching the rope, turn around, and around, and not fall over or get caught out, keep going. I felt like I jumped a long time (maybe it wasn’t so long, but it felt that way). Maybe I’d achieved a jumping alignment with the rope swingers, just for that short while. Maybe there was a perfect fusion of skipper, dominant rope swinger, stable end rope swinger (or, other combination of these), as well as counting which I didn’t hear, or no counting, but most of all the fusion was just all in being there and then in the play.

Skippers and rope swingers are synchronised as an in-the-moment art piece. When it falls apart, as it will, the canvas is reset.
 
 

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On play and psychogeographical praxis

When we walk around our neighbourhoods, or around areas unfamiliar to us, what do we feel? What does the area we’re in press on us? Which emotions, desires, or ‘pulls’ do we feel on us? What has this to do with play? Bear with me in this post, because this is, in itself, an exploration: a laying down of a foundation I may come back to sometime.

I have recently become interested in ‘psychogeography’, which is defined by Debord in his 1955 essay, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in part, as the study of the ‘specific effects of the geographical environment . . . on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In truth, and without really knowing it, I have been undertaking an uninformed and unformed background study of this for many years, as it seems. That is to say, I can now add to my act of walking my conscious awareness of the study of my emotions as I walk. Before I come on to play, a little more information on a certain means of movement: linked to the psychogeographic concept is the idea of the ‘dérive’, or drift, the definition for which I take from Wiki, so I trust it holds, though things seems to be fairly consistent across reading material:

‘In a dérive one or more [people], during a certain period, drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there . . .’

— Knabb, 1995, citing Debord

The added aspect to this is that this is not so aimless a drift; rather, it’s a conscious awareness of what pulls the drifter along. It is a way of experiencing (in this case, urban) areas in non-functional ways: where function and the playful have a fusion. Knabb (1995) also writes: ‘Cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes [sic] which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’. (This I shall return to, because there is a reflection to be had on this as linked with play).

There is one final piece of background information to add in: Debord (1955) also writes about ‘the sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few metres; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground)’.

So, within the psychogeographic study of how the urban area ‘pulls’ on the walker, the drifter, or he who is in his dérive, what emotions and behaviours are produced by the ever changing ‘ambiance’ of each segment of a street (sometimes just yards apart)? The only way to find out is to find out. Hence, psychogeographic ‘praxis’ (the actual doing, rather than just a thinking theory) is important. I will come to play. First, and next, some walked recent affects on this experimenter, edited out of the context of the whole (a sort of textual collaging in itself, rather than a ‘map’ of the whole):

This exercise of considered dérive is not as simple as one might think. First we have to come to be in a state of some flow, and then we must retain this whilst also maintaining a watchful eye on the shifting states of the self. Record every sensory impact, or as many as possible, and walk slowly. Remember to look up and around.

Certain streets exercised what I termed, in the moment, as a ‘pull’ (and I retain the phrase throughout because it seems to fit). Each pull needed accepting or rejecting. Each decision needed in-the-moment analysis of why it was accepted or rejected (for this ‘dériver’, at least!). I don’t know how much I was consciously aware of Knabb’s writing on a city’s ‘currents and vortices’ (in truth, probably not a great deal, in the moment), but they could be felt. Entrances and exits to pulling streets, defensible (invisibly boundaried) space, the affects of T-junctions or assumed cul-de-sacs, and so on, tended towards rejections rather than acceptances of drift. There is also, as is assumed, such potential psychogeographical impact on the ranging child, if the child has this opportunity to roam.

There was a dominant desire not to double back for this dériver, and later, on the inward stretch of the circuit as it became, back home, a desire not to accept the pulls of streets or ways that led me farther out. Accepting the feelings and reasons for these, as you go, as an honest approach, was a useful mode of being.

Along the way, pulls were not just streets but also a gathering accumulation or awareness of sensory impact: the smells of flowers I could and couldn’t name, perfumes of passers-by; vistas and aspects, slices between houses or whole views; the shift in the overcast sky, its brightening or the affect of drizzle; temperature changes; the sounds of planes and hard and soft traffic, the sound of the almost ubiquitous (assumed to be) wood pigeons, unseen; light shifts under, and out from under, trees; colour recognitions and juxtapositions; states of vertiginous positions (at the bottoms and tops of steep slopes) . . . all these pulls had an affect on the emotional and behavioural (directional movement, observational stance, internal desires to interact or refrain). This last point leads me to where I’m heading (this writing, as could be conceived, being a textual psychogeography in itself, if that’s not stretching it too far!): simply, certain pulls provoked the possibility of play in this dériver.

On the inward sweep of the large circuit, finding myself at a green hill, the level paths pulled me most: these paths that led roughly towards home with the least energy to be expended. A dirt track up a steep hill pulled unexpectedly, and it was accepted. It was, on the face of it, a futile climb: it was difficult to climb with only a few roots to hold on to, and it led to a short track which took me back to the track I was on before. I climbed it anyway, because it was there, feeling at the top of the hill something akin to what I remember feeling as a child: this hill has been climbed; let’s move on.

The climb affected the dynamics of the rest of the dérive. Steeply stepped pulls uphill were no longer rejected. The affects of the wind in the trees was noticed, as was the movement of every single tree on the top of the hill. A small movement and moment of play can produce a tumble of further shifts along the way. The functional aspects of the city (or one small area of it) can be — to use Neil Gaiman’s (2006) term, out of context — ‘upsettled’. The function and the play (or ‘the ludic’) can come closer together and fuse. Where does function and play start and end? This dirt slope was a track of sorts, functionally, but playfully it was a climb. Or, functionally, it was a climb, and playfully it was a track. Onwards in the dérive, the hill top is a magic circle of trees but it functions as the clearing at the top, a place of gathering. Or playfully it’s a clearing of moving trees, and functionally it’s a magic circle to be seen and engaged with.

In the psychogeographic consideration of my recent days, I’m wondering how the ‘ambiance’ of certain areas of cities can be affected to break down the rigidity of their functional selves, and to open up awarenesses of the playfulness that can fold in. Maybe we should all go on our own local dérive: a walkabout, perhaps — an awakening to what the urban ‘pulls’ cause in us, of what play folds out from us because of this.
 
 
References:

Debord, G. (1955), Introduction to a critique of urban geography [Online]. Available from: www.library.nothingness.org (Accessed July 13, 2015).

Gaiman, N. (2006), The hidden chamber in Fragile things. London: Headline Review.

Knabb, K. (Ed.) (1995), Situationist International anthology. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets. Cited in Wiki: Psychogeography [Online]. Available from: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogeography (Accessed July 13, 2015).
 
 

The case of the continuous playworker

If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? Maybe the same question could be written in terms of ‘if you’re a parent, are you a parent all of the time?’ or ‘if you’re a teacher, are you a teacher all of the time?’ Maybe these questions all have different answers. Maybe they don’t.

The question of ‘are you a playworker all of the time?’ came up in some training I was once expected to deliver (it wasn’t my course materials), and I seem to remember that the view I was expected to cajole out from playwork learners was one of ‘well, no, of course we’re not playworkers all of the time.’ I disagreed. Now, some years on, I find I’m coming back to thinking about this again.

The catalyst for this is to do with three closely spaced occurrences of play or playworker-ness which I wasn’t expecting. I’ll work backwards in time. I’d been to the pub to eat dinner and have a couple of beers after work. I didn’t stay that long (over-imbibing of a work night can have certain ramifications!): it was late evening, nearly ten o’clock, and the light was just starting to drain away around the mad and ever-moving triangle of traffic that surrounds Shepherd’s Bush Green. I walked across it, thinking of nothing in particular, when I saw a small grey shape approach me, followed by a long elongated ‘Hiiii-iii’ and a waving of hands. The usual smile of a nine year old I know from the playground’s Open Access scheme came into view. She proceeded to shoot me with her water pistol.

I asked her if she was with anyone here, it being a little way from where she lives, and she said that there was her mum, sat down at a table nearby. She dragged me over, saying, ‘Look who I’ve found.’ The girl carried on firing her water pistol at me as I talked with her mother, so I broke off conversation to play back. We played chase, with mum’s blessing, and we colluded in hushed whisperings about which members of the public might ‘accidentally’ get wet! No members of the public were hindered in the making of this blog, however! The evening folded in, and after twenty minutes or so, as the light drained away, I said I’d better be on my way. The girl would probably have stayed as long as she could, and her mum was more than happy to be out of the house. I said my goodbyes though, for now.

A little earlier in the evening, soon after leaving work, I heard my name being called from behind me as I walked down the road near the Tube station. It was one of the older after school club boys who had been with us that day, and who had left a fair while earlier to walk home on his own. As we walked, he just seemed like a different person: quiet and thinking hard. We talked of plenty of nothingnesses, and I asked him whereabouts home was. He told me where and it involved a train journey and a walk the other end. We bantered away as I walked him to the train station: I was going that way anyway. He said, ‘You know, I used to think you [playworkers] all lived there [at the adventure playground]. You know, some of you in the back room —’ . . . I said ‘Like we sleep in the cupboards?’ (which is what I always suspected the children thought of us!). ‘Yeh,’ he said, ‘something like that.’ I saw him off towards the station and said, ‘Get straight home, won’t you? They’ll be waiting for you.’ He ran across the road and disappeared into the Overground station. I thought of how we talk, in playwork circles, of children’s ranging, and of what I thought of ranging across this portion of London.

Back a little further in time, on the train that day, there was another one of those episodes of cues and returns which initially catch me off-guard. I’ve written about these plenty of times (when children seem to see something they connect with in me). It’s not that I’m even trying sometimes. A small boy, maybe three or four, was sat in the seat in front of me. I knew he was there the whole journey because I could hear his conversations with the adults he was with. I paid no more attention to a small child rabbitting on about whatever took his fancy in the ‘quiet’ carriage. It may have bothered others, but I’m used to this. We approached the final stop in London, and out of nowhere the boy decided to check the passenger behind his seat. I just looked back at him, offering no other return of his cue. He turned away and, a few seconds later, did the same thing. I put down my book. Perhaps the returning of the visual cue in the first place, by not studiously contemplating the book all along, was what did it. I don’t know. Other than this I did nothing. Now I was in the play. I gave in to it!

If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? At home, when Dino-Viking Boy and Princess K. want to play there’s often very little choice I have in the matter if they want to involve me! There are times, I admit, when I’m still work-tired, or when the youngest is smacking the eldest round the head with a cardboard tube or a plastic bucket, or when the eldest is playing every possible card she has to extract me from her brother’s attentions, I can get a little frustrated! I have been known to walk away to gather my infinite patience!! I am getting somewhat crotchety when the children pile out of the shed with armfuls of play stuff that they scatter round the patio, and I do own up to a quiet hope that sand and water and paint paste won’t be spread in all directions because ‘we’re making brown’.

Perhaps there is an argument, on paper, to say that a playworker may not be a playworker all of the time, if we look at the frustrations that take place (we work in the human field, after all). However, maybe the frustrations are all part of the process of ‘being playworker’. So, maybe, in practice, there is truth in the statement of being a playworker all of the time. I have to think about it more. What I do know, though, is that play in unexpected situations doesn’t often faze me (though it might initially catch me off-guard), and ‘being playworker’ is more than just ‘observing, putting out resources, creating environments’: actions, and reactions, and words and no-words, are part of the whole consideredness.

If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? On balance, I think: probably, maybe. If you’re a parent, are you a parent all of the time? If you’re a teacher, are you a teacher all of the time . . .?
 
 

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