Certain forms of play, and certain individual children, can really challenge a playworker (irrespective of that playworker’s experience). I very much doubt there’s a playworker with the ability to relate to every single child they ever meet; or rather, I doubt there’s a playworker who every single child can cope with being around. Sometimes we don’t try but still our presence will aggravate some child. We can choose to take this personally, or we can choose another strategy. Sometimes, our conscious actions can aggravate all the more. We can choose strategies we think will make things all the better for the majority of the children on site, or we can choose yet another strategy for being in amongst this children’s rarefied world. In reality, conscious playworking is not straightforward, not so binary, not so ‘this is how to do it’.
Here is the context to this thinking today: last week, being the first week of open access school holiday provision at the playground, there was plenty of the usual posturing and antics from a handful of the older boys (supplemented by some of the older girls’ support or antagonism tactics, and a sprinkling of some of the younger girls’ emotions thrown into the mix to boot). Some of the older boys use various means to rule the roost. They variously engage in covert coercion tactics, diversions with playwork staff and outright, chest out, full blown stand-offs with one another. Their play, which in the calm of this writing the other side of the weekend, can still be seen as play (albeit disruptive and designed to antagonise others) sometimes results in other younger children skirting around the edges, steering clear, or not doing the things they want to do in the places they want to do them.
I made playdough one day, because one of the girls had asked for it the day before, and I left it out for the children. The older boys started throwing it around at each other and aiming it at others. There was very quickly no playdough left. I made more later, but the girl who wanted it that day couldn’t play with it how and where she wanted to: the boys had ripped it apart and attacked people again. Their play also involved jockeying for ‘top dog’ status, or acting up around the ‘top dog’, or inciting low-level verbal attacks, or the like. It was exhausting for the playwork team. It was the first week, and I had worked only part of that week on the playground myself, and by the end of the week I was already very low in sugar and desire to go about the work of providing for play.
There is undeniably the to and fro of power shifting taking place when any given playworker puts himself or herself into the position of trying to support, and even things out for, all the children. You get spread very thin. You try to do the right thing. You end up focusing only on the few who rule the roost, and you want to see the play of all the other children: you want to know if it’s there still, how it’s there if it is, what happens, and how it might be better supported. You end up, however, just aggravating the individual children who are sucking up all the attention, energy, and will.
By Friday morning I was already thoroughly exhausted. I got in early and decided I needed just to sit still on the grass and take in the world. My colleagues got on with various tasks that needed doing: cutting the grass, litter picking, admin work, bits and pieces of building. I wasn’t doing nothing. I was collecting. I sat there for a while, and somewhere in amongst all of this I realised that, the day before, I was probably part of the problem. I had got in the way of certain individual children who were aggravating others, who were aggravating me and my colleagues; I was trying to do ‘the right thing’ but ended up, evidently, making things worse. I had already decided that today would be different for me, on my walk into work: I decided I would consciously keep as low a profile as I possibly could on Friday. I would do what needed to be done (not the bare minimum, but everything that needed me, and anything that I could also do if it didn’t risk aggravation on anyone’s part). I went about my later morning tasks until the children came to the playground (mixing buckets of powder paint, incidentally, under a slow running tap, is recommended as a form of meditative centring technique!)
Now, I’ve not always been an advocate of the playwork stance that is ‘being invisible’, preferring instead the idea that a playworker will relate when needed to relate. Even this is too simplistic an interpretation, too binary a telling, of ways of playworking. When the children began to come in, however, I had the sudden realisation that, even though I was trying to stay well out of the way, I was still somewhat in the way because of a few reasons: (i) I’ve noted from previous observation of colleagues on the playground, and from reflection on my own practice, that we often tend towards operating in certain favoured zones — it might feel like ‘patrolling’; (ii) I’m taller than (most of) the children, sticking out in the middle of things; (iii) I tend to prefer walking or standing rather than sitting because I like to be able to see plenty of things in my observations; (iv) I often tend to position myself in parts of the playground, if not in the middle of things, then where I can see most of everything with just a sweep of the head. All of this, I released, might contribute to being too in the midst of things, too present, too much of a potential aggravation, even if not actually physically being in the middle of the playground. If what I’ve said or done previously has affected the children, then if they don’t know I’m there, currently, there may be less chance of my presence becoming a catalyst for inflaming past agitations. This does lead to the thinking that is, ‘well, what then is the point of me being on the playground?’, which I shall return to shortly.
The day was a conscious effort to be ‘other’ than the day before. I sat instead of stood; I tried out positions where I knew I was always lower down than the children who moved and played around me; I interacted with children, on their request and cue, who I hadn’t interacted with for a while, because I hadn’t taken the time for them or because the older boys had often taken up all my observational and interactive energy. The session started off quietly, as it often does, and then quietly rumbled along in similar fashion.
I saw a colleague eating from a bowl whilst sat down in one of the old people’s home chairs, which still cling on to life in various places around the site: he was sat near the fence, in the shade of the tree of what we call ‘the outside office’ (a sometimes den, a sometimes debriefing place). I only noticed him there because he moved to bring the spoon to his mouth. It was a good place, I found later, to observe from. I couldn’t see everything that was going on around the playground (the door to the main room inside was blocked from my view, as was the main gate around the corner, and a good portion of the far side of the playground), but I could see the main strip where the pool table functions as the social centre of the place, the wedge of open ground that is a main route towards the structures, the ‘tree house’ where the new water slide is, and in the far corner, in the haze, the latest incarnation of the ever-changing ‘mad house’ (a palette construction which children add to with new wood, nails, drills, paint, and tarpaulins), with a small group of industrious children attending to it like ants quietly building.
I sat there in the shade for a good long while. I stayed very still but I concentrated very hard on what I was seeing. This was my purpose today, I then realised. I was ready if I was needed by any colleague or child, but I wasn’t necessary to get in the way. The knowing playworker understands that his or her colleague who sits in the shade of a tree for a good long time isn’t shirking responsibilities: they know that they’re concentrating very hard. I was able to see (as I have known but re-realised again) that certain children also have their certain preferred favoured zones (just as the playworkers do); I could see how little bubbles of potential agitations formed, then dissipated, as if watching in slow motion, because no adult aggravated the situation (though they could have intervened, and might have been justified in so doing had they done so); I was able to see how the children who didn’t have so defined a zonal area of comfort moved around — one girl of around ten was the ‘butterfly child’ (she slowly flitted from one place to another: she didn’t seem to have a plan of action, something caught her eye, something happened in her head, she flitted towards the attraction or decided otherwise, she floated around in almost curvilinear fashion, caught on the breeze, smiling, or daydreaming). I saw how two colleagues engaged with an older boy in chase tap play and how he had all of their attention to himself, because he willed it that way, but he seemed absolutely in the flow of that attention. When another colleague drifted inside with all the other older boys, I wanted to know what was happening, but I resisted the curiosity because my presence would have changed things. I found out later that they’d all chilled out on the sofa and chairs, talking. I think they, and we, all needed this.
As the day went on, I kept to my very conscious playworking stance: I endeavoured to keep physically lower, where possible, to sit more, to observe in places I wouldn’t normally operate in, to lessen my possible aggravational impact. I was able to relate to children, at their request, in very considered ways. Later, when other children attempted to cue me into hassling or chasing them around at the end of the session (a common distraction technique to prolong the eventual closing of the gates), I refused to return those cues: to have my buttons pushed. I ignored them, and the children wandered off (until I couldn’t resist with the final child at the gate, him smiling in a way to suggest that he’d won my attention after all, and I got a kick in the shin for my efforts, prompting a colleague to rightly tell me that I deserved that!)
The playworking conclusions I can draw from this conscious stance (and reflections on it) are that, although we may not be the sole cause of agitations of days we wish would pass more quickly than others, we can inadvertently (and otherwise) be an aggravating contributor to it all; we can choose our actions (our height and position, our movements and words) and our apparent inactions; we need our firm resolve about us to enact our decisions and to keep them going (or to change them if they’re not working out); we need the will to resist curiosities that can function better without our presence; we can observe things we either hadn’t seen before or were re-realising again, if we know that what we’re doing in the observing is also important in the greater scheme of things; we can sit and think and not plough headlong into another day, especially if that day is one we’re not looking forward to.
When all is said and done, I believe, the conscious stance is preferable.