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

Archive for November, 2015

Fine lines and play narratives

It’s been a while since I’ve focused some writing on some playwork theory. It does raise the old question of how much does theory really influence practice (and maybe vice versa)? However, that’s a side point here and now. Every so often I start wondering again about my influence on and in the play. In the back of my head, I’m aware of the requisite requirement not to unduly affect the play. Increasingly, however, I find myself realising how I get drawn into the play by the children themselves. I do try not to take it over (because, after all, and as we know, it’s not about me). The fact is, though, sometimes the children actively encourage my play narrative co-creation of things. It’s a fine line sometimes between any form of ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, or maybe even slipping into ‘teaching’) and responding in playwork-approved ways.

Five girls in the group, these past few weeks (either in sub-groups of the whole, or en mass), have taken to actively drawing me into their repeated play narratives as soon as they see me out on the playground, often late in the day. The children range between the ages of 7-10 (or, as I think it as I write, seven getting on for whatever ‘precociously worldly wise’ amounts to). As I’ve touched on in recent writing, some of these children have repeated play frames, which they like to re-engage with on seeing me. The other day, the five girls surrounded me, and they all explained their play narrations at once (in the way that sometimes ‘you’ll do this, I’ll do that’ sort of play unwinds itself as a pre-play form of play in its own right). There was almost exactly repetitious play requested, forms of adaptations of previous play, and, unaccountably, the new introduction of Ninjas (who proceeded to demonstrate what Ninja-ing was all about as they hit and kicked me, laughing, and as they explained the play that was going to happen!)

I’m building up to the original enquiry of the fine line between playwork theory ‘adulteration’ and responding in playwork-approved ways. Bear with me. Sometimes, to be honest, responding to individual cues can be difficult enough (how to read the situation; how to judge between the right balance and blend of tone and response and joke and seriousness and so on, for any given child; what and when to say what might work for the child to keep that moment potentially precious). Responding in a likewise fashion to five children, all at once, with near enough five variations of narratives forming, whilst being Ninja attacked by two of them, is a different animal altogether! Eventually, probably more through luck than judgement, the narration of the play before the play, which is play in itself anyway, shifted into something that was more or less acceptable to all the children. I was involved, required, and drawn in.

Over the past few weeks, several areas of the playground have developed prison names. They’re becoming almost like short-term legend markers, as it were. I wonder if the names (or, in fact, the prisons themselves) will still be around come spring. When one of the children tells me (in the depth flow of the narration within the play narrative itself — yet another layer to their play), what each prison is called, I try to listen in carefully. I repeat what she says. On the one hand, I’m interested in this ‘naming of places’ business anyway; on the other hand, it seems essential to the play that I know these things. I’m told of the ‘air prison’, ‘the tree-house prison’, ‘the creepy prison’, ‘the mansion prison’, ‘the scary prison’ (and, recently, a new addition — put out there as a tester, I suspect, by one of the children — which may or may not re-emerge: ‘the dreadful prison’). One of the older girls in the group is fairly new to us. She’s taken on the narratives, absorbed them, re-played them, and adapted them. The prisons on the playground are co-created affairs over weeks.

When I’m required to be part of the play narratives that the girls play, if I don’t play ‘properly’ they tend to know. It’s basically a form of chase-tap, except the children stand around talking to me (in the narration that pre-empts the ‘play proper’, and which blends into the latter, and they tell me that ‘now I’m going to steal your watch/gold/wallet, etc.’ and then they keep standing there, with the stolen invisible goods held up, not running away!) How can I catch someone running away if they’re not running away?! This play is, essentially, morphing into not ‘chase-tap’ but ‘tap-prison-escape-repeat’. Sometimes, often in fact, the girls will tolerate the development of the narrative by myself. They take on board the things I say in the play, in passing, and they absorb them into the narrative (this is where ‘the air prison’ came from, being the idea of not being able to escape from a swing up in the air, after all).

Here’s the thing: it’s a fine line between some form of playwork ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, say) and responding in playwork-approved ways. Last week we ended up running away from the older girl (who morphed into the ‘cop’ suddenly) by flying to Brazil. The other girls buried their swag in the sandpit. In trying to connect this part of the narrative (if it needed it) with the unseen play of the ‘cop’ on the other side of the playground, or to keep it intact for the sandpit children, there may come a point where you drop all the balls, as it were. Being ‘in it’ might mean not necessarily seeing ‘all of it’.

The play across the playground had shifted condition. The older girl had created another narrative that didn’t involve us. This we discovered on going to investigate why the sand-buried swag wasn’t important any more. The sandpit girls were still accepting of me; the other children had lost interest in things over our way. I realised I’d been balancing the fine line and I made my excuses and drifted away. No ‘unwanted adult’ agitation had been caused, it would seem, I think: this time.

The next time I saw the children, variations of chase-tap, tap-prison-escape-repeat, narration-play narrative geared into action again. I write to remind myself: I write to think as I go about playwork theory’s impact on practice, and vice versa, and if those things that I thought might matter actually do still matter at all.

Telling stories of meat and weak gravy

Last Thursday night saw the playground hosting a campfire evening for West London Zone’s link workers in White City. I estimated around sixty adults and children turned up (and, independently, so did they — so that tallies well!) The point of writing this introduction to this post is not so much to talk about the campfire evening (though this was a positive in itself), but to focus on the storytelling element that West London Zone were looking to embed into it, and from this, specifically, and as a jumping off point, the story that I told. Surrounded by a small group of pre-schoolers, or thereabouts that age, and a few parents, I told one of my favourites: Beowulf.

Now, it has to be said, Beowulf could be told with a fair amount of guts and gore! I let those around me know of my story plans, as a means of asking permission, and no-one objected, though admittedly I did rein the story in a little. There will be monsters and fights, I said beforehand. I tell Beowulf whenever I can because the meat of it I can remember well enough (stories told without the back up of books being held up have a different quality to those that are read from the page — which can work, but I tend to think these work best with certain forms of performance or in the privacy of one’s own head). I also tell the Beowulf story (though I can’t recite the original word for word!) because I find it has more ‘meat’ than the anodyne anaemia of many modern offerings.

Really, I can’t be doing with ‘Timmy Helps Mummy Do the Washing Up’, ‘Let’s All Share Our Toys’, ‘Khalid and Rupert Are Best Friends’, or ‘Last Place is Just a Different Type of Coming First’. OK, so I made those titles up, but you get the point.

I’ve written in this area before, but I like to come back to subject matters. Here and now though, there’s more to add in the thinking on stories handed down through time. I like to think I’ve played my part in handing Beowulf on and on. So often we know more about stories (which we’ve just vaguely heard of) in the form of a film or an X-Box game than we do of the original epic tales. However, here and now I’m thinking of the ‘meat’ of the Beowulf tale. That is to say, in critique, whilst I sneer at the insipid morality of titles like ‘Let’s All Share Our Toys’, and so on, maybe Beowulf’s morality punch can be seen as just as much a tool of the propaganda of its day.

‘Good’ fights ‘evil’: the archetypal staple of the stories of generations. Beowulf overcomes the tyrant monsters and dragons: though, looking closely, we see that the monsters and dragons are retaliating against the perceived wrong-doings of the Danes and Geats (modern Swedes). I’m guilty of perpetuating myths, just as the author of ‘Last Place is Just a Different Type of Coming First’ might also do. How much of this ‘archetypal propaganda’ permeates into the conscious realm of children as they grow? For now, I hope I’m dealing in constants of the human race but that I’m not causing damage in doing this (the ‘meat’, if we’re going to carry on down this line of metaphor, rather than the ‘weak gravy’ servings of ‘Timmy Helps Mummy Do the Washing Up’).

This is not a way of saying that storytelling should perpetuate the glorification of war. Rather, this is a way of saying that the archetypes we engage with throughout our lives are difficult to shake. They’re in us, in our stories. Should we try to eliminate them with the drivel of shelves upon shelves of ‘Let’s All Be Really Nice’ and the like?

When I tell stories that I’m making up with children, there’s nearly always no direction, no idea as to what the middle will be, let alone the ending, and the creature of the story evolves second by second: quite often there’ll be something like a giraffe getting flushed down the toilet, and some child will add something like how an elephant will get stuck down there too, and then a lion and a gorilla, and before you know it there’s an explosion, which’ll be messy, as you might expect! Or something like this. There won’t be morals when I make up stories with children (unless the children implant them themselves), and there won’t be any Timmy-ness helping well, or Rupert-ness sharing nicely. Sometimes, the occasion of a character turning inside-out might happen, or there could be farting, and if so it’ll probably be calamitous!

Telling Beowulf last week with a group of pre-schoolers, or thereabouts, also added something to the tale as it unfolded. King Hrothgar held his festivities in his great mead-hall, though they became parties, and the parties naturally then involved jelly and cake (as I was told!). In a way, this is right. Oral stories are transmitted from generation to generation, and sometimes new things may get added to the tale. Whilst trying to remain faithful to the version I had in my head, I rather liked the idea that King Hrothgar of the Danes had jelly and cake, and the monster, Grendel, didn’t much like this state of affairs!

What we do have to guard against, however, in the telling of the ‘meatier’ stories to children, despite the potential for transformation, as above, is the possibility that such tales of archetypal constants don’t get dumbed down. It may be a fine line between the playfulness of King Hrothgar’s jelly and cake and the eventual dissolving of such tales, a few hundred years (or fewer than this) from now, into ‘Beowulf Told the Naughty Grendel to Stop Being Bad, and Everyone was Very Nice to Each Other After That’.

It isn’t so binary, in reality, in choosing between states of telling ‘meatier’ tales and telling stories of ‘nice and blandness’. There are very many degrees in between (perhaps my made up stories of giraffes without meaningful middles, ends or directions fit in here). However, there’s definitely more collective thinking to be done in looking at what our stories are.

Playing with ‘the dead’

Last week some of the children found a dead pigeon on the playground. Well, to be honest, it was somewhat generous to give what was left the name of ‘pigeon’ because of the general carnage. A fox or a cat must have got it, I reckoned. I hadn’t seen it earlier, as I’d walked around the empty playground. When I’d got over to a couple of excitable children stood near the equally dead vestiges of the previous night’s bonfire, one of them was saying, ‘Look, there’s a leg, and over there’s the other leg, and a wing.’ That was about all that was left of the meat of it. There were feathers scattered at the burnt-out edge of the charcoal. Bits of bloodied sinew flopped from the dismembered legs.

I asked the children what they were going to do with it. They didn’t have a plan as yet. Some of their friends walked by outside the fence shortly before coming in, and the boys shouted out the find to them. They said they’d wait to show the others. I expected some sort of grave might be dug. Perhaps they might scoop out the middle of the charcoal of the previous night’s bonfire, deposit the bits of bird in there, and cover it over. I didn’t expect a solemn affair, though you never know. The playground has seen a few such graves or funerals over the years. Stories occasionally surface about such places or times. There was the bird that got a grave up on the slope behind the fire pit. There was the filmed funeral for some sort of creepy crawly behind the hammock swing, years ago (now, was it a butterfly or a caterpillar, a spider, or something else?). Stories of stories not experienced first hand can have a tendency to transform, if the teller isn’t careful. There was the grave dug for the ‘accidentally dropped’ phone, and there was the funeral procession for the cardboard box. There have been more.

Last week’s bird I expected to get a grave, but as far as I’m aware this didn’t happen. I sat back, at a distance I hoped was well enough out of the way. I was trying to observe, whilst another child asked me what it was I was doing: so I told her I thought that what they were doing was interesting. Why? she asked. I didn’t feel it proper to go into any level of analysis with her. As my focus returned fully to the episode of the bird at the burnt-out bonfire, I saw a boy come back to the scene waving a litter picker in the air. He was pulling and releasing the trigger over and over. I didn’t feel he’d be tidying up though. Sure enough, the dismembered wing was picked up in the litter picker and waved about. Then it was used to try to tease either the children on the nearby cantilever swing or my colleague who was pushing it. A saw came out but I couldn’t work out what the idea might be, and this was discarded again soon enough. After a short while, with no-one really being too disturbed by having a dismembered wing shoved close to their face on the end of a litter picker, the children tumbled off elsewhere, downing tools in the grass. The bird didn’t get its grave, I don’t think.

There is a certain fascination with dead things from certain children, just as there is a certain fascination with live things by those same or other children. The bird didn’t look too much like a bird by the time the children had found it, and I wonder if they had had any notion of the colossal scrap that must have happened for it to end up that way. Would that have made any difference to the way they’d played? I’m unsure what ‘dead’ means to children. It can be a difficult enough concept for many adults.

In the often abstract — though still somewhat symbolic — world of children’s play, ‘the dead’ is a motif that tends to come up time after time in various guises. It can be direct and it can be less so. After the bird-pickers had left the scene last week, and as I went up the slope to retrieve the discarded saw, a couple of girls who hadn’t been involved gravitated round me. We talked about how I wasn’t feeling well as of late and how I was finding it difficult to breathe and talk and do things. The conversation turned, morbidly enough, to something along the lines of ‘perhaps you’ll die’. It was matter-of-fact. What can you say to that? Short of getting all morose with them about the fate of all of us (sorry!), I just said, ‘Well, um, thanks mate, but don’t worry. I’m not going to die.’

‘Good,’ she told me. ‘I like you as a worker.’

‘What about as a person?’

‘Yes, that as well.’

I digress. ‘The dead’ was a direct conversation, though even so, it may be difficult to imagine what that actually means. Maybe this is why children play with such concepts in other ways. Maybe this is why they bury birds, or insects, or accidentally dropped phones, or bits of dismembered electrical equipment. Maybe this is why funerals for cardboard boxes happen.

The motif of ‘the dead’ emerges in other ways as well. These ways, however, somewhat side-step the whole point of what ‘dead’ is. Currently, children on the playground are playing variations of the classic chase-tap game (versions where playworkers are necessary as the chasers), but these variations include being hunted by werewolves, or vampires, or zombies, or combinations thereof. It’s the vestiges of Halloween’s shadow hanging around. Sometimes there are ghosts. These fantastical arrangements are all either of ‘the dead’ or ‘the undead’ or both. What ‘dead’ means though, let alone what ‘undead’ might mean, is side-stepped.

Children also cheat when they play these games: it’s part of the way to play, and it’s expected that they’ll do it anyway. When they get caught and ‘bitten’ by the vampire, they find a way to talk themselves out of it. Werewolves and zombies seem to fair no better. If there are guns or swords involved, children always seem invincible. The idea of ‘the dead’ is in and around these forms of play, but there’s always a way to cheat it. Invincibility (and perhaps the gift of the gab too) is a power, a mastery, taking control of things that would, otherwise, win.

I’ve seen plenty of play involving the motif of ‘the dead’: the teddy bear speared by a pole and soaked in red; the ‘dead’ electrical equipment spattered in red paint, having fallen from the bench; the chalk line outlines of people, arms out, one leg up at an angle, on the paving slabs; the effigy of ‘the silver man’ burnt on the bonfire (killing someone the children had, that day, been warned by school about); the ‘Charlie’ game involving contacting ‘Charlie’ with ‘pencils that move by themselves’ (Charlie’s name written in red on the fire escape door); the songs and stories of Bloody Mary told in quiet corners. There’s plenty wrapped up in all of this.

Graves for dismembered pigeons (or not, as the case may be), and other poor unfortunates, aren’t the be all and end all of play with the motif of ‘the dead’.

A playworker is unwell . . . however, not in a Jeffrey Bernard kind of way!

I have been sick for a while, and a consequence is that breathing, let alone thinking and writing, has been difficult! The things we take for granted when we don’t notice that they happen. The same can be said, I suppose, for all our interactions. As I’ve recovered a few brain cells as of late, I’ve had the gradual feeling that there’s an almost continuous ‘active’ aspect to my interactions with children. That is to say, whilst I don’t think I necessarily consciously go out of my way to be in a certain state when around them, there may be an unconscious me driving those interactions.

I like to think my conscious self is a natural me in my conversations, observations, and general being around the children I work with and for. That said, early on in this current illness it was noticeable how things didn’t seem to fit any more: maybe my unconscious drive had faltered. I became invisible in an unusual way, away from the playground and, being ill, I didn’t so much mind. Only when I stood in line at a cafe, a long way from home or work, one dull day (in the weather and in my head), did I start to realise such things: my attention was caught by the clearest, bluest eyes of a baby in a pushchair. Of course, the baby then became engrossed in my eye contact, and her mother said she (the baby) hardly ever looked at men this way. When she and the child left the cafe, I was sat at the door. The baby didn’t take her eyes off me as the mother pushed her out, smiling at me as she left.

I was no longer so invisible, but I was still unwell. On the playground the following week, my shortness of breath meant I needed to engage with my work in a slow way. I needed just to sit and observe to get my brain firing again, but also because doing all the things I’ve taken for granted was just too difficult. I was a walking zombie I was told. However, zombies are able to listen. I took up position in my various favourite observation spots: high enough to see as much as possible; hopefully unobtrusive enough not to seem like I was overtly spying. Every so often, one of the children would amble by. They’d say hello and sit down with me. They’d start conversations and, as I wasn’t much able to converse, I listened more. The various children told me significant insignificances (or vice versa) of their days or lives. New relations developed where, before, there weren’t really any to speak of. Other relations continued to strengthen.

I’ve always been confident that this relating is core to working with children. How often do they get the proverbial time of day from any given adult? It’s more than this though, more than a form of compensatory offer: children can and should be talked with on a level.

The usual me has been compromised these past few weeks: children I know well at the playground, and who in turn know me very well too, often come to me to repeat a conversation we had a few weeks back, in the same place that those conversations first took place, or to try to re-frame a particular instance of play. I suppose they do this because they enjoyed things the first time round, but there may be the level of wanting to re-engage with the adult of their choice because of the moment of that adult at that time. When the children come to me and want to repeat the storytelling about the Gorilla Thief or want to re-enact a scene of Cops and Thieves or want to replicate an instance of play in the netting, they don’t get what they fully want or need in my state of illness. At first, but briefly, they keep asking for the replications (albeit not entirely in a disbelieving of my illness, but in a wanting it not to be true kind of way). Shortly, something of the trust that’s been built over time kicks in: the children know I’m not lying to them.

The unconscious me must drive through all of this, but it must get damaged when I’m unwell. In such states, it’s difficult to think a straight line through and seeing what you’re seeing isn’t so easy either. Hopefully now though, the curve is an upward one. When we start to truly see again, we can think, and we can come back to ourselves.

This week we held a street playday and my observations of the play, in the general swill of all the things that were happening, brought me a little closer back to my unconscious self. My physical self is still unwell, but I smiled to see a small child kicking an empty tin can around, a boy tie himself to a lamp-post with a rope, an older boy with autism laughing as he smeared himself in what looked like shaving foam, a child walking around with a cardboard box on his head, a girl doing cartwheels and handstands, a baby playing with a potato masher, and so on.

What we may take for granted are things such as we will always engage with or be enlightened by the observations of play; we will be able to relate, in words and otherwise, with the children we find around us; we will be fit enough to carry around the resources for the opportunities for play; we will be able to think sharply and talk clearly and well on what usually inspires us. In varying degrees of reductions of these, like swills of sugar solutions, I find that writing helps.

Words start to come back within an illness that won’t fully shift. Observations of play fold in, thoughts on these wander by. Slowly, slowly, the unconscious self seems to be reforming, such is the feeling that the repair of the conscious self seems to conclude.

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