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

Archive for March, 2018

In praise of some colleagues of play

Reading through the posts and pages of this site, as I have been doing as of late, it’s occurred to me that I write a lot in praise of play, in support of children and their rights, about what those children do or how they are (it is a blog with a certain focus, after all) — in echoing A. S. Neill, of Summerhill, I am ‘on the side of the bairns’ (Neill, 1916; cited by Croall, 1983: 57), but I don’t always give as much credit where it’s due to the adults who are also focused in such a way. That is, in respect of the current thinking, I thought it high time I wrote a little about some of those who I’ve worked with, over the years, in our joint focus of working with and for the children, who I’ve either learned from, been inspired by, or just simply enjoyed working with because they enjoyed working with the children and were good at what they did.

Now, the caveat here is that I’m not looking to raise the status of playworker (or the playworking-minded) to an ego-focus (maybe, ‘raise’ isn’t the right word here) — as I’ve written elsewhere, and more than once, play (and the playground) isn’t about the playworker. What I am looking to do is to say that this person, or that person, has had a positive affect, even if they didn’t know it at the time. For this caveat above and because of privacy, I won’t mention any names: if those people read here, they’ll hopefully recognise themselves. If they don’t read here, then it’s here for anyone else, or for them if they ever find it.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason for the list I’m forming in my head, other than what I’ve already written above, so there will be omissions and that doesn’t mean that those people weren’t good either. There has to be some start process though. I don’t want to write things out in chronological order either, and nor do I wish to create some sort of hierarchy of ‘value’. I shall press the internal shuffle button and see what transpires.

This post wasn’t going to be written with the added extra of academic references, but now in the flow I can see another relevant one floating up in my mind’s eye: Hughes (2001: 172) writes about what he terms as six different ‘playwork approaches’ and the ‘quality of child/playworker relationship’ as he sees it, in each. These six approaches are broadly grouped into four degrees of relationship interaction, namely: poor (for the ‘repressive’ and ‘nosy’ approaches); better (for the ‘functional’ approach); good (for the ‘enthusiastic’ approach); high (for the ‘perceived indifferent’ and ‘controlled authentic’ approaches). For the purposes of writing about my previous play-minded colleagues, I find myself thinking about the latter three approaches of the above list. (I’m not differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘high’ quality relationships for the purposes of this writing: it’s all on a level).

I’ve worked in many places and with many people over the years, and some of those adult colleagues can easily be seen as enthusiasts (though they could spill over into taking over the play, they had their hearts in the right places and the children seemed to love having them around); some have practised, with intelligence and sophistication, that sometimes difficult skill of being acutely aware of what’s going on around them, though whilst exhibiting apparent indifference; some have been authentically engaged in support of the needs and preferences, the anxieties and just plain random strangeness of the children around them, and those children ‘know’. I’ll leave you to figure who fits where in the Hughes model. So, with the preliminaries over, onwards and onwards.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away!), I worked with a group of teenagers who (though we didn’t call ourselves playworkers at the time) were playworkers in training. I wasn’t so much older than they were myself, but it did strike me that these amazing people were worth their weight in gold. One in particular was always bright and beautiful, always focused on the play, even when she wasn’t so upbeat in herself (she found a way), and I just appreciated her energy. I’ve written about ‘grace’ a few times before, in respect of those who populate a place where children play (whether they are the children or the adults), and when she and I worked together, I felt that. Years later, in another place and in another life, I remember another colleague who, I think, is probably the most grace-full person I’ve ever worked with. She was quiet and caring, fragile in some ways, but just right, in my opinion, for those particular younger children there.

Maybe this is turning into a list of attributes for the ideal playworking person. Let’s mix it up. Zoom forwards another few years: I met a male playworker of roughly the same age as me and we were fairly chalk and cheese in many, many respects. We worked together closely, a lot, and so we had the easy ability to wind each other up: he would do it deliberately and I often took the bait! That said, I have to give it to him, when he was on form as a playworker, he was definitely on form. He had a look in his eye that told me that not only could he sense the play and the actions of the adults all around him, but that he wanted to push his luck a little more and more, just to see what would happen! He enjoyed the provoking, but he also knew the importance of play and wanted others to see it too. The children, most importantly, I think, also ‘knew’ and sensed him.

I’ve been lucky enough, over the years, to meet and work with plenty of people from various other countries (those from India, America, Finland, Sweden, France, Italy, Morocco, and Spain spring immediately to mind). Some of these people became good friends. A while back I had the good fortune to work with someone who came to England on a form of cultural exchange, and who later became a music teacher, I believe: we worked with children in forest locations and he was open to trying just about anything, and he was softly amazing with the children. In a similar vein (and if you trawl through the posts on this site, you’ll find this next person quietly amongst the words), I shall always remember the support worker who pushed a child in his specially adapted wheelchair up the steep inclines to where the forest school session was being held, and she worked with that boy and focused all her energy and attention on him without a word of personal grievance (if she had any at all). Some people just stay in the mind for simple acts, for years gone by.

A few years back, I worked with a man I had so much time and respect for, and over our years of working together he would bring me stories of his own children’s play, or he’d show me short films he’d made of them at play. It took me a little time to acclimatise to his humour, to his ways of working, to his ways of being, but when I did I realised that this man was the absolute heart and soul of the place. Many of the children loved and respected him, and he would often go out of his way to do things for them if they needed it, in difficult circumstances.

In a slight detour away from playwork colleagues, I did a short piece of work in a school once and was just struck happy by the sight of one of the teachers I was working with as she got inside a plastic barrel and interacted with the children on the level of play. It could have been perceived as inauthentic, some could say, but in that moment, with that teacher, with those children, in that place, it felt good and fine. You can often read things fairly accurately by reading the reactions of the children.

When it comes to reading skills, in the context of how I describe it above, two more playworkers come immediately to mind: together, and in overlaps of time, we developed a place for play, somewhere that the children also developed in their own fashion and for their own reasons, and we adults all needed to be very aware of what was happening, when, maybe why, and what might happen next, and so on. My colleagues were excellent readers of the place (by which I mean a combination of the built, the natural, the human, the temporal environment), and I respected their opinions, their ideas, their observations more than I think I could ever truly get across.

There are many others who have also had such positive affect on those around them (children and their families, other colleagues, me), at the time, and in time. There are those who listen without prejudice (yes, you know who you are!), and there are those who give great care. It’s not all been plain-sailing, of course: there have been ripples and great waves and everything in between in the seas of playworking interactions; that said, there’s been plenty of fire and grace, attention to detail, softness and oddness of idiosyncrasy along the way, so far.
 
 
References:

Hughes, B. (2001), Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Neill, A. S. (1916), A dominie’s log. Herbert Jenkins (1916), Hart (1975). Cited in Croall, J. (1983), Neill of Summerhill: the permanent rebel. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
 
 

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Ctrl + alt + delete (play)

Plenty of my playworking and other day-to-day thinking energy, lately and historically, seems to have gone into concerns about the ostensibly innocuous but actually insidious little word that is ‘control’. When that word comes inextricably entwined within the context of working for children, it becomes particularly distasteful. A fair percentage of adults, I would hazard a guess at, would or do object to the idea of being controlled by another adult: yet, controlling children is often deemed fine by those same adults.

Let’s first get the tired old responses out of the way (the ones that are used again and again in such discussions on the subject matter — discussions that invariably result in nothing more than a clash of ideologies): yes, sometimes children will benefit from an alert adult’s quickfire instructions (such as when a child hasn’t seen an imminent and potentially life-threatening hazard — a situation of necessary ‘control’?); no, the opposite of ‘controlling children’ won’t definitively result in ‘chaos’, ‘anarchy’, or complete global-social meltdown for that matter; yes, we do all live in a world where we have to navigate around one another and their concerns, desires and general situations and viewpoints (though that doesn’t mean we should be able to exert control on others as a means of getting by and getting along, co-operating); no, this is not about how children should ‘respect adults’ (think of it the other way around). There may be more, but you get the gist.

Play is often seen as a bad word. This is deeply troubling. A significant section of a library could be constructed with material that relates directly or indirectly to what play is seen to be, how it benefits animals and humans, how it shapes or is shaped by culture, its evolutionary and therapeutic relevances, and so on. Play is treated in studies in psychology, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, zoology, anthropology, technology, engineering, the arts, theology . . . just as a quick off-the-cuff list. Yet, for some, for many, play is frivolous, ‘unpurposeful’, pointless, bad.

In my playworking meanderings, I have known children who function, variously, on a kind of continuum between the rough markers of being utterly (emotionally and psychologically) crippled by the general or specific adult impact of any given environment on their true selves, to utterly self-confident and joyful beings. The latter are open and experimental, taking in all that those around them offer up. The former are compliant and narrow for fear of failure or displeasing the dominant force (i.e. the adult or the system or both). Those habitually subjected to controlling environments either buckle under and become subsumed by the dominance or they learn intermediate coping mechanisms, which at least go some way to allowing some of their natural selves through whilst appearing to appease the dominance at the same time. Sometimes (it’s clear to the astute eye), children are and have to be extremely subtle and sophisticated in the psychological games they’re obliged to operate.

In a playworking context (by which I mean, playworker input or input of play-literate others), there are actions that can be taken. These, however, may necessarily also need to be subtle and sophisticated. As a starting point here, I’m drawn to the thinking on what’s termed as what ‘interfere[s] with the successful flow of [the] play drive’ (Hughes, 2001: 170): I read this, in the context of my own observations and experience, as including adults who negatively affect, who psychologically and emotionally concern the child so that playing is not immediately possible. The actions of a playworking adult can alleviate the psychic discord and bring the affected child to a position of being able to engage in spontaneity. That is, the conditions can be shifted so that play can happen. As you might imagine, this is not always so easily achieved (playworking adults can be subjected to controlling environments too).

Play happens when children (and adults, and animals) find themselves in conducive environments. Fagen (1975) cites Bally (1945) in explaining the ‘relaxed field’ necessary for play. Fagen’s writing is focused on the benefits of play as connected to a technological-engineering context and the benefits of experimentation over control (the former having a broad potential and the latter being narrow and limited, as I read it):

The playful behaviour of [a feedback loop] procedure . . . suggests that play should be viewed as optimal generic learning by experimentation in a relaxed field (where the term ‘relaxed field’ (Bally, 1945) refers to the absence of goals of control).

— Fagen (1975: 160)

He gives the example of computing equipment learning to operate an aeroplane by trial and error. The feedback loop (including all the ‘inefficient’ extras of those ‘what if this or that were to be done?’ experiments) is analogous to the play of children. Replace the stereotyped thinking that tends to define the word ‘learning’ as ‘something for the future benefit’ with ‘something found out’ (for the present tense) and there’s a good enough analogue of play here. ‘Control’ and control agendas by external sources stultify the present tense experimentation; the relaxed field becomes tensioned.

Or, as Fagen goes on:

[A ‘relaxed field’, according to Bally (1945) is] a situation in which immediate needs are satisfied and no threat to the organism’s well-being is present [thus allowing play to take place] . . . goals of information [information-gathering, i.e. experimentation by play] can be achieved only when goals of control [non-play tasks] are absent . . . In the presence of goals of control, play is absent.

— Fagen (1975: 162)

On reflection, it is the lack of ‘threat to the organism’s [child’s] well-being’ that stimulates the ‘relaxed field’, and it is the relaxed field, when play can take place, that stimulates the well-being. It’s a repeated-giving positive loop in action. This is all a long-handed way of writing what the intuitively play-literate individual knows by heart, by faith and conviction.

Those adults of a controlling persuasion no doubt see it differently. Certain adults need specific purpose (well, it’s fair to say that many of us have a need for ‘purpose’, this is acknowledged): however, some adults are disrespectful towards the needs of children. Children don’t need ‘control’; they need play (I write this in the context of a need as something that addresses a deficit). Where there has been no opportunity for play or a suppression of play, children will seek it out to redress the balance. Is it the same equation for those adults who have a need to exercise control? Perhaps: there may be an initial deficit in opportunity to exercise power or purpose.

A little out of context with the original intention of the following quoted words, I come back to a presentation given by Simon Rix at the New Ventures (Playwork) Conference at Felix Road Adventure Playground in Bristol last year. Simon was talking about disenfranchised young men in the Midlands and their focus on self-worth due to factors that had affected them. Simon’s standout line for me, in respect of those young men’s opinions, was: ‘What am I for?’ Or, to paraphrase and slightly shift, because I’ve used this quote before: What’s the point of me?. If I can be forgiven for the borrowing, I suspect the same opinion lurks deep in the psyche of those adults who seek to control the actions and interactions (and play) of children.

Bob Hughes writes:

. . . the adult may see the child as a piece of property, where the child’s free interaction with the world undermines the feelings of power the adult gets from controlling the child’s behaviour.

— Hughes (2001: 124/5)

In summary, yes we live in a social environment of dynamic and multiple needs (i.e. we have to cope with other people in our day-to-days), but no that doesn’t mean that ‘control’ mechanisms are the optimal means of ‘getting along’. Play is like water (in its flow and sensory affect): control is for the narrowly channelled, the straight-lined, the dry of spirit.
 
 
References:

Bally, G. (1945), Vom ursprung und von den grenzen der freiheit, eine deutung des spieles bei tier und mensch. Basle: Schwabe. Cited in Fagen (1975).

Fagen, R. (1975), Modelling how and why play works in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play – its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.

Hughes, B. (2001), Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Rix, S. (2017), Presentation. Bristol: New Ventures Conference.
 
 

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