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

Archive for the ‘connectivity’ Category

Connecting stories

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of observations that I called White City Play Stories. I’ve continued this thread of writing since then, but for some reason I’ve no longer tagged them as such. Stories, whatever you tag them or call them, are all stories of ‘worth’ though. Following on from last week’s writing on immersions in others’ play memory stories and on how we’re interwoven with place, I’m thinking of the play that surrounds us in our day-to-days. We’re embedded in it, even if we don’t realise this. Lines of stories flow in all the places we traverse. It’s like we’re enmeshed in a huge spiders’ web, where every thread is a story spun out, spun between the lines of other stories. It is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional weftwork, and we’re right in there in the middle of it.

We come from an oral culture and this part of us still survives, despite our written representations of language on pages and on screens, and despite our relatively recent cultural predisposition towards the instant photographic record. When we tell stories, we’re engaging with that old in-built desire to share and tell and to connect to other things as yet unsaid. Writing and photography have their places. When we write, we write sometimes because we may not be able to say, directly. When we write our stories, or when we display our photographs (and if we think of it this way), we try to shine a light on the weftwork that surrounds us in different ways. The spoken, the written, the imaged . . . everything is a story, or a fragment of a story, in the whole.

My observations, in and of the play, are written in the spirit of illuminating that part of the enmeshment that I see myself to be in. If the reader can appreciate the stories not directly experienced, as the listener of old oral tales was asked to do, maybe they can then see better the weftwork that they themselves are in. This, I suppose, is why I write my stories of play, though I’ve not articulated it in this way, precisely, before.

The following set of stories shall be tagged and categorised under ‘New White City Stories’: the whole is a multi-layered story for the finding.
 
A story about stories
I was in communication last week with someone from a local mobile library service regarding stories, books and children. From my experience of having worked with very small children, older pre-schoolers, and up to the older primary school years, I wasn’t so sure that the latter would engage so well with being read to from books. Sure, it can work out, but I said I found that these older-aged children generally engaged better with performance-story or the improvisational. As chance had it, that same week I was sitting in the sun on the outside sofa with one of the after school club children, just talking around, and we were soon joined by three other girls and the conversation turned, by them, to telling stories. We made up stories as we went (with no morals, with no real structure, with no concern for what might offend others). When the girls wanted me to talk, and when I’d managed to engage their attentions with a story line of their liking, I was very aware, in the moment, of the looks on their faces and of the focus of their body language. Stories about telling stories may well repeat over the following weeks.
 
Stories of repeated narratives
I feel sure that I’ve written something about repeated narratives somewhere before (which makes this story about a story a repeated narrative in itself!) Some children engage this adult in repetitions of service to the play, or in roles, or in layers beneath the surface of the immediately apparent. I’m not on the playground as much as I used to be and some children are aware of this and are patient for a Friday when I make sure I’m there and when the narratives that they seem to want and need to unfold can do so. Two children want/need engagement with ‘earthquakes’ on the netting (they also know that they, and only they, seem to have the capability of giving me static electric shocks because of their headscarves against the rope!) Another child’s trampolining is replete with other messages to other adults about her play (which, here, I can’t say — in entrustment of the moment!). The repeated narratives that entangle me in them are, I feel, all soaked in other messages.
 
Baby birds
I remember a story I told a few years back about feeling like the mechanism in service to certain play: that was, the pushing of children on the zipwire swing. There is a school of thinking that says that we adults shouldn’t be involved in this, which I can appreciate. However, there is another human level that can’t easily be resolved in playwork theory or in the dryness of qualifications literature: play is a connection, and sometimes we adults are very much connected with. Some children have recently played with the fine line between knowing exactly how to push themselves on the traditional swings and getting this adult to do it for them (or, rather, with them). The children know what they’re doing. This isn’t about laziness, this is about connection. They each take one of the swings on the hex-construction, facing inwards, and one after the other, like baby birds, they demand to be pushed, and high! I run around in service to their needs. When they get low, they squeal again! This is time spent connecting.
 
Playing the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘cops and thieves’, and other mutations
I can’t remember the exact order of the play that happened, this day when everything tumbled around, and when I seemed integral to things mixing and merging and mutating. One girl tried to cue me by inventing a valuable picture of mine (‘How much is it worth?’; ‘Oh, ten thousand’ [unspecified currency]). She found a slab of splash-painted wood. I couldn’t unfurl myself from other conversations though. A little later, she ‘stole’ my gold (made of gold paper, which apparently was mine). Cops and thieves took place. There are a number of ‘prisons’ currently on the playground. Some have names: ‘the Mansion’ is the hidey-hole with the other outside sofa in it, where children often sit and look out, in the dry, in comfort; the place that might become a fort is difficult for adults to traverse but easy for the children; the hut, which is even more difficult to get through, might become the ‘children’s world’. These prisons are ebbing and flowing in relative importance.

At some point, one boy shouted out ‘Who wants to play the Hunger Games?’ I didn’t know what this might entail, though I had a vague notion of the book and film. I wasn’t sure how many play frames were happening at once, what with the ebb and flow and take-up and fall-away of ‘cops and thieves’ and other play, but finger-guns, and stick-guns, and sword-guns made of a cross of wood pieces, and hockey sticks all appeared and were fired or whacked around. Children rarely act out being shot or sworded. They have in-built invincibility. One girl declared her invincibility outright and kept turning my finger-gun back on myself.

Where did the zombies come from, and why?! At some point, after I’d been shot or sworded for the umpteenth time, I must have become a ghost because one of the younger girls waved her hands around occasionally to ‘unghost’ me. Maybe the zombie mutation happened after this. Three children I know from the open access holiday scheme were pressing their noses up to the other side of the fence: this zombie adult was required to push some of the children on the roundabout (even though they were quite capable of doing this themselves) in the interior of the play and playground. The children outside looked on, engrossed. The zombie noticed this and threw cushions and old bread crates their way, poking his fingers through the small squares because it was dinner time for him! The children outside were somewhat in the play at this. They ran away and came back again. They knew me well enough as me, but they engaged with the character. Soon, somehow, the Hunger Games boy — having been cornered in open space by a small band of sword/gun wielding others — became involved with me in a stance of ‘no guts, no glory’. This adult, ex-zombie, was whacked several times on the thighs and on the backs of the knees by one of the warrior girls! These children play hard. The child in question stood off when I went down. She bowed like a Samurai, as I imagined, and left me alone . . .

These are just a few of the stories, connecting stories, of the multi-layered weftwork I’m in.
 
 

Play and language

For a couple of weeks now, on and off, and as touched upon in my previous post, I’ve been quietly observing the way that two particular children are playing. Theirs is a forming relationship, with no ‘outcome’ or ‘yes, we’re there’ about it (I don’t know the beginning of it and it almost feels as if there was no beginning: it just happened). What fascinates the most about this forming play and relationship between these two girls is that one of them doesn’t speak English (or, if she speaks a little, it’s rarely heard). In fact, this younger child of around eight or nine, I suppose, barely says anything to us at all. She has, however, almost always been in play with the other girl.

One simple observation highlights, I trust, my fascination of the play: I was standing up high, up out of the way of things one day, for a few minutes, when I saw the two girls over by the sandpit. One of them had dragged over the old buggy we have on site, which I’ve been surprised to find gets its fair use in the play. I couldn’t hear what was being said, if anything at all, but the girl who spoke no English clearly had ideas in the narrative of the play she wanted to unfold. By means of pointing and double pointing, gesturing towards the buggy, and other hand and facial gestures, the suggestion seemed to be that one of the children would be the baby, in the buggy, and the other would play a different role. Then they swapped. This needed no words, it seemed.

I’ve really wanted to ask the girl who does speak English what’s going on in the play. However, this I know wouldn’t be good because then I’m effectively asking the child to analyse her play (in a low level kind of way). So, I haven’t asked, though I want to know about the way the girls communicate from an insider’s point of view. I speak to the girl who doesn’t speak English, on occasion, as she passes by on the playground and if she looks my way, though the other child, I remember once said, ‘She doesn’t speak English, you know?’ and this is all I know directly from her.

I have known adults who have been of the opinion that children can’t possibly interact without a common language. They’ve said it in so many words. This is, of course, theoretically and observationally rubbish. I’m reminded of a time, over twenty years ago now, when I lived and worked in Germany for a short while. I was at a Jugendhaus (Youth House), and whilst I attempted to use my abbreviated German in my interactions in the play, what I found was that, ultimately, I didn’t need this or English. When we connect, we connect, and (following a small digression here) one child showed me that this had happened with the paper offering she’d made me. Such small things are significant, or can be, and can last a long time. Only recently, I was offered a token of gratitude, as I read it, from a child I made time for, she having gone out of her way to make her gift. She didn’t say what the gift was for. A failure to be able to converse in mutual languages yet to connect in other ways, in the significance of my memory, has also taken place in Holland and in Sweden, to name just two other examples (my favourite stories of being on a plane in Amsterdam — where a child cleverly communicated to me without words, and whilst visiting an outside school near Stockholm — where a child gave me an offering for whatever reason she chose).

Tokens of gratitude are not what we do the job for, but these things are written here to show that children can communicate in ways we don’t often do in the adult world. Sometimes, the tokens and offerings aren’t made things at all; rather, they’re gestures of connection for communications made or listening having taken place, or they’re thanks in other ways. When children tell you the simple tales of their day-to-days, what positives can you glean from them having chosen to tell you these instead of anyone else?

It works in other ways too. I watch on, sometimes, as my colleagues engage in certain on-going conversations with certain children, relating, understanding, or learning to understand them: then, those children choose those adults to tip a bucket of water over, to swear at in exaggerated fashion, or to lie to in such a way because they know that that adult can and will take it, or will accept it, or will intuitively know that what is being said beneath isn’t what is being said.

Returning to the child who doesn’t speak English and the child who does and to their play: in the brief moments when they’ve not been in the play together, for whatever reason, I have seen that there’s almost a magnetic pulling of one back to the other. They have sought each other out, and they have found each other on the playground somewhere, before going off poking around the hidey holes of the place again. The bond of play, of other forms of communicating, has become strong for these two children.

Today, the child who doesn’t speak English was on the playground but the other girl wasn’t there. I noticed this early on because it felt unusual to see the first child unattached as she was. A little later though, near the gate, I noticed another girl, a little older, was talking with her, in English, and this child looked at me and said (half to me, half speaking out loud in mock exasperation) ‘I don’t know how to say this in Italian!’ I told her I didn’t know either. The girls played though. Later, I saw them inside together sat on the sofa. One of the boys was saying his only Italian word at the girls, in exaggerated fashion, being (as he translated) ‘Cheese! Cheese!’ I hit on the idea of bringing the laptop out and communicating through Google Translate. It took the girl who didn’t speak English a little while to figure out what the other girl was trying to type in, and that she could type back, but eventually it happened. In returning to the main theme of this writing though, the girl who didn’t speak English indicated she wanted the other girl to go outside with her. The English-speaking girl came running in a few minutes later, banging on the office door. ‘I only need one thing,’ she said. ‘Tell me how to say do you want to play?’ I don’t think she even needed this: another pairing had bonded via play.

Of course, we see this bonding all the time in various formations of children on the playground: there are small pockets of players who gravitate to one another, and there are larger pockets who disperse and re-form in almost tribal fashion when anything significant is about to happen. The bonding can cross the socio-economic and ethnic parcelling that the adult world seems to like to create so much. There are common denominators of play, but the play and bonding could also be seen in terms of children’s connection in awareness of mischievous intent, in their latent or repressed types of play (or play types engaged in), in their calculated intentions to disrupt, and so on.

Positively play is, in short, often beyond words and the need for words. Connections are deep-seated, or become this way, and play is glue (wishing to avoid the instrumental rhetoric of words and phrases such as ‘play is a tool for xyz’): play is glue, or magnetic.
 
 

Ways of seeing: magic (notebook drafts)

I have spent these past weeks immersed in magic (whatever that should mean). It is a process of trying to understand, or to see. What this is, what we’re in, could be impossible to describe; though what we cannot always see to say, as such, we can feel. Words pile up on words: in the reading, in the notes, in observations of play. There are only so many words a brain can hold though. In the unfinished ending that this continuing process is, what it can only come down to, I suppose, is ‘connect’. I need words to try to explain the insufficiency of words . . .

‘Magic’ is a word that’s bandied around without care. This is not a post about the common or garden (or even skilled) stage illusionist or street performer: this post encompasses much other. In trying to explain what words are so far from really being able to do, I’m re-realising about the other ways we could use words. In order to be able to subvert a form, we must first understand the structures of that form. Now, and only now, can we do such as leave out words, a forming of gaps to fall into; subtly twist syntax; mix and merge the language we’ve grown up all our lives with. New meanings start to emerge between. It is rare: only those who get this get this. Magic is of the in-between.

Out there, in the world, in there, out of the world, is a depth level of magic to connect to, with, within. Last week, as the long shadows of a late September afternoon began to spread over the playground, the sun shining in, the children laughing and running in complexities of chase-tap, I caught the slightest, lightest look from one girl, who smiled and tilted her head as if to say, ‘Yes, I get you, your actions, everything of your right here and now-ness.’ Of course, I’ll never know what she actually thought, there, then, because she probably doesn’t know herself, now, but . . . here is the difficulty of words . . . what is was, was what it was. Or, what it was, was what it was. You decide. That moment was of magic (noun), a magic moment (adjective), a performance of magic consciousness shift in me (verb).

When we connect, there is no sleight of hand. Everything of everything is open. I think I’ve always believed that many children can read the open words of adults, who necessarily roam their dedicated places for play and, by extension, those of those adults out there in the fence-less streets too. I say it this way because I haven’t felt otherwise, though my ways of seeing and feeling have become more refined. Children can read us, and we can connect with this reading. I called this ‘play connectivity’, some while ago, but really, what the words are aren’t what connectivity is.

Last week, also, I came onto the playground early on in the session and there were children already there before me. Down from somewhere up the slope behind the tyre wall and around the corner came a child whose light we all seem to see. She bounded into my path and announced herself — if not with an outright ‘ta-da!’, it might as well have been! There was a flourish and a conversation, just of the ordinary details of an ordinary day at school, where the teacher, it seems, was having her usual bad day: such was the interpretation of a child who saw it fit and fine to just say, to me, because . . . because, I like to think and feel, this wasn’t a usual child-adult/adult-child communication. ‘You will tell us if we annoy you in any way, won’t you?’ I said. ‘What, anything?’; ‘Anything’. She smiled. ‘Sure.’

Many of us have had these sorts of interactions, despite their unusualness. To be fair, some teachers may get them too. What’s underneath, or within, or slightly hidden from and in it all, beneath/within the honesty, the openness, the privilege, is the magic field. This is the place where time and times converge, where there is ‘connectivity’, or the possibility of it, if we can see and feel where we are.

We may feel unconnected with our day-to-days of day-to-days: we all do; it happens. Yet: becoming/being open to the possibility of all that might be in the world is a start. Earlier, at the time of writing, after being occupied in what I perceive as the unmagic veneer I sometimes gloss along, I took a walk and there, in the late afternoon early evening haze was all that I’d not connected to, that earlier, at and in the screen. I write in notebooks to feel the page at my fingers; I walk to feel the page of the world.

The playground is an abundance of pages. None of them can be written, truly. Being there, being on the playground, is a unique experience, no matter how many times we do it. Each uniqueness is impossible to capture, really. We represent what we see with stories, but what we tell is not what it is, in the moment. The pages are in us, but we must learn to read. Reading is a magic gift, a gift of magic. If seeing is believing, believing is only possible by immersion in the moment. There, last week too (this being just a representation of a moment), I read a moment as a magic one: I met two three-year-olds, for the first time, who were unsure of me, but later, soon, after spending honest time with them, I met them again and they were as ready to tell me life stories if they wanted to. It is privilege, this ‘gettingness’, this ‘being seen’. The art is in the knowing, in the appreciating: reading is a magic gift.

What we may appreciate are levels other than the usual veneer or sheen. Sure, children can trust and love, even or especially, us who aren’t family, but what we might see beneath, behind, within this, they do too, and neither we nor they have words for this. Words are insufficient here. We have to be in it all: moment, magic field, there not here.

This week I have been acutely aware, in appreciation, of being in these children’s territory. That is, not only the place/space of the fenced-in playground but the streets around: there, that is theirs not mine. I come home, a long way home, by train, and this is my hometown. There, everything of their childhoods forms: layers upon layers of times. I feel like I should walk carefully through it. It is an appreciation of other depths, I think.

Immersed in magic, in a magic field, depth arrangement, it’s perhaps impossible to think in other ways. Words are insufficient, inadequate: after all, how exactly can we describe the way the sun shines in? We can only represent, use language in devious ways, tell our stories and hope someone, somewhere, connects.
 
 

The state of being in play

Here’s a story (because stories are what surround us, what humanity used to thrive on directly, and what we — if we look closely — need in our modern lives): this is a small story but one that affected me greatly. A few weeks ago I found myself at a school I’d never been to before to meet a playwork student. I was early and so I sat down by the big glass front door, as directed, and waited for a few minutes. Before long a string of children came into the small courtyard beyond the glass, bubbly enough, but then they all just fell into line and hushed up. As the teacher opened the door, the children all filed in, duckling-style but dead quiet. It was slightly unnerving, but that’s not my story. My story is this: I was just sitting there being ‘normal’ (whatever that is), as the children filed past; the last child, who was maybe eight or nine, I guess, gave me some direct eye contact, smiled, then winked at me. Off the string of quiet children went around the corner, disappearing into the innards of the school, and I sat there very much amused and very much thinking ‘now, what just happened there?’

This is nothing new, in some ways, because this sort of thing has a habit of happening. I do, however, try sometimes to have an air of ‘being normal’ about me. I sit there or I don’t say anything or I think I affect some look on my face that suggests ‘play has gone out to lunch, back later’. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong: I try too hard. Even the children in my own family seem to have a sense of me as ‘non-normalness’. That is, not in a sense of ‘that weird black sheep of the family’; no, more in the sense of ‘it’s OK, he gets it’.

I get the ‘rude’ words whispered at me because, I suppose, the children know that I know they’re only words, but also that there are other meanings to the whisperings and to the words, and that’s all fine; I get all manner of play cues, some of which other adults might find disagreeable; I get Dino Boy putting his three-year old fists up at me, scrunched into a tight ball the wrong way round to hit with, that look of play-serious intent on his face, demanding me to ‘Come on, let’s fight!’, or he’ll wipe his snot over my t-shirt, or jump on me when I’m not looking; or I’ll be invited to help Princess K. sort Barbie’s clothes out, or ‘Quick! Come see, there’s a snail!’ (and one of the children is about to bash its shell in with a plastic spade as I do come see), or a slug, or a dead thing of some indeterminate fascination. Do normal people engage in such things?

Of course, this is somewhat tongue in cheek, but my point here is that whether I’ve got my play-focus tuned in or not, it doesn’t seem to matter much some days: adults can walk me by and not notice me, but children have a tendency to catch some riff. That said, a strange thing happened at the park the other day. Gack and I had taken a trip out of town, down to the next city on the train line, to the ‘sand park’ (names being important in the evolving personal mythology of the child). I sat in the sun as Gack went and accosted various unknown children to hassle them into playing with their buckets and spades, or to talk about whatever four year-olds talk about when out of adults’ hearing range. After a while he managed to find a girl he took a shine to and off they went to the other side of the park. I thought I’d better stay somewhere he could see me, so I trailed along with the remains of the chocolate dipper that had been melting in the heat, the half-devoured lunchbox, and drinks, and I sat down elsewhere. Gack was telling his new friend that he was at the park with me, that I had a bright pink t-shirt on. The girl looked and looked for me: ‘Where? Where?’ she asked him. I was ten feet away, at the most, right in front of her. She couldn’t see me. It occurred to me that she must have seen this adult here, me, but that she was actually looking for another child.

Such is the way that Gack must have got his description of me across that I became invisible. It was a strange reversal of the usual predicament: visibility to the child is bound in the observed object (in this case, the adult) having some play value, playability, playness, call it what you will. If there’s an extra layer of the expectation that the play object is a child not an adult, as with the girl at the park, then the playness might get cloaked. I’m making unscientific ramblings. Suffice is to say, it’s another story for the collection.

The other week, I was walking down along the road just beyond the playground in London, heading for the Tube station, when a bus pulled up just to my side. Off got a handful of children and I recognised them all straight away as children who attended the open access holiday scheme. There were no adults with them as they tumbled off and, as they did so, one of them called out to me, ‘Hi Grandpa’ (it’s what they call me!). The other children looked up and smiled and called out the same. ‘Hi, my grandchildren,’ I said, or words to this effect. They tumbled off down the street towards the football stadium, laughing and smiling and waving. The point of this small story is that my grandpa-ness has transcended the playground fences now, and I liked this. None of the passers-by may have noticed me in my ‘just another London being’ way, but the children knew something about me, and that something wasn’t just confined to the rough large rectangle of land in the middle of the housing estate that we all call their play space.

These stories aren’t really about me at all: they’re about the state of being in play, whether we try to be or not, about the idea of ‘normal’ and the idea of ‘being something’, be that a word like ‘special’, ‘loved’, ‘approved’, ‘known’, or the like. These stories are also about the idea of stories in themselves.
 
 

How we might connect

Yesterday, I waited on the train — having got to the platform early — and in the seats nearby sat a mother and her young son. He was about two, or just about three. I was tired but not too tired to see that a player of the world had just boarded. They spoke bits of Chinese, maybe, and he spoke some pieces of English. He was bright and alert and happy. I looked over and caught his eye. His mother was busying herself at the pushchair. The boy had that quizzical look on his face, that look I’m used to: so I closed one eye at him, opened it up, closed the other. After a second or so he repeated the gestures, only with the sort of careful exaggerations that young children often apply to their imitations of adults. I smiled. It was a mutual hello.

I write this here because I find these minor moments extremely beautiful, significant, full. For the rest of the journey we made no more contact with one another: only when I was packing my bag to get ready to go, down at his level as his mother got the pushchair and child ready to disembark, did he flash a look to say something along the lines of ‘You get that I want to play with this tambourine here, don’t you?’ It was small and plastic and, frankly, not worth the hassle his mother had imbued into not taking it out of the cellophane packet for him. He didn’t kick up too much of a fuss: he just looked at me, and that was that.

Moments, as I’ve written about plenty in these posts, are worth more than many will ever know: first they have to be seen though. This is a small aside. The thought of the boy on the train, ‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’ (being my story’s working title), led me to sit down here and think about other small appreciations that have taken place in the past couple of weeks. Being so fleeting, these moments of appreciation — from child to adult — are registered on some level at the time in question; when taken as pieces in something a little larger though, it becomes clearer that there are other levels.

I may be thinking in such ways at the moment because I still have several Tove Jansson books filtering around in my recent reading experience: that sparse, clean Scandinavian writing style, extolling the beauty of seemingly slight instances yet, collectively, beneath it all is something flowing a little deeper. I shall need some slight examples, and here they are:

Once, this week, a seven year old came to me and held up her finger to show me a paper cut. The line was bright red but not bleeding. ‘What can I do about this?’ I asked her, whilst also empathising. ‘You could get me a plaster,’ she said. I was in the middle of doing three or four things at once and I needed to do all of them together, including find her a plaster, or I’d forget one of them. She followed me round for a few minutes and I reminded her that I hadn’t forgotten. After a while we checked her forms and I figured ‘yes, this is fine’. I found a plaster and the paper cut was covered over. She didn’t look at me but, as she turned to leave the room and as I turned to throw away the paper rubbish, she gave the slightest thank you.

Some of the older children come to the after school session later than the others: they have school clubs on before they get to us, and so the rest of the children and us are all settled into play and observing by the time these older children get there. This week, I wandered back inside after having been out observing the general flow of the playground, and in the corner one of the older boys was slouched in a chair, relaxed, feet up, picking at a plate of food. He raised his chin to me as he saw me. I put up my thumb to him. A week or so earlier, one of the older girls was lying on the sofa as I walked in, me not having seen her arrive either. She put up her thumb at me.

The other day, I was sat on the tyre swing observing another older girl poking around with an old umbrella she’d found. She stood up on the bench and made an exaggerated play of preparing herself to jump off with the umbrella, which she then did. She turned to me and said that I should watch this. So I did. There followed a small experiment in how long it might take her to reach the ground with and without the umbrella. ‘Like Mary Poppins?’ I said, still sat idly by on the tyre swing. I don’t think she got the reference. She showed me that, look, it was quicker to the ground without the umbrella (she’d taken a smaller arc of a leap to demonstrate this though). She said for me to follow her, and she went and stood up on one of the fixed structures around the corner, five feet or so off the ground, looking to repeat the experiment (as if, in my mind, gravity was differently predisposed here!) We had a conversation about stopwatches and about my archaic little mobile phone that she couldn’t believe was older than she was. All these little interactions were wrapped up in a common appreciation of equals, or that’s how it felt to me.

One boy, a boy I wrote about recently (he who had perceived me as mean to his friend), didn’t look at me as I put the juice out so he and the others around him had easy reach of it. He gulped it down, saying a straight (that is, not sarcastic or otherwise negatively loaded) thank you. It was the tiniest little touch to reach me.

All these slightest stories (‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’, ‘the plaster girl who didn’t look up with her thank you’, ‘the thumbs-up older children’, ‘the equal-umbrella girl’, ‘the boy who once thought me mean’) are stories that are greater than they might at first seem. That’s the way I see them, anyway. Of course I’m not going out of my way to make children say thank you, or to ‘respect me’ out of force, or to listen to me because I have something to say or ‘things they have to know’: these children’s various appreciations have come in their own time. To them they may just be the moment that has now passed (which they are), but to me they also build into a greater story.

The thought of the interaction with the boy on the train, the boy with the exaggerated gestures, can also be analogous: there’s a whole different level of view to be seen with one eye closed, albeit briefly.
 
 
Playworkings will be taking a week off to do the tourist thing (maybe a couple of weeks, but we’ll see).
 
 

A naivety of love/play as the antidote

A play story, of sorts, and of certain significance to me, tends to come back into my thinking time and time again. I may have written about this before, but I wanted to start with it again here. Every time I tell it I think it must shift a little (such is the nature of tales told), but the essence is pretty much consistent.

This is it: a few years ago, when working at a holiday scheme, a group of children and me were out on a large field, which the pavilion base building was situated at one end of. That day it rained. It bucketed down. A few brave souls stayed out for as long as they could take it, but then, eventually, everyone came indoors. Towels came out. Hair was dried. I remember sitting down on the floor in the doorway of the pavilion, looking out on the field and the rain. I was eating my sandwiches. After a short while I felt the need to look around. Behind me, quietly, a mound of soggy children were also sat down eating their sandwiches, looking out on the rain-soaked field with me. It was kind of beautiful in its own way.

I write this story because there are the most amazingly beautiful things that can happen when engaged in this line of work. I’m not even sure I consider this to even be work, if we think of work as something we’re obliged to do in order to gain something sadly necessary in return. I write this story above, to cut to the chase, because I sometimes feel more than a little frustrated with the microcosms we live in and with the ways of the world as a whole. I get run down by the petty politics we all have to wade through, by tokenistic political correctness, by the dishonesty and lack of integrity of corporate greed and managerial self-protection.

I’m not so naïve as to think that all the world’s major and minor ills are going to change by this time tomorrow; call me hopeful though that things don’t have to be the way they are. A friend of mine (someone for whom, and for whose wisdom of teachings and advice, I have the utmost regard) recently told me of her belief that, given a groundswell shift in understanding, a spontaneity of action can and will take place. If this is naïve, I want to be part of this naivety.

What has this to do with play? There are two strands I’m following here: the first is the sudden comprehension that, the play believers — evangelical us — have been chipping away at the non-believers, to a greater or lesser extent, for quite a while now and the groundswell isn’t happening yet (is our society just so skewed that it refuses to accept the play of children, whilst simultaneously ‘protecting’ them to almost fanatical extent?); the second strand here is play (in its action and in its observation) can be the antithesis, the antidote, of and for the greedy, self-obsessed, politically-warped world we struggle to swim around in.

Yesterday I was at an after school club. A couple of the younger children had poked around the edges of the space I was occupying, me trying to stay out of their way. They circled in, stood and stared with quizzical squints, and we ended up chatting. One of these younger girls soon laughed and had an urgent need to demonstrate her frogness of being (as it were)! Later, I found myself in a spontaneous episode of ‘side-scotch’ (you know, paving slabs, some hopping, a bit of falling over, and so on). ‘Why are you twisting all right round?’ I was asked. I thought about it. I didn’t know. ‘It’s just the way it is,’ I said. We went on to hop off the wall.

I’m tired of adults’ lies and manipulations: other days I have to wade through the seemingly endless flow of ‘follow these rules’, ‘fill in this form’, ‘observe this health and safety protocol’, ‘tell this to this person and not to this one’, ‘clock in here, read this, do that, tread carefully here because this team colleague will get offended if that person knows this information . . .’ Really: enough of this. Enough of ‘when will I get paid, when will you respect me, when will this petty little interaction finally disappear off its own event horizon . . .?’ That’s just this little microcosm around me. What about the petty squabbling of men out there with guns, the defendants of variously sized gods, the extent of what’s in the suit trousers of other men with non-jobs or, at least, not jobs the plebeians would have? Really: enough of this.

Yes, this naivety of love for the beautiful moments is what I subscribe to here today, these last few weeks and months, and on. I feel it and I see it, on occasion, on the faces of others passing by. The other day, I said to Gack, ‘It’s raining, do you want to go out anyway?’ We went out. After wading through a puddle he didn’t expect to be as deep as it was, later, Gack directed me to walking with him in the gutter, through the deep narrow water channel building up there. I declined but he was fine with what he was doing. A woman passed us by and she knew everything was fine too.

Earlier, Gack had chosen the park at the bottom of the road. There was no-one there but us (as there was, one bus trip later, at the park in the town centre: the one usually piled with toddlers). Gack navigated the slippery wooden structures and, as usual, investigated the ‘outdoor gym’ equipment, rarely used by anyone else as far as I can see. He sat on everything because raindrops didn’t bother him. Up the slide, we flicked drops of rain around and he laughed his (already soggy) socks off at that, for some reason. It was a moment of right there and beautifully so. He stood on a tree stump and looked up at the sodden straight tall pines around us. ‘It’s so tall.’ Later we found we could be blown down the mountain of the hill.

A few days earlier, at the weekend, I concocted lunch with a four year old and a two old balancing on stools beside me. Some bread was somehow spread. We found ourselves, more by accident than design, sat on the kitchen doorstep, looking out on the garden. The children wedged themselves in next to me and we sat and ate food from plates on our knees. We didn’t say anything for a while. Everything was just as it could only have been. We contemplated the clouds together. It was a moment of beautiful arrangement.

This is the antidote to a pernicious world.

 

Jam and snot, or the Montessoribots?

Still on my theme of A. S. Neill’s work, from around the 1920s, I move from thoughts on education and parenting to a more general idea of ‘connectivity between generations’. I find there are links between some of my long-held own beliefs and ideas, and what I’m discovering as I read. So, in writing, I explore this further . . .

Whilst Neill was writing for The New Era: an International Quarterly Journal for the Promotion of Reconstruction in Education, in the early 1920s (a bit of a mouthful of a magazine title, admittedly!), he went out and about visiting and reporting on various establishments. One of these places was the Montessori Department of the Brackenhill Theosophical Home School in Kent. Maria Montessori had come to England in 1919, and interest in her methods was just starting to spread. I was interested to read of Neill’s observation and opinion on his visit to this particular school:

‘I spoke not a word. In five minutes the insets and long stairs [presumably forms of ‘didactic apparatus’, as named by Montessori] were lying neglected in the middle of the floor, and the [children] were scrambling over me. I felt very guilty, for I feared that if Montessori herself were to walk in she would be indignant. I cannot explain why I affect [children] in this way. It may be that intuitively they know that I do not inspire fear or respect; it may be that they unconsciously recognise the baby in me.’

What Neill seems to have experienced here is something I’ve also known for a long time, but never been able to pin down the exact reasons for either. Countless times I’ve visited a school or playscheme or some other play provision (and I’d never met those children before), and when I do I often try to keep out of the way, and before long, almost without fail, I find a paintbrush being poked in my ear, or I’ve become co-opted into a play-fight-dance, or I’m being told life histories by five year olds, and one way or another all form of previous structure and order breaks down in the immediate area around me.

It happens when I least expect it to (though I should be used to this sort of thing by now). Even just the other day, out at the park, attendant three year old leading the way, we ended up in the fixed equipment area, on the tarmac mound, and before long we were surrounded by a small group of other younger children. Admittedly we were in the middle of a form of crazy golf play (with proper golf clubs and fluorescent yellow balls), but I wasn’t doing anything really: just rolling the balls back uphill, then sitting down in the sun on the slope. The children slowly gravitated over. I did a quick sweep round for the parents the children had brought along, but no-one showed any signs of ‘man in the playground, panic!’ so I talked when talked to by the children, listened, got the balls if need be. That part of the playground became the crazy golf place (not what ‘normally’ happens in such a fenced-off designated area for designated play). After a while, one of the girls took custody of the least favoured golf club, another girl took a golf ball under her wing, and the play just scattered to other parts of the space.

Sure, on the face of it, there’s the obvious unusual occurrence of golf clubs here, but there’s also the unusual occurrence of someone being at eye height and actually listening and talking and taking notice. I’ve always wondered if there was something more to it too though. Back to this again after a swing back around Maria Montessori.

Neill notes, with some degree of concern, that Montessori’s term ‘didactic apparatus frightens me’, and that education is ‘more than matching colours and fitting cylinders into holes’. This is not a post about education, but it is about play. I’ve always had similar reservations about Montessori children’s play. A while back I was visiting students in a Montessori nursery school (I was working in the field of pre-school at the time). I was shocked, frankly, by the robotic nature of the three year olds there who, without any adult prompting, would float over to a bland pale wooden shelf, pick up a bland pale wooden object on a tray, and come back to a table, sitting down with it. The child would neatly stack blocks from one place to another on the tray, or pour water from a jug into a cup and then back again, and repeat it over and over. Then they’d put it back on the shelf.

This was not the world of three year olds smeared in jam and snot that I knew, or some years later, the three year old playing crazy golf in the fixed equipment park, shouting at the ducks to wake them up, or walking along the High Street blowing bubbles into chocolate milkshake, laughing at the newly discovered sound, smeared in saliva, snot and sun cream!

For the sake of noting some small degree of pro-Montessori methodology, I did learn a rather neat way for younger children to put their own coats on (by putting the coats on the floor, outsides downwards, arms spread out; the child then stands at the head end, slots their arms in, bends down and flips the whole coat over and on!) That, though, is the sum total of my pro-Montessori leanings.

We shouldn’t foster robotic children, and we shouldn’t foster children fearful of adults or what those adults might say to or about them. Why do children gravitate over to some adults? Of course, the physical level of the adult helps, as does the listening and the talking with the child, if wanted by that child (talking ‘with’, I’ve always felt, rather than ‘talking to’ and definitely rather than ‘talking at’); I have, for a long time, held the belief that children ‘see’ the play awareness of certain adults.

I observe good playworkers I sometimes work with, and some excellent parents, and other adults who are neither or both of these, and I watch the way that children seem to appreciate them, ‘see’ them, ‘know’ them, ‘get’ them. It’s this ‘gettingness’ that has fascinated me for a while.

The adult who tries too hard will soon be found out by the child; the adult who’s playful, up to a point, before adult sensibilities kick back in again, will be found out and discarded; the adult who just doesn’t ‘get’ play won’t even be tolerated. There are deeper reasons why some children ‘get’ some adults, perhaps: the possible unconventional looks and ways of the adult, as compared to the child’s forming stereotype, can be part of it; there may be attachment needs not served by other adults in the child’s life; there may be a raw but developing comprehension that a rebellious or unusual streak is the ‘play way’, and should be embraced when found in any other person; there may be other, more indefinable reasons.

I don’t know, but it’s an ongoing process of trying to find out. If I’m ‘in tune’ (and some days I’m not, for whatever reason), I can be minding my own business on the bus, concentrating on collecting golf balls, sitting talking with other adults in a play space and giving no outward signs that ‘I’m playing now’, and before long I have tongues stuck out at me; or I have children gravitating around, without words, not always with a need for the play objects themselves; or I find glue and glitter being surreptitiously spread up my arm.

Like Neill, I can’t fully explain the reasons for these sorts of things; I do know though that I hope children don’t become robots, and that they do just express themselves in their play. Why? Imagine a world full of robotic people unable to connect with one another at all.
 
 

Ways of seeing: love

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love. And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course. Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1926)
 
 
Inspired by my continuing open dialogue with Arthur (or diablogue, as is my learned colleague’s phrase), I’m thinking first and foremost here about love. Arthur noted that I’d cautiously buried the ‘l’-word deep down in the middle of my previous blog; to which I return with a ‘beat you round the head with love’ approach here and now! It is the love given by the child that I’m offering due thought to.

So that I don’t go over old ground, your reading of my previous blog immediately before this one will help: in reality, children love; love is beautiful, as I believe, and should be accepted.

The space between that last blog and this one is served, in part, by Arthur’s thinking on the ‘theory of mind’. This leads me to think on how we can ‘know’ another by knowing ourselves. That a child can ‘know’ me, or vice versa, when I’ve only just met them has been a source of several years’ worth of trying to understand. Arthur writes, in My eyes are thinking about what is behind your eyes: ways of seeing and theory of mind:

I now realise that ‘the theory behind the gaze’ is what distinguishes this intense seeing from the glance of an unthinking reactive playworker who tidies up my piece of cardboard while it is catching the light.

Children love. Why? My head has been buried in philosophy books, looking around linked and, as yet, unlinked ideas. I surface and hope my words come out in ways that are readable!
 
Love’s aim

According to Professor Owen Flanagan (of Duke University, North Carolina), Franz Brentano (Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, 1874) brought back the thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas when he discussed the idea of ‘intentionality’. Our conscious mind must be mindful of something. It has an intention, an object it aims towards. Mental states are aimed towards ‘objects’, which can be anything. Love is a mental state and I think of myself as the object, the intention, of a child’s love. In other words, the child’s mind has to be conscious of something, has to aim at something: I am the object of fascination, deemed worthy (when I am); I am loved.
 
Love as more

Dr Paul Gilbert, University of Hull, writes that ‘Plato viewed love as a desire for beauty, which should transcend the physical and even the personal, culminating in philosophy — the love of wisdom itself’.

In the light of most of this thinking I can view children in such ways. That is, because my mind understands something of a notion of beauty (albeit a personal one), I consider that others can do the same too, especially children. My belief is in tune with love as much more than merely physical and personal. Perhaps others have their own words for similar thoughts. What I can’t know, however, is what those thoughts of the children are: (a) because language isn’t necessarily good enough, in general, for such ideas to pass between two people (even here I’m struggling with words); (b) specifically, between myself and the child, word-language is unformed and perhaps inappropriate (it disrupts the bubble of the moment).

When we analyse (or over-analyse), we risk destroying the very thing that we’re looking at. I type that full stop and realise what I’m currently doing.
 
Archetypes and the mythic realm

If love transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and the personal, what does it amount to? Here I shall recycle some recent comments to Arthur, from memory. Here we’re into the realms of Carl Jung’s archetypes. It is, what I call (and perhaps others have done so too — I must have got it from somewhere) a mythic realm. That is, this is a dimension, a space, a place (but not a solid place) populated by characters we can all associate with: mother figure (not ‘mother’), joker/trickster, shadow figure. The child mind, or the mental state of love, is aimed towards (wants to ‘see’, connect with) these archetypes of this mythic realm. A child, more so than an adult, can more readily see what they might know as (if they had the words) The Wise One, The Knower, Seer, Understander. A child is not yet fully pressed into what the adults call the ‘real world’: the mythic realm is still a living space to the child.

When I am ‘seen’, am I seen because I’m in that mythic realm at that moment?
 
Inalienable love, or giving and receiving

I thought that love was not inalienable (that which cannot be transferred). In other words, I thought that love could be transferred, given out. Of course it can be given, but it doesn’t transfer to another person lock stock and barrel. It’s odd and cheesy to say it (it sounds like a cheesy old song), but the more you give it away the more it grows in you.

Why else might we, and children, give love? Do we give to receive love? Or is it the only true altruism, the only act of selflessness? I’m not so sure there is any such thing as altruism: no matter how noble or kind our act, we might always receive something in return (even if it’s ‘just’ the glow of knowing you have loved).

Perhaps we give love because, deep down, very deep down beyond the words and thoughts we understand, we are scared. We’re scared of aloneness (I use this word deliberately): life as a search for shared connection, connection to the archetypes we all associate with and understand at some level, a kind of ‘cure’ for solipsist thinking (that is, that my mind is the only mind I can truly know as true; therefore I can’t be sure of others; therefore this is my aloneness). Of course, by using the possessive that is ‘my’, this suggests that ‘I’ consider there also to be an ‘other’ or ‘others’ (‘you’, ‘them’), and my aloneness is not real at all. The only other way to think is to use ‘it’ instead of ‘I’: it is not at all certain about love.
 
Love as irrational

When we analyse (or over analyse), we do it in a very rational, logical way. However, much of what we do as humans is irrational — superstition and belief, for example. We are, as are human children, irrational creatures. I shouldn’t differentiate at all here between adults and children: we are all irrational creatures.

Love is irrational. It’s that concept again of how it grows bigger in you the more it gets depleted (given away). When children love, they don’t do so in rational analytical ways (in this model, and so I assume because I don’t know their minds for sure). Children love because you are there, because you have crossed over into the mythic realm (which they can see), because it is just necessary to do so.
 
Love and gravity

Sometimes love just can’t be helped.

Professor Adam Morton, University of Bristol, writes: ‘Your mind is like your weight’. Run with this with me . . . Your mind, that which you are. So, by extension, your mind is like your mass? Your gravity?

Love has a mass.* Its affect can be felt. I think of love as dark matter, holding the universe together, exerting gravity and being affected by the gravity of objects too. Sometimes love just can’t help but aim towards the gravity of others.

*Yes, I am aware that mass and weight are different things!
 
Occam’s razor

Back to Earth. There’s a philosophical principle called Occam’s razor, which suggests — in essence — that the simplest answer is the one to go with. Children love — why?

Love is imbued in us from an early age: a reaction to being loved; the more we receive, perhaps, the more we give back.

I can’t just leave it there though. Occam’s razor might suppose that the fewest amount of assumptions creates the most elegant solution, but I have to add in assumptions because that’s the nature of this enquiry!

Love is imbued in us from an early age: a reaction to being loved; the more we receive, perhaps, the more we give back, until/if we reach a point where society, culture, others’ fears suppress what we give out. Many children love because it is just what they do, in various ways, until they’re imposed upon differently.
 
Beyond Occam’s razor: into the light

In my rummaging in philosophy pages, I found something that I see as quite beautiful. I want to use it as a final idea here, but a pause in the overall and ongoing thinking on love.

Professor Hossein Ziai, University of California, writes about the Islamic Philosophy of Illumination, according to the 12th century Persian thinker Shihāb al-Dīn Yahyā Sohravardī: ‘Objects, depicted as lights, are inherently knowable because they include essential light that may be ‘seen’ by subjects who, recovering their own essential lightness, become self-cognisant and capable of ‘seeing’ the object’s manifest light-essence’.

Adult as light, and seen by the child.
 
* Main reference material: Honderich, T. (Ed) (1995), Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
 
 

Ways of seeing: interpretation (first draft thinking)

The key to a Chattoist [see text below] approach is your eye. This eye is a special eye — it is the eye of a Hockney. It’s a Zen eye, a beginner’s eye: developed by an expert, who has spent years developing it, so that it is almost exactly the same as, and as good as, a child’s eye.

Arthur Battram (private communication — unfinished blog, 2012). Ways of seeing: the craft of management/ways of seeing: the craft of playwork.
 
 
Following on from my recent blogs (whose overall themes can be boiled down to the way that adults might negatively perceive children’s play, or try to control it), I’d like to ask you a question: how do you ‘see’ the children around you?

Do they frustrate you with their energy, please you with what they’ve learnt from you, confuse you with their thinking? Do they make you smile with their random interactions, annoy you with their stubbornness, make you laugh out loud at their peculiarities — though you don’t know why?

In truth, perhaps it could be all of these, and more . . . but wait. Drawing from John Berger’s 1972 book and BBC series on viewing art, Ways of Seeing, some parallels can be derived when thinking about how we adults see children. Berger notes that:

(i) We see first, and then we use words to explain what we see. (So, we add our own words of interpretation onto what we see children doing: the affect on us of their energy, learning, confused thinking, random interactions, stubbornness, peculiarities).

(ii) What we know or believe affects the way we see things. (So, what we believe affects how we see children — children are, supposedly, energetic, able to learn from us, confused in their thinking, random in their interactions, stubborn, peculiar or individual).

(iii) What we see (or perceive), and what we know, can be two different things. Berger uses the example of ‘seeing’ that the sun goes round the Earth, but knowing the opposite. (So, we ‘see’ children being energetic, learning from us, confused in their thinking, random in their interactions, stubborn, peculiar or individual, and yet we might ‘know’ something quite different).

What we ‘know’ comes from somewhere different to where the words we use (to explain what we think we see) come from. That is, call it some intuition. I deliberately write this word here to give this paragraph some meaning in a way that many will understand; I use a word to explain something that maybe can’t be explained. In reality, what I’m writing about here is perhaps beyond the word-label that is ‘intuition’ — what this ‘knowing’ of children is about is maybe unwriteable, though I’ll try.  

Beth Chatto, gardener, as described by Arthur Battram ‘has an incomparable skill in working out how to nurture a garden in any conditions: an example being a cold wet, dank corner of her own garden, starved of nutrients by- and shaded by- huge trees. Years of patient experiment, based on years of observation, is her secret.’

In my previous blogs, I’ve highlighted adult perceptions of children that aren’t in this Chattoist model of patience: that is, ‘do not play with the leaves because I don’t want you to’; ‘children’s play is increasingly seen as something for adults to decide upon’. Examples such as these are not the stuff of beautiful relationships. Here we get to the nitty-gritty of this blog post: what I ‘know’ is that children love.

This is a strong word, and adults are often scared by it. It’s confused by adult concerns of protection, fear, wrongdoing. In reality, children love. It is my years of patient observation that have shown me this. If we see the world just through the eyes of protection (or over-protection), fear, or wrongdoing, the words we use to explain what we see will reflect this way of seeing.

Similarly, if we only see what children do in terms of how they affect us, the words we use to explain what we see will reflect this: children frustrate me with their energy; please me with what they’ve learnt from me; confuse me with their thinking; make me smile with their random interactions; annoy me with their stubbornness; make me laugh out loud at their peculiarities.

If we open up to seeing in a different way, what might we then know? When I feel I get it right, with my child’s eye understood by the children I’m with, it’s like a scene from The Matrix! There is a shared knowing in operation, or so it feels: the child, or children, and I operate in a bubble of comprehension. They know that I know, and I know that they know. They ‘get’ me and vice versa.

Recently, it turned out that I got my ways of seeing right. I only knew this for sure when the play had unfolded as fully as others had allowed it to, or when I could read the signs in the play.

At a school, I hadn’t done anything particularly active in the space, but I had developed a space in which play could happen. The children were beside themselves with excitement. It was novel for them, it was a space that buzzed. I stood observing carefully, because it was school and because it was novel and because I didn’t know what might happen. Play happened. Several children came up to me as I was packing away bits and bobs (the teachers were calling for the children’s time again). I was down at the children’s level, picking up, tidying up. The children told me, of their own volition, that they’d enjoyed their play that day. Two children wanted to spontaneously give me a hug. I kept a little distance; though on reflection, what this all amounted to was that these children seemed to have seen my child’s eye, known and ‘got’ me. It was their love that they wanted to express.

Another day, and other children I hadn’t yet met. I sat in the doorway at a friend’s house with the aim of supporting the two year old I did know in his shyness at new children around him. Three other children played. It only took a brief exchange of names, being at carpet level, and a child’s eye, I feel, for all four children to be offering cues and affections to me — by which I mean not the negative seeing of the word, but rather affections of understanding. It is a mutual knowing that cannot be fully written.

This Zen eye, this beginner’s eye, developed by someone who has spent years developing it, so that it is almost exactly the same as, and as good as, a child’s eye: this way of seeing has offered me these words I use to explain second what I see first; this way of seeing, this belief I have, affects the way I see things; what I see and what I ‘know’ have different qualities — I see a beauty of play, I ‘know’ something even richer taking place.

How do you see children?
 
* It has taken the best part of a week’s thinking and a day’s writing to craft this blog piece, and I still don’t know if I’ve laid the words out in ways that can be empathised with and ‘known’ by others. Such is, perhaps, the nature of the beast in question.
 
 

Moments and stories

Stories are moments, and moments become stories. I’ve had various conversations this week with play and playwork colleagues, and those conversations are always a chance to connect with stories. Being a good playworker involves doing this. Understanding play involves doing this. However, stories go much deeper: they connect us all. We come from traditions of oral histories, and we can’t afford to lose that story-telling.

I’d like to share some small stories about moments. These are stories about moments spent with children; they’re important because moments like these can often be overlooked. When we overlook the moments, we don’t truly see what we are, what others are, how we connect. How many moments of possible connection are there in every day? What do we miss if we don’t see moments at all?

Moments of quality with respected others

Moments, like atoms, are what we’re comprised of. In the context of moments of people – rather than places – experienced, others affect us (though they sometimes don’t realise it). In the playwork world, I’ve shared conversations with writers and thinkers and playworkers and they have left their moments on me. Morgan (who I know to read here), do you remember a conversation we had in a hotel lobby in Wolverhampton five years or so ago? You sparked my further thoughts about the leftoverness of play. Bob Hughes advised me to ‘ask the right question’, and to observe the background. Pete King said ‘write that book!’ Jess Milne simply said to take a banana when training, ‘for the brain’. Gordon Sturrock didn’t say anything: he just watched the way I worked – which was enough. Jacky Kilvington and I discussed the ‘allness’ of play. Eva Kane told me, simply but that was all that was needed, ‘children know’. Perry Else let me in on a sneak preview of his, then, new book over breakfast on a sunny morning when I wasn’t as awake as I could have been. Arthur (who also reads here), do you remember a conversation we once had at BoP, possibly involving whisky, in which neuro-linguistic programming was swilled around?

Perhaps none of these people remember any of these conversations with me. It doesn’t matter, because I remember them. This unashamed name-dropping isn’t a name-drop after all: plenty of those in playwork circles have had the opportunity to talk with plenty of the above as well; those outside of playwork circles won’t have heard of these people anyway. My point is that it’s the quality of the mark that’s left that counts.

So, we live on a planet of infinite possibilities of moment-making, and into that mix go the children. Here are four stories of moments, of connections: because stories are moments, and moments become stories that should be told:

The moment of a thunderstorm

A few years ago I was involved in a play day event. We were on a large field and a range of play opportunities were on offer. Myself and my colleague were manning the messy play resources. Children just came and went, covered themselves in paint and foodstuffs, got good and sticky and, well, messy! Then the rain came. Pretty much every other adult on the field scattered for cover, but we were doing the messy stuff: we stayed out there, barefoot on the grass. The children with us were soaked. This is the set-up for the moment in question.

When the children had had enough of the rain, the field cleared. I sat at the door to the pavilion, on the paving slabs outside and under the overhanging eaves. The rain was hammering down. The messy play stuff was left to disintegrate out on the field. All I could hear was the rain. I looked around and there gathered behind me were ten, fifteen, twenty or so children, all sat down wrapped up, quietly eating sandwiches, watching out like I was. We sat there and watched together as the thunderstorm rumbled over.

The moment of a small place found

It’s a wet and dreary afternoon. I’m sitting on the sofa, with my feet up on it, as Gack plays on the floor. We’ve been out walking and he’s been bouncing from one thing to another all day. He’s not focusing on anything in his play for very long: perhaps that’s just a part of being two years old. He suddenly picks up his dummy (that’s a pacifier, if you’re reading in American!) and climbs up over me, aiming for the gap between my body and the back of the sofa. He lies down there against me, saying: ‘Want tewwy on’. (Tewwy, being television), which I interpret as his way of saying ‘this calms me’. In a minute, I say. I smooth his hair.

It’s very quiet here. All there is to hear is the sound of the rain – coming from the open back door – and the clock ticking. We don’t say anything, and he lies there, and I stroke his hair. We both just listen. Gack slowly falls asleep. I sit there for a long time with him, and I’m trying not to move; the cramp sets in. His breathing matches mine, or maybe that’s the other way around. Either way, he’s there for a long time in the gap between me and the sofa.

The moment of a kerbside

I’m following Gack, one day, on his push-along car because he asks me to. He’s heading along the path of the cul-de-sac. He stops at the corner, at the kerb, so I sit down there too. He just watches the other children playing on their scooters and bikes in the road. We don’t say anything. Soon, some of the children come over (children who I’ve met before, briefly). They all sit around on the kerb too. We’re all just hanging out on the kerb, me and these two to five, six, seven year olds. There isn’t really a huge amount of conversation, we just hang out. I feel like I’m accepted. One of the children’s parents watches on from a short distance. I see this. I’m OK with this. The children are OK with me.

The moment of a wave

Recently, I came out of a fairly unproductive meeting. My head was just trying to get back into the ‘real world’ outside of the rarefied environment of political-speak and small, neat, clinically partitioned-off meeting rooms. I was walking down the street. I saw a big yellow school bus, which caught my attention, coming to a stop in traffic. As I walked past, one of the children inside smiled and waved at me. I wasn’t quick enough to wave back. I smiled. Two or three seats back on the bus, another child did the same. So, I smiled and waved back. He seemed pleased by my response. A few seats further back again, another child smiled and waved. I smiled and waved back to her. She seemed happy at this.

Children wave at people they don’t know. Maybe they know about moments and how the possibility of those moments being formed can mark them for a while. Knowing about moments allows a marking in me.

Moments become stories, and the story is a moment in itself.
 
 

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