Archive for the ‘connectivity’ Category
I, and my words, have wintered and now it’s almost spring. What of play, now, after these months of thinking, reading, always either being in with empathy, reflecting on or observing around this most ineffable of sustenances? I recently came across an article that seemed to link with my previous recent writings embracing mutual aid, collaboration and connectivity. The article (Let’s do branch: how trees socialise and help their neighbours by Amy-Jane Beer, 2019) is, admittedly, published primarily as a paid-for product placement link in an online national newspaper; however, glazing over that, I was caught up by the analogy I found myself conjuring of a forest of children, en mass, at play.
Despite appearances, trees are social beings. For a start, they talk to each other. They’re also sensing, co-operating and collaborating . . .
Read as: Despite appearances, children are social beings. For a start, they talk to each other. They’re also sensing, co-operating and collaborating . . .
Well, we know that children interact, for sure, but do we know how it is they communicate, in all their various, glorious, subtle, complex, overlaid and interlaced formations? They can manifest their many complexities to one another (and to and between them and any playworking-minded adults) in such astute and beautiful, brave and careful intricacies. There are many who can’t, or won’t, see such things because maybe their focusings are fraught or frayed
. . . the phenomenon known as ‘crown shyness’, in which similarly-sized trees of the same species appear to be respecting each other’s space was recognised almost a century ago. Sometimes, instead of interlacing and jostling for light, the branches of immediate neighbours stop short of one another, leaving a polite gap.
Children move: they always seem to be moving, physically, but even when this isn’t so perceptible, they’re still moving, emotionally, psychologically, socially. Children are choreography in action. It’s easy to see when they’re playing ‘tag’, say, spinning towards and away from one another, but we might also consider how there is an emotional, psychological, social choreography in action too. It isn’t the ‘polite gap’ of physical trees or children that I wish to pay attention to here: it is the honour of ‘being a fellow child’ that I see, despite the occasional disagreement. There are small courtesies and allowances paid to one another, which are replete with knowing and feeling what it is in being ‘child’.
If trees can be shy at their branch-tips, more recent research shows they are anything but at their roots. In a forest, the hair-like tips of individual root systems not only overlap, but can interconnect, sometimes directly via natural grafts, but also extensively via networks of underground fungal threads, or mycorrhizae. Through these connections, trees can share water, sugars and other nutrients, and pass chemical and electrical messages to one another.
This is the nub of things. The forest of children is an interconnected affair, below the surface of what the many adults think they see or hear or know. It never ceases to amaze how the smallest particle or packet of information can fizz around the underground, along the root system and its off-shoots, to surface again elsewhere or elsewhen, maybe whole or maybe slightly modified but always passed without adult discernment. Children inhabit a culture, an extensive rhizomatic array, way beneath and beyond the forgotten comprehension of many adults of the local system above the ground.
Canadian biologist Suzanne Simard . . . describes the largest individual trees in a forest as hubs or ‘mother trees’. Mothers have the deepest, most extensive roots, and are able to supplement smaller trees with water and nutrients, allowing saplings to thrive even in heavy shade.
I have seen this mother phenomenon in action, but never really realised it as something akin to the trees until thinking recently. One child, girl or boy, of any age, quietly, humbly sustains those around them, sacrificing something, ignoring something, giving something and walking away. They get on with their own play. We of the playworking-minded adults think we have the monopoly on such actions, and sometimes we do act in these ‘mother tree’ ways, but when we see a child, quietly, come to give an upset other the doll she was playing with, say, walking away then without a word or gesture (or another, sat quietly stroking the hair of her friend in front of her, for reasons we can only guess the depths of), we can realise otherwise.
Scientists have known for more than 40 years that if a tree is attacked by a leaf-eating animal, it releases ethylene gas. On detecting the ethylene, nearby trees prepare to repel boarders — boosting production of chemicals that make their leaves unpalatable, even toxic.
It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility (what do we adults really know?) to suggest that a locale of the forest of children can act in similar ways. An attack on one is a warning to the others, and the others can then seem just as toxic to the attacker looking for more to feed on. I have seen small groups closing ranks. The question remains, though: what, or who, here constitutes the toxic agent?
A sobering aspect of recent revelations is that many of these newly recognised ‘behaviours’ are limited to natural growth. In plantations, there are no mother trees, and there is very little connectivity. This is partly because of the way young trees are transplanted and partly because when they are thinned to prevent competition, what little underground connectivity neighbours have established is severed. Seen in this light, modern forestry practices begin to seem almost monstrous: plantations are not communities but crowds of mute, factory-farmed individuals, felled before they have ever really lived.
This paragraph, to me, is very poignant. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions of minutiae and wholenesses on it.
For this playworking-minded writer, it suffices to say that we can affect a positivity of nurture, in all manner of circumstances and to some degree, but it’s better if the nature of connectivity isn’t stripped away or trammelled on to start with.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of observations, stories for the reflecting on. I’ve continued this thread of writing since then, but they’ve shifted along. Stories, whatever you call or tag 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 are part of the whole as 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 year 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.