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

Archive for the ‘contemporary play stories’ Category

Play grounds us

After something of a sojourn, I have a need to begin to immerse again in the thinking on play and in the ongoing practising of playworking. I have been away, overwhelmed: not by play but rather by the microcosms I have moved within. It’s some small wonder that all our faculties might remain more or less intact, in the adult unreal world, what with all the psychological and emotional bruising we receive in the accumulation of all our interactions. There are times when we just need to stand well back, to breathe, to look around and see and be again. If it’s like this for adults sometimes, just what must it be like for today’s children?

So, here is a statement for moving forwards: play grounds us.

We tend to live within a society or structure of adult thinking that is, at best, concerned with polarities and, at worst, content just to repeat the received ‘wisdom’. To this end, it’s ‘play’ or ‘work’, ‘find solace from work in play’, and so on. Of course, as the wiser know, play is intertwined through life, integral to it, not able to be stripped away from it. It all comes down to an attitude, perspective, a way of seeing and being. What can we see if we attempt to remove ourselves from the ‘typical-adult hegemony’ manner of perception?

Children tend to ‘get’ a playful adult. I have experienced this, talked and written about it many, many times. Earlier this week was the most recent, in discussion with someone about ways in which we might talk play with parents. This discussion, as well as others I’ve recently had or anticipate having soon, gives me a little pause for thought though: perhaps I should start shifting away from the term ‘playful adult’ to something more like ‘play-focused adult’. The former is beginning to feel a little hackneyed, a bit too ‘wacky, zany’ and I’ve long since had a low tolerance for the interchangeability of ‘hey, look at me, I’m wacky-zany’ and loose approximations of playworking (I make no apologies for the lah-de-dahness inherent in this statement): the former is a clown; the latter is something very different. Maybe ‘play-focused’ though has too much of the whiff of ‘focus group’ or somesuch about it? It’ll come.

So, pending a settling of satisfactory terminology, children tend to ‘get’ play-focused adults: when in the moment of just such a situation recently (a younger child at a play session seemed to have sized me up pretty well in her progressive interactions with me), I was able to switch out of adult-think as I tried to appreciate what was important for her. What seemed important was the moment of rolling the hoop, again and again. It was a similar perception recently whilst working with children at a camp in the forest: what seemed important was the sudden play cue (one of the most sudden and direct I think I’ve ever been offered) of a younger boy who just turned around where he sat, without first giving any eye contact or other immediately recognisable communication, to initiate catch-throw with me. What became important was the need to carry on the cues and returns (on both of our parts). Another day at the camp, a younger girl also had a need for throw-catch, and we threw the beanbags to one another over and over and over and over. She said ‘bye’ and a cheery ‘thanks, though I’ll never see you again.’

‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily relate here to the idea of a stern attitude: on the contrary, the ‘instant play cue’ boy, for example, just kept laughing as the cues and returns continued! Later, I found out that it’s practically impossible to do a good job of face painting with a child who just makes you laugh so much! Some children are deadly serious about face painting (not packing mirrors helps). So, ‘what’s important’ in play has its context. In the woods, we started to set up what I thought might turn into some small sort of spider’s web of elasticky line between the trunks, but then a few children asked to do some webbing too. Give up any lingering half-baked design ideas at this stage because the ‘co-produced’ becomes something else entirely. They just kept winding and winding and making an ever expanding 3D sort of sculpture. They would have carried on all through the forest, I’m sure, if there’d been enough elastic. It seemed important to the children, this winding and web spinning, in the moment. The area, just beyond the rope swing, earned itself a name almost straight away (named places earn this because of significances levied on them, and named places grow in stature because of being named — think aboriginal songlines): the place was called ‘The Lasers’. Various parents were summoned to gaze wondrously on The Lasers or to try to navigate through it. Later, across The Ditch of Doom, I spotted a rope bridge had been constructed. It was all ‘necessary’, ‘important’, and of the now.

In the evening, children clumped into factions as the games swilled around: the older children and a few younger ones played some form of hide-chase-tap; the younger girls led a few younger boys out into the trees for a ghost hunt — they came back for torches and trooped off again. No adults were called upon to be part of that play, except to source the torches. Despite all of this, I had the feeling (a playworker on site as I was) of never really being ‘off duty’, which was fine. That is, the children seemed to have ‘got’ this play-focused adult fairly quickly and, whether I was sat reading a book, having a quiet beer, eating, or carrying equipment around, play cues came. Play doesn’t switch on and off, if the non-polarity of thinking attitude is engaged with: play is just there.

Or rather, perhaps, we might think of play in simplistic Schrödingerian terms: play is both there and not there, potential and actual, kinetic and static, and more, and all of these.

It’s all a ‘perhaps’ and, after something of a sojourn from thinking on play and the practising of playworking, after a period of feeling somewhat overwhelmed by an accumulation of typical-adult hegemony interactions, it’s good to be climbing back in the saddle. Play grounds us, in many ways.
 
 

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.
 
 

Questioning the adult-free of play

Some of the children I know actively go out of their way to bring us adults, playworkers, into their play. I write it like this, as a definite and opening sentence all on its own, because people still have the tendency to write things that they suppose children want or like (such as, for example, ‘children want and need to play in adult-free ways’). Sure, being free of adults and their sometimes restrictions is something children sometimes seem to seek out: in their hiding away, in their roaming, or in the various other secrets of their play; however, to suggest that children don’t want adults around at all is contrary to what my experience tells me.

We have to be careful at this point: I’m not advocating taking over children’s play. What I am suggesting though is that, often, children seek out certain adults to be a part of the play for whatever reason (and I’m also mindful of the fact that, in context, this writing refers to children attending a staffed provision). Some children I know return to particular narratives and ways of playing day after day, and this can involve me. It is, at times, almost as if there’s a message underneath the cues that will repeat the play of previous days, and I can’t read that message well enough (as subtle as it may be). As far as I know, one girl will only jump with me, at the trampoline, in a certain manner; another girl will ask me to play a version of a game at the netting, styled in this way because of my presence; one boy played some nearly-rough and tumble/fantasy hybrid with me, and this may shape repeat into something, in this particular form, between me and him only: maybe.

Of course, our particular adult returns to children’s cues are to be noted here: I will return cues in ways only I can, as will my colleagues to the children who cue them. I can’t return a cue as my colleague can, and vice versa. It follows that my fellow playworkers will also have engagements in children’s play, at those children’s direct requests or non-verbal cues, that I won’t or can’t have. Children choose their adults, and we may be none the wiser as to why we’re chosen. If we think back hard, we may be able to find a memory of exactly when a play relationship shifted from something to something more significant; that though is a trick in itself. How do we know what caused a spark in any other?

In this sense then, it’s even more presumptuous to assume that we adults can know what children want or need. Blanket coverage doesn’t fit at the best of times, let alone in the infinitesimally succinct moments of spark that form ‘something’ into ‘something more’: from ‘you’re OK’ to ‘you’re the one I need to play this with’. Maybe it’s not even ‘play with’ in operation here: maybe it’s more along the lines of the adult being the play shell, the container of play, the vessel, the conduit, something like this.

Last week, just a short while after surfacing from the office (my head firmly lost in a screen for a good couple of hours after the children had come in), one of the girls came up to me and asked me to play ‘Earthquake Technology’ with her. She plays versions of this, at the netting that hangs from one end of the platform structures, with colleagues — I think — and with me she calls it this: I have no idea where the ‘technology’ bit comes from, but the ‘earthquake’ involves me pulling the netting as she lies or stands on it. She’s very light and tends to fly! Other children often soon get on, which makes the servicing of the play on my part that much more difficult! Netting-earthquakes are less seismic when weighed down by four or five children.

Last week, this play took place, again. Sometimes the other children will add in other ‘natural disasters’, and maybe other colleagues have seen this too. So, as well as being the earthquake, I was required to be the ‘shark attack’, the ‘volcano’, and the ‘tornado’, and on occasion I’ve also been the ‘tsunami’. The trick to this, from the point of view of the ‘natural disaster’-maker, is not to stop! Stopping means you realise how tiring it can all get. In the middle of all of this, in what felt like holding together the play, a boy came towards me with a big smile and acted out some form of ‘natural disaster’-maker attacker role. He became anti-natural disaster boy. He came at me with a spade and then a bread crate, and he backed me into corners, though he never really touched. He was in some form of nearly-rough and tumble play. His play took on a shape of its own: it linked to the disasters still happening on the netting, but it was also just slightly removed.

There was a point that I realised, whilst picking at the toes of sock-wearing children (in shark mode), whilst run-ducking underneath the netting in some sort of wave, whilst being a volcano, whilst being earthquake aftershocks, and whilst succumbing to a plastic crystal found by anti-disaster boy, that I was holding together two play frames (these instances of disaster and anti-disaster play) at the same time. It was a case of don’t stop.

Somehow I found myself in the netting, though I don’t recall exactly how. Maybe I was running away. Another boy threw himself at me. His rough and tumble was careful but more full-on. I tried to get out but, really, I was like a stranded turtle! Eventually, after struggling free and finding myself on terra firma once again, I declared myself honestly unable to earthquake the netting any more that day. I set off to sit down somewhere, but another boy bounced past saying he wanted to challenge me to a wrestling match on the crash mats. I really couldn’t. I directed him towards a colleague, telling him how he, my colleague, is younger and fitter than me. On this occasion, I was allowed my rejected play cue.

Children don’t want or need adults around them, so it’s said. Sure, often this may be true, but often other times there are certain adults who will only do, or who will do instead. There are messages beneath and in between the repetitions of the cues.

I got to sit down for a little while, until the trampoline girl said, ‘Come’ (she says this in exactly this way, as a play cue), taking my finger. She has a way of jumping really high because she’s developed this way with me. I’ve not yet seen her do this with any of my colleagues. There are, no doubt, other ways I don’t know which she shares with them.
 
 

Underneath our stories of play

Another playworker, I have found, has just started putting stories to the screen, or pen to paper, or both, but any way you write or say it, the telling of stories of play has the potential of value. After reading this recent story of play (‘the potatoe [sic, children’s spelling] ghost’) about the children at a different adventure playground, I found myself thinking on how our playwork stories of play are told and what might lie beneath these tellings.

First things first though, why are such stories of potential value? It is because they connect us to the understanding that what we’re seeing is, in fact, play (as opposed to some other label we could graft onto it); they connect us to our own play as children, to the play that has been (for the children around us), and to the play that could be. When we see play, we start to open our eyes and our minds to the possibilities of more play. What was once, before, regarded as annoyances, loudnesses, unfathomable actions and behaviours and the like, are suddenly now all play. We can smile at this, maybe.

It isn’t just playwork people who tell stories of play: many parents will share their children’s curious assemblages of actions and utterances; play-literate passers-by will take note of children’s ways of being in public spaces; teachers or other teaching staff might relate a particular instance of their days. Play, of course, isn’t just confined to children’s worlds: adults play too, though a fair few will find other names for what they do. Adults will tell stories of other adults’ play, though they’ll wrap them up in other words.

Last week, on the night Tube, I found myself sat next to six or seven other adults who had spontaneously started singing, a cappella, songs they negotiated between them. They were doing it, it seemed, just for the love of singing, and they had no hands or cups held out for monetary reward at the end of each song. They’d just got through the first few lines of The Flying Pickets’ Only You when my stop came by too quickly. I thanked them because their singing really was something quite special in the moment of my listening. If I’d written this story another way, I could have said that I thanked them because their playing really was something quite special in the moment of my listening.

Adults play, as do children, but it’s the appreciation that ‘this is play’ that folds its way into what becomes the story. How we tell that story is a story in itself. What struck me about my fellow playworker’s writing about ‘the potatoe ghost’ was the feel of magic realism in it. Children’s communications and all the story’s ‘extraordinary magic’ (as the magic realist writers might have it) are written as ordinary sets of occurrences of the playground. Sure, the potato ghost had come (in the reality of the play) and stolen the potato, and haunted the playground, and this induced some fear, but these are details of details of the world of play: these ghosts exist, these regenerations and possessions that are related of the children’s narrations exist, and no-one questions this, not even (or especially) the story teller.

What this leads me to thinking about is the nature of the interactions between any given playworker (or any other play-literate adult) and the child. This then unfolds in the manner of the story telling. How might we, the story tellers, be? We might be invisible observer (or as invisible as we can be), relating the third person ‘facts’ as we perceive them; we might delve into the first person telling, or the second person conversational (as literary as this approach might be, and I’ve not seen this approach used too often in terms of story telling of play, to be honest), or we might tell in ways that are something yet more sophisticated than this. How we tell the story might suggest not only our level of engagement in the play, and/or our comprehension of it, but also our deeper wants and needs. I’m now veering into the realms of the general, and not the specific of the story telling linked to above.

I wonder how my own story telling might pan out, if I were to place all my written stories of play side by side, end to end, one after another!

There are other considerations in the story telling too (as well as that of point of view, level of engagement, comprehension, wants and needs): there is the question of how the stories are presented, that of style. How we write suggests not only the way our senses absorb the information of the play around and running through us but also the affect that that play has on us. I can only highlight what I mean by way of reference to the general styles, as popularly conceptualised, of other writers. First though, a baseline story of play, recently observed:

A couple of weeks ago, I was drinking morning coffee in a café on Shepherd’s Bush Green as the rush of the city of London, or that end of it at least, swamped past on the road outside. I was reading my notebook, or watching TV, when I saw a mother — presumably — come in with a girl who was, I guessed, no more than about two years old, probably less because she was a little wobbly on her feet. My attention began to be taken by the way the woman concentrated all her energies on the child, by the way that the child was given the space to explore her immediate vicinity (though she actually stayed close by, holding on to the edge of the coffee table), and by the way the mother talked softly with the child about the lights (they both examined the lighting rig high up above them), the cars, anything that took the child’s fancy. The woman paid very little attention to anything else in the café.

Another woman came in, again presumably a mother, with a girl who was a little older than the first, and who was a little more confident. The second child knelt on the chair that separated her from the coffee table and the younger girl. The older girl moved her teddy bear around. It was as if, I thought, she was trying to bring the other child to play, whilst respecting the fact that she was somewhat timid. The women exchanged a glance or two, and nothing much more than a smile. The older girl, eventually, sidled down and round to the table. She placed the bear on a glass there, and took her hand away. The younger girl didn’t look too sure. The older girl took the bear away and replaced it again. The children were ever-so slowly getting closer. They almost made it to physical contact play, but something of the older girl spooked the younger girl.

I found myself totally absorbed in observing this slow, careful, delicate play unfolding. I found myself taken by the actions of the women (or the non-actions, more precisely). I found myself looking on without any other fellow café member noticing I was observing the play, as far as I thought or was aware. I felt, for all intents and purposes, invisible in plain view. When the older child’s mother signalled a time to go, there was a slight wave from the older child to the younger, and then the younger child’s mother carried on with her quiet talking and seeing with her daughter.

I write it all like this (a baseline story), and I wonder what lies beneath that way of writing it. How we write suggests the affect that that play has on us. Use of other writers’ styles, as popularly conceptualised, might result in different significances below the story’s telling . . .
 
In the style of Jack Kerouac, for example, and in part of the telling of the above:

The cityslush morningrush all conspired to a wave jumped up washed up found myself at the café stop and washing down and down writing thinking writing, thinking ‘bout going home, being home, what is home, moving on — till of a sudden there’s a baby wobbling, and she’s looking up and there’s her love-done mum, all fullhappy, and out there there’s the city and in there there’s the TV and the lights and all of that and all of this and baby girl just wants all baby mum’s everyness — and she gets it and she gets it and I just think there I just get this and I fall in fall on, and nothing doesn’t matter anymore cos there’s baby girl and baby’s mum and all that cityrush and look at all that sunshine on the inside . . .
 
In the style of Kurt Vonnegut, in part:

This happened, mostly. I saw this guy was sat watching one child throwing looks at another. And the other girl really wanted that bear she had. You could tell. Really, it happened that way. But what the other guys I know say is ‘What do you know anyway?’ And I’m just an old fart watching the world go by. It happened that way. Time goes by, and I tell them I can travel in it and see things others can’t.
 
In the style of Italo Calvino, in part:

In the centre of Shepherd’s Bush, that triangular city within a city, is a small glass building where, travellers know, they can see things others can’t or won’t. If, when inside the transparency of the room, the traveller who knows how to look takes the moment to see, then he or she will notice their moment filled with play.
 
In the style of Suzanne Vega, in part:

The mother came whispering at lights and the cars
Where her city’s streets were alive but afar
And the child she held so soft in her arms
Listened to the ways of the world

Along came another who smiled from her chair
She offered her comfort and the love of her bear
But the girl who had whispers fall down on her head
Couldn’t come closer to words . . .
 
Lastly, in the style of Bashō (with apologies to haiku purists who may be upset at various technical shades of this re-telling):

two kittens
at coffee’s edge —
one spring . . .

Stories of play are there for the telling, because play is seen, because play and its stories connect us. In stories there are levels of engagement, play-literacy and comprehension to be ascertained, but also — potentially — the teller’s wants and needs, the story of how their senses absorb, the story of whether the play flows around them or around and through them, and the way that the play affects and moves them in the manner and style of their telling.

Stories run deeper than just the words.
 
 

Moments surfacing from in amongst the wave

Having just come out the other end of a full-on, hectic couple of weeks of open access Easter holidays on the playground, it’s safe to say that a few days rest has been very much needed. In such weeks of so much going on in the play, the not-so-play, and the not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. The playground has ebbed and flowed from the quiet first fifteen or twenty minutes each day of what, for a while now, I’ve called the children’s ‘poking around’ time, through the swell of the build-up of something taking shape in the group dynamic, right up to something (which in the moment feels) very edgy, teetering there either like the proverbial wave that won’t crash or falling over in some places like on stretches of the shore.

In this edgy, sometimes niggling, often fizzing state, the playground is one long anticipation of that something-ness that may or may not take off, when the day’s like this. These past few weeks there have been water balloons and factions, the hose pipe, water buckets (sometimes the buckets themselves being thrown), the filling of the pool table with water (‘for underwater pool’) and spadefuls of sand and dollops of paint thrown on for good measure too; there have been balls kicked blindly up high to land into crowds of unseen children on the other side of the site; the workmen in the road have had their patiences tested with children throwing bits of old piping over the foreman’s roof; palettes have been smashed; arguments have risen and fallen or grudges have sustained themselves over days. I often come back to the suggestion, when talking about playwork, that even on a calm day if you’re not going home mentally exhausted (from observing, at least), then maybe you’re not doing it right; the edgy days are even more exhausting.

In amongst all of this, we might be forgiven for missing the little moments of play that happen quickly, quietly, on the periphery of the dominant dynamic of it all. If we sit back and think though, it is possible to draw to the surface such moments that we’ve noted in passing (consciously or otherwise). It is such moments that this post is intended to celebrate: a recognition that they have been. In no particular order (I don’t know which days they happened for sure in many cases, which may add to the general celebration), there follows notes on small incidences of play that might otherwise have passed us by:
 
Of the ethereal
Not many of the children who attended this open access were also regular after school club children, but there were a few. One was a younger girl who I caught sight of, every now and then, as she just floated by and through the whole fizz and swill of everything else going on. I thought she might be bored or unsure. I don’t know, in truth. I offered her clay that was already out and stored on a high shelf, once, and she and her older sister took it to a corner of the playground and nothing of the edginess seemed to bother them out there. The younger sister had a serene disposition whenever she wandered through the place, as all manner of buckets and language flew around her and the playground. She wafted from one place to another, stopped (perhaps to see the way the world was from there) and disappeared for another hour or so.
 
Dandelion girl
The same girl picked dandelions at the edge of the site near the zipline. A colleague caught my attention to show me this because he’d never seen it here before. Later, the girl picked dandelions elsewhere at another edge of the playground. She gave them to my colleague, and she laid more out on a long stretch of carpet that I’d put there in our set-up, by the hammock swing, because perhaps someone might lie on it.
 
Circular dozing
Another girl had been asking me and asking me to find her some slime powder for a while, and I hadn’t been able to achieve this because of everything that was happening at that time. Finally, I found the powder and put it in my pocket ready for when she was ready again. I saw her at the roundabout. She was lying in the centre of it in the sun. The other children there said she was asleep. She was dozing for sure, as the roundabout went slowly round. I cast a small shadow over her as I watched on, I remember, in my curiosity. There was no slime till the next day.
 
The lucky hammer and the catapult
A boy carried a hammer around with him all day, banging away at whatever he could find. I remember thinking that maybe he was testing us, but none of us were saying ‘don’t do this’. He kept the hammer with him and the banging gradually decreased. Near the end of the session he told me it was his lucky hammer. Earlier, he’d badgered me to help him make what he called a slingshot (but which was, as I later understood, a desire for a catapult, and which I understood in the moment as a ‘see-saw’). He wanted to nail two pieces of wood together and I said go do that but maybe a Y-shaped strong piece of branch would work out for the task. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for finding this. After the weekend, he searched again and came back and back with progressively stronger Y-shaped wood. I wondered if he’d been thinking about it all that time. We fitted it with elastic bands and duct tape to tie them together. He had his catapult/slingshot, and the lucky hammer didn’t re-emerge.
 
Diwali boys
Three boys found the stash of powder paints in the storage container. I’d seen one of the boys in this sort of play before: that is, he likes to dip his hand into the paint and throw it to the breeze and cover himself in the process. The boys engaged in the powder paint play around the playground, getting themselves good and dusted in brown (being the choice of the moment). Later, the boys were in the container again and there was powder paint of various colours a good half-inch thick covering the floor. ‘What has happened here?’ I asked them in a manner I hoped would be taken for its intention as observation rather than admonishment. ‘Fun has happened here,’ said the boy. We’d noted the festival nature of the play in our conversations earlier.
 
A tidied corner
One day, and briefly, I caught sight of a small group of younger girls who had swept the boards that now cover the old fire pit, where we’d left a trestle table which had accumulated bits and bobs and which they’d removed. They’d positioned wooden cabinets at the corners, turned inwards, and neatly created some outside room without the walls. They were busy painting the furniture. I walked on by and didn’t see this again.
 
Ethics on the mound
Somewhere along the line, one of the boys decided that it would be a good idea to put a live worm in an old tin can and roast it alive on the fire. There were some brief discussions between myself and some of the children, though I left them to make their own decisions. Later, I was talking unconnected things with a parent nearby and, as I did so, I overheard two children behind me as they sat on the mound of earth at the entrance gate. They were digging for worms and I couldn’t concentrate so well on the parent because I wanted to hear what the children were saying. There was general talk of worms and God, and ethical scraps that passed me by, but which I wanted to hear more of.
 
Tales of swings
Two girls spent some considerable time, over a period of a couple of days, grappling with a socket set to extricate the bolts that held the tyres onto the swings. There was a general consensus of a small section of children that the swings would be better this way. The girls finally freed the tyres ready for a colleague to unhook the chains from the beams. Later, or another day, I caught sight of the swings going high without the extra weight of the tyres on them, sometimes with just one child swinging almost horizontally, sometimes with all of the swings used by children at the same time, synchronised to meet in the middle of the frame structure at their highest point, their toes. Once I heard, in passing, the lull of a song as a group of older girls swung.
 
An occasional piano
We have a piano positioned in the alcove between the tool shed and the main door towards the office and just behind where the children like to have the pool table out in the sun. Every so often a child could be seen or heard there, tinkling away at a few notes. One child, late in the week, diligently repeated the same refrain, over and over. It was a small repetition of notes and nobody bothered him. He came and went. I came and went.
 
A smiling smurf girl
It was the end of a session, one day, and one of the younger girls had found some blue powder paint near the fire exit and the storage container. She set about covering her skin with it as we bustled by, as children used up every last minute they had left on site in their darting to the toilet tap to fill up balloons, and as we were trying to usher everyone out. The girl stood in amongst it all with a big grin on her face. I stopped to see and she made me smile, her just looking like a big smurf, as she did! One of the older girls of her family screamed at her to ‘wash it off, now!’ She was in parental mode, as has often happened.
 
Just hammering
For a few days, for twenty minutes or so at a time, this same younger girl sat herself down on a low platform in the middle of the playground, after a quick trip to the tool shed, and proceeded to bang nails into the wood for no reason other than to bang nails into wood. When she was done she was done, until the next time.
 
One pan full of bubbles
A long time back at the very beginning of the open access days, one of the girls found a pan. I saw her a little while later with her pan filled with bubbles (or, as some children call the washing up liquid for the water slide: soap). She headed for a colleague who was sat on one of the old people’s chairs that was later to take a battering by having its back broken somehow. The girl smiled with her bubbles, looking at the hatless, hairless victim that was my colleague sat in the chair. My observations moved along . . .

In amongst the edginess, the hectic dynamic of the ebb and flow and swill and play, and not-so-play, and not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. There have been challenges these past few weeks, but there have been these moments too, and more. They rise to the surface.
 
 

Balancing after a slaughter of the sofa

October to February is such a long time in the waiting for the children who needed to get back onto the playground again last week. It was the first half term of the year and so that meant ‘open access’ was back. The signs have been up for a couple of weeks on the sides of the fences, but you never know if they’ve been acknowledged. They had been. Plenty of our regulars came back, after some seemed to melt into the background of the estate for all this time. Plenty of new children came too: as always seems to be, we have a fair amount of newly filled-in forms at the end of every open access week.

On the whole, these weeks are psychologically or maybe also emotionally, and certainly physically fairly exhausting, but studded through and through with the sense, at the end of it, that this has been well worth all that energy. There have been water balloons (as there always seem to be, every open access, whatever the weather, resulting in the toilets turning into swamps where the children fill up their wares), there has been mud on a par — in places — with the fields at Glastonbury, and there has been paint and gloop and slime, man-traps being dug, the flying around of the ubiquitous Family Had game, plenty of hammers and saws and screwdrivers, the sledgehammer, the axe, fire and go-karting, jumping from high places, rolling in low places, sitting on the top of the hut in a plastic chair just looking out, and what seems to have been something akin to the ritual slaughter of a sofa!

It is this that draws my thoughts right now. This long wait over winter, October to February, may have been a contributing factor to a difficult first afternoon. Thereafter, after we’d all settled (staff and children) later in the week, things just seemed to shift back into playground time, a playgroundness of being. No matter how many times you’ve done this, as a playworker, this open access or this whatever half term is for you, there is the possibility that a certain ‘getting back into gear’ needs to take place. The rain came down, we were certain staff down, some of the children must have sensed a moment in time: when a couple of the boys wanted to chop up the old sofa, we gave them the tools to do this. All was fine at that time. When the dynamics of the playground shifted on the arrival of other children who often seem to need to cause a psychological edge, the sofa didn’t stand a chance! The fire was nearby and bits of foam were being filleted from the furniture and taken to the flames. We said not to put it on, but this fell on deaf ears. Before long, the sofa was being ripped apart by hand, literally, as the foam was being yanked out in great handfuls. I joked that the children involved, older boys, were like vultures, but I wasn’t feeling like joking inside.

No rational course of conversation was being heeded, so I said to a colleague that we’d take the sofa out of the equation, or what was left of it. As we lifted it to take it out of sight and out of mind, the entrails were still being taken from the carcass! I write this, partly in playful manner, because on reflection it is somewhat amusing to think of the poor thing having its guts ripped out (but this is a gallows type of humour, because in the moment this play is difficult to comprehend, deal with, and connect to the anticipation of how it will affect everything else on site).

I know I’m not alone in experiencing such tips into the potential for actual chaos (this episode being, as I observed it, the catalyst for a further flow of darker play interactions that afternoon, some of which also veered towards bullying). A recent story posted by an experienced playworker to an online site frequented by many of us in the field is testament to the shared sense of ‘what do we do here now in amongst all of this?’ on different playground sites. Some readers here will recognise this (though I keep it anonymous because the post was to a private readership): on experiencing a story of some chaotic nature, he, the other playworker, decided to make the next day as boring as possible (I paraphrase), so that the apparent chaos could be realigned (my words, not his). This is, admittedly, not something I’d considered, and I’m still chewing that one over as to the relative merits or otherwise. Sometimes we have to deviate from what the ‘playwork mantras’ say: that first day we discussed it all, after that session, and again before the next one, and we decided that a certain firmness was necessary with certain individuals. It seemed to work. The next few days were beautiful.

Not only is it difficult in the moment of such experiences, but it’s also difficult in the veering away from all you think you know about how to be a good playworker, principles of good practice, or to put it bluntly, not throwing your weight around. What we do need to consider though, after much further reflection, is how the play of all children is affected by the play (and it was this, as truncated as it was, or deviant or aggressive or whatever word we might care to use) of other individuals. There’s still plenty to consider in all of this.

I do need to finish here with a brief story of something beautiful though. That is, as I hold up my hand to a difficult experience, I also recognise that I need to balance this in myself with the understanding that this was a relatively short episode within the context of the whole week, and plenty of very beautiful things happened, many more than the difficulties, and these stories are the ones to balance us.

I have chosen my balancing story but it could easily have been something else (such as the boy who, mainly as engineer, built great steps out of tyres and a whole mound of children climbed to the top of the boundary fence; or such as the way that chalkings appeared on the chalkboard declaring a need to fart or that such-and-such loves so-and-so; or the way that two older children, boy and girl, were observed to be sharing earphones all week, in each other’s pockets, as it were; or the girl who I saw just painting the steps to the ‘tree-house’ blue, on her own, humming away; or the way that that same girl, shivering from being cold, was quietly appeciative of the warm bowl of water I put out, as she put her hands in it to warm up, and how that bowl just stayed there on the floor not being thrown around by others like I’d expected it to be; or the way that Family Had happened and the older boy who was the fastest forgot that the man-trap had been dug on the route to the sandpit ‘homey’, racing straight over it and into it!)

My balancing story though is this one: one day, in the sunshine, a girl of about nine who always says hello with a small dance and a smile, gently cued me into play on the wobbly bench. This is a low plank mounted on two springs, which a colleague built a sort of rodeo seat onto some months back. The girl stood on the bench and we just talked of nothing and something and whatever the moment was, and the play became me wobbling my feet so that she balanced or fell off. It turned into a sort of dance, and flowed and repeated, and I remember thinking part way through this, well into this, that here I was and I was totally focused in this dance with her. I didn’t look out onto the playground like I usually do, trying to capture all the play as it happened, trying to see where my colleagues were, trying just to take everything in at once (hence the emotional and psychological, as well as physical exhaustion because of mud and lifting crash mats and the like).

There I was, and I was totally absorbed in the moment. Was this then partly my play? I don’t know, maybe; or maybe I was reflecting all that she needed at that moment. Suffice is to say that I was received with good grace by this dancing girl, who seemed to still have control of everything she was doing, and we connected in the dance of the wobbly bench, and all seemed good for her, and all was good for me, and the playground was fine in that moment because I didn’t sense otherwise, and this was a balancing in more ways than one.

 

Keeping things together

On some occasions on the playground, our adult presence in the play is essential to keeping it together at that particular time. This is obviously fraught with difficulties for the playworker who knows that the play is not theirs, and who knows that they shouldn’t find themselves wrapped up in it so much that it starts to become theirs. That said, a certain immersion is sometimes required of us by the playing children. There have been times when I’ve found myself in and between several instances of play (play frames), all at the same time; perhaps I’m seen by the children concerned as uniquely positioned in each of these — those children being seemingly oblivious to my role and progress and position in the other play frames! Other times it’s slightly easier.

That said, when you find yourself in a play frame you can become a somewhat essential aspect of it: try to fold yourself out of it at the wrong time and you may get shouted at, physically hauled back, or petitioned with all sorts of bribes and baubles. Last week, at the dark end of the after-school session, I wandered past a group of three girls who’d set up a café or a restaurant on the paving slabs just outside the main back door onto the playground. They’d created tables from bread crates piled up in twos, and they’d found plastic garden chairs or old computer swivel chairs to sit on. In the gaps in the upturned bread crates, as I walked past, they’d already elegantly shoved pieces of red A4 paper for napkins. One girl was sat waiting to be served. Another, it transpired, was the manager. A third girl was the waitress. She was making menus, serving the customer, sweeping the floor, and so on, all at the same time. The manager watched on.

As I walked past (now I wish I could remember what was said by whom for me to become part of it: I must pay more attention to the possibility of how play might unfold, in the moment), I soon found myself part of the play. I somehow became co-opted into the role of waiter (with all the multi-tasking of menu writing, serving, and sweeping, demanded by the manager). Earlier, one of this group and another girl talked with me as we walked back from school. They were following up on a previous day’s play of castles and kings and queens, and they said that today I would be a king. The narration was almost the play in itself, except that the expectation was that the play would happen when we got back to the playground. In the end, the play fizzled into something else because of other distractions, but my point here is that I seem to be cast in some serving capacity quite often by these children, so king was unusual!

Back as the type-cast, in my waitering role, there was a glimpse in my mind — as I engaged with the role-play/socio-dramatic play — of what it would be like in the real service industry! I made play of it by asking the girl who was waitress, but who was now boss, for some time off. She said no, and I was instructed to make more menus, specifically drinks ones, and ‘boys and girls magazines’ for the waiting customers. The children instructed me to fill the magazines with gender stereotyped material, which was an interesting aside in itself.

I tried to extricate myself from the play because I felt I’d been there too long. The decision was too early for the children. I was told to come back in as I ‘went to look for a broom’. I found a hockey stick and that was broom enough. I became the customer and between us, we concocted extensions to the menu. The children brought me sand on a plate (which was my octopus pie). I looked for other ways out. The menu making was carrying on, the girl who was customer sat and started to shiver but she ordered food diligently and read the gender-stereotyped magazines carefully. A boy came along to be served. I thought that it would be OK to ‘go to the toilet’. The manager insisted that I be escorted there!

I sat myself down indoors and she hovered over me, telling me in no uncertain terms not to move. I watched her go out the door, waited for a few seconds, then scarpered! The three girls were in their play and I was away: or so I thought. I escaped to the fire pit and made a play of trying to keep warm. The manager/waitress (in truth, the flux of the role play didn’t allow me to keep good track) found me. She came and stood by my side, saying that she needed me back again. I said that I needed to keep warm for a little while. My colleague was there at the fire pit and I co-erced him into giving me a ‘job in the fire brigade’ because the restaurant manager didn’t pay me enough. The girl then said she’d pay me a thousand pounds. I upped it. We negotiated and settled on four thousand pounds. I was already back in the play from before the offer of joining the fire brigade!

I took up my old role again with renewed energy. I was needed here because the play wasn’t done. It occurs to me, as I write, that the multi-tasking of the service industry role play has its analogies with being in several play frames at once, but that’s also an aside! Later, when the play came indoors because it was just too cold for the remaining customer, the children set up bread crate tables and chairs, plus red paper napkins and menus, at the far end of the hall space. They said I was still required here. I said, when you’ve set up, because I was engaged in the play frame of the football table with another child. It was here that I needed to maintain this play’s existence, and be ‘in’ the play of the restaurant — even if just by distance for now — at the same time, without letting either play frame fold in because I’d ‘left it’.

These skills I see to be important to the relating playworker, and when we add into this mix the on-going in-the-moment thinking about what’s happening and why, and the after-the-event reflection, as well as the knowledge of previous play that has happened or play that might happen, by these children, on this playground, in this season, with these objects, there are plenty of layers to start to cause some fatigue of the mind as well as the fatigue of the feet (of which service industry personnel might well also experience!).

The moments of keeping things together, being part of one or more play frames, may only be some small part of an entire session, pockets of play that come and go: in between, though, there are other things to think and do . . .
 
 

Connecting to the spin

When we observe play, or when we’re invited into it, we can lose sight of what that play feels like for the child. Perhaps, on the whole as playworkers, we don’t connect back enough to what any given instance of play actually feels like from the child’s point of view. Sure, if we’re invited into the play we have our own ‘in-the-moment’ feelings about what’s it’s like for us there and then, but this isn’t the same thing as trying to see the moment of play from the perspective of being a child. This is my build-up to ‘thinking about it as I write it’ on play I was a part of last week and something I said whilst there.

This story concerns the roundabout, which is towards one of the far corners of the playground. Sometimes some of the children like to be spun by one of the playworkers (despite the fact that, as observed, they can pick up even greater speed by having one child stand at the centre, holding the centre-piece, and rotating the boards with their feet). I was asked to spin, one day, by one of the younger children: I could see a few murky shapes of other children playing in the shadows of the middle of the site. ‘How fast?’ I asked the child who wanted to be spun, ‘Do you want fast, sick-fast, or super-sick-fast?’. ‘Super-sick-fast’, she told me, matter-of-factly, as if this was obvious. (I also had to factor in the possibility of the double-meaning of the local parlance version of ‘sick’, as in ‘good’, as I understand it).

She has good balance for her age. I’d seen this before but I still started off slowly (this is also necessary to work up the momentum!). ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Faster — this is rubbish’. So I went faster, really putting my back into it. She sat there, variously looking up at the spinning sky, putting her cheek against her hand, whose elbow was nonchalantly propped against the rail, spinning so fast that I was beginning to feel somewhat nauseous myself, just focusing on her zipping by every one third of a second or so! ‘Faster,’ she called. I couldn’t go any faster.

Soon enough, from out of the playground’s shadows, we were joined by more children. I put on the brakes so they could pile on. Pushing became somewhat more difficult, but I gave them the same speed options. They chose the fastest, naturally. One boy brought over the entrails of a tap and its tubed gubbings (a random piece of stuff, in the model of loose parts, that’s found its way on site). He hooked it over the rail and was simply and ridiculously excited to see the centrifugal force spin it out almost horizontally as the roundabout spun around. Other children told newer children, in their own words as they zipped round, about that centrifugal force, and how they’d found that they’d got stuck to the edge as they’d gone faster.

When the extra children had wandered off again after stopping (one really wanted the thing to stop), the first child demanded more spinning. She got her wishes, and after I’d stepped away to let the roundabout wind down of its own accord, and to give myself a breather, I said to the girl, ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that. I never did that when I was your age.’ She gave a sort of shrug.

Of course, however, in the moment I was feeling a little nauseous just watching the spin of her on the roundabout and thinking what it might be like if I, the adult me, were on there. Of course, I’d forgotten to remember the moments of being the child that I was because, I think, the adult sensibility of the moment was too strong. As a child I would roll down hills, spin till I felt almost sick, swing as high as I could, and so on. Here, now, away from the play and the playground, I think of Stuart Lester talking about ‘being in control of being out of control’, of Roger Caillois’ writing on ‘ilinx’, or ‘vertigo’, and the spin that this type of play is, and I think of Bob Hughes’ ‘problem immersion’ in which there is the advocation to think on what play feels like for the child, re-connecting to our own play as a child.

This is more difficult than it might at first seem. I find that the process of thinking about the roundabout has taken me from ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that; I never did that when I was your age’ to ‘I did that sort of thing’ to, now, ‘Why did I do that sort of thing?’ I really don’t know. Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?

Perhaps I rolled down the hill because it was there, because it was steep, because it was covered in hay, because it was sunny, because I wanted to win a race. Perhaps I stood and spun around as fast as I could till I felt physically sick because I wanted to see how far I could push myself, how fast I could go, if it was actually possible to be sick, to feel the nasty queasiness of the spinning world after I’d stopped, to have the sensation of the world slowly blurring and easing itself to a stop as I lay on the grass, to have everything come back to normal. Perhaps I swung as high as I could because I could, because I wanted to beat a world record, because I wanted to see if I could jump farther than I’d done before, because I knew I could be the master of the swing and control it, because it was like flying.

In truth, I really don’t know for sure what I was thinking when I was six or seven or however old I was when I rolled and spun and swung like this. Maybe it’s the same for the girl on the roundabout last week: she knew she wanted to go fast, she felt it when she spun fast, wanted to go faster still, but if asked directly ‘Why do you do this?’ she couldn’t really say. She just does it: because it’s there, because it’s something that can go fast, because there’s a world record to beat, because she wants to see if she really can be sick, because she can ‘win’, because she can be the master of the roundabout, because she wants to experience the blur of the world easing back to normal again around her: all or some or none of these. I won’t know for sure.

All I can do is stay on the edges, like I am when I spin the rail on the perimeter, watching on, thinking later, like now; then, I can think on this in the moment of play observation/play invited into, connecting back to my own play as a child to further try to ‘get’ the play of this child in the now. Then I’m better in the spin of it all, without taking it over, but knowing what it feels like and knowing what should and shouldn’t be done.
 
 

Fifteen short observations/reflections to get back into playwork thinking and writing

It’s the other side of the weekend after the children’s first week back at school and their first after-school week back on the playground. I’ve taken a few days to get round to writing: it takes a little time, playing catch up, this side of a long holiday. I’m a playworker always, but it’s true to say I’ve had a bit of a rest from the thinking. I’ve forgotten how much energy all this observing, thinking, making intervention/non-intervention decisions, writing, reading, talking it all through takes up. When you’re in it, you maintain it. When you rest, everything shifts.

‘Getting back on the horse’ is my phrase and thinking of the moment. The way to do this, for me these past few days, is to let things be, let the observations and the thoughts on the play seep in, then sit quietly and still: what comes to mind from the first week back on the playground? Getting back on the horse of writing involves writing it as it then comes. Later, another week, I may tackle analysis of General Comment 17 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 31. Maybe! To keep thinking on play, on our work as playworkers, on the place we maintain for the children to be able to play, we keep up the practising of observing. Here is what bubbled up from last week when I just let it be, sat quietly:
 
1. Why are your legs so long?
Myself and a younger girl were trailing behind the main group as we walked back from school. She opened up her conversation with this line: ‘Why are your legs so long?’ Umm, I thought. I didn’t know. I went for the jokey reply: ‘Well, if they weren’t so long, I wouldn’t reach the ground.’ She dismissed this. I said, ‘Hey, look at that guy there. He’s way taller than me.’ She shook her head. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I was talking about your legs, right?’ It was a way of making me concentrate, I guess: a way to focus on the things she was saying. We talked about other things I don’t fully recall that just seemed to need some saying on the way back from school. The words themselves may not have been so important.
 
2. What’s your name again?
A brother and sister who both know me well enough to know my name, or so I thought, independently of one another forgot my name in the midst of their play. It was, for each of them, one of those blind spots of thinking that we all have, maybe. Either way, the trick is to not take it personally. I reminded each of them, an hour apart, what my name was. To the girl I made play of it. ‘What’s your name again?’ I asked her, knowing what it was. I went through all the possible names I could make up in ten seconds. She scowled at me and I let it be.
 
3. A mask made from things just kicking around for weeks
At the end of last term, an old Apple Mac became the latest victim of having its innards smashed out with hammers. Some of the children like to do this to the old and no longer useful tech we offer them for this purpose. Part of that Mac survived by kicking around the playground for a few weeks without any love or attention. It became a legitimate piece of stuff, in the model of the theory of loose parts. It was ignored for a while, left in the wheelbarrow at the end of the day. One of the girls picked it up last week. Over the course of a few days she’d engaged in the project of using various tools to crimp and shape the metal innards into a mask. Things can have other value, eventually.
 
4. About the photos board
We’d spent the best part of the last day of last term tidying and cleaning and also sprucing up all the photos that line a couple of the walls indoors. The children often like to make use of the playground camera, taking it off for a whole session, taking stills and videos of play: you never know what’s going to come back at the end of the day! It’s like seeing what gets hauled up in the fishing net! We take plenty of photos of the play ourselves too. We’ve amassed a huge amount over a few years. Some of the children spent time last week just pouring over the A4 photos we’d printed out and pinned up. Some seemed to get a lot out of being reminded of the things they’ve got up to recently (and one photo from a few years back was of particular interest to one of the girls). Some of the photos were deliberately chosen to spark an intrigue of recall. A couple of the children, however, were dead-set against their photos being on the wall. We printed out others and swapped them in their place.
 
5. The continuation of favourite play frames
Before Christmas, one of the favourite things to do seemed to be playing indoor football with a soft plastic ball the children had found. It could be kicked hard against the walls, the furniture, the door frames and doors, and all was good. This side of Christmas, the indoor football carried on, almost as if there were no gap in between the last and the next play of it. Parents come in and get playworker protection, or they learn to duck!
 
6. Scavenging leftover Christmas trees
Last January or thereabouts, I remember, our Christmas tree found its way out onto the playground and was used for a few weeks by being dragged around, jumped in, and finally discarded. This week, again, our tree is outside, but we’ve seen others on the streets as well: want not, waste not. On the way back from school, there were three trees, variously left out, looking forlorn. One of the older children didn’t see the point of dragging one of the trees back and scowled at me when I asked if she thought we should have it. Another two trees were nearer by, however, and later myself and another child decided we should rescue them. We dragged them in, them shedding needles everywhere, and deposited them outside. Within an hour or so, all the trees had found their way into various dens. They might also burn up well in a few weeks’ time. For now, one graces the palette den which has taken on the form of an outside living room, armchair, tables and all; the others are secreted farther afield.
 
7. This is the children’s place
I have always known this but a short time away from the playground and a return can refresh the understanding. I picked up a sense of how the children’s expressions here are important to their inner balance (well-being, stability, release, a kind of therapy, call it what you will). Where else can they fling paint against the side of a whitewashed storage container, paint the door of the bin shed when, perhaps, they feel they’re out of the range of any given adult’s disapproval, write their quite clear words of whatever they’re feeling in the moment on the chalkboards recently found?
 
8. The normality of fire
This is something that’s really struck me this past week: the children here are used to the fire in the fire pit area (and sure, some are excitable around it and this requires extra playworker vigilance), but not only do we adults who are playworkers see this fire play as normal, so too do the parents. Many’s the time, in training work, that I’ve come across other adults (teachers, parents, any given other) who can’t link the possibility that children and fire play can work. The fire is more and more a part of the culture.
 
9. Eating popcorn made in a pot on the fire
One day, I was poking around the fire pit area when a small group of children came charging out from the door to the toilets and hall nearby, carrying a pot and its lid, shouting that they were going to do popcorn. We resurrected the makeshift upturned table frame that we used at the end of last term when cooking dinner, and we put the popcorn pot on. It took a while and plenty of trial and error, but they got some popcorn in the end. There’s more to be tried in cooking here.
 
10. A wheeled chair crashing into plastic chairs
One of the older boys, he of the fascination with smashing up old technology, was sat in the chair that one of my colleagues had bolted wheels to the base of last term. There was a rope for pulling a rider and the boy used this, initially, as a seat belt. I came indoors to see him sat there trying to manoeuvre himself around. I left him be. A little while later I came in and he was stacking plastic chairs in arrangements that reminded me of that scene from Poltergeist! He was trying to knock them down with a wooden block. There was no-one else in the room but I knew his play needs for destruction, so I said if there was anything else other than the block he could use. There wasn’t. A little later still, I came back in. He was sat in the wheeled chair as other children lined up the plastic seats and a colleague was pushing him so he crashed into them (not hard enough to cause damage to anyone or anything, but enough for the thrill). Other children needed to play to. I thought, where else could this happen?
 
11. Dancing and papers
There’s a six foot or so high wooden box construction in the middle of the playground. It’s been there for a couple of months now. The children climb in it and over the top of it. It’s developed a name from some of the children, but which I won’t tell because it’s a secret! I was talking to the mother of a boy who was stood up on top of the box when she came to collect him. He was dancing and acting out all his moves in dramatic fashion. We both observed. I told her about the other play I saw him engage in. I told her how he expressed himself in is play here. I haven’t told her yet how, on the first day back, he had scattered papers and pens as far as he could throw them outside! It’s all expression, and it’s all fine.
 
12. Children sat around in scavenged upright armchairs
In the last weeks of last term, the playground came into possession of half a dozen or so upright armchairs: the kind that probably line the rooms of old people’s homes. There’s a small area just beyond the fence, at one corner of the playground, where stuff like this tends to get left for collection and disposal. The chairs looked serviceable enough, so they became re-housed, and they scrubbed up OK (until one of the older boys of the open access group had come in on the last day of term, poking around as we tried to tidy, making a meal of ‘helping’ but really, probably, just needing to be there: he found a spray can and promptly went and sprayed things like ‘Don’t sit here’ on the chairs!). Now, the chairs are either in the dens outside or some have found their way into a circle indoors. I’ve often thought it would be great to have a place of play that was an old ramshackle country house, complete with these sorts of chairs and big old rugs thrown over rough bare timbers: the children sat around in the chairs indoors last week, eating their food or just lounging, being decadent, and talking. It had a kind of ‘country house’ feel to it!
 
13. To intervene or not?
Some of the boys’ — and sometimes the girls’ — playfighting can sometimes shift, if not into full-on fighting, then into teasing bordering on the possibility of bullying by repetition of the action. It’s always a tough call, this one: sometimes, when does the playfight shift? Sometimes, when does the teasing become more potent? Perhaps the children are getting used to being in their own place again because some play challenges this side of Christmas. A playworker has to get up to speed again. A small gang teased and harassed and then the boy who was at the thick end of it cried. I intervened but don’t know right now if I did it right, soon enough, should have done it all. Of another playfight/fight, I don’t know whether I got it right or not because of different results: I observed a brother and sister trying to get a length of pole from one another. I knew they’d had scraps before, so I observed carefully. It seemed to be play, but edgy enough. I was alert and twenty yards or so away. The children didn’t look at me. Then the girl was bundled over and wasn’t pleased. She came over to me and kicked me in the shin. She knew I was watching, I guessed then, and I told her that if she’d asked for help (tough as I see her as), I would have helped. She kicked me again and later punched me on the nose! I may have some ingratiating to do!
 
14. A quiet attempt at damaging
Whilst at the fire pit, listening out for popcorn kernels popping whilst leant against the palette wall, I saw a short distance away how our resident ‘destructo-boy’ had been quietly cellotaping up a shopping trolley so it couldn’t escape. It was nothing unusual because, as well as hammering the life out of bits of old metal and plastic, he does sometimes have a need to play this way too. I observed from the corner of my eye. A short time later he fetched the sledgehammer from nearby. He gave me the slightest look, long enough for him to register a disapproval that I might give. In the lack of any negative sign, he went about his quiet business of hefting the sledgehammer to try to damage the stricken trolley lying on its side in the mud. The sledge proved too heavy to inflict any pain! It amused me anyway.
 
15. The playground as home
Some of the children buzzed around me every now and then, one day, asking to have the gate to the ‘pitches’ opened (this being, actually, just one hard court pitch beyond the fence of the playground). There was a member of the public on there, but the children badgered and badgered me, so we asked permission and were allowed on. The children organised their own game as I loafed around the edges, my hands in my pockets to keep warm. They told me I was playing, and they told each other I counted for two as I was an adult. They put me in goal. One of our open access regulars soon turned up and slipped himself into the game. He hung around, not being part of the club, but being part of the scene: he’s part of the furniture. He often climbs over the fence to let us know he’s still around, running around when he knows he shouldn’t be in there (though, actually, it’s just as much his place too). When all the children had gone home, we de-briefed and went to go too. He was sat on the railing out front, waiting for the youth club to start. This playground feels like it could be home to some.
 
 

Trust in play

I was recently put in prison, again, by a couple of nine- and ten-year-olds who, in the play, described themselves as the amalgam that was ‘The Child Terror’. It was one of those play frames (that is, occurrences of play) which I’ve been noticing lately whereby the play shifts and flows into one narrative after another, and continues over days. Somewhere along the line, this week, I took to responding to every whim of these girls, and others, with the playful response that was ‘Yes, Master’. I forget the exact order of events these days on, as of before in the purely observational, but I generally and variously became — in the naming now — the ‘play slave’ (retrieving the things that were to be played with), the captive, and the co-conspirator.

At one point I was needed by another child, outside of this play, to visit the room where the art supplies are kept. I said to my captors, in a voice just a deliberate degree shifted out of the construct of the ‘Child Terror’ play, that I would need to leave the sofa prison for a few moments but that I would be back. ‘Promise?’ the girls asked with a very exact look in their eyes. ‘Promise,’ I told them. I crossed my heart, as required in the lore of the playground, and swore on my own life. Off I went, temporarily released. I knew, even at the time I was proposing my small escape, and also when I was in the art room, and then when I was coming out of it again, that there was no way I could break the girls’ trust. Herein lies something small but very important.

Around other play, when we had the fire lit at the end of the week, the circular area at that end of the playground all orange and hot in the dark of the early winter after school session, one of the younger girls handed me her long charred ‘poking stick’ and said, ‘Will you look after this for me?’ (such sticks being at a premium that day). She went off to the toilet. I was needed elsewhere: I handed her stick to a colleague with the information that it was hers, and thus I transferred the trust, which he accepted and delivered when she came back.

At home, when Dino Boy wants to playfight (which, at the age of the upper end of three, is most days), he runs off to retrieve a weapon of choice for each of us — cardboard tubes lately — and we fight, kendo style, him trusting that I won’t accidentally get him on the knuckles. Once, this happened, and I thought ‘well, that’s the playfighting ways of us just taken a few steps backwards’. He is, however, more resilient than I’d given him credit for: he came back for more, and therein lies something small but perhaps even greater still.

Of course, this trust is a two-way thing. I build up my knowledge of the children I work with: them as individuals, them within the collective dynamic. My default state with them, I suppose, is one of trust: even though I know full well that certain children I know are supreme blaggers! It is what it is though: when a child I know outside the fence asked to borrow a football, I went with the playground-lore-like ritual of ‘shaking on it’, through the fence, trusting that the football would come back, knowing full well that it might not. It didn’t seem to matter: objects find their way on and off the playground all the time. What’s more though, what goes around comes around: trust can play itself out in long time-frames sometimes.

I’m reminded of a short story I often tell, and one I may have told in these posts elsewhere: the gist of the story is that I once visited a playscheme provision run in a sports centre and, I remember this well, myself and one of the staff there were having a conversation about working relationships with children. I was getting a little annoyed by his somewhat controlling attitude towards the children, in honesty, but I kept calm enough in our post-session debrief: I said something along the lines of, ‘Can’t you trust your children?’ He, a young man with what I supposed to be a somewhat already-set outlook on life, replied quickly and earnestly, looking me dead in the eye: ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘They’re children!’ You can imagine how I ranted for several days afterwards to anyone who would listen.

Without trust where would we be? That is, when we work with children, and when children play around us, trust will result in moments of magic that are difficult to truly tell on the page, and in trust we have the seeds of potential other futures and future offerings between this adult and this child. Despite the difficulties of truly capturing the look in the ‘Child Terror’ girls’ eyes, their willingness to suspend the play for a few minutes, their just-as-is-right acceptance of the self-returned captive’s suppliant wrists, such trust should be written into ‘the standards’ by which learners of the trade are assessed.

These standards refer to trust and building relationships, but really, they’re so dry. At level 2, for example, learners new to playwork are asked to show that they can:

‘Develop an effective rapport with children and young people in a play environment.’

‘Treat children and young people in a play environment with honesty, respect, trust and fairness.’

‘Communicate with the children and young people in a way that is appropriate to the individual, using both conventional languages and body language.’

Excuse me: I was yawning. Who wrote this stuff? How dry are they? (that is, the standards and the people) — as an aside, one of the ‘Child Terror’ girls told me this week, on meeting at the start of the session, that I was ‘so dry; you’re so dead.’ I smiled because I really don’t know what this means! I have to factor in that the local child parlance that is ‘That’s sick’ actually means ‘That’s good’, apparently, but really I’m still none the wiser. If it’s an insult, that’s fine, because that — in itself — is part of the non-dryness of actual relationship-building that the level 2 standards, for example, are not.

I propose, instead of the above sort of criteria examples, that it be written into a learner’s ‘be able to’ standards towards competence, the suchlike of the following:

‘Have grace in the moment of play.’

‘Communicate only with the glint of an eye.’

‘Trust in what is.’

Or words like these, as difficult as capturing the trust inherent in being captured, released for a few minutes, returned to the play, actually is.
 
 

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