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

Archive for the ‘gack and gol’ Category

The state of being in play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protected: A naivety of love/play as the antidote

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How far a small matter of trust goes

It was the last day of the school term, but that doesn’t matter when you’re a three year old doing a tour of the local parks. We made our way, by random child’s choice, from the least used park (a poor, hidden, under-used little place at the bottom of my road), via another, to the most open and full park on the circuit. The latter of these, although just as dull in fixed play equipment to my adult eyes as the others, filled with the overflow of variously aged school-children released for the holidays. In short, there were plenty of people there of different ages and genders.

After a while of sitting in the sun, observing Gack’s usual comings and goings about the place, something just a little out of the ordinary took place. I thought that here was something I needed to write about. Here’s the build-up: Gack saw another boy of about his age pushing himself around the tarmac areas of the park on what must have been, to Gack, a wondrous sight; something coveted; something needed — a four-wheeled scooter! Not the ordinary common or garden two-wheeler, like his, not even the three-wheeler ‘two at the front, one at the back’ variety — a full-on four-wheeler! Gack needed to ride that scooter. He told me so.

It’s not yours, I told him. Deal with it. ‘But I want to have a go,’ he said straight up, though not taking his eyes off it. ‘So go ask.’ I sat on the grass and refused to do anything to help him because this was something he ought to man up about and just do. After a short while, it seemed, Gack realised I wasn’t going to do anything. The other boy was scooting around, oblivious to the desperate need of this other child a few yards from him. Eventually, Gack’s little voice peeked out from somewhere in the entrails of the static wooden train structure. The other boy rode past. ‘He didn’t hear me,’ Gack said on coming back to report to me. I shrugged. He went off and tried again.

Again and again the other boy circled around in his oblivious way. Eventually, there was eye contact, smiles, something connecting taking place. Somehow, the next scoot round the train was Gack scooting round with the other (laughing) boy in tow. The play took hold, and the other boy made use of Gack’s two-wheeler scooter in return (even having a need to wear Gack’s bike helmet). I watched on, slightly surprised that all this had taken place, and the play tumbled around and around.

That’s the build-up because at some point soon after this I started taking more notice of what the other boy’s father was doing: or rather, I started taking notice of what he wasn’t doing. He wasn’t doing anything. He sat about twenty yards from me: him on the bench under the tree, me on the grass. We both couldn’t see both of the boys all of the time. He wasn’t doing anything to get in the way of the play, and he especially didn’t do anything (apart from knowing where his boy was) when the child gravitated over to me. This happens (the gravity thing) sometimes, I find. It’s almost as if some children can sense the playworker sensibility. I don’t know. Maybe.

The other child didn’t speak with me at first: he just wandered closer and I sensed that he was curious, or then he wanted his scooter back for a while, or that he was checking to see if I was paying attention, or something like this. When the boy came over and sat with me and Gack, out of the corner of my eye I sensed from his father . . . just no panic. When the two children and me chatted on the grass, the boy’s father could see us but didn’t call his son over. He didn’t change the way he sat. He didn’t show any agitation or alarm of any sort. There was no negative vibe (not even when his son asked me to help him put Gack’s helmet on — I thought quickly about this, but in the moment it felt OK). I wondered if I should make at least eye contact with the boy’s father, but I didn’t because I knew it wasn’t needed: he didn’t seem to need me to ask for distant affirmation that this was OK, and I didn’t need him to say so in so many words. It was just fine. When Gack and the other boy wandered over and chatted with the other boy’s father, it was all fine.

Why am I surprised by all of this? Frankly, I see and feel a lot of the opposite when out and about in the parks with Gack on any other day. Generally speaking it’s the maternal protection instinct that I feel come at me in waves (even when with a three year old who, even if it’s not always clear that I’m related to him, then at least it’s evident that I’m on ‘snot-smearing on bare arms’ terms with!) I’m sorry to say that (although not by a long shot always) I’ve had enough knee-jerk ‘man in the playground’ reactions from over-protective mothers to warrant being pleasantly surprised by a father’s ‘everything’s fine’ approach (though the female au pairs and suchlike don’t seem to be as bothered as the mothers).

After a while, when Gack and I needed to get on, and when the boys had swapped their scooters back again, I did talk briefly with the other man. He’d come over to support his boy and I told him a quick story about what I’d seen earlier in the play. That was all. I didn’t feel it necessary to say thank you for the trust, or suchlike. It was all implicit within the overall communication. Off we all went on our separate ways.

What had happened here? Was I lucky enough to come across an unusually understanding play-appreciative and, most importantly, trusting father? Are the adult genders so far apart really in protective stances towards their children? I can only tell it the way I felt it at the time.

Gack and I left the park to go hunt down a bus. The heaps of released and variously aged school-children who were also in the park also didn’t seem to have any concerns about any of the adults around them. Trust, in a society that a lot of adults seem to have forgotten about how to do, goes a long way.

Think of all the bubbles in time we made

Two very spontaneous, and relatively short-lived, instances of play this week form the soapy skin of the words that will fall and float below this sentence. I write it this way because I don’t know what I’m about to write, exactly, though the words and thoughts and interconnections have been drifting around in me for a few days now. Actually, truth be told, some of this has been drifting and floating around in me for many years now. It is the subject of human connections that I’m looking at here, and bubbles are my vehicle of choice.

Earlier in the week I was sat out in the shade of some trees at an after school club. It was a ferociously hot day (like that summer of ’76, back when I was a child and all summers became defined by the legend of that time in the sun). It was so hot this week that simply moving from the shade to the sun (where some younger children played with water and some old bulbous metal kettles, seemingly oblivious to the heat) was like moving between climates for me. I sat in the shade and observed the slow way of the play on this hot day.

From within a pile of play stuff in the middle of the grass, under the tree, I saw how one younger girl found a wide strip of bubble wrap. I hadn’t seen it and so I was as intrigued by it, and by what she would do with it, as she seemed to be by finding it. The bubble wrap was maybe as tall as she was and, it transpired later, made a serviceable cape — wide enough as it was. As she first wandered with it though she found that the large clear plastic bubbles made a pleasing popping sound. To my ears they were deep pops and, I admit, I really had the urge to pop them myself as well. I had to hold back. I don’t know what it is about this very modern phenomenon that is the human/bubble wrap attraction!

The bubbles clearly excited and amused the girl. Soon enough a few other girls became attracted to the bubble wrap too. Earlier, these girls had softly (but significantly) rejected the first girl in their play. Now, they had every need to do some popping too; so they just let their fingers do the asking. Within a short time after this, the bubble wrap had been laid on the grass and the girls were jumping on it, a little way from me. The pops seemed instantly gratifying to all sets of ears involved in the playing and in the nearby observation. There was a musicality to it all, a soft sensory slightly destructive, ridiculous minor magic in the moment.

The next day I was in my own garden with Gack, who — regular readers will know — is three. The heat still hung over us as the week slowly progressed, and Gack was in an odd indecisive sort of mood. The shed of play stuff didn’t get tipped out as it usually does, and the home-made plastic-coated fish we’d cut out and made some weeks back were just bobbing around in the paddling pool, forlorn and untroubled by Gack’s equally home-made half a piece of plastic, string, and metal weights concoction of a fishing rod.

There were some new bubble guns to try out though. So we both spent a while keeping our fingers on the triggers, churning out the factory-produced soap juice mixture: me waiting to see what would run out first — the juice or the batteries. The bottom of the garden filled with purple-green, uniformly-shaped bubbles (odd, that: standard juice equalled standard bubbles! I digress). Then we progressed to pomegranate flavoured washing-up liquid and tap water, which didn’t juice up so well: instead spewing out a frothy bilge of mutant misshapen bubbles over our hands and sometimes spurting lamely off into the air. Gack didn’t seem to mind. He just went with the bubble flow.

He experimented by laying the bubbles onto the paddling pool water, which had been heat-stewing overnight and all morning. It became an oily frog-spawny pool. In a short while, we somehow found that we could form huge monstrosities of mutant half-bubbles on the slippery water surface and then get our hands and toes inside them from underneath without popping them. Gack stood in the pool, his trousers soaked because he’d had a random desire earlier to just sit down in the water in them. We spent a while just trying to mix the bubbles of each of our guns on the palms of one another’s hands, or on our arms. ‘I know,’ Gack said suddenly but matter-of-factly, ‘we can make beards.’ It was a good idea, I thought. So we tried to make beards, but our skins weren’t slippery enough. We made some other bubbles instead, then Gack floated off and did some other stuff.

A while ago, whilst out and about in the course of training, advising and so forth, I (rightly or wrongly) fell into a way of explaining the playwork term of ‘play frame’ as kind of like bubbles of play. I apologise here to the writers of the paper I was trying, in part, to explain (and for my contribution to the reduction of some more complex playwork thinking to simplified terms). I’m not one for deliberately dumbing things down. However, my experience at the time told me that people often found the word ‘frame’ to represent something a little more rigid than the more fluid psychological entity I read into The Colorado Paper (Sturrock and Else, 1998). So, somehow, this analogy of ‘bubbles or instances of play’ came to be born. I hadn’t thought of it in so many ways back then (and this is only a few years ago in any case), but these bubbles of play can be rather like soap bubbles we enter, trying not to pop them, or they’re like bubbles that might join together.

Now, I say we but there’s still a fair amount of playwork people who might well say we adults aren’t there to join the play at all. I’m not fully going down that road here and now, but I am thinking that we all share this planet. Play has been seen to be the guarded right of children, and only children, in some quarters. That we are adults seems to preclude the notion that we can or should play. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should be ‘allowed’ (by the laws of the playwork gospels) to go in and dominate and control and all other ways of ruining children’s play (I stand by this), but we can connect through play. In play we are ageless.

The key (and the message is consistent here) is that we’re conscious of the play and of ourselves and of our actions. If we’re invited into the bubble of play, or if the bubble forms around us of its own accord, or if we observe the musicality of the moment from a short distance, we should know what this all is: we should do everything we can not to deliberately or accidentally pop that bubble; or we should resist the urge to involve ourselves where not appropriate, which is tantamount to the same thing.

When I was writing some (very) rough notes on this piece of writing a few days back, I stopped in the gloopy sun oozing through the window in search of ‘a hook’. What’s the hook here? That morning I’d had a dream (not of the Luther King variety!): I’d woken, before the alarm went off, with the dream just swilling around in the dense clarity of logic that only the liminal space of just before fully waking can be (where mostly everything was fully within grasp, though dissipating slowly, but where one small element was missing: it was an important, significant, small element, and I had mislaid it). Here was the hook as I wrote my notes: in the bubbles of play that we might deliberately or accidentally pop, that significant discovery of play is lost, like the dream fragment. In the play, the child or children or even us, may not even know what’s being looked for (in the deep popping of large bubble wrap plastic pods, in the fusing of mutant soap mixture bubbles, in the getting inside of half-bubbles from under the water); in the sudden destruction of the bubble, something significant — some significant fragment — is now just out of reach and fading slowly.

That we can, and do, connect in these bubbles of forming play makes them potentially all the richer. We should be conscious of them, and of ourselves and our connections, of the spontaneity of the moment, and of the world turned purple-green for just then. We can and do connect because, in play, we’re ageless.

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Jam and snot, or the Montessoribots?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moments and stories

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

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

Moments of quality with respected others

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

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

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

The moment of a thunderstorm

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

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

The moment of a small place found

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

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

The moment of a kerbside

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

The moment of a wave

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

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

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

Parenting and this play now

Being immersed in the ‘parenting role’, for this playworker, has led me along two lines of reflection this week: that of looking from the ‘outside, in’, and that of looking from the ‘inside, out’. That is to say, thinking on how others perceive me, with child, and thinking on how I perceive others, with child. When I collect these strands of thinking into one place, I find that what I’m thinking about is ‘this play, now.’

The normal and the controlling

It’s a curious situation to occasionally see yourself through other people’s eyes. You know yourself and all the little things that make you who you are. I know that, sometimes, when I walk down the street people may not look me in the eye, or sometimes they’ll make playfully mocking comments based on the fact that they think I look like Jesus! (It’s always original when they say it, but it does get a little wearing for me, after a while!) Now, when I walk down the street with Gack, this two year old seems to have a transformational affect on who or what I’m perceived to be: I get smiled at, greeted by strangers saying hello, or stopped by benevolent old women telling me how good it is for him, Gack, to be playing out. I am, it would appear, suddenly ‘normal’.

We seem to have a general attitudinal confusion taking place in the UK (or that’s the way it seems to me, at least): on the one hand, there’s this perceived culture of ‘normalisation’, which goes hand in hand with the ‘protect the children at all costs’ collective consciousness; on the other hand, there’s the dominance of the ‘adult hierarchy over children’ way of living. For example, a couple of things overheard whilst out in the town centre recently:

‘He’s a walking liability at the moment.’ (A mother talking to another woman about her toddler, and said in what I took as a half-sneering but also half-joking/mocking manner, though without a hint of a smile).

‘No, you can’t go up those steps; we’ll get told off.’ (A mother talking to another toddler who clearly wanted to investigate a flight of concrete steps – which, incidentally, had no ‘keep out’ signs or barriers on them anyway).

So, here I am, observing from a distance in the town centre: thinking about how people perceive me when I’ve got Gack with me; thinking about how I perceive parents with their children.

Play experimentation and investigation

Play is many-coloured and many-shaped: play can be seen in all sorts of places and ways of behaving. So, play is jumping along between the paving slabs singing songs mashed together (‘Wind the Bobbin Up’ versus ‘Wheels on the Bus’ is a current favourite mash-up, for example); play is taking detours, on your scooter, into every empty car park along a route from A to B (wherever B will end up being), using the bumps in the tarmac to roll over; it’s even painting the toilet wall with the business end of the wet toilet brush (unfortunately!) – all of which have been playful pursuits of Gack’s recently.

Not everything the child does is going to be easily seen as play by the parent, of course (as we can see from the incidence of artistic flourish above!) However, tired and/or disgusted though the adult may be, it is play. It doesn’t make the act any the more agreeable sometimes, but taking a breath, standing back, understanding what this is, helps (I find). So, play is also investigating unusual places like a flight of concrete steps.

This play, now

Play is useful, and in this instance I’m not talking about its importance in brain growth, about the developmental benefits, about the health aspects, or about the therapeutic use of play, say, in healing processes. Play is useful for the child because it’s in the now, and it’s about what this now is. The ‘progress rhetoric’ of skills development for future use is one of many ways of looking at what play is useful for, but the future can’t happen without the now.

I recently wrote about the epigenetic affect of the environment around the playing child (that is, how our children’s children, and so on, are potentially affected by the conditions in the present). This thinking still stands. However, in this writing here I’m focusing on this now that the children (and their parents) live in.

The now is where play happens, where emotions form because of that play, where understanding of identity is created, etc. Perry Else taught me some basics about his understanding of neuro-linguistic programming: how the brain and body actions can be so much better connected. Think of a time when you felt positive; think of the actions you were undertaking at that time: replicate those actions at another time to connect back to that positive frame of mind. Without being conscious of it, I realised this takes place all the time in my day-to-day interactions with the world: the emotions I sense at a point along the river, and where and how I sat; the way I feel with certain tactile interactions with others; similarly, emotions around the house or garden. The same could be said about moments of play: this is the place where we hid in the woods; here is the room where we danced; this is the beach that was ours. (We hid like this, we danced this way, we played on the beach like this and this and this.)

Moments make us, and we build our moments of now into a repertoire, a library, which we can pick and choose from at a later time, linking our brains and our body actions. Yet, hold on: I’m writing about the now, not the future. The future can’t happen, though, without the now.

In some sense, the future won’t ever happen; it hasn’t ever happened: all we have is the now. Each now is a new now: sure, play may well take place because of similar play yesterday or last week, or play can be repeated over and over in one long burst, but each instance of play is new because it’s the play of now. It’s different every time. Now is all we have, in this sense.

Understanding moments

When I’m with Gack, I’m ‘normal’, apparently: except, of course, I’m not. Not in the way of the dominant ‘adult hierarchy over children’ scheme of things. Or so I like to think. People choose to see what they want: they just think I’m ‘normal’. What they don’t always see is the fact that Gack is going to take a route from A to B, but he’ll take diversions via most of the rest of the alphabet and I’m OK to follow him; that when Gack sees two dirty great big, brand-spanking new yellow JCBs parked up by the river (and which, strangely, I don’t see at first!), we have to cross the road, stop, watch the workmen (for a long time), and just gawp at those big yellow beasts shining in the sunlight; that when Gack refuses to talk with people he doesn’t know, like the friendly young woman serving in the milkshake bar, it’s not him being rude, it’s him just choosing not to communicate.

He does communicate, when he wants to: he sits on the toilet with a mischievous grin, asking why the carpet’s all dirty. I tell him about my recent work in the attic. Why? he says, and he starts the whole, ‘why, why, why’ game (you know the one) with that twinkle in his eye. I think, ‘play the game’, and ‘twist the game’. I still lose, but I play it.

It’s play in the moment. It is the play of now. It helps form moments of emotion, of connection to the body, and of connectedness with others.

When I observe some adults with children, I wonder at all of this. Sure, it’s tiring, this parenting business; sure, it’s sometimes frustrating and challenging. Understanding the now though, I think, can help.

Moments of play and beauty

There are moments of beauty to share, in observations of others. These moments should be passed on, I feel. In finishing here, for now, I pass these two moments on to you:

In the shopping arcade, on the long shallow slope that connects the upper and lower levels, a toddler decides to lie down on his belly as he and his mother (presumably) walk. Instead of shouting at him, ordering him to get up, or hurrying him along, she waits with her friend, smiling at the child. He lies there for a few moments, taking in the view down the slope, before getting up and running ahead.

Whilst walking down the riverside, I listen to a mother and her daughter behind me. The child is about three years old. The mother is talking with the child, pointing out the things she sees, things of possible interest. She talks about crunchy leaves as the child walks in them, and how the colours change in the Autumn and why, and about how things are slowing down, and how greens will be back in the Spring. They talk about the river, and they sing songs between them: I love you; no, I love you more, etc. When they come to the rose beds, where two men are pruning the bushes, the mother and the child go over to look at the flowers. I walk on and, when I look back, I see the mother bending a yellow rose down on its stem so the child can smell it. They both breathe it in deeply, then carry on their way.

In celebration of play-friendliness

In celebration of the play-friendly space, rather than the child-friendly space (thank you, Lily, for the direction in the thinking here), a small descriptive scene. I’m busy varnishing the children’s chairs and table when they come, and the eldest, three, pokes her head gingerly out into the garden space (because she’s been foretold about what I’m doing). I finish off the last chair, leaving the bits and bobs of my previous hours’ focus on the paving slabs in the baking hot sun. The children have been told these things are sticky and they stay clear (though the youngest is sneaky and determined to find a way, once in a while, to stick himself to the table like the summer flies do).

Before long there’s a paddling pool out with a good array of stuff floating around in it: bits of guttering, tin cans and other things that will no doubt rust. I’d picked up the broken glass a little while earlier, but there are still the husks of dead snails’ shells piled up in the corner after the brutal salt massacre of a week or two ago. There’s an unfenced pond full of water so green it ceases to be green any more. Somewhere down there is Steve the Fish (after Steve McQueen, the motorcycle jump over the barbed wire fence? You can piece it all together from here).

The youngest, who’s not yet two, wobbles as he tries to climb the chunks of railway sleepers that are laid out as steps up to the inclined grass. He’s preoccupied with balls: any balls; he throws a foam one down the hill and falls after it, throwing himself after it too, just managing to avoid landing on his face. Last week, he landed on his face on the paving slabs wedged into the grass slope. He cried, got up and went mountaineering again. Today he reaches out for my hand and we do the mountaineering thing, paving slabbing (or whatever it is inside his head).

The shed door is open and the play stuff is piled up all on one side. The shed is also home to the usual paraphernalia of all good sheds: lawnmowers, nails and screws and hammers and various junk. We pull out paints and a good thirty brushes, more pots and cans and containers. The children paint stones and the eldest then wants to varnish them. I give her the sticky pot and she chooses five brushes to use, one after the other. One brush, apparently, is not enough to smear with and, once sticky, needs replacing. I remind her again how sticky things might get. She’s careful, but she manages to varnish her toes anyway.

At the top of the garden, the decking is getting overgrown with thistles. All the children pick their way around these whenever they’re up there. Sometimes, the big heavy wooden chairs will get climbed upon (and noses and chins making contact with hard surfaces are occupational hazards for those wishing to climb to the very top; tears get shed; snot gets wiped into adults’ t-shirts; children get deposited back at base camp on the decking and asked: OK, that didn’t work, which way up next?; chairs get climbed up again from the other side); the table will get climbed up onto and sat on.

The children know where the wobbly paving slab is, and navigate it carefully or jump on it; they have a healthy respect for the sharp fact that is the point where the grass stops and the steps and imminent downwards start; they know that the thin white fencing made of old bits of banisters is very close to being ineffective as a fence at all; they sometimes ignore their parents when walking into the shed with bare feet, not because of belligerence, I suspect, more because they’re watching where they’re stepping.

This play-friendliness is a work in progress. The adults in the space are understanding of the children’s play and that things are playable with. In contrast, there are two ‘play parks’ within easy walking distance of where I live. I use the term very loosely. Gack and I recently visited both. He only went to the things in the parks that moved (and, even then, only the things that were novel for him – he doesn’t do swings). So, for an hour non-stop, we fed the small steel circular contraption that looked like a tipped-over bird bath: we fed it grass and twigs and sticky weeds and Gack’s rucksack and Gack himself, and swirled it all around and spun it round and scooped it out and did it all over again. And again. And again. Gack contained his play in that small ten feet wide diameter of tarmac (later steering off to investigate the lifting, moving, squeaking whatever-it-was contraption, coming back again for more spinning) whilst a man stood smoking, waiting for his dog to do its business thirty feet away from us.

At the other ‘play park’, after we stopped in the middle of the pavement up the hill for Gack to rest his plastic ba-rarrow (wheelbarrow) and sit and have a replenishing sugar-hit of cake, Gack stood and surveyed the scene for a few seconds. He made for the moving parts of the fitness contraption, not being able to reach the bars himself, sliding the pads on their rails, back and forth, back and forth. He alternated between this and the static wooden truck, the saving grace of which being its moveable steering wheel. Gack didn’t even see the platform where the paltry ‘home corner’/den was built nearby. Nor did I, till I began to tire of the back and forth between truck and fitness contraption.

These ‘play parks’ are not so play-friendly. They have limited scope. It’s lucky for the park that Gack is so forgiving. He seems to get a lot more scope, despite its smaller space, out of the garden where he, and his cousins, can mountaineer, jump on wobbly slabs, balance on the edges of steps, run down the steep slope, poke around for snay-eels and slugs (and I swear we saw a grass snake last week), gawp at slug slime, slop watery purple paint into the pool, and varnish their own toes.

Objects of resonance and fade

Gack calls up the stairs: ‘Gol. Gol.’ My time at the computer screen is over for now. Work plans are suspended: Gack is calling. Downstairs, he putters around in the garden and, when he sees me, I kneel down – but he scoots straight off to the shed door, scratching at it like a cat! He knows where the play stuff is. Not that I ever tried to hide it from him: there’s a lot to clear out in there and I want to be able to spread it out so that he and his cousins can get to it easier. Later, after cake, Gack wades in there anyway, obliviously barefooted, with a patient: ‘Else?’

What else is in here? Gack uses a kind of shorthand vocabulary. He gets by on this. So: ‘Else, Gol?’ We rummage around at the light end of the shed. ‘This?’ I say, pulling out buckets or netting, cardboard tubes and old tin cans. Gack is patient. We pull out most of the play end of the shed, bit by bit, and it slowly scatters across the garden. Before it all comes out though, Gack pulls out a garden sprayer that’s upside down in the trolley I used to use for hauling hefty NVQ portfolios around in. ‘This, Gol?’ I don’t ask him to ask for things: he can have what he wants, but he’s patient and polite with me and the play stuff. He pulls the sprayer out and comes back for the other ones. A few days ago, we’d had the sprayers out and Gack sat and dismantled several of them in an attempt to find out why they weren’t working. (Maybe they weren’t working because he’d dismantled them). The ones we couldn’t piece together again (a process rather like what happens with flat-pack wardrobes and bits and pieces left over at the end), we left as playable with in some other way, but the ones that could be sprayed with got a big fat black tick on their bases. I watch Gack as he quietly checks the bases of the sprayers, these few days on.

He chooses the best one, the one with the longest spray, to cue me (whilst surreptitiously placing the other working sprayers on the decking at the top of the garden so that I can’t reach them easily!) Our previous spray play involved a few minutes of going round in circles, in the rain, dogfight fashion; today, we’re face to face, attack mode. Gack cheats.

Now, I think of those sprayers and of my previous thinking and writing on magic. If magical processes include the charging of objects with the mystic force of the universe, or if magic is here in everything all along in objects revered, devoted to, then Gack’s garden water sprayers are small magic in the making. It is a formation of the meaning of objects: not in conscious ritual, yet it’s ritual all the same. Over days and weeks it is the repetition of play, of devotion, of understanding about the objects, the moments, the people around at that time that this ‘ritual’ is. This thinking is all more than merely being about the transitional object, such as that a small child will make use of. It’s more than this because meaning is infused in the object and it lingers over time. Or potential is recognised as already being there in the object, and it still lingers. Years down the line, maybe Gack will come across one of these sprayers with a big fat black tick on its base. Maybe that will mean something.

I cleared out a lot of old stuff recently. Now, this is related to the above. During the course of this clearing out of cupboards and long-forgotten boxes, I came across objects of my childhood. Some of these objects still fizzed with the possibility or played-with-ness in them. Some of these objects, however, just didn’t. I found things I either only vaguely remembered (not all from my childhood) or things I just didn’t recall at all. Some objects still resonate with the charge of the person who gave them to us, somehow. That person, kind of sealed in a freeze frame time bubble, there in our pasts. Some objects’ resonances, though, fade to the point of becoming bare of any fizz at all.

Is it just a lack of remembering, or has the object’s magic just seeped back out to the universe around it? If the magic has seeped away, it would suggest that the object needs re-charging, re-loving, by someone the same or new to it. It would suggest that magic is not there in everything all the time. Or, perhaps it would suggest that magic is there, potential is there, it’s just too pale to be seen by this individual: or, rather, we’re too far removed from its possibility to see it. Look and you will see?

Gack systematically dismantles the contents of the play end of the shed (‘Else, Gol? Else?’) as the afternoon drifts on. The garden is strewn with play detritus: not just in the stuff, but in the moments like after-images that slowly recede onto the air – this is what happened here, and here, and here.

Gack’s got an impressive memory. When the garden was bare he looked at the empty wall where, a few days ago, we closely examined a climbing snail. ‘Snay-eel, Gol?’ (He has a way of squeezing two syllables into a word where there ought rightly to be space for only one). The snay-eel isn’t there. Its previous presence still resonates though. I don’t know which objects and moments of played places will resonate for him in later life, and which will just fade out. All that can be done is to open up the possibilities in the now.

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