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

Archive for the ‘mad magic and mayhem’ Category

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.


This playground: magic in the fabric of an island

Looking out over the playground, over the new and already evolving fire pit in the foreground, through its upright palette wall and the drift of woodsmoke, into the hazy sun, the crisp blue February sky over the recently sodden site, there is a sudden sense of wonder. It isn’t new, this feeling, but it returns in moments made both of clarity in its general whole and in a certain inability to capture all its constituent elements there and then. It is a well-being of the spirit. It’s a moment like a haiku. Later, when I think on it all, I try to do it justice with words that don’t seem to quite sum it up so well.

So, the woodsmoke drifts up, and beyond this in the middle distance there is a multitude of pockets of play (frames of play, if you will, in ‘playwork parlance’): there are piles and swarms and conglomerations of children up on the platform structures and in the newly hung netting, in the incidental movements of players on the palettes and boards slapped over the swamp area in the middle of the playground, around the fringes in amongst cornflour gloop and paint and chalkings. There is the blending in of the sounds of laughter. It comes from everywhere. There are pockets of reflection, of children poking the fire, and there are the dartings around of others. I have the sudden feeling, without the exact words as such, in that moment in time, that I belong.

It is the half term holidays on the playground and, for the children (and for us, in many ways) it’s been a long four months or so since the last time they could come in, come and go, just be at peace and play — to a certain extent — in this way. On the first day we’re swamped early on by children needing to get in. They spend a good half hour re-assimilating themselves into the fabric of the place: we’ve made changes, plenty of changes, in the time they’ve been away (there’s a fire bowl dug into the ground near the main entrance, there’s the new netting on the platform structures, the swamp has grown, the playworkers have grown: it’s all organic). The children poke around, amalgamate their focus on one half of the site: we all seem to face away from the sun as we, the children and us, slope around trying to fit back in to the flow of this.

Soon enough, everything falls back into what I come to see as ‘playground time’: it all has its own pace, its own rhythm and texture. Play evolves and shifts and gets repeated. Relationships build. Everything flows richer and deeper, even in the slim breadth of just a few days this half term, as playground time unfolds. One of the older boys who’s been nurturing the fire for a couple of days, all day in each case, asks why we can’t just open up for longer, you know, he says, just on the last day maybe? Quietly, I register, he bemoans the usuality of life away from here.

This is the children’s space, although we — of course — punctuate its presence. Sometimes we’re a ringing intrusion in certain individuals’ worlds (no, we won’t stand idly by if you choose to slap that half-baked potato into the back of your mate- or enemy’s head!) Sometimes we’re necessary in such fundamental and loved ways: the game the children call ‘Family Had’ (as in ‘you’ve been had/caught’/chase-tap) doesn’t seem to function so well without one or more of us playworkers being the chasers (the faster the playworker, it would seem, the better the buzz). There is, however, a finite amount of time any given playworker can remain able to run, get anywhere close to catching, not slipping over in the mud/making an impossible turn, not hitting their head on any number of obstacles. When we call our own ‘time outs’, the children greet it with disdain.

When I’m not involved in concentrating on how not to end up backside up, or worse, in the mud, I wander the site. Each time I return to the fire bowl area, and I  lean on the palette wall just to see, the older boy, guardian of the fire, looks up and tells me, ‘I made that fire; it’s still going,’ or words to this effect. I nod and walk off again.

On the far side of the playground, a small group of girls spend days at a time homebuilding. It is a literal affair because once, when I walk over, they ask me if I have any more black paint and I see that they’re renovating the board house that went up last summer and which seems just to have been dormant, waiting for them, over the winter months. I come back with a jar of acrylic paint and attempt to siphon some off into their tin. It doesn’t come easily so I just hand them the jar. The girls are ridiculously polite in thanking me. I come back later and see that they’ve splatter-painted inside and outside: various colours on the black. They tell me their plans for the following day: they’re going to put up a hammock. The next day, on bringing the girls hammers and nails, and later screws and a saw and duct tape (and a colleague fixes a new tarpaulin roof for them, which they then nail into place), and I bring out a tarpaulin floor, after discussion with them, which they also nail into the mud with practically a whole shop’s worth of ironmongery, they tell me they’re building an extension. This is the wood they’ll be needing.

Later, I see that they’ve concocted several hammocks, tied and nailed to the walls. The girls show me how the hammocks work by getting into them. Earlier they took round a sheet of paper, saying to all the playworkers in turn, ‘Sign this’. ‘What am I signing for?’ I asked. ‘Just sign it,’ they smile. Later still I see that the paper with all our signatures on is placed in the centre of the main internal wall. On the final day, the girls have to leave early. It’s a shame, I think. The play has just been ended after days of concentrated focus. I wish that they’d had longer on it.

As the week evolves, we all get to know one another’s names (although I ask one boy to remind me of his, on the last day, and he declares that he has been here all week! I know this, I know, I tell him: I just have a lot of names to figure out, and sorry!) As the chase games evolve (the children work out playworkers’ running/catching abilities, and they also evolve the rules to an extent that I think, at one point, that I don’t actually know what we’re playing here, and then, ‘Oh, so those are the rules, and the sandpit is ‘homey’ — a local colloquialism for ‘home’ — and once they’re in it, they’re not coming out. I think), relationships build and for one reason or another a few of the children start calling me ‘Grandpa’! Perhaps I’m old to them, with grey in my beard (but still in my forties, so still able to run!); perhaps all adults are old, but anyway Hassan is older than me! Perhaps ‘Grandpa’ happened because it was a play taunt of slowness (though later in the week, I overhear one boy say to another that I am, apparently, really fast, and by inference that I am, actually, worthy of involvement in the play).

Before long, more children start calling me ‘Grandpa’ in the running around game, and then it becomes ‘Grandad’ and then it becomes either/or. At some point I can’t define exactly, it becomes my general name on the playground, even as the children go about their wanderings on site and in their general greetings and requests of me. I feel both pleased to have become ‘Grandpa/Grandad’ and a little nostalgic, in truth, for my nickname of last summer (that of Dooku, Count Dooku, or the like!) One day, my old nicknamer (who has taken just to calling me by my actual name) calls across the site in greeting, as of old, ‘Dooku’. I salute him. As the children go about their ‘Grandpa’ callings, in chase-tap (‘Grandpa, you’re so slow’) and in general, I start to say things like, ‘Yes, my grandchild?’ It’s all good!

There are difficulties on the playground that we anticipate and that we deal with, as perhaps there are on all such places which forty-odd children of various ages, backgrounds, tolerances towards one another, and moods, will inevitably produce. These tensions are, however, outweighed heavily by the moments of magic that can be felt and seen. I’m of the opinion that this ‘magic’ that I sometimes write of, difficult to really truly define as it is, is everywhere in any case: it always is. It’s just that we need to be open to its presence, then it starts to fizz in front of our eyes . . .

One day, I hear a rhythmic chanting, a sing-song, over and over. It’s a predominately girl-pitched sound and it’s coming from the netting that a group of children are lounging around in under the shade of a tarpaulin. It sounds like they might really be being unkind to one of the younger boys, with the word ‘baby’ and his name repeated over and over, slowly and melodically. I listen in and I observe. The boy in question is in the middle of the netting and he’s being gently rolled and rocked around by the sway of the netting and by the girls on it. I see his face and he’s smiling. The sing-song wafts across the hazy playground as other children conduct an archaeological exploration of some edge of the paving lost under the mud in the middle of the site.

Another time, we playworkers stand around observing and talking, and we see three of the younger boys all in a line as they navigate the muddy area en route to somewhere. They each have a full packet of jammy dodgers in their hands. We think they look like a row of jammy dodger ducklings! Every day the boys receive their packet of jammy dodgers from one of their relatives as she calls to them from the threshold of the playground mid-way through the session. Every day the jammy dodger ducklings can be seen waddling around, oblivious to our amusement. We see the close bonds the boys build up with one another, and it all merges into the magic fabric.

We get out cornflour and, at first, I don’t appreciate how the children have such a desire to play with it. Even the older boys who I don’t expect to get involved come wandering over to poke around at the tray that’s been left out. One of the girls needs pink paint to mix in. The children find tin cans that we’ve been stockpiling for whatever tin cans can be used for. They start to make their own cornflour and water/paint gloop individual concoctions in the tin cans and there’s fascination with the ‘now it’s liquid, now it’s more like solid’ experimentation. We get more cornflour for the next day, and I fill up a bucket of water and a biscuit tin of pink paint, just in case. Blue or pasty puce seem to be the colours of the day though. Some children tentatively ask for help, in passing, as the gloop stuff is left out for them to find sometime: they say they don’t know what to do with gloop. I think maybe there’s a thing we can call ‘gloop deprivation’. How can children not get gloop? Haven’t they all played with it when younger? Maybe not, after all. Gloop in tin cans, in turns out, comes close to the magic appeal of a day-long nurtured fire.

When the shovels disappear off behind the wooden house on top of the hill, where I’ve not seen them go before, I wonder what might be happening there. Later I go closer and I see that an excavation is taking place. The children there look up and tell me (despite me having tried to sidle away without being noticed) that, look, they’ve dug up all these rocks they’ve found. Later, an older girl is earnestly shovelling mud there. She has a container, which I notice when she looks up and tells me that she’s digging for worms. There, in the container, are several long thin, oily caramel-brown invertebrates. The girl seems pleased in her play!

When the last splutterings of this winter’s current series of storms briefly open up on the playground, the children hardly seem to notice. The clouds clear away again and the sky is blue, the woodsmoke continues to filter into the air, the mud is just a part of where we are. There is magic in the fabric, threaded through here with day-long nurtured flames and smoke, mud and song, paint and gloop, repetitions of play and evolutions of play, the building of relations and the not wanting to leave. The Easter holidays will be here soon and we’ll be open longer, I tell the boy who I think of as the master of the fire.

A naivety of love/play as the antidote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the antidote to a pernicious world.


Once upon a small space

The boys are quiet. They’re two and a half and three and a half. They’re in the shed, on their own. The door is shut. I’m in the house, looking out on the garden, and I realise that I haven’t heard or seen the children for a while. The last time I took any significant conscious note, there were three children sat quietly in the shed, surrounded by the sand they’d up-ended, sitting on the wooden booster boxes or on top of the empty old keg in there. They were sat around chatting in a way that was a little unusual for this small group of two to four-year-olds: they’re usually bouncing around after one another, some place. Now though, there’s one child of the three indoors, but the boys are quiet some place else: the shed door is shut. I go out to investigate.

When I open the shed door there’s no-one inside. Strange, I think: I could have sworn they were in here. It’s a little dark without windows, and it’s a little musty. This is where all the play stuff lives: though it’s scattered around now and flung into new living places this end of summer. I’m just turning back out of the shed when I hear a small sound. I have no idea where it’s coming from. I listen hard and think I must be hearing things, or the sound is coming from next door’s garden or something. There it is again though. ‘Are you in here, boys?’ I say. There’s no reply. Instead, again after a little while, there’s another small shuffling. I can’t trace it so I look in low places.

There, wedged right in at the back by the wall, nestled on top of a mound of old fabric sheets that some children I once worked with painted several years ago, are the boys. They grin out at me, looking like mice in the process of burrowing. I don’t think they’re hiding from me: I think it’s the other way around — I’ve disturbed something here. ‘Hi,’ I say. It’s all I can say. The boys wait, still grinning, and I don’t know if they expect me to tell them to get out or demand of them what they’re doing in there. I like to think they know me well enough though. ‘So,’ I say. ‘Um, OK. Mind your heads on the wood there, won’t you? It might have some nails in, and it’s dark in there.’ The boys nod. Adults can tend to state the obvious sometimes, can’t they?

‘I’ll, er, leave you to it then,’ I tell them and, as an after-thought — because something in me just tells me I need to get out of there, but also something in me tells me I ought to suggest something also verging on the ‘safer’ side — I add: ‘Can we just leave the door open a bit?’ The boys are OK with this, but I also realise (sort of, at the time) that that’s going to change things. The space no longer has the same potential quality as it did a few minutes before I’d come in: for one, the door is now ajar and there’s more light in there; for another, the ‘just burrowing’ — or whatever it is — now has a tinge of ‘hiding’ about it; for one more thing, a least one adult now knows about the play and the space. None of this in so many words, no doubt, is going through the minds of a two-year-old and a three-year-old, but it goes through mine now as I write.

Caught unawares by the process of creation unfolding (unexpected in that space, at that time, by these particular children, in this way), this adult — though pleasantly surprised — clicked into default adult mode of stating the bloody obvious and looking to modify the ‘safeness’ of the scene. It didn’t really need either. It needed me just not to have got in the way, or having done so accidentally, to get out again soon enough. Why does this matter? Surely it’s just a small thing, this finding of a secret space being created, trying to make sure no-one gets hurt? It’s about trust, of course.

If we extend it out to the idea that adults can, and often do, poke their uninvited way into such secret play repeatedly, the children aren’t going to feel trusted. Secret spaces are important for children. They’re created and owned, or places of escape, or places where all manner of strange imaginings can happen and can only happen there. They’re all of these and more. That we might not be able to see or hear the children will probably be a little disturbing for many adults: we’re conditioned to want to protect, of course, but also increasingly we’re conditioned to impose our own wills on children. Children become the receptacles for our adult ideas, morals, teachings and other wisdoms. Small, dark spaces in slightly musty sheds (albeit full of play stuff, but also home to tools and garden equipment and piled up things) are — adult ‘knowledge’ says — not appropriate places to be ‘hiding’ in.

The boys weren’t hiding, as such; or so I believe. They were ‘burrowing’, or ‘making’, or ‘just seeing’, or whatever it was they were doing. Maybe there was some hiding in it, but maybe they were ‘just hiding’ and not hiding from anyone in particular. I don’t know. This small, dark space in a slightly musty shed — it seems, therefore — was a perfect place to be doing whatever the boys were doing in it. The things we adults seem to have forgotten . . .

In my childhood there were many such spaces as these: in scooped-out gaps in various hedges; in the narrow concrete tunnel tubes that led to the lakes; in the cupboard under the stairs; in the possibility of the central heating system, just big enough to squeeze into (though I never tried); under upturned sofas; in the long grass at the end of the school playing field; in others’ discarded places found in the woods. What things happen in places such as these? It’s not for us adults to know: it’s only for us to remember.

There are times when the boys are quite comfortable with me being around their play, when they actively want me to be a part of it; there are times when they tolerate me or need me to help make something happen; there are times when they tolerate me, but when I really should be leaving them be (times such as when burrowing in old fabric in a dark corner of a slightly musty shed). I’m reminded of how, once, at a setting I worked at, other staff were agitated by the children’s need to climb into the cupboard (which could fit several of them at once); by their need to pull the blackout material across (which I’d stapled there beforehand); by their urgent need for me to find the torches, then shut the door, leave them be. My colleagues said that they couldn’t see the children. I said, ‘So?’ We could hear them banging and gurgling away, or shuffling around. When I checked in, every so often (yes, I disturbed them too and maybe shouldn’t have done), they were keen for me just to close the door again. The smell was ripe enough and I was keen to close that door for them!

Maybe, as adults, we’ll always have this in-built need to ‘check in’ on children (in our settings or in our homes); maybe, if we need to do this, we should find other much more subtle ways to do it: after all, something of the essential quality of that space the children are playing in will, no doubt, be lost if we check in too clumsily. A chipping away of trust will happen if we repeat and repeat our clumsinesses.

An adult’s journey in magic/play

The other week I was delivering some basic playwork training when I was taken slightly aback by a comment I really didn’t expect. There were a couple of eleven/twelve year old boys involved in the adult group, as a first rung into this field of work I suppose. I asked the group for their general ideas on play. One of the boys confidently told me that he saw play to be ‘for education’. This troubled me in the moment, and it still does now (on later reflection). Was this what this boy really saw play as? Or was it what he thought I wanted to hear? Was this a case of him being, shall we say, softly conditioned into thinking in such a way? Play is for education? In truth, I’m not even sure I know what that means entirely.

Here’s how I see play (I mean that in two ways: (i) here’s what I think about play; (ii) here’s an example of play that I’ve observed recently). I was sitting outside a pub in London, drinking an after-training beer. It was a crowded thoroughfare and plenty of people swilled past. I didn’t pay them as individuals too much attention. Then I saw a young girl of about three years old. She was being pushed along in a pushchair. I only caught sight of her for a few seconds before she was out of view amongst the plethora of legs and other moving bodies out there. She just sat and swung her frizzy-haired head around, eyes closed or at least seemingly not focused on anything in the outside world. It was almost as if she was dancing along, sat down, to her own internal music. Then she was gone.

Little moments like these are magic. I mean that literally. This word ‘literally’ often gets used inaccurately in modern ways. I mean to use it accurately: little moments like these are magic. There is real magic in the world, and this area of thinking seems to be taking up a lot of my various writing avenues at present. In this context of play, magic is all around us. This isn’t the ‘magic’ of illusion I’m writing about here: this is the magic that we can see if we look with our deeper selves. Play is for education? No, play is (if not ‘for’, then) of magic.

Attempting to find a deeper way into this whole frame of thinking, I went about developing ideas of magic in some recent discussions with other playworkers. Conversations about various historic places of astounding personal value presented us with the thinking that such places could be ‘found’ or ‘created’. Perhaps this is nothing new, yet we sometimes need to have such conversations to be reminded of such things. In fact, it proved to be the case that these deep recollections of personal value also started spawning other such buried treasures. I’m not talking about the trainer’s usual device of digging into play memories to excavate why play is here: this is a whole conversation that needs delving into for other reasons.

I’m not sure everyone I spoke to in these conversations was exactly on the same wavelength as me (we can’t, perhaps, fully describe something so elusive as the ‘magic of the moment’); though I hoped everyone was at least on some path to having some inkling as to what on earth I was trying to say. Magic is real, this I’m sure of; though describing it is maybe on a par with what Thelonious Monk is attributed to having once said about jazz: writing/talking about jazz is like dancing about architecture.

Somewhen back around 2007, I guess, when I first met Morgan, I remember being taken by her research (Morgan, correct me if I’m wrong in my recollections here!) along the lines of some sort of forensic archaeology of children’s post-play den structures. In my assimilation of that sort of thinking (processing it through my own experiences of taking a tired ten minutes or so at the end of a play session just to sit and look out on the ghosts of the space and the play that had happened here), I think of the magic that fizzes because of that play that has happened.

Recently, Marc Armitage wrote about children and stones, and it made me think about all the little offerings that have (over the years, and on occasion) found their way into the long side pockets of my own camo-trousers when working ‘out in the field’. When I was a child, I remember I also had plenty of random found objects which had some ineffable magic quality about them. I stored them. I was a hoarder child. Children, in my experience, don’t give their magic-infused (or otherwise special) objects lightly. Sometimes I don’t know why I’ve been entrusted with, or given, certain high value objects. Last year, in Sweden (stop me if you’ve heard or read this story before, but it’s becoming a small personal legend to me — in the same way that retold stories become exceptionally infused), I was at a forest school, observing, and without English, was privileged to receive a made-offering bracelet from found scrap things from some older girls. I still don’t know why. Something beautiful took place.

I have a thousand stories of magic, if I dig down, though I don’t know what most of them mean (apart from the fact that something took place). Perhaps I’m not meant to know. All I can do is try to recognise the tiny things that fizz, like a swarm of neutrinos sluicing by, gone in an instant. There’s far more that happens than meets, or passes, the eye. We can be seen; we can be given objects; we can be seen to recognise objects of significant value (though not the monetary kind); we can appreciate found and created, evidently sacred places; we can be known as someone who walks lightly on the earth when it comes to where play is . . .

I shall take away the term ‘playworker’ at this point and replace it briefly with . . . something . . . Play appreciator? Play receptive? Play-wise? It doesn’t matter: what matters, I’ve felt for a while now, is that this person is this something deep down, and can be seen to be so, if they know to walk around the play that’s forming (not dead straight through it); to leave be the found and created sacred places; to accept with good grace the offerings entrusted or given to them; to keep those offerings safe and with the reverence they deserve.

Play is for education? Only if this means the education, the journey, of the adult who sees some of the magic of the world.

Time and magic of a real persuasion

Let’s leave the adult world of money and mind games for a while. This is an exercise in time; or rather, this is an exercise in moving times around us. You are a child here in this world. It’s not a perfect place, that much should be said from the start, but it is a place of energy, of magic of a real persuasion (not the fabricated illusions of the screen), of circumstances and arrangements you don’t, as yet, have names for.

It’s a warm day today: there’s a breeze which you can only describe as soft. How else can you draw that feel? You stop in the street to think about the naming and drawing of things. The breeze has fingers at your neck and it tickles at your hair. It’s soft and you think of all the words that mean this and of all the words that are soft. The breeze has a smell, though you can’t name it. There are people in the street and they pass you by, move round you, muttering. You’re smiling because they don’t know what soft is.

By and by, some time on, you see roses. You wonder what they feel like, though you know that touching them will make them fall apart. You’re the master of the natural world: one touch or one breath from you and everything shifts. You tell the roses not to worry. Up close they have bugs in their petals. They’re curious to you, and they’re curious about you. One bug has a name though it’s a secret. You don’t touch the bugs because they have more legs than you care to care about.

Here is a wall. It isn’t very high and on the other side of it are empty things and broken things. Someone’s left them here and they may be back for them. People think it’s just rubbish, but you know that even rubbish belongs to someone. You look around and practice holding your breath. You climb the wall and balance there, still holding the urge to breathe out, breathe out. You hop and see if you can balance. From here you can see right into someone’s kitchen. They have dirty plates and so you look through the binoculars of your fingers to see what else they have.

When the dog barks suddenly, you don’t think: you jump. It’s one of those small vicious dogs, you know: you’ve heard that sound before. It’ll come skidding out, all teeth and yap and it won’t know you’re only looking. So you jump and run and you keep running until you can’t hear the dog any more. Even so, you’re wary. You know that dogs can come out of nowhere. So you squeeze through the fence of someone else’s garden, near where its trees back onto the woods beyond. You take the shortcut because the shortcut’s there. No-one sees.

In the woods you’re suddenly struck quiet by the colour up above. The sun is dripping through the leaves in glassy, shining lime arrangements. It’s like being under the sea (except the sea doesn’t have such colours, you know — you’ve seen the sea from above and you know it’s blue and dark green and white, and though it shines like tin foil it doesn’t drip). It’s more like being in a cave. There are bats nearby. There are rats and other creatures you have no names for. You take up a stick. It’s a solid stick, you find: you smack it against a tree trunk and it makes a thwacking sound but doesn’t break. It’ll be good enough for beating down creatures that have no names.

Every tree gets a good hard thwack. It’s a sound that pleases and it makes you smile. You swish it in the long grass and weeds. You need sticks in the world: they make good everythings — they measure the depth of the stream (and the stream turns the stick dark brown); they help you to walk; they let you poke at disgusting creamy off-white mounds of somethings that look like they used to be mushrooms. No creatures come after you.

There’s no-one here in the woods. It’s just you, and you need to pee. So you use the stream. You listen to the sprinkling on the water and you feel the breeze on your naked skin. The water is barely an inch or so deep here and there are stones that poke above the surface. There’s a silty mud like dirty sand and though the water is clear enough at the edges you don’t know how deep it goes farther out. There are bigger rocks and old branches nearby. So you gather things, thinking some vague plans of building a bridge. You try not to get your feet wet but that isn’t how it ends up. So you wade in because you’re wet anyway. The water slops around your ankles and makes your socks wet and heavy. The bridge turns into a way to try to stop the water coming through.

You work at it all afternoon, though there are always cracks and the water is too strong anyway. It doesn’t matter because it needs to be done. You move a tangle of bank scrub away to see what’s behind, and there’s something dead there. It takes you by surprise and you step away quickly. You’re wrinkling up your face and expressing all manner of loud revulsions. It’s putrefying and disgusting, so you get your stick and poke it. You daren’t go closer in case it does something. It doesn’t move but it stinks. You kick it and it squelches, so you cover it up quickly with a carrier bag you’ve found. You stare at the plastic grave you’ve made. It needs something else. You look around. It needs a stick. You find another one, not your good one which you can’t waste on this. You find this other stick, and you rip the end so it has a bit of a point, and you push it through the bag and the dead thing underneath. There’s not much resistance and you find you can push the stick right down to the mud. There. It’s pinned there now. It’s done. You turn your back and climb back up the bank.

At the top there’s a boy standing there looking at you. He’s about your age, though you know he’s not as smart. You can tell that by the way he’s just standing there looking at you with that ‘not as smart’ look on his face. ‘What?’ you say, but he doesn’t answer. Freak. Weirdo. You’re a little put out by him: it’s too odd that someone would just stand there and stare and not say anything. You feel a little scared but you don’t let him see it. You murmur ‘Fucko’ under your breath and hope that he does and that he doesn’t hear it. When he speaks he doesn’t speak very loud:

‘What did you call me?’

You feel the cold freeze in your veins. You don’t want to say it again. ‘Nothing. I didn’t say anything.’ There’s something about the way he doesn’t move that really troubles you. He just says quietly: ‘I’ve got a knife, you know.’ You don’t know. You just can’t tell. He could have a knife, or he could be lying. He has freak-weirdo’s hair and his eyes are too blue. He could be an alien, or a creature.

‘Yeh?’ you find yourself saying and it scares you that you’re saying it without your own permission. ‘Show me.’ So he shows you, just like that. It’s got a flick-blade and a red handle. He picks up a short stick and cuts it lengthways just like that, quickly and like the stick’s made of plasticine or something. ‘I kill squirrels with this,’ he tells you, and he isn’t lying now. You can tell. You want him to show you, and you don’t. ‘I have to go home,’ you say, and he laughs and mimics you. The boy sits down on the bank with his back to you. You watch him for a while, not going home because you can’t. He’s doing something but you can’t see.

‘What you doing?’

He doesn’t answer, so you ask again. ‘Nothing.’ He’s doing something though. You move closer and look over his shoulder and you see he’s sitting picking the wings off flying ants. You sit next to him. ‘You know that’s cruel?’


You don’t have an answer to this. You sit and watch the way the light falls in great chunks through the canopy of trees. The two of you spend a while there and end up throwing stones at trees on the other side of the stream. They land with satisfying clunks, and you progress to aiming at birds and other moving things in the undergrowth. ‘That was a cat,’ he tells you, though you can’t be sure because you don’t see it.

You both make sploshes of small rocks into the water for a while and then you have a sudden urgent need to leave. ‘I have to go now,’ you say.


You shrug. The boy gets to his feet and helps you up. ‘I’ll come,’ he says. He doesn’t know which way is your way, probably, but you don’t see a problem with it. You don’t say anything as you make your way: you hit every other tree with your stick because it’s still good; you trail your hand in the long stems of plants you don’t know the names of, and you smell your fingers; you think about nothing much. The boy finds his own stick, though it’s not as good as yours: he’s still a freak, though now you’re not as scared of him as you were . . .

This has been an exercise in time; or rather, this has been an exercise in moving times around us. Maybe it’s my own childhood swilling up to the surface, and it’s not a perfect place by any means (this is not intended as an exercise in rose-tintedness), but there is a kind of energy in ‘play that isn’t corroded by adults’. There is magic of a real persuasion; there are circumstances and arrangements we don’t, and maybe never will, have names for (if only we could name these: we could cut away all the adult rhetoric about play as learning tools, play to reduce obesity, encouraging co-operative play to combat anti-social behaviour, etc.)

Let’s think of time and magic.

White City stories: part 15

I’ve been at the playground again in White City, London, for the Easter holidays. I have the intention to document some moments of stories from the week. It’s been a full-on day, but I’m on the train and I need, and want, to write whilst it’s still here in my head. Moments are important.

The week has been — by and large — about paint and fires and running around, and today (Friday) was a mass den building spontaneity of action. I’m often pleasantly surprised by what children find and how they make use of that stuff. The rain came down but it didn’t deter the children. It was an opportunity to build shelters, so there was a frantic scrabbling around for stuff: ‘We need wood, big bits of wood’; and ‘We need hammers, and nails, and those things . . .’ They didn’t know the word but they needed tarpaulins.

Various children kept coming, rooting around, finding things. Before long there were two pallet dens being constructed on opposite sides of the site (one of which involved a small army of labour banging nails into the fixed equipment, banging sheets of chipboard and other wood to make the walls). They had a tarp ready for something but it never made it on. I turned my attention elsewhere for a while and saw one of the boys trying to smash a nail into the wooden beams with a sledgehammer! I suggested it was probably a bit heavy for the job.

The other den ended up as a roofed, carpeted, clean affair by the fire pit: ‘No shoes, no shoes.’ One of the boys building it marched off to the other shelter being slung up after his mate had left the construction. He was going to ‘hire’ some other, more reliable, labour he was saying. The shelter was later abandoned. It just needed to be built, it seemed. At the other side of the playground, one of the older boys, on his own, was struggling to bang a nail into a piece of upright chipboard that was slowly mulching in the rain. He asked me to hold it for him while he banged. Eventually he punched a hole in the board as it caved in and splintered. ‘What’s the hole for?’ I asked. ‘It’s just a hole’, he told me. He looked at it and shrugged. ‘My work is done here,’ he said and downed tools to go off and do something else.

Back over at the fire pit in the corner of the playground, for a few days whilst I’ve been on site, the children have had fires going. Each fire has had a different feel. Tuesday I sit at the edge of the mud area, which is bordered by a rectangle of wooden sleepers. At one point I count eight boys sat around on plastic chairs and on the wooden bench seats which have been made previously, placed there. I watch the boys as they watch the fire. I don’t say anything much, and I’m quiet for pretty much most of the fire play this day. It seems to be what’s needed. The children come and go: sometimes boisterous, sometimes just poking around. One of the boys starts talking to me, telling me how he likes fires because when he’s with his whole family back in Ireland they make a big fire out in the field. This moment I sit and think how this job, when you’ve got it right, also involves creating the possibility, somehow, for magic to happen.

The fire play on other days maybe has different qualities because other staff are there around it, not me. I watch on on these days, from a distance, thinking about how I feel about the fire from this vantage point and how different it feels when in that play frame. Friday’s fire, I’m in the play frame again. One of the younger girls shows me her way of building it: we’ve both scrunched up newspaper balls and we’ve filled the hole I dug this morning (it’s a charcoal hole now, and the earth is way down). We have no kindling, though earlier I did saw up a load of dry two-by-fours which were in the store. The younger girl piles the dry wood up in a pyramid and I hand her the matches. When it’s lit other children gravitate over.

Before long they’ve all found long poles, which they wrap one end of with masking tape to make fire brands, or Olympic torches, as they call them. The other day we put some rosemary clumps on the fire — rosemary, I think! — found from the bush nearby. The smoke wafted up with a lush full smell and the children couldn’t get enough of it. I have to suggest they don’t rip up the whole bush and burn it because they start to hack off whole branches!

Today, before long, I see some of the children have taped sprigs of the stuff to the ends of their poles and they dangle it in the fire. They keep lifting the poles up high or at eye level and I find myself concentrating really hard on seven, eight, nine hot pole ends; the intentions on the faces of the children; the children who are ducking down briefly; the clothing of the children as they move towards the pit (to their credit though, they do mostly stay well clear), etc. I think of the children’s play, their clothes, their hair, and mine, and skins, and the slippery sleepers wet from last night’s rain, and the growing antagonistic mood of one of the older boys. It gets a little edgy. I ask Rich for an extra pair of eyes. In a moment, as it happens, Rich manages to start a conversation with the older boy about his tadpoles (he, the boy, and others, had gone out of the playground yesterday and come back with tubfuls of the eggs, ‘liberated’, shall we say, from a well-known news corporation’s grounds nearby!)

Rich and the boy go off to do whatever needs doing in the large planting tub by the door, which has become flooded, and thus — apparently — needed tadpoles. The rest of the children continue to poke the fire with their fire brand poles/torches and they load on more and more cardboard, as they did the other day, blowing oxygen into the embers with other cardboard sheets (or ‘winding it’, as they say). ‘Why not put more wood on?’ I ask. ‘Because cardboard burns faster,’ I’m told. Instant gratification culture!

Earlier, when it was raining: we had a load of powder paint mixed in trays and it was used by the children to smear onto, and to paint, wooden boards propped up against plastic chairs. The paint stuck for a while then slowly drained off, leaving multi-coloured smears on the paving slabs. It was transitory art. There was clay out on the bench in the downpour. It was an inspired move, I felt: the rain soaked the clay as the children moulded and squelched it into shapes.

There’s a buzz on the playground. Later, now, I think how the playworker is just in the dead smack middle of everything that is and could be happening, but just floating by sort of dead smack in it. One of the boys comes up to me, in passing, and takes my hands, saying: ‘Let’s dance. I’ll show you how to waltz.’ So we waltz for thirty seconds or so, and he wanders off someplace else!

At the clay, one of the girls’ hands are thick with the stuff. I go fetch her a bucket of warm soapy water and I tell her then that I recognise her from last summer, when I saw her last. She says she recognises me too, though she can’t remember my name. She tells me a little later how I had my hair dyed red back then. We see each other in passing throughout the session. I tell her she has splatters of paint on her face, so she shrugs. Later, near the end, she ambles across my line of ambling. She tells me she can’t remember my name, so I tell her and she spells it out. She has a piece of chalk in her hand. ‘I’m writing a list of VIPs on the wood over there,’ she says. She tells me she has all the playworkers on it already, and just has an out-loud conversation with herself about who else might go up there.

The end of the session gets somewhat hectic. It’s the last day of the Easter holidays and maybe the children are feeling it, or feeling the imminent prospect of school again next week. I don’t know. It’s a speculation. There are over thirty children on site and they’ve all been playing a chase-catch game with each other. I feel in the middle of something special: though I’m just tidying, not playing. When the game dissolves, one of the boys teases one of the girls by kicking a ball at her. She’s not happy and there’s a different form of chase-catch now going on. The playground becomes a swill of sensibilities, mixed emotions, allegiances and protections, shifting patterns of children seemingly wanting to do whatever they need to do to not have all this melt away. It’s how I read it.

We stay on site for longer than usual. Personally, I don’t know whether it’s best for us to stay till all the fractious activity fizzles out or just to lock up and let them get on with it. In the end it simmers down and we lock up. Another school holiday on the playground is over.

It’s been raining, it’s been edgy, it’s had its ups and downs but still the children come: it’s what’s needed because the children come — they keep their fingers on the door-buzzer five minutes before the gates are due to open and as we’re finishing up our lunches; we go around the corner to the gate and they’re pressing their faces to the holes in the fencing and poking their fingers through it, telling us to hurry up, get the keys, telling us things like how we owe them time at the end because we’re so many minutes late in opening up.

The playground is full of moments happening, having happened, and possible moments to come.

Play: soul, substance and belief

What you believe is true. Richard Garcia’s writing (The heart and soul of play) is the starting point for this post. Richard writes about play and love and soul and spirit which, after some time settling as a bookmarked ‘thing to remember’, I finally got round to commenting about. Richard’s writing has led me to think more on play, in this way. I’ve also been communicating with Arthur about haibun (you’ll need to look up haibun if you don’t know), and this thinking is also going to colour parts of what I’m about to write, I suspect.

My thinking has taken me on tracks of philosophy, phenomenology, word definitions, and the like: so I need to be clear here with all the tangled lines. This is the opening of it: what is it that this ‘soul’ of play is? Or rather, what is it that this soul of play appears to be? You see, we all see different things, of course.

It’s evening, just as the sun sets over the hill to the west. There’s a pastel red smear on the sky, which is sort of milky. I stand on the hill in the east and look down on the city. Orange lights are just starting to come on, here and there. I hear the sounds of skateboarders’ wheels before I see the skaters. They’re on the top level of the empty car park below me. They use the ramp from that level down to the next. I don’t hear them speak: they either don’t, or I’m too far away. No-one else can see them: they’re up above the city.

I watch them for twenty minutes. I think that this is play, though they themselves may not call it this. It’s play to me. What is it to them? I hear the sirens of an ambulance, or a fire engine, I can’t tell; then I see the blue lights in between the buildings somewhere in the city. I see the headlights of cars, nearer down there, and how they seem to be, with the nearby branches between me and them. I think how this interaction wouldn’t be if I were to stand a step to the side.

This isn’t a haibun, above, but haibun writing informs it. I’m also going to do a very unhaibun thing here and give a commentary on what I’ve just written. Here it is: ‘the skaters played’ because it appeared to me that this is what they were doing; likewise, the lights of the ambulance, or the fire engine, I couldn’t tell, played in between the buildings; the headlights of the cars played against the branches of the tree, from my perspective. Play was everywhere, perhaps.

I’m going to delve down a philosophical avenue now. If play is everywhere, that would imply that it is a ‘something’, that it is a ‘material’ thing: some substance in the universe, like particles. How can this be? I need to go back to the thinking of Descartes (and here I shall also loop back to what Richard Garcia wrote in ‘the heart and soul of play’): Descartes’ thinking on ‘soul’, as I understand it, was as an ‘immaterial substance’ (i.e. not the physical substance of the body). There is a link between ‘soul’ and ‘mind’: a brain has mass, but a mind does not.

Simply, if there are ‘material substances’ (like bodies) and ‘immaterial substances’ (like minds), what is play? It must be immaterial, right? Play isn’t comprised of physical particles, as the rest of the universe is. Yet, what is dark energy? Theoretical physicists say it’s essential in the universe, but they can’t say what it is (or what it’s made of). So, is play energy? It’s in all of us, after all.

What caused those skaters to skate, the lights of that ambulance (or fire engine, I couldn’t tell) to play between the buildings, the headlights to play against the branches? Was it the play energy of the universe? In a non-theological, non-religious way, if we humans can be seen to have a soul/mind, which isn’t a material substance like a body (i.e. there is an immaterial substance/something ‘in’ us), then immaterial substances do exist and can exist ‘out there’.

There is a word I’m rather taken with at the moment: immanence. This is about the idea of ‘being contained within’. In a religious sense, ‘God is within’. I’m not religious, so treat that as a metaphor. Play is within. Play is immanent, perhaps. At the same time, in this thinking, play is within everything — everything — and we live within play. It’s not a case of ‘now it’s play time’ because play is in all of this that we are, it is the fabric of our existence, and it is the fabric in which we exist.

We just have to see it, that’s the trick. It’s a matter of perspective, of seeing that the play of the skaters is play (in our view); that the play of the lights of the ambulance or the fire engine (whichever these lights actually belong to), between the buildings, is play; that the play of headlights against the branch, is play: it’s all some play. If we step to the side, we don’t see that play . . .

At the end of the day, what we believe is true.

A snow day means a play day!

It’s a snow day! This week’s blog was gearing up to be something along the lines of responding to Conservative propaganda posted through my door about how teenagers need to be moved on, or it was going to be something to do with male playworkers and children at play, or it was going to be . . . but it’s a snow day! We have to write about snow if we’re writing about play.

Here in the UK, or in my part of it at least, we don’t get a huge amount of snow. It’s always something special. Yes, I know some of you out there hate the stuff, but I can’t understand why. When it snows here, and especially the way it’s been snowing all day today, it’s a big deal. We’re really not very good in the UK when it comes to our infrastructure coping: our airports shut down, roads grind to a halt, schools shut down, etc. That, though, is all good for play.

I had to go out in it. I went for a walk and was suddenly aware how quiet it was out there: very little traffic, no planes going overhead (I live on the flight path to a provincial airport); just the sound of crunching snow underfoot and the occasional sound of distant children. The sky was a deep milky grey. When it snows here, in this place, it reminds me of a city thrown back a few hundred years. I say that in a good sense.

Over the hill and round a corner and this was what I saw:


In the same way that snow blurs the physical boundaries of road and path, so too does it blur the boundaries between adult play/child play. It’s all white, it’s all snow on the ground; it’s all play on the hill.

Later, I overheard two boys talking. They were about ten, I guess. One boy asked the other: ‘When was the last time we had a snow day like this?’ There was a pause. ‘Dunno,’ said the other boy. ‘Five years?’

The first boy went on: ‘Do you remember that snow day we had and I was just crying . . .?’ I don’t quite know what to make of this, but I like to interpret it in the positive.

When we go out in the snow, why do we go out in the snow? Only a few brave or not so forward thinking people go out in their cars. I don’t know why they bother to do this in this country. In Canada, or other places used to the wet cold fluffy stuff, they have chains for their tyres; they have four-wheel drives; they wear anoraks with duvets stitched inside them, and boots made of whole mooses or the like. We go out armed only with a small torch packed into our two-wheel drives, and a bloody-minded sort of blind hope that things will be OK. We end up sitting on the motorway, shivering, and wondering if we’ll ever get home. Yes, I’ve done this too.

I saw a car fish-tailing around on a steep hill. The driver eventually got out and proclaimed to everyone around her that she was stuck, and how was she to get home? I told her that even with the ‘three or four strong men’ she was hoping to materialise out of thin air, they weren’t going to be able to push her up the hill. ‘Why don’t you turn around and leave the [two-wheel drive] car at the bottom of the hill, park up?’ I asked (helpfully, I thought). ‘But how will I get home?’ she said. Walking the thousand yards or so up the hill wasn’t, apparently, an option.

A lot of us seem stuck in the 21st century. Sure, we appreciate our convenient lifestyles, but we forget that one weather event can change things for us. More of us, however, perhaps, have a deep set sense that ‘living the way we used to live’ feels good. Maybe it’s just me, but walking around not hearing the sound of cars or planes, and seeing empty streets, felt odd and calming in this hectic usual century we wade through.

Empty roads

There’s something to be said for the old-times. Play and life and emotions and weather all mix up somehow, sometimes. At the sledging hill:

Old time pram

Back then, back when, back in the black and white days, when we had seasons and we knew what they were really for, there was something odd: there was a gap that we’ve filled now with the dreaded ‘health and safety’. I’m not the first or the last to commentate on this when it comes to snow. I was scanning the school closures list online at stupid o’clock this morning (I had a meeting at a school planned in). My school wasn’t closed (though I have a two-wheel drive car, so I cancelled anyway!) The school closures list is a litany of health and safety ‘covering ourselves’. Schools claim that their grounds are too icy or too dangerous or that approaches to the school are too hazardous. On my walk I saw upwards of a hundred children and adults playing in various places. One child fell off a sledge, picked herself up again, and went back up the hill. That was it. You can draw your own conclusions.

As well as the (adult) players apparently shelving thoughts on ingrained ‘health and safety’ for the duration of — and whilst deeply into — play, another curious thought struck me. Here’s the set-up observation: I saw this group of teenagers (there were five in total, some are down the alley), playing just off the High Street:

Teenager play

They’d been laughing around in the main pedestrian area, rolling snowballs, lobbing them over at some guy who’d come out of the shop opposite and who was lobbing them back. The snowballs were being thrown quite hard and over the tops of the heads of passers-by. The group then ran off, one with a huge snowball, to the alley fifty yards or so away. This got my attention, so I stayed to observe. Two of the group were at the far end with plastic snow shovels and they were ‘batting’ the snowballs aimed at them back. They threw some themselves, and the snowballs overshot the target sometimes and skidded across the High Street.

Here’s the strange thing: not a single person stopped, complained, threw disparaging stares, seemed bothered at all. Ordinarily, I suspect, without snow, this group of lads would not have been tolerated for their play.

So, I come full circle. This post was going to be something along the lines of responding to Conservative propaganda pushed through my door about how ‘anti-social behaviour’ needs to be addressed at our local shops, and how the teenagers need to be ‘encouraged to move on’: to do this the local councillors plan to install ‘triangular coping stones on top of the wall to make sitting there uncomfortable’. Right. Like that’s going to work!

How about installing a snow machine? The group won’t necessarily move on, but at least there’ll be play, and maybe everyone can then just chill out and be just a little bit less ‘21st century wound up’ about things!

Beach play: primitive understandings

Often, when I’m away from playwork practice in children’s settings, or reading, researching, writing playwork – when I’m ‘off-duty’ (as it were) – I’m not off-duty at all. Often, thinking on play just doesn’t leave! I’ve just spent a week in the West Country with German friends. We’ve known each other a long time, myself and these boys’ mother. The boys I’ve known half their lives. I’ve seen the way their play has evolved over the years. The eldest is now fourteen (complete with hoodie!). His younger brother is twelve.

Now the boys are older, they’ve learnt some English. Our communications have developed into a hybrid form of Deutschlish (although we can communicate in English, and sometimes my German stretches just enough to make myself understood in this way). Deutschlish it is though, for the most part. So, we’ll los to the Strand, or it might be essen time. Of course it’s a deliberate mashing of the languages, but it’s language play. Being ‘off-duty’ doesn’t last much longer than a few hours outside the airport.

We’ve all been up Ben Nevis in t-shirts and trainers, up a mountain in the former East Germany, up to all sorts of mastery play on beaches in Cornwall and along the European North Sea. This week, despite the boys getting older, beach play is again – apparently – necessary. Piecing together how individual children play is a journey in observation. Some years ago, the boys dug a hole in the sand in St Ives harbour. We left the beach for a while and, when we came back, the youngest asked why the hole had moved away from the sea. Once, the overflow pipe needed damming. It took quite a while.

The boys pull me into their play of futile mastery. They know, though, that the act of trying to stop the water, or the sea, is futile. This is nothing new to those who work with, or have their own, children. What’s new this time is the expression that peppers the boys’ beach play. ‘We will win!’

Each evening, when the beach has emptied and the tide is creeping up the shingle of the beach, we spend a couple of hours at the shoreline. The sun is setting; it’s still hot. There are handfuls of tourists poking around looking for fossils. The locals, perhaps, are the experts – armed with geologists’ pick hammers. The boys have a passing interest in time-frozen ammonites: if a small one crops up in the accidental finding, their mother is called out to. The boys have more pressing play concerns though: there are stones and boulders to be stacked, the sea to be held back, a tower to build.

We arrive at the beach and there are piles of standing stones, which have been left behind by others.

This is one of my strands of interest: the leftoverness of play. This leftoverness has an added extra layer here though: there are piles of these standing stones all over the beach and, I think, it harks back to our primitive roots. Our distant ancestors moved and piled stones: in rituals of worship and early honouring of the dead. On the Cornish coast, farther west, there are pyramids of stones on the cliff top. This stone use just seems to be something that hasn’t really left us, in some way.

When I walk on this beach, I’m very aware of the leftover artefacts of play: the stone piles (and sand holes and sand sculptures) should be revered. I walk around them because play has happened here. When the boys start building their own standing stone constructions, and when I’m part of the play frame too, I try not to take stones from structures that have been left by others.

If this sounds a little pretentious, a small play story observation here: as we build, I see a mother (presumably) and her son standing a few feet from a collection of other standing stones. These stones are his, and the sea is close to taking them. The mother seems to know the importance of ritual here. They stand and watch, silently. I appreciate her understanding. There’s more than just this here though: there seems to be some sacred importance to having the sea take back the stones (or letting it, or knowing that- or, standing aside and accepting that- it will take them back); washing around the stones’ bases, sweeping and sucking at the sand, slowly swallowing those stones.

We build our standing stones and there is then a great need to protect them from the rapidly encroaching sea.

The boys find large rocks and boulders. They build a wall between the standing stones and the water. The eldest throws rocks over. The youngest and I build them into the wall. The eldest pulls at a log that’s laying up-beach. Together we get it in place. We go back for the thick heavy tree branch, which we have to roll and man-handle. We don’t use English, German or Deutschlish in this period. The tide comes in. Now, the words: ‘We will win.’ The eldest is so competitive. However, he also seems to know that we can’t beat nature. When the tide is too strong and close, we stand back and watch.

The next evening, I’m instructed that ‘we’ll just build a wall’ tonight. We go about the repetition of shifting rocks and boulders. The log has washed up farther up the beach. The heavy branch is also close by. We use them both in the wall. After a while, as I’m poking around up-beach for rocks, I notice a young girl of about five come over and just sit herself down a few feet away from the wall, on the dry side. The boys build away and ignore her. She doesn’t communicate with them. I’m intrigued. I’m caught between two minds: on the one hand, does she want to be part of this?; on the other hand, maybe she just wants to watch. I take a wide berth around her, behind her, away from her. I don’t want to make eye contact in case it pops the bubble. I look around and there’s no apparent parent in sight. The girl sits there for quite some time. She fiddles with her shoes, watches the building play, looks out to sea. She’s very patient. There’s something very graceful about her.

Eventually, as I swill around in the gathering slosh of the shallows, I decide to take a chance: I wash off a rock. It’s an offering. I hold it out to her from about ten feet away. ‘Want to play?’ She can’t get up to join in quick enough! She doesn’t speak, and I don’t ask her her name. I keep my distance, and she travels far out on the beach in search of rocks: farther out than is strictly necessary – there are good rocks nearby and the tide is coming in quickly now. The boys absorb her into the play frame. Occasionally, she says a ‘yes’ or a similar quick response to a question or comment of mine. As she’s busy building the ramparts to try to stop the water coming in at the side, and as the boys and I are scooping sea-water out of the ever-deepening pool inside the curved wall in an act of great play futility – I look up to see a woman, presumably the girl’s mother – smiling on, up-beach. Some parents do understand. Some time later, the sea has won again. I look around and the girl has gone, without a word. Something beautiful has happened here.

The following evening, we are to build a stone tower. We should build it up-beach. It’s the plan of the eldest. The youngest goes with the flow. We choose a suitable site on the sand. There is, I soon realise, the ulterior motive of trying to build just beyond the high tide line. This is intended as a tower in defiance of the sea. We build with the largest rocks we can find and move, small pebbles, gritty sand, and clay that lies around the cliff base in abundance. The youngest applies the clay. The eldest rolls boulders up the sand. The tower takes time. It is an application of devotion. The sea rolls in and the site chosen is not beyond the high tide line after all. The eldest says that we should stay to watch the imminent destruction. We don’t stay so long, as it transpires, but the ritual is acknowledged.

In the wind-swept, rainy morning I try to find the remains of the boys’ tower. It is their tower. There’s nothing left of it, physically, but the beach is scattered with others’ standing stones, small stone circles, a burnt-out fire pit in the sand, feathers stood on end. The beach is scattered with the invisible play of days; of evenings holding off the tide, scattered across the sand.

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