Archive for the ‘princess k and dino-boy’ Category
‘You are not a God.’
— Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland)
Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory (1990)
I am not a teacher of children. That is, I am a playworker. We maybe have to identify with something and, recently, though I’ve known it for years, I sat on my ever-weakening knees, at four year-old height, surrounded by glue and glitter and feathers, and four year-olds, and this whole ‘playworkerness of being’ fell over me again. You’ll get it if you get that, as it were. I am not a teacher of children, though I dabble in the peripheral waters in aspects of my professional and personal lives: I’m engaged in consultations with children at school, in the classroom and in the playground, and I fall into history session constructions, compliant to a five year-old’s comprehension, at home (where I have to try hard not to muddy stuff with made up things!). What has struck me recently is, in the analogy, the gloopiness of the water when the Venn diagram of ‘teacher’ and ‘playworker’ slosh up against one another and overlap.
First things first though: playwork is not teaching. Playwork is working in service of children’s play opportunity. Sometimes, children at play around attendant playworkers might ask them how to do something or other. The playworker then has a choice to make: say or do something akin to ‘you work it out’, or show them how to do it. The latter is fraught with all sorts of adulterating, brain-forming by-pass complexities. Maybe it’s not so black and white after all. Maybe there’s a continuum at play. I’ve been fairly consistent over the years in saying that playworking isn’t something we should be diluting, or polluting, or shifting, by adding ‘teaching’ to it (though I do recognise that play can have a benefit of ‘working things out’ — I won’t write ‘learning’ here, as such, because that muddies the waters further). As can be seen, the sloshing waters of the respective Venn diagram circles of ‘teaching’ and ‘playworking’ can be pushed too dangerously together.
So, for clarity, playwork is not teaching: let’s start from this platform. Recently I’ve been involved in further children’s consultations in a local school. We’re investigating the use of their playground and that includes how the adults at school refer it and its play in their thinking and in their actions. In the classroom, this playworker-not-teacher can only be himself: children talk over me; some are quite happy to discuss things with their neighbours or stare out the window; some are intensely engaged in the areas for consultation; some probably don’t care. Sometimes, I find this all tolerable: I never was one for requiring children to listen to me, in stony silence, hands up, fingers on lips, if ever they wanted to interrupt my line of words. However, it is, admittedly, a tricky task to consult with thirty children of differing levels of engagement, understanding, attention span and so on, in a time limited way. I get why some teachers can become quite ragged!
At the end of one session, in which I said that I’m keen to investigate adults’ attitudes to play in school, one hand shot up and a voice from the depths of the classroom said, ‘What’s your attitude?’ It was an excellent question! What’s my attitude to play? I thought about it all week. On a good day (because we don’t always have those, do we?), I considered that I could see behaviours of all sorts as play, though I realised that by Friday I get frazzled too and the child who bangs piano keys five feet away from me, constantly, whilst I’m trying to sort food for twenty-five others, is somewhat testing! As I write, now, discordant piano play by feet, fingers, and bumps by the backside is, of course, all play.
On a good day, the children see my playworkerness: even if I’m not on the adventure playground. In the school playground, I was observing play, and then the teacher clanged the bell to indicate that it was time to go back to class. I could see that she was going to do it, so I sat down on my knees to get away from adult height and to offer her all the focus of that end of the space. The children all decided to come line up in front of me. Maybe I was, by chance, knelt down at the exact head of their usual line up place. I don’t know. It seemed odd and I felt somewhat incongruous there at the head of the queue that had morphed without any actual words, just a flow-on of play, in front of me. I stood up and took a step to the side. The queue rippled to follow me and I was, again, at the head of the line. Curiouser and curiouser, as it were. So, of course, the play cues had been inadvertently thrown: I hopped back, and the queue followed suit. I hopped the other way, and the children hopped too. The teacher asked me to lead the children back to class. I’d much rather have just walked with them, by their side, so I asked her, ‘Can I hop back?’
Play happens around the play-literate, or play-appreciative, or ‘good day’ playworker, I suppose. Play also happens around the periphery of the ‘play-illiterate’, or the ‘bad day’ anyone, but I’m thinking that there’s a different sort of qualitative engagement by the children: the adult is either merely tolerated in the space, or is ignored, or is blatantly or slyly teased. There are teachers who have good days and bad days, just as there are the rest of us who have the same, and I wonder how the ‘good day’ and ‘bad day’ teacher is differently treated in school by the children. I am aware that professional teaching isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about merely inputting information into the nascent, forming brain of the child; it is, or should be, about inspiring a desire to learn, to investigate and to explore. This is where the playworker/teacher gloopy overlapping Venn diagram waters slosh in again though: I believe that children will, and do, get so much more from a playful teacher, in the same way that they can ‘see’ the playworkerness of the playworker in any place that that playworker is.
At home, I watch the intensely concentrating face of Dino-Viking Boy as we go over the timeline of Romans to Saxons to Normans again, drawing it, playing it. He soaks it all up and thinks for a little while before saying: ‘The Normans? Who are the Normans? Did they beat the Romans?’ It’ll come.
My playworkerness and my dabbling in teaching are as muddled here as the late Saxon-Viking period of history itself! Playwork is not teaching, and I am a playworker. I’m also just me and I have my playworkerness, on a good day. Dino-Viking Boy punches me in the side of the head because we end up playfighting. I never was much good at fighting.
There was a girl of about four years of age bent over inside a tyre swing as I passed the small enclosed park, one day last week in London. She was positioned in such a way as to have her stomach on the tyre and her feet just touching the floor. She propelled herself around in slow and little circles, lifting her feet to then float round and round. I kept walking but it suddenly occurred to me that she was in it all, the play, for the affect. That is (and this is one of those things I already knew but needed to remind myself), she was seeing what it felt like, letting it all affect her — daydreaming, maybe, and it was all a positive washing over her.
Of course, I don’t know at all what was going on inside her head, but we have these clear certainties come across us sometimes and ‘play for the affect of it’ was what I knew right then. I carried on walking but I kept on thinking about the idea of how play feels. Such minor moments of play observed can leave such marks. This is, in itself, of ‘affect’.
Back in January, I wrote a piece that I called Connecting to the spin. In this I asked:
‘Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?’
I like to re-visit previous writings and ideas. Of course, back in January I was writing about ‘affect’, but I didn’t say it in so many words. This post today is nothing new to those who have worked around or studied play for a while: it isn’t intended to be. Instead, this post is intended to be a reminder to self and to others.
At the weekend, out at the park with Dino-Viking Boy and Princess K., the children took interest in a two-seated contraption which allowed for round and round and up and down motion all at once. They weighed pretty much the same and so, balanced out, they needed me to push them started. Off they spun, and when one pushed their feet onto the ground the other bounced up. They wanted to keep going and keep going, to have booster pushes, just to keep going. The children played on this equipment for at least half an hour without pause. We talked of nonsense things, and of important things, and of important nonsenses.
The young girl at the tyre swing in the London park was circling around slowly, and the children at the weekend buzzed by and by, but they were both about the affect of it, I suspect: what does this feel like?; what can I sense?; what are these emotions I have?
These were, however, not the conscious thoughts of the children, I have no doubt. Play doesn’t tend to work that way. I use the questions here in an abstract, clumsy manner. When we look up at clouds drifting by, with the breeze on our faces, what thoughts pass us (other than those that tell us that this cloud looks like a dog or that that cloud’s moving faster than all the others)? When we sit in the garden and we’re still, and we hear the tinkling of the metal chimes, what do we think? Words aren’t always what move through us in these situations.
We’re more than just the simple recognitions of the sensory inputs that come to us; we’re more than just the simple formation of fears or excitements or happinesses. When we stand up high, balancing precariously, we’re aware of the drop, of the possible slip, of the inevitable pain, but we’re also aware of the moment of the now, of the very edge of things (literally and internally). We couldn’t say what it is in words, truly.
The lack of words is also true of the brief buzz down the zipwire, of standing on the cliff with the wind in your face, of burying your feet in the wet and sticky sand, of staring into the fire in the depths of a winter evening, of singing in the sunshine to a favourite song turned up high on the radio. There aren’t words that adequately describe what this play makes you feel, in sensory and in emotional terms.
Sometimes we don’t think we’re playing, but we are. When we walk and we’re listening intently to the invisible birds in the trees, or when we peer down to the river bed to try to catch the flickering of tiny fish, or when we’re people watching, or driving fast, or blowing bubbles with our lips or making little popping sounds, or when we’re tapping the rings on our fingers onto metal bars on the Underground or on buses or waiting in line in the Post Office queue, we’re playing. We don’t have the words for these things that we feel because there aren’t any but also because, maybe, we don’t see that we’re playing.
At least, when we recognise this, we may be able to then come closer to the idea that what we see taking place in the actions of the children around us, in the streets and in the parks and in the schools and in the homes, is play. Play, as we’ve seen, is wrapped up with affect, with the sensory and with the emotional. It leaves its psychological imprint. The world is full of possibilities that are slow or circular, fast or bright, strange or comfortably familiar, and more.
Walking past the girl on the tyre swing last week, for five or six seconds, no more, this being the entire length of my observation, I had the feeling that this brevity of play seen would turn out to be much longer in the mind than the time it took to pass by. So it is, I know, in the instances of play recalled, and in the wordless affect that lingers, in the minds and in the bodies of the players.
If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? Maybe the same question could be written in terms of ‘if you’re a parent, are you a parent all of the time?’ or ‘if you’re a teacher, are you a teacher all of the time?’ Maybe these questions all have different answers. Maybe they don’t.
The question of ‘are you a playworker all of the time?’ came up in some training I was once expected to deliver (it wasn’t my course materials), and I seem to remember that the view I was expected to cajole out from playwork learners was one of ‘well, no, of course we’re not playworkers all of the time.’ I disagreed. Now, some years on, I find I’m coming back to thinking about this again.
The catalyst for this is to do with three closely spaced occurrences of play or playworker-ness which I wasn’t expecting. I’ll work backwards in time. I’d been to the pub to eat dinner and have a couple of beers after work. I didn’t stay that long (over-imbibing of a work night can have certain ramifications!): it was late evening, nearly ten o’clock, and the light was just starting to drain away around the mad and ever-moving triangle of traffic that surrounds Shepherd’s Bush Green. I walked across it, thinking of nothing in particular, when I saw a small grey shape approach me, followed by a long elongated ‘Hiiii-iii’ and a waving of hands. The usual smile of a nine year old I know from the playground’s Open Access scheme came into view. She proceeded to shoot me with her water pistol.
I asked her if she was with anyone here, it being a little way from where she lives, and she said that there was her mum, sat down at a table nearby. She dragged me over, saying, ‘Look who I’ve found.’ The girl carried on firing her water pistol at me as I talked with her mother, so I broke off conversation to play back. We played chase, with mum’s blessing, and we colluded in hushed whisperings about which members of the public might ‘accidentally’ get wet! No members of the public were hindered in the making of this blog, however! The evening folded in, and after twenty minutes or so, as the light drained away, I said I’d better be on my way. The girl would probably have stayed as long as she could, and her mum was more than happy to be out of the house. I said my goodbyes though, for now.
A little earlier in the evening, soon after leaving work, I heard my name being called from behind me as I walked down the road near the Tube station. It was one of the older after school club boys who had been with us that day, and who had left a fair while earlier to walk home on his own. As we walked, he just seemed like a different person: quiet and thinking hard. We talked of plenty of nothingnesses, and I asked him whereabouts home was. He told me where and it involved a train journey and a walk the other end. We bantered away as I walked him to the train station: I was going that way anyway. He said, ‘You know, I used to think you [playworkers] all lived there [at the adventure playground]. You know, some of you in the back room —’ . . . I said ‘Like we sleep in the cupboards?’ (which is what I always suspected the children thought of us!). ‘Yeh,’ he said, ‘something like that.’ I saw him off towards the station and said, ‘Get straight home, won’t you? They’ll be waiting for you.’ He ran across the road and disappeared into the Overground station. I thought of how we talk, in playwork circles, of children’s ranging, and of what I thought of ranging across this portion of London.
Back a little further in time, on the train that day, there was another one of those episodes of cues and returns which initially catch me off-guard. I’ve written about these plenty of times (when children seem to see something they connect with in me). It’s not that I’m even trying sometimes. A small boy, maybe three or four, was sat in the seat in front of me. I knew he was there the whole journey because I could hear his conversations with the adults he was with. I paid no more attention to a small child rabbitting on about whatever took his fancy in the ‘quiet’ carriage. It may have bothered others, but I’m used to this. We approached the final stop in London, and out of nowhere the boy decided to check the passenger behind his seat. I just looked back at him, offering no other return of his cue. He turned away and, a few seconds later, did the same thing. I put down my book. Perhaps the returning of the visual cue in the first place, by not studiously contemplating the book all along, was what did it. I don’t know. Other than this I did nothing. Now I was in the play. I gave in to it!
If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? At home, when Dino-Viking Boy and Princess K. want to play there’s often very little choice I have in the matter if they want to involve me! There are times, I admit, when I’m still work-tired, or when the youngest is smacking the eldest round the head with a cardboard tube or a plastic bucket, or when the eldest is playing every possible card she has to extract me from her brother’s attentions, I can get a little frustrated! I have been known to walk away to gather my infinite patience!! I am getting somewhat crotchety when the children pile out of the shed with armfuls of play stuff that they scatter round the patio, and I do own up to a quiet hope that sand and water and paint paste won’t be spread in all directions because ‘we’re making brown’.
Perhaps there is an argument, on paper, to say that a playworker may not be a playworker all of the time, if we look at the frustrations that take place (we work in the human field, after all). However, maybe the frustrations are all part of the process of ‘being playworker’. So, maybe, in practice, there is truth in the statement of being a playworker all of the time. I have to think about it more. What I do know, though, is that play in unexpected situations doesn’t often faze me (though it might initially catch me off-guard), and ‘being playworker’ is more than just ‘observing, putting out resources, creating environments’: actions, and reactions, and words and no-words, are part of the whole consideredness.
If you’re a playworker, are you a playworker all of the time? On balance, I think: probably, maybe. If you’re a parent, are you a parent all of the time? If you’re a teacher, are you a teacher all of the time . . .?
Back in September, I told the story of telling a story about mermaids. It was a way into writing about ‘myth-narratives’ and ‘oral histories’, which our modern selves may well have forgotten all about in our technological, world-unconnected modern ways. I have a tendency to return to favourite themes and ideas, and so I find myself thinking this week about oral histories and stories, not this time of mermaids, but of Vikings.
Princess K., at home in September, wasn’t too perturbed by my suggestion that mermaids don’t exist. Her younger brother is also sucking up everything he can about the ‘real stories’ I can tell him. He has the moniker here of ‘Dino Boy’ because that’s what he was into when he was younger. Now, having passed into his Marvel Comics ‘Superheroes’ stage (with a particular focus on Hulk and Thor), he wants to know all about the Vikings. He seems to like the blood and guts of it. A while back I told the children the legend of Beowulf (with as much gore as I could paste into it!). Now, we’re onto stories of Ivárr the Boneless, and by extension (hopping around in time), King Alfred, and the like.
I don’t know too many Ivárr the Boneless stories, but we’ve both latched onto this character as someone of great villainous potential. Viking Boy, as I may have to now call him here, stops me every so often, mid-story, or when I’ve reached a natural pause, to ask, ‘So, who are the Goodies and who are the Baddies?’ Things seem to be so binary in this four-year-old’s world. Maybe that’s a result of modern televisual renditions of older stories. Maybe it’s a modern sign of the times. Occasionally I answer him by saying, ‘Well, who the Goodies and the Baddies are kind of depends on which side you’re on?’ but I don’t think he really gets the significance of this. So, for all intents and purposes, King Alfred is the ‘Goodie’ here, and any given Viking is the ‘Baddie’.
Just like stories of mermaids, stories of Vikings are important. As I inferred in September, we risk losing the richness of traditional tales if we stop telling them. Why tell stories of Vikings if we’re not ‘Viking’ ourselves? Well, as I said to Viking Boy when he asked me ‘are there any Vikings now?’, where we live (that is, England) we might all be a bit Viking. The mechanics of descendancy may also have passed him over.
In our stories, I’ve told how King Alfred fought the Vikings, and how he ran away to the marshlands of Somerset. Viking Boy knows now how King Alfred was supposed to have burned the cakes there. He’s listened to speculations on why Ivárr the Boneless was ‘boneless’, and sucked up everything I know about the Danelaw and the division of the north and the south, longships, the legend of King Cnut, Viking swords, and Jorvik, embellished in places, of course, with plenty of blood and guts in waves of early Viking raids. There’ll be more to tell.
A few weeks back, I got into drawing the battles with him. He watched closely at first, his face pressed near to the paper where I was telling the story as I lined up Alfred’s men against some unnamed Vikings. Viking Boy named the Vikings: there was Jeff the Viking, Jeff the Boneless, Andy the Boneless, and — for some strange and so far unfathomable reason — Locust the Viking! Then he laid into the men of both sides with felt tip pen, which was the blood and guts and gore. We had a similar battle, later, and later in history, with Harold’s men against the Normans (‘sort of Vikings’, being the only way I could describe descendancy) on the fields at what came to be known as Senlac, being better known as the Battle of Hastings. Viking Boy confused his own history at this point, but we still needed to go into graphic and particular detail on the legend of Harold’s gory demise (possibly, in a four-year-old’s head, due to the archers of Ivárr the Boneless: this adult listener forgiving the mash-up of a horde of time travelling Vikings!).
I think we’re still a little way from being able to mutually agree on what is legend, alleged history, and what is ‘truth’; Viking Boy has a binary mindset when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and when it comes to ‘made up’ and ‘real’. To him, it seems, the stories are ‘real’ if I tell them and if, when he asks ‘is this true?’, I tell him yes. I make room in the answer for the potential for alleged legend, but just like another strapline (Marvel’s Spiderman), with great power comes great responsibility! With story-telling comes great responsibility. Viking Boy looks at me with wide eyes, sucking up the ‘truth’ of what I say.
Later, when we drive past one of the old stone gates out of town, he pipes up from the back seat, asking what that’s about. It leads me into a story of King Alfred and his fortified burhs. Viking Boy listens carefully. Every so often, when we talk about the time we went to the cathedral, he brings up the story of all the kings there and ‘can we see the bones all mixed up in the boxes?’ because these are the stories I’ve given him. Stories get absorbed. When he runs into the room brandishing two thick cardboard tubes, jumping in front of me, proffering me one of them with a ready stance, he says ‘Can we play fight?’ (he leaves a small gap between the ‘play’ and the ‘fight’). Sometimes he follows this with a ‘You be the Goodie and I’ll be the Baddie’; sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s no in between, and he’ll often whack me on the knuckles as soon as I’m weaponised, or he’ll bundle in with his feet and arms waving: sometimes there’ll be a flying jump and no apparent plan regarding a landing strategy (other than maximum ‘enemy’ damage). ‘Do you know? Do you know?’ he sometimes says in a pause in the attack, ‘You be Alfred, and I be the Viking.’ I suppose that means he’s the Baddie again.
Stories get sucked up and played out. Is this playworking? I don’t know, though there is the engaging with the play material of the child in it; is this teaching? Perhaps — there is the engaging with the factual (and mythic) material, as requested by the child, in it. I don’t know if Vikings are on the syllabus of the national curriculum, but if they are (or, when they are), I’d like to know how that goes for Viking Boy’s teachers. Maybe he’ll have moved on further in his absorption needs by then.
I was recently put in prison, again, by a couple of nine- and ten-year-olds who, in the play, described themselves as the amalgam that was ‘The Child Terror’. It was one of those play frames (that is, occurrences of play) which I’ve been noticing lately whereby the play shifts and flows into one narrative after another, and continues over days. Somewhere along the line, this week, I took to responding to every whim of these girls, and others, with the playful response that was ‘Yes, Master’. I forget the exact order of events these days on, as of before in the purely observational, but I generally and variously became — in the naming now — the ‘play slave’ (retrieving the things that were to be played with), the captive, and the co-conspirator.
At one point I was needed by another child, outside of this play, to visit the room where the art supplies are kept. I said to my captors, in a voice just a deliberate degree shifted out of the construct of the ‘Child Terror’ play, that I would need to leave the sofa prison for a few moments but that I would be back. ‘Promise?’ the girls asked with a very exact look in their eyes. ‘Promise,’ I told them. I crossed my heart, as required in the lore of the playground, and swore on my own life. Off I went, temporarily released. I knew, even at the time I was proposing my small escape, and also when I was in the art room, and then when I was coming out of it again, that there was no way I could break the girls’ trust. Herein lies something small but very important.
Around other play, when we had the fire lit at the end of the week, the circular area at that end of the playground all orange and hot in the dark of the early winter after school session, one of the younger girls handed me her long charred ‘poking stick’ and said, ‘Will you look after this for me?’ (such sticks being at a premium that day). She went off to the toilet. I was needed elsewhere: I handed her stick to a colleague with the information that it was hers, and thus I transferred the trust, which he accepted and delivered when she came back.
At home, when Dino Boy wants to playfight (which, at the age of the upper end of three, is most days), he runs off to retrieve a weapon of choice for each of us — cardboard tubes lately — and we fight, kendo style, him trusting that I won’t accidentally get him on the knuckles. Once, this happened, and I thought ‘well, that’s the playfighting ways of us just taken a few steps backwards’. He is, however, more resilient than I’d given him credit for: he came back for more, and therein lies something small but perhaps even greater still.
Of course, this trust is a two-way thing. I build up my knowledge of the children I work with: them as individuals, them within the collective dynamic. My default state with them, I suppose, is one of trust: even though I know full well that certain children I know are supreme blaggers! It is what it is though: when a child I know outside the fence asked to borrow a football, I went with the playground-lore-like ritual of ‘shaking on it’, through the fence, trusting that the football would come back, knowing full well that it might not. It didn’t seem to matter: objects find their way on and off the playground all the time. What’s more though, what goes around comes around: trust can play itself out in long time-frames sometimes.
I’m reminded of a short story I often tell, and one I may have told in these posts elsewhere: the gist of the story is that I once visited a playscheme provision run in a sports centre and, I remember this well, myself and one of the staff there were having a conversation about working relationships with children. I was getting a little annoyed by his somewhat controlling attitude towards the children, in honesty, but I kept calm enough in our post-session debrief: I said something along the lines of, ‘Can’t you trust your children?’ He, a young man with what I supposed to be a somewhat already-set outlook on life, replied quickly and earnestly, looking me dead in the eye: ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘They’re children!’ You can imagine how I ranted for several days afterwards to anyone who would listen.
Without trust where would we be? That is, when we work with children, and when children play around us, trust will result in moments of magic that are difficult to truly tell on the page, and in trust we have the seeds of potential other futures and future offerings between this adult and this child. Despite the difficulties of truly capturing the look in the ‘Child Terror’ girls’ eyes, their willingness to suspend the play for a few minutes, their just-as-is-right acceptance of the self-returned captive’s suppliant wrists, such trust should be written into ‘the standards’ by which learners of the trade are assessed.
These standards refer to trust and building relationships, but really, they’re so dry. At level 2, for example, learners new to playwork are asked to show that they can:
‘Develop an effective rapport with children and young people in a play environment.’
‘Treat children and young people in a play environment with honesty, respect, trust and fairness.’
‘Communicate with the children and young people in a way that is appropriate to the individual, using both conventional languages and body language.’
Excuse me: I was yawning. Who wrote this stuff? How dry are they? (that is, the standards and the people) — as an aside, one of the ‘Child Terror’ girls told me this week, on meeting at the start of the session, that I was ‘so dry; you’re so dead.’ I smiled because I really don’t know what this means! I have to factor in that the local child parlance that is ‘That’s sick’ actually means ‘That’s good’, apparently, but really I’m still none the wiser. If it’s an insult, that’s fine, because that — in itself — is part of the non-dryness of actual relationship-building that the level 2 standards, for example, are not.
I propose, instead of the above sort of criteria examples, that it be written into a learner’s ‘be able to’ standards towards competence, the suchlike of the following:
‘Have grace in the moment of play.’
‘Communicate only with the glint of an eye.’
‘Trust in what is.’
Or words like these, as difficult as capturing the trust inherent in being captured, released for a few minutes, returned to the play, actually is.
Immediately after attempting to explain whether mermaids exist or not to an inquisitive five year old, I knew this would be something I’d be writing about. Princess K. and I were watching cartoons: she was engrossed in the fish-story that was unfolding on the screen before asking, mid-way through, ‘Are mermaids real?’ I thought about what it was I should say. Mermaids were real enough to her. How to explain myth here? So I asked a question back: ‘Do you want the real answer or something made up?’; ‘The real answer,’ she said, straight away, and without taking her eyes off the screen.
Thinking about it, I don’t know if my answer was any more couched in ‘the real’ than any other answer, but what I told her was this: mermaids don’t exist (probably!), and that there were stories invented by people who saw things they couldn’t fully understand (this being, pretty much, a verbatim account). Princess K. didn’t seem at all concerned by this, and we carried on watching the cartoon mermaids together.
What is true — that is, what I have always known — is that stories are important. In our developing worldview (individually and collectively), that which we may not necessarily be able to see or ‘prove’, but that which we can intuitively feel, is wrapped up in the myth-narrative. We structure what we perceive, but what we cannot get across in other ways, with stories. The oral history of our species has been forming for generations. If we stop telling stories to structure the things we feel and perceive, but which we have no other frames for, then we stop connecting to the world we’re a part of.
This isn’t all a way of saying I believe in mermaids! I don’t, but I do believe in the power of stories. When I look out on the playground, I see the play that is happening, of course, but I see stories forming too. I see the stories that are, and the stories that have been, and sometimes I feel the stories that might be. When I walk around the empty playground, I feel the formation of myth. That is, if myth is the story-structure of the things that we can only perceive, rather than ‘see’ or ‘explain’, then myth-stories are everywhere on the playground. This is also true of the streets we walk on, the buildings we frequent, and the in-between-nesses too. I don’t want to write ‘spaces’ because I’m very much thinking of ‘places’ right now. In every place that play happens, or has happened, or will happen, is a story.
I have a million stories of play (and that is a story in itself because I don’t know how many stories of play I have exactly). All my stories of play, all my observations of it and all my involvement in it, if this has happened, are potentially present in a place I walk around. My perception is that everything I have seen and sensed and felt here, in any given part of the playground, is there for the engaging with, all in the now. This is more than just saying ‘I remember this or that’; this is a perception I can’t fully ‘prove’ or ‘explain’, so I structure the perception with the formation of this myth-narrative:
I have a million stories of play that come alive when I look on a place of play. They start to overlap each other. I wonder if some might influence others. I conduct an invocation, a ‘calling in’, of the stories of play that have happened here, into the fabric of where I stand. They appear. Truthfully, I have to be ‘there’ to do it properly, but I can tell the story of the story here (just as a ‘map’ is a representation of a ‘territory’ and not the territory itself, this here is a representation of an invocation in situ): I fiercely protect the old ramshackle ‘den’ at the back of the playground (though the last time I saw it, last week, it was more derelict than before). It is a place with many names, from many times, with many additions of wood and other components, with many deconstructions, layers of paint, objects within and ghosts of objects, and the ghosts of play that have been. One day it’ll fall, if it hasn’t already. I protect it because of its changes. I protect it because it is the ever-formation of place. When I look there, when I’m there, I start to see the layers of play forming of their own accord. This is the myth-narrative I use, in the here and now, to structure-explain what I perceive but what I can’t fully convey.
Stories are important in keeping alive the things we can’t fully explain, but which we feel or sense or perceive. We can ‘know’ something without being able to tell it. Aside from the science or theory on the importance of play, plenty of which I’ve read and absorbed and considered and analysed, I ‘know’ that the play I see and perceive is uniquely of the now that it forms and that forms it; I ‘know’ that there is a ‘gettingness’, sometimes, between playworker and child; I ‘know’ that where play is, there is līlā, the play of the divine, but that this is not the divinity we simply, and mythically, draw as ‘God’.
The story of ‘Are mermaids real?’ is a story of play, but it’s also a story of a story. Mermaids don’t exist (probably!), I said — I like to think I inserted that clause with a pause just wistful enough: leaving the door open, consciously, so as not to squash the possibility that the subject of the story could be real. Stories, I also said, were (deliberately past tense) invented by people who saw things they couldn’t fully understand. Perhaps, then, as I analyse my story of a story told of stories, the past tense inventions are less likely to apply now: stories are now less frequently told about the things people don’t understand (we, the adults, may be in danger of losing the myth-narratives of our oral histories, in time).
That said, maybe the possibility of mermaids is still true enough for a five year old, this five year old, and I ‘know’ that children, in general, have myth-narrative stories at heart. We should listen more.
I find myself considering the rationale on ‘respect’ again here as I sit down to write. This has come this week via some personal interactions on the playground, some conversations on the subject with a group of playwork learners, and out and about whilst in ‘parent mode’, as it were.
I often find my writings nudging up to this ‘respect’ word. My default position is always on the side of the child when it comes to hearing the repeated position of many adults, i.e. something along the lines of ‘children have to learn to respect adults/others/me’. I play the child-game of ‘but why?’ here: ‘respect adults/others/me’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I said so’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I’m the adult’, ‘but why?’, ‘because I got here first’, ‘but why?’, ‘because that’s causality for you’, ‘but why?’, ‘because time, as far as we know it, goes only one way’, ‘but why?’, ‘because . . .’ The ‘respect adults/others/me because I demand it’ argument tends to descend into such ludicrous levels to me.
I find myself needing to consider this whole ‘respect’ thing further though. Of course, we’d all like to have some respect in the world, wouldn’t we? We work hard, we often do our best, and we find that others just don’t care. Does that give us the right to demand that others respect us though? This is pretty much my default response when setting up a debate on the subject matter. It then follows that we can only earn another person’s respect, that we have to work at it, just as we have to work on ourselves, and only we can do that. We often hate this, of course, because others who just don’t care, or do us wrong, then ‘get away with it’: the whole ‘where’s the fairness in the world?’ thinking kicks in. We can only work on ourselves though. Let others sleep easily or not.
When it comes to children though, we adults often think we have a right to demand of them what we like and we try to make them act in the ways we want them to. That is, we seem to follow some bizarre but rationalised version of the ‘but why?’ game logic, if not in so many words, but the end result being something along the lines of ‘I got here first, I know best, don’t question it, so show me some respect’. Children’s choices, ideas, thinking, likes and dislikes, annoyances and grievances, can often largely be ignored: ‘I don’t like liver and onions’, ‘well, try it anyway because it’s good for you’; or ‘I don’t like him, he always wants the things I’ve got’, ‘well, try playing with him, you never know you might like him then’; or ‘I don’t want to speak to you today,’ ‘show me some respect’.
Well, so goes the adult-logic, we can’t possibly have children making decisions and getting their own way all the time, can we? Whatever next? They need to learn a thing or two about life. To which I suggest: so should the adults, and there’s a saying about people and glass houses . . .
Here I am again: on the side of the child. Of course, in ‘parent mode’ it’s difficult to be constantly taking on the ‘I want, I need, he won’t/she won’t’ all the time. Of course, as a playworker it’s also difficult to take on the agitations that can happen between children, the arguments and tears, the various difficulties of being six or eight or twelve. Sometimes we slip into ‘now stop’. We say it, in playworker mode or parent mode, and we may or may not then think why it is we said it. Is it because ‘now it’s time to stop and show me a little consideration, respect, call it what you will?’ . . . but why . . .?
I wrote two brief stories of ‘play that has happened’ to a colleague this week (you know who you are!) These stories link in to all of the above and I paraphrase them again here. A few days ago we were wrapping up in debrief time on the playground after all the children had gone home. Suddenly there was a loud bang from outside. We soon realised that someone was onsite, on the playground out there. Opening up the shutters (and I was advised to stand back in case something else was thrown underneath them as I ducked down), there were three logs lying on the paving slabs. The logs used to be part of the small fencing by the walkways. There was no-one around, so we split up to search. Then, over the bank on the far side two faces peaked up, saw us, then scarpered, climbing the fence and over the other side quicker than we could move (on a side note, and thinking on fences again, so much for fences, and fences maybe don’t keep security risks out or children in!) I recognised two of our usual boys, who we see at open access times, as the runners. My first thought was, I admit, ‘What’s going on here? Why can’t they just show a little appreciation for this place?’ This, however, was quickly followed by the realisation that this was some sort of play cue and that they might just be saying something like, ‘Hey, we’re still around and it’s near the end of term, and we need to come in again.’
The other story is about a girl at after school club. She was upset one day recently. She’d not received an award at school, which all her friends had got, and I don’t think she was best pleased by the attention she’d received from adults bringing her from school to club that day either. I sat with her a while and listened to her woes through her tears. A little later, happy smiley her returned. She followed me to the kitchen and, unexpectedly and without coming in, she leaned over and held the door open for me. ‘Thank you, madam,’ I said. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she replied. I didn’t ask for this or demand it. It didn’t matter to me if she did or didn’t do or say what she did, but she did, and that matters to me now, but not because of ‘things she should learn’. There are other levels to this.
When in ‘parent mode’, out and about, crossing the river on a summer day, having smelled all the flowers, and watched snails, and poked around at the farmers’ market, and played around in shops, and having gone up the escalators to jump off the top, and having gone down one floor in the glass lift because it was a glass lift, and so on and so forth, Dino Boy at the age of three refused to move any further than the rock to watch the ducks and say he wasn’t ready to go home yet: I knew deep down what he was saying . . . yet, I was tired and hungry and his sister needed my attention and I just needed to go home now . . . ‘Please now’, perhaps, kicks in in times like these. So this is where taking stock needs to happen. Let’s breathe, and let’s look at the riverweed and throw a stick in, then we can climb a mountain and smell some more flowers, and we can keep playing as we go . . .
Sometimes children’s decisions are much more rational than ours: I don’t want to go home because I haven’t finished playing yet; I want to hold this door open for you because you listened to me; I want to throw this log at the shutters because, in a strange sort of way, it’s my way of saying I know you do care about me; I want to respect you because I choose it, not because you tell me to.
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.