Adj. Of or pertaining to a root or to roots.
Forming the root, basis or foundation; original, primary.
Of qualities: inherent in the nature or essence of a thing or person.
Philology: a root; a word or part of a word which cannot be analysed into simpler elements.
— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)
For quite a few years now I’ve heard myself say things related to play and playwork in terms of ‘really, this is page one stuff; it isn’t so difficult to understand, is it?’. The ‘Page One’ of play is that children play for the sake of playing. The ‘Page One’ of playwork is that children play for the sake of playing, and playworkers do whatever they can so that children can do this. However, and it’s a big ‘however’, for quite a few years now I’ve seen the trend of non-playworkers, potential employers, any given member of Joe Public seeing this ‘Page One’ stuff as somehow extreme, dangerous, ‘radical’ beyond acceptable limits. This troubles me.
I look over my writings and I know that I push buttons, like many writers: there’s no point in an anodyne approach when there are things that need saying. So, I challenge those I think don’t get the basics of play and I question petty pointlessness and inauthenticity and the like because I consider that it needs this. When I dig down though, I see that at the root of play and playwork, I think, there is a simple softness of grace. I use the word ‘simple’ in the highest regard. In amongst the bluster that we sometimes talk in playwork, in amongst the bravado and the tub-thumping for rights, there’s the ‘Page One’: here is play, just this.
So, a little ironically, admittedly, in order to delve into this a little more, I have to drag out the old soapbox again. Here’s the nub of it all: what’s so radical about play and, by extension, about playworking for children and their play? Playworkers can often be seen as having extreme views on play, and so society, but really that’s just a matter of perspective: it’s dependent on your starting position. If you’re of the persuasion that play must have ‘purpose’, then the inherently unpurposeful play of children and the support of this by playworkers is, I suppose, going to challenge you. I see this, but I often don’t understand why some people can’t understand the ‘Page One’ stuff: it’s on Page One for a reason.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitions, above, give an interesting take on the meaning of the word ‘radical’. To my reading, various disciplines such as literature, chemistry, mathematics, and the natural sciences, treat ‘radical’ as pertaining to that which is simplest, essential, at the root and core. This, strangely, is a way along the spectrum from ‘extreme’. That said, the OED does also offer up a political definition for ‘radical’:
Politics: an advocate of ‘radical reform’; one who holds the most advanced views of political reform on democratic lines, and thus belongs to the extreme section of the Liberal party.
— OED (1979)
Undoubtedly there is a political dimension to advocacy for play (both lower case ‘p’ and upper case ‘P’), and some playworkers openly engage with this: perhaps therein lies a claim for propagation of the opinion that playworkers hold ‘extreme’ views about play; perhaps, in our times of rampant opinion on an infinite range of subjects (yes, I’m aware I’m adding to that grand corpus here), anything expressed as vaguely challenging to the political status quo is viewed as ‘extreme’. There is, however, I suggest, a place for challenge whilst still operating within the margins of Page One.
We’ve all been children. We’ve all been experts at being children. Yet, many adults lose this expertise as they shift conditions on their life’s journey (I’m not writing ‘as they progress to adulthood’ because that presupposes that adulthood is somehow a qualitatively better state to be in). Sometimes, in challenging other adults, a playworker can sense the glimmerings of self-recognition of that adult’s former child-expertise. Often, no more needs be said as the candle is burning. Sometimes it takes the challenge of a return to play for that adult, without prejudice, for them to re-engage. Page One is open and seen. Often, it takes more than this, because many adults don’t like to do what they deem to be ‘the frivolous stuff’, even though plenty of their day-to-day lives are, essentially, not important for the reasons that they think they are. Adults play too, and this is important, though they dilute it all by not calling it play. Sometimes, there’s just so much resistance to the idea of play, an ossification that has settled on the spirit, that the soft challenge that has become the strong challenge becomes the Extreme Radical Challenge of the Anarchist Incarnate (aka the playworker). Page One is stuck to the title page and will not be seen. The former child-expert, the adult who won’t see, has misplaced an essential element of themselves.
I find this troubling. I sound like an evangelist: I’m not, though there may be some truth in the thinking that there’s a correlation between ‘convincing’ and ‘converting to the playworking cause’. A playworker isn’t trying to save souls, if you’ll allow me a moment of flippancy. A playworker does want to have the conversation about play though: if it can be said that there’s a large contingent of adults out there who consider that children shouldn’t adversely affect the actions, access to learning, and so on of other children, then those same adults ought really not be adversely affecting the children’s actions, i.e. play, in this context, either.
On Page One, as I see it, children play for the sake of playing, and playworkers do whatever they can so that children can do this. There are so many individuals and organisations who claim to support playworking but, really, they won’t or don’t want to read the simple grace at the heart of it all, or they run from it when they find out: play and, by extension, playworking aren’t so extreme — play is the root, foundational, the essence of things. It is the simple, radical truth.
It is with some degree of frustration that someone of a playworking disposition regularly hears the ‘frivolity, or incidental nature, of play’ rhetoric, inherent in various communication. It’s not only in conversation with others that this perception takes place, but it can — in part — be traced within the play literature too. More specifically, in this latter context, and although the current reading matter in question is pro-play (it’s conversant with the idea that more is going on than may meet the eye), play can still have the tendency to be written in terms of contrasting the opinion of play as ‘the not real’ with ‘the real world’. Although not lining up squarely with the idea of ‘the frivolous’, this unreal aspect can be seen as just as ‘throwaway’.
The starting point for this post’s writing (notwithstanding the general years-long ‘unreal/real’ contention having continued to be a background concern) is another of the regularly-cited offerings of play and playwork writers: Catherine Garvey’s simply titled Play (originally published 1977; second edition 1991). In this book, Garvey posits the oft-cited five characteristics of play, these being: its pleasurable nature; that it has no extrinsic goals; its spontaneity; an involvement of active engagement; its systematic relations to what is not play (Garvey, 1991: 4). It is not, however, these characteristics, directly, that I’m looking to draw attention to with this post: it is to the idea of ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ play that this post writing is concerned.
In a chapter entitled ‘Play with Social Materials’, Garvey (1991: 82) asks ‘What is make-believe?’ and she goes on to interchange this phrase with ‘pretending’, defining it as a ‘voluntary transformation’. Further in to this chapter, she writes:
‘. . . in the social conduct of pretending we can see the extent to which children conceive of the family as a system of relationships and as a complex of reciprocal actions and attitudes. Since make-believe enactments and themes reflect the child’s notions of his world (though they do not copy them exactly), this aspect of play can provide a rich field for students and observers of social development.’
— Garvey (1991: 99)
Though there is the hint, in this paragraph, towards something not altogether faithfully and accurately reproduced in the children’s play imitations of adults’ actions, there is still the dominant rhetoric of ‘play as practice’, as perceived, or ‘play as progress’. What if we were to take an entirely different angle? What if we were not to carry on referring to play as something ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’, unreal and essentially imitative? What if we stopped making such sharp contrasts between what we regularly suggest as ‘the real world’ and ‘the unreal world of play’? So then, what if we were to start seeing play as the real world, or a real world, in its own right? (By extension, and just as a thought exercise, which I won’t follow up here due to the scope of this writing, what if play were to be seen, routinely, as ‘the real’ and everything else — if we could make such a distinction — were a pale shadow?).
Before following the line of thought on ‘play as a real world in its own right’, a note of caution regarding culture as a perceived, and as a received, phenomenon: children are active participants and a part of any given culture and will assimilate the received dominant phrases and sometimes meanings of others, including adults, in their reflection of and addition to that culture — whether a child is using an adult concept in description of their own play, or whether it’s a phrase of the subculture of the child-world, it’s hard to say, but they can and do use words such as ‘pretend’ (where does a word or a meaning start?). To illustrate the point, I highlight here a study (Sandberg, 2002) referred to by Lester and Russell (2008: 215) ‘regarding teacher intervention in children’s play in Swedish preschool and after school settings’. Children’s opinions are sought and some are quoted as saying that teachers ‘cannot play pretend games’ (Lester and Russell, 2008: 216).
It is to the idea of culture-as-perceived, rather than to culture-as-received (notwithstanding the reality that culture is not a one-way street of adult to child), as is potentially the case with the Swedish study above, that the playworking attitude is drawn: play is a real world in its own right, though operating simultaneously and inextricably connected with other ‘real worlds’. It is perceived here, and experienced by children, as real not pretend (even if potentially received adult descriptive terminology leaks in). The Garvey position quoted above does have its antithesis in the play and playwork literature; however, first a small spread of more play versus ‘the real world’ positions.
Lester and Russell (2008: 41), referring to how ‘play provides children with a dimension that is unique and not replicable in other aspects of their lives’, cite Bailey (2002):
‘. . . play is a way of experimenting with possible feelings and possible identities without risking the real biological or social consequences. Cut! Time for tea, time to go home — and nothing in the real world has changed, except perhaps that the child is not quite the same person . . .’
(Bold text: my emphasis).
In referring to an experiment conducted by Sylva (1976) on play, object manipulation and problem solving, Garvey (1991: 51) writes that ‘. . . those children who displayed nonliteral [sic] or imaginative behaviour prior to the task were the best problem solvers.’
I read the ‘non-literal’ here as referring to play/the unreal, and ‘the task’ as referring to the perceived-as-real world. Garvey later continues, in terms of play with language:
‘[Children] use outrageous names, juxtapose improbable elements, invent unlikely events, retaining just enough sense of the real world to hold the fabrication together.’
— Garvey (1991: 71)
What is this ‘real world’ that these writers keep referring to? There is a connect in how people talk about play too: still there seems to be a preoccupation with play-as-practice, play-as-unreal, play in terms of developmental progress towards being able to perform tasks in ‘the real world’; there is a distinction between ‘this is time to play’ and ‘this is time to learn, do chores, engage in any other real-world situation’. There is, however, an antithesis to the unreal/real rhetoric buried within the literature.
Sutton-Smith (1997) writes on ‘child phantasmagoria’ — which he later elucidates by way of ‘I use it [the phrase] to imply a bunch of incredible rubbish such as a wild mixture of irrealities, etc.’ (Sutton-Smith, 2008) — and, notwithstanding the use of the word ‘irreality’ (with its ‘illusory’ context, though it is a step up on ‘unreal’), he states that:
‘Children’s play fantasies are not meant only to replicate the world, nor to be only its therapy; they are meant to fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’
— Sutton-Smith (1997: 158)
Play is another world: it isn’t an ‘unreal’ world (though, Sutton-Smith contends that it is an ‘irreal’ world), it is another whole world that sits along with the mundane world. I would go further and say that play is a world that is inextricable from the mundane. Within the scope of this post though, play is a real world in its own right.
Sutton-Smith (1997: 166) goes on to suggest that ‘children’s own play society, because it is about their feelings about reality and not about direct representation of reality as such, is a deconstruction of that realistic society.’
Whilst this ‘deconstruction’ perspective is a welcome relief from the ‘reconstruction’ rhetoric that tends to dominate, it still doesn’t totally tally with the culture-as-perceived, as I see it. To this end, we need to steer towards another stalwart of play and playwork literature: Johan Huizinga. To reach him, however, a quick detour back to Garvey (1991: 56), who writes that ‘play generally reflects a willing suspension of disbelief’ (original emphasis). I read this as the idea that there is a knowledge in the child of what is happening in the play (the ‘unreal’ in adult-speak), which can’t possibly happen ‘for real’/in ‘the real world’.
Is this the case? Is it true that there’s such a stark differentiation between ‘what is play’ and ‘what is not’ (what is ‘unreal’ and what is ‘real’) in the playing child’s thinking? Yes, cultural appropriation of words such as ‘pretend’ filter through child-culture, but if you’ve ever seen a child talking in what adults think of as gibberish with another child then you might appreciate the sophistication of mutual understanding which is both ‘pretend’ and ‘not pretend’. (I once spent a good part of an afternoon with a group of younger primary school children at play, communicating only in the language of ‘monkey’, and we all seemed to understand each other perfectly well enough).
So to Huizinga, whose writing on play and being I come back to time and again. Notwithstanding the use of the outdated word ‘savage’, Huizinga (1955: 25) writes: ‘In his magic dance the savage is a kangaroo’.
It is in the area of religion and belief that Huizinga writes here. If faith is real to the believer, it’s not too far a leap to see that play is real to the player. Huizinga goes on to state that: ‘We express the relationship between him [the savage] and the animal he ‘identifies’ himself with as a ‘being’ for him but a ‘playing’ for us. He has taken on the ‘essence’ of the kangaroo, say we. The savage, however, knows nothing of the conceptual distinctions between ‘being’ and ‘playing’; he knows nothing of ‘identity’, ‘image’ or ‘symbol’.’ (ibid).
He is the kangaroo. It’s real: or, at least, in this perception as I describe it, it’s real. It is, therefore, to this idea of perceiving what children do, perceiving them at play, in terms of perceiving not an ‘unreal world’ or a frivolous act, but a very real world, ‘another world’, a possible phantasmagoria in its own right, that I draw attention. Children might well attach adult-appropriated words in describing acts of their own devising, but ‘pretend’ is also real. It just takes a shift in stance to see it.
Bailey, R. (2002), Playing social chess: children’s play and social intelligence. Early Years, 22(2): 163-173. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.
Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.
Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston, MA: The Beacon Press.
Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.
Sandberg, A. (2002), Children’s concepts of teachers’ ways of relating to play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 27(4): 18-23. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sutton-Smith, B. (2008), Communication with Fraser Brown in UKplayworkers (chatroom): the virtual community for playworkers. Digest Number 2562 2a [online]. Defunct.
Sylva, K. (1976), Play and learning in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Heinemann. Cited in Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.
Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.
Parachuting playworkers and parents
There are many, many ways for a parachute to benefit the play. There are also many ways for the adults near the parachute to benefit (or not) the play as well. The large colourful affair was a standard piece of our kit wherever we went this summer: in the parks and halls of the villages, at the festivals, at the youth pavilion. Sometimes the play naturally morphed into the standard set of parachute games (it sometimes feels like the set list of a gig: not that it’s a lack of imagination on the part of the playworkers, it’s just that the children seem to want/know the same games). Sometimes, at certain sites, the parachute has good times to be brought out, something different, something new (the wind can bring this thinking on, or it can be flapped to say ‘this is a playable place’). On some occasions it was good to see parents come over, pick up the edge of the parachute when they saw something starting to happen, and go with the flow as children ran underneath or around it. It’s entirely possible for a group of disparate adults who’ve never met each other before to fall into an organic and co-operative motion and knowledge of what’s happening and why. The why is the children’s play.
There is the opposite too, of course. One day, we’d laid the parachute out at the widest part of the playable area at a festival (nominally the entrance to the children’s dedicated enclosed area, though it was right in front of the chemical toilets, which wasn’t ideal!). Nothing organised was happening, and it was fine. A woman came over though, quite forcibly, and she picked up the parachute and proceded to instruct a child to play. The child went with it, and he didn’t seem too perturbed (perhaps he was used to it). Some of the playworkers came over to hold the parachute too, in support, though we said nothing. The woman was irritating me a little, I admit, but the child was playing, and it became his play, of sorts, so I didn’t intervene. After ten minutes or so, the woman decided that the play was done. Off she went with her child. I don’t remember seeing her again. Perhaps I should have said something; perhaps it all ended up fine, or sort of fine, in the end.
At the pavilion, a few days later, it was a windy day. I was working as the only playworker outside on the grass. I brought out the parachute and spread it out on the ground. I didn’t really think I’d be doing ‘games’ because it didn’t look and feel like that type of a session. A group of younger children played underneath the parachute and, without really realising how, I was then involved. The children seemed to enjoy running down the centre of the barrel shape that the parachute made as I lifted it from one end. The wind was the only support I needed there. We ran the parachute down the field, going with the wind, turned and ran it back with the children running underneath it as it billowed. They shouted at me to let it go, so I did. It flew and they chased it. ‘Again, again,’ they shouted. So we did it all again, and again, and again.
I can’t leave the subject of parachutes without making reference to my younger playwork colleague (she of the non-gloop childhood) who, one day in a village hall, as we were trying to make what we call a ‘mushroom’ shape with the parachute, did something just amazing and small and beautiful. We only had a handful of children with us at the parachute so it was a little tricky getting enough lift to billow the fabric up (even though we had a couple of parents with us too). I decided that, if we stepped forwards a little as we lifted, this would give that little bit of oomph that we needed to float the parachute: except, I decided this in my head and I didn’t say it out loud! As I stepped forward, from the corner of my eye I saw her watching me carefully. She stepped forward with me. The parachute lifted up high. It’s a small thing, but it was important in the moment.
I’ve been reminded again this summer, on occasions, of what it means to ‘hold the play frame’ for a child or group of children. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about ways in which an adult may be in service to the play by keeping it viable (not controlling it but just being the glue for a while). Some children have bounced their play ideas off of me, or sought quiet affirmation that ‘this use, with this thing’ is not against some rules, or sometimes they’ve played out their ideas including me, through me, around me. Occasionally, I’ve reflected that I was the glue for several play frames (or bubbles of play in the metaphor I’ve used before), from different children, playing different things, all at the same time. This is no easy task. If the chosen playworker isn’t there to maintain the viability of the play, the play doesn’t happen in the way the child is indicating they want it to. If the playworker stays too long in the play, it stops being the thing it was or was intended to be, and could become play disagreeable to the child or children, or it could become the play of the playworker. I don’t know what this says if the playworker finds themselves in an almost constant state of holding the meaning of the play, or being the mirror, or the glue, or whatever metaphor is preferred, for two or three hours almost non-stop. I do know that to do it right, it needs judgement.
When adults play
When children come to a site where I’ve brought the play stuff, I quite often say to the parents who come along too that ‘adults can play too.’ Now, on the one hand, this play stuff is not for the adults; it’s for the children. On the other hand, however, there is some benefit in (a) children and parents playing together (provided, I think, that the parents don’t take over the play or direct it), and (b) adults being made comfortable with the fact that, just because they’re adults now, their play-engagement doesn’t have to be over. By saying to parents, ‘you can play too’, I hope this starts to break down any preconceived notion that children do xyz and adults do something else. I also hope that they can start to interact with their children at these sessions on terms which they might not necessarily have done before.
At one park, I remember, we had just a small group of younger children with us but we’d spread all the making and sticking and cutting and so forth stuff out on the tarp on the grass. A couple of the parents sat there too and all the adults chatted as the children played and, somewhere along the line, I felt, the parents started playing too. It was respectful of their children’s creations (the children were busy smooshing up clay and playdough and jamming beads and googly eyes into it all!), and the parents weren’t telling the children what and how to make things. The parents made their own things, almost as if their hands were doing things independent of their conversations. It was good to see.
Observation of adult engagement with play was a little different at one of the festivals. We didn’t have such arts and crafts play stuff out on the main strip between the designated children’s area and the coffee stalls and such like, but we did have a long skipping rope! I’ve long known that adults don’t particularly enjoy the idea, generally speaking, of participating in what they perceive as ‘children’s play’, at least not in public view! (It’s strange then that those same adults are quite happy to dance at the bandstand, to dress up as if it were normal day-to-day attire, and to engage in the cultural or religious play of devotion, worship, prayer and such like at the stone circle). So, maybe we were being a little provocative and playing for ourselves when we decided to stretch the long skipping rope half-way across the main strip: those walking up the slope along the well-worn track would need to either engage with the rope or walk around it. Plenty walked around it. I do remember one young couple walking by though and the woman, who was probably no more than in her early twenties, looked at us as if to suggest a question. We nodded and she seemed pleased to be given the opportunity to skip for a short while. Adults sometimes need more than just a rope strung across the grass to accept the invitation to play.
Children, by contrast, can often see a rope and make decisions of their next actions based on different starting points: this rope is here for me if I want to use it or not. The children on the main strip of grass soon somersaulted over it, limbo danced under it, jumped it, skipped as we swung it.
This all said, over the summer there was plenty of adult play observed (either after explicit permissions given, as above, or of those adults’ own accord): lots of use of poi (either the ribbon-tailed, or water poi, or glow in the dark variety); making and crafting (under the guise of it being a ‘workshop’); rituals and celebrations; dancing and singing; playing instruments at the bandstand in what looked and felt like spontaneous groups, comings-together; drinking beer, of course! The thing is, though, and I think I may be largely right here, though I will stand corrected if not, I’d dare say it was only the playworkers (or the play-literate/play-mentality adults) who did or would call this all ‘play’, their own play. In the world of ‘being adult’, all of the above (and other examples) are known by different names: celebration, festival, ritual, healing, relaxation, recreation, hobby, pastime, sport . . . really though, they’re all play, and that’s not a bad word to call it.
Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.
Experiments in bubbles
All summer I had been experimenting with making batches of variously mixed ‘bubble juice’ and prototypes of homemade bubble-making equipment. Are these rods and cord contraptions known as bubble wands? I don’t know. In the garden, at home, family children christened them ‘bubble knickers’ (because these ones were made with scrapstore elastic — though I think this elastic was first used for bra straps rather than knickers, but hey, the name stuck!). We attached the elastic, hung with metal weights (what look like army dog tags, and sometimes old drawer handles), onto sawn off bits of bamboo or thinner garden cane. Various bubble knicker contraptions worked in various ways. Various juice mixes (water, washing up liquid, glycerine, cornflour, baking powder) also worked in individual manners. We found that big bubbles need bigger spaces than those confined by fences and houses to be free to fly!
I took the bubble knickers and the juice batch of the moment to play sessions at a youth pavilion site (where there were children from babies to teenagers), and to a beer festival, late on in the summer. We were invited there as part of the play support. We must have got through several buckets’ worth of bubble juice that day in the sun! What struck me was that many of the children were very determined and persistent in trying to make their own bubbles. Often, when you go to festivals and they have bubbles on, the bubble-adult doesn’t let the children create (the children will have a good time chasing and popping the bubbles, sure, but more can be offered). So, after some of the children asked me the odd question that is, ‘Is it free [to play]?’ (to which I said, ‘Of course’), they took the bubble knicker sticks and kept trying and trying, not losing faith, that they could make those big bubbles. When they did, they seemed pleased with themselves.
Other, mostly younger children, who wanted to play were helped by their parents. I use this word loosely: there’s ‘helping’ and there’s ‘now darling, do it like this, here you go, look you’ve made a bubble, well done, let’s go and see what else we can do now.’ I tried to distract some parents with conversation. I noticed, as the afternoon went on, in the good and welcome sun, that the very young children seemed just to like putting their hands in the slimy mix. This worked out fine because they got their sensory input and, strangely, bubble juice sometimes works better with the added whatever-extras from lots of inquisitive hands!
Play of the subverts
At the youth pavilion site, for a two week stint, I took play stuff that was probably more geared towards the younger children (so bits and bobs that needed space, like various balls, a parachute, chalks, and so on) and a fair amount of art and crafts stuff (beads and various papers and card, clay and playdough, things to cut with, things to stick on, etc). We experimented daily with the layout of the place (it being used not only by us, but also by the local teenagers and pre-teens, and by members of the public because it was also a café space). What I found was that, gradually, more and more of the teens and pre-teens were joining in, though on their own terms.
One day, a group of boys were outside and that day I’d brought some proper tennis rackets with me (I’d observed on previous days how the smaller, thicker rackets had been used, and I thought these full size ones might work well too). I hadn’t anticipated that there’d be a group of teens who’d want to use them. They started batting the tennis balls up against the windows and then, soon enough, up onto the pitched roof of the pavilion. The balls rolled down again and, I thought, these returns made by gravity were returns of their cues, so it was all good. Then the balls got batted harder and over the ridge of the roof. It was all done ‘by accident’, of course. There was a small yard at the back of the building, and access to it was only by way of a usually locked door at the rear of the main room. The boys batted the balls over the roof and into the yard, I had no doubt, just so they could go ‘help’ by being allowed access to the yard by the youth worker staff and to retrieve them. Here I don’t use the words in inverted commas above in any cynical way: rather, it’s a making note of subversions by the teenagers at play.
Of stuff and other words
For nearly every session at this site, I also took family children with me. They’re old enough now, and excited enough, to ‘come to work’ with me. Princess K. (so-written-as here because of a continuing partiality for over-glittery Barbie stories and extra-squeakily sanitised fairy tales!) and the Boy Formerly Known as Dino-Boy but who’s now more Viking-Boy are well-used to what we tend to call ‘stuff play’: that is, the shed is (currently) neatly arranged (though not always!) with an array of bits and bobs for making with and experimenting with and just, well, playing with, however the need arises. So, to them, the boxes of stuff that (later in the summer) I neatly tessellated and re-tessellated every day into the back of my car were filled with the possibility of whateverness. There’s no adult agenda along the lines of ‘now, today we’re going to make this, do this, have this theme’ with stuff play. I did, however, say to them that we may have to curb one of our usual joint-play behaviours (that is, the way they and me all interact, in our family ways of being, in our play fashion, sometimes): there are certain words (low-level and funny though they are to us) that others might take offence at! So, stuff play was engaged with plenty and, one day, the agreements having been reached and acted on with certain word play, we shut the car doors ready to go home again and Princess K. asked me, ‘Can we play the insults game now?’ Cue lots of ‘bum’ and ‘fart’, and so on, as we drove off.
Further and continuing reflections on gloop
As well as it being a summer of bubble experimentations, I also had access to a stock of cornflour. Cornflour ‘gloop’ (cornflour and water mix, though not too much water or it’s just a mess and doesn’t ‘work’) is one of those things that I’ve long taken for granted as a standard play resource (I’ve also done a few years as an early years practitioner, as well as being a playworker, and this sort of stuff was pretty omnipresent in nurseries then). However, and I think I may have reflected on this before elsewhere in my writings, I keep coming across adults who’ve never experienced gloop. There may be readers right now who are in this category. It doesn’t make a person less if they haven’t experienced a certain form of play (just because I grew up in the 70s, say, it doesn’t make my play better than someone who grew up in the 2000s); that said, I do tend to come back to the thinking on what I loosely call ‘gloop deprivation’.
This is a broader conversation than just gloop but I use it to illustrate the point that, for whatever reason, what may be deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ play forms or resources by some adults can, in effect, deprive a child of a sensory input or experience which they then grow up without. I took cornflour gloop to the pavilion and also to some sites in the villages, as we travelled around. (Note to self: just because you put a tarpaulin down in a village hall, don’t expect gloop to stay within this boundary!). I worked with a younger colleague who, herself and for whatever reason (experiences at nursery school, the general vogue of what play is/should be at the time, etc.) hadn’t ever played with gloop or knew what it was. At the pavilion, the babies seemed to enjoy the mix, spreading it over their hands and legs and over the grass.
To be continued . . .
Summer has come and gone, and it has been one of first looking forward to all of the different things that might happen, in all of the different places, then jumping right in: play support at various festivals, playworking in the villages, a regular stint based at a youth centre in a local town community, being at home with the play, some sessions of play support for children who had re-located countries. It has been a summer of the jobbing playworker. What remains in the reflections?
We made two separate excursions, on different dates and for different festivals, to locations along the winding stretch of the River Severn where England and South Wales meet. Unfortunately for us, we seemed to have arrived in storm season. The children didn’t seem to mind. Tents put up on exposed hillsides in near constant sideways wind and rain are prone to potential submission though! The weather made putting up the big teepees and yurts somewhat tricky. On the main field, one of the dome frames was left without its canvas for a couple of days: the children swung and jumped from the frame as we walked past. It reminded me of the climbing frame constructions I used to play on as a child (except ours weren’t dome-shaped, they were stacks of brutalist cubes of what may well even have been scaffolding poles, and we didn’t have grass underneath, or ‘safety surfacing’: we had concrete — it was the 70s and we laughed in the face of Health and Safety!). The children climbed on the dome-shaped frame and I didn’t even realise it was the frame of a yurt (until days later when the canvas went on). Children can transform things into playable things, and in so doing those things can have the capacity to take on new mental forms for observers. At some point, the frame was named ‘The Thunderdome’: the children jumped onto an old crash mat and played rough and tumble fighting in there.
A cardboard slot in the weather
We had one good afternoon of weather at that particular festival (notwithstanding the school of thinking that goes: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’). It was the Saturday afternoon and I’d been assigned to do some art and older age-appropriate storytelling with the pre-teens and teenagers. It wasn’t ever going to be an ‘activity’, in my head, as such, but rather more like, ‘here’s this gig, with this stuff, let’s go with what happens.’ It didn’t turn out that way either: not with regards to art and storytelling for this age group, at least. I’d taken a whole pile of corrugated cardboard (the side panels of bike boxes, which I’d blagged from various local bike shops and scrounged from the yard round the back of Halfords a few weeks earlier), a box of chalks and a pile of charcoal from the fire pit. That was it. I had some story ideas in my head. I didn’t need them. The sun came out just as I was setting up and I thought: let’s just be outside on the grass, not in the inside tent space we were allotted. I’d been observing the play of the various age groups over the previous days and I’d had a feeling that something ‘other’ was going to happen. So it turned out. After a short time, a bunch of older and younger children were playing with the cardboard and chalks, but the older children soon lined the card panels up, end to end, to make a slide. When they were done the co-creation of a cardboard fort started happening with the younger children.
I had my penknife with me and the children directed me as I cut slots into the card, and arrangements of walls were built. Soon they were saying, ‘I need a window’ or ‘Can I have a door?’ I cut windows and doors, and roofs were made. The play morphed and flowed and walls were taken down and rebuilt and smaller houses were made and moved. It was all in the flow. I stepped back and talked with parents who were watching on.
Two young brothers, who I’d seen around and who were — shall we say — a handful at times for their parents, bundled into the cardboard constructions. The youngest was bashing away at the walls but he was happy enough. The other children weren’t best pleased though. All they saw was this boy being destructive to their constructions. It struck me in one of those moments of ‘not really knowing for sure where it comes from’ that all the boy was after was a compartment, a space within the construction, for himself. He was trying to get into others’ small inhabited areas but they didn’t want him. I quickly constructed him a space of his own. He laid down in it, still and seemingly content. There are moments in playwork when you get it right, either by luck or by conscious or subconscious good judgement, or all of these.
Just as we were starting to pack away (the frayed and damaged cardboard was on the way out anyway, and my gig time was up), the rain started sploshing down and disintegrating the card. It felt portentous, significant, in its own way!
Executing play: context and momentary witnessing
The children at this festival wandered the site and, in passing the play that’s already happening, the keen observer can be surprised or fascinated or rendered thoughtful about what has just drifted by. One day I was walking across the main rectangle of grass (kind of like a village green, I suppose, flanked by the larger marquees — the main meeting space, the children’s tent, the café and stage; the Thunderdome was at one end, and a large teepee was nearby; in the middle of the green was the flag circle). A small group of children were going past, not paying any attention to me. I heard one say out loud to the group, ‘OK, who wants to be executed?’ So, yes, that got my attention! There was a small clamour for the privilege of being the chosen one. The chosen one was led away, arms lightly secured, and into the darkness of the large teepee. I have no idea what happened next in the play: I wasn’t in a position of privilege in the play frame, both in psychological- and physical-boundaried terms.
I was, at once, slightly disturbed, intrigued, mindful of what I was actually witnessing rather than what others might describe it as. I witnessed this for maybe thirty seconds in passing, but it’s a stand-out moment of the summer. It’s laden with all manner of potential background narratives of what might have happened previously in the play, what had been seen or talked about, what had been absorbed, what had been invented and why. What I saw was out of context, and I won’t ever know what the fuller context for that play frame was.
Elsewhere, I’ve done some play support work with a small group of children whose families have come from other countries. One of those countries we’ve seen on the news quite a lot as of late. We have, perhaps, become desensitised to what’s been going on there. I won’t write here of anything said or played in that group, but let’s just say that a brief conversation with one child, about nothing much on the face of it, suddenly struck me, in my moment of epiphany, about what war does.
To be continued . . .
There are five gardens whose boundaries are also the boundaries, variously, of one another’s gardens: Garden A meets with Gardens B and E; Garden B meets Gardens A and C and E; Garden C meets Gardens B and D and E; Garden D meets Gardens C and E, and Garden E meets all the others. At a point along the low wall and fence boundary of Gardens C and E, the width of a door that isn’t actually there, there is a threshold between otherwise enclosed areas. The children of both houses, residents and various visitors alike, often traverse the gap on the boundary, and the places of play become one fluid place.
I choose all my words carefully because technical words are subject to definition. The prime focus in this introductory scene-setting is intended towards Quentin Stevens’ use of ‘boundary’ and ‘threshold’ (as also connected to ‘path’, ‘intersection’, and ‘prop’, being urban locations observed as conducive for play) in The ludic city: exploring the potential of public spaces (2007). ‘Place’ is used in the introduction above instead of ‘space’ because, in part, the former is infused (in terms of children’s play) with all the humanity that the latter isn’t, as perceived, touched by. The latter is also, in my experience, a word or part of a phrase (‘play space’) that has become spongey and bland with over-use. People don’t understand space; place is far deeper.
Often, the children of Garden C will traverse the threshold of the gap on the boundary between the gardens to join the play of the children of Garden E on the other side, and vice versa. Sometimes, any of the children of either side will wait along the liminal portion of the wall, just to watch or think, or to think and watch. Occasionally, the resident children of Garden C and/or their random friends will chance their luck and just lie on the grass on the other side when no E-children are around, just to flop on the slope that they don’t have themselves or to look at the clouds. Regularly, the older boys will send the youngest girl out on her own to retrieve a rogue ball or space-hopper (because, I suppose, that’s what little sisters are for!).
There are definite paths through the gardens: the places or place of play. These are not necessarily confined to the concrete path of one side or the steps down the slope of the other. The overall square-meterage isn’t huge but, nonetheless, there’s an overlay of routes that can be perceived. Ways of navigating these routes are also evolving: there’s the possibility of the jump-through forming, like a leap through the threshold of a star-gate, perhaps. Play happens, though not exclusively, on the paths, the routes, and at their intersections. Recently, the grass of Garden E was strewn with the flattened-out carcasses of bike-sized cardboard boxes, with bits of extra-sticky pads that we haven’t ever worked out what their non-offcut portions are used for, with a variety of cardboard broadswords and daggers, with lumps of charcoal from the fire pit or from the wood pile, and with the experimental prototypes of big-bubble makers (‘bubble knickers’) and batch mixtures. Then there was gloop (cornflour and water, to the uninitiated), and play was amorphous in the places of the place.
Later, when I looked out from the inside to the outside, through the window that adjoins the open glass door, the sunlight streaming hard into the well of the garden, it was a hazy orange lozenge that I perceived, in which the children played with grubby faces and charcoal-smeared legs and knees. Later still, I considered bubbles more. In the terminology of playwork, we recognise the ‘play frames’ as they occur, the psychological and/or physical vessels in which play takes place. Playwork doesn’t use the word ‘vessel’ (and ‘vessel’ is a word that’ll soon shift here), as far as I’ve ever heard or read, but I always thought that ‘frame’ risked causing confusion or somehow might justify the narrow simplicity of the s-word: ‘structure’. Structure is an ugly word when the subtext, often, is actually more about what certain adults want or need, rather than what they suppose that children want/need, e.g., in simplistic terms: ‘children need structure (read as over-protection, restriction, anodyne lack of choice, or similar)’, and this then is more readily translatable as ‘the declaring adult needs obedience, calmness, order, or likewise.’ Simplistic interpretation of ‘structure’ aside, bubbles, I’ve always thought, are a way of perceiving play that ‘frames’ can’t match.
Bubbles maintain a structural integrity, to a point, and they shift according to the dynamic loads that surround, and that are contained by, them. Sometimes you get bubbles within bubbles, bubbles that are grafted onto other bubbles, bubbles that split into smaller bubbles. They bob along the very tips of the blades of grass or rise and skirt and cheat the edges of the fences. Some float up and up. Eventually they pop. A big-bubble batch of mixture will result in a feathery, candy-floss of residue, which just hovers in the air for a moment after the bubble has succumbed to the dynamic loads of air pressure and altitude, or suchlike, at its thinnest surface portions. The residue is like filament. In continuation of the analogy, the residue is the beginnings of more play rather than a finality. I watch big bubbles when they rise high: the falling of the filament of candy-floss, which bubbles contract to, always deserves my special and reverential attention.
If the bubble incorporates the play, and if it encompasses any small or great degree of the places or place of play, then the child or children are within it. The bubble’s skin has its certain structure, but it is the amorphous structure as created by the child. We should not confuse the simplistic adult term that is the over-used ‘children need structure’ with the far deeper structural complexity inherent in the bubble and bubbles of play. When I observe play, sometimes, though not always in such ways as this, I wonder at the structural dynamics of the bubbles of play (whether the bubbles are isolated, or potentially merging, or grafted on, or splitting away, or even if they’re within other bubbles of play): what internal and external loads can or will the play absorb, or hold, or resist, or reflect before the bubble skin quietly implodes? Adults (parents, teachers, any and all others) can be external loads, or become internal pressures, if the child or children have had the grace or need to surround those adults in their play.
At the thresholds and boundaries, and along the paths and intersections, or at the points of ‘furniture’ (the ‘props’) of the place that is the amalgamation of Gardens C and E, play is an amorphous bubble that forms, is never really spherical, that floats or bumps along or rises, and which eventually pops and reforms. There are many external dynamics, adult loads, that might affect the structural integrity of the constituted big-bubble mixture. Technically, we adults should take care.