Last week saw a trip out across the far reaches of the other side of the city of London (that is, a trip up the Victoria line, and then a fair hike up Tottenham High Road!) to pay a visit to Somerford Grove Adventure Playground. I have been to Somerford before, some seven or eight years ago, and I have some clear memories of the play that was taking place that day in the sun, but what struck me this time, from the vantage point of coming from within the playground culture of one part of west London, was that there are similarities in what’s at stake and what takes place in those playgrounds, and there are uniquenesses too.
Cathy and Tam at Somerford received us with plenty of stories, trials and tribulations, passions and celebrations, and there were plenty of these that I, for one, could relate to (if not always directly, then with a certain sympathy). I’ve met Cathy that once before, and I feel confident in saying we seem to be ‘of the same page’, as it were. Tottenham, as I read it through these stories in our short visit, is somewhat of a melting pot of cultures, and the playground is more than just the mere superficiality of that simple word. Later in the day, I was left reflecting on how this person called ‘playworker’ is, or can also be, someone to rely on, someone to support, someone to be pushy in the face of adversity, someone who stands up to a multitude of adult agendas, someone who might be (lower case initial letters) some form of ‘pastoral help’, ‘advisor’, ‘protector’: in short, much more than merely someone who’s seen in terms of ‘so, you put things out for children to play with’, as I paraphrase of many discussions I’ve had, or erroneously as ‘so, you teach children how to play?’
There are some similarities between the two playgrounds of north and west London here (as there are, perhaps, between all the playgrounds in the city and beyond): in this comparison of north and west alone, there are similarities in that there is a cultural mix, there are various peripheral groups, the potential for or actuality of gangs, to greater or lesser degrees, the continuity of the playworkers within it all, the ebb and flow and swill of the playground and its constituent parts. Where there are uniquenesses, I suppose (without a full understanding of Somerford) I concentrate on the particular comings and goings of individuals we know well, of the way of the local community, and of the general way of things farther out beyond the estate.
As an aside, on matters of a local flavour, I was surprised to overhear the contents of some workmen’s conversations the other day, whilst I was painting signs that are strung up on the outsides of our fences. They, the workmen, were hanging around in the street, in the preliminary stages of putting out road blocks in order to pedestrianise the street immediately to the side of our most public fence. One of their number was telling another, in a broad accent I couldn’t place, but which I figured not to be local to where we were, that (and I paraphrase) ‘these sorts of estates are full of crime, of course; we’ve got these sorts of places where I’m from’. I had to smile because I thought I have to say something. I waved my paintbrush in the air and I put on my best local accent (even though I’m ‘not from around here’ either!) and told him, sure, there were police stats (I’ve seen them) about recent crime levels, but a third of those were for ‘anti-social behaviour’ and I wondered out loud if that might not correlate to ‘play’ in our books!
The point is that (apart from my opportunity to blat on about play to some unsuspecting souls), we should rein in our preconceptions, shouldn’t we? Yes, the playground is dead-smack in the middle of rows of tenements and the estate is, pretty much, a zone in its own right, but let’s not discount everything and everyone therein because of what we think we might know about it and them. The playground, perhaps, also comes under this sort of scrutiny: people might well look through the fence and see all the half-mangled stuff and bits of wood and old tyres and general air of ‘disorder’ and think to themselves ‘well, that could do with a good scrub up’; however, what they’d completely miss is all the play therein, the possibilities and the histories of that play, and all the otherness of ‘being playworker’ that flows right through it, or could flow through it. That said, the term ‘playworker’ would, I suspect, not register on such thinking processes. There’s time to address this though.
I digress. Coming back from Tottenham, and on further reflection, I’m quite acutely aware of the challenges we all might face, and the privileges we’re afforded, in and around the playgrounds in the communities in which we work. I’m also aware of the fact that we are, or that we could be, or that we might someday be called upon to be, more than just, simplistically, ‘that person who puts out the gloop and the paint, and who makes sure the zipwire’s up, or who knocks up something out of an old palette, or who chops up a couple of days’ worth of wood for the fire’. There are considerations of gang influence to be had, as well as the possibilities of drugs, or of the affects of developing hormones in the older playground users and their peers; there are the skills needed to understand the varying needs and expressions, the disturbances and the inter-disturbances of individuals and groups who might aggregate in terms of gender, age, beliefs, family background and culture, or any combination of these and more; there are the constantly fluxing ways of interacting and understanding, or trying to understand, the agitations of the fads and fashions of growing up, or just being, in that place that those children are in; there is the need to be able to bring everything to a point of ‘being on the children’s side’ (as paraphrased of the attitude of A. S. Neill, of Summerhill School), putting aside personal difficulties for long enough to be significant in those children’s lives, indirectly, when fighting their corner with every other adult around. Some days might be smooth, some days might not be.
Play runs through it all, of course, and play will happen without us, but playworkers can help show that ‘this is play’ when others see it otherwise, or they can be that ‘something else’ (lower case initial letter, insert any given other here), if that play, as such, is so detrimental to the well-being of the individual, the group, or the community at large. This is not to say that playworkers should be (capital letters) ‘Teachers’, ‘Policers’, ‘Leaders of Social Reform Amongst the Young’; this is to say that they are, potentially, part of something larger than just the geographical and psychological area inside the fence. This is how I read the work of those at Somerford Grove, and potentially of others based at other playgrounds around and about. Thanks Cathy and Tam, if ever this writing finds its way to you: I trust there’ll be many more stories that can be shared.