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

Posts tagged ‘adult impact’

Structural dynamics of play: a technical analysis

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.

What’s the point of you, playworker?

It’s that time of the year again when I’m minded to ponder back on playworking actions, non-actions, things learned along the way, and things to chalk up to further experience. If we forget to write these things down, we don’t seem to remember all the finer points and nuances. I’ve been less frequent as of late in my play and playworking writings: the specifics of a wider work responsibility have definitely contributed to this. That said, the beauty of play and playwork is that there’s always something to reflect on.

The other day, close to the end of term, I was walking back from school to the adventure playground with a group of children. One of the boys was on a bike and he likes to ride ahead on it. It’s usually not a problem because he has a fair to good road-sense and he stops at the corners for the rest of us (most of the time!). This day, however, I asked him not to speed off ahead of us. I didn’t really think it through and the more I asked him, the more irritated he got with me (of course). It ended up with him swearing under his breath at me, shouting ‘What is the point of you?’ at me, and finally he threw his bike down in the middle of the pavement and walked off ahead in a quiet rage. I shrugged and breathed in deeply. I decided to leave the bike there. Luckily for him one of his friends picked it up at the back of the group we were in and walked it back for him. The boy and me were not on the best of terms, at that moment, I could clearly see.

When we got back to the playground, I waited for him to stop being so angry with me and then I asked him if we could have a conversation. I said it exactly in those words: a conversation, an informal one. He said yes, OK, so I said, ‘OK, you rant at me and I’ll shut up and listen. Then I’ll say what I have to say. OK?’ So, OK. We sat down on the main hall sofa and, with him above me on its arm, he said how I was ‘the worst’ and he repeated again, briefly: ‘What is the point of you?’ He shut up. ‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘That’s all.’

So, that’s the jumping off point for this post: what is the point of me (in playworking terms, not getting all metaphysical about it!)? It’s at this point that there’s a danger of ‘Ego’ creeping in though. Playwork shouldn’t be about ego, surely? If we weren’t around, would children play anyway? Sure, they would, so that then leads the mind along the oft-trodden reflection of what playworkers do again. What is it that I’ve done this past year, these past years, for the children around me at play? If you’re a playworker too, what have you done?

Sometimes I’ve got in the way. Absolutely! The other day, a group of boys were riding their own and borrowed bikes down the concrete ramp (as is their current fad), slamming their brakes on at the last moment to execute a skidding circular stop. They mostly missed the metal storage container wall by a foot or two. One younger boy came down the hill on a bike a little too big for him. He neither braked nor turned the handlebars. He slammed into the old upturned waterslide panel in the corner. Naturally, I thought, I ought to drag a big old crash mat over there, prop it up so it didn’t take up any discernible circling space, and walk away. No, though. What I got was a resounding, ‘Oh, now you’ve ruined it! You’ve taken away what this place is for!’ OK, fair enough there, though some of the boys did then evolve the play after that into deliberately slamming themselves into the mat rather than turning the bike.

Similarly, a short while back, I observed as (probably) the same group of boys stood on the edge of the pool table indoors and as they took running leaps and somersaulted to land on the crash mat placed on the floor a few feet away. I noted the gap between the table and the mat and moved the latter forwards a little. I was greeted with the moan that was, ‘What is it with you? It’s all about safety, safety, safety!’

Is it? Is that true? So maybe the point of me is to try to make sure no-one breaks their neck? Perhaps the children only ever see these moments of me when I’m too in their faces: they don’t see the way I observe them climbing the tall trees, poking their heads out from the very top branches (me, flinching at it all and holding my breath); they don’t see how I observe the way they find and drag a big old section of telegraph pole right across the playground, fixing it first to the top of the waterslide, cantilevering it into space, then hauling it up the difficult steps of the treehouse, cantilevering it out again and securing it with ropes and bricks in bucket weight systems; they don’t see how I watch on as they’re climbing on the top of the filing cabinets, or waving fire sticks on the air, or smashing old electrical equipment from great heights, and so on.

I can’t even begin to weigh up all the play I’ve seen on the playground this year, let alone all the play out there in the streets of the city, on public transport, at schools, in little moments met in passings-by. When I have occasion to briefly meet a child I know, as they walk past, recognising me for a fraction in between their conversations with siblings, friends or parents, I often suddenly think just how many children I have worked with and for, over the years. Just like all of us who’ve been around for a few years, I can confidently say the number is well into the thousands. That causes just a small pause sometimes . . .

The other day I was talking with a playworker colleague who’s been doing it just a little longer than I have: between us we have something like fifty years of stories of working with children. He told me the story of how he recently met a woman who was a mother now but who had been a child at one of his work places, back in the day. He said that he knows they all grow up, the children he used to work with, but it was still a little strange. It made me reflect on how all those children are kind of preserved in their childhoods in the memory. All the play, and all the interactions, my colleague said, were still there in his mind. It’s true: all these things come back as if they never changed at all.

It was a coincidence then, around about that time of the week, that I was driving home, listening to a comedy show on the radio, and the announcer offered up a name I thought I recognised: she, the named woman, was someone I thought I knew, way back in the day. I listened in hard to her voice when she came on and did her ten minute slot. Was it her? Did I hear the announcer corrrectly? Was this a child I knew way back in the day? Then she told me a few little facts about her life and I knew it was her! What a strange experience. It turns out she’s quite big on the comedy scene now. I knew she’d been aiming for that (rumour had it), but I didn’t know she’d ‘made it’. I didn’t realise that she, as with all of the children I once knew, had grown up.

I often wonder what the children, back in the day, remember of me and my interactions with them at play. I don’t think of it in an ego kind of way: just curiosity. Maybe they don’t remember my name or anything particular about me, but maybe they remember that one day I said something, did something, understood something, became significant in some way. There are thousands of such scenarios floating away out there, a thousand thousand, and that’s just for me alone.

‘What is the point of you?’ the angry boy with the bike shouted at me recently. Later, after the conversation on the sofa, after agreeing that all we both needed to say had been said, when he was collected at the end of the after school club session he called out goodbye to me at the door, and of his own volition.

What we do, as playworkers, apart from trying to create more and more opportunities to play, protecting the play frames where we can, protecting the playable environments, pushing and advocating for play tolerance to all and sundry, looking for small and large pots of funding to maintain those fenced-in spaces and those street spaces, reflecting on moments of getting it right and moments of getting it wrong, taking to task the politicians (both lower case and upper case) of the world, working with teachers and head teachers and early years workers and youth workers and health professionals and artists and parents and grandparents and carers and the man and the woman in the street, and so on, in trying to appreciate play, play for play’s sake, play for the here and now . . . what we do, as playworkers, apart from all of this, and more, is try to do all of this without us being the ego at its core. It isn’t easy; it isn’t about us. Maybe a little of us remains, years on, despite our intentions.

What is the point of you, playworker? Maybe the children can tell us when we’re all too old to run around any more.

Psychological repair: the playworker as sticking plaster

Every so often I get on my high horse about certain repeated (and repeated) themes and situations that seem to always crop up in this, my playworking life. Often, that theme is wholly something along the lines of ‘just accept that play is play in the player’s head, and nothing to do with instrumental ways of educating, socialising, and so on.’ Sometimes, the theme is more along the lines of ‘just let them play’. At other times, the theme is ‘respect children.’ Other themes crop up along the way. This post is another in the continuing action in support of children, bringing a combination of these themes back out into the light.

There’s a line from a poem, or a title in itself, I forget which and by whom it was written, but it highlights the idea of ‘waiting for the echo’. You shout out into a cavernous space, and you wait for the call back of agreement . . . It really isn’t so difficult a concept, I think (I have always thought), to understand that play is play (just that), and that we can and should just get out of the way of that, and that we can and should respect children (them, as people, because they are, and their right to play). Hello? Hello? Waiting for the echo back.

I’ve been witness to some pretty shocking adult disrespect of children and their play recently. For sure, we all have bad days as adults (that’s what being human encompasses, I suppose!), but a continual belittling of children and their ideas by certain adults, or talking at them as if they’re stupid, detestable, or malignant creatures is only going to go one way. I have seen this done recently by parents, teachers, and teaching assistants. It shocks me that those adults who are amongst the closest to children (in terms of family and in terms of time spent with them during a day), can treat them with some contempt. A disclaimer is necessary at this point, as I often do at times of such ranting: the above examples aren’t the over-riding majority of recent experiences, yet they are significant for being noticed.

If a child is playing in a way that a playworker knows he likes to play in (for example, rough and tumble with a friend, who he knows he might hurt, and who he knows might hurt him back, but in a way that neither is really trying to hurt the other), and the playworker on the scene knows and sees all this — understands and feels it — what will the power dynamic of overbearing control imposed on that play frame by an unsympathetic adult do? The children may change their play behaviours instantly, out of fear, or out of intelligent ‘towing the line’ until the controlling influence has gone, or out of embarrassment, and so on, but ultimately this is a drip feed of unnecessary anxiety delivered upon that child. What will the accumulated net effect be?

These command and control adult tactics can often be metered out in seemingly trivial areas for expected compliance. They can be delivered with the ‘shock and awe’ approach that just makes everyone stand still, shut up, and watch, or they can be delivered in more low-key ways. One of the seemingly trivial areas that controlling adults often insist on, in either of the above ways of delivering it, is the old (not so) favourite that is ‘now, share.’ I recently witnessed a group of younger children playing on a wheeled contraption away from the playground, and this thing they played on wasn’t big enough for all of them. The children who weren’t on it were pleading with the children who were on it to let them have a go. Instead of opening up a possibility for the children to negotiate, or instead of saying to the pleading children that they would have to wait (hey, life’s like that sometimes), or instead of doing nothing and just observing because sometimes, often, children can work these things out, the adult in attendance screamed at the children to share. It was a demand, it was forceful, and it was embarrassing. The place of interrupted play was then tense. The adult wasn’t a playworker.

Now, of course, as we need to keep reminding ourselves: none of us is perfect and sometimes we have bad days, and sometimes we get it wrong. There is, however, wrong and there is wrong! Some days I know I’ve operated in what the eminent Mr Hughes detailed as the ‘functional’ approach to playwork practice. It happens. Some days, I have slipped into what he calls the ‘repressive’ approach. This happens too. We can be tired, worried, or any number of other ways of being off-guard or not on the ball. We should get over that though, and quickly. We should reflect in the moment and after the moment, and continue reflecting on it. We should, at the very least, apologise to a child if we have, in any way, caused them unnecessary anxiety.

Quite often, when I see that someone else, some other adult, has caused a situation of unnecessary anxiety in a child, and that they clearly aren’t aware of it (or that they don’t care about it), or they aren’t reflecting (which you can often see in a person’s actions), or that they haven’t apologised, I feel the need to make amends in some small way to that child. Recently, I have sought to distract the anxiety-causing adult in full flow; I have positioned myself between them and the offended child (not as a means of physical protection but just as a kind of psychological blocking off); I have stuck my tongue out at the child as a play cue; I have bent down to their level to try to re-engage them in their play, or to offer them new play cues to be getting on with. All of this is repair.

Maybe this is all an important part of a playworker’s reason for being, his or her duty, their value out there, away from the more cosseted fenced-off playground places, in the public realm. I hadn’t thought of it all this way in so many words before. I knew that advocacy for play comes high in public spaces, and I knew that urban spaces could effectively be ‘repaired’ for play, but what about the playworker as sticking plaster for the repair of other adults’ imposed anxieties in the public realm . . .?

Observations of summer play

Five weeks of summer open access on the adventure playground have come and gone. It has been, for the larger part (and despite my early-on reflections and feelings of emotional and psychological absorption, as written way back at the end of July), a good summer. There has been a whole shift in dynamic these past weeks though: plenty of regulars haven’t been around, which has given the other regulars greater room to express themselves; some of the usual children have grown too old for the place (by their own admissions), and we have gained plenty of new children (those passing by, those coming by word of mouth, and those who just seem to come out of nowhere!). It’s all good.

Early on in the summer I decided not to write every week, as I have done in years gone by: this summer I would observe as best I could, let the play sink in where it could, and then (about now) write up whatever stuck. I did this by taking an early walk around the empty playground this morning, before any of my colleagues came in on this, our tidy up and rebuilding week, when we have no play sessions on. I stood and cast my eye about, as I have done in times past, and tried to ‘see’, remember, imagine, let the play that has happened fall up again to the surface. As I looked around, I found that more and more recent play came back to that surface. It’s just a different technique for observation and reflection that I wanted to try because I’ve noticed that this, accidentally, has worked for me in the past.

As I looked around the playground I realised that there were pockets of play frames that came to me, ghost-like, and then there were flowing play frames that (from this perspective in time) seemed to merge in on themselves but were, in reality, evolutions and repetitions of play that took place over a series of days (or weeks). What follows is just a small selection of the pockets and flows of play frames that came to me from out there in the five weeks past of mostly hot and blue-skied summer.

One boy and his dog kennel
Early on, one boy would badger us for tools: he could access the tool shed cabinets, the saws and so forth, but he wanted the jigsaw so he could cut out shapes in large sheets of wood. Before long he had what looked to me like the bookends of a church going on. I didn’t really know what he was doing. As the days went on, a dog kennel materialised out of the building play. Lots of time was spent on the kennel: hammering and sawing, painting with special silver paint, the co-opting of the boy’s sister into exterior decoration, repainting over what his sister had done, and so on. It transpired, however, that this boy didn’t own a dog. I wondered if the whole build was a ruse for the boy to try to convince his mum to get a dog. Then, sometime on, we discovered that the boy had drawn up a contract with his mate (who did own a dog, and who sometimes brought it onto the playground). The dog boy could have the kennel but the builder would claim the right to take it back if and when he got his own dog. The next day, the contract was retracted, amidst much hand-wringing and other agitation because the dog boy hadn’t turned up that day at the playground (not because of the kennel, just because it wasn’t a day to come in, for him). The builder boy took a trolley backwards and forwards to the dog boy’s home, hoping to catch him in. Eventually, the kennel made its way to the builder’s home. Play is sometimes invested with much time.

All summer on the waterslide
It struck me, part way through summer, that some children had spent every single day, for hours at a time, going down the waterslide on the limited supply of cushion skins or floats, up the steps and down the chute again, over and over. We’d managed to hook things up so that the hose reached all the way across one side of the playground, up the small hill to what the children used to call the ‘treehouse’ (despite there being no tree near it), into a sprinkler set-up at the top of the platform. At the bottom of the slide (where, if you skim down at just the right speed and angle, with the right amount of water, you can fly off the edge), the children landed in great splashes of collected water, and zipped over the small bump in the mats to crash land on the foam at the end! Many times we saw adults and children on the other side of the fence just pressing their noses against it, watching . . . For the children on the waterslide, I thought, what better thing was there to do all summer than this?

Alpha boys
Several older boys spent much of the summer testing out their relative strengths: they hefted pick-axes, axes, the sledgehammer, climbed ropes, did capoeira, and did weightlifting. We have a bench and the support posts for a weightlifting bar, though we don’t have the weights. The boys found the bar to be easy lifting, so they invented their own way of making things more challenging. One day, whilst supporting each other (and I was impressed, early on, with their self risk assessments), they found tyres from the playground and loaded them with concrete building blocks on the ends of the bar. One of the boys was on hand to support the bar, another two supported the ends where the tyres and blocks were. They proved early on how trustworthy they were. There was plenty of alpha-male testing going on, but it was all good-natured and refreshing to see after several years of the negative kind of these engagements swilling around the place.

The language of play
One of the younger girls is Italian and she and her brother come over each summer with one of their parents so that they can play at the playground. I was talking to the children’s father one day (all summer he would drop the children off, bring them lunch during the middle of the day, and then respectively leave again till the end of the session). He said that during the summer he and the children were staying on the other side of London, and each day they took the tube to us, where he would wait for them out of the way and off the playground somewhere. When I heard that I said that he had to stick around for a while with us! Even then he stayed in the hall, out of the way. His daughter gradually developed her friendships over the summer: from being very much a one friend at a time child, she later found it easier to play with others more and more. She was pretty much happy all summer, but she still seems to speak very little English. It didn’t matter. One day I saw her and a friend far off in the corner of the hall, on a sofa. They were communicating with hand gestures and nods and shakes of the head. They suddenly got up and ran off together. It seemed to me that they understood each other perfectly and had learned each other through these communications over the course of the summer.

Toad in the hole
My colleague had found uses for a pile of old doors we’ve had sitting around for a while now. Some of them he built into an odd little folly-type thing in the middle of the playground and the children soon used it as a form of prison or a place just to sit on top of and look out from. More doors, he built onto the side of one of the main structures and around an existing fireman’s pole. The children slid down the pole and the smaller children couldn’t get out again! They had to climb up by holding onto the pole and then wedge their feet into the edges of the panels and the gaps where the letterboxes used to be. Some made it up eventually. Some didn’t. These were the ones I heard shouting out for help. I looked down into the door prison hole and said, ‘Come on, you can do it.’ The younger children tried but didn’t have the upper body strength. You have a choice here: leave them to it or help by holding out a hand. Other times, one of the older boys would come over and hook a foot underneath the struggling child and hoik them up. The children kept going down the hole though, just trying to get back out again.

The time for building
One day, early on, the boy who owned a dog came up to me and asked me for the tool that makes holes in the ground. He wanted to build off the top of the hill where the main structure meets the path. It took him several days of chopping and sawing, of hacking bits of the elderberry tree to make a route through, of making safe and making do, to create a platform. He took his actual tea breaks! The older boys, at this point in the summer, were also building. They used the chop saw and made safer and stronger one of the balancing beams by inserting diagonal struts. Building play has taken off this summer. Maybe it’s the right dynamic for it at last.

Jewellery garden
A couple of times over the summer we had a local parent of one of our regular children come in and volunteer with us. The parent also works at the local school so some of the children already knew her, though it was noticeable that her son’s play was just a little different, at first, when she was around (even though she kept well away from the main areas by positioning herself in the fruit and veg garden to do some jewellery-making with children who wanted to join her). I’m not an advocate of what others often term ‘activities’ (i.e. adult-led things to do); however, there are ways to do things and we can only judge on what we see and on what the children are showing us. The parent didn’t tell everyone that they should come to her and only those who wanted to play came. Some children like that small object play experience.

The evolution of rope
Inside the hall, one day, a rope was slung over one of the metal trusses. Some of the older boys swung on it whilst other children watched on from the sofa. The ladder was nearby. The boys self risk assessed again as one of them climbed the ladder and one held it. The boy at the top of the ladder placed his foot in the loop of the rope, with guidance from the others, and launched himself into a swing. The boy holding the ladder moved it out of the way. Soon, over days, this play evolved. By the end of the week, crash mats were brought out after a colleague had created a stronger rope by plaiting it tightly together. The older boys climbed that rope to the top, testing their upper body strengths. My colleague had brought a climbing harness and younger children strapped themselves in as older boys and other younger children hauled on the rope to try to lift them up. The friction on the truss slowed things up, so one of the older boys pushed the younger child as the others pulled down. Later, the loop of plaited rope was used as a circular swing as children swung around in wide arcs, aided by the playworkers with an occasional push, the higher and faster and nearer the wall the better for them!

A tyre just hung in space
Late on in summer, a colleague had set up a tyre which was suspended between two poles of the main structures by ropes on either side so that it hung a few feet off the ground. A few children looked at it as they passed it by and asked, ‘What’s that for?’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t know. Find out.’ They tried to get onto the tyre, to sit in it, but it was just slightly higher than they could reach easily. When they did get in, the tyre flipped because the body position had to be just exactly so to keep it level. The crash mats were dragged over and soon, the younger children began to develop ways of holding on to the ropes so that when they lost balance they hung there in mid-air. A little later still and the children had worked out how to flip right over, face first, and land the flip on their feet whilst pushing their backsides out of the tyre. Some sprung up with a small ‘Tada!’

About forgiving
On the last day of the summer open access, six girls were going up to the ‘treehouse’ (which has no tree nearby) and down the waterslide over and over, as usual. All summer the children had been self-sufficient and had regulated their play amongst themselves. I watched on from a short distance. There seemed to be a bit of a disagreement going on but I kept where I was for a while, thinking that they might work it out because they had seemed fine over the past few weeks. The disagreement wasn’t shifting though, judging by the body language, so I went over and made a small but honest mistake. One of the girls said they weren’t getting a turn on the good mats. There were six girls and three fast mats. I asked one of the girls with a good mat if she wouldn’t mind giving the other girl a go. I didn’t ask or tell her to share; I said it as I’ve said above. I expected her to say OK and then for the play to carry on as it had done all summer. However, it didn’t turn out that way, and the long and the short of it is that the girls got their turns at first but things fell back into disagreement again and I got the blame for ‘not helping or doing anything’. I’d tried to explain that six into three doesn’t work out so that everyone gets their own mat, and I offered at least two solutions. I walked off to see if they could negotiate a plan amongst themselves, but they couldn’t. Two of the children, the twins, were very grumpy with me. They went off to make a card. It was addressed to me and it said on the front (a trick, as it turned out) how wonderful I was (which looked like a genuine sentiment) but on the inside they wrote how much they hated me and that there would be ‘revenge’. A short time later, I was summoned by another child to the roundabout across the far side of the playground. There the twins waited with a couple of other children. As I approached I thought what to say. ‘Ladies, I truly apologise for mucking up your play.’ They gave me hard glares, told me off for ‘not doing anything’ to help again, then decided to forgive me. ‘Push us on the roundabout?’ they asked. If only we adults forgave so genuinely and gracefully!

Notes on playworking absorption

Over the years I have often said to students of playwork, whether they’re those I have been formally teaching or those I’m working with on site, that if we’re not going home at the end of a session working with children in an emotionally, mentally and psychologically tired state (or any combination thereof) then we’re not doing it (playwork) right. I stand by this, despite the efforts we might make to try to stay ‘professional’, whatever that might mean, and objective. I’m reminded of this mantra today, as I write, early on in the summer of open access after a day that has seen me take on wave after wave of certain children’s intensities of energies.

This absorption that playworkers can be subjected to can have a dispiriting affect. The peer group leadership of the playground, as I write (and it might shift again shortly), is now in the hands of one particular older girl and her entourage, after several years of older boy control. These particular girls of the group affect by way of some sort of emotional psychological attrition. Periodically (there being lulls and heightened stages of individual and group agitation), this playworker, for one, has been subjected to being told, obliquely, how if injuries happen it’s my fault, and I’ve been verbally abused, ignored, disdained, subtlety threatened (such as with words like ‘don’t touch me’, even though there’s no intention of this at all), and so on, followed a few minutes later by pleas for help, support, or being sided with. What it must be like for other children continually subjected to such similar attrition I can only guess at.

With regards to how the present peer group leaders have been reacting to me recently, I’m wondering about the psychology of projection. That is, what is it, if anything, that’s manifesting in them to find a small grab-hold in something they’ve seen in me, throwing it all out at me when really it’s their own baggage they’re displaying? That is, to further explain, could it be that they’ve seen a chink of something vulnerable in me that’s also caustic in them, and they’ve thrown it all out to say ‘what I don’t like in me is something I’m dumping onto you’? Maybe it isn’t projection at all in operation here, but it’s something. Whatever it is, there is a high adult absorption of child psychic material here. This has its affect which, now as I write, some four hours after the end of the play session, is only just beginning to diminish.

One girl in question, today, waved a saw around at her male peer adversaries. I intervened. ‘What?’ she said. ‘I’m playing.’ If it was play, it was very close to some edge. To her credit, she seemed to know what the focus and purpose of my and my colleagues’ roles were supposed to be. However, the moment was laced with a drip of acidity within the flow of it all. When we receive this continual drip, all day, or when we feel we do, we can become reactive rather than in-the-moment reflective.

There are different styles of playwork practice. That is, there are those who prefer to work closely with individuals and small groups, and there are those who like to keep on the move, seeing as much as possible for as long as possible, and variations in between. I prefer to keep moving. The advantage here is a greater and deeper understanding of the playground dynamics as a whole (though I’m also a believer in playworkers as relaters, though not to the extent of fostering shadow-children who follow you everywhere). What this approach also creates, however, is a direct and indirect absorption of a large quantity of psychic matter. We can become overwhelmed by all that we’ve observed, anticipated, received and not received. Whether we’re working closely or in a more wide-lens view with children on the playground, we can potentially absorb such emotional and psychological intensity that we require outlets ourselves. My own approach seems to blend all the observational and dynamic comprehension of wide-lens and individual relating with the possibility of personal emotional and psychic overload. I don’t find it easy to ‘tune out’ of situations for the good of my own state of mind. I have been told I’m easily frustrated, but in reality it’s a long, slow burn, which others generally only see the snap-end of, if that’s what the end is: they neither see the long observational build up, potentially, or the greater quantity of moments of subjective beauty. Those of us who are long enough in the tooth in playwork have heard the following plenty enough: ‘so, you just play with children?’ Yeh, OK, right.

There is a qualitative difference between the teenage or pre-teenage agitations of boys and girls: the former engage in cocky, nascent alpha male displays of no great overall depth until they develop through the phase; the latter are attritional until they get bored of it. Until the playground becomes the rule the roost territory of the older girl it’s difficult to appreciate the ‘survival mode’ that other children must go through. Sure, the boys inflict their own particular form of agitation on the other users of the place (such as we’ve seen in covert placings of arms over shoulders, leading the chosen round the corner and smacking them in the face, leaving them bleeding profusely without voluntary witnesses to account for events, for example), but the girls affect their own long and more drawn-out stings. ‘What makes them this way?’ I asked a local youth worker, but really the answer is tied up in the social circlings of being caught up in all of the above, which I realise.

There is play amongst it all, but it’s a dysfunctional form in part and a form that isn’t always so easily palatable. ‘I’m playing,’ said the older peer group leader today as she brandished a trowel, scraping it in the cornflour gloop, but readying herself for threatening someone else with it, or so I felt. She’d waved saws, the trowel, a sledgehammer, a pair of scissors today, as well as aiming barbs of insults, aggressions, pragmatic confrontations just to see which buttons stuck. If this was play, it was a nuanced form. She was one of maybe fifty children on the playground today.

Everything can affect when working in the field of human relations, and playworkers just play with children, it’s often said: yeh, OK, right, if you like. Maybe, if you think so, and if you think you’re doing it, this playwork thing, you’re not doing it right. Or, maybe, we the affected are absorbing more than what’s rightly good for us.

First world blame

What happens when an accident happens? Maybe, when it’s our own children suffering such an event, or a child in our immediate family, something quite bonded and natural kicks in with us: we have an absolute concern that that child isn’t feeling pain, or not too much pain, at least. When we’re working with other people’s children, children not in our own immediate family, maybe something else happens first (in this age that we live in): how much does the natural concern get over-ridden by a fear of being blamed?

Others have trodden this well-worked route of play and accidents before, but I wanted to take a kind of ‘natural/synthetic’ perspective on what children do and what happens, sometimes, when they do what they do. If play involves experimentation (as is the received wisdom), then play involves things not quite in the plan (whatever that is) and that includes accidents. We know this. We’ve all had them. We all continue to have them (though maybe in less repeated ways, perhaps in more spectacular ways!), as we progress through adulthood.

When accidents happen to children we’re working with, any number of immediate thoughts might well enter our heads: keep calm; think; don’t think, just act; use common sense; what should I do here?; what can I remember of my first aid training?; did this happen because of me?; what should I prioritise here?; was this avoidable?; is this my fault?

Some of these questions can be reflected on later. Some of them just need to be pushed aside because, actually, there’s a child who’s hurt here and they’re human too and they need help. I wonder though if a ‘synthetic’, imposed, thinking process has somehow taken over the tendency for care and concern. In the heat of the moment, or more usually, after a short period of poorly constructed thinking, blame is often the quickest route to take. Once a precedent is set, a fear of repeat actions is lodged and starts to roll itself out, more acutely each time an accident takes place. It’s a negative feedback loop that only keeps strengthening and taking deeper and deeper root.

If it’s our own children who are hurt, we may have a weak negativity swimming around us (those people who look at us as if we’re bad parents, or bad in loci parentis): ultimately though, maybe, the care-concern bond here is stronger than the loop that binds us when we’re with other people’s children. Is this a first world problem? How did we get here? Was it, and is it, always this way?

I wonder at our species’ evolutionary growth and whether our ancestors’ concerns for their own offspring (if they had these concerns in the way that we do) outweighed any concerns they may have had for other villagers’ children, or for the loss of social stature that may have occurred if others’ children incurred injury when with them. If your neighbour’s son was injured when out hunting with you, was it your fault? Would you have been beaten, or maimed, or ostracised for it? I don’t know. Would the gods have been blamed? Would there have been an implicit understanding that the injured boy just needed to run faster, jump or land more carefully, be better at what he did?

None of this is to imply that, in our modern days of working with other people’s children, we should absolve ourselves of any form of responsibility. Later, when we reflect after an accident, we can be calm and study the situation more carefully: did what I put there, do there, not do there, somehow adversely affect the natural flow of what may have happened otherwise? Maybe we can say that an accident witnessed is an accident that happened because of a change created by our very presence, but this is a very pessimistic perspective. How many factors might be involved, of which we are only one tiny one?

Perhaps the over-riding of natural concern by synthetic imposition of fear of being blamed is a first world problem (by which I mean ‘those of us supposing we’re in the vanguard of global society, being in the digital age as we are’). Do the indigenous tribal societies of the non-digital realm of today impose insidious blame on one another? I’m reminded of the 1970s studies of Clifford Geertz, regarding Balinese men who risked their social stature on the outcome of who won or lost in cockfighting bouts: the playing out of spiritual representation through their fighting animals. Here I read a much deeper malcontent, dis-ease, than the word ‘blame’ could ever carry. If a man here lost his social stature because of the death of his fighting animal, could he really care if some first world blame was levelled at him because his neighbour’s boy tripped over a tree’s root and bloodied his nose?

Our first world fear, having over-ridden our natural care-concern for others, perhaps, has blinded us and left us with a spiritual dis-ease nonetheless. That is to say, we’ve disconnected, somewhat, from what matters most. It isn’t even the oft-cited ‘American-style’ litigation culture that’s troubling here, in the moment of writing: it’s the soft but pervasive and just as damaging fear of being seen as incompetent, untrustworthy, unobservant, blasé, devil-may-care ‘anything goes’ nonchalant, irresponsible, unworthy of being in the service of and for children. Our disconnect, via that negative feedback loop, becomes less and less about the people we should be concerned with (the children) and more and more about ourselves. We live in a self-fuelled culture, as we know: though we can make change, on personal levels, about this.

So, we do well, on the whole, to navigate our individual 365 days of every year without a scrape, without falling in front of a bus, or without tripping on kerbs or falling into plate glass windows at every turn. We do well, though we do suffer some accidents along the line because none of us are comic-book super-human. As we get older, our accidents might get more spectacular: we might think how stupid we were for doing what we did, and we might hope that no-one saw it too. We keep on learning, hopefully. If we’re continually blaming others, what does that say about us?

Geertz, C. (1972), Deep play: a description of the Balinese cockfight in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play — its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.

What’s your number, cucumber?

We were walking back from school one day (myself, a colleague, and a group of children). A small group of girls were babbling away nearby, straggling along at the back of the strung-out bunch. One of them smiled and looked up at me. ‘What’s your number, cucumber?’ she said. It wasn’t a question asking me for my number, a number, any number, as far as I could make out. It was more a form of greeting, perhaps, a sort of hello after the event of hello, a kind of nonsensical, sensical conversational gambit!

I make up the word ‘sensical’ here and now, as I write, because children do such things, and I want to try to get into that character. It seems to make perfect sense to them that they should say such things, as it seems to make perfect sense that they sometimes employ rhyme to communicate things that they’re not directly communicating. I walked the route back to the playground with the children that day, and I started thinking about the culture of child-ness. There are people (adults) who see children as just ‘unformed adults’, or adults in the waiting. It isn’t true. Children are people in their own right: they have their own ways of being, culture, quirks and foibles.

It’s this ‘culture’, or collective social behaviours of children — for a crude definition — that is of immediate interest here. Despite children being individuals in their own right, they (like all of us) do get affected by everyone else’s ideas and customs, not least the adults closest to them (parents, other family members, teachers and lunchtime staff, playworkers maybe). We all have the conscious and unconscious power to affect others in our immediate spheres. However, what often gets forgotten in the adult world, I think, is that there is a unique culture of child-ness, of being child, that also seeps through it all: that absorbs and reflects and plays things out in its own fashion. Children operate on levels that, in some way, go a long way to try to retain that culture’s integrity.

What’s your number, cucumber? There are certain laws and lores that have to be upheld, or attempts need to be made at this, at least. Locally, these laws and lores may shift but there are often threads that run through geographies: sturdy or somewhat shaky versions of fairness; the necessity for revenge or the last word; the protection of ‘lucky’ objects; superstitions of touch; the correct use of numbers or rhymes, as if they’re incantations or spells; the important daftness of made-up words; unequivocal instant regeneration in war play; the non-transmutability of living flesh into ghost or zombie (this is the adult position, and must also be adhered to absolutely); the cheating of cheating (where doing it with flair, passion, quick-wittedness and so on, are considered virtues).

As much as some of these social/play behaviours can be seen to be frustrating to some adults (who have their own ideas on what it means to be fair, final, rational, irrational, quasi-religious or mystical, comprehensible, out of the game, playing ‘properly’, and so on), the children’s engagements can be complex mechanisms. It is as if, sometimes, there’s a language beyond the play. Many, many adults see only children playing or interacting or annoying one another, or anything along and beyond that spectrum. What they don’t see is the language communication beyond it all.

What’s your number, cucumber? One of the big things, if not the biggest thing locally, in this particular incarnation of the overall children’s culture, is what’s known as ‘don’t cuss my mum’. A child could have a scrap with his or her mate, chuck a brick at their head, or walk off with their best mate, and still make things up the next day (which, in itself, is another part of the overall culture: flux states of relationships), but cuss his or her mum and the evil eye is placed. Beneath the surface of fierce loyalty are other rumblings: other questionings of loyalties, insecurities, shifting hierarchies, perhaps?

Children’s culture is, to a certain extent, beneath the surface. That is, to the untrained or slow to see eye, children aren’t complex at all and nor is their play, possibly: children are just these smaller creatures who occasionally scream louder than the adults do, or demand, or make us laugh. Actually, there’s a whole stratum of goings-on down there. I’ve often written that ‘play just is’ (meaning it’s of the moment) and I stand by that, but that moment comes together borne of a whole raft of other moments, of agitations and connections, of things copied and things seen, things reflected and refracted, interwoven expressions, experiments and re-experimentations, and so on. The play just is, but it can be just loaded.

All this sits in the children’s culture, beneath the surface of the level of seeing of many, many adults. The high agitations of certain children are the easiest things to spot, and adults can say that this or that affects those children and causes them to play or interact in this or that way. More difficult to see is the thread that seems to run through many, if not all, children: all the ways of communicating, being, seeing, interacting that aren’t exactly, on the face of it, the ways of communicating, being, seeing, interacting that we think they are.

What’s your number, cucumber? This is not a post about disturbed or highly agitated children. This is a post about all children’s interactions. There are themes that seem to run through these interactions. In recent weeks, in simple analysis, I’ve extracted several of these themes in interactions with and observations of various children: the personal emotional pain of feeling a certain play gap, play need; schadenfreude (taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune); the pleasure of destruction; the simplicity and complexity of connection; the rewiring or the replaying of time. There are probably more.

There’s more to see and sense, beneath the level of the eyes, beneath the play and beyond what the children playing around us are directly communicating, being, seeing in all their interactions. What’s your number, cucumber?

Reflections of a playworker in the classroom

‘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.

Playworking plain-songs

Plain-song. Mus. [Rendering med. L. cantus planus, F. plain chant, It. canto piano.] A simple melody or theme.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

Playworking is replete with stories, which are songs, of simple wonder. We can allow ourselves to become over-burdened with all the anythings that circle around and through our time in amongst the children’s play; we can forget to see and listen to the songs that play themselves out around us. These are not literal songs I’m writing of, necessarily: these are songs that vibrate a little differently.

The moments of songs unfolding, recently, have been beautiful . . .
Plain-song 1
At last, we all said, a warm and sunny day. We were out on the wedge of grass beyond the playground. Children ran around and parents watched. Children hoarded things at the edges, in the bushes, and we saw this. A couple of maybe four year olds sat in the shade of the branches. They were alone on the clean, new tarpaulin, which we’d secured against the ever-present flap of the breeze with six small concrete blocks at its edges. A makeshift wind-break, made of a pegged-down sheet, slung over skipping ropes, tied between the trees, stopped the paper blowing away. Sat on the grass, nearby and behind them, I watched these two younger children: a boy and a girl. They had found the jam-jar of glue. They had found the glitter. They had found the small treasure of the mosaic tiles. I watched for quite some time as the children focused on the soupy glue they were mixing up, sat in their own world on the clean, new tarp with its makeshift wind-break.

A little later, a parent came to show them how to spread the glue ‘properly’, so that things could stick to other things, like paper.

Plain-song 2
We had brought small rectangles of wood to the wedge of grass beyond the playground. The blocks were half an inch thick and a little rough to the touch. We had brought hammers — both the heavy claw type and the pin type, whose shoddy build is clear enough when any average eight year old chooses not to use them for the con-struction of things. We had brought nails — both the tiny type and the long ones that have the wow factor. One of the girls had built a bird-house, or a house, or a box. I’d seen her use the tools before: when I came by again, she was sat on the tarp tapping nails into balls of plasticine, which she’d stuck to the outside of her bird-house, or house, or box. She didn’t look up when she told me, as she tapped:

‘I really like the feel of this.’

Plain-song 3
One of the younger girls communicates without so many words. One day, when I was laying hula hoops out in an arcing line — red, blue, yellow, green, red, green, blue, or similar, repeated, repeated — on the wedge of grass beyond the playground, the girl who communicates without so many words jumped into a hoop and smiled. I jumped out of my hoop and into the one laying next to it. The girl jumped into her next hoop and waited and smiled . . .

Later, after some antagonisms had almost played themselves out between her and her brother, I sat on the concrete table at the edge of the grass with my feet on the concrete chair. The girl who communicates without so many words, still fizzy from the fresh pesterings and provocations of her brother, climbed up onto the concrete table with me. She leant back against my arm and was still.

Plain-song 4
One boy was in the hall spinning a giant red beanbag around and around. I interrupted his play, though I shouldn’t have done, though he seemed to forgive the intrusion. He took it as a cue, of sorts, and a delicate play fight happened. When the boy who was spinning play fights, he hardly touches. When he fights, he’s a flurry of hand and wrist spins and other little actions. Outside on the playground, later, our play fight started up again, somehow. It must have blown in on the breeze. A thin flurry of willow-stick arms barely brushed against one another. When he glanced me on the edge of a bone, he walked away, looking back, smiling.

Plain-song 5
We were at school, on the playground, and footballs and basketballs and children were flying around. The noise echoed off the brick and concrete. One of the older children came by. She often says, ‘You never hear what I say properly’, or words like this. I wonder if I’m going slowly deaf. ‘It’s noisy here,’ I told her. I’m not going slowly deaf. She nodded. We talked about what would happen if an adult were to suffer an accident there, what with all the flying around. ‘I would so get in trouble,’ she said.

She said that wouldn’t happen with us, at our playground. Later, an adult, my colleague, got hit in the back of the head by a ball. It was fine, though for a moment the child concerned looked more than a little concerned.

Plain-song 6
I was accosted at the door that leads from the hall to the playground: usually, three or four or five of the girls will find me at some point in the session. Some of the three or four or five will run to me and smile and offer me the warmth of their belated hellos. The others will come and watch. I was accosted at the door by four of the girls coming to offer me their variety of hellos. I had dust in my eye. I had tried to wash it out but I’d only made it worse. My eye was red and I had to hold it open with my finger and my thumb. The children didn’t seem to see this. I knelt down to their level to say hello. ‘I have something in my eye,’ I also said. One of the girls started poking at her eyeball underneath its lid. She addressed her friends when she said, ‘If you do this, you can feel your whole eye.’

Within a minute, all the girls were standing around, screwing their eyelids shut, concentrating hard and trying to feel their whole eyeballs underneath. I still had dust in my eye.

Small stories of grace

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are. This word ‘grace’ comes up often in the general flow of my thinking when working with children, or soon after: if we’re aware of moments, as I’ve long advocated, we can see and feel some beautiful things. Children can be all the things that adults can be, and maybe more (chaotic, unpredictable, bored witless, incandescently angry, just-woken half-way through the day, and so on): in amongst it all they can show amazing grace.

In this grand sweep of thinking, I pick and choose my definitions but largely I’m seeing the graceful child as displaying tact and decency, an elegance of timing, considered courtesy and, all in all, a high emotional intelligence. I’m not suggesting that we, the adults, should be moulding children into displaying these traits of ‘civility’ (indoctrinating them into who and what to be); I’m saying that this grace is already there in these children and that we, the adults, have much that can be learned from them.

I see grace in such small but significant moments. Last week, at the open access play provision on the playground, the place was packed with children and many of them wanted to play their collective favourite chase-tap game of ‘Family Had’ again. The game involves the playworkers chasing after the children before they can get back to the sand pit. It had been raining and the wooden platforms of the structures were slippery. The children didn’t fall over, but I did. The chasees near me immediately stopped to ask if I was OK. When they found out I was alright (if a little bruised, inside and out!), they loudly started proclaiming my fall to the playground, but that was fine and all part of it. One of the girls, a nine year old who’d been a shadow near me most of the day, was quite concerned for me. A little while later, she came and sat by me, offering me a plaster. (On hearing the story later, a colleague said, ‘Oh, I wondered why she’d come to rummage in the first aid kit’).

Another day, near the end of the session, a boy of around 11 or 12 came onto the playground holding a water balloon and striding with intent towards another boy fifty yards or so away. I followed him and asked him not to attack anyone. The boy shrugged me off and largely ignored me. I repeated what I’d said, but we ended up rubbing each other up the wrong way. He talked with the other boy at a distance and turned and shouted a whole flow of his anger at me, calling me all the things you can imagine but which I won’t print here. He left the playground with his middle finger up. The next day, sometime in, I didn’t know he was on site. I was at the fire pit by the gate. He nodded at me, and it was a ‘making good’ and I apologised to him. We talked a little and went our separate ways. His grace was in his approach.

One of our newer children is about eight years of age, I suppose, and he has some degree of physical disability and learning difficulties, though I don’t know him well enough yet to know specifically what those needs might be. It doesn’t matter, in this respect. Every so often I observed this new boy playing and, resilient though he looks to be, I could see that all of the older children were looking after and out for him. One day, one of the older boys, a fifteen year old who’s had his moments of mischief on the playground, shall we say, bent down and tied the younger boy’s laces for him.

I can’t write about grace without mentioning probably the most graceful child I know. She’s around ten years of age and so full of love for her sister and her friends and, indeed, for us in the way that she treats people. She can find herself in the middle of small groups which, because they’re small, often end up ostracising one of their members for no apparent reason other than three’s a crowd or four’s one too many, and she’ll be upset but she’ll be as composed as she can be. She’ll find ways to put her sister or her friends first and I’m always amazed by her. She reads the play around her and the play she’s in herself and she’ll go with its flow. It isn’t some sort of ‘martyrdom’ here because she gets a lot of her own way too, but she just seems to often have that love for others that eases things over.

Towards the end of the last open access session last week, on Friday, I was coming out of the office and another girl of around 11 years old waved at me, slightly, lounging as she was on the sofa on the far side of the hall. She hadn’t been at the playground all week, as far as I knew, and I was pleased to see her again because I’ve known her for a few years. Slight waves and other hellos have a grace about them — as do words that are in between the words: words that aren’t said but which you know have been communicated, in a way. Sometimes children choose their adults carefully and tell us the things they need to tell just us, because it’s us, or because it’s the moment, or because, because . . .

Here, I’m not inferring things that need to be brought to the attention of the safeguarding officer; rather, I’m saying that words between words, given to a chosen adult, suggest that a certain child’s life may be a great deal more difficult than our own. Their grace is in the hint, in the unsaid words that you are the one I know will know, and in choosing not to give more because what more can be said?

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are.

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