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

Posts tagged ‘adult play’

Away in the play and the still of the wild woods

It’s late at night, late at least for these younger children, wrapped in blankets or wrapped into parents, at a small fire, in a small clearing in the woods, nowhere near concrete or traffic or towns or cities, somewhere deep in the middle of Kent. I’m drawn over to this side of the camp by the soft sounds of someone playing the guitar. I sit down on the grass by the pyramid frame that’s standing above the low flames. It’s warm here and there are half a dozen children gathered around, listening quietly to the low music. Rachael, the camp band’s singer, passes me the guitar: play something, she says, whilst she attends to the children’s needs (hot chocolate or marshmallows? It’s already drifting in space and memory, a week on). I can only play a few chords. It’s OK, I’m told by Jim, the barman of the barn-bar, the ukulele player, you play more than me! I play very low because I’m really not that good, and I stop because one of the girls wants to sing a song. She says she’s making it up as she goes along: she sings as she looks into the flames, repeating repeating the refrain.

Here we are again. I have been to this small place for five years in my returns now, every May. There are familiar faces and new families. There are maybe thirty or forty children, I suppose, or it feels like it, mostly younger, though a handful are older. It doesn’t take long for the new to fall into the pace and feel of here. This year, because I’m working on my own, I set up the gazebo at the end of the clearing, just ahead of the dirt mounds which, later, I hear some children talking about: look, the playground’s still here. There is a rope swing and a tyre swing; there is a plank of wood, which some children manufacture as a standing see-saw, and some lean it experimentally against the old caravan, later, as I see from a distance, using it as a means to reach the rope; there is the shallow dirt basin where other years’ play took place; a punch bag hangs nearby — I can hear the rhythmic whacking of sticks hitting it, even a hundred yards or so away at my tent, on the edges of the clearing corner where Bec and Dru and Amy have set up a woodcrafting place, where Dru whittles spoons and strews the ground with shavings from other workings, where the wool is woven, where the little dogs wander, and through which the children navigate, en route for their own camp in the deep green luminosity of the woods just beyond.

At nights the candles down the track are lit. I stand at the edge of the clearing, beyond the barn, looking down and down the narrow, shallow slope towards where the lake is in the dark, and the black is always the very blackest down there through the trees, and the small smudges of those candle lights, in two ragged receding roughly parallel lines, always catch my attention. Places like these, sights and the feel of all and suchlike can, and has, made its way into other writings of flow and fiction. Sometime, somewhere along the way of the weekend, I remember a conversation in passing, with a father, who told me how he watched the space station going over with his child. In the night, one night, I emerge from the trees, from under the rickety old metal-roofed shack that creaks with the wood of the trunks, from where I have been talking and eating with a friend re-met, and the sky is strobing intermittently. I wonder if my eyes need to readjust, but it’s far-off lightning sparking the dark. The rain comes, just as I close my tent zip up, but I don’t hear the storm that passes over.

I forget the order of things. It doesn’t matter at all. I’m at the fire bowl in the woodcrafts corner of the clearing, one night, and from where I’m sitting, just looking out, drinking beer, being still, I can see the barn and there are twists of light around the wood struts of the shelter in front of this. Rachael is singing and the guitar and ukulele are in accompaniment and I just catch the flickerings of a child there and she’s dancing. She’s using the light strings, playing with the interactions, twisting her hands and arms around, turning around and around and down and up. The night is for play as well as the day.

Last year, in the early mornings as we camped along a track in a van a little way out from the clearing, we were often greeted, on stretched extraction or coffee making, by a young boy, maybe five, who would bring us sticks as presents. Oh, thanks, I would say, a stick. I’d sweep my hand across the vista of the forest: we were looking for one of these (or words such as these). He trailed us in our settings-up and takings-down. This year, I see him and I say hello and I call him by my remembrance of his name. I remember you, do you remember me? He looks at me, briefly, matter-of-factly, turning down his lips and shrugging his shoulders: No. I’m not aggrieved! I’m amused: ego has no place here.

Later, in the baking sun-trap down by the lake, I sit amongst the tall daisies with him and his younger brother, in a small clearing of our own devising. I have bubbles here, because I said I would, and a box of bits and bobs, because the children seemed to like this the day before, on a larger scale, and some clay, because one girl said she’d like this. It is a little odd, really, because the whole lake is lined with clay, but I take the darker stuff down anyway. The boys want to know what might happen if this clay I’ve brought gets wet. The oldest says it in a squeaky, experimental, half-hopeful kind of way. Go get some water, I say to him, pointing to the lake: there’s loads down there. He comes back with the biscuit tin I’ve given him half-filled. In goes the clay and we squeeze it between our fingers so that it squirts out of all the in-betweens.

Plenty of children seem to like the clay, the previous day, getting good and messy on the tarpaulin beneath the gazebo. The sun creeps across the ground, under the canvas roof, and wordlessly, like a sun dial, we all slowly shift and edge along and around with it, keeping in the shade as the day goes on. There are experiments of bubbles in the afternoon, when plenty of families have gone elsewhere on-site, woodcrafting, forest-schooling, and so on. I judge it an opportune time. There are a handful of children and parents still around. I have several containers full of this year’s batch of home-made bubble mix, and I have bubble-wands made from elastic and bamboo. There is a small gathering, a small to and fro, of younger children dipping and lifting and blowing softly or too suddenly, waving and flapping, holding the sticks to the breeze, floating and popping bubbles, or chasing them, just chasing them, as children are often wont to do. I look up, sometime (the bright idea of putting the tubs and containers into a larger plastic crate, in case of spillages, having dawned on me), and there with bubble-wands in hand, experimenting, are just three fathers: three dads, me, and a supply of bubble mixture.

In the shade of one hot day, under the gazebo, some younger girls are carefully trying to thread beads onto what will be necklaces or bracelets for themselves or for their fathers, who are sat there with them. I’m nearby and I feel a need to say something genuine, though I hear myself as I say it and it comes out oddly: I say to one of the dads there how good I see it to be that he, and the others around, can interact with their children in this way of play. I do mean it, though I hope it doesn’t come across so patronising as I hear it. It is good because you don’t always see it.

Some children come back time and again to the gazebo, to the dirt ‘playground’, to the bubbles. Some children are more content roaming in the woods, and these are the children just seen in passing, in and out, in between. As I sit in the shade with the clay and the paper and the beads, the feathers and the fabric, and the suchlike all spread out and around, a younger girl of maybe four, and early on without having really had a proper conversation yet with me at all, leans in, telling me her genuine consideration of me, though in words, and without regard for adult sensibilities, in a way only a maybe four year old can. Later, a small green caterpillar labours across the tarpaulin. The other children are suddenly intrigued. The maybe four year old stands, a little wobbly, maybe she’s off-balance, landing a foot down suddenly, squashing the caterpillar flat. Maybe she didn’t mean it; maybe she did. She doesn’t shrug as she steadies herself for whatever her next play is to be, but she might as well do.

At the lake, with the clay and water boys, the slightly older of the two is taken by the sight of a fat furry caterpillar. He wants to take it up, but I’m mindful of the previous day’s episode. I try to dissuade him but he’s adamant. He knows about cocoons, he told me earlier, and I needn’t be in his way here: he picks up the caterpillar with a lolly stick and examines it, placing it down carefully on a long daisy stalk when he’s done. When he looks around again, he tells me it’s gone. Where did it go? he asks. I don’t know: perhaps its found a place out of the sun.

Out of the direct sun, but where the moss on the fallen branches on the ground is a bright and luminous green between the trees, across a ditch where the children have a bridge, they’ve declared a ‘no adult zone’. One of our number is camped by the metal-roofed shack on our side, just beyond the woodcraft corner of the clearing. He hears the conversations from the children’s side. He wants to go over, to infiltrate, to play, but we stay on our side: we respect the lay of the land. Over there, over the ditch, the children concoct plans, create their domain, they just are. I know they’re there. I sit at my tent or amongst the wood shavings of the crafters and see how the children have two routes through: they use more or less two straight lines, either directly across the branches laid down here, along through and then in between the small and large tents and into the ferns, past the shack, and towards the ditch, or the other way straight over the low bunting flags of the woodcraft camp and between the vans and on. Children’s routes often pay no heed to adults’ demarcations.

It is evening on the last day. Some families have left already; there are some spaces between tents. I lay out the parachute because we haven’t used it yet and because I think the children who are scattered variously in the clearing might find it and play something with it. I ask permission of the nearest campers because it is, effectively, in their back garden. Most of the children don’t see it at first, it being off the beaten track. Then, eventually, when a parent calls out that there’s a parachute out, a wave of children appear from out of the metaphorical woodwork. I think the play might form organically but immediately it becomes directed by an older girl, who I’ve known these past few years or so. Something curious happens on the way of the parachute play: all the games she leads the other children towards are standard, as known (albeit with variations on names, as I know them), but she adopts a very precise style of doing things. It is as if she’s copying a teacher she knows or someone similar. She adopts an air and a voice far beyond her years. At one point, she stops a game of ‘fruit salad’ mid-flow because, she says, it just isn’t going right; the apples and the pears are running when they shouldn’t be, everything’s terribly mixed up . . . I tell her that it doesn’t matter but she’s determined and adamant. I tell her that she maybe ought to be quicker because she’ll lose the younger children’s attentions, but she bats on regardless in her own style. The play happens. The younger children go with the flow. All the children are children here.

Here we are, in a small clearing in the woods, nowhere near concrete or traffic or towns or cities, somewhere deep in the middle of Kent. As has been my year-on-year realisation: it is a privilege being here.
 
 

Advertisements

In praise of some colleagues of play

Reading through the posts and pages of this site, as I have been doing as of late, it’s occurred to me that I write a lot in praise of play, in support of children and their rights, about what those children do or how they are (it is a blog with a certain focus, after all) — in echoing A. S. Neill, of Summerhill, I am ‘on the side of the bairns’ (Neill, 1916; cited by Croall, 1983: 57), but I don’t always give as much credit where it’s due to the adults who are also focused in such a way. That is, in respect of the current thinking, I thought it high time I wrote a little about some of those who I’ve worked with, over the years, in our joint focus of working with and for the children, who I’ve either learned from, been inspired by, or just simply enjoyed working with because they enjoyed working with the children and were good at what they did.

Now, the caveat here is that I’m not looking to raise the status of playworker (or the playworking-minded) to an ego-focus (maybe, ‘raise’ isn’t the right word here) — as I’ve written elsewhere, and more than once, play (and the playground) isn’t about the playworker. What I am looking to do is to say that this person, or that person, has had a positive affect, even if they didn’t know it at the time. For this caveat above and because of privacy, I won’t mention any names: if those people read here, they’ll hopefully recognise themselves. If they don’t read here, then it’s here for anyone else, or for them if they ever find it.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason for the list I’m forming in my head, other than what I’ve already written above, so there will be omissions and that doesn’t mean that those people weren’t good either. There has to be some start process though. I don’t want to write things out in chronological order either, and nor do I wish to create some sort of hierarchy of ‘value’. I shall press the internal shuffle button and see what transpires.

This post wasn’t going to be written with the added extra of academic references, but now in the flow I can see another relevant one floating up in my mind’s eye: Hughes (2001: 172) writes about what he terms as six different ‘playwork approaches’ and the ‘quality of child/playworker relationship’ as he sees it, in each. These six approaches are broadly grouped into four degrees of relationship interaction, namely: poor (for the ‘repressive’ and ‘nosy’ approaches); better (for the ‘functional’ approach); good (for the ‘enthusiastic’ approach); high (for the ‘perceived indifferent’ and ‘controlled authentic’ approaches). For the purposes of writing about my previous play-minded colleagues, I find myself thinking about the latter three approaches of the above list. (I’m not differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘high’ quality relationships for the purposes of this writing: it’s all on a level).

I’ve worked in many places and with many people over the years, and some of those adult colleagues can easily be seen as enthusiasts (though they could spill over into taking over the play, they had their hearts in the right places and the children seemed to love having them around); some have practised, with intelligence and sophistication, that sometimes difficult skill of being acutely aware of what’s going on around them, though whilst exhibiting apparent indifference; some have been authentically engaged in support of the needs and preferences, the anxieties and just plain random strangeness of the children around them, and those children ‘know’. I’ll leave you to figure who fits where in the Hughes model. So, with the preliminaries over, onwards and onwards.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away!), I worked with a group of teenagers who (though we didn’t call ourselves playworkers at the time) were playworkers in training. I wasn’t so much older than they were myself, but it did strike me that these amazing people were worth their weight in gold. One in particular was always bright and beautiful, always focused on the play, even when she wasn’t so upbeat in herself (she found a way), and I just appreciated her energy. I’ve written about ‘grace’ a few times before, in respect of those who populate a place where children play (whether they are the children or the adults), and when she and I worked together, I felt that. Years later, in another place and in another life, I remember another colleague who, I think, is probably the most grace-full person I’ve ever worked with. She was quiet and caring, fragile in some ways, but just right, in my opinion, for those particular younger children there.

Maybe this is turning into a list of attributes for the ideal playworking person. Let’s mix it up. Zoom forwards another few years: I met a male playworker of roughly the same age as me and we were fairly chalk and cheese in many, many respects. We worked together closely, a lot, and so we had the easy ability to wind each other up: he would do it deliberately and I often took the bait! That said, I have to give it to him, when he was on form as a playworker, he was definitely on form. He had a look in his eye that told me that not only could he sense the play and the actions of the adults all around him, but that he wanted to push his luck a little more and more, just to see what would happen! He enjoyed the provoking, but he also knew the importance of play and wanted others to see it too. The children, most importantly, I think, also ‘knew’ and sensed him.

I’ve been lucky enough, over the years, to meet and work with plenty of people from various other countries (those from India, America, Finland, Sweden, France, Italy, Morocco, and Spain spring immediately to mind). Some of these people became good friends. A while back I had the good fortune to work with someone who came to England on a form of cultural exchange, and who later became a music teacher, I believe: we worked with children in forest locations and he was open to trying just about anything, and he was softly amazing with the children. In a similar vein (and if you trawl through the posts on this site, you’ll find this next person quietly amongst the words), I shall always remember the support worker who pushed a child in his specially adapted wheelchair up the steep inclines to where the forest school session was being held, and she worked with that boy and focused all her energy and attention on him without a word of personal grievance (if she had any at all). Some people just stay in the mind for simple acts, for years gone by.

A few years back, I worked with a man I had so much time and respect for, and over our years of working together he would bring me stories of his own children’s play, or he’d show me short films he’d made of them at play. It took me a little time to acclimatise to his humour, to his ways of working, to his ways of being, but when I did I realised that this man was the absolute heart and soul of the place. Many of the children loved and respected him, and he would often go out of his way to do things for them if they needed it, in difficult circumstances.

In a slight detour away from playwork colleagues, I did a short piece of work in a school once and was just struck happy by the sight of one of the teachers I was working with as she got inside a plastic barrel and interacted with the children on the level of play. It could have been perceived as inauthentic, some could say, but in that moment, with that teacher, with those children, in that place, it felt good and fine. You can often read things fairly accurately by reading the reactions of the children.

When it comes to reading skills, in the context of how I describe it above, two more playworkers come immediately to mind: together, and in overlaps of time, we developed a place for play, somewhere that the children also developed in their own fashion and for their own reasons, and we adults all needed to be very aware of what was happening, when, maybe why, and what might happen next, and so on. My colleagues were excellent readers of the place (by which I mean a combination of the built, the natural, the human, the temporal environment), and I respected their opinions, their ideas, their observations more than I think I could ever truly get across.

There are many others who have also had such positive affect on those around them (children and their families, other colleagues, me), at the time, and in time. There are those who listen without prejudice (yes, you know who you are!), and there are those who give great care. It’s not all been plain-sailing, of course: there have been ripples and great waves and everything in between in the seas of playworking interactions; that said, there’s been plenty of fire and grace, attention to detail, softness and oddness of idiosyncrasy along the way, so far.
 
 
References:

Hughes, B. (2001), Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Neill, A. S. (1916), A dominie’s log. Herbert Jenkins (1916), Hart (1975). Cited in Croall, J. (1983), Neill of Summerhill: the permanent rebel. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
 
 

Page one: on radical play

Radical:
[selected definitions]

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.
 
 

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 3 of 3

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.

Holding patterns
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.
 
 

Organic community consideration

Community. n. A noun of quality from communis, meaning ‘fellowship, community of relations or feelings’; in med. L. it was like universitas, used concretely in the sense of ‘a body of fellows or fellow-townsmen’.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

 
What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? This short sentence does, of course, have embedded in it a few agitations for those inclined to think in such ways: as the advertising strapline about a book being ‘available in all good bookshops’ opens itself up to being played with (the possibility of stock being available in some ‘not so good ones’ can be tacked on to the end), maybe there are some ‘not so good adventure playgrounds’ out there too; however, by the same token, if it’s a ‘not so good adventure playground’ is it an adventure playground at all? What the real gist of this post is about though is the insinuation lurking underneath the word ‘community’ and, in stripping this away, about ‘proper community’ itself.

‘Community’ is such a widely bandied around word. It doesn’t mean anything if the ‘from the inside’ connections of people aren’t actually there, if the word becomes artificially grafted onto an area for the benefit of agencies feeling smug about ‘their patch’ (which is a patch in name only), seeking to look good to funders or each other because they’ve ‘helped’, or if anything other than ‘live, organic connections’ happen.

Once, over the course of a particular work contract, I had the misfortune of having to visit a certain town (which I won’t name here, just in case it comes back to bite me!). Although I appreciated I was an ‘outsider’, some of the people who I met there, going about my business, were blinded with utter faith that their town was the epitome of community Shangri-La. It was, to me, an utter hole. The best thing about the place was leaving it. It was a two hour drive home, but I was still leaving it and happy to be. Now, of course, there’s no way I could have known about any real community spirit there, but the point of the story is that the ‘feel’ of it all was just so artificial.

I can’t say the same about the adventure playground. In my experience, this playground that I write of regularly, and all other [good] playgrounds, is a breeding ground for live, organic connections. Sure, relationships are developed and nurtured, but these happen when they’re ready to happen, and sometimes they catch you by surprise. I like to think that children, most if not all, can spot a fake a mile off. If an adult visitor to the playground has integrity, playfulness, open-mindedness, honesty, the ability to listen, and so on, the children will know and go with the flow of this, sometimes before any real conversations are had at all. They’re not so needed. Conversely, the fakes can be spotted from a distance and toyed with! The children understand things on such levels, and so too do the play-literate and compassionate adults.

So unfolds the organic and real community. It has often pleasantly surprised me how individual like-minded adults can connect on first meeting one another: an artist will ‘know’ and ‘get’ another artist, of whatever flavour; a rebel will ‘get’ another rebel; an altruist (or as close as it’s possible to get to being such a thing) will ‘get’ another altruist; a playworker will ‘get’ another playworker. These are all states of being, I suppose, rather than job titles or the like: artist, rebel, altruist, playworker, and so on. The point is that we know each other when we meet one other. When we’re all embedded, either for our living or for our working, in a certain geographical area, in a ‘place’ (and I don’t use that word lightly), the ‘from the inside’ community can start to connect.

Community isn’t a thing to superimpose on an area because it isn’t anything that can be ‘placed down’, as such. Community is in the bricks and mortar, in the streets, in the stories, in the connections, in the evolution.

Last week, in the sun that had finally come to soak us, I looked out from the middle of the playground. Across the way there’s a hard court (what the children call ‘the pitches’), and farther out from that is a fixed play equipment park adjacent to the pedestrianised street. Surrounding the whole block are the tenements and the glass of their windows reflect the summer day down into the suntrap. I looked out and, in the combination of the adventure playground, the pitches, the fixed play equipment park, and the pedestrianised area, I couldn’t even begin to count how many children and their attendant adults there were. There was play in practically every corner. The day before, we’d been in the latter park with arts stuff, balls and hoops and mounds of fabric. There were children everywhere. They trailed long pink robes and various cardboard sea-creatures on skipping rope leads, made for them by my colleague, who’s a parent volunteer. At the far end of the park, where perhaps they thought no-one could see, a group of mothers played hula hoops and bat and ball with our stuff. At the other end of the park, a group of children spun around on the trolley we take out, on the flat half a pitch, for ages and ages. Then the ice-cream man came! Play was at the heart of it all.

On the adventure playground, like-minded parents come to volunteer, share coffee, talk, play. We support and are supported. I have the feeling that it all happens in the right place and at the right time, when it’s ready to happen. It is that live, organic connection in action: a social spontaneity, a kind of quantum readyness, popping into existence just at the exact point that it needs nurturing or is ready to give. It is this wanting to give to some person in need, or acquiescence in receipt of giving, that community grows outwards from. It is, to use a favourite word, ‘rhizomatic’: it spreads.

What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? In play, we both give and are in receipt. What is a good community if not a ‘playground’ of giving people?

Artificial ‘community superimposition’ is a game without the play.
 
 

Notes on a playworker’s seven-year-old self

In a manner similar to how you have to go through psychoanalysis to become a psychoanalyst, as I understand it, maybe as a playworker there’s a certain amount of analysis of one’s child-self that needs doing. A while ago I rediscovered a stash of old English language (grammar and punctuation and suchlike), Maths and ‘Writing’ (stories) books that span four years or so of my late primary years. I wrote here on this blog that I’d type the stories up one day. I’ve finally got round to doing that for some of them.

Reading the stories of the seven-year-old me, that first rediscovered time, and each time thereafter, leaves me with a real mix of emotions: first and foremost, I can’t stop laughing! This is closely followed by an absolute disconnect to the strange thinking processes I was going through at the time of writing them: I don’t remember the act of writing them, the thoughts and emotions I was having at that time of my life, or any significant issues I was struggling with. As far as I remember I was just a normal sort of seven-year-old, though I did seem to have a perturbing fixation with writing about ‘deadness’, and a lack of attention for finishing things off properly sometimes, letting stories amble and trail off into bored ramblings or unsatisfactory conclusions about northern football clubs I have absolutely no affiliation to whatsoever!

The serious paragraph of this post now follows: in playwork, work-inhabiting or passing by and in between the places where children play (some of whom are around about the age I was when I wrote the stories you’re about to read), we can sometimes forget that there’s a whole tangled world of thinking going on in those children’s heads. Not only is there the fantasy that we skirt by, learned from Bob Hughes’ infamous play types (and skirted by because we know how we just don’t know what that fantasy of the moment is in the child’s play), but there’s also all the emotions that manifest (and we see the explosions of this, though we don’t see the inner workings) and which may not be remembered later in that child’s life, all the feelings of love (yes, myself and colleagues talked last week about how we each fell in love at or around the age of seven!), all the sense of self-worth, all the effects of culture absorption, and so on. To be better playworkers (and to be better adults too, whether in playwork or not), maybe we ought to look back more on our seven-year-old selves’ ways of seeing the world. If we can’t remember, maybe our stories can help.

So, there follows a select eleven stories mined from the thin pale blue exercise book that’s on my desk and which is labelled, in careful unidentified teacher’s reddish felt tip ink, with my name on the front and ‘Writing March ‘77’. Stories are written up here as faithfully as possible to the original (with the pros of surprisingly good spelling, on the whole, I feel, but with the cons of not yet having grasped the benefits of punctuation — Kerouac might have approved!). The term [sic] dotted about is, I believe, short for sic erat scriptum (‘thus was it written’: that is, ‘directly as written in the original’). A short playworker’s note on his seven-year-old self is added after each story.
 
(i)
Once upon a time there was a girl called Sally and her two brohters [sic] Richard and Mark one day Mark said to Richard lets [sic] run away and take all of Sallys [sic] toys and they did they went to the beach on ship and then they went by bus But the man who owned the Bus said you can’t come on here with all that luggage and got put in the sea and killed them

Playworker’s note: I don’t ever remember anyone in my childhood called Sally. This story seems to be the start of a disturbing ‘deadness’ phase. What can make children think of these things even if they’re relatively stable? Is the ‘dead’ part of healthy fantasy? I’d like to make a note of vocabulary use (not in a teacher way!): it’s a serious point about how I’m often pleasantly surprised by the range of vocabulary that even young children have.

(ii)
Once upon a time there was a king and that king was good and one day in the night a monster came and the king and queen was worried and just then a fairy came and made a spell. This is what it was not worry my king and queen the monster will be dead by morning it was the fairy had made a spell on him to die.

Playworker’s note: The ‘deadness’ continues! Morality jumps out at me here too: how much does adult morality impinge on children’s own developing judgements?

(iii)
Once upon a time there was a dog called Pax and he liked to chase cats it was the cat who lived next door and one day Pax said to the cat let us go for a ride in the woods with lots to eat so they did they took dog and cat food and they went to sea and the waves were lovley [sic] and they got pushed of [sic] a boat and it killed them.

Playworker’s note: More of the ‘dead’! As far as I know, our dog didn’t go in for chasing cats at all. Children can ‘be’ animals much more readily than adults. Maybe someone looked at me funny that day and I anthropomorphised them into a cat to get them back (though I must have had a bout of guilt at the end and took myself off the edge as well, just to even it up!).

(iv)
There was once a volcano and it interrupted and it was bad it went all over a city and killed about 60 babys [sic] and the volcano was in africa and a man called John . . . [half a line of indecipherable gibberish, something about a crow?] and he was famous and he had a special gun to throw in the lava to make it go he did and everything was as before but 60 babys [sic] came alive.

Playworker’s note: Honestly, this one took so long to type up — I couldn’t stop laughing! (Not because of the death and calamity but because of the oddness of the boy whose eyes I was reading through). What’s with the ‘deadness’, younger me? Again though, he can’t kill them without feeling some sort of guilt about it!

(v)
Once upon a time there was a boy about 9 years old he lived Near to the sea and one Sunday his mum gave him two small fish and five loaves of bred [sic] and he had a picnic and he saw lots of people and he went over to them he saw Juses and Juses was talking to the people he talked and talked and talked and talked and by Night the people were hugry [sic] and the boy came upto Juses and gave him the five loaves and the 2 fish and he shared it out.

Playworker’s note: Half-way through reading this story for the first time, I suddenly said ‘Hang on!’: cultural plagiarism, religious imposition, etc. The things that adults can put into children’s minds. I’m glad I accidentally subverted the protagonist.

(vi)
One night John woke up and saw smoke coming under his bedroom door John quickly jumped out of bed there was lots of flames he telephoned for the fire engine to rescue John the fire engine came they used water to put the fire out they put water on the house with a hose pip [sic] and it went out with No burning flames.

Playworker’s note: Who is this John? He crops up in various stories. I don’t know if I ever knew anyone called John: maybe there was a neighbour. He does seem to get into calamity and saving situations. Do children’s imaginations and fantasies repeat and cycle round with similar scripts and scenarios? Do ours? Do they help?

(vii)
Smells

i like the smells of the flowers and i like the smells of mummys [sic] perfume and the sea smells nice too the sea is my favourite smell i like the smell of mummy cooking the onions for dinner and i love the smell of apple pie cooking in the oven and i like the smell of mummy making tea i like the smell of daddy [sic] after shave

Playworker’s note: This may have been a writing exercise, but it speaks to me of the simple pleasure of the affective, the sensory, in the environment that surrounds the playing and living child.

(viii)
i played at sword fighting on sunday with my dad we had sticks for sword [sic] and he went to get me and i moved out of the way i got him he had to fall down and count up to 20 then he can fight he killed me for about 1 time and i killed him for 0 times so my dad won in the end

Playworker’s note: Playing with parents (and, the heresy of it, with playworkers?!) can be important in a child’s life. When we play, as parents, or are invited to take part in play as playworkers, do we always know how important this apparently simple act of playing is for the child (that is, our input and ways of being in the play)?

(ix)
Stone Age Men

If i were a Stone Age boy and my dad was a Stone Age man i would go out with my dad i would Hunt for a wolly mammoth [sic] or a sabre-tooth-tiger and i would give the sabre-tooth-tiger a trap I would dig a hole and get some sticks and put a point on the top then i would put grass and sticks and when the sabre-tooth tiger steped [sic] in he would be dead then i would give the skin to my mummy then eat the insides of it

Playworker’s note: The return of the ‘dead’! Not only are children blessed with in-built invincibility but they often seem to have a high regard for their own abilities, e.g. survival skills! Perhaps it’s good that the world hasn’t fully got to them yet.

(x)
Once upon a time there was a king who had 3 sons one day the first son went to the woods he was just about to cut a tree down when a little man came in a little red car he said to the first son what are you making he said spons [sic] no sooner did he say it when spons came falling down up to his knees then the next son was just about to cut a tree down when the little man in the little car he said what are you making he said pens no sooner did he say it when pen where [sic] falling down from the tree It came to the start of his back(?) then the last son came he was just about to cut down a tree when the little man came in his car and said what are you making he said jumpers No sooner had he said it he was covered from toe to neck he went to his brothers and the first son got his spoons and put them in the pond so did the 2nd brother But the last son he gave the king 2 jumpers and 71 for the first one 72 to the 2nd son and 73 for him and the king said to the first brother you may have my maid you may have the 2nd maid he said to the 2nd brother and as for you he said to the last brother you may have my queen they all got marrid [sic] and lived Happily

Playworker’s note: Seven-year-old me obviously lost interest in this, quite frankly, confusing little vignette. Not only did his attention wander towards the end but he didn’t think it all through properly: the king gave the son his queen, who he married — so that would be his mother? The little man in his little car completely stumps me, but the random connections (which may or may not connect) are things I see happening in the play narratives of children I work with now (‘Do an earthquake on the netting with random words, like, custard, Jupiter, giraffe’). Also, ‘Happily Ever After’ has an awful lot to answer for.

(xi)
Once upon a time there was a boy who always asked questions on Sundays he asks questions a Bit like this how many stars is there do dinosaurs live now he always asks them to his daddy whos [sic] name was Richard Mon one sunday day he saw his girl friend he said Sally which was her name what do Bees do Sally said your [sic] playing a joke what do Bees do I don’t know thats [sic] why I told you your [sic] not playing a joke said Sally they do humming all day long and one sunday he stoped [sic] asking questions and he done [sic] that when he was 14 years old he grew up to Be a footballer he scored 7 Goals for Leeds 5 Goals he got the cup it was Gold he solded [sic] it and got a car

Playworker’s note: There’s Sally again, whoever she was. Imaginary Sally obviously didn’t pander to the seven-year-old narrator’s blathering foibles and so he took the easy route out of the story and went to play for a northern team he has no affiliation to, in a town he’s only ever visited once in his entire adult life, and he did what those who were forty years his senior were doing, selling up in the midst of a mid-life crisis, buying a flash car and disappearing without so much as a full stop to say goodbye! I don’t know: do children just up sticks in the middle of a story they were playing . . .?
 
 

Play and (un)certainty

‘Children create situations of unbalance in an attempt to regain equilibrium (Spinka et al, 2001).’

— Lester and Russell (2008, p.62)

More or less, this line above is something I’ve been thinking about or gearing towards for a few weeks now. I knew of it, though not in any precision of word order, and when I looked it up and typed it down, it sat there and waited patiently as I sat there and looked rather ponderously at it for a few minutes. Taking it at face value, it doesn’t wholly fit. The quote comes from Play for a Change and relates to a section of writing on stress response systems and risk in play. ‘Risk’ is often seen predominately in terms of the ‘physical risk’ but the emotional and psychological aspects of risk also come into play. So, what if, for some children (or maybe even for all children), it’s certainty that they’re looking for in the risks of their play, rather than uncertainty in order to regain their equilibriums?

I write it like this because I don’t see the process of regaining balance (physically or emotionally/psychologically) as being the same thing as the seeking of certainty in play. Besides this, I know plenty of children who seek more and more ‘unbalancing’, as if this in itself is a form of certainty. The Play for a Change authors cite Caillois (1961) and Kailliala (2006) in referring to ‘dizzy play’, or vertigo, and some children I know often like to spin fast, and faster, on the roundabout — just for the spin of it, I suspect (not for the regaining of the stability of terra firma, and not for that particular sort of receding nausea that some of us also remember from our own childhoods). This dizzy play is for the sensory nature of being in it. Going fast is never fast enough.

However, this post is not particularly focused on such spin. It is the potential seeking of certainty in children’s play that draws the attention. A repeated play frame — an instance of play, or ‘a material or non-material boundary that keeps the play intact’ (Sturrock and Else, 1998), for those who’ve forgotten playwork terminology — repeated play frames such as those I’ve described in engagement with children’s play in recent posts, are a seeking for certainty in this context. This is how I’m reading the play. However, despite the possible best intentions of the players to faithfully reproduce the play of a previous time, conditions surrounding the new play aren’t going to be exactly the same as the previous instances: so, there will be differences in the play, new formations and directions; the players must be after the best fit of how the play felt. It does, perhaps, suffice to say that if ‘this, that and the other’ is replicated, as best as can be arranged, then ‘this, that and this’ is how the play is expected to feel or be.

I see this seeking of certainty, as I read it, time and again: if it’s not a near-as-damn-it replication of a previous play frame, then it’s a recreation and re-ordering of elements of that play frame; or it sometimes involves the repetitions of stories or it might be the re-positioning of new ‘actors’ into an old scene. It doesn’t always involve repetitions and recreations of previous play: the seeking of certainty, in this line of thinking, extends to the child who won’t jump from the jumping platform for fear of landing awkwardly, too hard, too far out, or for fear of hurting themselves in other ways, for example. Some adults throw themselves out of aeroplanes after they’ve thrown their parachutes out first, for the buzz of it (and good luck to them!); some children jump from swings or walls or platforms without seeming to look and without ever having jumped from that particular swing or wall or platform before. Isn’t there something just a little pathologically disturbed, however, about someone who doesn’t have even the slightest degree of confidence that they’re more ‘certain’ than ‘not certain’ to make that jump? (OK, so I’ve never jumped out of a plane: what do I know? Would you do it though if you thought you had no chance of landing in fewer than two whole pieces?!)

Our lives are uncertain, but this is all the more reason to seek some degree of reassurance that we won’t face death at every corner, or emotional torment or psychological ridicule every way we turn. Uncertainty does permeate through play, in its way, but it’s one thing saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my play; isn’t it exciting?’ and another thing saying ‘Everything I do in my play is a physical, emotional, or psychological rollercoaster that scares the living shit out of me’. One of Garvey’s (1977) prerequisites for play was that it be valued, or fun. Can play be play when it’s a constant engagement with things you can’t be even a little certain of?

I’m certain, in as far as I can be (yes, here’s a stick: hit me over the head with it!), that I’ll finish this post and write something else pretty soon (unless there’s a sudden meteor strike, or unless I suffer a stupendously unlucky imminent physical catastrophe, or the like); I’m pretty certain that if I don’t surpass my ‘optimum limit’ minus one for beer consumption, I won’t suffer for it in the morning; I’m certain that if I’m suddenly reacquainted with Walking in Memphis whilst driving, I’ll be singing loud like no-one can see me! This is all my play, and give or take a negligible percentage of conditions dictating that things won’t work out the way I think they will, things will work out the way I think they will.

What I’m not seeking is not to finish my writing or start any more writing ever again, to exceed my optimum beer consumption limit, or for Walking in Memphis to finish so I can drive like a grown-up again! I’m not supposing for a minute that children necessarily go into their play reflecting on the degree of certainty that will result from replicated play frames, or suchlike; however, I do suppose, here and now, that some (maybe all) children play with some internal nod towards certain possibilities.
 
References

Caillois, R. (1961, 2001), Man, play and games. Translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Garvey, C. (1977), Play: the developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books.

Kailliala, M. (2006), Play culture in a changing world. Berkshire: Open University Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. and Bekoff, M. (2001), Mammalian play: training for the unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 76(2): 141-168. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing (the Colorado paper). Leigh-on-Sea: Ludemos Press.
 
 

Cities of function and fantasy

First, a short story: once, last week on the playground, two older boys were observed to be engaged in a moment of play (these two boys, you see, had been the same two who’d been exercising their subtle and not-so-subtle psychological malefactions on the other inhabitants of the playground at either end of the summer). This is the moment of play observed: there had been some filling of thin latex gloves with water by some children (one walked around the playground with his heavily-filled glove, proclaiming it to be some form of udder!); the two older boys filled their gloves and, finding that they swung in such a way that amused them, proceeded to hang them around their necks to form a pair of heavy breasts each; the boys tucked them into their t-shirts and bounced around, laughing.

I needed to write this because it was an observation of light relief in amongst some of their otherwise more challenging behaviours. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the writing of it until I went for a walk earlier on, several days away from the playground, thinking about the city. For ‘city’ here, you can also read ‘town’ or ‘any given urban area’. I got to thinking about how we go about our day-to-days in quite guided ways: the city is, despite our possible interpretations of freedom and free-will and the like, somewhat prescriptive. That is, everywhere there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways of telling us what to do, where to go, how to be. We can do certain things here and here and here: the city is a functional place. What if we could actually just do our own equivalent of the older boys’ latex glove play? Or rather, by extension, what if the city weren’t so layered with the functional ‘do this here and do this there’ as it is? Would it all break down?

Many, many years ago, at architecture school, we were given the project of designing a city, I remember. Being young and more naïve than I am now, my project co-students and me designed what I now see as being a ridiculously functionalist, largely science-fiction-based, quartered, quasi-Utopia which was neither living nor liveable in. We had long debates about where we’d plant the dead, where the workers would be placed, and so on. Our cities aren’t like that now, are they?

What we didn’t know back then was that cities carry messages, many millions of messages, and we’re all subtly and not-so-subtly floated along in the stream of ‘do this and do that’: on the obvious level there are direct signs, but there are also roads and paths and railway lines that convey the message that this is a route from A to B and not for XYZ other endeavours; within this infrastructure there are the various architectures that have their space or social designation written in their size or decoration or the like; there are open spaces, which are really enclosed spaces, with their messages of ‘escape’, or ‘temporary use’, or ‘be restored’; there are skateparks or fixed play equipment areas (which I always want to write as ‘fixed play areas’), which carry in them the message that this is a corral in which, and only in which, it’s acceptable to be creative, inventive, free-spirited (which in the case of the former is often within replications of props of the wider urban environment, and in the case of the latter is a place that often resembles zoo enclosures built for captured gorillas). The city is, in short, full of messages about the designated function of its constituent parts: use this part in this way.

Would society collapse irrevocably if we played with the infrastructure (put everything of absolute necessity for conveying humans from Point A to Point B underground)? How might we then use the strips we formerly called roads? What if we took down all the fences (which carry their messages in their size, position, degree of hostility, and the fact that they’re there at all)? Could we learn to transfer all our received mistrust of others into an ability to share? What if the acceptable captivity of children’s fixed play equipment areas (or teenagers’ skateparks) — transmitted to us at present by tucking them neatly out of the way under the auspices of ‘safety’ — were exploded from its current ghettoisation into the greater city-scape?

This is not just a question of child and adolescent play though: if the city were less ‘guided’ it would be less so for all of us, adults too. We may think we’re free of mind to come and go but maybe we’re not. A little Nietzsche might illustrate my thinking:

‘Absolute free will can only be imagined as purposeless . . .’

What if we could do our own equivalent of the latex glove play in the less guided city? Messages might still be apparent in our day-to-days but at least the bombardment wouldn’t be so fierce. In this strange new world, we wouldn’t have the eyebrow-raising, the comments, or the disapprovals that we often currently find hidden, or overtly shown, in the actions of others. In this odd new place, no-one would be concerned at the ‘being me’ or the ‘being some experimental me’ exhibited in the play. We might think we’re pretty liberal now, but we’re less than absolutely tolerant: all the messages we’ve absorbed have affected us.

In conclusion, let’s rewind a little. The latex glove play example is an odd (and slightly flippant) one to choose, but I use it here now because it has its comic extremity: imagine, let’s all walk around with latex gloves hanging inside our clothing and no-one bats an eyelid, or cares! Or, imagine the city is a continuous carnival, not a three-day affair. Or, imagine, instead of adding something ridiculous to the city, let’s take away the ridiculous elements of all the subtle and not-so-subtle messages: the dominance of the conveyance infrastructure — where convenience is superseded by capital necessity; the fences and the enclosures, demarcating forbidden trespass and acceptable usage; the ghettos where play can be allowed to happen . . .

Perhaps this odd city I’m dreaming up, a city of fantasy rather than of function, is just as quasi-Utopian as the naïve functional science-fiction city of my student days. Call it an exercise in thought, an operation on the city as it is (with optional latex gloves!)
 
 
Reference

Nietzsche, F. (undated) in Spariosu, M. (1989), Dionysus reborn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Cited in Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 
 

The art of skipping

Whilst sitting in a field last week at a music festival, lazing around in decadent sloth in the sun, I was told I analyse too much. It’s sometimes true, I guess. We were there to provide some play opportunity sessions for the children at the festival and, in between gigs (as some in the playwork world call their own work sessions!), in alternating teams, I lazed around and thought about the world going by. During the play sessions though, I found that I also did some good quality analysing. Hence the title of this piece!

If we’re engaged in the play of the moment with children, how often do we really consider the what and how of what we’re doing? We did eight sessions (‘gigs’!) in all: half in the more secluded and dedicated children’s area (though much more relaxed and small-scale than the heavy-duty Glastonbury Kidz Field — as an aside, I do wish that that ‘z’ weren’t used, or the word ‘kid’: it’s all too dumbed-down); we did the other half of our sessions in the ‘flag circle’ of the main festival area. In the latter, what transpired was plenty of skipping. We took some big long ropes and, probably because it was much more visible than the other site, this tended to draw people (younger and older) in.

Now, during this plenty of skipping time (which repeated over the days), I came to feel very aware of exactly what I was doing. That is, I found myself analysing the actions of my body in the way that I was in service to the play. Skipping (or, more precisely, being the rope swinger) is not a simple affair. I’ve known certain aspects of the following in previous play engagement, but it all seemed very immediate last week when I thought of things in terms of a collation of actions:

Older children came by and some were very proficient skippers: so, of course, this allowed for greater skip speeds. The dynamic changes when more than one older skipper plays. There are then, almost inevitably, a range of skipping abilities and styles that must be accounted for by the rope swinger. The speed of the rope has to be taken into account, as well as the arc (for skippers’ head heights), and the degree of rope scuff across the grass to account for the different heights that each skipper jumps their feet (that is, there is that range of skipping styles to allow for: jump height, the confident one spring with no intermediate half-spring in between, or the half-springers — the rope swinger has to watch the skippers’ feet carefully, they have to anticipate the full or the half-spring). Then, to add to this, there are the straying skippers who might be involved in the play. I found that this tended to happen with the younger children and can best be described here as the child in question progressively jumping backwards or sideways, usually, or sometimes forwards, out of alignment with the rope and/or the other skippers. The rope swinger has to shift position (and arc, and scuff height, and possibly speed) to allow for this drift. If skippers choose to ‘run in’ to the already swinging rope, the rope swinger has to judge their speed, their hesitation, their confident assertion, or any mix of these, and readjust the rope around that run. Additional difficulties lie in a mix of older and younger skippers, with differing abilities, head heights, jump height and style of skipping, and drift. The rope swinging has to allow for all of these variables to try to ensure that all skippers have the best chance of making it over the rope every time. Then things get a little more complex.

The rope swinger, up to this stage of the writing, has been related in terms of the singular because, although it takes two (usually) to service such play (unless one end is tied to a bench or some other sort of static object), this rope swinger is the dominant of the two. In effect, there are two sorts of rope swingers in each incidence of skipping play (well, there was when I was doing it, at least!): there is the dominant rope swinger (who undertakes the above actions and more), and there is the stable end rope swinger. The role of the latter is to be a consistent mechanism against which the dominant rope swinger can continuously re-calibrate the rope (whether they know it or not!). Whether servicing skipping can work with two dominant rope swingers or with two stable end rope swingers, I don’t know: I’d have to analyse that through observation more. It’s difficult to know, first hand, because I realise I tend towards being the dominant rope swinger. The dominant rope swinger also continually re-calibrates the feed of the rope: that is, there are readjustments of the length of the rope in the play, to account for the skippers’ heights and how they’re spaced out, and there are readjustments of the give in the slack, as well as in the ways of holding the rope in dominant and non-dominant hands, which best facilitate that feed.

Now, all of the above gets further ramped up when the odd adult comes over to play. Adults play too, and we found that the skipping in the flag circle was a draw for them as well. Some parents went out of their way to thank me, in conversation afterwards, not only for their children’s play opportunities here but for their own. The rope needs to go higher, or faster if the skipper is a father with a point to prove, say! The rope needs to allow for the additional adult re-engagement in their own play (that is to say, some adults seemed to have a vague memory of skipping but had forgotten what they used to do; some didn’t really know in the first place and just made it up as they went along, but without the practice that children put in, over and over; some adults got cocky and tried things that are second nature to their twelve year old daughters — full 360 degree turns, and suchlike — but which probably work out better without the mix of sun and alcohol!)

Back to the children: counting skips can work both ways. That is, it can act as a drive, a target, but also as a distraction. One day, three older girls and three older boys developed a friendly rivalry. The play shifted into girls versus boys (in the writing now, it reminds me of a sort of street dance-off). The play evolved into each group raising the other, or calling how many jumps they’d make: the boys were ambitious, calling higher and higher each time, even though they’d consistently failed to get past four. The girls, on the other hand, reached twelve, called higher, reached their limit for the moment, and re-assessed with one another before dropping their next target, eventually hitting the twenties. With the younger children, something strange happened with the numbers: at one stage we were counting in animals (giraffe, hippo, elephant, etc., and one boy said matter-of-factly what the next animal would be, as if we really were counting in a definite order); at another time in the play, one younger boy couldn’t get past four skips as we counted in numbers — for some reason I then started counting in German. ‘How many did I get to?’ he asked when he ran out of jumps. ‘Twenty two,’ I told him. Comprehensible numbers can distract, or so it seems.

So, I analyse too much, or so I’m told. Skipping has much more to it though than just standing there holding the rope or jumping up and down. I took a turn in the middle. The fuzz of the background just blurred as I jumped. I couldn’t really focus on anything but the moment. Some strange alignment seemed to take place: I don’t know how many I got to (not that it mattered anyway), but I felt like I was skipping for far longer than was strictly possible for someone of my age, height, jump style (ungamely!), and ability. I found I could jump without touching the rope, turn around, and around, and not fall over or get caught out, keep going. I felt like I jumped a long time (maybe it wasn’t so long, but it felt that way). Maybe I’d achieved a jumping alignment with the rope swingers, just for that short while. Maybe there was a perfect fusion of skipper, dominant rope swinger, stable end rope swinger (or, other combination of these), as well as counting which I didn’t hear, or no counting, but most of all the fusion was just all in being there and then in the play.

Skippers and rope swingers are synchronised as an in-the-moment art piece. When it falls apart, as it will, the canvas is reset.
 
 

On play and psychogeographical praxis

When we walk around our neighbourhoods, or around areas unfamiliar to us, what do we feel? What does the area we’re in press on us? Which emotions, desires, or ‘pulls’ do we feel on us? What has this to do with play? Bear with me in this post, because this is, in itself, an exploration: a laying down of a foundation I may come back to sometime.

I have recently become interested in ‘psychogeography’, which is defined by Debord in his 1955 essay, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in part, as the study of the ‘specific effects of the geographical environment . . . on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In truth, and without really knowing it, I have been undertaking an uninformed and unformed background study of this for many years, as it seems. That is to say, I can now add to my act of walking my conscious awareness of the study of my emotions as I walk. Before I come on to play, a little more information on a certain means of movement: linked to the psychogeographic concept is the idea of the ‘dérive’, or drift, the definition for which I take from Wiki, so I trust it holds, though things seems to be fairly consistent across reading material:

‘In a dérive one or more [people], during a certain period, drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there . . .’

— Knabb, 1995, citing Debord

The added aspect to this is that this is not so aimless a drift; rather, it’s a conscious awareness of what pulls the drifter along. It is a way of experiencing (in this case, urban) areas in non-functional ways: where function and the playful have a fusion. Knabb (1995) also writes: ‘Cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes [sic] which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’. (This I shall return to, because there is a reflection to be had on this as linked with play).

There is one final piece of background information to add in: Debord (1955) also writes about ‘the sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few metres; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground)’.

So, within the psychogeographic study of how the urban area ‘pulls’ on the walker, the drifter, or he who is in his dérive, what emotions and behaviours are produced by the ever changing ‘ambiance’ of each segment of a street (sometimes just yards apart)? The only way to find out is to find out. Hence, psychogeographic ‘praxis’ (the actual doing, rather than just a thinking theory) is important. I will come to play. First, and next, some walked recent affects on this experimenter, edited out of the context of the whole (a sort of textual collaging in itself, rather than a ‘map’ of the whole):

This exercise of considered dérive is not as simple as one might think. First we have to come to be in a state of some flow, and then we must retain this whilst also maintaining a watchful eye on the shifting states of the self. Record every sensory impact, or as many as possible, and walk slowly. Remember to look up and around.

Certain streets exercised what I termed, in the moment, as a ‘pull’ (and I retain the phrase throughout because it seems to fit). Each pull needed accepting or rejecting. Each decision needed in-the-moment analysis of why it was accepted or rejected (for this ‘dériver’, at least!). I don’t know how much I was consciously aware of Knabb’s writing on a city’s ‘currents and vortices’ (in truth, probably not a great deal, in the moment), but they could be felt. Entrances and exits to pulling streets, defensible (invisibly boundaried) space, the affects of T-junctions or assumed cul-de-sacs, and so on, tended towards rejections rather than acceptances of drift. There is also, as is assumed, such potential psychogeographical impact on the ranging child, if the child has this opportunity to roam.

There was a dominant desire not to double back for this dériver, and later, on the inward stretch of the circuit as it became, back home, a desire not to accept the pulls of streets or ways that led me farther out. Accepting the feelings and reasons for these, as you go, as an honest approach, was a useful mode of being.

Along the way, pulls were not just streets but also a gathering accumulation or awareness of sensory impact: the smells of flowers I could and couldn’t name, perfumes of passers-by; vistas and aspects, slices between houses or whole views; the shift in the overcast sky, its brightening or the affect of drizzle; temperature changes; the sounds of planes and hard and soft traffic, the sound of the almost ubiquitous (assumed to be) wood pigeons, unseen; light shifts under, and out from under, trees; colour recognitions and juxtapositions; states of vertiginous positions (at the bottoms and tops of steep slopes) . . . all these pulls had an affect on the emotional and behavioural (directional movement, observational stance, internal desires to interact or refrain). This last point leads me to where I’m heading (this writing, as could be conceived, being a textual psychogeography in itself, if that’s not stretching it too far!): simply, certain pulls provoked the possibility of play in this dériver.

On the inward sweep of the large circuit, finding myself at a green hill, the level paths pulled me most: these paths that led roughly towards home with the least energy to be expended. A dirt track up a steep hill pulled unexpectedly, and it was accepted. It was, on the face of it, a futile climb: it was difficult to climb with only a few roots to hold on to, and it led to a short track which took me back to the track I was on before. I climbed it anyway, because it was there, feeling at the top of the hill something akin to what I remember feeling as a child: this hill has been climbed; let’s move on.

The climb affected the dynamics of the rest of the dérive. Steeply stepped pulls uphill were no longer rejected. The affects of the wind in the trees was noticed, as was the movement of every single tree on the top of the hill. A small movement and moment of play can produce a tumble of further shifts along the way. The functional aspects of the city (or one small area of it) can be — to use Neil Gaiman’s (2006) term, out of context — ‘upsettled’. The function and the play (or ‘the ludic’) can come closer together and fuse. Where does function and play start and end? This dirt slope was a track of sorts, functionally, but playfully it was a climb. Or, functionally, it was a climb, and playfully it was a track. Onwards in the dérive, the hill top is a magic circle of trees but it functions as the clearing at the top, a place of gathering. Or playfully it’s a clearing of moving trees, and functionally it’s a magic circle to be seen and engaged with.

In the psychogeographic consideration of my recent days, I’m wondering how the ‘ambiance’ of certain areas of cities can be affected to break down the rigidity of their functional selves, and to open up awarenesses of the playfulness that can fold in. Maybe we should all go on our own local dérive: a walkabout, perhaps — an awakening to what the urban ‘pulls’ cause in us, of what play folds out from us because of this.
 
 
References:

Debord, G. (1955), Introduction to a critique of urban geography [Online]. Available from: www.library.nothingness.org (Accessed July 13, 2015).

Gaiman, N. (2006), The hidden chamber in Fragile things. London: Headline Review.

Knabb, K. (Ed.) (1995), Situationist International anthology. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets. Cited in Wiki: Psychogeography [Online]. Available from: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogeography (Accessed July 13, 2015).
 
 

%d bloggers like this: