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

Posts tagged ‘behaviours’

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 2 of 3

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Experiments in bubbles
All summer I had been experimenting with making batches of variously mixed ‘bubble juice’ and prototypes of homemade bubble-making equipment. Are these rods and cord contraptions known as bubble wands? I don’t know. In the garden, at home, family children christened them ‘bubble knickers’ (because these ones were made with scrapstore elastic — though I think this elastic was first used for bra straps rather than knickers, but hey, the name stuck!). We attached the elastic, hung with metal weights (what look like army dog tags, and sometimes old drawer handles), onto sawn off bits of bamboo or thinner garden cane. Various bubble knicker contraptions worked in various ways. Various juice mixes (water, washing up liquid, glycerine, cornflour, baking powder) also worked in individual manners. We found that big bubbles need bigger spaces than those confined by fences and houses to be free to fly!

I took the bubble knickers and the juice batch of the moment to play sessions at a youth pavilion site (where there were children from babies to teenagers), and to a beer festival, late on in the summer. We were invited there as part of the play support. We must have got through several buckets’ worth of bubble juice that day in the sun! What struck me was that many of the children were very determined and persistent in trying to make their own bubbles. Often, when you go to festivals and they have bubbles on, the bubble-adult doesn’t let the children create (the children will have a good time chasing and popping the bubbles, sure, but more can be offered). So, after some of the children asked me the odd question that is, ‘Is it free [to play]?’ (to which I said, ‘Of course’), they took the bubble knicker sticks and kept trying and trying, not losing faith, that they could make those big bubbles. When they did, they seemed pleased with themselves.

Other, mostly younger children, who wanted to play were helped by their parents. I use this word loosely: there’s ‘helping’ and there’s ‘now darling, do it like this, here you go, look you’ve made a bubble, well done, let’s go and see what else we can do now.’ I tried to distract some parents with conversation. I noticed, as the afternoon went on, in the good and welcome sun, that the very young children seemed just to like putting their hands in the slimy mix. This worked out fine because they got their sensory input and, strangely, bubble juice sometimes works better with the added whatever-extras from lots of inquisitive hands!

Play of the subverts
At the youth pavilion site, for a two week stint, I took play stuff that was probably more geared towards the younger children (so bits and bobs that needed space, like various balls, a parachute, chalks, and so on) and a fair amount of art and crafts stuff (beads and various papers and card, clay and playdough, things to cut with, things to stick on, etc). We experimented daily with the layout of the place (it being used not only by us, but also by the local teenagers and pre-teens, and by members of the public because it was also a café space). What I found was that, gradually, more and more of the teens and pre-teens were joining in, though on their own terms.

One day, a group of boys were outside and that day I’d brought some proper tennis rackets with me (I’d observed on previous days how the smaller, thicker rackets had been used, and I thought these full size ones might work well too). I hadn’t anticipated that there’d be a group of teens who’d want to use them. They started batting the tennis balls up against the windows and then, soon enough, up onto the pitched roof of the pavilion. The balls rolled down again and, I thought, these returns made by gravity were returns of their cues, so it was all good. Then the balls got batted harder and over the ridge of the roof. It was all done ‘by accident’, of course. There was a small yard at the back of the building, and access to it was only by way of a usually locked door at the rear of the main room. The boys batted the balls over the roof and into the yard, I had no doubt, just so they could go ‘help’ by being allowed access to the yard by the youth worker staff and to retrieve them. Here I don’t use the words in inverted commas above in any cynical way: rather, it’s a making note of subversions by the teenagers at play.

Of stuff and other words
For nearly every session at this site, I also took family children with me. They’re old enough now, and excited enough, to ‘come to work’ with me. Princess K. (so-written-as here because of a continuing partiality for over-glittery Barbie stories and extra-squeakily sanitised fairy tales!) and the Boy Formerly Known as Dino-Boy but who’s now more Viking-Boy are well-used to what we tend to call ‘stuff play’: that is, the shed is (currently) neatly arranged (though not always!) with an array of bits and bobs for making with and experimenting with and just, well, playing with, however the need arises. So, to them, the boxes of stuff that (later in the summer) I neatly tessellated and re-tessellated every day into the back of my car were filled with the possibility of whateverness. There’s no adult agenda along the lines of ‘now, today we’re going to make this, do this, have this theme’ with stuff play. I did, however, say to them that we may have to curb one of our usual joint-play behaviours (that is, the way they and me all interact, in our family ways of being, in our play fashion, sometimes): there are certain words (low-level and funny though they are to us) that others might take offence at! So, stuff play was engaged with plenty and, one day, the agreements having been reached and acted on with certain word play, we shut the car doors ready to go home again and Princess K. asked me, ‘Can we play the insults game now?’ Cue lots of ‘bum’ and ‘fart’, and so on, as we drove off.

Further and continuing reflections on gloop
As well as it being a summer of bubble experimentations, I also had access to a stock of cornflour. Cornflour ‘gloop’ (cornflour and water mix, though not too much water or it’s just a mess and doesn’t ‘work’) is one of those things that I’ve long taken for granted as a standard play resource (I’ve also done a few years as an early years practitioner, as well as being a playworker, and this sort of stuff was pretty omnipresent in nurseries then). However, and I think I may have reflected on this before elsewhere in my writings, I keep coming across adults who’ve never experienced gloop. There may be readers right now who are in this category. It doesn’t make a person less if they haven’t experienced a certain form of play (just because I grew up in the 70s, say, it doesn’t make my play better than someone who grew up in the 2000s); that said, I do tend to come back to the thinking on what I loosely call ‘gloop deprivation’.

This is a broader conversation than just gloop but I use it to illustrate the point that, for whatever reason, what may be deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ play forms or resources by some adults can, in effect, deprive a child of a sensory input or experience which they then grow up without. I took cornflour gloop to the pavilion and also to some sites in the villages, as we travelled around. (Note to self: just because you put a tarpaulin down in a village hall, don’t expect gloop to stay within this boundary!). I worked with a younger colleague who, herself and for whatever reason (experiences at nursery school, the general vogue of what play is/should be at the time, etc.) hadn’t ever played with gloop or knew what it was. At the pavilion, the babies seemed to enjoy the mix, spreading it over their hands and legs and over the grass.

To be continued . . .


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.

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.

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.

A februariness of play

February half-term on the playground often seems to be a somewhat special or unique instalment of the various episodes of ‘open access’ that happen year-round. That is, in a simplistic way of looking at it, I tend to come back to the idea that October to February half-term is the longest period between open access provisions (us not currently being able to provide for Christmas), and this contributes to the feel of the place: most children just seem somewhat relieved to be able to get back into that play place. However, other factors must also feed into why February half-term often feels as if it has something a little extra, for me.

The weather plays its part, of course: it’s usually a little cold, definitely mostly coat or heavy jumper weather, but when the sun shines over the muddy, grassy and not yet enflowered open playground, and when the frosted ground not yet found by the weak late winter/early spring sun just sits and reminds you that the season hasn’t fully shifted yet, this has its ‘being out in the open’ positive affect. Working in the daylight is also a novelty in February: for several months of winter after school club, we watch the sun dipping over the roofs earlier and earlier on in the session, and recent memories of play get tinged with how that play recedes into the shadows of the far and dark reaches of the playground.

What strikes me most about the February half-term open access though is the unique magic of it. Sure, there’s magic in the summer months when children spend day after day throwing themselves down the water slide, or when the heat lends a different feel to the play, but February has the quality of smoke and a low sun. There are February days that are, and that have been, every bit as hectic as summer days (take last February’s moments of mayhem, for example), but all in all February has a special quality.

I’ve written plenty about play I’ve been invited into recently, but there follows some observed February play, which is connected to how February generally feels for me.
A moment that matters
I spent plenty of time by the fire pit last week, as myself and my colleagues all did, in turns, working more closely with an older boy with autism. He spent hours at or around the fire. Some long periods, when he’d got his fill of backwards and forwards returns to tip more cardboard and paper onto the fire, he sat on the bench and just watched the flames, or stared into space. I sat with him, talked with him, watched with him. One day, in a moment of quietness, as the pallets gently burned, I looked around and, behind me a few feet away, I just caught a few seconds of three girls standing around and laughing with one another, about whatever they were laughing about, in their own play in that part of the playground. It struck me that nothing else mattered to them, that this was a totally comfortable place for them, that this moment for them, and for me observing, was very special.
Painting yourself into a corner
Two brothers of about 8 and 10 or 11 spent hours and hours playing with each other, over the days. They didn’t seem to speak much to anyone, or to each other (or maybe I just didn’t hear it), but they just tumbled around the playground, doing their own thing in between the ‘doing their own things’ of all the other children. One day, the boys got really into the paints that had been left out. They painted a sizeable amount of the structures that occupy the middle of the playground (I remember seeing the youngest examining the undersides of his shoes as he stepped on somebody else’s freshly rainbow-painted top of a pallet construction: soon after, the boys were off painting the roofs of the other structures). Later, I was sitting with some children who were threading beads at the table bench nearby and the younger boy, I saw, had painted himself into a corner up there. He’d got his foot stuck, and he’d become immobilised by this and his inability or unwillingness to step on his freshly painted surface. What would he do? I wondered. His brother couldn’t offer any help or advice. The youngest was like a fly stuck on fly-paper! I got up and went over, holding onto his upper arm as he lent all his weight onto me, seeming to totally trust me and without speaking to me, him bending down to unwedge his foot. I set him up straight and off the boys went.
The organisation and administration of cookies
My colleague had brought out ingredients for the children to mix up and make cookies with. Things like this don’t get roundly and loudly announced on the playground: they just seem to happen. Some of the children do like to make and eat things. The trestle table gets set up outside, and before long, things get mixed, the kitchen gets used, food is made. I was at the fire pit again when I realised cookies were happening. A girl came over to me with a clipboard in her hand and asked me if the boy with autism wanted cookies (she could have asked him herself: he would have understood, but some children understand this and some children are gradually working it out). Later, when I looked round just to see what was going on on the playground, I saw another girl with the clipboard, pen poised efficiently, being excellently administrative and organised! It made me smile. It made me think, not for the first or last time, that the playground is these children’s, and they’re perfectly capable in their freedoms to be.
Sworn privilege
Another moment at the fire pit, I was sat up high nearby, up on the top of the tunnel made from two joined U-shapes of old fibre-glass slide. I was out of the way (though feeling a little conspicuous, in truth, seemingly lording it, as it were). It didn’t matter: one of the older girls came over and sat on the seated area (made from old bits of wood and carpeting) beneath me. She knew I was there, she couldn’t have not known, but she just needed to sound off to those around her about the things on her mind. She was angry and she swore her way through the conversation with the other children of her age. Where else can the children do this if not on their playground? I was not the least perturbed by it. If anything, I felt it a privilege that she should feel at ease, talking the way she did, with this adult in close proximity.
One small step, one giant leap
It took a session and a half for one girl to finally manage to jump from the pallet platform onto the cantilever swing. Her friend had taken an hour or so to pluck up the courage (the platform is only four or five feet high but, I guess, this develops a healthy emotional risk in children who are only four or five feet high themselves; the swing also does arc back fairly close to the platform, and this perhaps adds to the charge). The first girl made the jump, after a short while, and immediately went back for more, as I suspected she would. The second girl got up, got urged on by the other girls, steadied herself, chickened out, got down, repeated the whole process again and again. The next day, the same thing happened for a long time. One of the girls was the designated camera operator (on her phone): evidence as witness. The girl who wouldn’t jump was genuinely unsure of it, I felt, but I also suspect there was a fair amount of gaining attention taking place. I wanted to see her achieve the jump, but a combination of not wanting to wait around for ever and being shooed away meant I went elsewhere. A little while later, a huge scream and squeal sounded out across the playground! It was the group of girls by the cantilever swing: the unsure girl had done it! News reached me quickly. Later, the phone-camera girl showed me the seventeen seconds of evidence footage. ‘Yeh,’ she said, scrolling back through a long stream of clips of other aborted attempts, ‘but look at how many goes she had at it.’ After the first jump, the previously unsure girl had immediately gone back up to the pallet platform for more, as I suspected and hoped she might.
February half-term is bound up in the end of a long period away, in the weather and in being in the daylight, in smoke from the fire pit and in the low sun, but it’s also bound up in the magic of its particular moments. I haven’t really got an all-encompassing word for it, so I shall just have to invent one: I’ll call it ‘a februariness’ for now.

Playing with ‘the dead’

Last week some of the children found a dead pigeon on the playground. Well, to be honest, it was somewhat generous to give what was left the name of ‘pigeon’ because of the general carnage. A fox or a cat must have got it, I reckoned. I hadn’t seen it earlier, as I’d walked around the empty playground. When I’d got over to a couple of excitable children stood near the equally dead vestiges of the previous night’s bonfire, one of them was saying, ‘Look, there’s a leg, and over there’s the other leg, and a wing.’ That was about all that was left of the meat of it. There were feathers scattered at the burnt-out edge of the charcoal. Bits of bloodied sinew flopped from the dismembered legs.

I asked the children what they were going to do with it. They didn’t have a plan as yet. Some of their friends walked by outside the fence shortly before coming in, and the boys shouted out the find to them. They said they’d wait to show the others. I expected some sort of grave might be dug. Perhaps they might scoop out the middle of the charcoal of the previous night’s bonfire, deposit the bits of bird in there, and cover it over. I didn’t expect a solemn affair, though you never know. The playground has seen a few such graves or funerals over the years. Stories occasionally surface about such places or times. There was the bird that got a grave up on the slope behind the fire pit. There was the filmed funeral for some sort of creepy crawly behind the hammock swing, years ago (now, was it a butterfly or a caterpillar, a spider, or something else?). Stories of stories not experienced first hand can have a tendency to transform, if the teller isn’t careful. There was the grave dug for the ‘accidentally dropped’ phone, and there was the funeral procession for the cardboard box. There have been more.

Last week’s bird I expected to get a grave, but as far as I’m aware this didn’t happen. I sat back, at a distance I hoped was well enough out of the way. I was trying to observe, whilst another child asked me what it was I was doing: so I told her I thought that what they were doing was interesting. Why? she asked. I didn’t feel it proper to go into any level of analysis with her. As my focus returned fully to the episode of the bird at the burnt-out bonfire, I saw a boy come back to the scene waving a litter picker in the air. He was pulling and releasing the trigger over and over. I didn’t feel he’d be tidying up though. Sure enough, the dismembered wing was picked up in the litter picker and waved about. Then it was used to try to tease either the children on the nearby cantilever swing or my colleague who was pushing it. A saw came out but I couldn’t work out what the idea might be, and this was discarded again soon enough. After a short while, with no-one really being too disturbed by having a dismembered wing shoved close to their face on the end of a litter picker, the children tumbled off elsewhere, downing tools in the grass. The bird didn’t get its grave, I don’t think.

There is a certain fascination with dead things from certain children, just as there is a certain fascination with live things by those same or other children. The bird didn’t look too much like a bird by the time the children had found it, and I wonder if they had had any notion of the colossal scrap that must have happened for it to end up that way. Would that have made any difference to the way they’d played? I’m unsure what ‘dead’ means to children. It can be a difficult enough concept for many adults.

In the often abstract — though still somewhat symbolic — world of children’s play, ‘the dead’ is a motif that tends to come up time after time in various guises. It can be direct and it can be less so. After the bird-pickers had left the scene last week, and as I went up the slope to retrieve the discarded saw, a couple of girls who hadn’t been involved gravitated round me. We talked about how I wasn’t feeling well as of late and how I was finding it difficult to breathe and talk and do things. The conversation turned, morbidly enough, to something along the lines of ‘perhaps you’ll die’. It was matter-of-fact. What can you say to that? Short of getting all morose with them about the fate of all of us (sorry!), I just said, ‘Well, um, thanks mate, but don’t worry. I’m not going to die.’

‘Good,’ she told me. ‘I like you as a worker.’

‘What about as a person?’

‘Yes, that as well.’

I digress. ‘The dead’ was a direct conversation, though even so, it may be difficult to imagine what that actually means. Maybe this is why children play with such concepts in other ways. Maybe this is why they bury birds, or insects, or accidentally dropped phones, or bits of dismembered electrical equipment. Maybe this is why funerals for cardboard boxes happen.

The motif of ‘the dead’ emerges in other ways as well. These ways, however, somewhat side-step the whole point of what ‘dead’ is. Currently, children on the playground are playing variations of the classic chase-tap game (versions where playworkers are necessary as the chasers), but these variations include being hunted by werewolves, or vampires, or zombies, or combinations thereof. It’s the vestiges of Halloween’s shadow hanging around. Sometimes there are ghosts. These fantastical arrangements are all either of ‘the dead’ or ‘the undead’ or both. What ‘dead’ means though, let alone what ‘undead’ might mean, is side-stepped.

Children also cheat when they play these games: it’s part of the way to play, and it’s expected that they’ll do it anyway. When they get caught and ‘bitten’ by the vampire, they find a way to talk themselves out of it. Werewolves and zombies seem to fair no better. If there are guns or swords involved, children always seem invincible. The idea of ‘the dead’ is in and around these forms of play, but there’s always a way to cheat it. Invincibility (and perhaps the gift of the gab too) is a power, a mastery, taking control of things that would, otherwise, win.

I’ve seen plenty of play involving the motif of ‘the dead’: the teddy bear speared by a pole and soaked in red; the ‘dead’ electrical equipment spattered in red paint, having fallen from the bench; the chalk line outlines of people, arms out, one leg up at an angle, on the paving slabs; the effigy of ‘the silver man’ burnt on the bonfire (killing someone the children had, that day, been warned by school about); the ‘Charlie’ game involving contacting ‘Charlie’ with ‘pencils that move by themselves’ (Charlie’s name written in red on the fire escape door); the songs and stories of Bloody Mary told in quiet corners. There’s plenty wrapped up in all of this.

Graves for dismembered pigeons (or not, as the case may be), and other poor unfortunates, aren’t the be all and end all of play with the motif of ‘the dead’.

The playworker as pastoral adult/belying the trust

I think I may have made a small error in communication judgement when working with a particular child last week. We make mistakes all the time, but we don’t always know or see this. I may have made an error, but I won’t know with a little more clarity until later on this week. The error was along the lines of talking with that child’s mother about an observation of one thing I’d seen that child say and do. This wasn’t anything to do with disclosures or things of this kind: it was simply something I’d seen the child do, and in the greater scheme of things (or so I immediately thought) it was no big deal . . . but telling that here might even compound the personal issue. Let’s just say that it was nothing of any concern to a playworker or maybe even a parent; however, my telling the observation might turn out to have been something of great importance to the child.

This all leads me to thinking more on the subject of trust. If we talk with parents, we sometimes tell them of the funny things their children say, of the quirky interpretations on life that those children have, and so on. Have we committed a crime here for any given child though? My reflections have come about by way of questions to myself, which I intend to lay down here and expand with writing as I think: writing is sometimes the best way to think!
How much, if anything, of children’s communications to us should we relay to their parents when in general conversation later?
If you work with children in a staffed after school provision, or even sometimes in open access (because some children’s parents still come by), it’s a fair bet you’ll be in conversation with those parents at some point. This child I’m writing about in my example tells me plenty of her day-to-days, of her general feelings, of her ways of seeing things. I take it as a compliment when she chooses to tell me the things she does. I only told her mother one of the conversations we’d had that day last week (it wasn’t necessary to talk about them all, and the one I did discuss was one that particularly amused me). Shouldn’t those conversations be private though? (That includes the thinking of how much, if anything at all, of private conversations should be placed online here, which is why I don’t relay any stories of these in this writing now).
Why do children tell us the things that they do?
I sometimes wonder what it is about ‘this’ adult that ‘this’ child has decided to trust with the gems of their thoughts. Maybe children have favourite adults, or at least, maybe they have favourite adults of the moment. Maybe playworkers (not all, perhaps, but some) are open to listening to the day-to-days in ways that other adults in that child’s life may not be. Every child is different and some will prefer their teacher for the same reason, or their mother or their father. Some, however, may see the playworker as the person at the farthest end of the scale of authority. If they know we won’t pull them up for swearing or that we’ll smile at paint being thrown around, then maybe that opens up the appreciation of the pastoral in what we do.
How high a priority do we give to that part of our ‘as is’ playworker role that is pastoral?
In terms of the ‘descriptive’ rather than the ‘prescriptive’ (i.e. the playworker can be seen to actually do xyz, rather than the playworker should do xyz), the pastoral aspect is evident to me. That is, when we listen we do so because we want to, because we feel we should do (not that we have to), that we can in some way be of use. At times I’ve supposed that I may be the only person this child is willing or wanting to tell this small but significant moment to. We don’t go out of our way to ‘help solve’, as it were, but we should know that we have been chosen when this choosing does occur.
What can draw children to a pastoral adult?
Apart from the aforementioned spectrum of perceived authority, there are other symbolic layers: this may be wrapped up in things like the ‘not’ of who this ‘any given playworker’ is (this playworker is not my teacher/mother/father, etc). There may also be the drawing of the child to the pastoral adult in terms of the archetypes they represent. That is, though the child won’t be thinking this, the playworker may well represent ‘player’, ‘joker’, or maybe even ‘super-hero’, or ‘protector’; or, in terms of more playwork thinking, and straying away from archetypes, the playworker could be ‘someone who can keep this play going, or hold it, or pick it up again from where we left off two months ago’. All of this, perhaps, opens the playworker up to being someone who can be confided in.
Why do children sometimes seek a pastoral adult?
Is there a deficiency in the ways that society in general, and the micro-societies around the child, depict that child’s place in it all? If a child is led to believe that the dominant adult view is one of the child being led, or told, or directed, or guided, or informed, and so on, won’t this adult-to-child communication direction ultimately create a perspective on ‘what adult is’? If there’s a pastoral adult, the direction of communication shifts, breaking the mould.
What other psychological aspects might be at play?
If a child seeks a pastoral adult, are they in the midst of some form of ‘transference’? That is, in piling onto that playworker, say, the combined positive attributes of others they’ve known, does that playworker become to them what that child wants them to be? Another thought on psychology is that of ‘introjection’: are the positive attributes that the child finds worthy in the pastoral adult actively sought after (in order, on some deeper level, that they be taken in as their own)? Either way, as a means to create or as a means to internalise from, there may be more to the child-pastoral adult relationship than meets the eye.
Will it do harm to, in effect, belie the pastoral trust invested in us if relaying any communications had with the child to their parent?
This I don’t know. My suspicion is that children can be fairly resilient but that some, even if otherwise emotionally balanced, may see such incursions into the child/pastoral adult relationship as a gross breach of trust. The question is effectively the central one in all of these reflections here. It leads to the further deliberation of just how resilient is any given child in the degree to which that pastoral trust is belied? That is, where on this child’s spectrum of ‘trust belied’ is ‘too much’?
Can you get the trust back every time? Should you try? Either way, why?
I can think of a few examples where I’ve either had to earn trust from a child over a long period of time, or where I’ve inadvertently done or said something that marks me down as someone to be sniped at, or where I’ve rebuilt to the point of things seeming OK again (though we never know for sure because, well, ‘there was that thing you said once, wasn’t there?’, or something like this in not so many words). More or less, if I try too hard, I’m found out and ignored or vilified the more for it. If I don’t bother at all, I’m ignored or vilified for it.

In the end, there are no real answers here: there are only questions for the asking and for the thinking more about.

Play and language

For a couple of weeks now, on and off, and as touched upon in my previous post, I’ve been quietly observing the way that two particular children are playing. Theirs is a forming relationship, with no ‘outcome’ or ‘yes, we’re there’ about it (I don’t know the beginning of it and it almost feels as if there was no beginning: it just happened). What fascinates the most about this forming play and relationship between these two girls is that one of them doesn’t speak English (or, if she speaks a little, it’s rarely heard). In fact, this younger child of around eight or nine, I suppose, barely says anything to us at all. She has, however, almost always been in play with the other girl.

One simple observation highlights, I trust, my fascination of the play: I was standing up high, up out of the way of things one day, for a few minutes, when I saw the two girls over by the sandpit. One of them had dragged over the old buggy we have on site, which I’ve been surprised to find gets its fair use in the play. I couldn’t hear what was being said, if anything at all, but the girl who spoke no English clearly had ideas in the narrative of the play she wanted to unfold. By means of pointing and double pointing, gesturing towards the buggy, and other hand and facial gestures, the suggestion seemed to be that one of the children would be the baby, in the buggy, and the other would play a different role. Then they swapped. This needed no words, it seemed.

I’ve really wanted to ask the girl who does speak English what’s going on in the play. However, this I know wouldn’t be good because then I’m effectively asking the child to analyse her play (in a low level kind of way). So, I haven’t asked, though I want to know about the way the girls communicate from an insider’s point of view. I speak to the girl who doesn’t speak English, on occasion, as she passes by on the playground and if she looks my way, though the other child, I remember once said, ‘She doesn’t speak English, you know?’ and this is all I know directly from her.

I have known adults who have been of the opinion that children can’t possibly interact without a common language. They’ve said it in so many words. This is, of course, theoretically and observationally rubbish. I’m reminded of a time, over twenty years ago now, when I lived and worked in Germany for a short while. I was at a Jugendhaus (Youth House), and whilst I attempted to use my abbreviated German in my interactions in the play, what I found was that, ultimately, I didn’t need this or English. When we connect, we connect, and (following a small digression here) one child showed me that this had happened with the paper offering she’d made me. Such small things are significant, or can be, and can last a long time. Only recently, I was offered a token of gratitude, as I read it, from a child I made time for, she having gone out of her way to make her gift. She didn’t say what the gift was for. A failure to be able to converse in mutual languages yet to connect in other ways, in the significance of my memory, has also taken place in Holland and in Sweden, to name just two other examples (my favourite stories of being on a plane in Amsterdam — where a child cleverly communicated to me without words, and whilst visiting an outside school near Stockholm — where a child gave me an offering for whatever reason she chose).

Tokens of gratitude are not what we do the job for, but these things are written here to show that children can communicate in ways we don’t often do in the adult world. Sometimes, the tokens and offerings aren’t made things at all; rather, they’re gestures of connection for communications made or listening having taken place, or they’re thanks in other ways. When children tell you the simple tales of their day-to-days, what positives can you glean from them having chosen to tell you these instead of anyone else?

It works in other ways too. I watch on, sometimes, as my colleagues engage in certain on-going conversations with certain children, relating, understanding, or learning to understand them: then, those children choose those adults to tip a bucket of water over, to swear at in exaggerated fashion, or to lie to in such a way because they know that that adult can and will take it, or will accept it, or will intuitively know that what is being said beneath isn’t what is being said.

Returning to the child who doesn’t speak English and the child who does and to their play: in the brief moments when they’ve not been in the play together, for whatever reason, I have seen that there’s almost a magnetic pulling of one back to the other. They have sought each other out, and they have found each other on the playground somewhere, before going off poking around the hidey holes of the place again. The bond of play, of other forms of communicating, has become strong for these two children.

Today, the child who doesn’t speak English was on the playground but the other girl wasn’t there. I noticed this early on because it felt unusual to see the first child unattached as she was. A little later though, near the gate, I noticed another girl, a little older, was talking with her, in English, and this child looked at me and said (half to me, half speaking out loud in mock exasperation) ‘I don’t know how to say this in Italian!’ I told her I didn’t know either. The girls played though. Later, I saw them inside together sat on the sofa. One of the boys was saying his only Italian word at the girls, in exaggerated fashion, being (as he translated) ‘Cheese! Cheese!’ I hit on the idea of bringing the laptop out and communicating through Google Translate. It took the girl who didn’t speak English a little while to figure out what the other girl was trying to type in, and that she could type back, but eventually it happened. In returning to the main theme of this writing though, the girl who didn’t speak English indicated she wanted the other girl to go outside with her. The English-speaking girl came running in a few minutes later, banging on the office door. ‘I only need one thing,’ she said. ‘Tell me how to say do you want to play?’ I don’t think she even needed this: another pairing had bonded via play.

Of course, we see this bonding all the time in various formations of children on the playground: there are small pockets of players who gravitate to one another, and there are larger pockets who disperse and re-form in almost tribal fashion when anything significant is about to happen. The bonding can cross the socio-economic and ethnic parcelling that the adult world seems to like to create so much. There are common denominators of play, but the play and bonding could also be seen in terms of children’s connection in awareness of mischievous intent, in their latent or repressed types of play (or play types engaged in), in their calculated intentions to disrupt, and so on.

Positively play is, in short, often beyond words and the need for words. Connections are deep-seated, or become this way, and play is glue (wishing to avoid the instrumental rhetoric of words and phrases such as ‘play is a tool for xyz’): play is glue, or magnetic.

The conscious stance of playworking

Certain forms of play, and certain individual children, can really challenge a playworker (irrespective of that playworker’s experience). I very much doubt there’s a playworker with the ability to relate to every single child they ever meet; or rather, I doubt there’s a playworker who every single child can cope with being around. Sometimes we don’t try but still our presence will aggravate some child. We can choose to take this personally, or we can choose another strategy. Sometimes, our conscious actions can aggravate all the more. We can choose strategies we think will make things all the better for the majority of the children on site, or we can choose yet another strategy for being in amongst this children’s rarefied world. In reality, conscious playworking is not straightforward, not so binary, not so ‘this is how to do it’.

Here is the context to this thinking today: last week, being the first week of open access school holiday provision at the playground, there was plenty of the usual posturing and antics from a handful of the older boys (supplemented by some of the older girls’ support or antagonism tactics, and a sprinkling of some of the younger girls’ emotions thrown into the mix to boot). Some of the older boys use various means to rule the roost. They variously engage in covert coercion tactics, diversions with playwork staff and outright, chest out, full blown stand-offs with one another. Their play, which in the calm of this writing the other side of the weekend, can still be seen as play (albeit disruptive and designed to antagonise others) sometimes results in other younger children skirting around the edges, steering clear, or not doing the things they want to do in the places they want to do them.

I made playdough one day, because one of the girls had asked for it the day before, and I left it out for the children. The older boys started throwing it around at each other and aiming it at others. There was very quickly no playdough left. I made more later, but the girl who wanted it that day couldn’t play with it how and where she wanted to: the boys had ripped it apart and attacked people again. Their play also involved jockeying for ‘top dog’ status, or acting up around the ‘top dog’, or inciting low-level verbal attacks, or the like. It was exhausting for the playwork team. It was the first week, and I had worked only part of that week on the playground myself, and by the end of the week I was already very low in sugar and desire to go about the work of providing for play.

There is undeniably the to and fro of power shifting taking place when any given playworker puts himself or herself into the position of trying to support, and even things out for, all the children. You get spread very thin. You try to do the right thing. You end up focusing only on the few who rule the roost, and you want to see the play of all the other children: you want to know if it’s there still, how it’s there if it is, what happens, and how it might be better supported. You end up, however, just aggravating the individual children who are sucking up all the attention, energy, and will.

By Friday morning I was already thoroughly exhausted. I got in early and decided I needed just to sit still on the grass and take in the world. My colleagues got on with various tasks that needed doing: cutting the grass, litter picking, admin work, bits and pieces of building. I wasn’t doing nothing. I was collecting. I sat there for a while, and somewhere in amongst all of this I realised that, the day before, I was probably part of the problem. I had got in the way of certain individual children who were aggravating others, who were aggravating me and my colleagues; I was trying to do ‘the right thing’ but ended up, evidently, making things worse. I had already decided that today would be different for me, on my walk into work: I decided I would consciously keep as low a profile as I possibly could on Friday. I would do what needed to be done (not the bare minimum, but everything that needed me, and anything that I could also do if it didn’t risk aggravation on anyone’s part). I went about my later morning tasks until the children came to the playground (mixing buckets of powder paint, incidentally, under a slow running tap, is recommended as a form of meditative centring technique!)

Now, I’ve not always been an advocate of the playwork stance that is ‘being invisible’, preferring instead the idea that a playworker will relate when needed to relate. Even this is too simplistic an interpretation, too binary a telling, of ways of playworking. When the children began to come in, however, I had the sudden realisation that, even though I was trying to stay well out of the way, I was still somewhat in the way because of a few reasons: (i) I’ve noted from previous observation of colleagues on the playground, and from reflection on my own practice, that we often tend towards operating in certain favoured zones — it might feel like ‘patrolling’; (ii) I’m taller than (most of) the children, sticking out in the middle of things; (iii) I tend to prefer walking or standing rather than sitting because I like to be able to see plenty of things in my observations; (iv) I often tend to position myself in parts of the playground, if not in the middle of things, then where I can see most of everything with just a sweep of the head. All of this, I released, might contribute to being too in the midst of things, too present, too much of a potential aggravation, even if not actually physically being in the middle of the playground. If what I’ve said or done previously has affected the children, then if they don’t know I’m there, currently, there may be less chance of my presence becoming a catalyst for inflaming past agitations. This does lead to the thinking that is, ‘well, what then is the point of me being on the playground?’, which I shall return to shortly.

The day was a conscious effort to be ‘other’ than the day before. I sat instead of stood; I tried out positions where I knew I was always lower down than the children who moved and played around me; I interacted with children, on their request and cue, who I hadn’t interacted with for a while, because I hadn’t taken the time for them or because the older boys had often taken up all my observational and interactive energy. The session started off quietly, as it often does, and then quietly rumbled along in similar fashion.

I saw a colleague eating from a bowl whilst sat down in one of the old people’s home chairs, which still cling on to life in various places around the site: he was sat near the fence, in the shade of the tree of what we call ‘the outside office’ (a sometimes den, a sometimes debriefing place). I only noticed him there because he moved to bring the spoon to his mouth. It was a good place, I found later, to observe from. I couldn’t see everything that was going on around the playground (the door to the main room inside was blocked from my view, as was the main gate around the corner, and a good portion of the far side of the playground), but I could see the main strip where the pool table functions as the social centre of the place, the wedge of open ground that is a main route towards the structures, the ‘tree house’ where the new water slide is, and in the far corner, in the haze, the latest incarnation of the ever-changing ‘mad house’ (a palette construction which children add to with new wood, nails, drills, paint, and tarpaulins), with a small group of industrious children attending to it like ants quietly building.

I sat there in the shade for a good long while. I stayed very still but I concentrated very hard on what I was seeing. This was my purpose today, I then realised. I was ready if I was needed by any colleague or child, but I wasn’t necessary to get in the way. The knowing playworker understands that his or her colleague who sits in the shade of a tree for a good long time isn’t shirking responsibilities: they know that they’re concentrating very hard. I was able to see (as I have known but re-realised again) that certain children also have their certain preferred favoured zones (just as the playworkers do); I could see how little bubbles of potential agitations formed, then dissipated, as if watching in slow motion, because no adult aggravated the situation (though they could have intervened, and might have been justified in so doing had they done so); I was able to see how the children who didn’t have so defined a zonal area of comfort moved around — one girl of around ten was the ‘butterfly child’ (she slowly flitted from one place to another: she didn’t seem to have a plan of action, something caught her eye, something happened in her head, she flitted towards the attraction or decided otherwise, she floated around in almost curvilinear fashion, caught on the breeze, smiling, or daydreaming). I saw how two colleagues engaged with an older boy in chase tap play and how he had all of their attention to himself, because he willed it that way, but he seemed absolutely in the flow of that attention. When another colleague drifted inside with all the other older boys, I wanted to know what was happening, but I resisted the curiosity because my presence would have changed things. I found out later that they’d all chilled out on the sofa and chairs, talking. I think they, and we, all needed this.

As the day went on, I kept to my very conscious playworking stance: I endeavoured to keep physically lower, where possible, to sit more, to observe in places I wouldn’t normally operate in, to lessen my possible aggravational impact. I was able to relate to children, at their request, in very considered ways. Later, when other children attempted to cue me into hassling or chasing them around at the end of the session (a common distraction technique to prolong the eventual closing of the gates), I refused to return those cues: to have my buttons pushed. I ignored them, and the children wandered off (until I couldn’t resist with the final child at the gate, him smiling in a way to suggest that he’d won my attention after all, and I got a kick in the shin for my efforts, prompting a colleague to rightly tell me that I deserved that!)

The playworking conclusions I can draw from this conscious stance (and reflections on it) are that, although we may not be the sole cause of agitations of days we wish would pass more quickly than others, we can inadvertently (and otherwise) be an aggravating contributor to it all; we can choose our actions (our height and position, our movements and words) and our apparent inactions; we need our firm resolve about us to enact our decisions and to keep them going (or to change them if they’re not working out); we need the will to resist curiosities that can function better without our presence; we can observe things we either hadn’t seen before or were re-realising again, if we know that what we’re doing in the observing is also important in the greater scheme of things; we can sit and think and not plough headlong into another day, especially if that day is one we’re not looking forward to.

When all is said and done, I believe, the conscious stance is preferable.

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