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

Posts tagged ‘children’s culture’

What’s the point of you, playworker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychological repair: the playworker as sticking plaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations of summer play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?
 
 

Play in amongst the trees

It is that time of year when I take what is becoming an annual excursion into deepest Kent where, in amongst the trees there, underneath the sun and stars of the clearing and thereabouts, the younger children who gather with their families play. A couple of weekends ago we were there, and it’s good to be off-grid for a while, despite all we think of and seem to need the modern world, and the after effects of being there are still lightly buzzing around in me. This place, this Feast in the Woods, is each year something small and special.

Children, regulars, come year after year. Of course, their parents make the decisions about this bank holiday break, or so I suspect, but a part of me wants to believe that some of the children must remind those parents about going. It is, you see, a somewhat free place to play. Sure, there are possibly parents who keep their children closer to hand but what I saw, and see each year, are marauding, free-ranging mostly under-8s making their own ways in and out of the forest, down to the lake, having had possible adventures.

This year there were new children to these trees and place. Some were in my travelling party. As we drove out of London, it amused me as the children in the back seat excitedly spotted cows in the fields! When we got there, along a long country lane, and after pitching up, the children stayed relatively close by as we explored a little. By the next morning, they were navigating the woods on their own. Later, as I sat in the sun, a bunch of boys marched into and back out of the clearing, armed with self-made bows and arrows. A group of girls concealed themselves near our tents (seemingly oblivious to the fact that adults were nearby and could hear their machinations): they plotted how to track the boys.

Seeing how these children shifted their play in amongst the trees, the regulars and the new children, was something special. It reminded me, in a light way, of that old stereotype (which is true though) of how we, my generation, would go out to play on hot summer days and only come home when we were hungry. I realised that, when the new children were confident enough with the landscape and with their ranging and working out of geography, when they said they were just going to or just having been to the lake, they were on a personal excursion: they may have found their own routes that took them off of the path down the hill, around the field used as a car park, and on. They may have found shortcuts through the trees. I didn’t know for sure. It wasn’t really my business.

At night something quite special happened. A few things quite special happened for city children, maybe: first, as the light slowly faded, one by one the stars came out. We looked up and guessed the names of some stars, and looked at the Plough and Orion’s Belt, and saw satellites zip by and the slowly flashing lights of far-off planes. Later the sky filled more. A little later still, I took a short night walk with the new children. They had torches but I said, ‘Hey, turn them off for a while. Let your eyes get used to different things.’ The children weren’t so sure at first. ‘Trust me,’ I said and I told them something I always remember my dad telling me: there’s nothing there at night that isn’t there in the day. Well, shush, maybe there are a few extra nocturnal animals, but you get my drift. The children held hands, and mine, firmly. They trusted but negotiated with me to turn the torches back on on the way back up the lane. That lane we walked was lit every twenty or thirty yards or so by a candle in a paper bag, placed on the ground. It really was a beautiful experience because everything was utterly dark but for the little smudges of candlelight. The city children made the candle-lit walk. The next night, they asked to do it again. This time they didn’t hold on so closely. We said, ‘Shall we just stop for a little while and listen here?’

One morning, I got up not so late (an hour or two after the babies on site seemed to emulate the dawn chorus). The first thing I always need on struggling out of my tent is coffee. I unzipped my doorway to the world, thinking about how to get my fix, unfolding myself out into the early morning air. One of our city children was already up and about, crouching down on her haunches, listening and watching intently as the older woman who’d camped next to us was explaining to this focused six year old how a storm kettle worked. It takes a village to raise a child. I shuffled myself off to the main grill and cooking area to investigate coffee-making possibilities.

The children spent their days in the trees, their hours in the clearing smearing layers of face-paints on far too trusting adults; they jumped in the lake, played drums, danced, cart-wheeled, ran around as Zombie T-Rex food, and so on. (Being a Zombie T-Rex is, for this Zombie T-Rex, amusing for a while, with a six year old on board growling in his ear about hunting ants before turning on the other fodder, but advisable, in retrospect, only in short bursts!). One of our city children, back in the city a few days on, brought the catapult he’d made out of a Y-shaped stick to show me. Something in me was mightily impressed and humbled by this keepsake.

There is, I’m finding, a certain come-down to being off-grid, in amongst the trees and freedom of play there. It’s taking a while.
 
 

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.
 
 

Playworking plain-songs

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

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

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

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

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

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

‘I really like the feel of this.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 . . .?
 
 

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.
 
 

Play, which is non-restrictive approach to action, and its grammar

Being a playworker offers privileged insights into the many-faceted nature of play and, by extension, children’s culture. We, as the adults, are by definition on the outside looking into that culture. That said, the observant, the trusted and the fascinated can be subsumed: just as parliamentary privilege grants its members the leeway of undertaking certain protected actions, playworker privilege (or, at least, play-literate adult privilege) grants that playworker the luxury of being allowed to co-exist in the child’s play. This post, however, isn’t going to carry on about constitutions and the like: privileged insights on play, over time, manifest themselves into a form of grammar that can be seen to be taking place. This is it: play has its grammar.

First though, a quick explanation overview on the choice of title (feel free to read ahead if you know the difference between ‘restrictive’ and ‘non-restrictive’ clauses). Simply put, a restrictive clause is an element of a sentence that is essential for its meaning. A non-restrictive clause can be omitted without the sentence losing its meaning. For example, omitting ‘which is non-restrictive approach to action’ from the title doesn’t greatly shift its overall gist: ‘Play and its grammar’.

Play is non-restrictive, i.e. it doesn’t restrict the subject (that is, in this case, the playing child). If we shift the title of this post to include a restrictive clause, then we shift the meaning of it, e.g. ‘Play that is non-restrictive approach to action and its grammar’. Play that is non-restrictive suggests that there is a non-restrictive and a restrictive sort of play. If it’s restrictive (or restricting) for the player, is it play?

I’ll stop on that choice of title whilst I’m still marginally ahead! Over the years a playworker can amass several books’ worth of privileged insights into the grammar of play, as they’ve seen it. Anything I write here in the next thousand words or so will only scratch the surface. Suffice is to say though that there are lores and codes, the sense of the non-sensical, the necessary unnecessariness and vice versa, the repetitions and recreations, the shows and tells, the long lines of finding out, ridicule and ridiculousness, the not knowing and just staring out but just knowing . . .

Play, as observed, seems replete with ‘this is how it is-ness’. That is, those lores of ‘We got here first’ and ‘I invented this game’ are ingrained in the fabric of play from those players’ points of view. Recently, play had unfolded inside the hall, over the course of a few days, whereby a small group of children strung string or wool around like webs. Of course, this irritated other children who wanted to use that exact same area too. The stringers claimed the moral and play high ground by invoking the ‘we got here first’ clause. Clauses like this are written into the language of play.

Non-sense (written deliberately here with the hyphen) is not a trivial aspect of this language. Non-sense is a code in itself. When ‘Cops and Robbers’ happens on the playground, and when I’m the cop because that is my designation, some of the children will stop running and stand in the middle of the site, in the mud, with a finger placed across their upper lips (or, sometimes, it’s a twig or something else like this). This non-sense makes perfect sense to the players: all of us. The children standing with their fingers poised horizontally across their upper lips are in disguise, sporting moustaches. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ the situation requires me to say to any of the girls stood there, ‘but have you seen any robbers around here?’ The children will often say no, so I’ll say, ‘Oh, sorry to have bothered you, sir’ and this is their cue to take down their moustache disguises and the chase is on again! If you ‘write’ the play in other ways, sometimes, if you play it out other than expected, it doesn’t seem to read right.

Within play there are necessary unnecessaries and unnecessary necessaries. Glitter is a thing of the moment (a necessary necessary within the other lines of thinking, being, doing). One particular younger child attends our off-playground outreach sessions every day we’re out there. Every day, without fail and at some point, he’ll find the pot of glitter (which we take out there because the other children have been gluing and glittering and feathering pictures and plasticine and tables for weeks now). Every day we’re out there, as soon as he’s found the glitter pot, this younger child will pour it all out onto the nearest surface (usually the ground!). It seems absolutely, unnecessarily necessary for him to do this, or vice versa. I haven’t quite worked out which. Either way, it’s a twisted grammatical construction, as complex as it is: threading through and hanging in the play, the child has his own reasons. It is a dangling participle of the language of play.

Play like this happens again and again. I’ve written of repetitions and recreations of play many times here (yes, that is an intentional and considered previous two lines). In some form of necessary way, players often seem to need and want this repetition and recreation. Perhaps the play that has happened hasn’t strung itself out fully yet; perhaps the play just needs repeating in order to try to conjure the affective felt conditions of before (as I have written of before); perhaps, in the repetitions and recreations, in the grammar of these lines that thread through days, there is something of the ancient ritual, of the magic incantation, of magic protective circles, and the like. These are not necessarily about the extensions of play that happens (being the on-going concern of a play frame over days — like, for example, the cafés that currently unfold around the playground); these are clockwork repetitions. One boy with autism repeats the same actions at the fire, piling on cardboard and any paper sheets he can find, sitting and watching and saying over and over, ‘Little flames, little flames’ and ‘Strawberry jam’ or whatever I can’t translate from his Slovenian or Croatian. Other children, without autism, repeat their play at the swings, at the trampoline, at the netting, with the bikes, with the sand and mud pies, with the whatever is ‘in’ of the moment. It seems readable: as if there are messages within it all.

Some children create elaborate constructions of play and there are more messages embedded in all of these. These are shows and tells. The playworker has to be hyper-tuned to register the frequencies of what’s going on around him- or herself some days. There are wavelengths that are longer too though. Sometimes the amplitude, as it were, is so shallow, though the wavelength is so long, that the on-going play can be missed, unseen, entirely. The long lines of finding things out are written in the way that names and uses of them unfold, in the slow fluidity of shifts in friendships, in the ultra-local legends of very particular places within the place that is the playground. These are subject-verb agreements within the grammar of the play.

Some children, in the play, are objects of ridicule (because they don’t know or don’t care what and how they do things, or because they’ve chosen a way, or because they can only be that way, or because they’ve wanted to be). They act like punctuation marks because you know how they’ll affect the sentence of the play as a whole. They’re both needed and unneeded by the other children: an aspect of the selective descriptive grammar, in this case, rather than the prescribed ‘you must do this, be this, be that’. Ridicule is part of play but play also subverts and embraces ridiculousness. On the face of it, when does play start? It’s ridiculous to suggest that it either starts or ends when, sometimes, narrating (or prescribing) the play — what will happen (‘first I’ll do this, then you do that, then afterwards we’ll do this’) before it’s happened — is part of the play in itself. Then it shifts condition. The blocky adult perspective of ‘non-play action, non-play action, play, non-play action’ is the ridiculous here, which children are fluent in turning on its head. It’s a way of writing upside down. At the same time, play embraces the ridiculousness of being. ‘What would you like from our café, sir?’; ‘Octopus pie and a slice of hippo, no cucumber please’; ‘OK, just wait here.’ It’s mirror writing: through the looking glass.

Play, which is non-restrictive (or how can it be play?), has its grammar. This is, as I read it, a complex affair. It embraces other philosophies and fields in its ethics, in its amplitudes and wavelengths, in its calligraphies and natural magic. There are clauses in the lores, ways of reading, twisted constructions and hidden messages within it all; there are subject-verb agreements, objects in relation, subversions and subsummations of others’ ways of being. Play is a descriptive, non-restrictive grammar because it won’t be exactly pinned.

Sometimes, all we can do (and sometimes all children need to do), in the just not knowing, is just a staring out, but just kind of knowing all the same . . .
 
 

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