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

Posts tagged ‘children’s culture’

Speculations on the real and unreal of play

It is with some degree of frustration that someone of a playworking disposition regularly hears the ‘frivolity, or incidental nature, of play’ rhetoric, inherent in various communication. It’s not only in conversation with others that this perception takes place, but it can — in part — be traced within the play literature too. More specifically, in this latter context, and although the current reading matter in question is pro-play (it’s conversant with the idea that more is going on than may meet the eye), play can still have the tendency to be written in terms of contrasting the opinion of play as ‘the not real’ with ‘the real world’. Although not lining up squarely with the idea of ‘the frivolous’, this unreal aspect can be seen as just as ‘throwaway’.

The starting point for this post’s writing (notwithstanding the general years-long ‘unreal/real’ contention having continued to be a background concern) is another of the regularly-cited offerings of play and playwork writers: Catherine Garvey’s simply titled Play (originally published 1977; second edition 1991). In this book, Garvey posits the oft-cited five characteristics of play, these being: its pleasurable nature; that it has no extrinsic goals; its spontaneity; an involvement of active engagement; its systematic relations to what is not play (Garvey, 1991: 4). It is not, however, these characteristics, directly, that I’m looking to draw attention to with this post: it is to the idea of ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ play that this post writing is concerned.

In a chapter entitled ‘Play with Social Materials’, Garvey (1991: 82) asks ‘What is make-believe?’ and she goes on to interchange this phrase with ‘pretending’, defining it as a ‘voluntary transformation’. Further in to this chapter, she writes:

‘. . . in the social conduct of pretending we can see the extent to which children conceive of the family as a system of relationships and as a complex of reciprocal actions and attitudes. Since make-believe enactments and themes reflect the child’s notions of his world (though they do not copy them exactly), this aspect of play can provide a rich field for students and observers of social development.’

— Garvey (1991: 99)

Though there is the hint, in this paragraph, towards something not altogether faithfully and accurately reproduced in the children’s play imitations of adults’ actions, there is still the dominant rhetoric of ‘play as practice’, as perceived, or ‘play as progress’. What if we were to take an entirely different angle? What if we were not to carry on referring to play as something ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’, unreal and essentially imitative? What if we stopped making such sharp contrasts between what we regularly suggest as ‘the real world’ and ‘the unreal world of play’? So then, what if we were to start seeing play as the real world, or a real world, in its own right? (By extension, and just as a thought exercise, which I won’t follow up here due to the scope of this writing, what if play were to be seen, routinely, as ‘the real’ and everything else — if we could make such a distinction — were a pale shadow?).

Before following the line of thought on ‘play as a real world in its own right’, a note of caution regarding culture as a perceived, and as a received, phenomenon: children are active participants and a part of any given culture and will assimilate the received dominant phrases and sometimes meanings of others, including adults, in their reflection of and addition to that culture — whether a child is using an adult concept in description of their own play, or whether it’s a phrase of the subculture of the child-world, it’s hard to say, but they can and do use words such as ‘pretend’ (where does a word or a meaning start?). To illustrate the point, I highlight here a study (Sandberg, 2002) referred to by Lester and Russell (2008: 215) ‘regarding teacher intervention in children’s play in Swedish preschool and after school settings’. Children’s opinions are sought and some are quoted as saying that teachers ‘cannot play pretend games’ (Lester and Russell, 2008: 216).

It is to the idea of culture-as-perceived, rather than to culture-as-received (notwithstanding the reality that culture is not a one-way street of adult to child), as is potentially the case with the Swedish study above, that the playworking attitude is drawn: play is a real world in its own right, though operating simultaneously and inextricably connected with other ‘real worlds’. It is perceived here, and experienced by children, as real not pretend (even if potentially received adult descriptive terminology leaks in). The Garvey position quoted above does have its antithesis in the play and playwork literature; however, first a small spread of more play versus ‘the real world’ positions.

Lester and Russell (2008: 41), referring to how ‘play provides children with a dimension that is unique and not replicable in other aspects of their lives’, cite Bailey (2002):

‘. . . play is a way of experimenting with possible feelings and possible identities without risking the real biological or social consequences. Cut! Time for tea, time to go home — and nothing in the real world has changed, except perhaps that the child is not quite the same person . . .’

(Bold text: my emphasis).

In referring to an experiment conducted by Sylva (1976) on play, object manipulation and problem solving, Garvey (1991: 51) writes that ‘. . . those children who displayed nonliteral [sic] or imaginative behaviour prior to the task were the best problem solvers.’

I read the ‘non-literal’ here as referring to play/the unreal, and ‘the task’ as referring to the perceived-as-real world. Garvey later continues, in terms of play with language:

‘[Children] use outrageous names, juxtapose improbable elements, invent unlikely events, retaining just enough sense of the real world to hold the fabrication together.’

— Garvey (1991: 71)

What is this ‘real world’ that these writers keep referring to? There is a connect in how people talk about play too: still there seems to be a preoccupation with play-as-practice, play-as-unreal, play in terms of developmental progress towards being able to perform tasks in ‘the real world’; there is a distinction between ‘this is time to play’ and ‘this is time to learn, do chores, engage in any other real-world situation’. There is, however, an antithesis to the unreal/real rhetoric buried within the literature.

Sutton-Smith (1997) writes on ‘child phantasmagoria’ — which he later elucidates by way of ‘I use it [the phrase] to imply a bunch of incredible rubbish such as a wild mixture of irrealities, etc.’ (Sutton-Smith, 2008) — and, notwithstanding the use of the word ‘irreality’ (with its ‘illusory’ context, though it is a step up on ‘unreal’), he states that:

‘Children’s play fantasies are not meant only to replicate the world, nor to be only its therapy; they are meant to fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’

— Sutton-Smith (1997: 158)

Play is another world: it isn’t an ‘unreal’ world (though, Sutton-Smith contends that it is an ‘irreal’ world), it is another whole world that sits along with the mundane world. I would go further and say that play is a world that is inextricable from the mundane. Within the scope of this post though, play is a real world in its own right.

Sutton-Smith (1997: 166) goes on to suggest that ‘children’s own play society, because it is about their feelings about reality and not about direct representation of reality as such, is a deconstruction of that realistic society.’

Whilst this ‘deconstruction’ perspective is a welcome relief from the ‘reconstruction’ rhetoric that tends to dominate, it still doesn’t totally tally with the culture-as-perceived, as I see it. To this end, we need to steer towards another stalwart of play and playwork literature: Johan Huizinga. To reach him, however, a quick detour back to Garvey (1991: 56), who writes that ‘play generally reflects a willing suspension of disbelief’ (original emphasis). I read this as the idea that there is a knowledge in the child of what is happening in the play (the ‘unreal’ in adult-speak), which can’t possibly happen ‘for real’/in ‘the real world’.

Is this the case? Is it true that there’s such a stark differentiation between ‘what is play’ and ‘what is not’ (what is ‘unreal’ and what is ‘real’) in the playing child’s thinking? Yes, cultural appropriation of words such as ‘pretend’ filter through child-culture, but if you’ve ever seen a child talking in what adults think of as gibberish with another child then you might appreciate the sophistication of mutual understanding which is both ‘pretend’ and ‘not pretend’. (I once spent a good part of an afternoon with a group of younger primary school children at play, communicating only in the language of ‘monkey’, and we all seemed to understand each other perfectly well enough).

So to Huizinga, whose writing on play and being I come back to time and again. Notwithstanding the use of the outdated word ‘savage’, Huizinga (1955: 25) writes: ‘In his magic dance the savage is a kangaroo’.

It is in the area of religion and belief that Huizinga writes here. If faith is real to the believer, it’s not too far a leap to see that play is real to the player. Huizinga goes on to state that: ‘We express the relationship between him [the savage] and the animal he ‘identifies’ himself with as a ‘being’ for him but a ‘playing’ for us. He has taken on the ‘essence’ of the kangaroo, say we. The savage, however, knows nothing of the conceptual distinctions between ‘being’ and ‘playing’; he knows nothing of ‘identity’, ‘image’ or ‘symbol’.’ (ibid).

He is the kangaroo. It’s real: or, at least, in this perception as I describe it, it’s real. It is, therefore, to this idea of perceiving what children do, perceiving them at play, in terms of perceiving not an ‘unreal world’ or a frivolous act, but a very real world, ‘another world’, a possible phantasmagoria in its own right, that I draw attention. Children might well attach adult-appropriated words in describing acts of their own devising, but ‘pretend’ is also real. It just takes a shift in stance to see it.
 
 
References:

Bailey, R. (2002), Playing social chess: children’s play and social intelligence. Early Years, 22(2): 163-173. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.

Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.

Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston, MA: The Beacon Press.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.

Sandberg, A. (2002), Children’s concepts of teachers’ ways of relating to play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 27(4): 18-23. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sutton-Smith, B. (2008), Communication with Fraser Brown in UKplayworkers (chatroom): the virtual community for playworkers. Digest Number 2562 2a [online]. Defunct.

Sylva, K. (1976), Play and learning in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Heinemann. Cited in Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.
 
 

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On approaches to play

Having recently completed some study on a psychotherapist’s perspective on- and engagement with- play, and having written a piece for a journal on what I discovered, my production editor contacted me to ask me to firm up one of my references. I’d fallen into the trap of quoting a well-worn offering, familiar to many play and playwork readers, and I’d not pinpointed the page of the original text, needing to flesh out my secondary reference. These oversights, because of the often-used quote, led me on a bit of an academic hunt which, in the fullness of time, has led me to the impetus to write today (ultimately — we’ll get there soon enough) on ‘play and learning’.

The page number I was asked to provide, and which I needed to trace, was for our old friend, the psychologist Mr. Jerome S. Bruner. It’s for the quote that goes:

‘Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity.’

— Bruner (1977: v)

It was the (v), or page five, of Bruner’s writing in the introduction of Tizard and Harvey’s (1977) The biology of play that I was looking for. Not being able to lay my hands on a copy of the Tizard and Harvey book, I had to source a copy of Janet R. Moyles’ (1989) Just playing?. This book, the author of which is an educationalist, is the one that’s referenced, regarding the Bruner quote, in the National Playing Fields Association’s (2000) Best play. There’s a trail that needed following here, and the secondary reference was the closest I could get. There though, in Moyles, was the all-important page number. (Here it is above, for anyone who may also be looking for it).

Linking to all of this, I’d just come back from a gathering of play, playwork and playworking (that is, as I define it, relating to the ‘attitude’) types in Bristol: playworkers and non-playworkers alike. One of the messages that seemed to strike a chord with a fair few people, from the conversations that took place, was a need for us (playwork people) to connect with our ‘allies’ who aren’t necessarily in the playwork field. I don’t take this as a call to battle, but as a call to realise that there are or may be crossovers in the great Venn diagram of common causes of those who work with, for, in support of, for the needs of, etc., children.

So, having just delved deeply into the writing of a psychotherapist in her perspectives on play, I thought it high time I actually read Moyles’ book: Moyles being described in the biographical notes as a Professor of Education. I think it’s fair to say that, if we (playworkers) stand back for a few moments, really stand back, we might just see ourselves as a group of relatively right-on lefties, eschewing everything that’s deemed ‘normal’ in society because the recalcitrance of play is the ‘real normal’ which no-one else but us and children can see. We pride ourselves on occupying a special place, and some espouse the thinking that our goal should be to work to a point that we’re no longer needed, to do ourselves out of work (I never fully bought into that, but I can appreciate the sentiment). If we stand back for a few moments, really stand back, who are we trying to kid? Do we need to climb out of our bubbles?

In Bristol, when talking about young men disaffected and disillusioned by unemployment in the Midlands, Simon Rix said a few words in particular that have just stuck with me: ‘What am I for?’ This can be taken, as I write, in the context of those young disillusioned men in their community, in the context of the playworker in reflection on themselves, and in the context of sewing up the threads of this post so far (Bruner’s play as an approach to action, the suggestion of connecting with non-playwork allies on thinking about play, reading on play in terms of psychotherapy and education) . . . ‘What is play for?’

Here I am in my thinking. When we read a work of fiction, we have to try to disconnect from our view of the world as we know it (that whole suspension of disbelief mechanism that must prevail if we’re to fully immerse ourselves in that fiction). To a certain extent, I suppose, we also have to do this when reading academic texts which, on the face of it, don’t tally neatly with our own worldviews. There can come a point, however, when that whole fragile suspension starts to fracture. For me, this came about around page 56 or so of Moyles’ Just playing?.

She’s writing from a specific perspective, the educationalist, it must be kept in mind, and she seems to have a genuine desire for the educational well-being of the children she writes about, but . . . poor play in this book: it’s nothing but a means to an end. I haven’t ever seen ‘play as process’ as meaning something akin to ‘steps in order to achieve a goal’ before, as is apparently proper to the dictionary definitions, as this book seems to define it (despite Moyles’ championing of ‘free play’ — whatever that is, because I do wonder if play is only play when it’s ‘free’, as opposed to Moyles’ teacher-conceptualised ‘directed play’, which surely can’t be seen as ‘play’, really, can it? Those right-on leftie playworkers are getting all purist again!). Poor play is a means to an end here and my suspension of the playworker worldview kind of fractured at or about the following point, in which Moyles writes (in relation to children solving problems through play):

‘Vandenberg (1986) sees children’s play as a potentially valuable natural resource that can be used to develop creative individuals who will be the source of technological innovation so necessary for our economic survival, suggesting the use of children’s play as the foundation for meeting society’s future demands . . .’

— Moyles (1989: 56)

I read on, nevertheless, though I was troubled and, twenty pages or so later, my faith in allies was wavering more with the following (in relation to children and creativity):

‘Pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have is essential if learning within the school context is to be appropriately tailored to children’s development and needs.’

— Moyles (1989: 77)

My discomfort lies in the feel of soft and hard control, depending on the circumstances, perceived as inherent in the act of teaching, as described. Yes, there are some damn fine teachers out there, I’m sure — standard caveat — teachers who care and are good at what they do and who are loved by the children they teach; however, this writing is rather geared towards the ‘use of play’, the idea, than the individual who attempts to slot it into their metaphorical toolkit.

I’m not sure how much people believe me, or hear me, when I repeat my thinking that learning has a habit of coming from play, sure, but that children, by and large, don’t go into their play specifically to learn. Children might go into their play ‘just to play’, to ‘muck about’, to ‘cock about’, to ‘be daft’, to ‘get away from stuff’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘go mad’, or any number of reasons, including to ‘find out’. There is, however, a qualitative difference, I suggest, between ‘finding out’ and ‘learning’, in the context of everything above: one is self-initiated, self-motivated; the other is imposed, albeit potentially or actually with good intentions. Children might find out stuff via their play, but they do it on their own terms. The idea of ‘using play’ in ‘pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have’ is a little troublesome.

Notwithstanding anything else that Bruner may or may not have thought and written, and taking his often-quoted line initially at face value, play is an approach to action, not a form of activity. What is play for? Play is for now — Kilvington and Wood (2010) read Bruner’s line as ‘it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that makes it play’, and it is to this interpretation rather than Moyles’ presumed connection of ‘approach’ with process towards a goal/product — ‘play must be viewed as a process’ (Moyles, 1989: 11) — that I gravitate.

When I teach (adults) in the on-going pursuit of ways of seeing play, I don’t now go out to deny that learning can come of that play. I’m comfortable with the idea that here are resources, here is ‘play stuff’, and what comes of it is what the children make of it, and what comes of it may be something they didn’t know before. Children’s ‘needs’ aren’t, however, necessarily always those that adults think they are. Children may well not go into their play with the thinking that adults suppose they should have (‘caring and sharing’, for example), and they don’t necessarily have the will to be impressed upon by what adults consider important learning opportunities.

At home recently, Princess K. and Viking Boy have had sudden urges to work out how to make and shoot longbows from flexing stripped-off branches and lengths of elastic, with thin garden cane as arrows; they’ve wanted to talk about tsunamis and earthquakes, and make ‘how to’ lists of their own devising for paper maché and squeezing orange juice. This playworking me has only provided the spark, unintentionally, for some pieces of this, pre-planning none of these experiences, trying to read the unfolding situation, staying in or stepping out of the way, as needed (sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding): working with play, not perceiving it as ‘using play’.

I am mindful here of the isolationist, holier-than-thou stance that a group of playworkers, or a playworker, or those of a playworking disposition can be seen to operate with (though I also read the same in Moyles’ treatment of the perceived-as necessariness of an educationalist). There may well be ‘allies’ in other related fields, but we shall have to agree to meet more in the middle (or, at least, get as far as possible into individual examples of one another’s respective literature bases first, before the suspension of disbelief fractures). Is the literature of playworkers wide enough? Likewise, is there enough breadth in the literature of the educationists, the psychotherapists . . .? How much crossover is, or should there, be?

(The study and discussion on) play is an (on-going) approach to action.
 
 
References:

Bruner, J. S. (1977), Introduction, in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Spastics International Medical Publications. Cited in Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 11). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork: for all who work with children (p. 18). London: Continuum.

Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

National Playing Fields Association (NPFA) (2000), Best play: what play provision should do for children (p. 6). London: NPFA.

Vandenberg, B. (1986), Mere child’s play, in Blanchard, K. (Ed.), The many faces of play. The Association of the Anthropological Study of Play, Vol. 9. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics. Cited in: Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 56). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
 
 

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 3 of 3

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

Parachuting playworkers and parents
There are many, many ways for a parachute to benefit the play. There are also many ways for the adults near the parachute to benefit (or not) the play as well. The large colourful affair was a standard piece of our kit wherever we went this summer: in the parks and halls of the villages, at the festivals, at the youth pavilion. Sometimes the play naturally morphed into the standard set of parachute games (it sometimes feels like the set list of a gig: not that it’s a lack of imagination on the part of the playworkers, it’s just that the children seem to want/know the same games). Sometimes, at certain sites, the parachute has good times to be brought out, something different, something new (the wind can bring this thinking on, or it can be flapped to say ‘this is a playable place’). On some occasions it was good to see parents come over, pick up the edge of the parachute when they saw something starting to happen, and go with the flow as children ran underneath or around it. It’s entirely possible for a group of disparate adults who’ve never met each other before to fall into an organic and co-operative motion and knowledge of what’s happening and why. The why is the children’s play.

There is the opposite too, of course. One day, we’d laid the parachute out at the widest part of the playable area at a festival (nominally the entrance to the children’s dedicated enclosed area, though it was right in front of the chemical toilets, which wasn’t ideal!). Nothing organised was happening, and it was fine. A woman came over though, quite forcibly, and she picked up the parachute and proceded to instruct a child to play. The child went with it, and he didn’t seem too perturbed (perhaps he was used to it). Some of the playworkers came over to hold the parachute too, in support, though we said nothing. The woman was irritating me a little, I admit, but the child was playing, and it became his play, of sorts, so I didn’t intervene. After ten minutes or so, the woman decided that the play was done. Off she went with her child. I don’t remember seeing her again. Perhaps I should have said something; perhaps it all ended up fine, or sort of fine, in the end.

At the pavilion, a few days later, it was a windy day. I was working as the only playworker outside on the grass. I brought out the parachute and spread it out on the ground. I didn’t really think I’d be doing ‘games’ because it didn’t look and feel like that type of a session. A group of younger children played underneath the parachute and, without really realising how, I was then involved. The children seemed to enjoy running down the centre of the barrel shape that the parachute made as I lifted it from one end. The wind was the only support I needed there. We ran the parachute down the field, going with the wind, turned and ran it back with the children running underneath it as it billowed. They shouted at me to let it go, so I did. It flew and they chased it. ‘Again, again,’ they shouted. So we did it all again, and again, and again.

I can’t leave the subject of parachutes without making reference to my younger playwork colleague (she of the non-gloop childhood) who, one day in a village hall, as we were trying to make what we call a ‘mushroom’ shape with the parachute, did something just amazing and small and beautiful. We only had a handful of children with us at the parachute so it was a little tricky getting enough lift to billow the fabric up (even though we had a couple of parents with us too). I decided that, if we stepped forwards a little as we lifted, this would give that little bit of oomph that we needed to float the parachute: except, I decided this in my head and I didn’t say it out loud! As I stepped forward, from the corner of my eye I saw her watching me carefully. She stepped forward with me. The parachute lifted up high. It’s a small thing, but it was important in the moment.

Holding patterns
I’ve been reminded again this summer, on occasions, of what it means to ‘hold the play frame’ for a child or group of children. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about ways in which an adult may be in service to the play by keeping it viable (not controlling it but just being the glue for a while). Some children have bounced their play ideas off of me, or sought quiet affirmation that ‘this use, with this thing’ is not against some rules, or sometimes they’ve played out their ideas including me, through me, around me. Occasionally, I’ve reflected that I was the glue for several play frames (or bubbles of play in the metaphor I’ve used before), from different children, playing different things, all at the same time. This is no easy task. If the chosen playworker isn’t there to maintain the viability of the play, the play doesn’t happen in the way the child is indicating they want it to. If the playworker stays too long in the play, it stops being the thing it was or was intended to be, and could become play disagreeable to the child or children, or it could become the play of the playworker. I don’t know what this says if the playworker finds themselves in an almost constant state of holding the meaning of the play, or being the mirror, or the glue, or whatever metaphor is preferred, for two or three hours almost non-stop. I do know that to do it right, it needs judgement.

When adults play
When children come to a site where I’ve brought the play stuff, I quite often say to the parents who come along too that ‘adults can play too.’ Now, on the one hand, this play stuff is not for the adults; it’s for the children. On the other hand, however, there is some benefit in (a) children and parents playing together (provided, I think, that the parents don’t take over the play or direct it), and (b) adults being made comfortable with the fact that, just because they’re adults now, their play-engagement doesn’t have to be over. By saying to parents, ‘you can play too’, I hope this starts to break down any preconceived notion that children do xyz and adults do something else. I also hope that they can start to interact with their children at these sessions on terms which they might not necessarily have done before.

At one park, I remember, we had just a small group of younger children with us but we’d spread all the making and sticking and cutting and so forth stuff out on the tarp on the grass. A couple of the parents sat there too and all the adults chatted as the children played and, somewhere along the line, I felt, the parents started playing too. It was respectful of their children’s creations (the children were busy smooshing up clay and playdough and jamming beads and googly eyes into it all!), and the parents weren’t telling the children what and how to make things. The parents made their own things, almost as if their hands were doing things independent of their conversations. It was good to see.

Observation of adult engagement with play was a little different at one of the festivals. We didn’t have such arts and crafts play stuff out on the main strip between the designated children’s area and the coffee stalls and such like, but we did have a long skipping rope! I’ve long known that adults don’t particularly enjoy the idea, generally speaking, of participating in what they perceive as ‘children’s play’, at least not in public view! (It’s strange then that those same adults are quite happy to dance at the bandstand, to dress up as if it were normal day-to-day attire, and to engage in the cultural or religious play of devotion, worship, prayer and such like at the stone circle). So, maybe we were being a little provocative and playing for ourselves when we decided to stretch the long skipping rope half-way across the main strip: those walking up the slope along the well-worn track would need to either engage with the rope or walk around it. Plenty walked around it. I do remember one young couple walking by though and the woman, who was probably no more than in her early twenties, looked at us as if to suggest a question. We nodded and she seemed pleased to be given the opportunity to skip for a short while. Adults sometimes need more than just a rope strung across the grass to accept the invitation to play.

Children, by contrast, can often see a rope and make decisions of their next actions based on different starting points: this rope is here for me if I want to use it or not. The children on the main strip of grass soon somersaulted over it, limbo danced under it, jumped it, skipped as we swung it.

This all said, over the summer there was plenty of adult play observed (either after explicit permissions given, as above, or of those adults’ own accord): lots of use of poi (either the ribbon-tailed, or water poi, or glow in the dark variety); making and crafting (under the guise of it being a ‘workshop’); rituals and celebrations; dancing and singing; playing instruments at the bandstand in what looked and felt like spontaneous groups, comings-together; drinking beer, of course! The thing is, though, and I think I may be largely right here, though I will stand corrected if not, I’d dare say it was only the playworkers (or the play-literate/play-mentality adults) who did or would call this all ‘play’, their own play. In the world of ‘being adult’, all of the above (and other examples) are known by different names: celebration, festival, ritual, healing, relaxation, recreation, hobby, pastime, sport . . . really though, they’re all play, and that’s not a bad word to call it.
 
 

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 . . .
 
 

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 1 of 3

Summer has come and gone, and it has been one of first looking forward to all of the different things that might happen, in all of the different places, then jumping right in: play support at various festivals, playworking in the villages, a regular stint based at a youth centre in a local town community, being at home with the play, some sessions of play support for children who had re-located countries. It has been a summer of the jobbing playworker. What remains in the reflections?

The Thunderdome
We made two separate excursions, on different dates and for different festivals, to locations along the winding stretch of the River Severn where England and South Wales meet. Unfortunately for us, we seemed to have arrived in storm season. The children didn’t seem to mind. Tents put up on exposed hillsides in near constant sideways wind and rain are prone to potential submission though! The weather made putting up the big teepees and yurts somewhat tricky. On the main field, one of the dome frames was left without its canvas for a couple of days: the children swung and jumped from the frame as we walked past. It reminded me of the climbing frame constructions I used to play on as a child (except ours weren’t dome-shaped, they were stacks of brutalist cubes of what may well even have been scaffolding poles, and we didn’t have grass underneath, or ‘safety surfacing’: we had concrete — it was the 70s and we laughed in the face of Health and Safety!). The children climbed on the dome-shaped frame and I didn’t even realise it was the frame of a yurt (until days later when the canvas went on). Children can transform things into playable things, and in so doing those things can have the capacity to take on new mental forms for observers. At some point, the frame was named ‘The Thunderdome’: the children jumped onto an old crash mat and played rough and tumble fighting in there.

A cardboard slot in the weather
We had one good afternoon of weather at that particular festival (notwithstanding the school of thinking that goes: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’). It was the Saturday afternoon and I’d been assigned to do some art and older age-appropriate storytelling with the pre-teens and teenagers. It wasn’t ever going to be an ‘activity’, in my head, as such, but rather more like, ‘here’s this gig, with this stuff, let’s go with what happens.’ It didn’t turn out that way either: not with regards to art and storytelling for this age group, at least. I’d taken a whole pile of corrugated cardboard (the side panels of bike boxes, which I’d blagged from various local bike shops and scrounged from the yard round the back of Halfords a few weeks earlier), a box of chalks and a pile of charcoal from the fire pit. That was it. I had some story ideas in my head. I didn’t need them. The sun came out just as I was setting up and I thought: let’s just be outside on the grass, not in the inside tent space we were allotted. I’d been observing the play of the various age groups over the previous days and I’d had a feeling that something ‘other’ was going to happen. So it turned out. After a short time, a bunch of older and younger children were playing with the cardboard and chalks, but the older children soon lined the card panels up, end to end, to make a slide. When they were done the co-creation of a cardboard fort started happening with the younger children.

I had my penknife with me and the children directed me as I cut slots into the card, and arrangements of walls were built. Soon they were saying, ‘I need a window’ or ‘Can I have a door?’ I cut windows and doors, and roofs were made. The play morphed and flowed and walls were taken down and rebuilt and smaller houses were made and moved. It was all in the flow. I stepped back and talked with parents who were watching on.

Two young brothers, who I’d seen around and who were — shall we say — a handful at times for their parents, bundled into the cardboard constructions. The youngest was bashing away at the walls but he was happy enough. The other children weren’t best pleased though. All they saw was this boy being destructive to their constructions. It struck me in one of those moments of ‘not really knowing for sure where it comes from’ that all the boy was after was a compartment, a space within the construction, for himself. He was trying to get into others’ small inhabited areas but they didn’t want him. I quickly constructed him a space of his own. He laid down in it, still and seemingly content. There are moments in playwork when you get it right, either by luck or by conscious or subconscious good judgement, or all of these.

Just as we were starting to pack away (the frayed and damaged cardboard was on the way out anyway, and my gig time was up), the rain started sploshing down and disintegrating the card. It felt portentous, significant, in its own way!

Executing play: context and momentary witnessing
The children at this festival wandered the site and, in passing the play that’s already happening, the keen observer can be surprised or fascinated or rendered thoughtful about what has just drifted by. One day I was walking across the main rectangle of grass (kind of like a village green, I suppose, flanked by the larger marquees — the main meeting space, the children’s tent, the café and stage; the Thunderdome was at one end, and a large teepee was nearby; in the middle of the green was the flag circle). A small group of children were going past, not paying any attention to me. I heard one say out loud to the group, ‘OK, who wants to be executed?’ So, yes, that got my attention! There was a small clamour for the privilege of being the chosen one. The chosen one was led away, arms lightly secured, and into the darkness of the large teepee. I have no idea what happened next in the play: I wasn’t in a position of privilege in the play frame, both in psychological- and physical-boundaried terms.

I was, at once, slightly disturbed, intrigued, mindful of what I was actually witnessing rather than what others might describe it as. I witnessed this for maybe thirty seconds in passing, but it’s a stand-out moment of the summer. It’s laden with all manner of potential background narratives of what might have happened previously in the play, what had been seen or talked about, what had been absorbed, what had been invented and why. What I saw was out of context, and I won’t ever know what the fuller context for that play frame was.

Untitled
Elsewhere, I’ve done some play support work with a small group of children whose families have come from other countries. One of those countries we’ve seen on the news quite a lot as of late. We have, perhaps, become desensitised to what’s been going on there. I won’t write here of anything said or played in that group, but let’s just say that a brief conversation with one child, about nothing much on the face of it, suddenly struck me, in my moment of epiphany, about what war does.

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.
 
 

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.
 
 

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