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

Posts tagged ‘connectivity’

In trust

Trust is perhaps the most important condition to find our bearing in the world at all. That applies with regard to children but also our everyday practical life — and it does so to a far greater extent than its opposite, control.

— Henning Kullak-Ublick (2019)

 
I have felt unable to write as of late due to a scarcity of freedom. Words must out however, in spite of circumstances. What follows will be lament, not shout; what follows will be an invocation, and solutions for those with the ability to hear. The issue at hand is the trust of- and communication with- children and, by extension, comprehension of them as competent, inquisitive, loving, questioning, exploring, experimenting, bright and beautiful people. We, adults, do not or should not hold all the cards: we are not, cannot and should not be, the arbiters of all knowledge or action.

Relationships of positive regard are essential: such connections are two-way conduits, channelling all manner of mutual understandings, previous play interactions, situations and locations, feelings and thoughts which may not even be fully formable in anything other than internalised shapes. Where arboreal, high up to low down, power dynamics overwhelm the potential of the system, all of this possibility is destroyed. The deceit of the order of control is in its promise of security, but how can there be security where there is no trust? So it is with us: we could relate with positive regard, be trusted, but we must also trust. Children deserve this, at the very least.

What is it that can be said, or could be said, or what could be explored and where and why, and how far is too far, how high too high? Children know these things. What look or gesture or expression of what it is to be this person, now, with this other, might be right or possible, or experimentable? Children know this too. The opposite of all of this is children walking quietly, not thoughtfully, but unthought-unfully, or filled with a fear or trepidation. I have seen children walking as if on eggshells because of a lack of trust, because of the arboreal presence of adults.

. . . the existence of his society . . . depend[s] on the continuance of a fundamental, unadmitted profit-contract. Not a relationship of mutual aid and solidarity, but an exploitative relationship; not organic, but mechanical. Can true function arise from basic dysfunction?

— Ursula Le Guin (1974, 2002)

Down, down, at the level of the ground, or at the level of the children, the world can look very different: firstly, everything might be softer there (whispers, gifts of daisies, laughter, blossom falling from a tree). It always helps to see eye to eye with those we’re in communication with. We forget that trees grow outwards too: at the levels of our sights and underneath our feet. Here is the favoured analogy: we are rhizomatic, root-like, reaching out to one another, or we can be, irrespective of our nominal ages. The arboreal verticality of power need not be.

Children learn to compensate for the deficiencies of their lives (deficiencies such as a lack of a say, perhaps), but these compensations can be inauthentic strategies: I was told recently, by a nine year old I know well, that the reason she affects a sudden mood swing sometimes is so that then, she ‘wins’. There is a degree of lament in this alone. I said, but sadly, that it wasn’t all about this winning and losing, rather it was or should be all about a communicating. We walked and she shrugged. We talked of other things.

[Neuropsychologist, A. K. Benjamin] argues that patient sensitivities are overlooked by health professionals. The way first consultations are conducted is, he says, ‘hugely important in setting a tone and raising awareness’. In his opinion most doctors are terrible at it, because they’re too intent on establishing their authority rather than assessing the patient’s psychological or emotional needs.

— Andrew Anthony (2019)

What say children truly have is not even debatable. Opinion and need might not always be actionable but they should always be actually listened to. We, adults, must desist with the persistent desire to be solely important. The quality of the communication is in the way and the where and the why it is said, amongst other delicacies, and children can say some beautiful things, sometimes without the use of words. We just have to know how to listen.

There are many, many tales I could tell here, because they fizz. I won’t, right now, because I’m keeping them safe, in a box with a lid, which I’ve just construed, here on my desk.

Do we enable children to ‘live in our souls’ without reservation or do we let them down in their trust through our behaviour and force them to withdraw into themselves at much too early a stage?

— Henning Kullak-Ublick (2019)

Each of us, adults, must bear the responsibilities of our actions, though we may tell children this and not practice what we preach. In truth, our communications and behaviours are both instant fires and slow-burns in children’s minds: I see this in their actions, in response, and I hear this in their words. It trickles underneath. Children’s resilience is, often, in spite of adults, not because of any of their teachings, necessarily. Our communications and behaviours, adults, still trickle underneath.

It is of all the greater benefit for the child the more they can live not in their soul but in the soul of the surroundings, in the souls of the surroundings.

— Rudolf Steiner, quoted by Kullak-Ublick (2019)

We must trust so that they might find.

[A] security for [a child’s] soul [is] through attachment and a relationship in which we take the time really to see the children, listen to them, tell them stories, laugh with them, love them as part of our life in a very practical and reliable way.

— Henning Kullak-Ublick (2019)

How is it that we might be: in ourselves and in our reciprocalities?
 
 
References:

Anthony, A. (2019), Tales of unravelling minds: a neuropsychologist’s darkest days. The Guardian [online]. Available from: 
www.theguardian.com/global/2019/feb/10/tales-of-unravelling-minds-a-neuropsychologists-darkest-days-ak-benjamin (Accessed April 23, 2019)

Kullak-Ublick, H. (2019), Trust — the miracle of being human. Erziehungskunst: Waldorf Education Today [online]. Available from:
www.erziehungskunst.de/en/article/trust/trust-the-miracle-of-being-human (Accessed April 23, 2019)

Le Guin, U. (2002), The dispossessed (first published 1974), p.99. London: Gollancz
 
 

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The forest of children: collaboration and connectivity

I, and my words, have wintered and now it’s almost spring. What of play, now, after these months of thinking, reading, always either being in with empathy, reflecting on or observing around this most ineffable of sustenances? I recently came across an article that seemed to link with my previous recent writings embracing mutual aid, collaboration and connectivity. The article (Let’s do branch: how trees socialise and help their neighbours by Amy-Jane Beer, 2019) is, admittedly, published primarily as a paid-for product placement link in an online national newspaper; however, glazing over that, I was caught up by the analogy I found myself conjuring of a forest of children, en mass, at play.

Despite appearances, trees are social beings. For a start, they talk to each other. They’re also sensing, co-operating and collaborating . . .

Read as: Despite appearances, children are social beings. For a start, they talk to each other. They’re also sensing, co-operating and collaborating . . .

Well, we know that children interact, for sure, but do we know how it is they communicate, in all their various, glorious, subtle, complex, overlaid and interlaced formations? They can manifest their many complexities to one another (and to and between them and any playworking-minded adults) in such astute and beautiful, brave and careful intricacies. There are many who can’t, or won’t, see such things because maybe their focusings are fraught or frayed

. . . the phenomenon known as ‘crown shyness’, in which similarly-sized trees of the same species appear to be respecting each other’s space was recognised almost a century ago. Sometimes, instead of interlacing and jostling for light, the branches of immediate neighbours stop short of one another, leaving a polite gap.

Children move: they always seem to be moving, physically, but even when this isn’t so perceptible, they’re still moving, emotionally, psychologically, socially. Children are choreography in action. It’s easy to see when they’re playing ‘tag’, say, spinning towards and away from one another, but we might also consider how there is an emotional, psychological, social choreography in action too. It isn’t the ‘polite gap’ of physical trees or children that I wish to pay attention to here: it is the honour of ‘being a fellow child’ that I see, despite the occasional disagreement. There are small courtesies and allowances paid to one another, which are replete with knowing and feeling what it is in being ‘child’.

If trees can be shy at their branch-tips, more recent research shows they are anything but at their roots. In a forest, the hair-like tips of individual root systems not only overlap, but can interconnect, sometimes directly via natural grafts, but also extensively via networks of underground fungal threads, or mycorrhizae. Through these connections, trees can share water, sugars and other nutrients, and pass chemical and electrical messages to one another.

This is the nub of things. The forest of children is an interconnected affair, below the surface of what the many adults think they see or hear or know. It never ceases to amaze how the smallest particle or packet of information can fizz around the underground, along the root system and its off-shoots, to surface again elsewhere or elsewhen, maybe whole or maybe slightly modified but always passed without adult discernment. Children inhabit a culture, an extensive rhizomatic array, way beneath and beyond the forgotten comprehension of many adults of the local system above the ground.

Canadian biologist Suzanne Simard . . . describes the largest individual trees in a forest as hubs or ‘mother trees’. Mothers have the deepest, most extensive roots, and are able to supplement smaller trees with water and nutrients, allowing saplings to thrive even in heavy shade.

I have seen this mother phenomenon in action, but never really realised it as something akin to the trees until thinking recently. One child, girl or boy, of any age, quietly, humbly sustains those around them, sacrificing something, ignoring something, giving something and walking away. They get on with their own play. We of the playworking-minded adults think we have the monopoly on such actions, and sometimes we do act in these ‘mother tree’ ways, but when we see a child, quietly, come to give an upset other the doll she was playing with, say, walking away then without a word or gesture (or another, sat quietly stroking the hair of her friend in front of her, for reasons we can only guess the depths of), we can realise otherwise.

Scientists have known for more than 40 years that if a tree is attacked by a leaf-eating animal, it releases ethylene gas. On detecting the ethylene, nearby trees prepare to repel boarders — boosting production of chemicals that make their leaves unpalatable, even toxic.

It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility (what do we adults really know?) to suggest that a locale of the forest of children can act in similar ways. An attack on one is a warning to the others, and the others can then seem just as toxic to the attacker looking for more to feed on. I have seen small groups closing ranks. The question remains, though: what, or who, here constitutes the toxic agent?

A sobering aspect of recent revelations is that many of these newly recognised ‘behaviours’ are limited to natural growth. In plantations, there are no mother trees, and there is very little connectivity. This is partly because of the way young trees are transplanted and partly because when they are thinned to prevent competition, what little underground connectivity neighbours have established is severed. Seen in this light, modern forestry practices begin to seem almost monstrous: plantations are not communities but crowds of mute, factory-farmed individuals, felled before they have ever really lived.

This paragraph, to me, is very poignant. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions of minutiae and wholenesses on it.

For this playworking-minded writer, it suffices to say that we can affect a positivity of nurture, in all manner of circumstances and to some degree, but it’s better if the nature of connectivity isn’t stripped away or trammelled on to start with.
 
 

Symbiotic homeostatic disequilibrium in playworking interaction (link to paper)

At the risk of confusing the poor search-bots, this post is — part — a duplication of a separate recently published page on this site, being from a file of my online papers as it is. I post the abstract and link here as a means of maximising initial exposure to the writing. First the preamble, however.

In May this year, I attended a gathering of play and playwork people in Cambridge (PlayEd 2018). Discussions and further communications around that time and subsequently, with Gordon Sturrock, resulted in the co-authored paper linked to below. This paper is a synthesis of some aspects of one of Gordon’s prompter conference papers, written communications from the same via ensuing small collective and personal correspondence, and my own reading research, experiential input and writing. As such, the resulting paper is a fusion, a process in keeping with the content.

It is fully anticipated that there will be disagreement with some of that content from within the playwork ‘bubble’; however, there will — I trust — be those who connect with it. Either way, the intention is to open up the discussion on what those of us who call ourselves playworkers do, and how we are.

You can read the paper via the PDF link at the bottom of this post, or you can access all of the text and link content below via the Play Connectivity tab in the header above (or here: Play Connectivity) — that should confuse the search-bots plenty but it does give you plenty of easy access choices!
 
 
Abstract

Playwork’s key claim is its unique manner of working for and with children. It currently suffers, however, from a lack of consensus regarding the benefits of its application. This paper challenges the dilution of playwork practice in acknowledging the art, grace and wisdom in connectivity of playworking. Drawing primarily on Antonio Damasio’s neurobiological analysis, the homeostatic disequilibrium operation at the core of body/neural intra-action is detected as reflected in the interaction of organisms.

In consideration of some key concepts of social ecology – consociation, mutual aid, co-operativity rather than competition, rhizomatic rather than hierarchical structures – and the neurobiological study on individuals’ feelings, emotive responses, affect and culture, this paper discusses the evolving phenomenon of the playworking adult and child at play in terms of a symbiotic being and becoming.
 
 
An auditing of symbiotic homeostatic disequilibrium in operation is currently being developed.

Please click below to open a PDF copy of this paper. Please feel free to share, without alteration, and credit appropriately if citing from it. Discussion is embraced and encouraged. Thank you.
 
Symbiotic Homeostatic Disequilibrium in Playworking Interaction (Joel Seath and Gordon Sturrock, Oct 2018)
 
 

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In praise of some colleagues of play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Playworking plain-songs

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

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

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

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

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

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

‘I really like the feel of this.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small stories of grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of ten consideration streams running through a playworking year

As it’s nearing the end of the autumn/winter term and so the end of the calendar year, and as this post may well be the last one until the New Year, perhaps it’s time to take stock again of things considered along the way. Every now and then I like to do this: I’ll gather in my writings, re-read them, wonder who I was when I wrote this or that, or I’ll confuse myself with not remembering the writing of a piece in particular at all, and I’ll try to see what runs through it all this year. This is this process.
 
Refining spirals
Thinking and writing on play (or any other subject) is a refinement, but for this writer it’s also a spiral: ideas I picked up either early on or along the way stay with me. Some become stronger, and some benefit from new information. All benefit from being in the play, or just outside it, observing in. Some ideas fall away. There was a time when I was heavily theoretical. I thought I mixed it well with the practice, but actually I think I stopped thinking for myself. This year, perhaps, praxis is healthier. In the spiral, come back to what sustains you, by all means, is what I tell myself, but jettison anything that no longer makes sense or that you often blindly followed.
 
The relating or sometimes pastoral playworker: what our presence means to the children
I come back to the ‘relating playworker’ thinking time and again. It’s what I know from my experiences of working with children, from my observations of children with colleagues and with other adults, from some of the stories of other playworkers and from the stories of children. The children I know well tell me in so many ways what my presence means to them (often I’m accepted, though sometimes I get it wrong). Children I don’t know well, those I’ve met for only days at a time and with months or a year in between this and our next meeting, will sometimes tell me that my affect is something that they value. My affect can last for years. Of this I need to take continual notice.
 
Being in the play
What of my affect in being in the play, if the children want it that way? I’m cast in serving roles, in repeated roles, in necessity and in acceptance if I’m called away or delayed. The grace of these players, who may or may not be as aware of their own affect on adults, is a privileged offering. The children have their narratives and expectations but they can shift if they need to: they know I’m open to and for them. In the play I may be servicing the pulling or pushing of equipment, being the key character to enable the play to unfold, being several rapidly changing characters (the cop; the robber; the zombie; the ghost; the narrated-to, out of the play, on called-for ‘time-outs’; the earthquake maker; the storm; the prison guard, and so on and on). In the play I may be in the play of several frames at once. I may be completely subsumed by it or I may be bored by it. In the play, I’m in the play. I affect.
 
Repeated play
There has been such noticing of repeated play. Maybe the requests for my immersions, followed by my immersions, have resulted in closer inspection of that play. Maybe my relating to certain individuals and certain groups of children has strengthened: I’m able to see patterns I may not have seen so clearly before. Either way, or in both ways, the play replays over weeks and months. There is a certain need for this in the children, though maybe I’ll never know for sure what this is.
 
How we communicate/how we are
In this relating, how is it that I communicate with the children? How we are is read and children are often good at this, I find. They know. If I’m not honest, or if I’m weighed with other thoughts, or if I’m patronising or trying to illicit opinions from them by crafty means, they’ll know. This I’ve known for quite a while, and I write it often just to keep reminding myself.
 
Ways of seeing ‘playworker’
This thing called ‘playworker’ isn’t so clear-cut. We think we know what it is we are, and then we see from other angles and we find that we’re also pastoral, protection, support, and all the other lower-case lettered descriptors that sometimes surprise us. Others do this ‘playwork thing’ in places that are far more hostile than our own small territories, yet their ways of ‘being playworker’ have their similarities to our own, despite the apparent dissimilarities of our individual patches of geography.
 
The city as playground and playgrounds of the city
For city, read this also as ‘town’, ‘village’, ‘any given place’: walking around, being immersed in the greater place, I wonder what the quasi-Utopian version of it might be. Play in all its forms could recreate the city. What would that be like? In amongst it all, as it is, however, there are fenced-off areas where ‘play can happen’. These are designated areas, and the adults in the city accept this state of things. They get to play in all their ways, but the children are corralled. This year, I open my eyes more to the nature of the urban.
 
The playground as a source of beauty
Yet . . . even so, we have our gardens of play places, our territories within the greater cities, and we call them adventure playgrounds or the like, and yet, even so, we can call them beautiful: despite their apparent disorder, the messiness of their parts strewn and left for months in the long winter grass, soaking up the damp and rain, there’s beauty here in the seasons, in the light and dark, in the play that’s just folded in, embedded. The writing can and should reflect this.
 
Writing stories of play is still important
Writing is still important. It always will be. We may not always write our stories down, and some choose to keep them in their heads and in their conversations, but writing, for a writer, is necessary. Play is an endless source of fascination. There are endless stories to be told: there’s a huge book of play being written.
 
Three short stories for the telling
One child comes to me whenever she sees me and, with a big smile, carefully hugs me before spinning off again. She considers her sister and her friends. She shifts her own play needs and desires around those of everyone else. She is, right now, the most graceful child I know.

Some of the older boys greet me, out on the street, with a short quick word I can’t always catch. They hold their hands up for me to either shake or press my palm against. They walk on.

One younger girl was talking to me. ‘What about your day?’ she said. ‘Nothing special,’ I told her: yet, it is in this moment of open stillness that the specialness resides.
 
 

A playworker is unwell . . . however, not in a Jeffrey Bernard kind of way!

I have been sick for a while, and a consequence is that breathing, let alone thinking and writing, has been difficult! The things we take for granted when we don’t notice that they happen. The same can be said, I suppose, for all our interactions. As I’ve recovered a few brain cells as of late, I’ve had the gradual feeling that there’s an almost continuous ‘active’ aspect to my interactions with children. That is to say, whilst I don’t think I necessarily consciously go out of my way to be in a certain state when around them, there may be an unconscious me driving those interactions.

I like to think my conscious self is a natural me in my conversations, observations, and general being around the children I work with and for. That said, early on in this current illness it was noticeable how things didn’t seem to fit any more: maybe my unconscious drive had faltered. I became invisible in an unusual way, away from the playground and, being ill, I didn’t so much mind. Only when I stood in line at a cafe, a long way from home or work, one dull day (in the weather and in my head), did I start to realise such things: my attention was caught by the clearest, bluest eyes of a baby in a pushchair. Of course, the baby then became engrossed in my eye contact, and her mother said she (the baby) hardly ever looked at men this way. When she and the child left the cafe, I was sat at the door. The baby didn’t take her eyes off me as the mother pushed her out, smiling at me as she left.

I was no longer so invisible, but I was still unwell. On the playground the following week, my shortness of breath meant I needed to engage with my work in a slow way. I needed just to sit and observe to get my brain firing again, but also because doing all the things I’ve taken for granted was just too difficult. I was a walking zombie I was told. However, zombies are able to listen. I took up position in my various favourite observation spots: high enough to see as much as possible; hopefully unobtrusive enough not to seem like I was overtly spying. Every so often, one of the children would amble by. They’d say hello and sit down with me. They’d start conversations and, as I wasn’t much able to converse, I listened more. The various children told me significant insignificances (or vice versa) of their days or lives. New relations developed where, before, there weren’t really any to speak of. Other relations continued to strengthen.

I’ve always been confident that this relating is core to working with children. How often do they get the proverbial time of day from any given adult? It’s more than this though, more than a form of compensatory offer: children can and should be talked with on a level.

The usual me has been compromised these past few weeks: children I know well at the playground, and who in turn know me very well too, often come to me to repeat a conversation we had a few weeks back, in the same place that those conversations first took place, or to try to re-frame a particular instance of play. I suppose they do this because they enjoyed things the first time round, but there may be the level of wanting to re-engage with the adult of their choice because of the moment of that adult at that time. When the children come to me and want to repeat the storytelling about the Gorilla Thief or want to re-enact a scene of Cops and Thieves or want to replicate an instance of play in the netting, they don’t get what they fully want or need in my state of illness. At first, but briefly, they keep asking for the replications (albeit not entirely in a disbelieving of my illness, but in a wanting it not to be true kind of way). Shortly, something of the trust that’s been built over time kicks in: the children know I’m not lying to them.

The unconscious me must drive through all of this, but it must get damaged when I’m unwell. In such states, it’s difficult to think a straight line through and seeing what you’re seeing isn’t so easy either. Hopefully now though, the curve is an upward one. When we start to truly see again, we can think, and we can come back to ourselves.

This week we held a street playday and my observations of the play, in the general swill of all the things that were happening, brought me a little closer back to my unconscious self. My physical self is still unwell, but I smiled to see a small child kicking an empty tin can around, a boy tie himself to a lamp-post with a rope, an older boy with autism laughing as he smeared himself in what looked like shaving foam, a child walking around with a cardboard box on his head, a girl doing cartwheels and handstands, a baby playing with a potato masher, and so on.

What we may take for granted are things such as we will always engage with or be enlightened by the observations of play; we will be able to relate, in words and otherwise, with the children we find around us; we will be fit enough to carry around the resources for the opportunities for play; we will be able to think sharply and talk clearly and well on what usually inspires us. In varying degrees of reductions of these, like swills of sugar solutions, I find that writing helps.

Words start to come back within an illness that won’t fully shift. Observations of play fold in, thoughts on these wander by. Slowly, slowly, the unconscious self seems to be reforming, such is the feeling that the repair of the conscious self seems to conclude.
 
 

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