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

Posts tagged ‘connectivity’

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.
 
 

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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.
 
 

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.
 
 

Connecting stories

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of observations that I called White City Play Stories. I’ve continued this thread of writing since then, but for some reason I’ve no longer tagged them as such. Stories, whatever you tag them or call them, are all stories of ‘worth’ though. Following on from last week’s writing on immersions in others’ play memory stories and on how we’re interwoven with place, I’m thinking of the play that surrounds us in our day-to-days. We’re embedded in it, even if we don’t realise this. Lines of stories flow in all the places we traverse. It’s like we’re enmeshed in a huge spiders’ web, where every thread is a story spun out, spun between the lines of other stories. It is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional weftwork, and we’re right in there in the middle of it.

We come from an oral culture and this part of us still survives, despite our written representations of language on pages and on screens, and despite our relatively recent cultural predisposition towards the instant photographic record. When we tell stories, we’re engaging with that old in-built desire to share and tell and to connect to other things as yet unsaid. Writing and photography have their places. When we write, we write sometimes because we may not be able to say, directly. When we write our stories, or when we display our photographs (and if we think of it this way), we try to shine a light on the weftwork that surrounds us in different ways. The spoken, the written, the imaged . . . everything is a story, or a fragment of a story, in the whole.

My observations, in and of the play, are written in the spirit of illuminating that part of the enmeshment that I see myself to be in. If the reader can appreciate the stories not directly experienced, as the listener of old oral tales was asked to do, maybe they can then see better the weftwork that they themselves are in. This, I suppose, is why I write my stories of play, though I’ve not articulated it in this way, precisely, before.

The following set of stories shall be tagged and categorised under ‘New White City Stories’: the whole is a multi-layered story for the finding.
 
A story about stories
I was in communication last week with someone from a local mobile library service regarding stories, books and children. From my experience of having worked with very small children, older pre-schoolers, and up to the older primary school years, I wasn’t so sure that the latter would engage so well with being read to from books. Sure, it can work out, but I said I found that these older-aged children generally engaged better with performance-story or the improvisational. As chance had it, that same week I was sitting in the sun on the outside sofa with one of the after school club children, just talking around, and we were soon joined by three other girls and the conversation turned, by them, to telling stories. We made up stories as we went (with no morals, with no real structure, with no concern for what might offend others). When the girls wanted me to talk, and when I’d managed to engage their attentions with a story line of their liking, I was very aware, in the moment, of the looks on their faces and of the focus of their body language. Stories about telling stories may well repeat over the following weeks.
 
Stories of repeated narratives
I feel sure that I’ve written something about repeated narratives somewhere before (which makes this story about a story a repeated narrative in itself!) Some children engage this adult in repetitions of service to the play, or in roles, or in layers beneath the surface of the immediately apparent. I’m not on the playground as much as I used to be and some children are aware of this and are patient for a Friday when I make sure I’m there and when the narratives that they seem to want and need to unfold can do so. Two children want/need engagement with ‘earthquakes’ on the netting (they also know that they, and only they, seem to have the capability of giving me static electric shocks because of their headscarves against the rope!) Another child’s trampolining is replete with other messages to other adults about her play (which, here, I can’t say — in entrustment of the moment!). The repeated narratives that entangle me in them are, I feel, all soaked in other messages.
 
Baby birds
I remember a story I told a few years back about feeling like the mechanism in service to certain play: that was, the pushing of children on the zipwire swing. There is a school of thinking that says that we adults shouldn’t be involved in this, which I can appreciate. However, there is another human level that can’t easily be resolved in playwork theory or in the dryness of qualifications literature: play is a connection, and sometimes we adults are very much connected with. Some children have recently played with the fine line between knowing exactly how to push themselves on the traditional swings and getting this adult to do it for them (or, rather, with them). The children know what they’re doing. This isn’t about laziness, this is about connection. They each take one of the swings on the hex-construction, facing inwards, and one after the other, like baby birds, they demand to be pushed, and high! I run around in service to their needs. When they get low, they squeal again! This is time spent connecting.
 
Playing the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘cops and thieves’, and other mutations
I can’t remember the exact order of the play that happened, this day when everything tumbled around, and when I seemed integral to things mixing and merging and mutating. One girl tried to cue me by inventing a valuable picture of mine (‘How much is it worth?’; ‘Oh, ten thousand’ [unspecified currency]). She found a slab of splash-painted wood. I couldn’t unfurl myself from other conversations though. A little later, she ‘stole’ my gold (made of gold paper, which apparently was mine). Cops and thieves took place. There are a number of ‘prisons’ currently on the playground. Some have names: ‘the Mansion’ is the hidey-hole with the other outside sofa in it, where children often sit and look out, in the dry, in comfort; the place that might become a fort is difficult for adults to traverse but easy for the children; the hut, which is even more difficult to get through, might become the ‘children’s world’. These prisons are ebbing and flowing in relative importance.

At some point, one boy shouted out ‘Who wants to play the Hunger Games?’ I didn’t know what this might entail, though I had a vague notion of the book and film. I wasn’t sure how many play frames were happening at once, what with the ebb and flow and take-up and fall-away of ‘cops and thieves’ and other play, but finger-guns, and stick-guns, and sword-guns made of a cross of wood pieces, and hockey sticks all appeared and were fired or whacked around. Children rarely act out being shot or sworded. They have in-built invincibility. One girl declared her invincibility outright and kept turning my finger-gun back on myself.

Where did the zombies come from, and why?! At some point, after I’d been shot or sworded for the umpteenth time, I must have become a ghost because one of the younger girls waved her hands around occasionally to ‘unghost’ me. Maybe the zombie mutation happened after this. Three children I know from the open access holiday scheme were pressing their noses up to the other side of the fence: this zombie adult was required to push some of the children on the roundabout (even though they were quite capable of doing this themselves) in the interior of the play and playground. The children outside looked on, engrossed. The zombie noticed this and threw cushions and old bread crates their way, poking his fingers through the small squares because it was dinner time for him! The children outside were somewhat in the play at this. They ran away and came back again. They knew me well enough as me, but they engaged with the character. Soon, somehow, the Hunger Games boy — having been cornered in open space by a small band of sword/gun wielding others — became involved with me in a stance of ‘no guts, no glory’. This adult, ex-zombie, was whacked several times on the thighs and on the backs of the knees by one of the warrior girls! These children play hard. The child in question stood off when I went down. She bowed like a Samurai, as I imagined, and left me alone . . .

These are just a few of the stories, connecting stories, of the multi-layered weftwork I’m in.
 
 

Play and language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playground time

If you work on an adventure playground of some description, you may have an idea of what I mean by ‘playground time’. Maybe there’s the equivalent of ‘playground time’ in any place where children occupy a particular site for any significant period of a day. That’ll be an observation or being-in-the-moment for a future occasion’s study. For now, I’m calling it ‘playground time’. I’ve written about it before, here and there, and I wanted to return to it today in more detail.

I’ve been flitting in and out of the playground this summer. Some days over the past few weeks I’ve worked at a playscheme for children with learning difficulties or physical disabilities; some days I’ve worked with younger children in the local parks; other days I’ve come back to the playground. I have always sort of known of some kind of playground time (even before I was working in such places, and when I didn’t have such thinking processes as now passing by): there is time that is sort of ‘out of the ordinary focus’ of the usual adult day-to-days. When you’re in and out of it, as I have been lately, there’s a resettling process, a re-absorption, that can take place.

This summer, early on, there were some difficult days. Some older children sucked up all the energy of the place. Maybe there are eddies that form, leaving holes that you can’t see through or beyond. Run with that for a little while: when I feel like I’m in a treadmill of hours of anticipating anxieties or fire-fighting on the playground, going from one ‘what-now?’ to the next, I either forget to see the whole or I can’t see it so well any more. What happens in the younger children’s play, in the quiet children’s play, in the corners of the playground, in the forming dens, in the in-betweens and what-might-be? All of this gets swamped when in crisis mode.

Now, summer has eased itself into a kind of flow. That is, playground time has kicked in, as a whole, and in the individual days. We’re past the mid-way point of summer, and although some playworkers, some days, seem to be running on sugar fumes, or taking extra breaks because they’re needed, the particular anxieties of the first few days have left for a while. Relationships between children and between children and playworkers are flowing in that ‘just pick up where it was left off yesterday’ kind of way.

When I’m in and out of the playground, over days, I have to potter around for a little while, in the morning, before the children come in; I have to re-tune to the greater whole of playground time that I feel my colleagues continue to be in because they’re already immersed to some degree. This is a personal affect, I know, because I like to catch the feeling of the whole of the place (or, as much of it as I can absorb in any one go, which takes some perceptive ‘letting in’): the re-tuning process may not affect a colleague in the same way. I don’t know.

When I’m not in the playground time flow, I realised recently after half a session, I ‘see’ only twenty feet or so around me. Things pass me by. That is, I see things going on beyond that radius, but I don’t pick up on them so well. When ‘in’ playground time, I see the far side of the playground and I sense when certain children are or aren’t on-site; I can better anticipate the play that’s forming; I can leave better alone, let things unfold without undue intervention, taking a dynamic risk assessment consideration in trusting the children I’m observing. When ‘in’ playground time, I can feel the way that lulls and agitations form and peter out. Time seems to have a different texture to it. This works across days as well as in the day itself. It’s not that it stops and starts, but rather it’s always there and I have to hook into it.

Relating to certain individual children (or the ‘how’ of all of that) shows my position in playground time to myself. One of the older girls lives in a block just down the road from the playground: she’s recently come back to us after a period of choosing not to come. Over the summer, she’ll come by and tell small moments of her life. She came into the office as I sat poking around on the computer. The door was open to all the play sounds of the hall and playground beyond. She sat and we just talked. Another boy flopped down on the sofa outside the office door and said, matter-of-factly that he’d been coming for five years now, implying that he’s part of the furniture and that he practically works there. Playground time works in small and continued ways.

Another older boy, who’s also just returned after a period of choosing to stay away, has played table tennis outside practically every day, game after game. There seems to me to be an absence in time if he’s not there. I watch on, each day I’m on the playground, as two Italian children navigate their ways through either prolonged stays at the pool table or intricate navigations around the hidey holes of the whole place (in the case of the younger girl, leading and being led by a friend by the language of play and an ever-evolving system of gestures and in-between language vocalisations). There is another sub-plot forming in the place, which is the gentle jostling for peer group leader status, now that the usual older group aren’t around for a while. It leads to different ways of playing, different spins off one another.

In playground time, I observed how three children struggled amongst themselves, in the rain, to construct a roof of carpet between parts of the platform structures that have been added to the original recently. I watched on carefully from a distance, and peripherally, thinking how they might slip, but seeing how careful they were being, how they were helping one another, how they could evidently see the possible hazards because they were arranging things. It was a careful standing back, and not a presumptuous and unnecessary intervention.

In playground time, in the pouring rain, I see how the children seem to love the new waterslide. There is no time. Everything happens when it needs to happen. This includes the way that (beyond my twenty feet radius of ‘not being in it all’ days) I see the way my colleagues are working with and for children at the periphery of my sight, bringing and fetching resources, being in and around the kitchen, sitting and talking with children, arranging the hose for the slide, and so on.

Playground time is flow, for sure, but it’s also part of the myth-magical dimension of the playground: there is a narrative that takes place in the forming moment, which is part of days and weeks. Playground time is the continuing story of the place where the play happens. In the overall story there are many, many stories taking shape and bubbling away. When one child comes onto the playground, we often call him by his chosen nickname. When another child asked me why we call him that, I said ‘because, last summer, he used that one word all the time, and so it stuck’. When I talked with a couple of boys last week (feeling quite protective of the girl they were targeting with water balloons), I told them how she was targeted so much last summer. In playground time, I can see how one older boy is flourishing because he has space to express himself these past few days; I can see how certain individuals’ presences brighten the place when they return after some days away; I can see how certain children’s creative play gradually smears itself across the playground. The playground too, in playground time, is a shifting creature: it twists and turns in its ever-changing shapes and forms. The moving built environment around the play moulds that play in some ways.

I wonder how much the children feel playground time in these ways I describe above. There is a window, some days, when some children seem to feel the imminent coming to an end of that day’s play on-site. They’ll ask what the time is. Playground time fractures a little towards the end of the session: sometimes there’ll be agitations forming and bubbling over, where play was all flowing along before this. Of course, if seen literally, playground time is gone for the day when all the children have eventually left the site, but it seems just to be in stasis, always sort of there, when the summer flow has kicked in: the next day, though there’s quite often a period of poking around at the start of the new session, play and flow picks up somewhere close to where it was the previous day.

Being out of it, for any significant period, can be a little disorientating for this playworker. The stories of the narrative whole can be picked up again though, but it takes a little morning drifting (litter picking, floating around picking up bits of wood, looking out for signs of play that has happened here, maybe, whilst scuffing around in the wet grass). Play and playworking, perhaps, follow similar arcs in and of time.
 
 

Cityscape moments of play

Last week, on the Underground, on my Friday evening way home, I think I managed to make some small difference, in the moment, in the play. It was a packed Tube train on the Jubilee Line and there was standing room only, as usual at that time of the day. I wedged myself into the small corridor between seats, as people piled in behind me, and I balanced there with all my bags slung around me, holding onto the rails above my head. Two boys of about four or five were sat on seats immediately to my left. As we rumbled along, as tends to happen a fair amount of time on public transport, I caught one of the children’s eyes. He was looking at me with that hint of curiosity (that, ‘what is it?-ness’ that I get sometimes!). I returned his visual cue, and he kept on looking when I turned my eyes away. I knew because I could feel it, but also because he was still doing it when I looked back. So, here was play starting.

I like to think I’m quite careful in situations like this. Play wants an outlet, and here I am, but this child and me don’t know each other . . . anyway, I squinted a few times, closing one eye and then the other (because this is not a usual adult thing to do); then I turned down my lips; then I raised my eyebrows, and other facial movements. The boy watched for a while, then started copying a little here and there. The other boy looked up. The play of slight distance repeated itself. The first boy stretched out his leg and it almost touched mine. I moved my leg so that it just slightly knocked his foot as it dangled there in space (he wasn’t tall enough to touch the floor). Perhaps it was the rolling of the train carriage that made this happen? Perhaps the train made me do it again.

Whatever the cause, the boy stretched out again, and the play repeated over, everso slightly, everso slowly, everso knowingly. Sometimes, no-one talks on the Tube. Play talks in its own way, and I was in it, and commuters didn’t seem to register for a short while between stops. I looked up just before I was due to get off. I caught the small smile of a woman who was sat to the boys’ right. I didn’t take her as the children’s mother (who I assumed to be the woman on the boys’ left — though she was ignoring them, and me). The woman who smiled seemed momentarily taken away from the commuter day-to-day.

My stop came. The boys and me exchanged small waves goodbye. I squeezed off onto the platform, and the commuter swill behind me slooped back into place (like I was extricating myself from jelly, which reformed after my exit!). I felt that something small and significant had taken place.

It is these small instances of significance in play that are fascinating me again right now. The grand and the visible exhibitions of play are all well and good (that is, for the children involved and for the adults observing, possibly thinking, ‘well this is all good that the children can play’). How the small gets forgotten though. Last week, I was out and about around the estate, trying to work out the landscape, the cityscape, of how the children used this small parcel of London streets, when I met a child I knew, by chance. He stopped to ask me questions about what I was doing. Over his shoulder, as I told him, I saw small moments of children climbing onto a wall as the adults they were with got talking to each other (and I don’t know for sure if the adults acknowledged the play that was happening behind their backs!)

What might we see if we look? Children might balance on the kerb, or along the cracks in the paving slabs for a few yards at a time (or, they’ll avoid the cracks, for reasons that you really should strive to remember!). They might run their fingertips along a railing or a textured wall, stop to pick a flower, kick a can or the like down the street, get distracted by any ordinary extraordinariness . . . on the same train journey, earlier on Friday evening, I was sat down as a woman with a buggy came on-board, parking the young child up facing the curved window. I don’t know if this was deliberate, but I hope it was, in retrospect, because the girl in the buggy tentatively put her hand up to wave to her reflection in the dark glass. This caught her attention for another minute or so after that.

Such minor details matter, accidentally placed children or otherwise. I’m saddened to say that the opposite happens too. Last week, one day, I was walking when I was passed by a small child of about three. She was ahead of her mother (or so I presumed the woman to be), who I could hear talking loudly on her phone, about twenty steps behind me. The girl ran up to a door, which obviously took her fancy, though I don’t know why because it was grey and plain, though it did offer a small noise in return for her light tap on it, the possibility of which may have been why she decided to do this. Suddenly I heard the woman, presumably the child’s mother, bark at her in the middle of her phone conversation: ‘Stop banging on that door’. Sadly, the child’s moment fell from her face.

Children will play all sorts of urban apparatus in their finding out about the sounds of the things in the streets, and in their experiments of texture, smells and sights. I once walked with a child who would trail his fingers along the flowers, every so often, bringing his fingers to his nostrils for a very small moment every now and then. In the spring, this year, for a few weeks when the trees were full of pink and white, some of the children on the after school club walk, from school to the playground, would demand of me that I shake the blossom from the trees we passed onto them; or I’d be needed to pull off a small bunch of blossom petals for them. Another child on the walk, a younger one, pulled me over to a tree I hadn’t seen, a place where he played, not our playground, just so I could shake the blossom down onto him.

So, in wrapping up here, my challenge to the reading adult is two-fold: take note of the small incidences and significances of play you see (the sensory playing of the city in moments, walking on walls or cracks, avoiding cracks, reflections that play the player in the dark glass, moments of possible connection between child and play-literate adult — others or you); if you see the possibility that you’re invited into a momentary significance of play, know that you can help make that moment possible.

Moments, as I have written of before, are significant . . .
 
 

Questioning the adult-free of play

Some of the children I know actively go out of their way to bring us adults, playworkers, into their play. I write it like this, as a definite and opening sentence all on its own, because people still have the tendency to write things that they suppose children want or like (such as, for example, ‘children want and need to play in adult-free ways’). Sure, being free of adults and their sometimes restrictions is something children sometimes seem to seek out: in their hiding away, in their roaming, or in the various other secrets of their play; however, to suggest that children don’t want adults around at all is contrary to what my experience tells me.

We have to be careful at this point: I’m not advocating taking over children’s play. What I am suggesting though is that, often, children seek out certain adults to be a part of the play for whatever reason (and I’m also mindful of the fact that, in context, this writing refers to children attending a staffed provision). Some children I know return to particular narratives and ways of playing day after day, and this can involve me. It is, at times, almost as if there’s a message underneath the cues that will repeat the play of previous days, and I can’t read that message well enough (as subtle as it may be). As far as I know, one girl will only jump with me, at the trampoline, in a certain manner; another girl will ask me to play a version of a game at the netting, styled in this way because of my presence; one boy played some nearly-rough and tumble/fantasy hybrid with me, and this may shape repeat into something, in this particular form, between me and him only: maybe.

Of course, our particular adult returns to children’s cues are to be noted here: I will return cues in ways only I can, as will my colleagues to the children who cue them. I can’t return a cue as my colleague can, and vice versa. It follows that my fellow playworkers will also have engagements in children’s play, at those children’s direct requests or non-verbal cues, that I won’t or can’t have. Children choose their adults, and we may be none the wiser as to why we’re chosen. If we think back hard, we may be able to find a memory of exactly when a play relationship shifted from something to something more significant; that though is a trick in itself. How do we know what caused a spark in any other?

In this sense then, it’s even more presumptuous to assume that we adults can know what children want or need. Blanket coverage doesn’t fit at the best of times, let alone in the infinitesimally succinct moments of spark that form ‘something’ into ‘something more’: from ‘you’re OK’ to ‘you’re the one I need to play this with’. Maybe it’s not even ‘play with’ in operation here: maybe it’s more along the lines of the adult being the play shell, the container of play, the vessel, the conduit, something like this.

Last week, just a short while after surfacing from the office (my head firmly lost in a screen for a good couple of hours after the children had come in), one of the girls came up to me and asked me to play ‘Earthquake Technology’ with her. She plays versions of this, at the netting that hangs from one end of the platform structures, with colleagues — I think — and with me she calls it this: I have no idea where the ‘technology’ bit comes from, but the ‘earthquake’ involves me pulling the netting as she lies or stands on it. She’s very light and tends to fly! Other children often soon get on, which makes the servicing of the play on my part that much more difficult! Netting-earthquakes are less seismic when weighed down by four or five children.

Last week, this play took place, again. Sometimes the other children will add in other ‘natural disasters’, and maybe other colleagues have seen this too. So, as well as being the earthquake, I was required to be the ‘shark attack’, the ‘volcano’, and the ‘tornado’, and on occasion I’ve also been the ‘tsunami’. The trick to this, from the point of view of the ‘natural disaster’-maker, is not to stop! Stopping means you realise how tiring it can all get. In the middle of all of this, in what felt like holding together the play, a boy came towards me with a big smile and acted out some form of ‘natural disaster’-maker attacker role. He became anti-natural disaster boy. He came at me with a spade and then a bread crate, and he backed me into corners, though he never really touched. He was in some form of nearly-rough and tumble play. His play took on a shape of its own: it linked to the disasters still happening on the netting, but it was also just slightly removed.

There was a point that I realised, whilst picking at the toes of sock-wearing children (in shark mode), whilst run-ducking underneath the netting in some sort of wave, whilst being a volcano, whilst being earthquake aftershocks, and whilst succumbing to a plastic crystal found by anti-disaster boy, that I was holding together two play frames (these instances of disaster and anti-disaster play) at the same time. It was a case of don’t stop.

Somehow I found myself in the netting, though I don’t recall exactly how. Maybe I was running away. Another boy threw himself at me. His rough and tumble was careful but more full-on. I tried to get out but, really, I was like a stranded turtle! Eventually, after struggling free and finding myself on terra firma once again, I declared myself honestly unable to earthquake the netting any more that day. I set off to sit down somewhere, but another boy bounced past saying he wanted to challenge me to a wrestling match on the crash mats. I really couldn’t. I directed him towards a colleague, telling him how he, my colleague, is younger and fitter than me. On this occasion, I was allowed my rejected play cue.

Children don’t want or need adults around them, so it’s said. Sure, often this may be true, but often other times there are certain adults who will only do, or who will do instead. There are messages beneath and in between the repetitions of the cues.

I got to sit down for a little while, until the trampoline girl said, ‘Come’ (she says this in exactly this way, as a play cue), taking my finger. She has a way of jumping really high because she’s developed this way with me. I’ve not yet seen her do this with any of my colleagues. There are, no doubt, other ways I don’t know which she shares with them.
 
 

A playworker’s end of year self assessment

It’s closure time of the year. Just as the self-employed undertake a self-assessment for the paying of tax, I thought I’d undertake a playwork self-assessment for the year. I do this not to beat my own drum (there are some things to improve upon after all), but in the hope that other playwork people might be inspired to do it too (at the very least, in the privacy of their own thoughts or notebooks). Plenty has happened this year: there’s no way I can capture it all, so I aim to write a flavour overview as a means of sparking what might lie in others’ consciousnesses.
 
With due regards to time, with grace
I’m aware of the passing of seasons on the playground. Although I won’t write every section here like this one, I’m thinking clearly about that long, wet January when the place seemed underwater continuously, and when we developed a swamp in the centre of it all; February brought the realisation of how long the open-access children have to wait between the short times they get the playground for (October to February is a long winter). We waited so long for the first flowers, and then the grass grew long, and it grew through the scattered tyres. I resisted the cutting of the grass for a long time: there are hiding places to be had. In the end though, things change: this I know. Before long, those new long hot days of summer were on us. We had to adapt to the water bombs, to the spin of the play. The autumn stretched summer out into long shadows and the heat stayed on until one week when the winter came. The light left and the children played in the dark. The tree den became empty through the branches because all the leaves had gone. The fire pit became the centre-piece to plenty of the play.

In all of this, I find I needed resilience and the ability to cope with soaked denim — even when I asked for it not to be water bombed; I needed humour when I had no reserves left, and sugar (in the form of fizzy energy drinks and chocolate!) Overall, I was aware of the need for grace. Some days I find this deserts me; more days I realise that moments make up everything, and that I am in between, and that the slightest gesture carries weight. Grace, like time, is in the fabric of the playground.
 
I think of an eight-year-old who told me to fuck off, not so long ago, so I fucked off
I want to write it like this because it’s true. This boy told it to me straight (and it wasn’t this year, but this further thinking on it, on personal ‘ways of being’ progression, is of this year). There was a time when I would have objected to his words, for various socially absorbed reasons (that is, what I took on board, without questioning it, about what others told me I should think). So, when this boy told me I was wrong, in no uncertain terms, I realised I was wrong. I continue to think about ‘being wrong’.
 
I think of the good days in which I serve
Some people I’ve worked with have objected to my reasoning that I should ‘serve’ children. They seem to be saying that I shouldn’t be taking a stance that they themselves see as overly self-deprecating. I don’t see it this way. I see it, more and more, as essential in good quality playwork: I am in service of the play. My purpose is not to control, or to teach, or to dictate or direct. I can and have served in many ways: on good days. There are days when I’m not so on the ball, in honesty. These are the days I can work on, in my continuing thinking on ‘being better’. On good days, I serve the play directly, or indirectly, walking away. The children tell me with the looks in their eyes or with words I don’t expect . . .
 
I make some mistakes that I recognise
There’s a small difference between me using the word ‘that’ and the word ‘which’ in this heading: the former is my admission that there are some mistakes that I make and that are recognised and, therefore also, some that I may miss; I choose not to use ‘which’ because this implies to me that I recognise all of my mistakes. The mistakes I’ve made, I’m working on; those that I don’t yet recognise are those that may make themselves clearer in the fullness of time.
 
I listen to the indirect and direct problems that children bring me
On the whole, I’ve not been a great believer in the ‘playworker as always basically invisible’ school of thought. I did go through a phase of being more invisible than visible, but then the children I work with now got to know me better. I work in a human environment. In that environment, those children bring me their small and great issues of their day-to-days, on occasion. I don’t know what to do about this, often, because what can I do? So I listen when I can. Sometimes I might go about the listening process in ways the children don’t want (see my previous post about the boy on the roundabout). Generally though, these children here will bring me things if I am the one they wish to unload on. We might be sitting round the fire, or we might be just talking at the hatch to the kitchen, the children sat up on the counter (some of the girls see this, I think, as ‘their place’, sat up against the wall eating pasta straight from the pan, or the salad straight from the bowl!) I do my best to listen, and if I get it wrong the children tell me in no uncertain terms.
 
I get my hands filthy, my clothes wet and smoky
Really, I think, this year, playwork involves a fair degree of this. There’s no point standing around pretending to be interested, constantly checking your phone, looking at the clock, hugging the corners of the playground (or whatever the place might be termed as) in tight little lines of personal comfort zones: you’ll get found out. Children know. Your colleagues know. You might be the only one who doesn’t. One day, one week, if I’m on form (and we all get tired, sure), I earn my way this way of filthy hands, of wet and smoky clothes. There’s still nothing quite like getting on the Underground at the end of a summer session, covered in mud and paint, stinking to high heaven, still talking play, even though the day’s come and gone, and heading for the pub, drawing the attention of slightly freaked-out fellow commuters!
 
Some play concerns me; some play I’m required in
I use the word ‘concern’ in two senses: some play concerns me, as in ‘it troubles me’; some play concerns me, as in ‘my presence is required in it’. I find I’m fine with some children climbing some trees, but other children climbing other trees has its worries. What I do or don’t do is then important. I decide to consult with a colleague, and I step away from the play as she observes. Yet, some similar play doesn’t concern me at all: I watch on amazed as the older boys perform all their parkour moves way up above me, jumping off the highest platform points, rolling, and bouncing off and on again.

Some play concerns me, as in ‘I am required’. I often wonder, when cued to play, about the difference between ‘neediness’ and ‘being required’. I see these as different in quality. If I’m well-received for a quality of ‘being me’, one day, I’m a necessary aspect of the play. It isn’t my play, but I’m a part of it. When it’s done, it’s done, and I’m discarded like any other object of the loose parts variety. Some days, the play might not be this way inclined: I inherit a personal little shadow. I try to give that shadow away to a colleague, in hopefully sensitive ways. It is this aspect of ‘being required’ that I find some fascination in though.
 
I’ll step away and around the play that doesn’t concern me
This is something I have been aware of for a fair while. I think of it every time my intended path comes into contact with a play frame/instance of play in front of me. It doesn’t take long to stop, wait, choose the right moment to pass on around the play, where possible. What I have learned is that I think about this more and more. On the days I get it wrong, because I’m requested elsewhere quickly, or because I just mis-time it, I tell myself this for next time.
 
I continue to learn the tools of the playground, recognise my limitations and inabilities, recognise the skill of others
Is being a good playworker about knowing which end a sledgehammer, screwdriver, saw, or power drill operates from? My limitations have always been my use of such tools (ask my woodwork and metalwork teachers at school!) However, slowly, slowly, I learn where the ‘on’ button is for most things! I will always be useless at doing the things that others can just do, seemingly, without even being aware that they’re doing it. My hat is very much off to them. I’ll keep trying.
 
I de-personalise the children’s criticisms, but take their said and unsaid praise
On some occasions this year, children have told me that I’m in their face, I’m bugging them, I’m not needed, or I’m something I just don’t understand because I haven’t got the local child parlance quite off pat yet. Yes, sometimes I’ve felt aggrieved by things said, but more often than not I know that that is what was needed to be said by that child in that moment. Tomorrow always brings a different light. ‘Tomorrow’ might end up being a few months down the line.

In contrast, when children choose to say how much they appreciate you, it’s usually not a superficial communication. In some ways, the following example is the catalyst for this post today. In the last week of school term, one of the older girls had discussions with various playworkers about whether they were on her ‘nice list’ or not. (It transpired that she’d been to Spain, apparently, so she told me on her way back from school one day, where those not on the ‘nice list’ get lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings). I found myself on the ‘nice list’. She smiled at me and told me that I always opened the door to her and her friends, bowing, saying things like: ‘Hello, ladies’! It’s true: part in playfulness but also part, in truth, because this is my way of saying an honest welcome to them. The point is that these ways I take for granted, over time, hadn’t gone unnoticed by this child. It has made me think on plenty of other ways of ‘being playworker’.
 
I write carefully, mostly
‘Being playworker’, for me this year, involves ‘being writer’. Words are important because they can either heighten or destroy the possibility of meanings. I try to choose wisely because words have play in them too.

A short while ago, I came across some words attributed to Barry Schwartz, regarding the cultivation of ‘practical wisdom’ in a piece entitled ‘Our Loss of Wisdom’, which I believe can be found via the TED talks website. Schwartz discussed ‘being wise’, and I thought as I read this passage that I could transplant his words ‘a wise person’ with ‘a playworker’; here’s what I can leave you with for 2014:

‘A playworker knows when and how to make the exception to every rule . . . a playworker knows how to improvise . . . real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A playworker is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand . . . to serve other people, not to manipulate other people . . . and finally, perhaps most important[ly], a playworker is made, not born.

‘Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people [who] you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, [to] try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures . . . and you need to be mentored by wise teachers.’

I have my chosen teachers. Some are excellent playworkers, some are much younger . . .
 
 
Seasonal malarkey to you all. Playworkings will return in January.
 
 

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