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

Posts tagged ‘learning’

What’s the point of you, playworker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First world blame

What happens when an accident happens? Maybe, when it’s our own children suffering such an event, or a child in our immediate family, something quite bonded and natural kicks in with us: we have an absolute concern that that child isn’t feeling pain, or not too much pain, at least. When we’re working with other people’s children, children not in our own immediate family, maybe something else happens first (in this age that we live in): how much does the natural concern get over-ridden by a fear of being blamed?

Others have trodden this well-worked route of play and accidents before, but I wanted to take a kind of ‘natural/synthetic’ perspective on what children do and what happens, sometimes, when they do what they do. If play involves experimentation (as is the received wisdom), then play involves things not quite in the plan (whatever that is) and that includes accidents. We know this. We’ve all had them. We all continue to have them (though maybe in less repeated ways, perhaps in more spectacular ways!), as we progress through adulthood.

When accidents happen to children we’re working with, any number of immediate thoughts might well enter our heads: keep calm; think; don’t think, just act; use common sense; what should I do here?; what can I remember of my first aid training?; did this happen because of me?; what should I prioritise here?; was this avoidable?; is this my fault?

Some of these questions can be reflected on later. Some of them just need to be pushed aside because, actually, there’s a child who’s hurt here and they’re human too and they need help. I wonder though if a ‘synthetic’, imposed, thinking process has somehow taken over the tendency for care and concern. In the heat of the moment, or more usually, after a short period of poorly constructed thinking, blame is often the quickest route to take. Once a precedent is set, a fear of repeat actions is lodged and starts to roll itself out, more acutely each time an accident takes place. It’s a negative feedback loop that only keeps strengthening and taking deeper and deeper root.

If it’s our own children who are hurt, we may have a weak negativity swimming around us (those people who look at us as if we’re bad parents, or bad in loci parentis): ultimately though, maybe, the care-concern bond here is stronger than the loop that binds us when we’re with other people’s children. Is this a first world problem? How did we get here? Was it, and is it, always this way?

I wonder at our species’ evolutionary growth and whether our ancestors’ concerns for their own offspring (if they had these concerns in the way that we do) outweighed any concerns they may have had for other villagers’ children, or for the loss of social stature that may have occurred if others’ children incurred injury when with them. If your neighbour’s son was injured when out hunting with you, was it your fault? Would you have been beaten, or maimed, or ostracised for it? I don’t know. Would the gods have been blamed? Would there have been an implicit understanding that the injured boy just needed to run faster, jump or land more carefully, be better at what he did?

None of this is to imply that, in our modern days of working with other people’s children, we should absolve ourselves of any form of responsibility. Later, when we reflect after an accident, we can be calm and study the situation more carefully: did what I put there, do there, not do there, somehow adversely affect the natural flow of what may have happened otherwise? Maybe we can say that an accident witnessed is an accident that happened because of a change created by our very presence, but this is a very pessimistic perspective. How many factors might be involved, of which we are only one tiny one?

Perhaps the over-riding of natural concern by synthetic imposition of fear of being blamed is a first world problem (by which I mean ‘those of us supposing we’re in the vanguard of global society, being in the digital age as we are’). Do the indigenous tribal societies of the non-digital realm of today impose insidious blame on one another? I’m reminded of the 1970s studies of Clifford Geertz, regarding Balinese men who risked their social stature on the outcome of who won or lost in cockfighting bouts: the playing out of spiritual representation through their fighting animals. Here I read a much deeper malcontent, dis-ease, than the word ‘blame’ could ever carry. If a man here lost his social stature because of the death of his fighting animal, could he really care if some first world blame was levelled at him because his neighbour’s boy tripped over a tree’s root and bloodied his nose?

Our first world fear, having over-ridden our natural care-concern for others, perhaps, has blinded us and left us with a spiritual dis-ease nonetheless. That is to say, we’ve disconnected, somewhat, from what matters most. It isn’t even the oft-cited ‘American-style’ litigation culture that’s troubling here, in the moment of writing: it’s the soft but pervasive and just as damaging fear of being seen as incompetent, untrustworthy, unobservant, blasé, devil-may-care ‘anything goes’ nonchalant, irresponsible, unworthy of being in the service of and for children. Our disconnect, via that negative feedback loop, becomes less and less about the people we should be concerned with (the children) and more and more about ourselves. We live in a self-fuelled culture, as we know: though we can make change, on personal levels, about this.

So, we do well, on the whole, to navigate our individual 365 days of every year without a scrape, without falling in front of a bus, or without tripping on kerbs or falling into plate glass windows at every turn. We do well, though we do suffer some accidents along the line because none of us are comic-book super-human. As we get older, our accidents might get more spectacular: we might think how stupid we were for doing what we did, and we might hope that no-one saw it too. We keep on learning, hopefully. If we’re continually blaming others, what does that say about us?

Geertz, C. (1972), Deep play: a description of the Balinese cockfight in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play — its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.

Reflections of a playworker in the classroom

‘You are not a God.’

— Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland)
Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory (1990)

I am not a teacher of children. That is, I am a playworker. We maybe have to identify with something and, recently, though I’ve known it for years, I sat on my ever-weakening knees, at four year-old height, surrounded by glue and glitter and feathers, and four year-olds, and this whole ‘playworkerness of being’ fell over me again. You’ll get it if you get that, as it were. I am not a teacher of children, though I dabble in the peripheral waters in aspects of my professional and personal lives: I’m engaged in consultations with children at school, in the classroom and in the playground, and I fall into history session constructions, compliant to a five year-old’s comprehension, at home (where I have to try hard not to muddy stuff with made up things!). What has struck me recently is, in the analogy, the gloopiness of the water when the Venn diagram of ‘teacher’ and ‘playworker’ slosh up against one another and overlap.

First things first though: playwork is not teaching. Playwork is working in service of children’s play opportunity. Sometimes, children at play around attendant playworkers might ask them how to do something or other. The playworker then has a choice to make: say or do something akin to ‘you work it out’, or show them how to do it. The latter is fraught with all sorts of adulterating, brain-forming by-pass complexities. Maybe it’s not so black and white after all. Maybe there’s a continuum at play. I’ve been fairly consistent over the years in saying that playworking isn’t something we should be diluting, or polluting, or shifting, by adding ‘teaching’ to it (though I do recognise that play can have a benefit of ‘working things out’ — I won’t write ‘learning’ here, as such, because that muddies the waters further). As can be seen, the sloshing waters of the respective Venn diagram circles of ‘teaching’ and ‘playworking’ can be pushed too dangerously together.

So, for clarity, playwork is not teaching: let’s start from this platform. Recently I’ve been involved in further children’s consultations in a local school. We’re investigating the use of their playground and that includes how the adults at school refer it and its play in their thinking and in their actions. In the classroom, this playworker-not-teacher can only be himself: children talk over me; some are quite happy to discuss things with their neighbours or stare out the window; some are intensely engaged in the areas for consultation; some probably don’t care. Sometimes, I find this all tolerable: I never was one for requiring children to listen to me, in stony silence, hands up, fingers on lips, if ever they wanted to interrupt my line of words. However, it is, admittedly, a tricky task to consult with thirty children of differing levels of engagement, understanding, attention span and so on, in a time limited way. I get why some teachers can become quite ragged!

At the end of one session, in which I said that I’m keen to investigate adults’ attitudes to play in school, one hand shot up and a voice from the depths of the classroom said, ‘What’s your attitude?’ It was an excellent question! What’s my attitude to play? I thought about it all week. On a good day (because we don’t always have those, do we?), I considered that I could see behaviours of all sorts as play, though I realised that by Friday I get frazzled too and the child who bangs piano keys five feet away from me, constantly, whilst I’m trying to sort food for twenty-five others, is somewhat testing! As I write, now, discordant piano play by feet, fingers, and bumps by the backside is, of course, all play.

On a good day, the children see my playworkerness: even if I’m not on the adventure playground. In the school playground, I was observing play, and then the teacher clanged the bell to indicate that it was time to go back to class. I could see that she was going to do it, so I sat down on my knees to get away from adult height and to offer her all the focus of that end of the space. The children all decided to come line up in front of me. Maybe I was, by chance, knelt down at the exact head of their usual line up place. I don’t know. It seemed odd and I felt somewhat incongruous there at the head of the queue that had morphed without any actual words, just a flow-on of play, in front of me. I stood up and took a step to the side. The queue rippled to follow me and I was, again, at the head of the line. Curiouser and curiouser, as it were. So, of course, the play cues had been inadvertently thrown: I hopped back, and the queue followed suit. I hopped the other way, and the children hopped too. The teacher asked me to lead the children back to class. I’d much rather have just walked with them, by their side, so I asked her, ‘Can I hop back?’

Play happens around the play-literate, or play-appreciative, or ‘good day’ playworker, I suppose. Play also happens around the periphery of the ‘play-illiterate’, or the ‘bad day’ anyone, but I’m thinking that there’s a different sort of qualitative engagement by the children: the adult is either merely tolerated in the space, or is ignored, or is blatantly or slyly teased. There are teachers who have good days and bad days, just as there are the rest of us who have the same, and I wonder how the ‘good day’ and ‘bad day’ teacher is differently treated in school by the children. I am aware that professional teaching isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about merely inputting information into the nascent, forming brain of the child; it is, or should be, about inspiring a desire to learn, to investigate and to explore. This is where the playworker/teacher gloopy overlapping Venn diagram waters slosh in again though: I believe that children will, and do, get so much more from a playful teacher, in the same way that they can ‘see’ the playworkerness of the playworker in any place that that playworker is.

At home, I watch the intensely concentrating face of Dino-Viking Boy as we go over the timeline of Romans to Saxons to Normans again, drawing it, playing it. He soaks it all up and thinks for a little while before saying: ‘The Normans? Who are the Normans? Did they beat the Romans?’ It’ll come.

My playworkerness and my dabbling in teaching are as muddled here as the late Saxon-Viking period of history itself! Playwork is not teaching, and I am a playworker. I’m also just me and I have my playworkerness, on a good day. Dino-Viking Boy punches me in the side of the head because we end up playfighting. I never was much good at fighting.

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.

Telling stories of meat and weak gravy

Last Thursday night saw the playground hosting a campfire evening for West London Zone’s link workers in White City. I estimated around sixty adults and children turned up (and, independently, so did they — so that tallies well!) The point of writing this introduction to this post is not so much to talk about the campfire evening (though this was a positive in itself), but to focus on the storytelling element that West London Zone were looking to embed into it, and from this, specifically, and as a jumping off point, the story that I told. Surrounded by a small group of pre-schoolers, or thereabouts that age, and a few parents, I told one of my favourites: Beowulf.

Now, it has to be said, Beowulf could be told with a fair amount of guts and gore! I let those around me know of my story plans, as a means of asking permission, and no-one objected, though admittedly I did rein the story in a little. There will be monsters and fights, I said beforehand. I tell Beowulf whenever I can because the meat of it I can remember well enough (stories told without the back up of books being held up have a different quality to those that are read from the page — which can work, but I tend to think these work best with certain forms of performance or in the privacy of one’s own head). I also tell the Beowulf story (though I can’t recite the original word for word!) because I find it has more ‘meat’ than the anodyne anaemia of many modern offerings.

Really, I can’t be doing with ‘Timmy Helps Mummy Do the Washing Up’, ‘Let’s All Share Our Toys’, ‘Khalid and Rupert Are Best Friends’, or ‘Last Place is Just a Different Type of Coming First’. OK, so I made those titles up, but you get the point.

I’ve written in this area before, but I like to come back to subject matters. Here and now though, there’s more to add in the thinking on stories handed down through time. I like to think I’ve played my part in handing Beowulf on and on. So often we know more about stories (which we’ve just vaguely heard of) in the form of a film or an X-Box game than we do of the original epic tales. However, here and now I’m thinking of the ‘meat’ of the Beowulf tale. That is to say, in critique, whilst I sneer at the insipid morality of titles like ‘Let’s All Share Our Toys’, and so on, maybe Beowulf’s morality punch can be seen as just as much a tool of the propaganda of its day.

‘Good’ fights ‘evil’: the archetypal staple of the stories of generations. Beowulf overcomes the tyrant monsters and dragons: though, looking closely, we see that the monsters and dragons are retaliating against the perceived wrong-doings of the Danes and Geats (modern Swedes). I’m guilty of perpetuating myths, just as the author of ‘Last Place is Just a Different Type of Coming First’ might also do. How much of this ‘archetypal propaganda’ permeates into the conscious realm of children as they grow? For now, I hope I’m dealing in constants of the human race but that I’m not causing damage in doing this (the ‘meat’, if we’re going to carry on down this line of metaphor, rather than the ‘weak gravy’ servings of ‘Timmy Helps Mummy Do the Washing Up’).

This is not a way of saying that storytelling should perpetuate the glorification of war. Rather, this is a way of saying that the archetypes we engage with throughout our lives are difficult to shake. They’re in us, in our stories. Should we try to eliminate them with the drivel of shelves upon shelves of ‘Let’s All Be Really Nice’ and the like?

When I tell stories that I’m making up with children, there’s nearly always no direction, no idea as to what the middle will be, let alone the ending, and the creature of the story evolves second by second: quite often there’ll be something like a giraffe getting flushed down the toilet, and some child will add something like how an elephant will get stuck down there too, and then a lion and a gorilla, and before you know it there’s an explosion, which’ll be messy, as you might expect! Or something like this. There won’t be morals when I make up stories with children (unless the children implant them themselves), and there won’t be any Timmy-ness helping well, or Rupert-ness sharing nicely. Sometimes, the occasion of a character turning inside-out might happen, or there could be farting, and if so it’ll probably be calamitous!

Telling Beowulf last week with a group of pre-schoolers, or thereabouts, also added something to the tale as it unfolded. King Hrothgar held his festivities in his great mead-hall, though they became parties, and the parties naturally then involved jelly and cake (as I was told!). In a way, this is right. Oral stories are transmitted from generation to generation, and sometimes new things may get added to the tale. Whilst trying to remain faithful to the version I had in my head, I rather liked the idea that King Hrothgar of the Danes had jelly and cake, and the monster, Grendel, didn’t much like this state of affairs!

What we do have to guard against, however, in the telling of the ‘meatier’ stories to children, despite the potential for transformation, as above, is the possibility that such tales of archetypal constants don’t get dumbed down. It may be a fine line between the playfulness of King Hrothgar’s jelly and cake and the eventual dissolving of such tales, a few hundred years (or fewer than this) from now, into ‘Beowulf Told the Naughty Grendel to Stop Being Bad, and Everyone was Very Nice to Each Other After That’.

It isn’t so binary, in reality, in choosing between states of telling ‘meatier’ tales and telling stories of ‘nice and blandness’. There are very many degrees in between (perhaps my made up stories of giraffes without meaningful middles, ends or directions fit in here). However, there’s definitely more collective thinking to be done in looking at what our stories are.

Engaging with mythic material in the play

Back in September, I told the story of telling a story about mermaids. It was a way into writing about ‘myth-narratives’ and ‘oral histories’, which our modern selves may well have forgotten all about in our technological, world-unconnected modern ways. I have a tendency to return to favourite themes and ideas, and so I find myself thinking this week about oral histories and stories, not this time of mermaids, but of Vikings.

Princess K., at home in September, wasn’t too perturbed by my suggestion that mermaids don’t exist. Her younger brother is also sucking up everything he can about the ‘real stories’ I can tell him. He has the moniker here of ‘Dino Boy’ because that’s what he was into when he was younger. Now, having passed into his Marvel Comics ‘Superheroes’ stage (with a particular focus on Hulk and Thor), he wants to know all about the Vikings. He seems to like the blood and guts of it. A while back I told the children the legend of Beowulf (with as much gore as I could paste into it!). Now, we’re onto stories of Ivárr the Boneless, and by extension (hopping around in time), King Alfred, and the like.

I don’t know too many Ivárr the Boneless stories, but we’ve both latched onto this character as someone of great villainous potential. Viking Boy, as I may have to now call him here, stops me every so often, mid-story, or when I’ve reached a natural pause, to ask, ‘So, who are the Goodies and who are the Baddies?’ Things seem to be so binary in this four-year-old’s world. Maybe that’s a result of modern televisual renditions of older stories. Maybe it’s a modern sign of the times. Occasionally I answer him by saying, ‘Well, who the Goodies and the Baddies are kind of depends on which side you’re on?’ but I don’t think he really gets the significance of this. So, for all intents and purposes, King Alfred is the ‘Goodie’ here, and any given Viking is the ‘Baddie’.

Just like stories of mermaids, stories of Vikings are important. As I inferred in September, we risk losing the richness of traditional tales if we stop telling them. Why tell stories of Vikings if we’re not ‘Viking’ ourselves? Well, as I said to Viking Boy when he asked me ‘are there any Vikings now?’, where we live (that is, England) we might all be a bit Viking. The mechanics of descendancy may also have passed him over.

In our stories, I’ve told how King Alfred fought the Vikings, and how he ran away to the marshlands of Somerset. Viking Boy knows now how King Alfred was supposed to have burned the cakes there. He’s listened to speculations on why Ivárr the Boneless was ‘boneless’, and sucked up everything I know about the Danelaw and the division of the north and the south, longships, the legend of King Cnut, Viking swords, and Jorvik, embellished in places, of course, with plenty of blood and guts in waves of early Viking raids. There’ll be more to tell.

A few weeks back, I got into drawing the battles with him. He watched closely at first, his face pressed near to the paper where I was telling the story as I lined up Alfred’s men against some unnamed Vikings. Viking Boy named the Vikings: there was Jeff the Viking, Jeff the Boneless, Andy the Boneless, and — for some strange and so far unfathomable reason — Locust the Viking! Then he laid into the men of both sides with felt tip pen, which was the blood and guts and gore. We had a similar battle, later, and later in history, with Harold’s men against the Normans (‘sort of Vikings’, being the only way I could describe descendancy) on the fields at what came to be known as Senlac, being better known as the Battle of Hastings. Viking Boy confused his own history at this point, but we still needed to go into graphic and particular detail on the legend of Harold’s gory demise (possibly, in a four-year-old’s head, due to the archers of Ivárr the Boneless: this adult listener forgiving the mash-up of a horde of time travelling Vikings!).

I think we’re still a little way from being able to mutually agree on what is legend, alleged history, and what is ‘truth’; Viking Boy has a binary mindset when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and when it comes to ‘made up’ and ‘real’. To him, it seems, the stories are ‘real’ if I tell them and if, when he asks ‘is this true?’, I tell him yes. I make room in the answer for the potential for alleged legend, but just like another strapline (Marvel’s Spiderman), with great power comes great responsibility! With story-telling comes great responsibility. Viking Boy looks at me with wide eyes, sucking up the ‘truth’ of what I say.

Later, when we drive past one of the old stone gates out of town, he pipes up from the back seat, asking what that’s about. It leads me into a story of King Alfred and his fortified burhs. Viking Boy listens carefully. Every so often, when we talk about the time we went to the cathedral, he brings up the story of all the kings there and ‘can we see the bones all mixed up in the boxes?’ because these are the stories I’ve given him. Stories get absorbed. When he runs into the room brandishing two thick cardboard tubes, jumping in front of me, proffering me one of them with a ready stance, he says ‘Can we play fight?’ (he leaves a small gap between the ‘play’ and the ‘fight’). Sometimes he follows this with a ‘You be the Goodie and I’ll be the Baddie’; sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s no in between, and he’ll often whack me on the knuckles as soon as I’m weaponised, or he’ll bundle in with his feet and arms waving: sometimes there’ll be a flying jump and no apparent plan regarding a landing strategy (other than maximum ‘enemy’ damage). ‘Do you know? Do you know?’ he sometimes says in a pause in the attack, ‘You be Alfred, and I be the Viking.’ I suppose that means he’s the Baddie again.

Stories get sucked up and played out. Is this playworking? I don’t know, though there is the engaging with the play material of the child in it; is this teaching? Perhaps — there is the engaging with the factual (and mythic) material, as requested by the child, in it. I don’t know if Vikings are on the syllabus of the national curriculum, but if they are (or, when they are), I’d like to know how that goes for Viking Boy’s teachers. Maybe he’ll have moved on further in his absorption needs by then.

Working with children and emotions in the human environment

Two children are having an argument over something and they just can’t let it go or get over it: what do you do? That is, you’re an adult watching on, a playworker perhaps, or you’re of a playwork-minded persuasion — even if you don’t know it — and you see all this bottled-up aggression unfold in front of you: When do you step in? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all?

My playground noticings for this week have formed around some children’s antagonisms, their righteous anger, and their focused interpretations on fairness — for the benefits of the self — resulting in cyclical arrangements of revenge. This all sounds fairly heavy-duty and negative, but thinking about interactions of this kind, in and around play, and a few days on from them, I file this post under the draft working title of ‘the human tendency to push others’ buttons and have others push our own’. That is, adult or child alike, none of us are, or ever will be, perfect and we will irritate, and be irritated by, others.

A playworker, who understands that they can just as equally push children’s buttons as vice versa, also understands that a reasoned process should take place when thinking on children’s various interactions with one another. I’m not an advocate of the school of thinking that promotes such direct verbal mantras as ‘Now, was that kind?’, ‘Share your toys’, ‘Say sorry’, ‘Don’t be mean’, and so on. That’s not to say that a little human kindness, sharing, sincerity and love wouldn’t go a long way in this world; it is to say though that forcing things on children may well only turn them into people of automatic responses that lack thought and true emotion.

Children will have arguments, just as baby birds will fall from trees, and just as you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself sharing a train carriage with someone with an annoying ringtone, a propensity to eat crisps loudly, or someone blessed with the most pathetically irritating cough in the whole wide world! The trick, or the sleight of mind, for the playworker — or playwork-minded person — when around the arguing children, is in trying to know what best to do and when.

Last week I watched on as a group of footballers cheated outrageously to get the oldest of them out of the game. She, the oldest, was not best pleased when the ones who were ‘already through’ to the next round conspired against her, but to her credit she tried every pressure, persuasion and conceit to get herself reinstated before finally taking on her erstwhile opponent and winning through again in a replay. The boy she beat stomped off in a flurry of self-defeat (because, in truth, he’d got it into his head that he couldn’t beat her fair and square before the replay anyway). The girl then took it on herself, after celebrating, to go and have it out with another child who was the chief cheat.

At what point do you step in when the two are literally at each other’s throats? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all? Eventually, for the boy’s protection, I stepped in (because I think she was only really holding him off and could easily have done him some proper damage if she’d tried). Was I right to even step in at all? ‘Play nicely’ (whatever that means) didn’t even enter my head (nor would it ever do), nor did ‘respect each other’ or ‘is this kind?’ These are education system mantras, which I understand to have some safeguarding intent but also, perhaps, some eye on crowd control. I stepped in when I judged it necessary but I don’t know if my judgement was correct.

I’m not advocating children go all out to hurt each other and adults just watch on and do nothing. I’m thinking around the relative benefits of adults not controlling the every emotion that children are expected to display. What was in my head at the time of the intervention was one of protection for the boy (the girl could easily look after herself, I think, and would probably have held her own against the whole group — all in it against her together — if she’d had to): I had no agenda of the children making peace with one another. What transpired was odd: I was aware of the heightened state of agitation that the boy was in after the older girl had left the scene of her own accord, and I sat down on the grass bank with him just so he could ‘come down’; a few of the other footballers came over and sat with us. One of them, another younger girl, shouted at me from just a few feet away, trying to tell me what had happened. She was also highly agitated. There’s no point in trying to be rational with people who are so ‘up’ emotionally, though I said quietly to the shouting girl, ‘Hey, I’m just here, this far away,’ but she didn’t hear me . . .

The oddness was in how the children came over, sat down calmly enough and tried to explain away the group’s actions (their cheating, as perceived by the aggrieved-against, and as observed by me): I hadn’t asked them to come over, and it struck me that they might have felt a need to justify actions when no justification had been asked for. Is this symptomatic of a social system in which children are often told how to behave?

This same week, another group of children were running around chasing after another boy and I observed it all flow around the playground and around me. As I observed, I felt something beginning to bubble up: I could see the boy was being ganged up on, even though the group appeared to be in ‘play mode’ — maliciously, softly, perhaps. I asked the boy, in passing, if he was annoyed because I felt he was. He said he was. Now, we need to know the children around us and I could sense that this individual was past the point of his own ability to deal with the situation. I intervened. I asked the gang to come listen to the fact that the boy was at this point. They didn’t listen. I tried to come at it again by a change in surroundings. They didn’t listen. It hit me that I was doing it wrong: it looked like I was trying to impose my adult views on the children, of how I expected them to be, or that’s how I felt it. I realised that this was a gripe between the aggrieved boy and the gang leader (who, it turned out, was also aggrieved): so I took these two to another room, reducing the stimulus, where they could tell each other what they felt.

This was, again, not a case of ‘respect each other’, ‘play nicely’, or ‘is this kind?’ This was a means of opening a dialogue, and whatever was said was whatever was said. I said nothing. I knelt down in the doorway and feigned disinterest. The boys took it in turns to resolve things for themselves. I shrugged when they’d stopped talking. They went. I got lucky, but I also came out with a few more thoughts on conflict, interventions and interactions.

I’m not always calm inside when children push my buttons. This happens, because we’re humans, and humans will have a tendency to do this to one another sometimes. It doesn’t happen very often, but life is not always sweet and rosy on the playground: it would be boring if it were. No matter how old or experienced we get at being around these unpredictable creatures that are the children we work with, there are occasions when buttons will be pressed: it is an on-going process of learning about the self in the ways that we deal with these moments. It should also be remembered that we will annoy the hell out of some children sometimes too. This week, I was wandering the playground when I saw two children at the sand pit: the girl was sat in a big hole and the boy nearby. He suddenly shouted at me: ‘Hey, Joe [he calls me this], go away. We need some sand privacy.’ I knew I’d bugged him just by my presence, and he knew I was observing. I tried some banter but it fell flat on its face. I moved away.

We need to be careful in our observations, but they are key not only to understanding individuals at play (and how we might be in all of that: present or absent) but also in further thoughts on how the adult world at large impacts on children. I see children on the playground sometimes engaged in cycles of revenge, never seeming to reach a point of karmic fulfilment, as it were, returning and returning in always attempting to have the ‘last word’ by trying to trip someone up, playing at throwing paint over them, a little shove here or there, and so on: I wonder at the unfulfilled needs wrapped up in all of this, where adults have previously imposed the ‘this is how to feel and be’ full stop to the argument of the day — children keep pushing and pushing buttons because they haven’t been allowed to work out for themselves the point of ‘this is enough; I have my balance; I am avenged.’

Arguments will happen and buttons will be pressed because we interact in a human environment: it’s how we deal with this that is important. If we’re an adult who’s bugging the children, or being bugged by the children, if/when should we walk away?; if we’re observing arguments or aggressions of cycles of revenge, if/when should we step in? Maybe my interventions this week worked well; or maybe, when it comes to emotion comprehension and regulation, I’m also part of the adult problem for these children.

Serious playwork: opposing the liberal accusation

In 2010 I delivered a two-day basic playwork block of training, and what I remember most of those sessions will always be the comments made by one attendee towards the end of the second day. He was extremely angry and struggled to keep it in check as he told me, in no uncertain terms, how he saw what I was teaching to be some maladjusted misinformed ‘1970s liberalism’. His vehement opinion really knocked me back. I defended myself at the time by saying that I didn’t write the stuff I was teaching (despite believing in it), that it was developed from those respected playwork writers who’d already put their observations, reflections and theories down on paper, but it was to little avail. The ‘liberal accusation’ is an on-going accusation, I find.

That is to say, the more I learn about my observations of children at play, my re-readings of older texts and readings of new texts, my conversations and correspondences with other playwork-minded people, and how all of this allows for more nuanced understandings of my own and others’ practices, offering other lenses to see through, the more I recognise the ‘liberal accusation’. Towards one end of the ignorance spectrum (ignorance is bliss, perhaps?) is the only slightly annoying but still somewhat pervading commentary that is, ‘So, you play with children; how hard can it be?’ Towards the other end of the spectrum are comments such as, ‘You can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: there will be anarchy’, and ‘Children need discipline, order, direction’, or comments from people who say they’re playworkers, and the like, along the lines of getting the whole playwork thing but that, now then, back in the real world . . . (add in any given adult construct of whatever the opposite of ‘just playing around’ can be seen as).

We’re not just playing around in playwork. This is serious stuff. Children play, and their play is also serious stuff. Sure, play can be funny, ridiculous, cute and fluffy, but play also includes the urgent need to destroy, the fervent need to win, the desperate need to be included, the subtle need to just be near this adult in this ‘just right now’ for just a few moments, the sometimes almost imperceptible need to be heard and taken seriously: all of this and an infinite arrangement of other needs too. When I hear the ‘liberal accusation’ come my way, in light of all of the above and everything else I’ve not got the space to write out here, I can’t help the virtual soapbox from coming up out of the ground beneath me and, before I’ve had enough time to think the situation through, there I am, quietly indignant and letting others know it.

The attendee at the 2010 training sessions who shot his ‘1970s liberalism’ accusation at me, if I remember correctly, also went on to extend his thinking (which had, no doubt, been brewing for most of the two days in that room with me and his learner colleagues): his view was along the lines of how you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want because there’ll be ‘anarchy’. ‘Anarchy’ has got a bad press in the minds of ‘liberal accusers’. The word is often used as a general catch-all that represents the comprehensive meltdown of society as we know it, and the meltdown of the micro-societies of children’s adult-led ‘play settings’ (or, as one girl of about ten, who I used to know, once told me of the after school club she attended, and where I then worked, ‘I don’t want to go the children’s farm today’).

There’s plenty to be diverted by in that last paragraph, plenty to be ‘unpacked’: perhaps there’s material for future writing here but, for now, suffice is to say that I’m starting to understand some playwork colleagues’ indifference for the term ‘play setting’. It does rather conjure up the image of something somewhat lifeless, sterile, in the process of fossilising, setting . . . I’m more interested in the idea of ‘place’. Sure, we do have these things we call ‘compensatory spaces for play’, i.e. the bits inside the fence where play is given the opportunity to be; we may work in these as playworkers, but the place is greater than the space because, amongst other things, there is the playwork mindset at work.

Back to my anarchy-fearing anti-liberalist, and his kindred spirits, and his view that you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: the simple response is often just ‘Why?’ Of course, this will be a red flag to a bull, more often than not, and can be used with mischievous intent. However, the question is valid, I think. That is, why can’t children make decisions about what they want to do, and how they do it, and why they want to do it the way that they choose? Is it valid to say that you, an adult, should not be allowed to make decisions about whether to go to the café or the pub or stay at home, whether to go by bus or cycle, or to decide that you need to go to a gig because you’re feeling a certain way? You’re not stupid: you can make your own choices. Children aren’t stupid either: adults tend to treat them as if they are though.

Now, it is fair to say that sometimes children may not perceive the hazards inherent in a situation (but let’s face it, there are plenty of adults who don’t see hazards either: I’m currently of the opinion that if I’m walking down a street and a fellow adult is engaged in phone-zombie mode, eyes on the screen in their hand, head down, ears blocked up with whatever their musical thing is that’s pouring through their earphones, then I’ll just walk-aim for them; call it mischievous intent, call it play!) Back to the children and their occasional inability to see the hazard because (just like the phone-zombie) they’re so into their play: I have been known to point out the hazard if the child hasn’t seen it, or to ask children to remove themselves from an area. Is this adult control? Last week, when a girl was just so hyped up around the fire pit, not noticing that (in my opinion) her play was a potential hazard to the other children around her as well as to herself, I asked her to leave for a while. The children will put plenty of cardboard on the fire because it’s instant gratification, which wood alone can’t give, and because they actively seek out the ‘biggest fire ever’, but they don’t sometimes see the way the fire comes close to their trousers as they jostle for ‘king or queen of the fire’ status. I continue to reflect, a few days on, about whether I did the right thing by her (she refused to leave the fire pit area because, I suspect, she was embarrassed, put out, angry at me, I’d disrupted her play). We settled into a compromise.

This is not a ‘liberal, anarchic, anything goes and hang the idea of danger, let them get on with it’ approach. Apparently, as was told to myself and a colleague by another colleague, a passer-by outside the playground took offence at the fire pit as was seen by peering through the fence: the inference being, as I read it, that children and fire do not, should not, mix and that it’s all very, very wrong. It’s all far too slack and liberal. Children should be given discipline, order, direction, not left to their own devices in obviously unsafe, anything goes havens of anarchic meltdown . . .

In places of play, where play can actually happen, skilled playworkers know when to stay out of things, when to keep a careful eye on the constantly shifting play, when to observe closely from afar or almost imperceptibly from close by; they know that they’re repeating cycles of dynamic risk assessments in their heads, they can sometimes anticipate the play before it’s happened because they know this play frame from other occurrences, they know these children on this playground, they’ve seen the affects of this weather, this play resource, this dynamic of children, or they can make a near-as-makes-no-odds assessment of combined factors of experience in new situations; they can read the stories unfolding, they can hold up their hands if they get it wrong (because that’s what happens in the continual cycle of learning and understanding: we misinterpret sometimes, we realise that we could have been ten seconds sharper, we see that one thing we said or did led to other things that might not have happened otherwise) . . . all of this and more.

I often say to playwork learners that if, by the end of a session, you’re not mentally worn out (and sometimes physically exhausted too), then maybe you’re not doing it right. Being a playworker doesn’t mean that this ‘1970s liberalism’, anything goes slack culture, as I read the accusation, is the norm — being a playworker doesn’t mean that we don’t take children’s physical safety, or safeguarding of welfare, or stances on bullying and the like lightly; the ‘liberal accusation’ cannot, or will not, see the nuances of all that is observed, felt, intuited, there and then considered, in-the-moment referenced from the playwork literature, experienced, reflected upon, that the on-going deliberation and action that the practice of playwork is. Just as children’s play is serious, so is playwork.

Learning: what children want

What can you possibly learn at school? OK, now I have your attention if you’re a teacher, or a teaching assistant, or a parent, or anyone else with a vested interest in the whole ‘learning’ arena, I should clarify that this post is intended towards the system and not the individual professional. I also like to live in a more idealised world than the one I often perceive around me, but there’s no harm in saying it how you think it should be. I like it in that idealised world: things don’t have to be the way they are. So, what is it that the schooling system is able to give children? How to hold a pen and form the basic units of words, the rudimentary aspects of mathematics, some stuff about gravity, or sedimentary rock structures, or something about the Industrial Revolution which, in context, probably has no real context . . .?

I admit that these examples are drawn from my own learning experience, but the point still remains: the things we actually learn are the things we want to learn. I hated doing endless handwriting practice with a blotchy old fountain pen that turned your fingers purple and pruney (looking back on my handwriting exercise books and later letters now, I don’t think I mastered anything close to handwriting skills until about the age of twenty five!); what I learned in maths class was pretty much contained within the following — I don’t and won’t ever need standard deviation, quadratic equations, or logarithms, and here’s how to use a calculator; I have a fair idea of the principles of gravity, but only through practical experimentation; I know that there are different types of rock, but really, a rock is a rock; the Industrial Revolution has no context to my life on account of its dullness.

I was having a pub conversation about play with a colleague the other day, and teaching came into the range of things. I referenced A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, as I tend to do when I talk around these sorts of things, and I’ve written around this subject before, but it’s worth revisiting. Neill was way ahead of his time. If the children want to learn what they want to learn, they will, is what I take from my readings. It’s of some coincidence then that I found myself sat around at the weekend with Dino Boy (3) and his sister, Princess K. (5), as they sucked up all the information I could give them on the subjects they were interested in.

It’s a great responsibility to give information to children, as good teachers will no doubt agree. How do you give information without trying to also sway their opinions on any given subject area? I fail sometimes in this respect. I catch myself in time on other occasions. Despite these intentions, I do find that the children often absorb my conscious and unconscious sensibilities and preferences and they repeat them. I trust, in time, that they’ll have all the information they need from all the sources they look to, to form their own opinions as often as possible.

So, we talk about skeletons and various bones and what our insides look like, and what does the inside of an elephant look like? A few weeks ago I was asked ‘What does snow mean?’ (which, after a battery of questions returned in order to try to reinterpret the question, responded in turn with ‘No, what does snow mean?’ in ever agitated tones, I finally cracked as being ‘What is snow made of?’). I’m then asked days later ‘What does beer mean?’ Trying to explain the fermentation process in beer-making to a three year old is tricky, but apparently acceptable. We watch the football on the TV, and Dino Boy studies the game before asking where all the girls are, which we talk about, and we move on to the purpose of the guy in the middle wearing white when everyone else is wearing blue or yellow.

When we’re out and about we discuss whether aeroplanes need wheels, whether we need to apologise to snails we accidentally step on and crunch in wet weather when they come out, and just how squelchy dead dried up slugs we find really are. The children take in all the information of the world around them, as well as stories of my past adventures and misdemeanours. They listen intently to tales of accidents involving blood and stitches and hospital visits, and they’ll gladly put aside books of pseudo-Barbie Amelia’s politically-correct and anodyne unadventures with the pasty wolf (who’s sorry for being so greedy but who’s ultimately forgiven and corrects the errors of his ways), in favour of the real Little Red Riding Hood, a story with big teeth and all, ‘from inside your head’.

Blood and guts and the workings of frogs’ stomachs, or the like, or how dead things became dead, feature plenty, as does the refrain (re: dinosaurs) of ‘Is that one dead?’ Yes, that one’s dead; they’re all dead; dinosaurs died millions of years ago. The concept of ‘millions’ is difficult for adults, let alone three year olds. ‘How did they all die?’ Translating concepts obviously has its point where information goes astray because comets and meteorites are different things! ‘What’s a comic?’ Dino Boy replied. ‘Not a comic, a comet . . .’ (though I need to revisit this one when he tells me next time that a comet wiped out the dinosaurs, and that doesn’t even take into account the other theories!)

Often, when I ask family children or children I work with what they’ve learned at school today (as a means of conversation starter), there’s usually a quiet pause and a reply along the lines of ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Nothing, really.’ That can’t be the case, can it? Or is it more the fact that children want to block out the things they’ve been told they have to learn? The system wants xyz in their heads; children want what they want. Sometimes the two can cross paths, though I tend to find that this is often when there’s something like pizza making in the offering.

When it comes to it, the information on its own isn’t as important as the connection that’s built in good positive child-adult relationships. Children will take on what they want to learn from those they want to learn it from. Some teachers may have very good relationships with children; some may not. When I see children at after school club in apparent diligent concentration on finishing homework tasks before they go off (or go back) to play, I often sense their action more out of duty. Children despair at having to define their lists of words, or learn the order and constituent elements of the planets of the Solar System when none of this interests them. The work is done not, I feel, because they care about the subject or the subject-master or mistress.

In my idealised world, which isn’t so very far from the one we live in (but maybe just a little too radical for many to entertain), children learn the arts of beautiful handwriting when they want to link the aesthetic of well-formed and meaningful stories to the visual (though, of course, the art of handling pens starts far earlier, though also when they’re ready for it); numbers one to ten are graspable in everyday life, but so too are larger ones, and even made-up ones because we should never underestimate the power of thirty-hundred or a ‘brillion’; the concept of gravity comes to those who wait; a rock is just a rock, unless — or especially, if — you’re hit by one or if you have an urgent early need to understand geology, in which case here’s a hammer; the Industrial Revolution is something that happened a million years ago, or it might as well have done, and it may have helped lay the foundations for the iPad, or mobile phones, or something . . .

Draft thoughts on depth immersion, play observation

Once, I remember a conversation with Bob Hughes along the lines of: observe the background. As the summer season on the playground is now in full swing, this advice comes back to me time and again as I stand in a position in the middle of the edge of things, out of the way, looking for the optimum ‘X marks the spot’ widest cone of vision. When you find the sweet spot, invisibility can kick in. Why does this matter? Sometimes, often, children can change the way they play, the way they act (as in ‘action’ and as in ‘perform’), the way they are, with the metaphorical lens firmly directed their way. Why is it then that this ‘purest of play, unadulterated by us’-ness is important?

In discussion this week with a colleague, the conversation flowed into the idea of ‘better play’. We’re there to make sure that ‘better play’ can happen, was the suggestion; to which I responded, how can there be a distinction between ‘play’ and ‘better play’? Can we put a qualitative value on any given instance of play observed? We can make better play environments by way of consideration of the space use, resources, our own actions, interactions, interventions and so on, but play is play, surely? There is ‘better play as observed’ and ‘better play from the perspective of the playing child’ to also consider here. When I think back to my own play as a child, how can I say that my bike riding of a hundred laps of the local square was ‘better play’ than my hiding in the bushes, or better than my standing leaning over the prospect of a sheer vertical drop, or better than my playing ‘anything goes football-rugby’ in the dining room?

So now, as I write, I write about the ‘purest of play’. Which is it to be? Is this pure, unadulterated, observed but not imposed upon play of the background on the playground ‘better’, or more desirable, than the close-by ‘changed because it’s being observed’ play of the foreground? Who is it more desirable to? That is, sure children may want to play in their own way, for their own reasons, without undue interruption by adults (which is desirable for them), but playworkers also have an urgent need for children to play in that way too. What’s in this for us? That is, why do we have this need to observe children playing without our interruption?

When teaching the whole ‘why observe?’ thing, it’s difficult to go any deeper in than really scratching the surface. Sure, we can say that we observe to learn about play, to consider individual play needs and preferences, to comprehend the impact of resources and colleagues on the play, to make judgements about access to various play types, and so on, but we can’t really teach that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that many playworkers seem to have in the moment of observation: that is, that sense, emotion, feeling, immersion, connection, call it what you will (and I don’t even know what to call it here) that goes far deeper than observing in order to learn about play, individual play needs and preferences, comprehension of resources, colleagues’ impact, play types, etc. Explaining what this ‘je ne sais quoi’ is is like trying to teach empathy . . .

Let’s just say that, for me, observation of play is an immersive experience that is necessary. In the moment I may not ‘learn’ any great insight, but a book is not made of just one page. In fact, the analogy is apt because when reading a book, if it’s a book that intrigues, the world outside those covers no longer matters. The world outside still impacts on the reading experience, but it can be put on hold and ignored for a while. The playground as book. For some of us the book’s covers aren’t defined by the playground’s perimeter fence: the book doesn’t close.

The other day I tried to explain what I did for a living to a family member I’d not seen for a while. I didn’t go into any of the above, but I did say that I work on the playground and I observe. I added that it wasn’t as simple as I made it sound. In a way, that conversation was also a catalyst for this writing today. The other elements to feed in here are recent considerations of various playwork styles (and by extension, our cones of vision in the observing on the playground), and our other developing ways of observing.

I’m aware that I like to wander the playground to see as much as I can at any given moment. Colleagues, I notice, might do the same, or I might do a visual sweep of the playground and find them sat quietly up on some steps watching out, or they’re immersed in conversation or play invitation with a child or small group of children, or they’re running, chasing, being chased with water balloons, or tidying, resourcing, heads up, or heads down, or building, or fixing. What they see I can’t say: that is, they see the play, they feel it, sense it, as I do, but what that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of observing for them is, I can’t say. I don’t yet know how to frame the question to them.

In our other developing ways of observing, we sometimes sit with the ‘video’ button on on the camera. Observing the background in this way benefits at least two-fold: in the first instance, children are less aware of it from a hundred yards or so away, if at all; in the second instance, the things that were clearly in front of the camera-holder at the time, foreground or background, but which only become apparent on play-back, can be a fascination in themselves. However, unless the camera becomes as invisible as the unobtrusive playworker, it will often be an instrument that will change the play.

Does this matter? Is the play any worse off for being observed, either by eye or by camera? Some play happens because the act of observation makes it happen, when it wouldn’t have happened without the observing taking place. In the end, here, I can’t draw any definite conclusions. I offer up these thoughts on observation as a means of reflection and as a means of suggestion to other playworkers, asking: What is it that observation is for you? What is the ‘je ne sais quoi’ you get from it? Observation goes deeper than just seeing the play.

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