Being a playworker offers privileged insights into the many-faceted nature of play and, by extension, children’s culture. We, as the adults, are by definition on the outside looking into that culture. That said, the observant, the trusted and the fascinated can be subsumed: just as parliamentary privilege grants its members the leeway of undertaking certain protected actions, playworker privilege (or, at least, play-literate adult privilege) grants that playworker the luxury of being allowed to co-exist in the child’s play. This post, however, isn’t going to carry on about constitutions and the like: privileged insights on play, over time, manifest themselves into a form of grammar that can be seen to be taking place. This is it: play has its grammar.
First though, a quick explanation overview on the choice of title (feel free to read ahead if you know the difference between ‘restrictive’ and ‘non-restrictive’ clauses). Simply put, a restrictive clause is an element of a sentence that is essential for its meaning. A non-restrictive clause can be omitted without the sentence losing its meaning. For example, omitting ‘which is non-restrictive approach to action’ from the title doesn’t greatly shift its overall gist: ‘Play and its grammar’.
Play is non-restrictive, i.e. it doesn’t restrict the subject (that is, in this case, the playing child). If we shift the title of this post to include a restrictive clause, then we shift the meaning of it, e.g. ‘Play that is non-restrictive approach to action and its grammar’. Play that is non-restrictive suggests that there is a non-restrictive and a restrictive sort of play. If it’s restrictive (or restricting) for the player, is it play?
I’ll stop on that choice of title whilst I’m still marginally ahead! Over the years a playworker can amass several books’ worth of privileged insights into the grammar of play, as they’ve seen it. Anything I write here in the next thousand words or so will only scratch the surface. Suffice is to say though that there are lores and codes, the sense of the non-sensical, the necessary unnecessariness and vice versa, the repetitions and recreations, the shows and tells, the long lines of finding out, ridicule and ridiculousness, the not knowing and just staring out but just knowing . . .
Play, as observed, seems replete with ‘this is how it is-ness’. That is, those lores of ‘We got here first’ and ‘I invented this game’ are ingrained in the fabric of play from those players’ points of view. Recently, play had unfolded inside the hall, over the course of a few days, whereby a small group of children strung string or wool around like webs. Of course, this irritated other children who wanted to use that exact same area too. The stringers claimed the moral and play high ground by invoking the ‘we got here first’ clause. Clauses like this are written into the language of play.
Non-sense (written deliberately here with the hyphen) is not a trivial aspect of this language. Non-sense is a code in itself. When ‘Cops and Robbers’ happens on the playground, and when I’m the cop because that is my designation, some of the children will stop running and stand in the middle of the site, in the mud, with a finger placed across their upper lips (or, sometimes, it’s a twig or something else like this). This non-sense makes perfect sense to the players: all of us. The children standing with their fingers poised horizontally across their upper lips are in disguise, sporting moustaches. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ the situation requires me to say to any of the girls stood there, ‘but have you seen any robbers around here?’ The children will often say no, so I’ll say, ‘Oh, sorry to have bothered you, sir’ and this is their cue to take down their moustache disguises and the chase is on again! If you ‘write’ the play in other ways, sometimes, if you play it out other than expected, it doesn’t seem to read right.
Within play there are necessary unnecessaries and unnecessary necessaries. Glitter is a thing of the moment (a necessary necessary within the other lines of thinking, being, doing). One particular younger child attends our off-playground outreach sessions every day we’re out there. Every day, without fail and at some point, he’ll find the pot of glitter (which we take out there because the other children have been gluing and glittering and feathering pictures and plasticine and tables for weeks now). Every day we’re out there, as soon as he’s found the glitter pot, this younger child will pour it all out onto the nearest surface (usually the ground!). It seems absolutely, unnecessarily necessary for him to do this, or vice versa. I haven’t quite worked out which. Either way, it’s a twisted grammatical construction, as complex as it is: threading through and hanging in the play, the child has his own reasons. It is a dangling participle of the language of play.
Play like this happens again and again. I’ve written of repetitions and recreations of play many times here (yes, that is an intentional and considered previous two lines). In some form of necessary way, players often seem to need and want this repetition and recreation. Perhaps the play that has happened hasn’t strung itself out fully yet; perhaps the play just needs repeating in order to try to conjure the affective felt conditions of before (as I have written of before); perhaps, in the repetitions and recreations, in the grammar of these lines that thread through days, there is something of the ancient ritual, of the magic incantation, of magic protective circles, and the like. These are not necessarily about the extensions of play that happens (being the on-going concern of a play frame over days — like, for example, the cafés that currently unfold around the playground); these are clockwork repetitions. One boy with autism repeats the same actions at the fire, piling on cardboard and any paper sheets he can find, sitting and watching and saying over and over, ‘Little flames, little flames’ and ‘Strawberry jam’ or whatever I can’t translate from his Slovenian or Croatian. Other children, without autism, repeat their play at the swings, at the trampoline, at the netting, with the bikes, with the sand and mud pies, with the whatever is ‘in’ of the moment. It seems readable: as if there are messages within it all.
Some children create elaborate constructions of play and there are more messages embedded in all of these. These are shows and tells. The playworker has to be hyper-tuned to register the frequencies of what’s going on around him- or herself some days. There are wavelengths that are longer too though. Sometimes the amplitude, as it were, is so shallow, though the wavelength is so long, that the on-going play can be missed, unseen, entirely. The long lines of finding things out are written in the way that names and uses of them unfold, in the slow fluidity of shifts in friendships, in the ultra-local legends of very particular places within the place that is the playground. These are subject-verb agreements within the grammar of the play.
Some children, in the play, are objects of ridicule (because they don’t know or don’t care what and how they do things, or because they’ve chosen a way, or because they can only be that way, or because they’ve wanted to be). They act like punctuation marks because you know how they’ll affect the sentence of the play as a whole. They’re both needed and unneeded by the other children: an aspect of the selective descriptive grammar, in this case, rather than the prescribed ‘you must do this, be this, be that’. Ridicule is part of play but play also subverts and embraces ridiculousness. On the face of it, when does play start? It’s ridiculous to suggest that it either starts or ends when, sometimes, narrating (or prescribing) the play — what will happen (‘first I’ll do this, then you do that, then afterwards we’ll do this’) before it’s happened — is part of the play in itself. Then it shifts condition. The blocky adult perspective of ‘non-play action, non-play action, play, non-play action’ is the ridiculous here, which children are fluent in turning on its head. It’s a way of writing upside down. At the same time, play embraces the ridiculousness of being. ‘What would you like from our café, sir?’; ‘Octopus pie and a slice of hippo, no cucumber please’; ‘OK, just wait here.’ It’s mirror writing: through the looking glass.
Play, which is non-restrictive (or how can it be play?), has its grammar. This is, as I read it, a complex affair. It embraces other philosophies and fields in its ethics, in its amplitudes and wavelengths, in its calligraphies and natural magic. There are clauses in the lores, ways of reading, twisted constructions and hidden messages within it all; there are subject-verb agreements, objects in relation, subversions and subsummations of others’ ways of being. Play is a descriptive, non-restrictive grammar because it won’t be exactly pinned.
Sometimes, all we can do (and sometimes all children need to do), in the just not knowing, is just a staring out, but just kind of knowing all the same . . .