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

Posts tagged ‘magic’

Play, which is non-restrictive approach to action, and its grammar

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 . . .
 
 

Moments surfacing from in amongst the wave

Having just come out the other end of a full-on, hectic couple of weeks of open access Easter holidays on the playground, it’s safe to say that a few days rest has been very much needed. In such weeks of so much going on in the play, the not-so-play, and the not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. The playground has ebbed and flowed from the quiet first fifteen or twenty minutes each day of what, for a while now, I’ve called the children’s ‘poking around’ time, through the swell of the build-up of something taking shape in the group dynamic, right up to something (which in the moment feels) very edgy, teetering there either like the proverbial wave that won’t crash or falling over in some places like on stretches of the shore.

In this edgy, sometimes niggling, often fizzing state, the playground is one long anticipation of that something-ness that may or may not take off, when the day’s like this. These past few weeks there have been water balloons and factions, the hose pipe, water buckets (sometimes the buckets themselves being thrown), the filling of the pool table with water (‘for underwater pool’) and spadefuls of sand and dollops of paint thrown on for good measure too; there have been balls kicked blindly up high to land into crowds of unseen children on the other side of the site; the workmen in the road have had their patiences tested with children throwing bits of old piping over the foreman’s roof; palettes have been smashed; arguments have risen and fallen or grudges have sustained themselves over days. I often come back to the suggestion, when talking about playwork, that even on a calm day if you’re not going home mentally exhausted (from observing, at least), then maybe you’re not doing it right; the edgy days are even more exhausting.

In amongst all of this, we might be forgiven for missing the little moments of play that happen quickly, quietly, on the periphery of the dominant dynamic of it all. If we sit back and think though, it is possible to draw to the surface such moments that we’ve noted in passing (consciously or otherwise). It is such moments that this post is intended to celebrate: a recognition that they have been. In no particular order (I don’t know which days they happened for sure in many cases, which may add to the general celebration), there follows notes on small incidences of play that might otherwise have passed us by:
 
Of the ethereal
Not many of the children who attended this open access were also regular after school club children, but there were a few. One was a younger girl who I caught sight of, every now and then, as she just floated by and through the whole fizz and swill of everything else going on. I thought she might be bored or unsure. I don’t know, in truth. I offered her clay that was already out and stored on a high shelf, once, and she and her older sister took it to a corner of the playground and nothing of the edginess seemed to bother them out there. The younger sister had a serene disposition whenever she wandered through the place, as all manner of buckets and language flew around her and the playground. She wafted from one place to another, stopped (perhaps to see the way the world was from there) and disappeared for another hour or so.
 
Dandelion girl
The same girl picked dandelions at the edge of the site near the zipline. A colleague caught my attention to show me this because he’d never seen it here before. Later, the girl picked dandelions elsewhere at another edge of the playground. She gave them to my colleague, and she laid more out on a long stretch of carpet that I’d put there in our set-up, by the hammock swing, because perhaps someone might lie on it.
 
Circular dozing
Another girl had been asking me and asking me to find her some slime powder for a while, and I hadn’t been able to achieve this because of everything that was happening at that time. Finally, I found the powder and put it in my pocket ready for when she was ready again. I saw her at the roundabout. She was lying in the centre of it in the sun. The other children there said she was asleep. She was dozing for sure, as the roundabout went slowly round. I cast a small shadow over her as I watched on, I remember, in my curiosity. There was no slime till the next day.
 
The lucky hammer and the catapult
A boy carried a hammer around with him all day, banging away at whatever he could find. I remember thinking that maybe he was testing us, but none of us were saying ‘don’t do this’. He kept the hammer with him and the banging gradually decreased. Near the end of the session he told me it was his lucky hammer. Earlier, he’d badgered me to help him make what he called a slingshot (but which was, as I later understood, a desire for a catapult, and which I understood in the moment as a ‘see-saw’). He wanted to nail two pieces of wood together and I said go do that but maybe a Y-shaped strong piece of branch would work out for the task. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for finding this. After the weekend, he searched again and came back and back with progressively stronger Y-shaped wood. I wondered if he’d been thinking about it all that time. We fitted it with elastic bands and duct tape to tie them together. He had his catapult/slingshot, and the lucky hammer didn’t re-emerge.
 
Diwali boys
Three boys found the stash of powder paints in the storage container. I’d seen one of the boys in this sort of play before: that is, he likes to dip his hand into the paint and throw it to the breeze and cover himself in the process. The boys engaged in the powder paint play around the playground, getting themselves good and dusted in brown (being the choice of the moment). Later, the boys were in the container again and there was powder paint of various colours a good half-inch thick covering the floor. ‘What has happened here?’ I asked them in a manner I hoped would be taken for its intention as observation rather than admonishment. ‘Fun has happened here,’ said the boy. We’d noted the festival nature of the play in our conversations earlier.
 
A tidied corner
One day, and briefly, I caught sight of a small group of younger girls who had swept the boards that now cover the old fire pit, where we’d left a trestle table which had accumulated bits and bobs and which they’d removed. They’d positioned wooden cabinets at the corners, turned inwards, and neatly created some outside room without the walls. They were busy painting the furniture. I walked on by and didn’t see this again.
 
Ethics on the mound
Somewhere along the line, one of the boys decided that it would be a good idea to put a live worm in an old tin can and roast it alive on the fire. There were some brief discussions between myself and some of the children, though I left them to make their own decisions. Later, I was talking unconnected things with a parent nearby and, as I did so, I overheard two children behind me as they sat on the mound of earth at the entrance gate. They were digging for worms and I couldn’t concentrate so well on the parent because I wanted to hear what the children were saying. There was general talk of worms and God, and ethical scraps that passed me by, but which I wanted to hear more of.
 
Tales of swings
Two girls spent some considerable time, over a period of a couple of days, grappling with a socket set to extricate the bolts that held the tyres onto the swings. There was a general consensus of a small section of children that the swings would be better this way. The girls finally freed the tyres ready for a colleague to unhook the chains from the beams. Later, or another day, I caught sight of the swings going high without the extra weight of the tyres on them, sometimes with just one child swinging almost horizontally, sometimes with all of the swings used by children at the same time, synchronised to meet in the middle of the frame structure at their highest point, their toes. Once I heard, in passing, the lull of a song as a group of older girls swung.
 
An occasional piano
We have a piano positioned in the alcove between the tool shed and the main door towards the office and just behind where the children like to have the pool table out in the sun. Every so often a child could be seen or heard there, tinkling away at a few notes. One child, late in the week, diligently repeated the same refrain, over and over. It was a small repetition of notes and nobody bothered him. He came and went. I came and went.
 
A smiling smurf girl
It was the end of a session, one day, and one of the younger girls had found some blue powder paint near the fire exit and the storage container. She set about covering her skin with it as we bustled by, as children used up every last minute they had left on site in their darting to the toilet tap to fill up balloons, and as we were trying to usher everyone out. The girl stood in amongst it all with a big grin on her face. I stopped to see and she made me smile, her just looking like a big smurf, as she did! One of the older girls of her family screamed at her to ‘wash it off, now!’ She was in parental mode, as has often happened.
 
Just hammering
For a few days, for twenty minutes or so at a time, this same younger girl sat herself down on a low platform in the middle of the playground, after a quick trip to the tool shed, and proceeded to bang nails into the wood for no reason other than to bang nails into wood. When she was done she was done, until the next time.
 
One pan full of bubbles
A long time back at the very beginning of the open access days, one of the girls found a pan. I saw her a little while later with her pan filled with bubbles (or, as some children call the washing up liquid for the water slide: soap). She headed for a colleague who was sat on one of the old people’s chairs that was later to take a battering by having its back broken somehow. The girl smiled with her bubbles, looking at the hatless, hairless victim that was my colleague sat in the chair. My observations moved along . . .

In amongst the edginess, the hectic dynamic of the ebb and flow and swill and play, and not-so-play, and not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. There have been challenges these past few weeks, but there have been these moments too, and more. They rise to the surface.
 
 

The question of the how of speaking other languages about play

It occurs to me that even though we happen to be speaking the same language, we may in fact be speaking different languages altogether. That is to say, when speaking about play, it might not be the thing itself that’s the contentious issue: it might just be the language that we speak to describe it. After all, isn’t the play itself the same thing no matter which way up you hold it? What the difference is is the person doing the viewing. I’m aware that I’ve tended to come around to the same subject matters plenty of times in my writing, but that’s all fine if those subject matters can be seen from different angles. When we discuss play, there’s often a playing with words itself to do this: I’m thinking this post will be no different in that respect, but the slight tweak is the view of languages used.

A small moment of minor epiphany arrived recently when I realised that, in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. My language, in this writing on these posts, is the language of ‘this is play, for the sake of play, for the hell of it, for no developmental outcomes or other future-looking gains’, or variations of this. None of us are perfect adults, all of us are continuing the process of being and are being in our becomingness, in the here and now: there’s no reason, in my language, why children shouldn’t be viewed in the same way. We’re occupied by the same genetic material, adults and children, and many adults tend to forget that they were children once too. They’ve forgotten because they think they’re fully formed, wise, more. These are not rational assumptions to have because none of us are, or ever will be, ‘complete’. We all occupy the same streets, and we all make our way, day by day. Here ends the brief précis of this language that I’ve been speaking for a while now.

However, it seems that in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. How, though, do we talk the languages of education, law and order, health, funding, and so on, whilst maintaining the core of what we believe to be true? These are questions for the asking, not answers yet for the giving. When I’m communicating with children, either by words or by gestures, but more often than not by play, I’m speaking their language, their codes and culture. We can speak more than one language within the overall language of the shared words and actions that we use. The task then is how to translate that skill into passionate advocacy for play with other adults who, by and large, don’t usually come to play from the same angle.

‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’, as attributed to Oscar Wilde (not as commonly misquoted of George Bernard Shaw), is testament to more than the words of an actual language themselves, of course, but is also relevant in this ‘adults coming to play’ discussion: what we know is that we all view it differently, and that we speak of it in different terms — what is so obvious that it hasn’t occurred too frequently though is that we do have the ability to speak others’ languages, as difficult as this may be. Or, at least, if that proves ethically tricky, we have the capability of listening.

We’re all right, of course, though. That is, we wouldn’t position ourselves so absolutely in our ethical or principled camps if we didn’t believe that what we were saying was ‘the truth’. Is it possible that there is more than one truth? Can we really be living in a more than binary world of right/wrong? When I talk of play I talk about its here-and-now-ness, and I have great concerns about the rhetoric others use in tub-thumping with equal fervour about all things only-developmental. This is a simple binary, though I know the picture is more complicated than this in reality. Could it be that children’s play offers them something for the future too, in conjunction with the just-now-ness? Yes, of course it does. Play has many benefits. Here, though, I break from the self-imposed attempt to see things in other ways, when saying: how about others seeing that same set of words in the last few lines the other way around too?

Back to the task in hand: how to see play by speaking others’ languages of it. The present UK government, and the possible next, sees children in terms of educable entities. Of this I’m convinced, judging by the rhetoric that comes directly from politicians and indirectly via media reports of their policies and statements. How can a here-and-now play person (I deliberately avoid the ‘playworker’ term here for now) speak the language of education without diluting the core belief that play is essentially made of magic? I don’t write this frivolously: if we are all made of carbon, if we are all made of star-dust, so it is that play is something ‘other’ than we might ordinarily always see. Play, from this perspective, is glitter that we can’t catch. Here we are again, back at the esoteric, the poetic, the speaking of languages not understood.

Yet, the epiphany still stands: in order to communicate with someone, we may have to speak more of their language. The question is not in the ‘what’ of the words (these we can say because we have them in common anyway, of sorts), but in the ‘how’ of them. Perhaps, as ‘developed’ as we consider our adult selves to be, as ‘fully formed’, as ‘wise’, as ‘more’, we can come round to the conclusion that we can understand more of the ‘how’ by learning from children. In my experience, children often seem fairly adaptable to the how of speaking the different languages of adults around them: sure, they can co-opt adults into their own language of play to assimilate them into the nature of their thoughts, but they can also be adept at role and character mimicry, and much more than this too. Children often seem skilful at playing the language of any given adult, which may be altruistic — if there is such a thing — but which may serve their needs all the more succinctly. Maybe it’s an evolutionary trait; maybe some of us, as fully formed as we think we are, un-develop it.
 
 

The playground wintering: of being open to what’s around

In the January mud, the playground has that winter quality of waiting. The light at the end of the day extends ever that little bit longer, before there’s a sudden tipping into darkness as the sun falls behind the tenement roofs. The playground seems to be waiting for its mudded roots to dry out. It lies, not growing, just breathing. Last week, one day late still in the morning, the hardest frost I’ve known there lay on the mud-woodchips. The sand in the sand-pit was solid in the shade of the thinned-out tree that was once the fully-leaved cover of a now-dormant den. The sand crunched under the weight of my extra boot pressure. The sun sliced up laboriously and sheered the frost on the bench into a very slow wave of thawing. I had a need for a few photographs just to nudge me again of this in future summerness.

When one of the children asked me to help her with moving the tyres so she could make a castle (though in a queenly manner, she pointed and said ‘put that one in the wheelbarrow’), I saw the deep marks they left because they haven’t moved for months. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘you move some’. She made a feeble attempt at shifting one, then shook her head as if in actual fact regal. I imagine rings of small depressions where the playground lets out little long wheezes of air, just there where the tyres were, in appreciations no-one will really see.

Darkness is a feature of the playground wintering. Even when it’s light, there’s the expectation of light’s absence. This isn’t to suggest a negative. When the light has shifted over the roofs, and the individual and collected tumblings of children, once clearly seen, seep into shadows of only possible people known somewhere out by the tyre swings, the playground offers up the secrecies of hiding in open space. The children are out there somewhere. The fire takes on deeper resonance when the light leaves too. The children have incinerated three Christmas trees, at the last count, and when they do this the flames reach up high, and this and the crackle and pop of the pine needles sends those children screaming and squealing. They come, also, from far-off hidden open spaces to gather and collect at the burning of the trees. When it’s good and done, some short time later, with the black bones of the branches stuck in the pit like fish scraped of flesh, the children reel off again to wherever they’d come from, dispersing, and re-entangling into new knots of groupings unseen.

In the late morning, an act of developing satisfaction — as a word that best fits — is, strangely, that of the litter pick: especially so on a perfectly crisp, brittle-aired day. It’s easy to forget being in the middle, or along the spiral arm, of a city when on the quiet playground. The pick is not just a mindless pick. There is the dropping into something slow, sure, but this is an opening. There are all the hidden messages of the playground to be seen, in their great or minute details: things that have happened and that can be discerned and ‘listened’ to. I use this verb carefully and not totally in terms of the ‘conventionally heard’. The squeak of the spring of the litter picker seems to communicate with the playground: the birds, on occasion, seem to reply in the same tones. Grey squirrels hop along, watch me, hop along, climb. A cat might wander through and by.

In the old pond casing, which is now ensconced in the wooden block boat, which itself is fading from a drain of colours, as if slowly washing away, I see a silvery radio or CD player, incarcerated beneath the ice layer of the water. I know who put this there, even though I’ve not seen that play. I know this is an experiment, poor thing like a baby mammoth in the perma-frost, but I leave it be because I know all this. It waits too, for its near-future demise at the hands of the boy who likes to smash such things into the oblivion of techno-afterlife! It’s almost as if he’s teasing it, left out here in the cold as it has been.

The playground waits in other objects that have fallen, laying where they fell, whilst everything else moves on around it. The whiteboard that we propped against the fence has fallen, I saw, and the metal frame of the old bin shell that was a makeshift post to tie a rope around, early in November when we had the bonfire, lies exactly there on the concrete, still. I picked it up every so often, propped it up, like picking up a fallen old person from the ground. It ended up back where it was the next time I saw it. I’ve taken to leaving it. One child asked about it last week, in a general just-looking-out-that-way kind of way. We talked about the bonfire and the makeshift post and the rope. ‘Oh,’ she said.

In between the fallen, I’ve taken to tracking objects that I know are moving, and some that I wonder whether they might. There are deliberate considerations of placing before the children come, mapping and logging like an archaeologist, the next day, seeing where I find things. I don’t know what I’ll draw from this: a curiosity borne of noticing how one thing in particular has been moving (though, sadly, this is one thing now missing presumed dead). I looked in every place, for every trace, but it was gone. Such is the irony of something that has moved around almost ceaselessly but now, when I tag it, it loses its momentum and falls from the place by way of being deposited in the bin.

The playground waits amongst all of this. The January mud persists, and the expectation of darkness lingers. The frost or ice settles because the playground won’t move or shake it off, not like the summer bees around the rosemary bush, or the autumn breezes taking gold paper and other leaves to the very edges of the place, sticking them up against the fencing. The fire exerts its winter gravity on the children, and the playground’s objects lie or leave indentations or move almost silently. There is the possibility of seeing the wildlife attempting to listen in. There is more than meets the eye if we’re open to what’s around.
 
 

Ways of seeing: magic (notebook drafts)

I have spent these past weeks immersed in magic (whatever that should mean). It is a process of trying to understand, or to see. What this is, what we’re in, could be impossible to describe; though what we cannot always see to say, as such, we can feel. Words pile up on words: in the reading, in the notes, in observations of play. There are only so many words a brain can hold though. In the unfinished ending that this continuing process is, what it can only come down to, I suppose, is ‘connect’. I need words to try to explain the insufficiency of words . . .

‘Magic’ is a word that’s bandied around without care. This is not a post about the common or garden (or even skilled) stage illusionist or street performer: this post encompasses much other. In trying to explain what words are so far from really being able to do, I’m re-realising about the other ways we could use words. In order to be able to subvert a form, we must first understand the structures of that form. Now, and only now, can we do such as leave out words, a forming of gaps to fall into; subtly twist syntax; mix and merge the language we’ve grown up all our lives with. New meanings start to emerge between. It is rare: only those who get this get this. Magic is of the in-between.

Out there, in the world, in there, out of the world, is a depth level of magic to connect to, with, within. Last week, as the long shadows of a late September afternoon began to spread over the playground, the sun shining in, the children laughing and running in complexities of chase-tap, I caught the slightest, lightest look from one girl, who smiled and tilted her head as if to say, ‘Yes, I get you, your actions, everything of your right here and now-ness.’ Of course, I’ll never know what she actually thought, there, then, because she probably doesn’t know herself, now, but . . . here is the difficulty of words . . . what is was, was what it was. Or, what it was, was what it was. You decide. That moment was of magic (noun), a magic moment (adjective), a performance of magic consciousness shift in me (verb).

When we connect, there is no sleight of hand. Everything of everything is open. I think I’ve always believed that many children can read the open words of adults, who necessarily roam their dedicated places for play and, by extension, those of those adults out there in the fence-less streets too. I say it this way because I haven’t felt otherwise, though my ways of seeing and feeling have become more refined. Children can read us, and we can connect with this reading. I called this ‘play connectivity’, some while ago, but really, what the words are aren’t what connectivity is.

Last week, also, I came onto the playground early on in the session and there were children already there before me. Down from somewhere up the slope behind the tyre wall and around the corner came a child whose light we all seem to see. She bounded into my path and announced herself — if not with an outright ‘ta-da!’, it might as well have been! There was a flourish and a conversation, just of the ordinary details of an ordinary day at school, where the teacher, it seems, was having her usual bad day: such was the interpretation of a child who saw it fit and fine to just say, to me, because . . . because, I like to think and feel, this wasn’t a usual child-adult/adult-child communication. ‘You will tell us if we annoy you in any way, won’t you?’ I said. ‘What, anything?’; ‘Anything’. She smiled. ‘Sure.’

Many of us have had these sorts of interactions, despite their unusualness. To be fair, some teachers may get them too. What’s underneath, or within, or slightly hidden from and in it all, beneath/within the honesty, the openness, the privilege, is the magic field. This is the place where time and times converge, where there is ‘connectivity’, or the possibility of it, if we can see and feel where we are.

We may feel unconnected with our day-to-days of day-to-days: we all do; it happens. Yet: becoming/being open to the possibility of all that might be in the world is a start. Earlier, at the time of writing, after being occupied in what I perceive as the unmagic veneer I sometimes gloss along, I took a walk and there, in the late afternoon early evening haze was all that I’d not connected to, that earlier, at and in the screen. I write in notebooks to feel the page at my fingers; I walk to feel the page of the world.

The playground is an abundance of pages. None of them can be written, truly. Being there, being on the playground, is a unique experience, no matter how many times we do it. Each uniqueness is impossible to capture, really. We represent what we see with stories, but what we tell is not what it is, in the moment. The pages are in us, but we must learn to read. Reading is a magic gift, a gift of magic. If seeing is believing, believing is only possible by immersion in the moment. There, last week too (this being just a representation of a moment), I read a moment as a magic one: I met two three-year-olds, for the first time, who were unsure of me, but later, soon, after spending honest time with them, I met them again and they were as ready to tell me life stories if they wanted to. It is privilege, this ‘gettingness’, this ‘being seen’. The art is in the knowing, in the appreciating: reading is a magic gift.

What we may appreciate are levels other than the usual veneer or sheen. Sure, children can trust and love, even or especially, us who aren’t family, but what we might see beneath, behind, within this, they do too, and neither we nor they have words for this. Words are insufficient here. We have to be in it all: moment, magic field, there not here.

This week I have been acutely aware, in appreciation, of being in these children’s territory. That is, not only the place/space of the fenced-in playground but the streets around: there, that is theirs not mine. I come home, a long way home, by train, and this is my hometown. There, everything of their childhoods forms: layers upon layers of times. I feel like I should walk carefully through it. It is an appreciation of other depths, I think.

Immersed in magic, in a magic field, depth arrangement, it’s perhaps impossible to think in other ways. Words are insufficient, inadequate: after all, how exactly can we describe the way the sun shines in? We can only represent, use language in devious ways, tell our stories and hope someone, somewhere, connects.
 
 

SLG Play Local: this story’s working title (the things those who believe in magic see)

A slightly unusual post this week, insofar as it’s mostly a screenshot of a heads up for an upcoming adventure! At the start of October I shall be discussing on several current strands of thinking at the South London Gallery (SLG) in Peckham. Play is central to the story that I trust will evolve, of course, but there are all manner of lines of enquiry so far. Here’s the screenshot below, but to access the links highlighted in it you’ll obviously need to go to the SLG Play Local site. Thanks to Lauren Willis at SLG for the invite, and also for showing me round the Peckham estate and Shop of Possibilities there the other week.
 
Play Local SLG (Oct 1, 2014)
 
 

Forming thoughts of myth-narratives in connection to play

Immediately after attempting to explain whether mermaids exist or not to an inquisitive five year old, I knew this would be something I’d be writing about. Princess K. and I were watching cartoons: she was engrossed in the fish-story that was unfolding on the screen before asking, mid-way through, ‘Are mermaids real?’ I thought about what it was I should say. Mermaids were real enough to her. How to explain myth here? So I asked a question back: ‘Do you want the real answer or something made up?’; ‘The real answer,’ she said, straight away, and without taking her eyes off the screen.

Thinking about it, I don’t know if my answer was any more couched in ‘the real’ than any other answer, but what I told her was this: mermaids don’t exist (probably!), and that there were stories invented by people who saw things they couldn’t fully understand (this being, pretty much, a verbatim account). Princess K. didn’t seem at all concerned by this, and we carried on watching the cartoon mermaids together.

What is true — that is, what I have always known — is that stories are important. In our developing worldview (individually and collectively), that which we may not necessarily be able to see or ‘prove’, but that which we can intuitively feel, is wrapped up in the myth-narrative. We structure what we perceive, but what we cannot get across in other ways, with stories. The oral history of our species has been forming for generations. If we stop telling stories to structure the things we feel and perceive, but which we have no other frames for, then we stop connecting to the world we’re a part of.

This isn’t all a way of saying I believe in mermaids! I don’t, but I do believe in the power of stories. When I look out on the playground, I see the play that is happening, of course, but I see stories forming too. I see the stories that are, and the stories that have been, and sometimes I feel the stories that might be. When I walk around the empty playground, I feel the formation of myth. That is, if myth is the story-structure of the things that we can only perceive, rather than ‘see’ or ‘explain’, then myth-stories are everywhere on the playground. This is also true of the streets we walk on, the buildings we frequent, and the in-between-nesses too. I don’t want to write ‘spaces’ because I’m very much thinking of ‘places’ right now. In every place that play happens, or has happened, or will happen, is a story.

I have a million stories of play (and that is a story in itself because I don’t know how many stories of play I have exactly). All my stories of play, all my observations of it and all my involvement in it, if this has happened, are potentially present in a place I walk around. My perception is that everything I have seen and sensed and felt here, in any given part of the playground, is there for the engaging with, all in the now. This is more than just saying ‘I remember this or that’; this is a perception I can’t fully ‘prove’ or ‘explain’, so I structure the perception with the formation of this myth-narrative:

I have a million stories of play that come alive when I look on a place of play. They start to overlap each other. I wonder if some might influence others. I conduct an invocation, a ‘calling in’, of the stories of play that have happened here, into the fabric of where I stand. They appear. Truthfully, I have to be ‘there’ to do it properly, but I can tell the story of the story here (just as a ‘map’ is a representation of a ‘territory’ and not the territory itself, this here is a representation of an invocation in situ): I fiercely protect the old ramshackle ‘den’ at the back of the playground (though the last time I saw it, last week, it was more derelict than before). It is a place with many names, from many times, with many additions of wood and other components, with many deconstructions, layers of paint, objects within and ghosts of objects, and the ghosts of play that have been. One day it’ll fall, if it hasn’t already. I protect it because of its changes. I protect it because it is the ever-formation of place. When I look there, when I’m there, I start to see the layers of play forming of their own accord. This is the myth-narrative I use, in the here and now, to structure-explain what I perceive but what I can’t fully convey.

Stories are important in keeping alive the things we can’t fully explain, but which we feel or sense or perceive. We can ‘know’ something without being able to tell it. Aside from the science or theory on the importance of play, plenty of which I’ve read and absorbed and considered and analysed, I ‘know’ that the play I see and perceive is uniquely of the now that it forms and that forms it; I ‘know’ that there is a ‘gettingness’, sometimes, between playworker and child; I ‘know’ that where play is, there is līlā, the play of the divine, but that this is not the divinity we simply, and mythically, draw as ‘God’.

The story of ‘Are mermaids real?’ is a story of play, but it’s also a story of a story. Mermaids don’t exist (probably!), I said — I like to think I inserted that clause with a pause just wistful enough: leaving the door open, consciously, so as not to squash the possibility that the subject of the story could be real. Stories, I also said, were (deliberately past tense) invented by people who saw things they couldn’t fully understand. Perhaps, then, as I analyse my story of a story told of stories, the past tense inventions are less likely to apply now: stories are now less frequently told about the things people don’t understand (we, the adults, may be in danger of losing the myth-narratives of our oral histories, in time).

That said, maybe the possibility of mermaids is still true enough for a five year old, this five year old, and I ‘know’ that children, in general, have myth-narrative stories at heart. We should listen more.
 
 

Here there is time

Every once in a while we find it possible to step outside our usual routines and into a different place to be. Routines are, perhaps, somewhat superficial: being self-imposed in order to give some form to our own lives. What we believe is true, or true enough, and we find some comfort in our regular comings and goings. What has this all to do with play? Patience, we’ll get there. This week I’ve gone about interrupting my usual comings and goings. Summer has come and gone, and there has been an enormous amount of other people’s energies absorbed, travel to and fro, and attempts at juggling the thinking processes of what I’ve observed and felt: the clash of magical thinking and scientific rationale is an internal movement in itself.

This week I sat in the stone circle of Avebury. This trip was both a finding out of somewhere known of but never seen, and a pause. As we drove north up through the Wiltshire countryside, I realised that there just seemed to be a north-south axis to the land I was in: not just because of the route we were travelling, but because of the line of monuments and markers that we followed — from Stonehenge and Woodhenge, up to Silbury Hill and the Long Barrow, with the chalk White Horse in the distance.

There were tourists, we were tourists. The whole place is a restoration, it would seem; yet we come — what we believe is true, or true enough. Four and a half thousand years or so ago, the people who were at what was to become Avebury set themselves to the massive undertaking of a near-circular earthworks. I’m struck by time when I see such things that still exist: there are the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort near where I live — such earthworks as those that surround this can only be appreciated with a pause about what we’re walking on. There are plague pits near that fort site too, from centuries later, and time sits there. At Avebury, time sits in the huge near-circular ditches, once later filled with detritus, and in some of the stones. I wondered whether those stones, which were once felled for the preparation of new building, were desecrated relics or if it was necessarily done. I wondered if restoration should have been done at all.

So, after a while I sat down just to see what was there. At Stonehenge there’s a hideous new layer of modern life opened up in the form of its latest visitor centre (amongst other layers); at Avebury there are two rather forlorn souls sat at the end of the car park peddling leaflets. There’s the other modern layer too, but it’s somewhat absorbed in the village. In my life, I wouldn’t go without my hot water and technology on tap, I don’t think, but there’s something about modern layers that is superficial.

We sat at the base of a standing stone, looking out at the Portal Stones, or beyond, out along the line of the West Kennet Avenue. I was still juggling my magical thinking (which is rejected by sceptics as an excuse, a means of making meaning where there may be nothing there at all) and scientific thought. What is it that is here? I’d come to sit because, when walking I stopped to see a huge flock of rooks or crows (not blackbirds, I’m told, which won’t flock!) as they cascaded out from the clump of trees high above the Portal Stones. I watched them and listened to them as they formed a black wave against the sky and dispersed into the distance or into trees farther out there, I wasn’t sure.

So I sat at a stone in one of the inner circles. I saw that the Portal Stones were huge but that the trees were even greater. I listened to the German children playing in between stones nearby, picking up words of their language here and there. I watched the slow parade of beige-trousered elderly tourists as they stepped in single file along the earthworks bank as if towards their own demise. There was a small girl of about three years of age, skipping around between us and the Portal Stones. She was wearing a flowery sort of dress and was accompanied by what I presume was her father, Druid-like attired, and his large dog, and a woman who may have been the girl’s mother, though I wasn’t sure of this either. We make assumptions sometimes in the observation, and I wondered if Druid-dad had created his daughter in his image or if she was naturally so disposed.

The girl seemed completely well-at-ease here at Avebury, in the long grass between the standing stones. Whilst the adults in her party talked distantly some way away, and the dog stood at heel, the girl went to sit on a smaller stone laid with its surface just a short way from the ground. It struck me, observing her in her quiet-focused play with flowers and suchlike, for those few minutes, that here there was time. I could blur out the background line of elderly tourists on the far-off bank, the sounds of the German children playing to my right, the occasional car on the road into the village, the Druid-dressed man and his partner-perhaps and their dog . . . here was a small child playing amongst the long grass, on a stone which now has a name, but which once was part of something else. The near-circular earthworks of Avebury surrounded a playing child. Here was time. What would this play have been four and a half thousand years ago?

There may have been scenes of horrific ritual at sites like these, and this our modern selves can’t square and cannot ignore. What can we say of play though? Was there play? In my magical thinking, because what we believe is true, there is a great earthworks, a brilliant white great chalk-lined ditch, with massive stones on its inner rim; the trees have their enormous branches shaken by a swathe of rooks, or crows, flocking out in a huge black wave, dispersing into the distance; beneath the birds, a small girl sits in her quiet-focused play with flowers amongst the long grass, four and a half thousand years or so ago. In my magical thinking, here there is time: still.
 
 

In celebration of beautiful moments in the service of play

Recently, on the playground, I had cause to just stop and watch the beautiful way in which a colleague of mine was working. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to me what I saw unfolding had a beauty of its own. I shall come to this story shortly. First, a preamble though: my thinking back on this observing of a colleague is, in part, inspired by something that I read this week. In her blog, fellow playworker Morgan Leichter-Saxby writes about some things she’s seen as excellent playwork practice. I was somewhat taken by one of these observations (both for its story and for the prose that Morgan uses). Of someone once seen, Morgan writes:

Trained as a professional dancer, he moved quiet and sure, with a tiger’s grace.  Children in difficulties would sometimes come and stand near him, touch him lightly on the arm and breathe deeply.

Recently, on the playground, I had cause to just stop and watch the beautiful way in which Hassan worked. I’m hopeful that he won’t mind me telling you. We can sometimes fall foul of being critical of the world and its inhabitants, forgetting that we aren’t actually the perfect and highest authority on how to be, act, or interact: so maybe it’s good that we consciously stop ourselves to see what’s going on around us when something amazing takes place. It’s in praise that I write because we don’t do this enough.

One of the girls had written and drawn a sign on an A4 sheet of paper, along the lines of ‘kick me’, though with more words than this and, truthfully, I forget the exact phrasing but that’s neither here nor there. She was looking around for someone to tape it onto. I was paying periphery attention at this time, tidying around the edges of the room as this was taking place. Hassan, of course, became the chosen one. Before long the sign maker had been joined by some other children, giggling, plotting, trying to distract Hass as he leant over at the table. I started to pay more attention, leaning on my broom.

With the sign having been stealthily and duly taped to his back, Hass went about his usual comings and goings. The girls held their hands to their mouths and tried to suppress their laughing. Hass moved out and back into the room again. There was a flow in all of this. At some point the sign came off, or a new one was created, maybe to ramp up the play. I don’t know for sure. The exact order of these events is fuzzy. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hassan, with deadpan expression bordering on fake annoyance, turned around to the girls every so often, with good timing, to say ‘What? What? What’s the problem here?’ and suchlike. This only made the children giggle more.

In between signs he screwed up his face and stretched, leaning over the table. The children gathered around and he said that they should just bang his back, you know, that would help with the aching there, or words and actions to this effect. The children duly obliged. Hass thanked them and walked off, newly taped with another ‘kick me’ type sign. I watched and I smiled. I tipped my metaphorical hat. This all flowed backwards and forwards for, I guess, something like twenty minutes or so.

Hass was, of course, playing the game. He was returning the cues, keeping it going, giving children what they wanted at that time. Part of me wondered if the children knew that he knew. Maybe that was part of the whole magic of the piece. I don’t know. In the moment of that twenty minutes or so, maybe less, I just knew it was a beautiful thing to see. I told Hass so later because it just felt right to say that, but also because we don’t tell each other such things often enough. It’s easy to criticise others, but it’s not always so easy to say, ‘Yes, that was beautiful. Thank you.’

I have some shorter stories digging back and back: I once visited an after school club where there was a large field, part of a tree trunk laying in a wide muddy puddle at the far end, twenty five or so children, and the surface water of the previous night’s rain. (Maybe I’ve told this story before somewhere on these pages, I don’t remember. Stories like this stick around though). The ingredients were primed for a perfect storm: by which I mean the combination of muddy puddle and excitable children! Soon enough there were children in their school uniforms sat down in the puddle, jumping off the tree trunk after some tentative trial runs, and some children actually swam in the inch or two deep surface water covering the grass a little further away! I didn’t do anything, just being there in my observational capacity (though maybe, on reflection, my presence had influenced the team’s decision making). That said though, the point of my story is that play happened and was given every chance to go on happening. I made a point, later, of telling the team how impressed I was by their collective bravery because I felt it just needed saying.

Someone I should have told about the beauty of what they did, but didn’t, was a one-to-one support worker I observed in Stockholm a couple of years back. The children were having lessons out in the forest and we accompanied them and their teachers, trekking out and up a steep hill to the chosen site. In our party was this woman, whose name I never took, who with amazing strength, tirelessness and grace, pushed one of the children in a specially constructed wheelchair up this hill and over the rocky terrain up there, wherever the other children went, all day. The boy communicated with his tongue, pointing to symbols on a card she held up, as I remember it. Her dedication to his needs, his play, his involvement, just left me very, very humbled.

I should have told her what I saw, not because she didn’t know what she did or because it would have made her life the richer for it, maybe, but because such things just deserve such tellings. So, belatedly, and publicly I say thank you to her (although I doubt she’ll come across these words), and I also celebrate Lynda and her team for their bravery in the field with the puddle and the tree trunk, and Hassan for playing along with the moment. There are others, and there will be others too.

Thank you, Morgan, for your quiet words which are also loud.
 
 

Why play? (An appearance of transformative soup)

Something has troubled me for a long time about play: or rather, something has troubled me about how play can be made use of. What it boils down to, this disturbance, is the idea of play being used in the pursuit of ignoble social engineering: let us create our perfect society by manipulating play. ‘Perfection’, of course, is subjective, and this is another problem, but the focus of my disturbance is others’ conscious envisioning of play as a means of, a tool for, the dubious shaping of society. I shall write this post in a deliberately philosophical manner, but it’s inspired by two brief observations of play that took place recently.

In the garden, I was sat in a chair and just relaxing as play took place around me. Princess K. and Dino Boy (who are nearly five and three, respectively) were sat in deckchairs nearby when a spontaneity of ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play broke out. I was co-opted into the play of the moment: ‘You be Daddy’, I was told. She, Princess K., would be ‘Mummy’, and Dino Boy (a.k.a. her younger brother) would be ‘Baby’. This was all nothing new in the observation, and I tried to stay somewhat out of it anyway because, frankly, I was more interested in the observing than in the energy involved in order to be an active participant. I was passive ‘Daddy’. What struck me here most of all though was the voices the two children used to narrate the set-up of the scene to myself and to each other, and in the continuation of that scene: the pitch of their voices went up to a higher degree and stayed there, in role. It was almost like young children enacting what they perceived to be young children: quite odd.

Play, I later considered, had transformed the children’s usual selves. It is to this transformative effect that I shall return later. First though, another brief observation involving the same two children a day later at the local park: both children busied themselves by stuffing various found things (fir cones, bits of grass, sticks, feathers, and so on) into an up-tilted metal spinning device. They were, apparently, making soup. ‘Soup’ feeds into the current philosophical thinking . . .

Play, I’m proposing, can be seen in terms of verb and noun: that is, ‘to play’ (verb) and play as a thing in itself (noun). It is to the latter that my attention is drawn. In making use of play (as noun), as a tool or a medium, the social engineers are bending it to their will (in the building of a society they wish to create): in this model of operating, play is something that can be discarded when the product (child as configured future adult) has been realised (created). This leaves a somewhat disagreeable taste: use play to create fit and healthy people who don’t drain the future economy; use play to develop a literate future workforce; use play to manufacture a society just happy enough with their material assets not to resort to active mass dissent at the ruling few. I’m being cynical, but close analysis of modern society might well justify these statements.

Alternatively, I propose, play (as noun), as thing in itself, ‘is’ the soup we live in. Play is not the tool, the medium, to be discarded after its engineering use is spent: play is the medium in which we live. It’s always there around us, in us, through us: play transforms us, continuously. This begs the question: is this ‘transforming’ what play is for? Further to this, there’s the consideration of the distinction between what play is ‘for’ and what play ‘is’ (or, at least, what it ‘appears’ to be).

Those who make use of play for the building of the great utopian future-society seem to miss the point of what play ‘is’: play is the soup, the fabric, the magic in which we all live. Admittedly, this is a subjective perspective because the best any of us can hope to perceive is what play ‘appears’ to be to them, rather than what it ‘is’, per se. However, all my study, all that I’ve been taught, and most importantly all that I’ve witnessed and personally felt about, and in, play leads me to this conclusion. This is where I position myself. Play should be given the chance to flourish in individuals, in collectives, in the built environments of cities and so forth. Why?

Simply, in asking ‘why play?’, we might as well be asking ‘why breath?’ (Note: I do mean ‘breath’ as noun here, not ‘breathe’ as verb). Play transforms us: not for economic, socio-economic, or passive-consumer purposes, but just because that is what play (this soup, this fabric, this magic in which we live) does. If it is ‘for’ anything, then surely it’s for this, as follows: in our momentary transformation is the moment that is play’s potential to continue, to roll and cycle on, to keep being. Play appears to me to be something that needs to keep moving, swilling, in order for it to be. To attempt to manipulate play for social engineering purposes, to try to mould it into something in order to hammer an object (this child, that child) into a perfect-future product is disagreeable.

What though might we think of ‘noble’ manipulations of play? That is to say, play as therapeutic tool, for example. Children traumatised by abuse, bereavement, ill-health, and so on, can surely be led upon the road to recovery via altruistic mindful therapeutic support? It is to the question of what constitutes ‘noble’ that I focus in on here in trying to make a way through this conundrum. If play is acknowledged, given a chance to be, in the noble aim (yes, again my own subjective analysis) of truly supporting the individual, then play is not manipulated as such but seen. If (‘therapeutic’) play is used in terms of conditioning individuals out of ‘undesirable’ traits, then this also leaves a disagreeable taste.

I know a boy who’s maybe thirteen or fourteen. He’s the big fish in the little pond that is the playground. One day we were surprised to see him in the sand pit. I hadn’t noticed him for a while up till then. It wasn’t that he was in the sand pit that was surprising: he was there for a good twenty or thirty minutes, at a guess; he was with another boy of about the same age; they were poking around with sand and water, and with things to mix one with the other; the boy was actually playing — this was the surprise. Play, that soup, that fabric, that magic, had swilled around and in him. He was absorbed. It was rare and special.

The point of this story diversion is that there is a difference between the over-engineered and the natural. It is the chance for play to take place, to take root, to flow, that we should be engineering, not the children, or the moulding of their play. Why should we being doing this? Isn’t this the same as saying that we’re trying to create a better future society? No, we should be looking to see what’s already here. Play is here. If we look, we’ll see; if we listen, we’ll hear.

Why play? What is it for? Play is transformative for its own ends. Why play? Why breath (noun, thing in itself)?
 
 

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