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

Posts tagged ‘messy play’

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; pallets 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.

A momentary lapse/rescued by the observation of alchemical play

There’s something very basic I forgot about play this week. I re-learned it, in the moment, just in the nick of time. I’d been invited to be part of a playscheme day and my brief was to bring some things, for outside, that children might want to play with. My immediate first thought (a few weeks ago) was not to plan the play, but to plan for play. I didn’t have any information on the children’s play needs or preferences, which might have made it a little easier, but I did have a rough idea about the space and how it might be used (by talking with some of the staff before the scheme started). So, I went out on an intuitive limb (if there can be such a thing), and decided to go for something bubble-orientated. I had some other stuff too, just in case the play wanted to go that way! However, I had forgotten something quite basic . . .

Maybe my own recent thinking and observation around bubbles and bubble play had influenced the few days before the playscheme day, and maybe I could just have taken a car load of stuff and tipped it out (as I have been known to do at other such sessions, or on ad hoc street play before). This wasn’t, directly, the thing I’d forgotten about play though. Once I’d decided on fixing up some bubble goings-on possibilities, I spent a couple of days beforehand here and there just trying to get a mixture going that would be . . . what? Good, perfect, right? Something like this. It was a process of exact measures of water, corn flour, baking powder, a little gelling agent, concentrated or non-concentrated washing up liquid decisions, settling periods, working out possible ways of making bubbles with various home-made contraptions. I had several batches of mixtures on the go and the patio turned white in places with the various residue spillages. My concoctions weren’t working the way I’d hoped they might, and my bubble-making equipment just wasn’t cutting it.

Eventually, I gave up on perfecting the mix and had a beer! It would be what it would be the next day, at the playscheme, and I crossed my fingers that it might be something! So I turned up at the playscheme session with a car load of general stuff and a crate full of more general stuff and some possible ingredients for possible bubbles. Batch number three had settled and stewed in the car overnight and I had just enough raw materials left over for possible batches four and five, or so.

‘What you doing?’ one boy asked as he wandered by the wedge of paving slabs between the grass and the football pitch where I’d set up my chemical wares. ‘Thinking about how to make bubbles,’ I said. ‘Want to try?’ He nodded and quickly started poking around the tubs of little bits and pieces, bottles and other ingredients I’d emptied out onto the picnic table and on the floor around it. I was pleasantly surprised by his dedication because the bubbles weren’t taking at first. Within a short while he’d progressed to making his own mixture. I told him that I had some other stuff (the powdery stuff was, as it were, ‘under the table’ at this point). Perhaps this was the start of what I’d forgotten about play: it wasn’t so much me trying to hide the baking powder and the corn flour from the children; it was more that I was trying to protect the possibility of batches four- and five’s evolution. OK, hands up, I was looking to save a little so I could carry on the experimenting from the previous day: not deliberately in play for me, but so that play for them might happen.

The boy didn’t tip all the powders in though, and he knew that there was only a little glycerine left; though it appeared necessary for the washing up liquid to be squirted in in quantity! Here’s the point on what I’d forgotten about play: despite my best intentions in planning for play (being a little protective over preserving the ingredients so that a better bubble mixture might be made, i.e. by me), the boy and the next boy to come along — as if alchemists — squirted in their unmeasured washing up liquid, spooned and shook in the various powders, scooped in water in random quantities, mixed it up with fingers, sploshed it around to foam it up (despite my research telling me not to!), and lo and presto, without any settling time to speak of (my notes and experiments had told me to wait at least an hour, possibly two), presto, there was a working bubble mix that produced, after a short while, consistently gloop-heavy, wobbly, large bubbles fairly often!

How did that happen? Of course I know how that happened, but I’d forgotten it: the process of play was what was happening here; play as the great experiment. The same experimenting happened with things to make the bubbles with: the boys used sodden pipe cleaners, bits of other wire, string, sticks, some things I’d thought of, some things they’d adapted from mine, some concoctions of their own. It didn’t matter: the process was what seemed to take them deeper and deeper into the play. When children nearby started spilling out onto the grass with lunch in hand, one of the boys looked out and said: ‘What? Lunch already?’

What the children say is always a good ‘observation’ to make: consulting with children is all very well and noble, but listening can give you a lot of what you need. One of the bubble boys said in passing, without prompting, ‘We should do bubbles all the time.’

Later, when some girls came over, poking around, I invited them in and they accepted. They too had that experimental tendency: they made bubble-makers out of some old bits of tubing I’d forgotten I’d brought along, effective as it was. What struck me most about their play though (so much so that I consciously stopped myself doing what I was doing and told myself that this is something I just needed to sit and observe for a few moments) was that they decided that they could and should just blow bubbles through O-shapes in their clenched hands! All the time we sometimes take in designing things that could be played with, and children use the simplest method possible. It was a beautiful moment to look up and see the girls laughing as they held up their cupped hands so that they were each blowing into the other’s possible bubble. I realised that they were trying to form double-bubbles and bubbles through bubbles and other bubbles I couldn’t guess at. One girl ended up wearing the bubble mixture on her face each time, but it didn’t matter! Then that bubble of play popped and the girls scattered off.

As time went by I also realised that whenever I bring stuff to play with on days like these, I invariably end up having sparked off something messy! I looked around at the wedge of paving slabs between the grass and the football pitch, and the corn flour was caking the surfaces of the ground and the table and bench; the chalks had been found and mixed into thick ‘paint’ and smeared onto other surfaces; the vestiges of used experimental apparatus were strewn around the space. To me it felt like a little oasis of mess. I don’t know what it felt like to the children who played there, but I do know that the experiments had been play-worthy (because some of the children had told me so in so many words, and because some of the children had shown me so in the way they’d used the space and its ingredients).

What I’d forgotten to know, for a short while, was that play takes its own form (this was never conceived as an ‘activity’ — adult-led — as such, but the day did cause me to reflect a little more on the play of the moment).

%d bloggers like this: