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

Posts tagged ‘observation’

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 3 of 3

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Parachuting playworkers and parents
There are many, many ways for a parachute to benefit the play. There are also many ways for the adults near the parachute to benefit (or not) the play as well. The large colourful affair was a standard piece of our kit wherever we went this summer: in the parks and halls of the villages, at the festivals, at the youth pavilion. Sometimes the play naturally morphed into the standard set of parachute games (it sometimes feels like the set list of a gig: not that it’s a lack of imagination on the part of the playworkers, it’s just that the children seem to want/know the same games). Sometimes, at certain sites, the parachute has good times to be brought out, something different, something new (the wind can bring this thinking on, or it can be flapped to say ‘this is a playable place’). On some occasions it was good to see parents come over, pick up the edge of the parachute when they saw something starting to happen, and go with the flow as children ran underneath or around it. It’s entirely possible for a group of disparate adults who’ve never met each other before to fall into an organic and co-operative motion and knowledge of what’s happening and why. The why is the children’s play.

There is the opposite too, of course. One day, we’d laid the parachute out at the widest part of the playable area at a festival (nominally the entrance to the children’s dedicated enclosed area, though it was right in front of the chemical toilets, which wasn’t ideal!). Nothing organised was happening, and it was fine. A woman came over though, quite forcibly, and she picked up the parachute and proceded to instruct a child to play. The child went with it, and he didn’t seem too perturbed (perhaps he was used to it). Some of the playworkers came over to hold the parachute too, in support, though we said nothing. The woman was irritating me a little, I admit, but the child was playing, and it became his play, of sorts, so I didn’t intervene. After ten minutes or so, the woman decided that the play was done. Off she went with her child. I don’t remember seeing her again. Perhaps I should have said something; perhaps it all ended up fine, or sort of fine, in the end.

At the pavilion, a few days later, it was a windy day. I was working as the only playworker outside on the grass. I brought out the parachute and spread it out on the ground. I didn’t really think I’d be doing ‘games’ because it didn’t look and feel like that type of a session. A group of younger children played underneath the parachute and, without really realising how, I was then involved. The children seemed to enjoy running down the centre of the barrel shape that the parachute made as I lifted it from one end. The wind was the only support I needed there. We ran the parachute down the field, going with the wind, turned and ran it back with the children running underneath it as it billowed. They shouted at me to let it go, so I did. It flew and they chased it. ‘Again, again,’ they shouted. So we did it all again, and again, and again.

I can’t leave the subject of parachutes without making reference to my younger playwork colleague (she of the non-gloop childhood) who, one day in a village hall, as we were trying to make what we call a ‘mushroom’ shape with the parachute, did something just amazing and small and beautiful. We only had a handful of children with us at the parachute so it was a little tricky getting enough lift to billow the fabric up (even though we had a couple of parents with us too). I decided that, if we stepped forwards a little as we lifted, this would give that little bit of oomph that we needed to float the parachute: except, I decided this in my head and I didn’t say it out loud! As I stepped forward, from the corner of my eye I saw her watching me carefully. She stepped forward with me. The parachute lifted up high. It’s a small thing, but it was important in the moment.

Holding patterns
I’ve been reminded again this summer, on occasions, of what it means to ‘hold the play frame’ for a child or group of children. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about ways in which an adult may be in service to the play by keeping it viable (not controlling it but just being the glue for a while). Some children have bounced their play ideas off of me, or sought quiet affirmation that ‘this use, with this thing’ is not against some rules, or sometimes they’ve played out their ideas including me, through me, around me. Occasionally, I’ve reflected that I was the glue for several play frames (or bubbles of play in the metaphor I’ve used before), from different children, playing different things, all at the same time. This is no easy task. If the chosen playworker isn’t there to maintain the viability of the play, the play doesn’t happen in the way the child is indicating they want it to. If the playworker stays too long in the play, it stops being the thing it was or was intended to be, and could become play disagreeable to the child or children, or it could become the play of the playworker. I don’t know what this says if the playworker finds themselves in an almost constant state of holding the meaning of the play, or being the mirror, or the glue, or whatever metaphor is preferred, for two or three hours almost non-stop. I do know that to do it right, it needs judgement.

When adults play
When children come to a site where I’ve brought the play stuff, I quite often say to the parents who come along too that ‘adults can play too.’ Now, on the one hand, this play stuff is not for the adults; it’s for the children. On the other hand, however, there is some benefit in (a) children and parents playing together (provided, I think, that the parents don’t take over the play or direct it), and (b) adults being made comfortable with the fact that, just because they’re adults now, their play-engagement doesn’t have to be over. By saying to parents, ‘you can play too’, I hope this starts to break down any preconceived notion that children do xyz and adults do something else. I also hope that they can start to interact with their children at these sessions on terms which they might not necessarily have done before.

At one park, I remember, we had just a small group of younger children with us but we’d spread all the making and sticking and cutting and so forth stuff out on the tarp on the grass. A couple of the parents sat there too and all the adults chatted as the children played and, somewhere along the line, I felt, the parents started playing too. It was respectful of their children’s creations (the children were busy smooshing up clay and playdough and jamming beads and googly eyes into it all!), and the parents weren’t telling the children what and how to make things. The parents made their own things, almost as if their hands were doing things independent of their conversations. It was good to see.

Observation of adult engagement with play was a little different at one of the festivals. We didn’t have such arts and crafts play stuff out on the main strip between the designated children’s area and the coffee stalls and such like, but we did have a long skipping rope! I’ve long known that adults don’t particularly enjoy the idea, generally speaking, of participating in what they perceive as ‘children’s play’, at least not in public view! (It’s strange then that those same adults are quite happy to dance at the bandstand, to dress up as if it were normal day-to-day attire, and to engage in the cultural or religious play of devotion, worship, prayer and such like at the stone circle). So, maybe we were being a little provocative and playing for ourselves when we decided to stretch the long skipping rope half-way across the main strip: those walking up the slope along the well-worn track would need to either engage with the rope or walk around it. Plenty walked around it. I do remember one young couple walking by though and the woman, who was probably no more than in her early twenties, looked at us as if to suggest a question. We nodded and she seemed pleased to be given the opportunity to skip for a short while. Adults sometimes need more than just a rope strung across the grass to accept the invitation to play.

Children, by contrast, can often see a rope and make decisions of their next actions based on different starting points: this rope is here for me if I want to use it or not. The children on the main strip of grass soon somersaulted over it, limbo danced under it, jumped it, skipped as we swung it.

This all said, over the summer there was plenty of adult play observed (either after explicit permissions given, as above, or of those adults’ own accord): lots of use of poi (either the ribbon-tailed, or water poi, or glow in the dark variety); making and crafting (under the guise of it being a ‘workshop’); rituals and celebrations; dancing and singing; playing instruments at the bandstand in what looked and felt like spontaneous groups, comings-together; drinking beer, of course! The thing is, though, and I think I may be largely right here, though I will stand corrected if not, I’d dare say it was only the playworkers (or the play-literate/play-mentality adults) who did or would call this all ‘play’, their own play. In the world of ‘being adult’, all of the above (and other examples) are known by different names: celebration, festival, ritual, healing, relaxation, recreation, hobby, pastime, sport . . . really though, they’re all play, and that’s not a bad word to call it.


Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 2 of 3

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Experiments in bubbles
All summer I had been experimenting with making batches of variously mixed ‘bubble juice’ and prototypes of homemade bubble-making equipment. Are these rods and cord contraptions known as bubble wands? I don’t know. In the garden, at home, family children christened them ‘bubble knickers’ (because these ones were made with scrapstore elastic — though I think this elastic was first used for bra straps rather than knickers, but hey, the name stuck!). We attached the elastic, hung with metal weights (what look like army dog tags, and sometimes old drawer handles), onto sawn off bits of bamboo or thinner garden cane. Various bubble knicker contraptions worked in various ways. Various juice mixes (water, washing up liquid, glycerine, cornflour, baking powder) also worked in individual manners. We found that big bubbles need bigger spaces than those confined by fences and houses to be free to fly!

I took the bubble knickers and the juice batch of the moment to play sessions at a youth pavilion site (where there were children from babies to teenagers), and to a beer festival, late on in the summer. We were invited there as part of the play support. We must have got through several buckets’ worth of bubble juice that day in the sun! What struck me was that many of the children were very determined and persistent in trying to make their own bubbles. Often, when you go to festivals and they have bubbles on, the bubble-adult doesn’t let the children create (the children will have a good time chasing and popping the bubbles, sure, but more can be offered). So, after some of the children asked me the odd question that is, ‘Is it free [to play]?’ (to which I said, ‘Of course’), they took the bubble knicker sticks and kept trying and trying, not losing faith, that they could make those big bubbles. When they did, they seemed pleased with themselves.

Other, mostly younger children, who wanted to play were helped by their parents. I use this word loosely: there’s ‘helping’ and there’s ‘now darling, do it like this, here you go, look you’ve made a bubble, well done, let’s go and see what else we can do now.’ I tried to distract some parents with conversation. I noticed, as the afternoon went on, in the good and welcome sun, that the very young children seemed just to like putting their hands in the slimy mix. This worked out fine because they got their sensory input and, strangely, bubble juice sometimes works better with the added whatever-extras from lots of inquisitive hands!

Play of the subverts
At the youth pavilion site, for a two week stint, I took play stuff that was probably more geared towards the younger children (so bits and bobs that needed space, like various balls, a parachute, chalks, and so on) and a fair amount of art and crafts stuff (beads and various papers and card, clay and playdough, things to cut with, things to stick on, etc). We experimented daily with the layout of the place (it being used not only by us, but also by the local teenagers and pre-teens, and by members of the public because it was also a café space). What I found was that, gradually, more and more of the teens and pre-teens were joining in, though on their own terms.

One day, a group of boys were outside and that day I’d brought some proper tennis rackets with me (I’d observed on previous days how the smaller, thicker rackets had been used, and I thought these full size ones might work well too). I hadn’t anticipated that there’d be a group of teens who’d want to use them. They started batting the tennis balls up against the windows and then, soon enough, up onto the pitched roof of the pavilion. The balls rolled down again and, I thought, these returns made by gravity were returns of their cues, so it was all good. Then the balls got batted harder and over the ridge of the roof. It was all done ‘by accident’, of course. There was a small yard at the back of the building, and access to it was only by way of a usually locked door at the rear of the main room. The boys batted the balls over the roof and into the yard, I had no doubt, just so they could go ‘help’ by being allowed access to the yard by the youth worker staff and to retrieve them. Here I don’t use the words in inverted commas above in any cynical way: rather, it’s a making note of subversions by the teenagers at play.

Of stuff and other words
For nearly every session at this site, I also took family children with me. They’re old enough now, and excited enough, to ‘come to work’ with me. Princess K. (so-written-as here because of a continuing partiality for over-glittery Barbie stories and extra-squeakily sanitised fairy tales!) and the Boy Formerly Known as Dino-Boy but who’s now more Viking-Boy are well-used to what we tend to call ‘stuff play’: that is, the shed is (currently) neatly arranged (though not always!) with an array of bits and bobs for making with and experimenting with and just, well, playing with, however the need arises. So, to them, the boxes of stuff that (later in the summer) I neatly tessellated and re-tessellated every day into the back of my car were filled with the possibility of whateverness. There’s no adult agenda along the lines of ‘now, today we’re going to make this, do this, have this theme’ with stuff play. I did, however, say to them that we may have to curb one of our usual joint-play behaviours (that is, the way they and me all interact, in our family ways of being, in our play fashion, sometimes): there are certain words (low-level and funny though they are to us) that others might take offence at! So, stuff play was engaged with plenty and, one day, the agreements having been reached and acted on with certain word play, we shut the car doors ready to go home again and Princess K. asked me, ‘Can we play the insults game now?’ Cue lots of ‘bum’ and ‘fart’, and so on, as we drove off.

Further and continuing reflections on gloop
As well as it being a summer of bubble experimentations, I also had access to a stock of cornflour. Cornflour ‘gloop’ (cornflour and water mix, though not too much water or it’s just a mess and doesn’t ‘work’) is one of those things that I’ve long taken for granted as a standard play resource (I’ve also done a few years as an early years practitioner, as well as being a playworker, and this sort of stuff was pretty omnipresent in nurseries then). However, and I think I may have reflected on this before elsewhere in my writings, I keep coming across adults who’ve never experienced gloop. There may be readers right now who are in this category. It doesn’t make a person less if they haven’t experienced a certain form of play (just because I grew up in the 70s, say, it doesn’t make my play better than someone who grew up in the 2000s); that said, I do tend to come back to the thinking on what I loosely call ‘gloop deprivation’.

This is a broader conversation than just gloop but I use it to illustrate the point that, for whatever reason, what may be deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ play forms or resources by some adults can, in effect, deprive a child of a sensory input or experience which they then grow up without. I took cornflour gloop to the pavilion and also to some sites in the villages, as we travelled around. (Note to self: just because you put a tarpaulin down in a village hall, don’t expect gloop to stay within this boundary!). I worked with a younger colleague who, herself and for whatever reason (experiences at nursery school, the general vogue of what play is/should be at the time, etc.) hadn’t ever played with gloop or knew what it was. At the pavilion, the babies seemed to enjoy the mix, spreading it over their hands and legs and over the grass.

To be continued . . .

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 1 of 3

Summer has come and gone, and it has been one of first looking forward to all of the different things that might happen, in all of the different places, then jumping right in: play support at various festivals, playworking in the villages, a regular stint based at a youth centre in a local town community, being at home with the play, some sessions of play support for children who had re-located countries. It has been a summer of the jobbing playworker. What remains in the reflections?

The Thunderdome
We made two separate excursions, on different dates and for different festivals, to locations along the winding stretch of the River Severn where England and South Wales meet. Unfortunately for us, we seemed to have arrived in storm season. The children didn’t seem to mind. Tents put up on exposed hillsides in near constant sideways wind and rain are prone to potential submission though! The weather made putting up the big teepees and yurts somewhat tricky. On the main field, one of the dome frames was left without its canvas for a couple of days: the children swung and jumped from the frame as we walked past. It reminded me of the climbing frame constructions I used to play on as a child (except ours weren’t dome-shaped, they were stacks of brutalist cubes of what may well even have been scaffolding poles, and we didn’t have grass underneath, or ‘safety surfacing’: we had concrete — it was the 70s and we laughed in the face of Health and Safety!). The children climbed on the dome-shaped frame and I didn’t even realise it was the frame of a yurt (until days later when the canvas went on). Children can transform things into playable things, and in so doing those things can have the capacity to take on new mental forms for observers. At some point, the frame was named ‘The Thunderdome’: the children jumped onto an old crash mat and played rough and tumble fighting in there.

A cardboard slot in the weather
We had one good afternoon of weather at that particular festival (notwithstanding the school of thinking that goes: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’). It was the Saturday afternoon and I’d been assigned to do some art and older age-appropriate storytelling with the pre-teens and teenagers. It wasn’t ever going to be an ‘activity’, in my head, as such, but rather more like, ‘here’s this gig, with this stuff, let’s go with what happens.’ It didn’t turn out that way either: not with regards to art and storytelling for this age group, at least. I’d taken a whole pile of corrugated cardboard (the side panels of bike boxes, which I’d blagged from various local bike shops and scrounged from the yard round the back of Halfords a few weeks earlier), a box of chalks and a pile of charcoal from the fire pit. That was it. I had some story ideas in my head. I didn’t need them. The sun came out just as I was setting up and I thought: let’s just be outside on the grass, not in the inside tent space we were allotted. I’d been observing the play of the various age groups over the previous days and I’d had a feeling that something ‘other’ was going to happen. So it turned out. After a short time, a bunch of older and younger children were playing with the cardboard and chalks, but the older children soon lined the card panels up, end to end, to make a slide. When they were done the co-creation of a cardboard fort started happening with the younger children.

I had my penknife with me and the children directed me as I cut slots into the card, and arrangements of walls were built. Soon they were saying, ‘I need a window’ or ‘Can I have a door?’ I cut windows and doors, and roofs were made. The play morphed and flowed and walls were taken down and rebuilt and smaller houses were made and moved. It was all in the flow. I stepped back and talked with parents who were watching on.

Two young brothers, who I’d seen around and who were — shall we say — a handful at times for their parents, bundled into the cardboard constructions. The youngest was bashing away at the walls but he was happy enough. The other children weren’t best pleased though. All they saw was this boy being destructive to their constructions. It struck me in one of those moments of ‘not really knowing for sure where it comes from’ that all the boy was after was a compartment, a space within the construction, for himself. He was trying to get into others’ small inhabited areas but they didn’t want him. I quickly constructed him a space of his own. He laid down in it, still and seemingly content. There are moments in playwork when you get it right, either by luck or by conscious or subconscious good judgement, or all of these.

Just as we were starting to pack away (the frayed and damaged cardboard was on the way out anyway, and my gig time was up), the rain started sploshing down and disintegrating the card. It felt portentous, significant, in its own way!

Executing play: context and momentary witnessing
The children at this festival wandered the site and, in passing the play that’s already happening, the keen observer can be surprised or fascinated or rendered thoughtful about what has just drifted by. One day I was walking across the main rectangle of grass (kind of like a village green, I suppose, flanked by the larger marquees — the main meeting space, the children’s tent, the café and stage; the Thunderdome was at one end, and a large teepee was nearby; in the middle of the green was the flag circle). A small group of children were going past, not paying any attention to me. I heard one say out loud to the group, ‘OK, who wants to be executed?’ So, yes, that got my attention! There was a small clamour for the privilege of being the chosen one. The chosen one was led away, arms lightly secured, and into the darkness of the large teepee. I have no idea what happened next in the play: I wasn’t in a position of privilege in the play frame, both in psychological- and physical-boundaried terms.

I was, at once, slightly disturbed, intrigued, mindful of what I was actually witnessing rather than what others might describe it as. I witnessed this for maybe thirty seconds in passing, but it’s a stand-out moment of the summer. It’s laden with all manner of potential background narratives of what might have happened previously in the play, what had been seen or talked about, what had been absorbed, what had been invented and why. What I saw was out of context, and I won’t ever know what the fuller context for that play frame was.

Elsewhere, I’ve done some play support work with a small group of children whose families have come from other countries. One of those countries we’ve seen on the news quite a lot as of late. We have, perhaps, become desensitised to what’s been going on there. I won’t write here of anything said or played in that group, but let’s just say that a brief conversation with one child, about nothing much on the face of it, suddenly struck me, in my moment of epiphany, about what war does.

To be continued . . .

Structural dynamics of play: a technical analysis

There are five gardens whose boundaries are also the boundaries, variously, of one another’s gardens: Garden A meets with Gardens B and E; Garden B meets Gardens A and C and E; Garden C meets Gardens B and D and E; Garden D meets Gardens C and E, and Garden E meets all the others. At a point along the low wall and fence boundary of Gardens C and E, the width of a door that isn’t actually there, there is a threshold between otherwise enclosed areas. The children of both houses, residents and various visitors alike, often traverse the gap on the boundary, and the places of play become one fluid place.

I choose all my words carefully because technical words are subject to definition. The prime focus in this introductory scene-setting is intended towards Quentin Stevens’ use of ‘boundary’ and ‘threshold’ (as also connected to ‘path’, ‘intersection’, and ‘prop’, being urban locations observed as conducive for play) in The ludic city: exploring the potential of public spaces (2007). ‘Place’ is used in the introduction above instead of ‘space’ because, in part, the former is infused (in terms of children’s play) with all the humanity that the latter isn’t, as perceived, touched by. The latter is also, in my experience, a word or part of a phrase (‘play space’) that has become spongey and bland with over-use. People don’t understand space; place is far deeper.

Often, the children of Garden C will traverse the threshold of the gap on the boundary between the gardens to join the play of the children of Garden E on the other side, and vice versa. Sometimes, any of the children of either side will wait along the liminal portion of the wall, just to watch or think, or to think and watch. Occasionally, the resident children of Garden C and/or their random friends will chance their luck and just lie on the grass on the other side when no E-children are around, just to flop on the slope that they don’t have themselves or to look at the clouds. Regularly, the older boys will send the youngest girl out on her own to retrieve a rogue ball or space-hopper (because, I suppose, that’s what little sisters are for!).

There are definite paths through the gardens: the places or place of play. These are not necessarily confined to the concrete path of one side or the steps down the slope of the other. The overall square-meterage isn’t huge but, nonetheless, there’s an overlay of routes that can be perceived. Ways of navigating these routes are also evolving: there’s the possibility of the jump-through forming, like a leap through the threshold of a star-gate, perhaps. Play happens, though not exclusively, on the paths, the routes, and at their intersections. Recently, the grass of Garden E was strewn with the flattened-out carcasses of bike-sized cardboard boxes, with bits of extra-sticky pads that we haven’t ever worked out what their non-offcut portions are used for, with a variety of cardboard broadswords and daggers, with lumps of charcoal from the fire pit or from the wood pile, and with the experimental prototypes of big-bubble makers (‘bubble knickers’) and batch mixtures. Then there was gloop (cornflour and water, to the uninitiated), and play was amorphous in the places of the place.

Later, when I looked out from the inside to the outside, through the window that adjoins the open glass door, the sunlight streaming hard into the well of the garden, it was a hazy orange lozenge that I perceived, in which the children played with grubby faces and charcoal-smeared legs and knees. Later still, I considered bubbles more. In the terminology of playwork, we recognise the ‘play frames’ as they occur, the psychological and/or physical vessels in which play takes place. Playwork doesn’t use the word ‘vessel’ (and ‘vessel’ is a word that’ll soon shift here), as far as I’ve ever heard or read, but I always thought that ‘frame’ risked causing confusion or somehow might justify the narrow simplicity of the s-word: ‘structure’. Structure is an ugly word when the subtext, often, is actually more about what certain adults want or need, rather than what they suppose that children want/need, e.g., in simplistic terms: ‘children need structure (read as over-protection, restriction, anodyne lack of choice, or similar)’, and this then is more readily translatable as ‘the declaring adult needs obedience, calmness, order, or likewise.’ Simplistic interpretation of ‘structure’ aside, bubbles, I’ve always thought, are a way of perceiving play that ‘frames’ can’t match.

Bubbles maintain a structural integrity, to a point, and they shift according to the dynamic loads that surround, and that are contained by, them. Sometimes you get bubbles within bubbles, bubbles that are grafted onto other bubbles, bubbles that split into smaller bubbles. They bob along the very tips of the blades of grass or rise and skirt and cheat the edges of the fences. Some float up and up. Eventually they pop. A big-bubble batch of mixture will result in a feathery, candy-floss of residue, which just hovers in the air for a moment after the bubble has succumbed to the dynamic loads of air pressure and altitude, or suchlike, at its thinnest surface portions. The residue is like filament. In continuation of the analogy, the residue is the beginnings of more play rather than a finality. I watch big bubbles when they rise high: the falling of the filament of candy-floss, which bubbles contract to, always deserves my special and reverential attention.

If the bubble incorporates the play, and if it encompasses any small or great degree of the places or place of play, then the child or children are within it. The bubble’s skin has its certain structure, but it is the amorphous structure as created by the child. We should not confuse the simplistic adult term that is the over-used ‘children need structure’ with the far deeper structural complexity inherent in the bubble and bubbles of play. When I observe play, sometimes, though not always in such ways as this, I wonder at the structural dynamics of the bubbles of play (whether the bubbles are isolated, or potentially merging, or grafted on, or splitting away, or even if they’re within other bubbles of play): what internal and external loads can or will the play absorb, or hold, or resist, or reflect before the bubble skin quietly implodes? Adults (parents, teachers, any and all others) can be external loads, or become internal pressures, if the child or children have had the grace or need to surround those adults in their play.

At the thresholds and boundaries, and along the paths and intersections, or at the points of ‘furniture’ (the ‘props’) of the place that is the amalgamation of Gardens C and E, play is an amorphous bubble that forms, is never really spherical, that floats or bumps along or rises, and which eventually pops and reforms. There are many external dynamics, adult loads, that might affect the structural integrity of the constituted big-bubble mixture. Technically, we adults should take care.

Play grounds us

After something of a sojourn, I have a need to begin to immerse again in the thinking on play and in the ongoing practising of playworking. I have been away, overwhelmed: not by play but rather by the microcosms I have moved within. It’s some small wonder that all our faculties might remain more or less intact, in the adult unreal world, what with all the psychological and emotional bruising we receive in the accumulation of all our interactions. There are times when we just need to stand well back, to breathe, to look around and see and be again. If it’s like this for adults sometimes, just what must it be like for today’s children?

So, here is a statement for moving forwards: play grounds us.

We tend to live within a society or structure of adult thinking that is, at best, concerned with polarities and, at worst, content just to repeat the received ‘wisdom’. To this end, it’s ‘play’ or ‘work’, ‘find solace from work in play’, and so on. Of course, as the wiser know, play is intertwined through life, integral to it, not able to be stripped away from it. It all comes down to an attitude, perspective, a way of seeing and being. What can we see if we attempt to remove ourselves from the ‘typical-adult hegemony’ manner of perception?

Children tend to ‘get’ a playful adult. I have experienced this, talked and written about it many, many times. Earlier this week was the most recent, in discussion with someone about ways in which we might talk play with parents. This discussion, as well as others I’ve recently had or anticipate having soon, gives me a little pause for thought though: perhaps I should start shifting away from the term ‘playful adult’ to something more like ‘play-focused adult’. The former is beginning to feel a little hackneyed, a bit too ‘wacky, zany’ and I’ve long since had a low tolerance for the interchangeability of ‘hey, look at me, I’m wacky-zany’ and loose approximations of playworking (I make no apologies for the lah-de-dahness inherent in this statement): the former is a clown; the latter is something very different. Maybe ‘play-focused’ though has too much of the whiff of ‘focus group’ or somesuch about it? It’ll come.

So, pending a settling of satisfactory terminology, children tend to ‘get’ play-focused adults: when in the moment of just such a situation recently (a younger child at a play session seemed to have sized me up pretty well in her progressive interactions with me), I was able to switch out of adult-think as I tried to appreciate what was important for her. What seemed important was the moment of rolling the hoop, again and again. It was a similar perception recently whilst working with children at a camp in the forest: what seemed important was the sudden play cue (one of the most sudden and direct I think I’ve ever been offered) of a younger boy who just turned around where he sat, without first giving any eye contact or other immediately recognisable communication, to initiate catch-throw with me. What became important was the need to carry on the cues and returns (on both of our parts). Another day at the camp, a younger girl also had a need for throw-catch, and we threw the beanbags to one another over and over and over and over. She said ‘bye’ and a cheery ‘thanks, though I’ll never see you again.’

‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily relate here to the idea of a stern attitude: on the contrary, the ‘instant play cue’ boy, for example, just kept laughing as the cues and returns continued! Later, I found out that it’s practically impossible to do a good job of face painting with a child who just makes you laugh so much! Some children are deadly serious about face painting (not packing mirrors helps). So, ‘what’s important’ in play has its context. In the woods, we started to set up what I thought might turn into some small sort of spider’s web of elasticky line between the trunks, but then a few children asked to do some webbing too. Give up any lingering half-baked design ideas at this stage because the ‘co-produced’ becomes something else entirely. They just kept winding and winding and making an ever expanding 3D sort of sculpture. They would have carried on all through the forest, I’m sure, if there’d been enough elastic. It seemed important to the children, this winding and web spinning, in the moment. The area, just beyond the rope swing, earned itself a name almost straight away (named places earn this because of significances levied on them, and named places grow in stature because of being named — think aboriginal songlines): the place was called ‘The Lasers’. Various parents were summoned to gaze wondrously on The Lasers or to try to navigate through it. Later, across The Ditch of Doom, I spotted a rope bridge had been constructed. It was all ‘necessary’, ‘important’, and of the now.

In the evening, children clumped into factions as the games swilled around: the older children and a few younger ones played some form of hide-chase-tap; the younger girls led a few younger boys out into the trees for a ghost hunt — they came back for torches and trooped off again. No adults were called upon to be part of that play, except to source the torches. Despite all of this, I had the feeling (a playworker on site as I was) of never really being ‘off duty’, which was fine. That is, the children seemed to have ‘got’ this play-focused adult fairly quickly and, whether I was sat reading a book, having a quiet beer, eating, or carrying equipment around, play cues came. Play doesn’t switch on and off, if the non-polarity of thinking attitude is engaged with: play is just there.

Or rather, perhaps, we might think of play in simplistic Schrödingerian terms: play is both there and not there, potential and actual, kinetic and static, and more, and all of these.

It’s all a ‘perhaps’ and, after something of a sojourn from thinking on play and the practising of playworking, after a period of feeling somewhat overwhelmed by an accumulation of typical-adult hegemony interactions, it’s good to be climbing back in the saddle. Play grounds us, in many ways.

An optical hierarchy: layers of seeing

It’s come to my recent attention that we tend to live in a somewhat superficial world. It’s not a new revelation of mine or anyone else’s, but it’s one that flows back in every so often.

The other day I was walking by the river in the gathering autumn. I sat on a bench in the sunshine and listened to the water and the quiet passings of people going by. As I sat, I observed the play of a young child of about four as she leant over the lower wooden railings looking into the water. She was with what I presumed to be her family (mum, dad and older sister). The father wanted the girl to catch up with them. Her focus was on the ducks. I saw that she was mouthing the words ‘quack, quack’ and, as she did so, she moved her fingers up by her face and pressed them to her thumb, and released again a few times over, as if her hand were in the mouth of a puppet maybe. It amused me. The father saw me (in what was my observation) and, though not looking directly at me, he kept looking back to let it be known (as I read it) that he thought it odd or not right that I sat there being amused at the play in front of me.

There is something of a qualitative difference between the actions of ‘observing’ and ‘watching’. I use my words carefully because I observed the play that was happening. Observing ‘the play’ is also something that should be noted here. We live in a superficial world where people mistrust others and the act or non-act that is ‘no great depth of thinking’ can get plastered over ‘observation of play’ to manipulate it into something ‘other’. I’m tired of the lack of grace.

The superficiality many often inhabit (we can also find ourselves there in that superficial layer when we don’t know we’re there sometimes, too), is something we all just seem to accept too readily. We drift along, in the analogy, just on top of the river and we’re quite content to be told what to think and feel and we’re quite happy to go along for the ride of being sucked into ‘the rules’ or ‘cultural norms’ imposed on us within it all. We don’t look beyond and beneath.

If you look closely you can see the trees sway, the water shift, the world revolve; if you look closely you can see into the cracks and the alveoli; if you peer in and beyond you can realise you don’t have to see or think or feel in all the ‘normal’ ways. Play lives here too, as does observing play because play is good and observable.

This preamble, then, brings me to what I have been thinking of as some sort of ‘optical hierarchy’ in layers of seeing. We can see deeper in, but only if we want to or if we recognise that we might be able to. We don’t have to inhabit that superficial realm. We can refine the definitions of our actions (such as the apparently simple and effortless act of ‘seeing’) as we reflect on the active verbs of our engagements with the world.

So, I reflect, I have at times used the words ‘observe’ and ‘watch’ almost interchangeably in general and maybe throwaway speech or writing, though in the context of considered playworking, I know I use the former deliberately. There is, however, a qualitative difference between those active verbs that are ‘to observe’ and ‘to watch’. There is a richness embedded in the former, which is not inherent in the latter. There is a certain action of noticing within what is ‘watching’, though this noticing can be imbued with an external perceiver’s fear and mistrust or with the watcher’s gathering attention to detail. Here we start to wade, potentially, in the shallows rather than swim in the depths.

Just as light can be perceived as both a particle and a wave, we can proceed with this optical hierarchy simultaneously as either and both in the positive or in the cynical and fearful. There are qualitative differences between the active verbs that are ‘to watch’ and ‘to look’, between ‘to look’ and ‘to glance’, and between ‘to glance’ and ‘to glimpse’.

English is blessed with words and synonyms, but really, in the context of the subject matter of an optical hierarchy in ways of seeing play, the ‘nearness or closeness’ of synonyms isn’t near or close enough for the accurate depiction of actions and their intent.

When we ‘observe’ play, we are able to access all manner of conscious and unconscious moments and memories, considerations and part-contemplations, reflections and open questions, driftings and inherent understandings. Observation is rich and replete with connections: play is a universal force, a thing-in-itself, a manifestation which we can connect with and connect to all manner of our reveries and experiences and other wisdoms. Play resides in the cracks and alveoli as well as all around, in the depth layers of our engagements with the world.

So, when I’m feeling that connect, even and especially the small moments of play and playing amuse and cause the wheels of internal refinement to start to shift. Observation (not only of play) can lift us, submerge us, move us. On one depth level, we are neurochemical beings: we can become flooded. On other levels, we’re what some call ‘spiritual’ beings (though really, in the same way as proclaiming madness precludes actual madness, proclaiming to be ‘spiritual’ may suggest there’s still a way to go in this endeavour, and there isn’t really a word in English to adequately define ‘truly spiritual’, despite the richness of the language): ‘spiritual’ beings as we may be, observation can enhance this yet further and deeper in. We can be subsumed.

I observed the play of a young child of about four as her focus of attention was taken by the ducks, and as she made puppet-like gestures with her fingers, mouthing ‘quack, quack’ and as her presumed father looked at me with ill-regard. I just felt, sadly, that one of us was paddling along in the shallows. Even the ducks poked their heads beneath the water, rooting around down there, every once in a while.

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.

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.

What’s in the observation of play?

In the observation of play, what is it that we feel? Or rather, why is it that we feel the way we do about that play? I ask these questions of myself, this week, but I also ask them of others in passing: there often seems to be a mutual adult appreciation of children’s play. Call it ‘appreciation’, ‘wonder’, ‘awe’, or any other word. Why is that?

Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t always apply. When children’s play becomes just a little too ‘beyond the edges’ of coping of any given adult, there’s no such appreciation. These adult edges are individual to each adult but often seem to have common themes: children’s physically risky play, play that involves a minor or major subversion of the norm or ‘the rules’, children swearing, children throwing things around, not sharing things, or any other sort of ‘not doing what’s generally seen as agreeable’. Just the other day I was walking down the street, in my own world, when I saw a couple of children playing out in the cul-de-sac. A woman soon appeared, shoving a pushchair up the road (presumably the mother), and she yelled at the children to stop jumping around. One child told her, without whining, just matter-of-factly, that they were dancing. The two children carried on dancing, much to the woman’s annoyance.

I hadn’t registered that they were dancing; I hadn’t stopped; I hadn’t even had a chance to consciously recognise that this was play here in front of me. I had, however, and on reflection, unconsciously recognised that something unusually usual was taking place here.

Take your children to the swimming pool and pay attention to what happens: you see adults diligently doing lengths, up and down, up and down, plodding away joylessly, and presumably with some self-improving goal in mind; turn your attention back to the children and there’s a bag of eels slopping around in all sorts of unpredictable configurations, in and out of the water, over the floats, and in and out of the pool.

Observing the play of children is like trying to keep track of the eddies and flow of a stream: you try to see where it all begins, or where it’s going, or how patterns might be forming in the flow, and it doesn’t matter how long you do that for because you’ll never find it. When we observe play, we can get hypnotised. What are we looking for in it all?

In playwork observation we know we observe for various reasons: to learn about play more than we know about it now; to try to understand about the use of various resources and environments; to inform our reflections on how we can best work to support and respond to the play. There’s something more to it too though: whisper it quietly because, although we know (or we should know) that children’s play is not about us, that we’re in service to the play . . . there is a small part of us that’s fascinated by the play that we’re seeing. It’s not just confined to the playworkers of the world: if it’s play that a non-playworker can accept as being play, then there’s that same appreciation, wonder, awe on their faces.

It might be wrapped up in phrases such as ‘that’s nice’, ‘how lovely’, or the like, but the core of it’s still along the lines of wonder. Why is that? Perhaps the whole ‘unplayed-out material’ thing (as Gordon Sturrock has it) does come into force here: that adults have an appreciation of their own child-play, deep down, and maybe there’s a need for it to be reignited again (even if only briefly). Some adults take this to the extreme, of course, and impact on the play of the children to such a degree that the children don’t get a look in. Do all adults have a certain degree of unplayed-out material?

Perhaps there’s a deep-seated need in all of us to escape the confines of what we call the real world. We escape sometimes by way of our own adult play; sometimes by impinging on the play of children to the extent of ruining it all for them; sometimes by observation of the possibilities of those ‘infinite variabilities’ of play. That we’re somewhat locked in to largely inflexible patterns in our adult lives (or so we might feel), may well lead us to those dopey-eyed expressions of wonder in the observation of children’s play. We’re troubled because we feel contained, and we’ve lost our naiveties. That naivety will never come back, so all we can do is envy and admire those who are more advanced in their fantasy creations than we are.

This notion of unpredictability might also come into the reckoning: it’s somewhat ironic to think that many adults seem to like the idea of a well-ordered, structured society in which everything ticks along for the good of everyone, yet in some deeper realm might they be in desperate personal need of a little of the opposite? In the seemingly chaotic scheme of things — under the control of the child player — unpredictability is embraced and tackled as it comes (not feared and shunned, as it tends to be in the adult world).

If we dare to delve just a little deeper, might we find a lurking desire to be in contact with all that is a subversion of the ‘norm’? That is, ticking along is all well and good and suits many people, but isn’t it all a little . . . dull? Subversion is exciting and full of life. Play is a rebellion in itself. How much do we each have a desire to rebel?

We might observe in order to learn about play, and to understand the use of resources and environments, but we might also be in a state of wonder, awe, appreciation because we have our rebellious streaks; because we envy the ability to embrace the unpredictable; because we admire the creative impulses; because we’re still driven — at least in part, even as adults — by the innate need to play, or at least to be in visual contact with it. Knowing how not to let our own play drives obliterate, or even slightly deflect the play of children, is key here though.

This week I made observations of a student for her playwork studies at the play setting where she works. As we were talking, and over her shoulder, my attention was caught by the sight of one of the younger boys as he grappled with some large Jenga blocks. He was building with them, but then he started skidding them along the floor. I don’t know why. He was soon joined by some other children. I don’t know what I was looking for when I observed this, nor do I know where or how it all shifted or where it was going. I just know that the play took my attention.

I spent a good part of this afternoon sat in the sun, up on the decking at the top of the garden and sat at the wooden table: a two year old and a four year old were flipping mounds of little plastic counters around, before they graduated to poking them through the holes in the boards, and then the youngest got up onto the table to scatter the whole array of coloured counters, buttons, various plastic pegs and paper and tin foil plates and boxes across the table and benches and onto the ground. He looked greatly pleased with himself, as a baby dinosaur might do if munching his way through a herd of weaker, smaller mammals not destined to evolve. I felt fine in returning the play cues, being part of the whole scheme of things at the children’s behest . . . and then there was just one moment of quite consciously needing things not to get poked into holes (though I really don’t know why) before the moment evaporated. Many more things got scattered and thrown around and poked into holes and slots between the boards. Que sera sera . . .

I was part of it, of course, but I was also able to watch on from a short distance: it was a small incidence of rebellion; of unpredictability; of admiration of the creative impulse in the development of the play frame (and in the destructive); of a need to be in visual contact with that play. The play wasn’t about me, but the observation of the play did affect me, and I have a need to know why this is and why it seems to affect many adults in similar ways.

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