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

Posts tagged ‘observation’

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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