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

Posts tagged ‘open access’

Observations of summer play

Five weeks of summer open access on the adventure playground have come and gone. It has been, for the larger part (and despite my early-on reflections and feelings of emotional and psychological absorption, as written way back at the end of July), a good summer. There has been a whole shift in dynamic these past weeks though: plenty of regulars haven’t been around, which has given the other regulars greater room to express themselves; some of the usual children have grown too old for the place (by their own admissions), and we have gained plenty of new children (those passing by, those coming by word of mouth, and those who just seem to come out of nowhere!). It’s all good.

Early on in the summer I decided not to write every week, as I have done in years gone by: this summer I would observe as best I could, let the play sink in where it could, and then (about now) write up whatever stuck. I did this by taking an early walk around the empty playground this morning, before any of my colleagues came in on this, our tidy up and rebuilding week, when we have no play sessions on. I stood and cast my eye about, as I have done in times past, and tried to ‘see’, remember, imagine, let the play that has happened fall up again to the surface. As I looked around, I found that more and more recent play came back to that surface. It’s just a different technique for observation and reflection that I wanted to try because I’ve noticed that this, accidentally, has worked for me in the past.

As I looked around the playground I realised that there were pockets of play frames that came to me, ghost-like, and then there were flowing play frames that (from this perspective in time) seemed to merge in on themselves but were, in reality, evolutions and repetitions of play that took place over a series of days (or weeks). What follows is just a small selection of the pockets and flows of play frames that came to me from out there in the five weeks past of mostly hot and blue-skied summer.

One boy and his dog kennel
Early on, one boy would badger us for tools: he could access the tool shed cabinets, the saws and so forth, but he wanted the jigsaw so he could cut out shapes in large sheets of wood. Before long he had what looked to me like the bookends of a church going on. I didn’t really know what he was doing. As the days went on, a dog kennel materialised out of the building play. Lots of time was spent on the kennel: hammering and sawing, painting with special silver paint, the co-opting of the boy’s sister into exterior decoration, repainting over what his sister had done, and so on. It transpired, however, that this boy didn’t own a dog. I wondered if the whole build was a ruse for the boy to try to convince his mum to get a dog. Then, sometime on, we discovered that the boy had drawn up a contract with his mate (who did own a dog, and who sometimes brought it onto the playground). The dog boy could have the kennel but the builder would claim the right to take it back if and when he got his own dog. The next day, the contract was retracted, amidst much hand-wringing and other agitation because the dog boy hadn’t turned up that day at the playground (not because of the kennel, just because it wasn’t a day to come in, for him). The builder boy took a trolley backwards and forwards to the dog boy’s home, hoping to catch him in. Eventually, the kennel made its way to the builder’s home. Play is sometimes invested with much time.

All summer on the waterslide
It struck me, part way through summer, that some children had spent every single day, for hours at a time, going down the waterslide on the limited supply of cushion skins or floats, up the steps and down the chute again, over and over. We’d managed to hook things up so that the hose reached all the way across one side of the playground, up the small hill to what the children used to call the ‘treehouse’ (despite there being no tree near it), into a sprinkler set-up at the top of the platform. At the bottom of the slide (where, if you skim down at just the right speed and angle, with the right amount of water, you can fly off the edge), the children landed in great splashes of collected water, and zipped over the small bump in the mats to crash land on the foam at the end! Many times we saw adults and children on the other side of the fence just pressing their noses against it, watching . . . For the children on the waterslide, I thought, what better thing was there to do all summer than this?

Alpha boys
Several older boys spent much of the summer testing out their relative strengths: they hefted pick-axes, axes, the sledgehammer, climbed ropes, did capoeira, and did weightlifting. We have a bench and the support posts for a weightlifting bar, though we don’t have the weights. The boys found the bar to be easy lifting, so they invented their own way of making things more challenging. One day, whilst supporting each other (and I was impressed, early on, with their self risk assessments), they found tyres from the playground and loaded them with concrete building blocks on the ends of the bar. One of the boys was on hand to support the bar, another two supported the ends where the tyres and blocks were. They proved early on how trustworthy they were. There was plenty of alpha-male testing going on, but it was all good-natured and refreshing to see after several years of the negative kind of these engagements swilling around the place.

The language of play
One of the younger girls is Italian and she and her brother come over each summer with one of their parents so that they can play at the playground. I was talking to the children’s father one day (all summer he would drop the children off, bring them lunch during the middle of the day, and then respectively leave again till the end of the session). He said that during the summer he and the children were staying on the other side of London, and each day they took the tube to us, where he would wait for them out of the way and off the playground somewhere. When I heard that I said that he had to stick around for a while with us! Even then he stayed in the hall, out of the way. His daughter gradually developed her friendships over the summer: from being very much a one friend at a time child, she later found it easier to play with others more and more. She was pretty much happy all summer, but she still seems to speak very little English. It didn’t matter. One day I saw her and a friend far off in the corner of the hall, on a sofa. They were communicating with hand gestures and nods and shakes of the head. They suddenly got up and ran off together. It seemed to me that they understood each other perfectly and had learned each other through these communications over the course of the summer.

Toad in the hole
My colleague had found uses for a pile of old doors we’ve had sitting around for a while now. Some of them he built into an odd little folly-type thing in the middle of the playground and the children soon used it as a form of prison or a place just to sit on top of and look out from. More doors, he built onto the side of one of the main structures and around an existing fireman’s pole. The children slid down the pole and the smaller children couldn’t get out again! They had to climb up by holding onto the pole and then wedge their feet into the edges of the panels and the gaps where the letterboxes used to be. Some made it up eventually. Some didn’t. These were the ones I heard shouting out for help. I looked down into the door prison hole and said, ‘Come on, you can do it.’ The younger children tried but didn’t have the upper body strength. You have a choice here: leave them to it or help by holding out a hand. Other times, one of the older boys would come over and hook a foot underneath the struggling child and hoik them up. The children kept going down the hole though, just trying to get back out again.

The time for building
One day, early on, the boy who owned a dog came up to me and asked me for the tool that makes holes in the ground. He wanted to build off the top of the hill where the main structure meets the path. It took him several days of chopping and sawing, of hacking bits of the elderberry tree to make a route through, of making safe and making do, to create a platform. He took his actual tea breaks! The older boys, at this point in the summer, were also building. They used the chop saw and made safer and stronger one of the balancing beams by inserting diagonal struts. Building play has taken off this summer. Maybe it’s the right dynamic for it at last.

Jewellery garden
A couple of times over the summer we had a local parent of one of our regular children come in and volunteer with us. The parent also works at the local school so some of the children already knew her, though it was noticeable that her son’s play was just a little different, at first, when she was around (even though she kept well away from the main areas by positioning herself in the fruit and veg garden to do some jewellery-making with children who wanted to join her). I’m not an advocate of what others often term ‘activities’ (i.e. adult-led things to do); however, there are ways to do things and we can only judge on what we see and on what the children are showing us. The parent didn’t tell everyone that they should come to her and only those who wanted to play came. Some children like that small object play experience.

The evolution of rope
Inside the hall, one day, a rope was slung over one of the metal trusses. Some of the older boys swung on it whilst other children watched on from the sofa. The ladder was nearby. The boys self risk assessed again as one of them climbed the ladder and one held it. The boy at the top of the ladder placed his foot in the loop of the rope, with guidance from the others, and launched himself into a swing. The boy holding the ladder moved it out of the way. Soon, over days, this play evolved. By the end of the week, crash mats were brought out after a colleague had created a stronger rope by plaiting it tightly together. The older boys climbed that rope to the top, testing their upper body strengths. My colleague had brought a climbing harness and younger children strapped themselves in as older boys and other younger children hauled on the rope to try to lift them up. The friction on the truss slowed things up, so one of the older boys pushed the younger child as the others pulled down. Later, the loop of plaited rope was used as a circular swing as children swung around in wide arcs, aided by the playworkers with an occasional push, the higher and faster and nearer the wall the better for them!

A tyre just hung in space
Late on in summer, a colleague had set up a tyre which was suspended between two poles of the main structures by ropes on either side so that it hung a few feet off the ground. A few children looked at it as they passed it by and asked, ‘What’s that for?’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t know. Find out.’ They tried to get onto the tyre, to sit in it, but it was just slightly higher than they could reach easily. When they did get in, the tyre flipped because the body position had to be just exactly so to keep it level. The crash mats were dragged over and soon, the younger children began to develop ways of holding on to the ropes so that when they lost balance they hung there in mid-air. A little later still and the children had worked out how to flip right over, face first, and land the flip on their feet whilst pushing their backsides out of the tyre. Some sprung up with a small ‘Tada!’

About forgiving
On the last day of the summer open access, six girls were going up to the ‘treehouse’ (which has no tree nearby) and down the waterslide over and over, as usual. All summer the children had been self-sufficient and had regulated their play amongst themselves. I watched on from a short distance. There seemed to be a bit of a disagreement going on but I kept where I was for a while, thinking that they might work it out because they had seemed fine over the past few weeks. The disagreement wasn’t shifting though, judging by the body language, so I went over and made a small but honest mistake. One of the girls said they weren’t getting a turn on the good mats. There were six girls and three fast mats. I asked one of the girls with a good mat if she wouldn’t mind giving the other girl a go. I didn’t ask or tell her to share; I said it as I’ve said above. I expected her to say OK and then for the play to carry on as it had done all summer. However, it didn’t turn out that way, and the long and the short of it is that the girls got their turns at first but things fell back into disagreement again and I got the blame for ‘not helping or doing anything’. I’d tried to explain that six into three doesn’t work out so that everyone gets their own mat, and I offered at least two solutions. I walked off to see if they could negotiate a plan amongst themselves, but they couldn’t. Two of the children, the twins, were very grumpy with me. They went off to make a card. It was addressed to me and it said on the front (a trick, as it turned out) how wonderful I was (which looked like a genuine sentiment) but on the inside they wrote how much they hated me and that there would be ‘revenge’. A short time later, I was summoned by another child to the roundabout across the far side of the playground. There the twins waited with a couple of other children. As I approached I thought what to say. ‘Ladies, I truly apologise for mucking up your play.’ They gave me hard glares, told me off for ‘not doing anything’ to help again, then decided to forgive me. ‘Push us on the roundabout?’ they asked. If only we adults forgave so genuinely and gracefully!
 
 

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Notes on playworking absorption

Over the years I have often said to students of playwork, whether they’re those I have been formally teaching or those I’m working with on site, that if we’re not going home at the end of a session working with children in an emotionally, mentally and psychologically tired state (or any combination thereof) then we’re not doing it (playwork) right. I stand by this, despite the efforts we might make to try to stay ‘professional’, whatever that might mean, and objective. I’m reminded of this mantra today, as I write, early on in the summer of open access after a day that has seen me take on wave after wave of certain children’s intensities of energies.

This absorption that playworkers can be subjected to can have a dispiriting affect. The peer group leadership of the playground, as I write (and it might shift again shortly), is now in the hands of one particular older girl and her entourage, after several years of older boy control. These particular girls of the group affect by way of some sort of emotional psychological attrition. Periodically (there being lulls and heightened stages of individual and group agitation), this playworker, for one, has been subjected to being told, obliquely, how if injuries happen it’s my fault, and I’ve been verbally abused, ignored, disdained, subtlety threatened (such as with words like ‘don’t touch me’, even though there’s no intention of this at all), and so on, followed a few minutes later by pleas for help, support, or being sided with. What it must be like for other children continually subjected to such similar attrition I can only guess at.

With regards to how the present peer group leaders have been reacting to me recently, I’m wondering about the psychology of projection. That is, what is it, if anything, that’s manifesting in them to find a small grab-hold in something they’ve seen in me, throwing it all out at me when really it’s their own baggage they’re displaying? That is, to further explain, could it be that they’ve seen a chink of something vulnerable in me that’s also caustic in them, and they’ve thrown it all out to say ‘what I don’t like in me is something I’m dumping onto you’? Maybe it isn’t projection at all in operation here, but it’s something. Whatever it is, there is a high adult absorption of child psychic material here. This has its affect which, now as I write, some four hours after the end of the play session, is only just beginning to diminish.

One girl in question, today, waved a saw around at her male peer adversaries. I intervened. ‘What?’ she said. ‘I’m playing.’ If it was play, it was very close to some edge. To her credit, she seemed to know what the focus and purpose of my and my colleagues’ roles were supposed to be. However, the moment was laced with a drip of acidity within the flow of it all. When we receive this continual drip, all day, or when we feel we do, we can become reactive rather than in-the-moment reflective.

There are different styles of playwork practice. That is, there are those who prefer to work closely with individuals and small groups, and there are those who like to keep on the move, seeing as much as possible for as long as possible, and variations in between. I prefer to keep moving. The advantage here is a greater and deeper understanding of the playground dynamics as a whole (though I’m also a believer in playworkers as relaters, though not to the extent of fostering shadow-children who follow you everywhere). What this approach also creates, however, is a direct and indirect absorption of a large quantity of psychic matter. We can become overwhelmed by all that we’ve observed, anticipated, received and not received. Whether we’re working closely or in a more wide-lens view with children on the playground, we can potentially absorb such emotional and psychological intensity that we require outlets ourselves. My own approach seems to blend all the observational and dynamic comprehension of wide-lens and individual relating with the possibility of personal emotional and psychic overload. I don’t find it easy to ‘tune out’ of situations for the good of my own state of mind. I have been told I’m easily frustrated, but in reality it’s a long, slow burn, which others generally only see the snap-end of, if that’s what the end is: they neither see the long observational build up, potentially, or the greater quantity of moments of subjective beauty. Those of us who are long enough in the tooth in playwork have heard the following plenty enough: ‘so, you just play with children?’ Yeh, OK, right.

There is a qualitative difference between the teenage or pre-teenage agitations of boys and girls: the former engage in cocky, nascent alpha male displays of no great overall depth until they develop through the phase; the latter are attritional until they get bored of it. Until the playground becomes the rule the roost territory of the older girl it’s difficult to appreciate the ‘survival mode’ that other children must go through. Sure, the boys inflict their own particular form of agitation on the other users of the place (such as we’ve seen in covert placings of arms over shoulders, leading the chosen round the corner and smacking them in the face, leaving them bleeding profusely without voluntary witnesses to account for events, for example), but the girls affect their own long and more drawn-out stings. ‘What makes them this way?’ I asked a local youth worker, but really the answer is tied up in the social circlings of being caught up in all of the above, which I realise.

There is play amongst it all, but it’s a dysfunctional form in part and a form that isn’t always so easily palatable. ‘I’m playing,’ said the older peer group leader today as she brandished a trowel, scraping it in the cornflour gloop, but readying herself for threatening someone else with it, or so I felt. She’d waved saws, the trowel, a sledgehammer, a pair of scissors today, as well as aiming barbs of insults, aggressions, pragmatic confrontations just to see which buttons stuck. If this was play, it was a nuanced form. She was one of maybe fifty children on the playground today.

Everything can affect when working in the field of human relations, and playworkers just play with children, it’s often said: yeh, OK, right, if you like. Maybe, if you think so, and if you think you’re doing it, this playwork thing, you’re not doing it right. Or, maybe, we the affected are absorbing more than what’s rightly good for us.
 
 

Small stories of grace

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are. This word ‘grace’ comes up often in the general flow of my thinking when working with children, or soon after: if we’re aware of moments, as I’ve long advocated, we can see and feel some beautiful things. Children can be all the things that adults can be, and maybe more (chaotic, unpredictable, bored witless, incandescently angry, just-woken half-way through the day, and so on): in amongst it all they can show amazing grace.

In this grand sweep of thinking, I pick and choose my definitions but largely I’m seeing the graceful child as displaying tact and decency, an elegance of timing, considered courtesy and, all in all, a high emotional intelligence. I’m not suggesting that we, the adults, should be moulding children into displaying these traits of ‘civility’ (indoctrinating them into who and what to be); I’m saying that this grace is already there in these children and that we, the adults, have much that can be learned from them.

I see grace in such small but significant moments. Last week, at the open access play provision on the playground, the place was packed with children and many of them wanted to play their collective favourite chase-tap game of ‘Family Had’ again. The game involves the playworkers chasing after the children before they can get back to the sand pit. It had been raining and the wooden platforms of the structures were slippery. The children didn’t fall over, but I did. The chasees near me immediately stopped to ask if I was OK. When they found out I was alright (if a little bruised, inside and out!), they loudly started proclaiming my fall to the playground, but that was fine and all part of it. One of the girls, a nine year old who’d been a shadow near me most of the day, was quite concerned for me. A little while later, she came and sat by me, offering me a plaster. (On hearing the story later, a colleague said, ‘Oh, I wondered why she’d come to rummage in the first aid kit’).

Another day, near the end of the session, a boy of around 11 or 12 came onto the playground holding a water balloon and striding with intent towards another boy fifty yards or so away. I followed him and asked him not to attack anyone. The boy shrugged me off and largely ignored me. I repeated what I’d said, but we ended up rubbing each other up the wrong way. He talked with the other boy at a distance and turned and shouted a whole flow of his anger at me, calling me all the things you can imagine but which I won’t print here. He left the playground with his middle finger up. The next day, sometime in, I didn’t know he was on site. I was at the fire pit by the gate. He nodded at me, and it was a ‘making good’ and I apologised to him. We talked a little and went our separate ways. His grace was in his approach.

One of our newer children is about eight years of age, I suppose, and he has some degree of physical disability and learning difficulties, though I don’t know him well enough yet to know specifically what those needs might be. It doesn’t matter, in this respect. Every so often I observed this new boy playing and, resilient though he looks to be, I could see that all of the older children were looking after and out for him. One day, one of the older boys, a fifteen year old who’s had his moments of mischief on the playground, shall we say, bent down and tied the younger boy’s laces for him.

I can’t write about grace without mentioning probably the most graceful child I know. She’s around ten years of age and so full of love for her sister and her friends and, indeed, for us in the way that she treats people. She can find herself in the middle of small groups which, because they’re small, often end up ostracising one of their members for no apparent reason other than three’s a crowd or four’s one too many, and she’ll be upset but she’ll be as composed as she can be. She’ll find ways to put her sister or her friends first and I’m always amazed by her. She reads the play around her and the play she’s in herself and she’ll go with its flow. It isn’t some sort of ‘martyrdom’ here because she gets a lot of her own way too, but she just seems to often have that love for others that eases things over.

Towards the end of the last open access session last week, on Friday, I was coming out of the office and another girl of around 11 years old waved at me, slightly, lounging as she was on the sofa on the far side of the hall. She hadn’t been at the playground all week, as far as I knew, and I was pleased to see her again because I’ve known her for a few years. Slight waves and other hellos have a grace about them — as do words that are in between the words: words that aren’t said but which you know have been communicated, in a way. Sometimes children choose their adults carefully and tell us the things they need to tell just us, because it’s us, or because it’s the moment, or because, because . . .

Here, I’m not inferring things that need to be brought to the attention of the safeguarding officer; rather, I’m saying that words between words, given to a chosen adult, suggest that a certain child’s life may be a great deal more difficult than our own. Their grace is in the hint, in the unsaid words that you are the one I know will know, and in choosing not to give more because what more can be said?

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are.
 
 

A februariness of play

February half-term on the playground often seems to be a somewhat special or unique instalment of the various episodes of ‘open access’ that happen year-round. That is, in a simplistic way of looking at it, I tend to come back to the idea that October to February half-term is the longest period between open access provisions (us not currently being able to provide for Christmas), and this contributes to the feel of the place: most children just seem somewhat relieved to be able to get back into that play place. However, other factors must also feed into why February half-term often feels as if it has something a little extra, for me.

The weather plays its part, of course: it’s usually a little cold, definitely mostly coat or heavy jumper weather, but when the sun shines over the muddy, grassy and not yet enflowered open playground, and when the frosted ground not yet found by the weak late winter/early spring sun just sits and reminds you that the season hasn’t fully shifted yet, this has its ‘being out in the open’ positive affect. Working in the daylight is also a novelty in February: for several months of winter after school club, we watch the sun dipping over the roofs earlier and earlier on in the session, and recent memories of play get tinged with how that play recedes into the shadows of the far and dark reaches of the playground.

What strikes me most about the February half-term open access though is the unique magic of it. Sure, there’s magic in the summer months when children spend day after day throwing themselves down the water slide, or when the heat lends a different feel to the play, but February has the quality of smoke and a low sun. There are February days that are, and that have been, every bit as hectic as summer days (take last February’s moments of mayhem, for example), but all in all February has a special quality.

I’ve written plenty about play I’ve been invited into recently, but there follows some observed February play, which is connected to how February generally feels for me.
 
A moment that matters
I spent plenty of time by the fire pit last week, as myself and my colleagues all did, in turns, working more closely with an older boy with autism. He spent hours at or around the fire. Some long periods, when he’d got his fill of backwards and forwards returns to tip more cardboard and paper onto the fire, he sat on the bench and just watched the flames, or stared into space. I sat with him, talked with him, watched with him. One day, in a moment of quietness, as the pallets gently burned, I looked around and, behind me a few feet away, I just caught a few seconds of three girls standing around and laughing with one another, about whatever they were laughing about, in their own play in that part of the playground. It struck me that nothing else mattered to them, that this was a totally comfortable place for them, that this moment for them, and for me observing, was very special.
 
Painting yourself into a corner
Two brothers of about 8 and 10 or 11 spent hours and hours playing with each other, over the days. They didn’t seem to speak much to anyone, or to each other (or maybe I just didn’t hear it), but they just tumbled around the playground, doing their own thing in between the ‘doing their own things’ of all the other children. One day, the boys got really into the paints that had been left out. They painted a sizeable amount of the structures that occupy the middle of the playground (I remember seeing the youngest examining the undersides of his shoes as he stepped on somebody else’s freshly rainbow-painted top of a pallet construction: soon after, the boys were off painting the roofs of the other structures). Later, I was sitting with some children who were threading beads at the table bench nearby and the younger boy, I saw, had painted himself into a corner up there. He’d got his foot stuck, and he’d become immobilised by this and his inability or unwillingness to step on his freshly painted surface. What would he do? I wondered. His brother couldn’t offer any help or advice. The youngest was like a fly stuck on fly-paper! I got up and went over, holding onto his upper arm as he lent all his weight onto me, seeming to totally trust me and without speaking to me, him bending down to unwedge his foot. I set him up straight and off the boys went.
 
The organisation and administration of cookies
My colleague had brought out ingredients for the children to mix up and make cookies with. Things like this don’t get roundly and loudly announced on the playground: they just seem to happen. Some of the children do like to make and eat things. The trestle table gets set up outside, and before long, things get mixed, the kitchen gets used, food is made. I was at the fire pit again when I realised cookies were happening. A girl came over to me with a clipboard in her hand and asked me if the boy with autism wanted cookies (she could have asked him herself: he would have understood, but some children understand this and some children are gradually working it out). Later, when I looked round just to see what was going on on the playground, I saw another girl with the clipboard, pen poised efficiently, being excellently administrative and organised! It made me smile. It made me think, not for the first or last time, that the playground is these children’s, and they’re perfectly capable in their freedoms to be.
 
Sworn privilege
Another moment at the fire pit, I was sat up high nearby, up on the top of the tunnel made from two joined U-shapes of old fibre-glass slide. I was out of the way (though feeling a little conspicuous, in truth, seemingly lording it, as it were). It didn’t matter: one of the older girls came over and sat on the seated area (made from old bits of wood and carpeting) beneath me. She knew I was there, she couldn’t have not known, but she just needed to sound off to those around her about the things on her mind. She was angry and she swore her way through the conversation with the other children of her age. Where else can the children do this if not on their playground? I was not the least perturbed by it. If anything, I felt it a privilege that she should feel at ease, talking the way she did, with this adult in close proximity.
 
One small step, one giant leap
It took a session and a half for one girl to finally manage to jump from the pallet platform onto the cantilever swing. Her friend had taken an hour or so to pluck up the courage (the platform is only four or five feet high but, I guess, this develops a healthy emotional risk in children who are only four or five feet high themselves; the swing also does arc back fairly close to the platform, and this perhaps adds to the charge). The first girl made the jump, after a short while, and immediately went back for more, as I suspected she would. The second girl got up, got urged on by the other girls, steadied herself, chickened out, got down, repeated the whole process again and again. The next day, the same thing happened for a long time. One of the girls was the designated camera operator (on her phone): evidence as witness. The girl who wouldn’t jump was genuinely unsure of it, I felt, but I also suspect there was a fair amount of gaining attention taking place. I wanted to see her achieve the jump, but a combination of not wanting to wait around for ever and being shooed away meant I went elsewhere. A little while later, a huge scream and squeal sounded out across the playground! It was the group of girls by the cantilever swing: the unsure girl had done it! News reached me quickly. Later, the phone-camera girl showed me the seventeen seconds of evidence footage. ‘Yeh,’ she said, scrolling back through a long stream of clips of other aborted attempts, ‘but look at how many goes she had at it.’ After the first jump, the previously unsure girl had immediately gone back up to the pallet platform for more, as I suspected and hoped she might.
 
February half-term is bound up in the end of a long period away, in the weather and in being in the daylight, in smoke from the fire pit and in the low sun, but it’s also bound up in the magic of its particular moments. I haven’t really got an all-encompassing word for it, so I shall just have to invent one: I’ll call it ‘a februariness’ for now.
 
 

Moments surfacing from in amongst the wave

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

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

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

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

Balancing after a slaughter of the sofa

October to February is such a long time in the waiting for the children who needed to get back onto the playground again last week. It was the first half term of the year and so that meant ‘open access’ was back. The signs have been up for a couple of weeks on the sides of the fences, but you never know if they’ve been acknowledged. They had been. Plenty of our regulars came back, after some seemed to melt into the background of the estate for all this time. Plenty of new children came too: as always seems to be, we have a fair amount of newly filled-in forms at the end of every open access week.

On the whole, these weeks are psychologically or maybe also emotionally, and certainly physically fairly exhausting, but studded through and through with the sense, at the end of it, that this has been well worth all that energy. There have been water balloons (as there always seem to be, every open access, whatever the weather, resulting in the toilets turning into swamps where the children fill up their wares), there has been mud on a par — in places — with the fields at Glastonbury, and there has been paint and gloop and slime, man-traps being dug, the flying around of the ubiquitous Family Had game, plenty of hammers and saws and screwdrivers, the sledgehammer, the axe, fire and go-karting, jumping from high places, rolling in low places, sitting on the top of the hut in a plastic chair just looking out, and what seems to have been something akin to the ritual slaughter of a sofa!

It is this that draws my thoughts right now. This long wait over winter, October to February, may have been a contributing factor to a difficult first afternoon. Thereafter, after we’d all settled (staff and children) later in the week, things just seemed to shift back into playground time, a playgroundness of being. No matter how many times you’ve done this, as a playworker, this open access or this whatever half term is for you, there is the possibility that a certain ‘getting back into gear’ needs to take place. The rain came down, we were certain staff down, some of the children must have sensed a moment in time: when a couple of the boys wanted to chop up the old sofa, we gave them the tools to do this. All was fine at that time. When the dynamics of the playground shifted on the arrival of other children who often seem to need to cause a psychological edge, the sofa didn’t stand a chance! The fire was nearby and bits of foam were being filleted from the furniture and taken to the flames. We said not to put it on, but this fell on deaf ears. Before long, the sofa was being ripped apart by hand, literally, as the foam was being yanked out in great handfuls. I joked that the children involved, older boys, were like vultures, but I wasn’t feeling like joking inside.

No rational course of conversation was being heeded, so I said to a colleague that we’d take the sofa out of the equation, or what was left of it. As we lifted it to take it out of sight and out of mind, the entrails were still being taken from the carcass! I write this, partly in playful manner, because on reflection it is somewhat amusing to think of the poor thing having its guts ripped out (but this is a gallows type of humour, because in the moment this play is difficult to comprehend, deal with, and connect to the anticipation of how it will affect everything else on site).

I know I’m not alone in experiencing such tips into the potential for actual chaos (this episode being, as I observed it, the catalyst for a further flow of darker play interactions that afternoon, some of which also veered towards bullying). A recent story posted by an experienced playworker to an online site frequented by many of us in the field is testament to the shared sense of ‘what do we do here now in amongst all of this?’ on different playground sites. Some readers here will recognise this (though I keep it anonymous because the post was to a private readership): on experiencing a story of some chaotic nature, he, the other playworker, decided to make the next day as boring as possible (I paraphrase), so that the apparent chaos could be realigned (my words, not his). This is, admittedly, not something I’d considered, and I’m still chewing that one over as to the relative merits or otherwise. Sometimes we have to deviate from what the ‘playwork mantras’ say: that first day we discussed it all, after that session, and again before the next one, and we decided that a certain firmness was necessary with certain individuals. It seemed to work. The next few days were beautiful.

Not only is it difficult in the moment of such experiences, but it’s also difficult in the veering away from all you think you know about how to be a good playworker, principles of good practice, or to put it bluntly, not throwing your weight around. What we do need to consider though, after much further reflection, is how the play of all children is affected by the play (and it was this, as truncated as it was, or deviant or aggressive or whatever word we might care to use) of other individuals. There’s still plenty to consider in all of this.

I do need to finish here with a brief story of something beautiful though. That is, as I hold up my hand to a difficult experience, I also recognise that I need to balance this in myself with the understanding that this was a relatively short episode within the context of the whole week, and plenty of very beautiful things happened, many more than the difficulties, and these stories are the ones to balance us.

I have chosen my balancing story but it could easily have been something else (such as the boy who, mainly as engineer, built great steps out of tyres and a whole mound of children climbed to the top of the boundary fence; or such as the way that chalkings appeared on the chalkboard declaring a need to fart or that such-and-such loves so-and-so; or the way that two older children, boy and girl, were observed to be sharing earphones all week, in each other’s pockets, as it were; or the girl who I saw just painting the steps to the ‘tree-house’ blue, on her own, humming away; or the way that that same girl, shivering from being cold, was quietly appeciative of the warm bowl of water I put out, as she put her hands in it to warm up, and how that bowl just stayed there on the floor not being thrown around by others like I’d expected it to be; or the way that Family Had happened and the older boy who was the fastest forgot that the man-trap had been dug on the route to the sandpit ‘homey’, racing straight over it and into it!)

My balancing story though is this one: one day, in the sunshine, a girl of about nine who always says hello with a small dance and a smile, gently cued me into play on the wobbly bench. This is a low plank mounted on two springs, which a colleague built a sort of rodeo seat onto some months back. The girl stood on the bench and we just talked of nothing and something and whatever the moment was, and the play became me wobbling my feet so that she balanced or fell off. It turned into a sort of dance, and flowed and repeated, and I remember thinking part way through this, well into this, that here I was and I was totally focused in this dance with her. I didn’t look out onto the playground like I usually do, trying to capture all the play as it happened, trying to see where my colleagues were, trying just to take everything in at once (hence the emotional and psychological, as well as physical exhaustion because of mud and lifting crash mats and the like).

There I was, and I was totally absorbed in the moment. Was this then partly my play? I don’t know, maybe; or maybe I was reflecting all that she needed at that moment. Suffice is to say that I was received with good grace by this dancing girl, who seemed to still have control of everything she was doing, and we connected in the dance of the wobbly bench, and all seemed good for her, and all was good for me, and the playground was fine in that moment because I didn’t sense otherwise, and this was a balancing in more ways than one.

 

Celebrating White City APG as London Play’s ‘Adventure Playground of the Year’

There’s only one place to start writing this week: that is that our place, White City Adventure Playground, has been officially chosen as London Play’s Adventure Playground of the Year for 2014! Many of you in the playwork sector will already know this, but some of you may not: so here’s the celebration on this platform. It’s pleasing to highlight years of development and hard work with the receipt of this award, but it’s also particularly satisfying to hear that the children of last year’s award winners, Shakespeare Walk in Hackney, chose White City as — presumably — the place they’d most like to play, out of the short-listed entries. Our film is here, and this is London Play’s edited highlights of the event.

When I write ‘our place’, of course the playground is the children’s but without the hard work and dedication of my current and former colleagues, this essential square of land in the middle of these tenement blocks could have drifted into something else entirely. The more I work on this patch, the more I see it as an important part of the lives of all the children it gives essential breathing and being space to. There are those children who drift on by and who, to be honest, drift in and out and smile and play and drift away again, but there are also those who have every other need to come in and we see the gradual build up of this as term time slides by and half terms get ever closer. To have an open access place all year round would work for so many children in the area (so, funders out there . . .), but the after school sessions as we have them are full of children’s own play too. This is an important point: I have seen many (and I mean ‘many’, across several counties and boroughs) after school provisions, and the play in a great deal of those is heavily weighed upon by adult agendas of all manner of flavours. This play is not ours: I’ve said this many times. Let the children play to their own designs.

As per last year’s London Play Awards blog piece (where we received the 2013 Innovation Award), there follows a few play notes about getting to and from and being at the ceremony. This year we took a small bunch of children, via the underground, up north of Camden to East Finchley and to a small cinema to see all the short-listed films for various awards. Despite there being a great green fence around the perimeter of the playground, some of us are of the opinion that play doesn’t stop when the line of the gate is crossed back out onto the street again: chancing our luck via King’s Cross instead of the central line, we came out into the sunshine of north London and the children fell around the street in good song and humour, parkouring (if there is such a verb!) up the paving slab inclines to the side of the street.

We thought we were fashionably late, but some were more fashionably late than us. It didn’t matter. Things seemed to be taking place in an ‘as and when’ way, and by and by our compere arrived, dressed this year in at least four costumes all one on top of the other. The man must have been full of energy drinks and other sugared stimulants because I don’t know how he managed to keep up the jumping around in various monkey, bear and other guises, under the house lights, for an hour and a half! The children in the cinema seats duly jumped around and heckled and the like, but despite this, I have my older self to blame for a nagging disdain of all things ‘wacky, zany’!

Personal preferences aside, play happened (face painting on stage, a hundred odd beach balls flung around, dancing, and generally lots of sugared up energy all round!). We were up for a few awards, and as each award went by and we hadn’t won any of them, the children near me from White City started getting a little despondent: ‘We’re not going to win anything,’ they told me (raise expectations and there are after-effects!) I said for them not to worry, we might get a shot at ‘the big one’. They asked me if we’d win it, and I said I really didn’t know. Despite all this, it pleasantly surprised me that when a soundtrack to another playground’s film came on, a song they knew and seemed to like, the children went from building despondency to instant sing-and-dance-along in their seats.

When finally the last trophy on the stage was reached, it seemed a long pause but it probably wasn’t, ‘And the winner is . . . White City Adventure Playground’. The White City children jumped up, and I said to those near me, ‘Go, go up on stage.’ There’s something to be said for being humble in receiving an award and our children were, shall we say, blessed with other attributes! We can’t tell them what to feel though, this is playwork: there was shouting into the microphone that ‘We won!’ and an acceptance speech that just made me laugh because a Hollywood starlet was born, complete with a flourish in her thanks!

I see it all as play. There were other attendees who didn’t win anything, but truly for me there looked to be some great places to play shown up there on the screen. It’s a tribute to all the playworkers out there who are doing such work with such dedication: some will be getting paid nowhere near what they deserve (but they do it anyway because they need to), some will be experiencing a rough ride with the parlous current general state of playworking affairs, they will be giving all they have (physically and emotionally) to see that the children in their areas get to play how they want and need to play. This cannot be overstated enough. I think there should be a campaign (I start it now) aimed at the non-playworker-but-sympathiser: if you ever ask a stranger at the bar what they do and they say ‘I’m a playworker’, buy them a pint! You never know, they just might be giving their all to support your child to play.

I digress. After the ceremony at the cinema, the children were interviewed for press releases, and we must have made the photographer wait an age as the children chatted around in the lobby, ate their lunch, and just soaked it all up. They played on the underground train back via King’s Cross (hanging from the handrails, plastic spiders, beach ball headers and catches in the carriage), and when we came out into the west London sunshine, the children concocted a plan to try to ‘look sad’ to our colleagues who were working with the day’s open access children on the playground. We entered the gates and the children managed to keep up the pretence for a good thirty seconds or so!

It was beautiful on the playground, there’s no other way of describing it. It was calm and flowing, quietly hectic and bubbling away, everything was possible and full of light and warmth. The sun makes such a difference in late October. The children we took on the journey to north London blended into the general playground scene to play. It took me a while to re-acclimatise after the bustle of the city: here, I thought, is an enclave of play amongst the tenements; here is privilege.

In celebrating White City’s award, I also celebrate the dedication of my playworker colleagues, in all the places where they work ‘out there’ so that children can play in the way that they want and need to: keep on doing what you do and know that you are appreciated.
 
 

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