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

Posts tagged ‘parenting’

Away in the play and the still of the wild woods

It’s late at night, late at least for these younger children, wrapped in blankets or wrapped into parents, at a small fire, in a small clearing in the woods, nowhere near concrete or traffic or towns or cities, somewhere deep in the middle of Kent. I’m drawn over to this side of the camp by the soft sounds of someone playing the guitar. I sit down on the grass by the pyramid frame that’s standing above the low flames. It’s warm here and there are half a dozen children gathered around, listening quietly to the low music. Rachael, the camp band’s singer, passes me the guitar: play something, she says, whilst she attends to the children’s needs (hot chocolate or marshmallows? It’s already drifting in space and memory, a week on). I can only play a few chords. It’s OK, I’m told by Jim, the barman of the barn-bar, the ukulele player, you play more than me! I play very low because I’m really not that good, and I stop because one of the girls wants to sing a song. She says she’s making it up as she goes along: she sings as she looks into the flames, repeating repeating the refrain.

Here we are again. I have been to this small place for five years in my returns now, every May. There are familiar faces and new families. There are maybe thirty or forty children, I suppose, or it feels like it, mostly younger, though a handful are older. It doesn’t take long for the new to fall into the pace and feel of here. This year, because I’m working on my own, I set up the gazebo at the end of the clearing, just ahead of the dirt mounds which, later, I hear some children talking about: look, the playground’s still here. There is a rope swing and a tyre swing; there is a plank of wood, which some children manufacture as a standing see-saw, and some lean it experimentally against the old caravan, later, as I see from a distance, using it as a means to reach the rope; there is the shallow dirt basin where other years’ play took place; a punch bag hangs nearby — I can hear the rhythmic whacking of sticks hitting it, even a hundred yards or so away at my tent, on the edges of the clearing corner where Bec and Dru and Amy have set up a woodcrafting place, where Dru whittles spoons and strews the ground with shavings from other workings, where the wool is woven, where the little dogs wander, and through which the children navigate, en route for their own camp in the deep green luminosity of the woods just beyond.

At nights the candles down the track are lit. I stand at the edge of the clearing, beyond the barn, looking down and down the narrow, shallow slope towards where the lake is in the dark, and the black is always the very blackest down there through the trees, and the small smudges of those candle lights, in two ragged receding roughly parallel lines, always catch my attention. Places like these, sights and the feel of all and suchlike can, and has, made its way into other writings of flow and fiction. Sometime, somewhere along the way of the weekend, I remember a conversation in passing, with a father, who told me how he watched the space station going over with his child. In the night, one night, I emerge from the trees, from under the rickety old metal-roofed shack that creaks with the wood of the trunks, from where I have been talking and eating with a friend re-met, and the sky is strobing intermittently. I wonder if my eyes need to readjust, but it’s far-off lightning sparking the dark. The rain comes, just as I close my tent zip up, but I don’t hear the storm that passes over.

I forget the order of things. It doesn’t matter at all. I’m at the fire bowl in the woodcrafts corner of the clearing, one night, and from where I’m sitting, just looking out, drinking beer, being still, I can see the barn and there are twists of light around the wood struts of the shelter in front of this. Rachael is singing and the guitar and ukulele are in accompaniment and I just catch the flickerings of a child there and she’s dancing. She’s using the light strings, playing with the interactions, twisting her hands and arms around, turning around and around and down and up. The night is for play as well as the day.

Last year, in the early mornings as we camped along a track in a van a little way out from the clearing, we were often greeted, on stretched extraction or coffee making, by a young boy, maybe five, who would bring us sticks as presents. Oh, thanks, I would say, a stick. I’d sweep my hand across the vista of the forest: we were looking for one of these (or words such as these). He trailed us in our settings-up and takings-down. This year, I see him and I say hello and I call him by my remembrance of his name. I remember you, do you remember me? He looks at me, briefly, matter-of-factly, turning down his lips and shrugging his shoulders: No. I’m not aggrieved! I’m amused: ego has no place here.

Later, in the baking sun-trap down by the lake, I sit amongst the tall daisies with him and his younger brother, in a small clearing of our own devising. I have bubbles here, because I said I would, and a box of bits and bobs, because the children seemed to like this the day before, on a larger scale, and some clay, because one girl said she’d like this. It is a little odd, really, because the whole lake is lined with clay, but I take the darker stuff down anyway. The boys want to know what might happen if this clay I’ve brought gets wet. The oldest says it in a squeaky, experimental, half-hopeful kind of way. Go get some water, I say to him, pointing to the lake: there’s loads down there. He comes back with the biscuit tin I’ve given him half-filled. In goes the clay and we squeeze it between our fingers so that it squirts out of all the in-betweens.

Plenty of children seem to like the clay, the previous day, getting good and messy on the tarpaulin beneath the gazebo. The sun creeps across the ground, under the canvas roof, and wordlessly, like a sun dial, we all slowly shift and edge along and around with it, keeping in the shade as the day goes on. There are experiments of bubbles in the afternoon, when plenty of families have gone elsewhere on-site, woodcrafting, forest-schooling, and so on. I judge it an opportune time. There are a handful of children and parents still around. I have several containers full of this year’s batch of home-made bubble mix, and I have bubble-wands made from elastic and bamboo. There is a small gathering, a small to and fro, of younger children dipping and lifting and blowing softly or too suddenly, waving and flapping, holding the sticks to the breeze, floating and popping bubbles, or chasing them, just chasing them, as children are often wont to do. I look up, sometime (the bright idea of putting the tubs and containers into a larger plastic crate, in case of spillages, having dawned on me), and there with bubble-wands in hand, experimenting, are just three fathers: three dads, me, and a supply of bubble mixture.

In the shade of one hot day, under the gazebo, some younger girls are carefully trying to thread beads onto what will be necklaces or bracelets for themselves or for their fathers, who are sat there with them. I’m nearby and I feel a need to say something genuine, though I hear myself as I say it and it comes out oddly: I say to one of the dads there how good I see it to be that he, and the others around, can interact with their children in this way of play. I do mean it, though I hope it doesn’t come across so patronising as I hear it. It is good because you don’t always see it.

Some children come back time and again to the gazebo, to the dirt ‘playground’, to the bubbles. Some children are more content roaming in the woods, and these are the children just seen in passing, in and out, in between. As I sit in the shade with the clay and the paper and the beads, the feathers and the fabric, and the suchlike all spread out and around, a younger girl of maybe four, and early on without having really had a proper conversation yet with me at all, leans in, telling me her genuine consideration of me, though in words, and without regard for adult sensibilities, in a way only a maybe four year old can. Later, a small green caterpillar labours across the tarpaulin. The other children are suddenly intrigued. The maybe four year old stands, a little wobbly, maybe she’s off-balance, landing a foot down suddenly, squashing the caterpillar flat. Maybe she didn’t mean it; maybe she did. She doesn’t shrug as she steadies herself for whatever her next play is to be, but she might as well do.

At the lake, with the clay and water boys, the slightly older of the two is taken by the sight of a fat furry caterpillar. He wants to take it up, but I’m mindful of the previous day’s episode. I try to dissuade him but he’s adamant. He knows about cocoons, he told me earlier, and I needn’t be in his way here: he picks up the caterpillar with a lolly stick and examines it, placing it down carefully on a long daisy stalk when he’s done. When he looks around again, he tells me it’s gone. Where did it go? he asks. I don’t know: perhaps its found a place out of the sun.

Out of the direct sun, but where the moss on the fallen branches on the ground is a bright and luminous green between the trees, across a ditch where the children have a bridge, they’ve declared a ‘no adult zone’. One of our number is camped by the metal-roofed shack on our side, just beyond the woodcraft corner of the clearing. He hears the conversations from the children’s side. He wants to go over, to infiltrate, to play, but we stay on our side: we respect the lay of the land. Over there, over the ditch, the children concoct plans, create their domain, they just are. I know they’re there. I sit at my tent or amongst the wood shavings of the crafters and see how the children have two routes through: they use more or less two straight lines, either directly across the branches laid down here, along through and then in between the small and large tents and into the ferns, past the shack, and towards the ditch, or the other way straight over the low bunting flags of the woodcraft camp and between the vans and on. Children’s routes often pay no heed to adults’ demarcations.

It is evening on the last day. Some families have left already; there are some spaces between tents. I lay out the parachute because we haven’t used it yet and because I think the children who are scattered variously in the clearing might find it and play something with it. I ask permission of the nearest campers because it is, effectively, in their back garden. Most of the children don’t see it at first, it being off the beaten track. Then, eventually, when a parent calls out that there’s a parachute out, a wave of children appear from out of the metaphorical woodwork. I think the play might form organically but immediately it becomes directed by an older girl, who I’ve known these past few years or so. Something curious happens on the way of the parachute play: all the games she leads the other children towards are standard, as known (albeit with variations on names, as I know them), but she adopts a very precise style of doing things. It is as if she’s copying a teacher she knows or someone similar. She adopts an air and a voice far beyond her years. At one point, she stops a game of ‘fruit salad’ mid-flow because, she says, it just isn’t going right; the apples and the pears are running when they shouldn’t be, everything’s terribly mixed up . . . I tell her that it doesn’t matter but she’s determined and adamant. I tell her that she maybe ought to be quicker because she’ll lose the younger children’s attentions, but she bats on regardless in her own style. The play happens. The younger children go with the flow. All the children are children here.

Here we are, in a small clearing in the woods, nowhere near concrete or traffic or towns or cities, somewhere deep in the middle of Kent. As has been my year-on-year realisation: it is a privilege being here.
 
 

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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.

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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 . . .
 
 

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.
 
 

First world blame

What happens when an accident happens? Maybe, when it’s our own children suffering such an event, or a child in our immediate family, something quite bonded and natural kicks in with us: we have an absolute concern that that child isn’t feeling pain, or not too much pain, at least. When we’re working with other people’s children, children not in our own immediate family, maybe something else happens first (in this age that we live in): how much does the natural concern get over-ridden by a fear of being blamed?

Others have trodden this well-worked route of play and accidents before, but I wanted to take a kind of ‘natural/synthetic’ perspective on what children do and what happens, sometimes, when they do what they do. If play involves experimentation (as is the received wisdom), then play involves things not quite in the plan (whatever that is) and that includes accidents. We know this. We’ve all had them. We all continue to have them (though maybe in less repeated ways, perhaps in more spectacular ways!), as we progress through adulthood.

When accidents happen to children we’re working with, any number of immediate thoughts might well enter our heads: keep calm; think; don’t think, just act; use common sense; what should I do here?; what can I remember of my first aid training?; did this happen because of me?; what should I prioritise here?; was this avoidable?; is this my fault?

Some of these questions can be reflected on later. Some of them just need to be pushed aside because, actually, there’s a child who’s hurt here and they’re human too and they need help. I wonder though if a ‘synthetic’, imposed, thinking process has somehow taken over the tendency for care and concern. In the heat of the moment, or more usually, after a short period of poorly constructed thinking, blame is often the quickest route to take. Once a precedent is set, a fear of repeat actions is lodged and starts to roll itself out, more acutely each time an accident takes place. It’s a negative feedback loop that only keeps strengthening and taking deeper and deeper root.

If it’s our own children who are hurt, we may have a weak negativity swimming around us (those people who look at us as if we’re bad parents, or bad in loci parentis): ultimately though, maybe, the care-concern bond here is stronger than the loop that binds us when we’re with other people’s children. Is this a first world problem? How did we get here? Was it, and is it, always this way?

I wonder at our species’ evolutionary growth and whether our ancestors’ concerns for their own offspring (if they had these concerns in the way that we do) outweighed any concerns they may have had for other villagers’ children, or for the loss of social stature that may have occurred if others’ children incurred injury when with them. If your neighbour’s son was injured when out hunting with you, was it your fault? Would you have been beaten, or maimed, or ostracised for it? I don’t know. Would the gods have been blamed? Would there have been an implicit understanding that the injured boy just needed to run faster, jump or land more carefully, be better at what he did?

None of this is to imply that, in our modern days of working with other people’s children, we should absolve ourselves of any form of responsibility. Later, when we reflect after an accident, we can be calm and study the situation more carefully: did what I put there, do there, not do there, somehow adversely affect the natural flow of what may have happened otherwise? Maybe we can say that an accident witnessed is an accident that happened because of a change created by our very presence, but this is a very pessimistic perspective. How many factors might be involved, of which we are only one tiny one?

Perhaps the over-riding of natural concern by synthetic imposition of fear of being blamed is a first world problem (by which I mean ‘those of us supposing we’re in the vanguard of global society, being in the digital age as we are’). Do the indigenous tribal societies of the non-digital realm of today impose insidious blame on one another? I’m reminded of the 1970s studies of Clifford Geertz, regarding Balinese men who risked their social stature on the outcome of who won or lost in cockfighting bouts: the playing out of spiritual representation through their fighting animals. Here I read a much deeper malcontent, dis-ease, than the word ‘blame’ could ever carry. If a man here lost his social stature because of the death of his fighting animal, could he really care if some first world blame was levelled at him because his neighbour’s boy tripped over a tree’s root and bloodied his nose?

Our first world fear, having over-ridden our natural care-concern for others, perhaps, has blinded us and left us with a spiritual dis-ease nonetheless. That is to say, we’ve disconnected, somewhat, from what matters most. It isn’t even the oft-cited ‘American-style’ litigation culture that’s troubling here, in the moment of writing: it’s the soft but pervasive and just as damaging fear of being seen as incompetent, untrustworthy, unobservant, blasé, devil-may-care ‘anything goes’ nonchalant, irresponsible, unworthy of being in the service of and for children. Our disconnect, via that negative feedback loop, becomes less and less about the people we should be concerned with (the children) and more and more about ourselves. We live in a self-fuelled culture, as we know: though we can make change, on personal levels, about this.

So, we do well, on the whole, to navigate our individual 365 days of every year without a scrape, without falling in front of a bus, or without tripping on kerbs or falling into plate glass windows at every turn. We do well, though we do suffer some accidents along the line because none of us are comic-book super-human. As we get older, our accidents might get more spectacular: we might think how stupid we were for doing what we did, and we might hope that no-one saw it too. We keep on learning, hopefully. If we’re continually blaming others, what does that say about us?
 
 
Reference:

Geertz, C. (1972), Deep play: a description of the Balinese cockfight in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play — its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.
 
 

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The playworker as pastoral adult/belying the trust

I think I may have made a small error in communication judgement when working with a particular child last week. We make mistakes all the time, but we don’t always know or see this. I may have made an error, but I won’t know with a little more clarity until later on this week. The error was along the lines of talking with that child’s mother about an observation of one thing I’d seen that child say and do. This wasn’t anything to do with disclosures or things of this kind: it was simply something I’d seen the child do, and in the greater scheme of things (or so I immediately thought) it was no big deal . . . but telling that here might even compound the personal issue. Let’s just say that it was nothing of any concern to a playworker or maybe even a parent; however, my telling the observation might turn out to have been something of great importance to the child.

This all leads me to thinking more on the subject of trust. If we talk with parents, we sometimes tell them of the funny things their children say, of the quirky interpretations on life that those children have, and so on. Have we committed a crime here for any given child though? My reflections have come about by way of questions to myself, which I intend to lay down here and expand with writing as I think: writing is sometimes the best way to think!
 
How much, if anything, of children’s communications to us should we relay to their parents when in general conversation later?
If you work with children in a staffed after school provision, or even sometimes in open access (because some children’s parents still come by), it’s a fair bet you’ll be in conversation with those parents at some point. This child I’m writing about in my example tells me plenty of her day-to-days, of her general feelings, of her ways of seeing things. I take it as a compliment when she chooses to tell me the things she does. I only told her mother one of the conversations we’d had that day last week (it wasn’t necessary to talk about them all, and the one I did discuss was one that particularly amused me). Shouldn’t those conversations be private though? (That includes the thinking of how much, if anything at all, of private conversations should be placed online here, which is why I don’t relay any stories of these in this writing now).
 
Why do children tell us the things that they do?
I sometimes wonder what it is about ‘this’ adult that ‘this’ child has decided to trust with the gems of their thoughts. Maybe children have favourite adults, or at least, maybe they have favourite adults of the moment. Maybe playworkers (not all, perhaps, but some) are open to listening to the day-to-days in ways that other adults in that child’s life may not be. Every child is different and some will prefer their teacher for the same reason, or their mother or their father. Some, however, may see the playworker as the person at the farthest end of the scale of authority. If they know we won’t pull them up for swearing or that we’ll smile at paint being thrown around, then maybe that opens up the appreciation of the pastoral in what we do.
 
How high a priority do we give to that part of our ‘as is’ playworker role that is pastoral?
In terms of the ‘descriptive’ rather than the ‘prescriptive’ (i.e. the playworker can be seen to actually do xyz, rather than the playworker should do xyz), the pastoral aspect is evident to me. That is, when we listen we do so because we want to, because we feel we should do (not that we have to), that we can in some way be of use. At times I’ve supposed that I may be the only person this child is willing or wanting to tell this small but significant moment to. We don’t go out of our way to ‘help solve’, as it were, but we should know that we have been chosen when this choosing does occur.
 
What can draw children to a pastoral adult?
Apart from the aforementioned spectrum of perceived authority, there are other symbolic layers: this may be wrapped up in things like the ‘not’ of who this ‘any given playworker’ is (this playworker is not my teacher/mother/father, etc). There may also be the drawing of the child to the pastoral adult in terms of the archetypes they represent. That is, though the child won’t be thinking this, the playworker may well represent ‘player’, ‘joker’, or maybe even ‘super-hero’, or ‘protector’; or, in terms of more playwork thinking, and straying away from archetypes, the playworker could be ‘someone who can keep this play going, or hold it, or pick it up again from where we left off two months ago’. All of this, perhaps, opens the playworker up to being someone who can be confided in.
 
Why do children sometimes seek a pastoral adult?
Is there a deficiency in the ways that society in general, and the micro-societies around the child, depict that child’s place in it all? If a child is led to believe that the dominant adult view is one of the child being led, or told, or directed, or guided, or informed, and so on, won’t this adult-to-child communication direction ultimately create a perspective on ‘what adult is’? If there’s a pastoral adult, the direction of communication shifts, breaking the mould.
 
What other psychological aspects might be at play?
If a child seeks a pastoral adult, are they in the midst of some form of ‘transference’? That is, in piling onto that playworker, say, the combined positive attributes of others they’ve known, does that playworker become to them what that child wants them to be? Another thought on psychology is that of ‘introjection’: are the positive attributes that the child finds worthy in the pastoral adult actively sought after (in order, on some deeper level, that they be taken in as their own)? Either way, as a means to create or as a means to internalise from, there may be more to the child-pastoral adult relationship than meets the eye.
 
Will it do harm to, in effect, belie the pastoral trust invested in us if relaying any communications had with the child to their parent?
This I don’t know. My suspicion is that children can be fairly resilient but that some, even if otherwise emotionally balanced, may see such incursions into the child/pastoral adult relationship as a gross breach of trust. The question is effectively the central one in all of these reflections here. It leads to the further deliberation of just how resilient is any given child in the degree to which that pastoral trust is belied? That is, where on this child’s spectrum of ‘trust belied’ is ‘too much’?
 
Can you get the trust back every time? Should you try? Either way, why?
I can think of a few examples where I’ve either had to earn trust from a child over a long period of time, or where I’ve inadvertently done or said something that marks me down as someone to be sniped at, or where I’ve rebuilt to the point of things seeming OK again (though we never know for sure because, well, ‘there was that thing you said once, wasn’t there?’, or something like this in not so many words). More or less, if I try too hard, I’m found out and ignored or vilified the more for it. If I don’t bother at all, I’m ignored or vilified for it.

In the end, there are no real answers here: there are only questions for the asking and for the thinking more about.
 
 

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