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

Posts tagged ‘play objects’

Structural dynamics of play: a technical analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychological repair: the playworker as sticking plaster

Every so often I get on my high horse about certain repeated (and repeated) themes and situations that seem to always crop up in this, my playworking life. Often, that theme is wholly something along the lines of ‘just accept that play is play in the player’s head, and nothing to do with instrumental ways of educating, socialising, and so on.’ Sometimes, the theme is more along the lines of ‘just let them play’. At other times, the theme is ‘respect children.’ Other themes crop up along the way. This post is another in the continuing action in support of children, bringing a combination of these themes back out into the light.

There’s a line from a poem, or a title in itself, I forget which and by whom it was written, but it highlights the idea of ‘waiting for the echo’. You shout out into a cavernous space, and you wait for the call back of agreement . . . It really isn’t so difficult a concept, I think (I have always thought), to understand that play is play (just that), and that we can and should just get out of the way of that, and that we can and should respect children (them, as people, because they are, and their right to play). Hello? Hello? Waiting for the echo back.

I’ve been witness to some pretty shocking adult disrespect of children and their play recently. For sure, we all have bad days as adults (that’s what being human encompasses, I suppose!), but a continual belittling of children and their ideas by certain adults, or talking at them as if they’re stupid, detestable, or malignant creatures is only going to go one way. I have seen this done recently by parents, teachers, and teaching assistants. It shocks me that those adults who are amongst the closest to children (in terms of family and in terms of time spent with them during a day), can treat them with some contempt. A disclaimer is necessary at this point, as I often do at times of such ranting: the above examples aren’t the over-riding majority of recent experiences, yet they are significant for being noticed.

If a child is playing in a way that a playworker knows he likes to play in (for example, rough and tumble with a friend, who he knows he might hurt, and who he knows might hurt him back, but in a way that neither is really trying to hurt the other), and the playworker on the scene knows and sees all this — understands and feels it — what will the power dynamic of overbearing control imposed on that play frame by an unsympathetic adult do? The children may change their play behaviours instantly, out of fear, or out of intelligent ‘towing the line’ until the controlling influence has gone, or out of embarrassment, and so on, but ultimately this is a drip feed of unnecessary anxiety delivered upon that child. What will the accumulated net effect be?

These command and control adult tactics can often be metered out in seemingly trivial areas for expected compliance. They can be delivered with the ‘shock and awe’ approach that just makes everyone stand still, shut up, and watch, or they can be delivered in more low-key ways. One of the seemingly trivial areas that controlling adults often insist on, in either of the above ways of delivering it, is the old (not so) favourite that is ‘now, share.’ I recently witnessed a group of younger children playing on a wheeled contraption away from the playground, and this thing they played on wasn’t big enough for all of them. The children who weren’t on it were pleading with the children who were on it to let them have a go. Instead of opening up a possibility for the children to negotiate, or instead of saying to the pleading children that they would have to wait (hey, life’s like that sometimes), or instead of doing nothing and just observing because sometimes, often, children can work these things out, the adult in attendance screamed at the children to share. It was a demand, it was forceful, and it was embarrassing. The place of interrupted play was then tense. The adult wasn’t a playworker.

Now, of course, as we need to keep reminding ourselves: none of us is perfect and sometimes we have bad days, and sometimes we get it wrong. There is, however, wrong and there is wrong! Some days I know I’ve operated in what the eminent Mr Hughes detailed as the ‘functional’ approach to playwork practice. It happens. Some days, I have slipped into what he calls the ‘repressive’ approach. This happens too. We can be tired, worried, or any number of other ways of being off-guard or not on the ball. We should get over that though, and quickly. We should reflect in the moment and after the moment, and continue reflecting on it. We should, at the very least, apologise to a child if we have, in any way, caused them unnecessary anxiety.

Quite often, when I see that someone else, some other adult, has caused a situation of unnecessary anxiety in a child, and that they clearly aren’t aware of it (or that they don’t care about it), or they aren’t reflecting (which you can often see in a person’s actions), or that they haven’t apologised, I feel the need to make amends in some small way to that child. Recently, I have sought to distract the anxiety-causing adult in full flow; I have positioned myself between them and the offended child (not as a means of physical protection but just as a kind of psychological blocking off); I have stuck my tongue out at the child as a play cue; I have bent down to their level to try to re-engage them in their play, or to offer them new play cues to be getting on with. All of this is repair.

Maybe this is all an important part of a playworker’s reason for being, his or her duty, their value out there, away from the more cosseted fenced-off playground places, in the public realm. I hadn’t thought of it all this way in so many words before. I knew that advocacy for play comes high in public spaces, and I knew that urban spaces could effectively be ‘repaired’ for play, but what about the playworker as sticking plaster for the repair of other adults’ imposed anxieties in the public realm . . .?
 
 

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!
 
 

Organic community consideration

Community. n. A noun of quality from communis, meaning ‘fellowship, community of relations or feelings’; in med. L. it was like universitas, used concretely in the sense of ‘a body of fellows or fellow-townsmen’.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

 
What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? This short sentence does, of course, have embedded in it a few agitations for those inclined to think in such ways: as the advertising strapline about a book being ‘available in all good bookshops’ opens itself up to being played with (the possibility of stock being available in some ‘not so good ones’ can be tacked on to the end), maybe there are some ‘not so good adventure playgrounds’ out there too; however, by the same token, if it’s a ‘not so good adventure playground’ is it an adventure playground at all? What the real gist of this post is about though is the insinuation lurking underneath the word ‘community’ and, in stripping this away, about ‘proper community’ itself.

‘Community’ is such a widely bandied around word. It doesn’t mean anything if the ‘from the inside’ connections of people aren’t actually there, if the word becomes artificially grafted onto an area for the benefit of agencies feeling smug about ‘their patch’ (which is a patch in name only), seeking to look good to funders or each other because they’ve ‘helped’, or if anything other than ‘live, organic connections’ happen.

Once, over the course of a particular work contract, I had the misfortune of having to visit a certain town (which I won’t name here, just in case it comes back to bite me!). Although I appreciated I was an ‘outsider’, some of the people who I met there, going about my business, were blinded with utter faith that their town was the epitome of community Shangri-La. It was, to me, an utter hole. The best thing about the place was leaving it. It was a two hour drive home, but I was still leaving it and happy to be. Now, of course, there’s no way I could have known about any real community spirit there, but the point of the story is that the ‘feel’ of it all was just so artificial.

I can’t say the same about the adventure playground. In my experience, this playground that I write of regularly, and all other [good] playgrounds, is a breeding ground for live, organic connections. Sure, relationships are developed and nurtured, but these happen when they’re ready to happen, and sometimes they catch you by surprise. I like to think that children, most if not all, can spot a fake a mile off. If an adult visitor to the playground has integrity, playfulness, open-mindedness, honesty, the ability to listen, and so on, the children will know and go with the flow of this, sometimes before any real conversations are had at all. They’re not so needed. Conversely, the fakes can be spotted from a distance and toyed with! The children understand things on such levels, and so too do the play-literate and compassionate adults.

So unfolds the organic and real community. It has often pleasantly surprised me how individual like-minded adults can connect on first meeting one another: an artist will ‘know’ and ‘get’ another artist, of whatever flavour; a rebel will ‘get’ another rebel; an altruist (or as close as it’s possible to get to being such a thing) will ‘get’ another altruist; a playworker will ‘get’ another playworker. These are all states of being, I suppose, rather than job titles or the like: artist, rebel, altruist, playworker, and so on. The point is that we know each other when we meet one other. When we’re all embedded, either for our living or for our working, in a certain geographical area, in a ‘place’ (and I don’t use that word lightly), the ‘from the inside’ community can start to connect.

Community isn’t a thing to superimpose on an area because it isn’t anything that can be ‘placed down’, as such. Community is in the bricks and mortar, in the streets, in the stories, in the connections, in the evolution.

Last week, in the sun that had finally come to soak us, I looked out from the middle of the playground. Across the way there’s a hard court (what the children call ‘the pitches’), and farther out from that is a fixed play equipment park adjacent to the pedestrianised street. Surrounding the whole block are the tenements and the glass of their windows reflect the summer day down into the suntrap. I looked out and, in the combination of the adventure playground, the pitches, the fixed play equipment park, and the pedestrianised area, I couldn’t even begin to count how many children and their attendant adults there were. There was play in practically every corner. The day before, we’d been in the latter park with arts stuff, balls and hoops and mounds of fabric. There were children everywhere. They trailed long pink robes and various cardboard sea-creatures on skipping rope leads, made for them by my colleague, who’s a parent volunteer. At the far end of the park, where perhaps they thought no-one could see, a group of mothers played hula hoops and bat and ball with our stuff. At the other end of the park, a group of children spun around on the trolley we take out, on the flat half a pitch, for ages and ages. Then the ice-cream man came! Play was at the heart of it all.

On the adventure playground, like-minded parents come to volunteer, share coffee, talk, play. We support and are supported. I have the feeling that it all happens in the right place and at the right time, when it’s ready to happen. It is that live, organic connection in action: a social spontaneity, a kind of quantum readyness, popping into existence just at the exact point that it needs nurturing or is ready to give. It is this wanting to give to some person in need, or acquiescence in receipt of giving, that community grows outwards from. It is, to use a favourite word, ‘rhizomatic’: it spreads.

What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? In play, we both give and are in receipt. What is a good community if not a ‘playground’ of giving people?

Artificial ‘community superimposition’ is a game without the play.
 
 

Playworking plain-songs

Plain-song. Mus. [Rendering med. L. cantus planus, F. plain chant, It. canto piano.] A simple melody or theme.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

 
Playworking is replete with stories, which are songs, of simple wonder. We can allow ourselves to become over-burdened with all the anythings that circle around and through our time in amongst the children’s play; we can forget to see and listen to the songs that play themselves out around us. These are not literal songs I’m writing of, necessarily: these are songs that vibrate a little differently.

The moments of songs unfolding, recently, have been beautiful . . .
 
Plain-song 1
At last, we all said, a warm and sunny day. We were out on the wedge of grass beyond the playground. Children ran around and parents watched. Children hoarded things at the edges, in the bushes, and we saw this. A couple of maybe four year olds sat in the shade of the branches. They were alone on the clean, new tarpaulin, which we’d secured against the ever-present flap of the breeze with six small concrete blocks at its edges. A makeshift wind-break, made of a pegged-down sheet, slung over skipping ropes, tied between the trees, stopped the paper blowing away. Sat on the grass, nearby and behind them, I watched these two younger children: a boy and a girl. They had found the jam-jar of glue. They had found the glitter. They had found the small treasure of the mosaic tiles. I watched for quite some time as the children focused on the soupy glue they were mixing up, sat in their own world on the clean, new tarp with its makeshift wind-break.

A little later, a parent came to show them how to spread the glue ‘properly’, so that things could stick to other things, like paper.

Plain-song 2
We had brought small rectangles of wood to the wedge of grass beyond the playground. The blocks were half an inch thick and a little rough to the touch. We had brought hammers — both the heavy claw type and the pin type, whose shoddy build is clear enough when any average eight year old chooses not to use them for the con-struction of things. We had brought nails — both the tiny type and the long ones that have the wow factor. One of the girls had built a bird-house, or a house, or a box. I’d seen her use the tools before: when I came by again, she was sat on the tarp tapping nails into balls of plasticine, which she’d stuck to the outside of her bird-house, or house, or box. She didn’t look up when she told me, as she tapped:

‘I really like the feel of this.’

Plain-song 3
One of the younger girls communicates without so many words. One day, when I was laying hula hoops out in an arcing line — red, blue, yellow, green, red, green, blue, or similar, repeated, repeated — on the wedge of grass beyond the playground, the girl who communicates without so many words jumped into a hoop and smiled. I jumped out of my hoop and into the one laying next to it. The girl jumped into her next hoop and waited and smiled . . .

Later, after some antagonisms had almost played themselves out between her and her brother, I sat on the concrete table at the edge of the grass with my feet on the concrete chair. The girl who communicates without so many words, still fizzy from the fresh pesterings and provocations of her brother, climbed up onto the concrete table with me. She leant back against my arm and was still.

Plain-song 4
One boy was in the hall spinning a giant red beanbag around and around. I interrupted his play, though I shouldn’t have done, though he seemed to forgive the intrusion. He took it as a cue, of sorts, and a delicate play fight happened. When the boy who was spinning play fights, he hardly touches. When he fights, he’s a flurry of hand and wrist spins and other little actions. Outside on the playground, later, our play fight started up again, somehow. It must have blown in on the breeze. A thin flurry of willow-stick arms barely brushed against one another. When he glanced me on the edge of a bone, he walked away, looking back, smiling.

Plain-song 5
We were at school, on the playground, and footballs and basketballs and children were flying around. The noise echoed off the brick and concrete. One of the older children came by. She often says, ‘You never hear what I say properly’, or words like this. I wonder if I’m going slowly deaf. ‘It’s noisy here,’ I told her. I’m not going slowly deaf. She nodded. We talked about what would happen if an adult were to suffer an accident there, what with all the flying around. ‘I would so get in trouble,’ she said.

She said that wouldn’t happen with us, at our playground. Later, an adult, my colleague, got hit in the back of the head by a ball. It was fine, though for a moment the child concerned looked more than a little concerned.

Plain-song 6
I was accosted at the door that leads from the hall to the playground: usually, three or four or five of the girls will find me at some point in the session. Some of the three or four or five will run to me and smile and offer me the warmth of their belated hellos. The others will come and watch. I was accosted at the door by four of the girls coming to offer me their variety of hellos. I had dust in my eye. I had tried to wash it out but I’d only made it worse. My eye was red and I had to hold it open with my finger and my thumb. The children didn’t seem to see this. I knelt down to their level to say hello. ‘I have something in my eye,’ I also said. One of the girls started poking at her eyeball underneath its lid. She addressed her friends when she said, ‘If you do this, you can feel your whole eye.’

Within a minute, all the girls were standing around, screwing their eyelids shut, concentrating hard and trying to feel their whole eyeballs underneath. I still had dust in my eye.
 
 

Play and (un)certainty

‘Children create situations of unbalance in an attempt to regain equilibrium (Spinka et al, 2001).’

— Lester and Russell (2008, p.62)

More or less, this line above is something I’ve been thinking about or gearing towards for a few weeks now. I knew of it, though not in any precision of word order, and when I looked it up and typed it down, it sat there and waited patiently as I sat there and looked rather ponderously at it for a few minutes. Taking it at face value, it doesn’t wholly fit. The quote comes from Play for a Change and relates to a section of writing on stress response systems and risk in play. ‘Risk’ is often seen predominately in terms of the ‘physical risk’ but the emotional and psychological aspects of risk also come into play. So, what if, for some children (or maybe even for all children), it’s certainty that they’re looking for in the risks of their play, rather than uncertainty in order to regain their equilibriums?

I write it like this because I don’t see the process of regaining balance (physically or emotionally/psychologically) as being the same thing as the seeking of certainty in play. Besides this, I know plenty of children who seek more and more ‘unbalancing’, as if this in itself is a form of certainty. The Play for a Change authors cite Caillois (1961) and Kailliala (2006) in referring to ‘dizzy play’, or vertigo, and some children I know often like to spin fast, and faster, on the roundabout — just for the spin of it, I suspect (not for the regaining of the stability of terra firma, and not for that particular sort of receding nausea that some of us also remember from our own childhoods). This dizzy play is for the sensory nature of being in it. Going fast is never fast enough.

However, this post is not particularly focused on such spin. It is the potential seeking of certainty in children’s play that draws the attention. A repeated play frame — an instance of play, or ‘a material or non-material boundary that keeps the play intact’ (Sturrock and Else, 1998), for those who’ve forgotten playwork terminology — repeated play frames such as those I’ve described in engagement with children’s play in recent posts, are a seeking for certainty in this context. This is how I’m reading the play. However, despite the possible best intentions of the players to faithfully reproduce the play of a previous time, conditions surrounding the new play aren’t going to be exactly the same as the previous instances: so, there will be differences in the play, new formations and directions; the players must be after the best fit of how the play felt. It does, perhaps, suffice to say that if ‘this, that and the other’ is replicated, as best as can be arranged, then ‘this, that and this’ is how the play is expected to feel or be.

I see this seeking of certainty, as I read it, time and again: if it’s not a near-as-damn-it replication of a previous play frame, then it’s a recreation and re-ordering of elements of that play frame; or it sometimes involves the repetitions of stories or it might be the re-positioning of new ‘actors’ into an old scene. It doesn’t always involve repetitions and recreations of previous play: the seeking of certainty, in this line of thinking, extends to the child who won’t jump from the jumping platform for fear of landing awkwardly, too hard, too far out, or for fear of hurting themselves in other ways, for example. Some adults throw themselves out of aeroplanes after they’ve thrown their parachutes out first, for the buzz of it (and good luck to them!); some children jump from swings or walls or platforms without seeming to look and without ever having jumped from that particular swing or wall or platform before. Isn’t there something just a little pathologically disturbed, however, about someone who doesn’t have even the slightest degree of confidence that they’re more ‘certain’ than ‘not certain’ to make that jump? (OK, so I’ve never jumped out of a plane: what do I know? Would you do it though if you thought you had no chance of landing in fewer than two whole pieces?!)

Our lives are uncertain, but this is all the more reason to seek some degree of reassurance that we won’t face death at every corner, or emotional torment or psychological ridicule every way we turn. Uncertainty does permeate through play, in its way, but it’s one thing saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my play; isn’t it exciting?’ and another thing saying ‘Everything I do in my play is a physical, emotional, or psychological rollercoaster that scares the living shit out of me’. One of Garvey’s (1977) prerequisites for play was that it be valued, or fun. Can play be play when it’s a constant engagement with things you can’t be even a little certain of?

I’m certain, in as far as I can be (yes, here’s a stick: hit me over the head with it!), that I’ll finish this post and write something else pretty soon (unless there’s a sudden meteor strike, or unless I suffer a stupendously unlucky imminent physical catastrophe, or the like); I’m pretty certain that if I don’t surpass my ‘optimum limit’ minus one for beer consumption, I won’t suffer for it in the morning; I’m certain that if I’m suddenly reacquainted with Walking in Memphis whilst driving, I’ll be singing loud like no-one can see me! This is all my play, and give or take a negligible percentage of conditions dictating that things won’t work out the way I think they will, things will work out the way I think they will.

What I’m not seeking is not to finish my writing or start any more writing ever again, to exceed my optimum beer consumption limit, or for Walking in Memphis to finish so I can drive like a grown-up again! I’m not supposing for a minute that children necessarily go into their play reflecting on the degree of certainty that will result from replicated play frames, or suchlike; however, I do suppose, here and now, that some (maybe all) children play with some internal nod towards certain possibilities.
 
References

Caillois, R. (1961, 2001), Man, play and games. Translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Garvey, C. (1977), Play: the developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books.

Kailliala, M. (2006), Play culture in a changing world. Berkshire: Open University Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. and Bekoff, M. (2001), Mammalian play: training for the unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 76(2): 141-168. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing (the Colorado paper). Leigh-on-Sea: Ludemos Press.
 
 

Playing with ‘the dead’

Last week some of the children found a dead pigeon on the playground. Well, to be honest, it was somewhat generous to give what was left the name of ‘pigeon’ because of the general carnage. A fox or a cat must have got it, I reckoned. I hadn’t seen it earlier, as I’d walked around the empty playground. When I’d got over to a couple of excitable children stood near the equally dead vestiges of the previous night’s bonfire, one of them was saying, ‘Look, there’s a leg, and over there’s the other leg, and a wing.’ That was about all that was left of the meat of it. There were feathers scattered at the burnt-out edge of the charcoal. Bits of bloodied sinew flopped from the dismembered legs.

I asked the children what they were going to do with it. They didn’t have a plan as yet. Some of their friends walked by outside the fence shortly before coming in, and the boys shouted out the find to them. They said they’d wait to show the others. I expected some sort of grave might be dug. Perhaps they might scoop out the middle of the charcoal of the previous night’s bonfire, deposit the bits of bird in there, and cover it over. I didn’t expect a solemn affair, though you never know. The playground has seen a few such graves or funerals over the years. Stories occasionally surface about such places or times. There was the bird that got a grave up on the slope behind the fire pit. There was the filmed funeral for some sort of creepy crawly behind the hammock swing, years ago (now, was it a butterfly or a caterpillar, a spider, or something else?). Stories of stories not experienced first hand can have a tendency to transform, if the teller isn’t careful. There was the grave dug for the ‘accidentally dropped’ phone, and there was the funeral procession for the cardboard box. There have been more.

Last week’s bird I expected to get a grave, but as far as I’m aware this didn’t happen. I sat back, at a distance I hoped was well enough out of the way. I was trying to observe, whilst another child asked me what it was I was doing: so I told her I thought that what they were doing was interesting. Why? she asked. I didn’t feel it proper to go into any level of analysis with her. As my focus returned fully to the episode of the bird at the burnt-out bonfire, I saw a boy come back to the scene waving a litter picker in the air. He was pulling and releasing the trigger over and over. I didn’t feel he’d be tidying up though. Sure enough, the dismembered wing was picked up in the litter picker and waved about. Then it was used to try to tease either the children on the nearby cantilever swing or my colleague who was pushing it. A saw came out but I couldn’t work out what the idea might be, and this was discarded again soon enough. After a short while, with no-one really being too disturbed by having a dismembered wing shoved close to their face on the end of a litter picker, the children tumbled off elsewhere, downing tools in the grass. The bird didn’t get its grave, I don’t think.

There is a certain fascination with dead things from certain children, just as there is a certain fascination with live things by those same or other children. The bird didn’t look too much like a bird by the time the children had found it, and I wonder if they had had any notion of the colossal scrap that must have happened for it to end up that way. Would that have made any difference to the way they’d played? I’m unsure what ‘dead’ means to children. It can be a difficult enough concept for many adults.

In the often abstract — though still somewhat symbolic — world of children’s play, ‘the dead’ is a motif that tends to come up time after time in various guises. It can be direct and it can be less so. After the bird-pickers had left the scene last week, and as I went up the slope to retrieve the discarded saw, a couple of girls who hadn’t been involved gravitated round me. We talked about how I wasn’t feeling well as of late and how I was finding it difficult to breathe and talk and do things. The conversation turned, morbidly enough, to something along the lines of ‘perhaps you’ll die’. It was matter-of-fact. What can you say to that? Short of getting all morose with them about the fate of all of us (sorry!), I just said, ‘Well, um, thanks mate, but don’t worry. I’m not going to die.’

‘Good,’ she told me. ‘I like you as a worker.’

‘What about as a person?’

‘Yes, that as well.’

I digress. ‘The dead’ was a direct conversation, though even so, it may be difficult to imagine what that actually means. Maybe this is why children play with such concepts in other ways. Maybe this is why they bury birds, or insects, or accidentally dropped phones, or bits of dismembered electrical equipment. Maybe this is why funerals for cardboard boxes happen.

The motif of ‘the dead’ emerges in other ways as well. These ways, however, somewhat side-step the whole point of what ‘dead’ is. Currently, children on the playground are playing variations of the classic chase-tap game (versions where playworkers are necessary as the chasers), but these variations include being hunted by werewolves, or vampires, or zombies, or combinations thereof. It’s the vestiges of Halloween’s shadow hanging around. Sometimes there are ghosts. These fantastical arrangements are all either of ‘the dead’ or ‘the undead’ or both. What ‘dead’ means though, let alone what ‘undead’ might mean, is side-stepped.

Children also cheat when they play these games: it’s part of the way to play, and it’s expected that they’ll do it anyway. When they get caught and ‘bitten’ by the vampire, they find a way to talk themselves out of it. Werewolves and zombies seem to fair no better. If there are guns or swords involved, children always seem invincible. The idea of ‘the dead’ is in and around these forms of play, but there’s always a way to cheat it. Invincibility (and perhaps the gift of the gab too) is a power, a mastery, taking control of things that would, otherwise, win.

I’ve seen plenty of play involving the motif of ‘the dead’: the teddy bear speared by a pole and soaked in red; the ‘dead’ electrical equipment spattered in red paint, having fallen from the bench; the chalk line outlines of people, arms out, one leg up at an angle, on the paving slabs; the effigy of ‘the silver man’ burnt on the bonfire (killing someone the children had, that day, been warned by school about); the ‘Charlie’ game involving contacting ‘Charlie’ with ‘pencils that move by themselves’ (Charlie’s name written in red on the fire escape door); the songs and stories of Bloody Mary told in quiet corners. There’s plenty wrapped up in all of this.

Graves for dismembered pigeons (or not, as the case may be), and other poor unfortunates, aren’t the be all and end all of play with the motif of ‘the dead’.
 
 

Connecting stories

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of observations that I called White City Play Stories. I’ve continued this thread of writing since then, but for some reason I’ve no longer tagged them as such. Stories, whatever you tag them or call them, are all stories of ‘worth’ though. Following on from last week’s writing on immersions in others’ play memory stories and on how we’re interwoven with place, I’m thinking of the play that surrounds us in our day-to-days. We’re embedded in it, even if we don’t realise this. Lines of stories flow in all the places we traverse. It’s like we’re enmeshed in a huge spiders’ web, where every thread is a story spun out, spun between the lines of other stories. It is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional weftwork, and we’re right in there in the middle of it.

We come from an oral culture and this part of us still survives, despite our written representations of language on pages and on screens, and despite our relatively recent cultural predisposition towards the instant photographic record. When we tell stories, we’re engaging with that old in-built desire to share and tell and to connect to other things as yet unsaid. Writing and photography have their places. When we write, we write sometimes because we may not be able to say, directly. When we write our stories, or when we display our photographs (and if we think of it this way), we try to shine a light on the weftwork that surrounds us in different ways. The spoken, the written, the imaged . . . everything is a story, or a fragment of a story, in the whole.

My observations, in and of the play, are written in the spirit of illuminating that part of the enmeshment that I see myself to be in. If the reader can appreciate the stories not directly experienced, as the listener of old oral tales was asked to do, maybe they can then see better the weftwork that they themselves are in. This, I suppose, is why I write my stories of play, though I’ve not articulated it in this way, precisely, before.

The following set of stories shall be tagged and categorised under ‘New White City Stories’: the whole is a multi-layered story for the finding.
 
A story about stories
I was in communication last week with someone from a local mobile library service regarding stories, books and children. From my experience of having worked with very small children, older pre-schoolers, and up to the older primary school years, I wasn’t so sure that the latter would engage so well with being read to from books. Sure, it can work out, but I said I found that these older-aged children generally engaged better with performance-story or the improvisational. As chance had it, that same week I was sitting in the sun on the outside sofa with one of the after school club children, just talking around, and we were soon joined by three other girls and the conversation turned, by them, to telling stories. We made up stories as we went (with no morals, with no real structure, with no concern for what might offend others). When the girls wanted me to talk, and when I’d managed to engage their attentions with a story line of their liking, I was very aware, in the moment, of the looks on their faces and of the focus of their body language. Stories about telling stories may well repeat over the following weeks.
 
Stories of repeated narratives
I feel sure that I’ve written something about repeated narratives somewhere before (which makes this story about a story a repeated narrative in itself!) Some children engage this adult in repetitions of service to the play, or in roles, or in layers beneath the surface of the immediately apparent. I’m not on the playground as much as I used to be and some children are aware of this and are patient for a Friday when I make sure I’m there and when the narratives that they seem to want and need to unfold can do so. Two children want/need engagement with ‘earthquakes’ on the netting (they also know that they, and only they, seem to have the capability of giving me static electric shocks because of their headscarves against the rope!) Another child’s trampolining is replete with other messages to other adults about her play (which, here, I can’t say — in entrustment of the moment!). The repeated narratives that entangle me in them are, I feel, all soaked in other messages.
 
Baby birds
I remember a story I told a few years back about feeling like the mechanism in service to certain play: that was, the pushing of children on the zipwire swing. There is a school of thinking that says that we adults shouldn’t be involved in this, which I can appreciate. However, there is another human level that can’t easily be resolved in playwork theory or in the dryness of qualifications literature: play is a connection, and sometimes we adults are very much connected with. Some children have recently played with the fine line between knowing exactly how to push themselves on the traditional swings and getting this adult to do it for them (or, rather, with them). The children know what they’re doing. This isn’t about laziness, this is about connection. They each take one of the swings on the hex-construction, facing inwards, and one after the other, like baby birds, they demand to be pushed, and high! I run around in service to their needs. When they get low, they squeal again! This is time spent connecting.
 
Playing the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘cops and thieves’, and other mutations
I can’t remember the exact order of the play that happened, this day when everything tumbled around, and when I seemed integral to things mixing and merging and mutating. One girl tried to cue me by inventing a valuable picture of mine (‘How much is it worth?’; ‘Oh, ten thousand’ [unspecified currency]). She found a slab of splash-painted wood. I couldn’t unfurl myself from other conversations though. A little later, she ‘stole’ my gold (made of gold paper, which apparently was mine). Cops and thieves took place. There are a number of ‘prisons’ currently on the playground. Some have names: ‘the Mansion’ is the hidey-hole with the other outside sofa in it, where children often sit and look out, in the dry, in comfort; the place that might become a fort is difficult for adults to traverse but easy for the children; the hut, which is even more difficult to get through, might become the ‘children’s world’. These prisons are ebbing and flowing in relative importance.

At some point, one boy shouted out ‘Who wants to play the Hunger Games?’ I didn’t know what this might entail, though I had a vague notion of the book and film. I wasn’t sure how many play frames were happening at once, what with the ebb and flow and take-up and fall-away of ‘cops and thieves’ and other play, but finger-guns, and stick-guns, and sword-guns made of a cross of wood pieces, and hockey sticks all appeared and were fired or whacked around. Children rarely act out being shot or sworded. They have in-built invincibility. One girl declared her invincibility outright and kept turning my finger-gun back on myself.

Where did the zombies come from, and why?! At some point, after I’d been shot or sworded for the umpteenth time, I must have become a ghost because one of the younger girls waved her hands around occasionally to ‘unghost’ me. Maybe the zombie mutation happened after this. Three children I know from the open access holiday scheme were pressing their noses up to the other side of the fence: this zombie adult was required to push some of the children on the roundabout (even though they were quite capable of doing this themselves) in the interior of the play and playground. The children outside looked on, engrossed. The zombie noticed this and threw cushions and old bread crates their way, poking his fingers through the small squares because it was dinner time for him! The children outside were somewhat in the play at this. They ran away and came back again. They knew me well enough as me, but they engaged with the character. Soon, somehow, the Hunger Games boy — having been cornered in open space by a small band of sword/gun wielding others — became involved with me in a stance of ‘no guts, no glory’. This adult, ex-zombie, was whacked several times on the thighs and on the backs of the knees by one of the warrior girls! These children play hard. The child in question stood off when I went down. She bowed like a Samurai, as I imagined, and left me alone . . .

These are just a few of the stories, connecting stories, of the multi-layered weftwork I’m in.
 
 

An unwordedness of affect

There was a girl of about four years of age bent over inside a tyre swing as I passed the small enclosed park, one day last week in London. She was positioned in such a way as to have her stomach on the tyre and her feet just touching the floor. She propelled herself around in slow and little circles, lifting her feet to then float round and round. I kept walking but it suddenly occurred to me that she was in it all, the play, for the affect. That is (and this is one of those things I already knew but needed to remind myself), she was seeing what it felt like, letting it all affect her — daydreaming, maybe, and it was all a positive washing over her.

Of course, I don’t know at all what was going on inside her head, but we have these clear certainties come across us sometimes and ‘play for the affect of it’ was what I knew right then. I carried on walking but I kept on thinking about the idea of how play feels. Such minor moments of play observed can leave such marks. This is, in itself, of ‘affect’.

Back in January, I wrote a piece that I called Connecting to the spin. In this I asked:

‘Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?’

I like to re-visit previous writings and ideas. Of course, back in January I was writing about ‘affect’, but I didn’t say it in so many words. This post today is nothing new to those who have worked around or studied play for a while: it isn’t intended to be. Instead, this post is intended to be a reminder to self and to others.

At the weekend, out at the park with Dino-Viking Boy and Princess K., the children took interest in a two-seated contraption which allowed for round and round and up and down motion all at once. They weighed pretty much the same and so, balanced out, they needed me to push them started. Off they spun, and when one pushed their feet onto the ground the other bounced up. They wanted to keep going and keep going, to have booster pushes, just to keep going. The children played on this equipment for at least half an hour without pause. We talked of nonsense things, and of important things, and of important nonsenses.

The young girl at the tyre swing in the London park was circling around slowly, and the children at the weekend buzzed by and by, but they were both about the affect of it, I suspect: what does this feel like?; what can I sense?; what are these emotions I have?

These were, however, not the conscious thoughts of the children, I have no doubt. Play doesn’t tend to work that way. I use the questions here in an abstract, clumsy manner. When we look up at clouds drifting by, with the breeze on our faces, what thoughts pass us (other than those that tell us that this cloud looks like a dog or that that cloud’s moving faster than all the others)? When we sit in the garden and we’re still, and we hear the tinkling of the metal chimes, what do we think? Words aren’t always what move through us in these situations.

We’re more than just the simple recognitions of the sensory inputs that come to us; we’re more than just the simple formation of fears or excitements or happinesses. When we stand up high, balancing precariously, we’re aware of the drop, of the possible slip, of the inevitable pain, but we’re also aware of the moment of the now, of the very edge of things (literally and internally). We couldn’t say what it is in words, truly.

The lack of words is also true of the brief buzz down the zipwire, of standing on the cliff with the wind in your face, of burying your feet in the wet and sticky sand, of staring into the fire in the depths of a winter evening, of singing in the sunshine to a favourite song turned up high on the radio. There aren’t words that adequately describe what this play makes you feel, in sensory and in emotional terms.

Sometimes we don’t think we’re playing, but we are. When we walk and we’re listening intently to the invisible birds in the trees, or when we peer down to the river bed to try to catch the flickering of tiny fish, or when we’re people watching, or driving fast, or blowing bubbles with our lips or making little popping sounds, or when we’re tapping the rings on our fingers onto metal bars on the Underground or on buses or waiting in line in the Post Office queue, we’re playing. We don’t have the words for these things that we feel because there aren’t any but also because, maybe, we don’t see that we’re playing.

At least, when we recognise this, we may be able to then come closer to the idea that what we see taking place in the actions of the children around us, in the streets and in the parks and in the schools and in the homes, is play. Play, as we’ve seen, is wrapped up with affect, with the sensory and with the emotional. It leaves its psychological imprint. The world is full of possibilities that are slow or circular, fast or bright, strange or comfortably familiar, and more.

Walking past the girl on the tyre swing last week, for five or six seconds, no more, this being the entire length of my observation, I had the feeling that this brevity of play seen would turn out to be much longer in the mind than the time it took to pass by. So it is, I know, in the instances of play recalled, and in the wordless affect that lingers, in the minds and in the bodies of the players.
 
 

The art of skipping

Whilst sitting in a field last week at a music festival, lazing around in decadent sloth in the sun, I was told I analyse too much. It’s sometimes true, I guess. We were there to provide some play opportunity sessions for the children at the festival and, in between gigs (as some in the playwork world call their own work sessions!), in alternating teams, I lazed around and thought about the world going by. During the play sessions though, I found that I also did some good quality analysing. Hence the title of this piece!

If we’re engaged in the play of the moment with children, how often do we really consider the what and how of what we’re doing? We did eight sessions (‘gigs’!) in all: half in the more secluded and dedicated children’s area (though much more relaxed and small-scale than the heavy-duty Glastonbury Kidz Field — as an aside, I do wish that that ‘z’ weren’t used, or the word ‘kid’: it’s all too dumbed-down); we did the other half of our sessions in the ‘flag circle’ of the main festival area. In the latter, what transpired was plenty of skipping. We took some big long ropes and, probably because it was much more visible than the other site, this tended to draw people (younger and older) in.

Now, during this plenty of skipping time (which repeated over the days), I came to feel very aware of exactly what I was doing. That is, I found myself analysing the actions of my body in the way that I was in service to the play. Skipping (or, more precisely, being the rope swinger) is not a simple affair. I’ve known certain aspects of the following in previous play engagement, but it all seemed very immediate last week when I thought of things in terms of a collation of actions:

Older children came by and some were very proficient skippers: so, of course, this allowed for greater skip speeds. The dynamic changes when more than one older skipper plays. There are then, almost inevitably, a range of skipping abilities and styles that must be accounted for by the rope swinger. The speed of the rope has to be taken into account, as well as the arc (for skippers’ head heights), and the degree of rope scuff across the grass to account for the different heights that each skipper jumps their feet (that is, there is that range of skipping styles to allow for: jump height, the confident one spring with no intermediate half-spring in between, or the half-springers — the rope swinger has to watch the skippers’ feet carefully, they have to anticipate the full or the half-spring). Then, to add to this, there are the straying skippers who might be involved in the play. I found that this tended to happen with the younger children and can best be described here as the child in question progressively jumping backwards or sideways, usually, or sometimes forwards, out of alignment with the rope and/or the other skippers. The rope swinger has to shift position (and arc, and scuff height, and possibly speed) to allow for this drift. If skippers choose to ‘run in’ to the already swinging rope, the rope swinger has to judge their speed, their hesitation, their confident assertion, or any mix of these, and readjust the rope around that run. Additional difficulties lie in a mix of older and younger skippers, with differing abilities, head heights, jump height and style of skipping, and drift. The rope swinging has to allow for all of these variables to try to ensure that all skippers have the best chance of making it over the rope every time. Then things get a little more complex.

The rope swinger, up to this stage of the writing, has been related in terms of the singular because, although it takes two (usually) to service such play (unless one end is tied to a bench or some other sort of static object), this rope swinger is the dominant of the two. In effect, there are two sorts of rope swingers in each incidence of skipping play (well, there was when I was doing it, at least!): there is the dominant rope swinger (who undertakes the above actions and more), and there is the stable end rope swinger. The role of the latter is to be a consistent mechanism against which the dominant rope swinger can continuously re-calibrate the rope (whether they know it or not!). Whether servicing skipping can work with two dominant rope swingers or with two stable end rope swingers, I don’t know: I’d have to analyse that through observation more. It’s difficult to know, first hand, because I realise I tend towards being the dominant rope swinger. The dominant rope swinger also continually re-calibrates the feed of the rope: that is, there are readjustments of the length of the rope in the play, to account for the skippers’ heights and how they’re spaced out, and there are readjustments of the give in the slack, as well as in the ways of holding the rope in dominant and non-dominant hands, which best facilitate that feed.

Now, all of the above gets further ramped up when the odd adult comes over to play. Adults play too, and we found that the skipping in the flag circle was a draw for them as well. Some parents went out of their way to thank me, in conversation afterwards, not only for their children’s play opportunities here but for their own. The rope needs to go higher, or faster if the skipper is a father with a point to prove, say! The rope needs to allow for the additional adult re-engagement in their own play (that is to say, some adults seemed to have a vague memory of skipping but had forgotten what they used to do; some didn’t really know in the first place and just made it up as they went along, but without the practice that children put in, over and over; some adults got cocky and tried things that are second nature to their twelve year old daughters — full 360 degree turns, and suchlike — but which probably work out better without the mix of sun and alcohol!)

Back to the children: counting skips can work both ways. That is, it can act as a drive, a target, but also as a distraction. One day, three older girls and three older boys developed a friendly rivalry. The play shifted into girls versus boys (in the writing now, it reminds me of a sort of street dance-off). The play evolved into each group raising the other, or calling how many jumps they’d make: the boys were ambitious, calling higher and higher each time, even though they’d consistently failed to get past four. The girls, on the other hand, reached twelve, called higher, reached their limit for the moment, and re-assessed with one another before dropping their next target, eventually hitting the twenties. With the younger children, something strange happened with the numbers: at one stage we were counting in animals (giraffe, hippo, elephant, etc., and one boy said matter-of-factly what the next animal would be, as if we really were counting in a definite order); at another time in the play, one younger boy couldn’t get past four skips as we counted in numbers — for some reason I then started counting in German. ‘How many did I get to?’ he asked when he ran out of jumps. ‘Twenty two,’ I told him. Comprehensible numbers can distract, or so it seems.

So, I analyse too much, or so I’m told. Skipping has much more to it though than just standing there holding the rope or jumping up and down. I took a turn in the middle. The fuzz of the background just blurred as I jumped. I couldn’t really focus on anything but the moment. Some strange alignment seemed to take place: I don’t know how many I got to (not that it mattered anyway), but I felt like I was skipping for far longer than was strictly possible for someone of my age, height, jump style (ungamely!), and ability. I found I could jump without touching the rope, turn around, and around, and not fall over or get caught out, keep going. I felt like I jumped a long time (maybe it wasn’t so long, but it felt that way). Maybe I’d achieved a jumping alignment with the rope swingers, just for that short while. Maybe there was a perfect fusion of skipper, dominant rope swinger, stable end rope swinger (or, other combination of these), as well as counting which I didn’t hear, or no counting, but most of all the fusion was just all in being there and then in the play.

Skippers and rope swingers are synchronised as an in-the-moment art piece. When it falls apart, as it will, the canvas is reset.
 
 

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