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

Posts tagged ‘play stories’

Play grounds us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the point of you, playworker?

It’s that time of the year again when I’m minded to ponder back on playworking actions, non-actions, things learned along the way, and things to chalk up to further experience. If we forget to write these things down, we don’t seem to remember all the finer points and nuances. I’ve been less frequent as of late in my play and playworking writings: the specifics of a wider work responsibility have definitely contributed to this. That said, the beauty of play and playwork is that there’s always something to reflect on.

The other day, close to the end of term, I was walking back from school to the adventure playground with a group of children. One of the boys was on a bike and he likes to ride ahead on it. It’s usually not a problem because he has a fair to good road-sense and he stops at the corners for the rest of us (most of the time!). This day, however, I asked him not to speed off ahead of us. I didn’t really think it through and the more I asked him, the more irritated he got with me (of course). It ended up with him swearing under his breath at me, shouting ‘What is the point of you?’ at me, and finally he threw his bike down in the middle of the pavement and walked off ahead in a quiet rage. I shrugged and breathed in deeply. I decided to leave the bike there. Luckily for him one of his friends picked it up at the back of the group we were in and walked it back for him. The boy and me were not on the best of terms, at that moment, I could clearly see.

When we got back to the playground, I waited for him to stop being so angry with me and then I asked him if we could have a conversation. I said it exactly in those words: a conversation, an informal one. He said yes, OK, so I said, ‘OK, you rant at me and I’ll shut up and listen. Then I’ll say what I have to say. OK?’ So, OK. We sat down on the main hall sofa and, with him above me on its arm, he said how I was ‘the worst’ and he repeated again, briefly: ‘What is the point of you?’ He shut up. ‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘That’s all.’

So, that’s the jumping off point for this post: what is the point of me (in playworking terms, not getting all metaphysical about it!)? It’s at this point that there’s a danger of ‘Ego’ creeping in though. Playwork shouldn’t be about ego, surely? If we weren’t around, would children play anyway? Sure, they would, so that then leads the mind along the oft-trodden reflection of what playworkers do again. What is it that I’ve done this past year, these past years, for the children around me at play? If you’re a playworker too, what have you done?

Sometimes I’ve got in the way. Absolutely! The other day, a group of boys were riding their own and borrowed bikes down the concrete ramp (as is their current fad), slamming their brakes on at the last moment to execute a skidding circular stop. They mostly missed the metal storage container wall by a foot or two. One younger boy came down the hill on a bike a little too big for him. He neither braked nor turned the handlebars. He slammed into the old upturned waterslide panel in the corner. Naturally, I thought, I ought to drag a big old crash mat over there, prop it up so it didn’t take up any discernible circling space, and walk away. No, though. What I got was a resounding, ‘Oh, now you’ve ruined it! You’ve taken away what this place is for!’ OK, fair enough there, though some of the boys did then evolve the play after that into deliberately slamming themselves into the mat rather than turning the bike.

Similarly, a short while back, I observed as (probably) the same group of boys stood on the edge of the pool table indoors and as they took running leaps and somersaulted to land on the crash mat placed on the floor a few feet away. I noted the gap between the table and the mat and moved the latter forwards a little. I was greeted with the moan that was, ‘What is it with you? It’s all about safety, safety, safety!’

Is it? Is that true? So maybe the point of me is to try to make sure no-one breaks their neck? Perhaps the children only ever see these moments of me when I’m too in their faces: they don’t see the way I observe them climbing the tall trees, poking their heads out from the very top branches (me, flinching at it all and holding my breath); they don’t see how I observe the way they find and drag a big old section of telegraph pole right across the playground, fixing it first to the top of the waterslide, cantilevering it into space, then hauling it up the difficult steps of the treehouse, cantilevering it out again and securing it with ropes and bricks in bucket weight systems; they don’t see how I watch on as they’re climbing on the top of the filing cabinets, or waving fire sticks on the air, or smashing old electrical equipment from great heights, and so on.

I can’t even begin to weigh up all the play I’ve seen on the playground this year, let alone all the play out there in the streets of the city, on public transport, at schools, in little moments met in passings-by. When I have occasion to briefly meet a child I know, as they walk past, recognising me for a fraction in between their conversations with siblings, friends or parents, I often suddenly think just how many children I have worked with and for, over the years. Just like all of us who’ve been around for a few years, I can confidently say the number is well into the thousands. That causes just a small pause sometimes . . .

The other day I was talking with a playworker colleague who’s been doing it just a little longer than I have: between us we have something like fifty years of stories of working with children. He told me the story of how he recently met a woman who was a mother now but who had been a child at one of his work places, back in the day. He said that he knows they all grow up, the children he used to work with, but it was still a little strange. It made me reflect on how all those children are kind of preserved in their childhoods in the memory. All the play, and all the interactions, my colleague said, were still there in his mind. It’s true: all these things come back as if they never changed at all.

It was a coincidence then, around about that time of the week, that I was driving home, listening to a comedy show on the radio, and the announcer offered up a name I thought I recognised: she, the named woman, was someone I thought I knew, way back in the day. I listened in hard to her voice when she came on and did her ten minute slot. Was it her? Did I hear the announcer corrrectly? Was this a child I knew way back in the day? Then she told me a few little facts about her life and I knew it was her! What a strange experience. It turns out she’s quite big on the comedy scene now. I knew she’d been aiming for that (rumour had it), but I didn’t know she’d ‘made it’. I didn’t realise that she, as with all of the children I once knew, had grown up.

I often wonder what the children, back in the day, remember of me and my interactions with them at play. I don’t think of it in an ego kind of way: just curiosity. Maybe they don’t remember my name or anything particular about me, but maybe they remember that one day I said something, did something, understood something, became significant in some way. There are thousands of such scenarios floating away out there, a thousand thousand, and that’s just for me alone.

‘What is the point of you?’ the angry boy with the bike shouted at me recently. Later, after the conversation on the sofa, after agreeing that all we both needed to say had been said, when he was collected at the end of the after school club session he called out goodbye to me at the door, and of his own volition.

What we do, as playworkers, apart from trying to create more and more opportunities to play, protecting the play frames where we can, protecting the playable environments, pushing and advocating for play tolerance to all and sundry, looking for small and large pots of funding to maintain those fenced-in spaces and those street spaces, reflecting on moments of getting it right and moments of getting it wrong, taking to task the politicians (both lower case and upper case) of the world, working with teachers and head teachers and early years workers and youth workers and health professionals and artists and parents and grandparents and carers and the man and the woman in the street, and so on, in trying to appreciate play, play for play’s sake, play for the here and now . . . what we do, as playworkers, apart from all of this, and more, is try to do all of this without us being the ego at its core. It isn’t easy; it isn’t about us. Maybe a little of us remains, years on, despite our intentions.

What is the point of you, playworker? Maybe the children can tell us when we’re all too old to run around any more.
 
 

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.
 
 

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!
 
 

Reflections of a playworker in the classroom

‘You are not a God.’

— Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland)
Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory (1990)

 
I am not a teacher of children. That is, I am a playworker. We maybe have to identify with something and, recently, though I’ve known it for years, I sat on my ever-weakening knees, at four year-old height, surrounded by glue and glitter and feathers, and four year-olds, and this whole ‘playworkerness of being’ fell over me again. You’ll get it if you get that, as it were. I am not a teacher of children, though I dabble in the peripheral waters in aspects of my professional and personal lives: I’m engaged in consultations with children at school, in the classroom and in the playground, and I fall into history session constructions, compliant to a five year-old’s comprehension, at home (where I have to try hard not to muddy stuff with made up things!). What has struck me recently is, in the analogy, the gloopiness of the water when the Venn diagram of ‘teacher’ and ‘playworker’ slosh up against one another and overlap.

First things first though: playwork is not teaching. Playwork is working in service of children’s play opportunity. Sometimes, children at play around attendant playworkers might ask them how to do something or other. The playworker then has a choice to make: say or do something akin to ‘you work it out’, or show them how to do it. The latter is fraught with all sorts of adulterating, brain-forming by-pass complexities. Maybe it’s not so black and white after all. Maybe there’s a continuum at play. I’ve been fairly consistent over the years in saying that playworking isn’t something we should be diluting, or polluting, or shifting, by adding ‘teaching’ to it (though I do recognise that play can have a benefit of ‘working things out’ — I won’t write ‘learning’ here, as such, because that muddies the waters further). As can be seen, the sloshing waters of the respective Venn diagram circles of ‘teaching’ and ‘playworking’ can be pushed too dangerously together.

So, for clarity, playwork is not teaching: let’s start from this platform. Recently I’ve been involved in further children’s consultations in a local school. We’re investigating the use of their playground and that includes how the adults at school refer it and its play in their thinking and in their actions. In the classroom, this playworker-not-teacher can only be himself: children talk over me; some are quite happy to discuss things with their neighbours or stare out the window; some are intensely engaged in the areas for consultation; some probably don’t care. Sometimes, I find this all tolerable: I never was one for requiring children to listen to me, in stony silence, hands up, fingers on lips, if ever they wanted to interrupt my line of words. However, it is, admittedly, a tricky task to consult with thirty children of differing levels of engagement, understanding, attention span and so on, in a time limited way. I get why some teachers can become quite ragged!

At the end of one session, in which I said that I’m keen to investigate adults’ attitudes to play in school, one hand shot up and a voice from the depths of the classroom said, ‘What’s your attitude?’ It was an excellent question! What’s my attitude to play? I thought about it all week. On a good day (because we don’t always have those, do we?), I considered that I could see behaviours of all sorts as play, though I realised that by Friday I get frazzled too and the child who bangs piano keys five feet away from me, constantly, whilst I’m trying to sort food for twenty-five others, is somewhat testing! As I write, now, discordant piano play by feet, fingers, and bumps by the backside is, of course, all play.

On a good day, the children see my playworkerness: even if I’m not on the adventure playground. In the school playground, I was observing play, and then the teacher clanged the bell to indicate that it was time to go back to class. I could see that she was going to do it, so I sat down on my knees to get away from adult height and to offer her all the focus of that end of the space. The children all decided to come line up in front of me. Maybe I was, by chance, knelt down at the exact head of their usual line up place. I don’t know. It seemed odd and I felt somewhat incongruous there at the head of the queue that had morphed without any actual words, just a flow-on of play, in front of me. I stood up and took a step to the side. The queue rippled to follow me and I was, again, at the head of the line. Curiouser and curiouser, as it were. So, of course, the play cues had been inadvertently thrown: I hopped back, and the queue followed suit. I hopped the other way, and the children hopped too. The teacher asked me to lead the children back to class. I’d much rather have just walked with them, by their side, so I asked her, ‘Can I hop back?’

Play happens around the play-literate, or play-appreciative, or ‘good day’ playworker, I suppose. Play also happens around the periphery of the ‘play-illiterate’, or the ‘bad day’ anyone, but I’m thinking that there’s a different sort of qualitative engagement by the children: the adult is either merely tolerated in the space, or is ignored, or is blatantly or slyly teased. There are teachers who have good days and bad days, just as there are the rest of us who have the same, and I wonder how the ‘good day’ and ‘bad day’ teacher is differently treated in school by the children. I am aware that professional teaching isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about merely inputting information into the nascent, forming brain of the child; it is, or should be, about inspiring a desire to learn, to investigate and to explore. This is where the playworker/teacher gloopy overlapping Venn diagram waters slosh in again though: I believe that children will, and do, get so much more from a playful teacher, in the same way that they can ‘see’ the playworkerness of the playworker in any place that that playworker is.

At home, I watch the intensely concentrating face of Dino-Viking Boy as we go over the timeline of Romans to Saxons to Normans again, drawing it, playing it. He soaks it all up and thinks for a little while before saying: ‘The Normans? Who are the Normans? Did they beat the Romans?’ It’ll come.

My playworkerness and my dabbling in teaching are as muddled here as the late Saxon-Viking period of history itself! Playwork is not teaching, and I am a playworker. I’m also just me and I have my playworkerness, on a good day. Dino-Viking Boy punches me in the side of the head because we end up playfighting. I never was much good at fighting.
 
 

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.
 
 

Small stories of grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on a playworker’s seven-year-old self

In a manner similar to how you have to go through psychoanalysis to become a psychoanalyst, as I understand it, maybe as a playworker there’s a certain amount of analysis of one’s child-self that needs doing. A while ago I rediscovered a stash of old English language (grammar and punctuation and suchlike), Maths and ‘Writing’ (stories) books that span four years or so of my late primary years. I wrote here on this blog that I’d type the stories up one day. I’ve finally got round to doing that for some of them.

Reading the stories of the seven-year-old me, that first rediscovered time, and each time thereafter, leaves me with a real mix of emotions: first and foremost, I can’t stop laughing! This is closely followed by an absolute disconnect to the strange thinking processes I was going through at the time of writing them: I don’t remember the act of writing them, the thoughts and emotions I was having at that time of my life, or any significant issues I was struggling with. As far as I remember I was just a normal sort of seven-year-old, though I did seem to have a perturbing fixation with writing about ‘deadness’, and a lack of attention for finishing things off properly sometimes, letting stories amble and trail off into bored ramblings or unsatisfactory conclusions about northern football clubs I have absolutely no affiliation to whatsoever!

The serious paragraph of this post now follows: in playwork, work-inhabiting or passing by and in between the places where children play (some of whom are around about the age I was when I wrote the stories you’re about to read), we can sometimes forget that there’s a whole tangled world of thinking going on in those children’s heads. Not only is there the fantasy that we skirt by, learned from Bob Hughes’ infamous play types (and skirted by because we know how we just don’t know what that fantasy of the moment is in the child’s play), but there’s also all the emotions that manifest (and we see the explosions of this, though we don’t see the inner workings) and which may not be remembered later in that child’s life, all the feelings of love (yes, myself and colleagues talked last week about how we each fell in love at or around the age of seven!), all the sense of self-worth, all the effects of culture absorption, and so on. To be better playworkers (and to be better adults too, whether in playwork or not), maybe we ought to look back more on our seven-year-old selves’ ways of seeing the world. If we can’t remember, maybe our stories can help.

So, there follows a select eleven stories mined from the thin pale blue exercise book that’s on my desk and which is labelled, in careful unidentified teacher’s reddish felt tip ink, with my name on the front and ‘Writing March ‘77’. Stories are written up here as faithfully as possible to the original (with the pros of surprisingly good spelling, on the whole, I feel, but with the cons of not yet having grasped the benefits of punctuation — Kerouac might have approved!). The term [sic] dotted about is, I believe, short for sic erat scriptum (‘thus was it written’: that is, ‘directly as written in the original’). A short playworker’s note on his seven-year-old self is added after each story.
 
(i)
Once upon a time there was a girl called Sally and her two brohters [sic] Richard and Mark one day Mark said to Richard lets [sic] run away and take all of Sallys [sic] toys and they did they went to the beach on ship and then they went by bus But the man who owned the Bus said you can’t come on here with all that luggage and got put in the sea and killed them

Playworker’s note: I don’t ever remember anyone in my childhood called Sally. This story seems to be the start of a disturbing ‘deadness’ phase. What can make children think of these things even if they’re relatively stable? Is the ‘dead’ part of healthy fantasy? I’d like to make a note of vocabulary use (not in a teacher way!): it’s a serious point about how I’m often pleasantly surprised by the range of vocabulary that even young children have.

(ii)
Once upon a time there was a king and that king was good and one day in the night a monster came and the king and queen was worried and just then a fairy came and made a spell. This is what it was not worry my king and queen the monster will be dead by morning it was the fairy had made a spell on him to die.

Playworker’s note: The ‘deadness’ continues! Morality jumps out at me here too: how much does adult morality impinge on children’s own developing judgements?

(iii)
Once upon a time there was a dog called Pax and he liked to chase cats it was the cat who lived next door and one day Pax said to the cat let us go for a ride in the woods with lots to eat so they did they took dog and cat food and they went to sea and the waves were lovley [sic] and they got pushed of [sic] a boat and it killed them.

Playworker’s note: More of the ‘dead’! As far as I know, our dog didn’t go in for chasing cats at all. Children can ‘be’ animals much more readily than adults. Maybe someone looked at me funny that day and I anthropomorphised them into a cat to get them back (though I must have had a bout of guilt at the end and took myself off the edge as well, just to even it up!).

(iv)
There was once a volcano and it interrupted and it was bad it went all over a city and killed about 60 babys [sic] and the volcano was in africa and a man called John . . . [half a line of indecipherable gibberish, something about a crow?] and he was famous and he had a special gun to throw in the lava to make it go he did and everything was as before but 60 babys [sic] came alive.

Playworker’s note: Honestly, this one took so long to type up — I couldn’t stop laughing! (Not because of the death and calamity but because of the oddness of the boy whose eyes I was reading through). What’s with the ‘deadness’, younger me? Again though, he can’t kill them without feeling some sort of guilt about it!

(v)
Once upon a time there was a boy about 9 years old he lived Near to the sea and one Sunday his mum gave him two small fish and five loaves of bred [sic] and he had a picnic and he saw lots of people and he went over to them he saw Juses and Juses was talking to the people he talked and talked and talked and talked and by Night the people were hugry [sic] and the boy came upto Juses and gave him the five loaves and the 2 fish and he shared it out.

Playworker’s note: Half-way through reading this story for the first time, I suddenly said ‘Hang on!’: cultural plagiarism, religious imposition, etc. The things that adults can put into children’s minds. I’m glad I accidentally subverted the protagonist.

(vi)
One night John woke up and saw smoke coming under his bedroom door John quickly jumped out of bed there was lots of flames he telephoned for the fire engine to rescue John the fire engine came they used water to put the fire out they put water on the house with a hose pip [sic] and it went out with No burning flames.

Playworker’s note: Who is this John? He crops up in various stories. I don’t know if I ever knew anyone called John: maybe there was a neighbour. He does seem to get into calamity and saving situations. Do children’s imaginations and fantasies repeat and cycle round with similar scripts and scenarios? Do ours? Do they help?

(vii)
Smells

i like the smells of the flowers and i like the smells of mummys [sic] perfume and the sea smells nice too the sea is my favourite smell i like the smell of mummy cooking the onions for dinner and i love the smell of apple pie cooking in the oven and i like the smell of mummy making tea i like the smell of daddy [sic] after shave

Playworker’s note: This may have been a writing exercise, but it speaks to me of the simple pleasure of the affective, the sensory, in the environment that surrounds the playing and living child.

(viii)
i played at sword fighting on sunday with my dad we had sticks for sword [sic] and he went to get me and i moved out of the way i got him he had to fall down and count up to 20 then he can fight he killed me for about 1 time and i killed him for 0 times so my dad won in the end

Playworker’s note: Playing with parents (and, the heresy of it, with playworkers?!) can be important in a child’s life. When we play, as parents, or are invited to take part in play as playworkers, do we always know how important this apparently simple act of playing is for the child (that is, our input and ways of being in the play)?

(ix)
Stone Age Men

If i were a Stone Age boy and my dad was a Stone Age man i would go out with my dad i would Hunt for a wolly mammoth [sic] or a sabre-tooth-tiger and i would give the sabre-tooth-tiger a trap I would dig a hole and get some sticks and put a point on the top then i would put grass and sticks and when the sabre-tooth tiger steped [sic] in he would be dead then i would give the skin to my mummy then eat the insides of it

Playworker’s note: The return of the ‘dead’! Not only are children blessed with in-built invincibility but they often seem to have a high regard for their own abilities, e.g. survival skills! Perhaps it’s good that the world hasn’t fully got to them yet.

(x)
Once upon a time there was a king who had 3 sons one day the first son went to the woods he was just about to cut a tree down when a little man came in a little red car he said to the first son what are you making he said spons [sic] no sooner did he say it when spons came falling down up to his knees then the next son was just about to cut a tree down when the little man in the little car he said what are you making he said pens no sooner did he say it when pen where [sic] falling down from the tree It came to the start of his back(?) then the last son came he was just about to cut down a tree when the little man came in his car and said what are you making he said jumpers No sooner had he said it he was covered from toe to neck he went to his brothers and the first son got his spoons and put them in the pond so did the 2nd brother But the last son he gave the king 2 jumpers and 71 for the first one 72 to the 2nd son and 73 for him and the king said to the first brother you may have my maid you may have the 2nd maid he said to the 2nd brother and as for you he said to the last brother you may have my queen they all got marrid [sic] and lived Happily

Playworker’s note: Seven-year-old me obviously lost interest in this, quite frankly, confusing little vignette. Not only did his attention wander towards the end but he didn’t think it all through properly: the king gave the son his queen, who he married — so that would be his mother? The little man in his little car completely stumps me, but the random connections (which may or may not connect) are things I see happening in the play narratives of children I work with now (‘Do an earthquake on the netting with random words, like, custard, Jupiter, giraffe’). Also, ‘Happily Ever After’ has an awful lot to answer for.

(xi)
Once upon a time there was a boy who always asked questions on Sundays he asks questions a Bit like this how many stars is there do dinosaurs live now he always asks them to his daddy whos [sic] name was Richard Mon one sunday day he saw his girl friend he said Sally which was her name what do Bees do Sally said your [sic] playing a joke what do Bees do I don’t know thats [sic] why I told you your [sic] not playing a joke said Sally they do humming all day long and one sunday he stoped [sic] asking questions and he done [sic] that when he was 14 years old he grew up to Be a footballer he scored 7 Goals for Leeds 5 Goals he got the cup it was Gold he solded [sic] it and got a car

Playworker’s note: There’s Sally again, whoever she was. Imaginary Sally obviously didn’t pander to the seven-year-old narrator’s blathering foibles and so he took the easy route out of the story and went to play for a northern team he has no affiliation to, in a town he’s only ever visited once in his entire adult life, and he did what those who were forty years his senior were doing, selling up in the midst of a mid-life crisis, buying a flash car and disappearing without so much as a full stop to say goodbye! I don’t know: do children just up sticks in the middle of a story they were playing . . .?
 
 

A februariness of play

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

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

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

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

Ten consideration streams running through a playworking year

As it’s nearing the end of the autumn/winter term and so the end of the calendar year, and as this post may well be the last one until the New Year, perhaps it’s time to take stock again of things considered along the way. Every now and then I like to do this: I’ll gather in my writings, re-read them, wonder who I was when I wrote this or that, or I’ll confuse myself with not remembering the writing of a piece in particular at all, and I’ll try to see what runs through it all this year. This is this process.
 
Refining spirals
Thinking and writing on play (or any other subject) is a refinement, but for this writer it’s also a spiral: ideas I picked up either early on or along the way stay with me. Some become stronger, and some benefit from new information. All benefit from being in the play, or just outside it, observing in. Some ideas fall away. There was a time when I was heavily theoretical. I thought I mixed it well with the practice, but actually I think I stopped thinking for myself. This year, perhaps, praxis is healthier. In the spiral, come back to what sustains you, by all means, is what I tell myself, but jettison anything that no longer makes sense or that you often blindly followed.
 
The relating or sometimes pastoral playworker: what our presence means to the children
I come back to the ‘relating playworker’ thinking time and again. It’s what I know from my experiences of working with children, from my observations of children with colleagues and with other adults, from some of the stories of other playworkers and from the stories of children. The children I know well tell me in so many ways what my presence means to them (often I’m accepted, though sometimes I get it wrong). Children I don’t know well, those I’ve met for only days at a time and with months or a year in between this and our next meeting, will sometimes tell me that my affect is something that they value. My affect can last for years. Of this I need to take continual notice.
 
Being in the play
What of my affect in being in the play, if the children want it that way? I’m cast in serving roles, in repeated roles, in necessity and in acceptance if I’m called away or delayed. The grace of these players, who may or may not be as aware of their own affect on adults, is a privileged offering. The children have their narratives and expectations but they can shift if they need to: they know I’m open to and for them. In the play I may be servicing the pulling or pushing of equipment, being the key character to enable the play to unfold, being several rapidly changing characters (the cop; the robber; the zombie; the ghost; the narrated-to, out of the play, on called-for ‘time-outs’; the earthquake maker; the storm; the prison guard, and so on and on). In the play I may be in the play of several frames at once. I may be completely subsumed by it or I may be bored by it. In the play, I’m in the play. I affect.
 
Repeated play
There has been such noticing of repeated play. Maybe the requests for my immersions, followed by my immersions, have resulted in closer inspection of that play. Maybe my relating to certain individuals and certain groups of children has strengthened: I’m able to see patterns I may not have seen so clearly before. Either way, or in both ways, the play replays over weeks and months. There is a certain need for this in the children, though maybe I’ll never know for sure what this is.
 
How we communicate/how we are
In this relating, how is it that I communicate with the children? How we are is read and children are often good at this, I find. They know. If I’m not honest, or if I’m weighed with other thoughts, or if I’m patronising or trying to illicit opinions from them by crafty means, they’ll know. This I’ve known for quite a while, and I write it often just to keep reminding myself.
 
Ways of seeing ‘playworker’
This thing called ‘playworker’ isn’t so clear-cut. We think we know what it is we are, and then we see from other angles and we find that we’re also pastoral, protection, support, and all the other lower-case lettered descriptors that sometimes surprise us. Others do this ‘playwork thing’ in places that are far more hostile than our own small territories, yet their ways of ‘being playworker’ have their similarities to our own, despite the apparent dissimilarities of our individual patches of geography.
 
The city as playground and playgrounds of the city
For city, read this also as ‘town’, ‘village’, ‘any given place’: walking around, being immersed in the greater place, I wonder what the quasi-Utopian version of it might be. Play in all its forms could recreate the city. What would that be like? In amongst it all, as it is, however, there are fenced-off areas where ‘play can happen’. These are designated areas, and the adults in the city accept this state of things. They get to play in all their ways, but the children are corralled. This year, I open my eyes more to the nature of the urban.
 
The playground as a source of beauty
Yet . . . even so, we have our gardens of play places, our territories within the greater cities, and we call them adventure playgrounds or the like, and yet, even so, we can call them beautiful: despite their apparent disorder, the messiness of their parts strewn and left for months in the long winter grass, soaking up the damp and rain, there’s beauty here in the seasons, in the light and dark, in the play that’s just folded in, embedded. The writing can and should reflect this.
 
Writing stories of play is still important
Writing is still important. It always will be. We may not always write our stories down, and some choose to keep them in their heads and in their conversations, but writing, for a writer, is necessary. Play is an endless source of fascination. There are endless stories to be told: there’s a huge book of play being written.
 
Three short stories for the telling
One child comes to me whenever she sees me and, with a big smile, carefully hugs me before spinning off again. She considers her sister and her friends. She shifts her own play needs and desires around those of everyone else. She is, right now, the most graceful child I know.

Some of the older boys greet me, out on the street, with a short quick word I can’t always catch. They hold their hands up for me to either shake or press my palm against. They walk on.

One younger girl was talking to me. ‘What about your day?’ she said. ‘Nothing special,’ I told her: yet, it is in this moment of open stillness that the specialness resides.
 
 

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