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

Posts tagged ‘play with animals’

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’.
 
 

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What’s the point of baby chicks?

Something small and fluffy has happened on the playground. When I arrived there this week, after a few days away, I found an incubator full of eggs had been installed. I’m not great with animals, it must be said (even with the small, fluffy, too cute kind), but I found myself looking in on the pile of unhatched eggs, gently basking in the tropical conditions of the small glass box plugged into the wall, looking in more and more from — what I now see to be — a child’s perspective. Here were all these marker pen numbered eggs and they needed the watching, looking out for, looking after even, for them to hatch into full-blown chickness.

One of the chicks was already out so it seemed natural to me to name him Jeff (everything — be it animal, inanimate object needing a name, unborn niece, and so on — is good with the name Jeff for me! I don’t know why: it just is). I named him Jeff (he turned out to be a ‘he’ after all: the children told me so later because they’d read the glossy notes on gender identification pinned on the wall), and so I unconsciously bought into ‘ownership’, albeit loosely so, by way of anthropomorphising something. Jeff found his feet and soon enough there were cracks forming in a sibling egg.

We watched on before the children arrived (and now I realise how I, for one, was beginning to see the contents of the incubator through a child’s eyes), and urged Jeff’s brother/sister on. It seems to be a monumental struggle to get yourself out from inside an egg. When the newly hatched one finally flopped out, all dark brown stringy fur and little stubby wings and half closed black eyes, it was just sort of — well — disgusting really! Jeff’s brother/sister/half formed thing-mate with no name yet took its time to adjust to being part of the world. It kept getting its beak stuck in the grill and its legs stuck down the side between the grill and the glass. Welcome to the world, chick, mate, I thought. It’s amazing how quickly these little bundles of goo transform into fluff though. They dry out within an hour or two. Then they sleep.

When the children came in for the after school session that afternoon there was plenty of excitement. Small clusters of them (the children) came in from time to time to check in, to watch, to will the eggs on. One of the girls kept vigil in the art room that was the incubator’s home for the whole session. She took a sheet of paper and a pen and started drawing and leaving spaces for names-to-be. I’d had random conversations with some of the children in there about how Jeff had been first out. It wasn’t so much a way of saying ‘Jeff’s mine’; rather just talking about Jeff. The children, to my great amusement it must be said, started calling Jeff by name, asking which one Jeff was, and so on! They began naming chicks-to-be, staking claims on eggs: soon we had Jeff and Clara and Max out, and number four egg, who would be next out — judging by the cracks and beak showing through — was to be called ‘KFC’, apparently.

KFC took a long time eating himself/herself out. By the end of the session we had five chicks out. The next morning, when I came in to work, overnight another five had popped out. Jeff and a couple of others had been moved into the larger container overnight, but the incubator was full of nervous fluff again. Number one egg, sadly, still sat on his/her own, refusing to crack. When the children came in again for the session that day, they were just as excited (if not more so) than the day before. They wanted to touch and stroke and pick up the chicks. One of the children asked ‘When can we play with them?’

A couple of times I reminded the children that the chicks weren’t toys: that they were living things, just a day or so old. Jeff and Clara and Max and KFC could no longer be differentiated (though one of the children had noted that Jeff did have rather large toes): the chicks all huddled underneath the glow of the single bare light bulb, an inch or so above their heads — a single living mass of fidgety, nervous fluff gluing itself together under the gaze of several huge but equally fidgety Godzilla-like children-things, all desperate to get their hands on them and squeeze them senseless (in a loving way, no doubt).

How do you work with baby chicks? I have no idea. I mean, the closest I’ve come to this sort of thing is the occasional visit to a touch farm, or the zoo, or when some strange man or woman with an unhealthily odd deficit in squeamishness brings a snake to a nursery school to freak the living daylights out of small children and/or staff members. In close proximity to animals of any kind, I usually stand back a good distance whilst the children poke and prod because, frankly, to me animals have always been somewhat useless things capable only of being smelly or creepy or anything but cute or loveable! The best tactic, I found out with the baby chicks, was to make it up as I went along and not to let the children know what I was doing.

The children came and went and so did we, and sometimes we just shut the door on the art room because the chicks probably deserved a bit of a breather. Whenever I was in there with the children, there was a clamour to get their hands on the fluffy things in the container. I reckoned they ought to do it one at a time. Sometimes the children listened to this advice and sometimes they just went ahead and dug right in because chicks are more interesting than listening to an adult. With the exception of one of the younger girls, when I was in the room, the children didn’t really know how to approach the chicks (they weren’t alone in this!): there was some tentative touching and stroking as the chicks darted back to the safety in numbers of mass fluff under the bare light bulb; there was some outright poking, which was just the kinder side of the full-on equivalent of a dig in the ribs to you or me, but still, a dark sort of teasing nonetheless. I reminded the children in question that these were living things.

One of the girls wasn’t tentative at all. She put her hand right in and scooped up a chick and held it firmly, though without squeezing till it was agitated. She seemed to have got it just about right because the chick just calmed down. If she squeezed too hard or held it too high or too lightly it started chirping and wriggling (and so she dropped it the few inches back to the sawdust, which was still probably a little traumatic in its own way). I told her how I’d seen her handle them for them to be calm, and she started telling everyone how she was the expert.

All the chicks looked the same now (except that some were lemony yellow and some were more brown): that is, a day before we could just about figure out which one Jeff was and which one was Clara or KFC. We nearly lost one, whoever it was, over the edge though. Our expert held out a chick to another child and I asked the children to hold it over the table top because it was a long drop to the floor. There was a momentary lapse though and the chick wriggled and flapped and flopped out, bounced off the table top, and headed downwards. Reflex kicked in and I caught him or her and managed to scramble the chick back up onto the table, whereupon I said to my expert chick-handler ‘I think you better put this one back in the box for me’. (I didn’t want to touch it any more than I needed to). Chick hitting the floor would have been messy. The chicks all huddled together — in a mass of little heart-beating agitation, no doubt — and I thought it best I shuffle the huddle of children out of the room for a short while.

I said a very odd thing. I didn’t think about it: it just came out. As the children were quietly pleading for more handling time (to which I promised more time later, but the chicks needed a bit of a breather), I said to one of the girls looking up at me with big eyes: ‘I usually think of you children first, but now I have to think of the chicks.’ I don’t know where that came from. What good are chicks anyway? Horrible, smelly, creepy, useless things. What are chicks for? What can they do?

The children affected their sadnesses at leaving for the time being (though they chirped up to show their parents when they came). I went to wash my hands after The Incident with the Unknown Chick and the Very Near Calamity from a Significant Height. Later, I noticed that the biggest chick did seem to have big toes and that meant he was probably Jeff. Number one egg was still very still, all alone now in the incubator. I don’t know if he’s made it yet . . .
 
 

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