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

Posts tagged ‘playwork principles’

Reflections of an accidental meanie

Children can affect us in all sorts of ways. It’s something I push hard when I’m teaching playwork practice: acknowledging, and reflecting on, just how children can make us feel. Sometimes children can affect us in quite simple ways, though not insignificant because of this: they can send us home with that afterglow of amusement or feeling of a job well done; or they may frustrate or frighten us in some way because of the way they choose to play. This week though I happened to overhear one younger boy, who I work with on the playground, say to another younger boy, almost conspiratorially, that he thought I was mean.

This has affected me. On the one hand, I’m big enough and old enough now not to take this as personally as I used to (after all, immediately after this overheard conversation I was drawn into a couple of other play conversations by other children because I was someone they must have felt they could say what they said to); on the other hand, however, this overheard conversation leaves me wondering why I’ve been perceived this way by this child. I know I’ve not gone out to be mean to anyone on the playground up to this point, and in truth I suspect my ‘meanness of being’ here is levelled entirely at last week’s simple situation: that is, the asking of this particular boy to please catch up with the rest of the crowd, as he pushed his bike along during our short walk back from school to the playground. I’d asked him two or three times and he blanked me each time. The last time I asked him, he turned around and told me firmly: ‘Will you stop directing me?!’ There. That was me told!

What troubles me here is, despite our best intentions, small things such as these can stick in children’s minds (I certainly remember plenty of small things about various adults from my own childhood). Small things stick. Just as there’s a ‘halo effect’ in psychology (whereby one positive trait in a person can serve to improve the perception of all of his or her other traits), there is the negative ‘devil effect’: here, one perceived flaw in personality can serve to taint everything else, no matter what, of that person perceived. I wonder if there’s any remedying of this one situation for me and this child. Generally, I think I’m hardened to it all, but actually I’m probably still soft in the centre!

It’s worth noting, if only in passing, that an hour later, the boy in question — left somewhat high and dry in his play interactions by accident, by a colleague, who was engaged in some form of chase-tap play with him and others before being diverted away — suddenly declared me the play ‘monster’ (I was the nearest adult), and he screamed at a pitch to wake the dolphins! Off he ran and off I ran after him because it was necessary, apparently.

I don’t really know what my meanness is or was with him. Perhaps I never will. What remains is the truth that is ‘children affect us in many ways’, and the danger that, if not checked by careful reflection, it could become an unconsciously self-fulfilling prophecy. This ‘children affect us’ statement goes deeper than just ‘happy, sad, amused, frustrated, fearful’. I direct my students, in the first instance, towards Playwork Principle 7: ‘Playworkers recognise their own impact on the play space and also the impact of children and young people’s play on the playworker’.

Why is it that we feel the way we feel when children tell us (or their friends) something ‘true’ to them about us? We put a lot of physical and mental time and energy into what becomes their opportunities to play. Is there an undertow of ‘how ungrateful’ here? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think the children truly know how much thinking, talking, resourcing, sometimes hand-wringing, certainly focused beer-drinking, and so forth goes into ‘this play session on the playground’. Even now, as I write in a notebook (ready for typing up later) I’m sitting thinking, concerned about play, in the pub! No, children don’t get all that, and why should they? So, if that all passes them by, why should we expect gratitude for it?

Perhaps we feel the way we feel when children tell us that we’re ‘mean’, or whatever they feel, because we’re caught unawares by how different children can perceive the same ‘us’ in unexpected ways. Over the years I’ve got used to children seeing the ‘unusualness’ of me in their play settings: many’s the time I’ve caught the vibe from individual children, or small groups, along the lines not of ‘who is that?’, rather ‘what is that?’! I don’t take offence by this: I find it quite amusing. Sometimes it comes down to simply being a man in the room; sometimes it’s more along the lines of ‘What, a man with long hair and a beard? I don’t get it’; sometimes it’s ‘What, a man, a man with long hair and a beard who’s sitting on the floor and who doesn’t mind me sticking my tongue out at him?!’ It’s usually all good. Children have often drifted over to me in play settings I’m just visiting, asking me if I’m a boy or a girl, or have squinted at me from a short distance before deciding something like ‘He’s alright’ and either offering me a token gift or their entire life histories.

This week I was also at a play setting, visiting a student (a place I’d been to several times before) and a small girl just came over to me, offering me cardboard cake and so forth, whilst others obviously ‘knew’ me in their heads, waving and telling me what my name was. Plenty of other times I’ve been to play settings just the once and I get automatic life histories, glue spread on my arms, or ultra-focused vibes of ‘you’ll do’.

However, I’m not used to children saying things to their friends, as overheard, that I’m mean. It just knocked me a little. You know? What can I do about this? How can we resolve a perception of ourselves when we have no definite knowledge of its origin? It’s like plugging a hole when we don’t know where the hole is.

In such situations we could easily just dismiss it, or brood on it for days. We can double our efforts at providing for all the children’s play needs and preferences, or we could settle and write about it. Maybe the thing we can’t actually affect by design and plan is how certain children feel about us. We can do everything we can to be the best we can be for individuals and for the group as a whole, but we can’t legislate for the ‘taste of the moment’, ‘flavour of the day’, how this play turns out to play through us. Maybe it’s all we can know that we are differently perceived by every individual child, and so we need to be aware of the thirty different versions of us, for the thirty different children, say, present on any given day.

It’s all we can know that we’re differently perceived: the ‘authentic’ definitive us is not enough. Maybe.


Ten (ish) commandments of playwork: offers for thinking about

For the people of a playwork persuasion out there, I offer up a first draft addition to the well-worn Playwork Principles (they that shall be followed, and not scrutinised: the Holy Scripture as it were), which I shall provisionally call ‘The Ten Commandments of Playwork’. (OK, so the list is longer than this, but ten is a whole number, see!) We can be a bit of a closed shop in playwork circles (and this post may or may not go some way towards perpetuating that; you decide). So if it gets the non-playworkers of the world thinking ‘what is this guy talking about?’, also good, but really the ‘Ten’ Commandments list is looking at where we’re at in this field of work with children, and maybe parts of where we could be at, but mostly just asking for a little more thinking from playwork and potential playwork people (in the spirit of continuing to examine what’s real on the playground and what’s just theory).

If you’re reading (as a regular non-playwork reader here, or if you’ve just stumbled across this blog), advanced apologies for some of the ‘in-house’ jargon and references to the acknowledged luminaries of playwork. (Hence I prove my point on closed-shop-ness, but you’ll find out about ‘the names’ if you want to). So, to the Commandments (unaccustomed as I am to the use of capital letters dead smack in the middle of sentences, this capital letter here seemed appropriate):
1. Thou shalt know the Playwork Principles in spirit, if not by heart.
2. Thou shalt not commit adulteration.
3. Thou shalt believe wholly in Saint Bob of Hughes.
4. Thou shalt walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbourly playground’s loose parts.
6. Thou shalt know not of the ‘circle of play’ (as spoken by pretend believers) but of the ‘play cycle’.
7. Thou shalt be recalcitrant.
8. Thou shalt challenge and be challenged.
9. Thou shalt not lie with dishonesty about thy feelings on play.
10. Thou shalt be observant.
11. Thou shalt not encourage ‘play nicely’, ‘share toys’, good citizenship, or practising fine motor skills.
12. Thou shalt be excellent to one another (dude!): reference Bill and Ted, those of such notable age!

(And lo, some other stuff too!)

So, discuss.
1. Thou shalt know the Playwork Principles in spirit, if not by heart

These Principles are still the cornerstone of what we do, getting on for ten years old now in their present form, but ask most playwork students who are a good halfway through their course what the Principles are and I’m willing to bet that they’re not totally up to speed with them. Maybe, as trainers of the discipline (or whatever we like to call ourselves) we’d be wrong to impose a Michael Gove-style rote-learning of the Principles on our learners (by pain of the promise of extra lines, chalk dust, and red ink scrawled in wallpaper-decorated exercise books: ‘see me after class’). Can any qualified playworker cite the Holy Scripture of the Principles word for word? (No looking now: only you know, and you’d only be cheating yourself if you were to lie).

So, if a playwork student or a post studentdom playworker can’t (or won’t) quote the Principles verbatim, is it too much to expect them to know what they mean in spirit? Shouldn’t they at least be able to reduce it down to numbers? Principle number 1 is roughly about this, Principle 2 is something along the lines of . . . and so on. Or is that too difficult? Maybe there should just be a rough idea of the fact that the Principles exist, that by and large they’re a good thing (maybe), and that we don’t really need to pay too much attention to them in the ‘real world’ of the playground or after school setting. After all, we can get our qualification, much like our spanking by the irregular and feared Mr or Mrs Ofsted, then we can forget all about it. Can’t we?
2. Thou shalt not commit adulteration

Now, in the ‘real world’ doesn’t children’s play get ‘adulterated’ all the time? That is, adults exist in amongst the things that children do (in the physical spaces, in the psychological and emotional zones that develop around the playing child or children), so maybe we should just all accept that and realise that children are much better off with adult instruction (being for their own good in the long run, after all) . . . OK, regular readers here know I can’t go on with that line of thinking. I can only go so far in a certain direction when playing Devil’s Advocate! If I’m thinking on this seriously, I do often reflect back on my own work with children and wonder if my actions are a hindrance, or something other, for them. Children do sometimes ask for direct adult input into their play (including, but not limited to, ideas and so forth) . . . I’m on thin scriptural ice here. This needs more thinking about.
3. Thou shalt believe wholly in Saint Bob of Hughes

Playwork people: just because Bob’s been around since play began (a few epochs before the invention of gravity), it doesn’t mean he can’t be challenged. I’m pretty sure he’d welcome that. Bob has written some good playwork stuff (‘good’ because no-one’s out-trumped his play types thinking yet, for example), but surely you can only ‘believe’ if you also ‘do’, and so then come to the conclusion that your ‘doing’ matches what the ‘scriptures’ say. Right? If they don’t match, then don’t believe, but say it and say why. Basically what I’m trying to say here is, in using Bob as vehicle for an argument: too many playwork people blindly follow too many other playwork people.
4. Thou shalt walk the walk as well as talk the talk

If you’re thinking about playwork and calling yourself a playworker, it follows that you’re doing playwork, right? Clean soft hands, undirtied and unpaint-stained clothes, focused only on the vast amounts of money pouring in at the end of the month (in playwork? Right!) . . . you talk it well in your studies, but maybe that study ought to connect more to the mud- and paint- and rain- and glue- and gob-spattered reality of the playground.
5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbourly playground’s loose parts

Does it really matter that the children down the road are lavished with all sorts of wondrous objects with which they can investigate those objects’ inner lives (the standard sports equipment prevalent in many after school facilities might once or twice get used as something else). You have a whole heap of things that children can build with, horde away, destroy and throw around. Machine guns and swords might happen, or things that could even challenge playworkers . . .

There are two arguments here in the reality of the playground: that not enough variety of random ‘stuff’ is on offer for children; that actually, contrary to scripture that harks back to the building sites of the 70s and before, children also like playing with little plastic things. I know, I don’t like that thought because it rattles the ‘odds and sods’ part of my playworker self, but it happens. Hmm. Is it because the staff aren’t thinking hard enough, or is it because we think we know best what children want to play with?
6. Thou shalt know not of the ‘circle of play’ (as spoken by pretend believers) but of the ‘play cycle’

Saint Sturrock and Saint Else once penned the Book of Psycholudics. And lo, it was written that, after the metaphorical equivalent of forty days and forty nights in the desert, the Book of Psycholudics withered to its easily digestible ‘just the play cycle bit’. And lo more, it came to pass that, somehow, along the road to Damnation, the ‘just the play cycle bit’ fell further into disrepute by way of transcription into playwork course literature and by the watering down of many a playwork trainer (some of which came from the land of Early Years and didn’t always grasp it fully) . . . basically, I’m fed up of the process that seems to have passed from a fairly hefty academic paper to some student’s work that has turned it all into just a ‘circle of play’.

If we have playwork literature, should we just accept that, like language, it gets transformed into what’s out there on the street rather than what’s in the books? Or should we be striving for the Govian ‘slap them round the back of the head with a wet towel until they get it’ compulsory learning approach?
7. Thou shalt be recalcitrant

Can you really be a playworker if you don’t have at least one finger up to ‘the system’? How does that tally with all the checks and balances and hoops-jumping of the modern play ‘setting’?
8. Thou shalt challenge and be challenged

If you’re not thinking, you’re just drifting. Is that a good thing in today’s society of endless over-stimulation, pressures, targets, and Michael Gove? (Or Ofsted, or the boss, or your playwork assessor, or any other given hassle you have). Wouldn’t it just be a good thing all round if you were just drifting? You’d be happier; the children you work with would be happier not to have such a grim fairy as you moping round the place when you’re on your off day; your colleagues wouldn’t have to put up with your bad hair days, your bad boss days, your ‘today is not your lucky day’ days . . .

Or, maybe thinking about what’s going on about play can be a stimulation in itself . . .
9. Thou shalt not lie with dishonesty about thy feelings on play

Let’s face it, it’s easier not to have to tell yourself what you really think about when the children are charging around with sharp sticks, smacking the little ones in the face just because they can, kicking their mates on the sly and then saying ‘What, what? It wasn’t me. I was just standing here’, even though you watched them from five yards away. If we just didn’t own up to ourselves we wouldn’t have to own up to anybody else. Things would happen, we’d sort them out, we’d go home. Job done.

Job done . . .?
10. Thou shalt be observant

Why? What can we possibly gain from watching the way the children play on the playground? I mean, surely, everything they can get up to they already have done? What good will watching it all again do us? I will be honest with myself here (and with you) by confessing to the thought that is: have I seen everything now? What can I learn from what’s happening here?

It soon often goes though, that thought: observing, you see, is a reward in itself. It’s like play for the player: if play is for play’s sake, observing can sometimes be like this. Observing rewards by grounding the observer in the moment. You’ll have to walk the walk for yourself on that one though.
11. Thou shalt not encourage ‘play nicely’, ‘share toys’, good citizenship, or practising fine motor skills

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it till I get bored of it: what does ‘play nicely’ mean? Really. So this is all about adult agendas and not about play, as played by the child, for the child’s own reasons (standard playwork scripture). What if I were to try to be Devil’s Advocate here though? What if ‘play nicely’ (whatever that turns out to be), sharing your toys, a religious practising of fine motor skills, and so forth, actually do turn out to make you good citizens in a perfect future society? Just think, no more war, no more greedy capitalism, no more crime . . . it’ll be great. Hang on, how long has this ‘let’s build perfect future citizens’ thinking been kicking about . . .? Are we there yet . . .? Cynical? Me? Nah. (Not much).
12. Thou shalt be excellent to one another (dude!): reference Bill and Ted, those of such notable age!

This is not about good future citizenship: this is just a suggestion for being, now. (No future perfect progress rhetoric intended here). Be excellent to the children though, even if all else fails. Why? Well, because you can. Or because you could.

You decide (though I hope you’ll just give it a little thought).

The long dark tea-time of the search term (or, backstage at the playwork blog gig)

There’s much to entertain the WordPress blogger backstage of his or her own blog. A few days ago, I found myself leafing through the long list of search engine terms that unknown people had plugged in to their screens, landing eventually on this blog. Really, I recommend the exercise: it’s quite cathartic in its own way! As I read I thought: there’s plenty here for me to write about, albeit something that might end up somewhat lengthy.

So, there follows a selection from backstage. I’ve copied and pasted them word for word — save for a few spelling, punctuation and grammar corrections here and there, because it’s my blog and I have a need to do that! I’ve also reserved the right to re-write ‘children’ where people have written ‘kids’ because children aren’t baby goats, and I’ve long been of the opinion that using this term is somewhat patronising. Likewise you’ll never, ever read or hear me use the words ‘zany’ or ‘whacky’ (at all, except here!) and especially not linked to anything to do with children. I digress.

When reading this backstage list, it struck me that I could pretty much roughly sort things into general categories. So, here goes. We have:

• the top repeated searches;
• the (perceived as) sensible play and playwork questions, in the spirit of reflective thinking;
• the category I’m calling, for now, WTF?;
• the esoteric, that is, the somewhat obscure;
• the dodgy study skills of some playwork learners list (I also teach it, so I know some of the things that are asked of them).

If you’re a regular reader/play and playwork search engine user, and if you’ve entered any of these phrases, I don’t know who you are: so, rest assured (though you know who you are!) It’s not my intention to alienate; I write later in the spirit of playful poke!
The top searches list

A lot of playwork people are looking for one of the following, judging by the search engine terms here on this site: psycholudics and/or the play cycle; the Playwork Principles; Bob Hughes and the Play Types (I deliberately write it like that because it sounds like some sort of Bluegrass quartet to me!); UK age discrimination; that cartoon from Calvin and Hobbes (you know the one, my favourite, Calvin whacking nails into a coffee table!)

I’m not going to write all sections of this post in this way, but this first one gets this treatment for those who are truly looking for the above and who find their way here.

For all things Psycholudics/Play Cycle go to Ludemos to read what Perry Else and Gordon Sturrock say about their own writings.

The Playwork Principles can be found via Play Wales (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, 2005), amongst other places.

Bob Hughes and his infamous play types can be found in various books (though always check anything you find against the source material (i.e. the Taxonomy, listed below, second edition of the 1996 original) because some sources make mistakes in describing some of the play types. The following I know are all good:

A playworker’s taxonomy of play types, 2nd edition: Bob Hughes (2002) — try this connection to Playlink.

The first claim: a framework for playwork quality assessment: Bob Hughes (2001)

Play types: speculations and possibilities: Bob Hughes (2006)

Reflective playwork: Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood (2010)

Or go here re: PlayEducation, a site I’ve just found — though I do know of PlayEd — where Bob’s keeping his head down, judging by the site address! (To paraphrase Bob in a personal communication, about play types, once engaged in with him: ‘I wish I hadn’t written the bloody things’ — or words to that effect!)

As a side note, judging by the search engine terms in this long list backstage, it almost seems as if playwork, as a thing in itself, has been reduced down solely to a rough amalgam of ‘play types, the play cycle (or psycholudics for those who are feeling brave), and a smattering of the Playwork Principles’. There’s more to it than just that. Or, as I’ve often been told when I try to explain what I do to the man in the pub, who stares at me before breaking into a smile of almost comprehension: so, you play with children then?/so you teach children how to play? Right, OK.

As a second side note, I always find it a little disturbing when casting my eye over job adverts for playworkers or playwork managers. They nearly always state that they’re looking for someone to provide for ‘safe, stimulating planned activities for children’, or words like this, then follow that up with a reference to the Playwork Principles. It shows me that the setting in question doesn’t get it.

Of the other two items on the top searches, here’s my take on UK age discrimination, and that cartoon for your amusement and viewing pleasure (and mine) is here.

OK, so with the useful mains now done, we move on. I may come back to the next block sometime for a post of its own, I think; though I’ll make brief comment here for now:
The sensible questions list

Q: Playwork Level 3: you overhear a 7 year old say to another child, go away.
A: So? We’re not here to tell Child A or Child B how to be.

Q: Early years vs playwork debate.
A: There’s a whole blog or three in this one. I’ve worked in both fields. If there are focuses in early years for giving children a good grounding for upcoming years, there are focuses in playwork for the now. It’s much wider than this though.

Q: What it means to be a children’s playworker.
A: The way this is worded suggests to me that I, playworker, belong to the children. It allows me to offer up a favourite quote: ‘I’m here to serve you, but I’m not your servant.’

Q: Children’s effect on adults.
A: You mean ‘affect’? It links to Playwork Principle number 7 and how children really can affect our feelings. ‘Effect’ refers to a result, a change. (Or, maybe, inadvertently, ‘effect’ does come into play, after all).

Q: What is [it] like as a playworker[?]
A: Only you know this if you work with children (see also immediately above).

Q: Role of the adult recapitulative play.
A: Here’s Bob and his Infamous Play Types again! To answer a sort of question with a question in return: What’s the role of an adult in any play?

Q: Physical contact and rough and tumble play towards male playwork practitioners.
A: This is something we all need to talk about more. Children, in my experience and observation, can often interact with male and female playworkers in different ways. Is it OK? Is that the question? Or, is the question more along the lines of: What should we do about it?/How do we avoid it?

Q: Bargaining with a two year old.
A: Yep, good luck! Here’s my take: Negotiating with two year olds, or how to get unstuck from recurring Escher loops.

Q: Playworker teaching children right from wrong.
A: This playworker is not a teacher (of children). I try (though I sometimes fail) not to let my own morals concern the children I work with.

Q: What don’t playworkers do[?]
A: Teach, moralise, control children, plan endless activities, socialise children, etc. Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood have a useful list (p.7 of their book, see above).

Q: What can cause a negative effect on the playworker when planning activities[?]
A: Affect or effect? What can cause a negative affect on the playworker when planning activities? Planning activities.

Q: Adult play places.
A: This rock we all live on . . .

Q: What would you do as a[n] LSA when a child is being aggressive and you felt other children were in danger?
A: I’m not a learning support assistant, but I know some people who are. I’ll find out what they say. In general though, I’d say: do what needs to be done; be dynamic, be playful; don’t be a jobsworth . . . and some other things.

Q: When should a playworker pay extra attention to one child[?]
A: Do you observe the child, the playing child, the playing children, the play in the space, any or none of the above?

Q: Ways in which playworkers plan and prepare spaces for play.
A: With consideration of moments . . .
The WTF? list

Q: Jumping over objects in the sandpit for pre-schoolers.
A: Yes, and the point is? Sandpits also function as playable spaces when used in different spatial/imaginative realms by children.

Q: [Well-known playwork person, name with-held here] master playworker.
A: I’m reminded of Arthur’s blog piece, The craft of playwork #3: mastery of playwork or masters in playwork? (revised). He highlights Malcolm Gladwell who, it appears, builds from the work of Anders Ericsson and the 10,000 hours rule (being that which is needed, apparently, to practice the mastery of something). I’m currently of the opinion that there are plenty out there who might like to see themselves as masters of playwork, but really, do any of us ever reach that perfect point of playwork enlightenment?

Master playworker? No. We all keep cocking up (though we should understand that we do, and how, and why, and so on). The first to say he or she has entered the realm of Playwork Nirvana, or claims mastery of the form, is probably trying to sell you something. Let the children on the playground decide.

Q: I got a job as a playworker . . . but now I want to change my profession; when can I do that[?]
A: I want to be pithy and snide here, but I’ve thought about this more: being a playworker isn’t for everyone. Truly being a playworker takes someone who’s accepting of a lot of emergent play material that manifests around them. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable; often it’s momentous.

Q: Teaching kindergarteners [the] concept of wisdom.
A: Again, good luck! Seriously though, really I don’t get this. It’s contradictory.

Q: I just found a small snake on the pavement in the UK what is it[?]
A: Umm, a small snake, perhaps? Really (think also ‘dodgy study skills list’). This might seem random but this person landed on this blog because of this post.

Q: A playworker is more than a gentlemand oh his knees [sic].
A: I leave this one exactly as I found it because I really don’t know how to edit it! Suffice is to say that, yes, I agree about the ‘playworker and his knees’ conundrum.

Q: Is it dangerous for [children] to play in leaves[?]
A: No. Next question. Or, ask yourself the following additional questions: Is there an adder in the leaves? Are the leaves concealing an open man-hole cover? Do you keep leaf-dwelling crocodiles in your playground? Generally speaking, autumn happens, and children + wind + leaves = play. Observe.

Q: Is the play cycle the same as play cycle[?]
A: Umm, yes. (Think also ‘dodgy study skills list’). Really. Again.

Q: Where did Gordon Sturrock and Perry Else meet[?]
A: Good question. Gordon? Perry? Anyone? Or, why do you need to know?

Q: The psycholudics.
A: Does the definite article (that’s the ‘the’) suggest that this search term is about that as-yet-unsigned punk-rock trio The Psycholudics? (Bob and his Infamous Play Types don’t have much to trouble their market share there).

Q: Can you get bugs from children as a playworker[?]
A: This is the funniest thing I’ve read all week. Really. My answer is: maybe (though I have a theory that some of us have natural immunity due to having been around children for long enough!) My additional question though is: Why? Are you planning a health and safety sting on your employer or something?
The esoteric list

Q: Three guys sitting around drinking coffee.
A: Yes, sometimes coffee happens in playwork. It helps the observation skills, I find (whilst Mars Bars and Lucozade — other stimulants are available — tend to help in lieu of proper food on the playground).

Q: Playworker magic.
A: It is, a kind of, if you get it right.

Q: Adult play with cack.
A: I take ‘cack’ here as referring to the vernacular that is ‘junk, stuff, things left lying around, etc.’ So, yes, why not? Hands up all those who’ve been students and who did the student thing with the traffic cones late at night . . . you know the one . . .

Q: Mystical words to make things happen.
A: Abracadabra? Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy? Meeska Mooska Mickey Mouse? How about: let’s play?

Q: We used to have fart competitions.
A: I salute you, sir or madam. I do!
The dodgy study skills list

Q: What would I do if a child is new to a setting, knows no other children, and sticks to the playworker like glue[?]
A: Methinks this playwork learner has taken the bulk of something they’ve been asked to do and planted it straight into the search engine box because I recognise that glue part from somewhere! The key here is ‘what would I do . . .?’ I don’t know, what would you do? I know what I would do and have done.

Q: Observation at play, which include[s] play types, returns, cue and playworker interaction.
A: Now don’t be so lazy here. Write your own observation of play that you’ve seen. It works better that way.

Q: I’m a playworker: I have to write about a boy in my settings [sic] like what he does there.
A: Go on then, crack on. Don’t expect me to do it for you. If you don’t observe, you won’t see, and if you don’t see you won’t start to feel or understand.

Q: How to write about snow playing.
A: To misquote Morpheus, he of the Matrix: stop trying to write about snow play and write about snow play. Observe. See things.

Q: Own memories of play to use in playwork.
A: Umm . . . no, I’m not even going there.

White City stories: part 14

Continuing the stories from my recent after school sessions playworking week at White City Adventure Playground, London.
Come down at the end of the week

Friday is much calmer than ‘Mad Thursday’. Before the children arrive we think more on the space. The boxes are piled away (perhaps they were a catalyst for some of yesterday’s wild play), as are the plastic grass strips which the children use as a kind of playfighting arena. We’ve cleared out the room where the art stuff is kept, ready for some units to go in next week, and we’ve left an old metal storage cabinet in the main room — not specifically as a play object, just out of the way. Hassan chops wood in preparation for the possibility of a fire. When the children come they seem calmer. Maybe it’s the group dynamic, maybe it’s the way the space is today. I don’t know.

There’s some chase play going on. M. (a boy, not M. the Catholic girl!) immediately finds the plank that Rich has left on the tyres. M. takes it away and soon enough he’s trying to bang it into a wooden post with a hammer and a long screw he’s found. I go bring him some long nails, which he accepts. He finds it difficult to get through the wood still though. After a while he tells me, ‘I’ve had enough of that now.’

Inside, the children have found the metal cabinet and they climb in two at a time. Others shut the door. Others bang on top of it by climbing up onto another smaller cabinet. This play goes on and around for quite a while. I’m walking in and out, and every time I come in there’s a group of children doing this: this is an accidental play resource.

Hassan brings some mod-roc out and some of the children get into this. Others are keen on using the computers. Later Rich starts off a small fire in the mud area of the planters outside. He doesn’t call out for children to come over. One or two take note and come over when they want to. He stands back. Others come and go.

Fire play I

Fire play II
There’s no playfighting that I can see today, though M. and J. have a conversation, whilst banging the plank into the post, about yesterday: ‘Do you remember that fighting yesterday?’; ‘Yeh, it was brilliant.’ Little fish A. is playing football with me and Ja. and another child. A. moans to me that Ja. has pushed him as they go in for a tackle together. I tell A. that football’s a contact sport and he should man up. Later, as I’m poking around at the fire, I find it amusing as I hear Ja. tell A. during more football: ‘Hey, A., just like Joel said, man up!’

The chase play is a constant play theme of the week. The children make up ‘time outs’ and the standard ‘homey’ is the roundabout. I hear them say, behind me when I’m far enough away in the chase don’t catch, ‘OK, time in.’ Six or seven children pile onto homey and I spin them, as I did the other day (a day where we talked at the roundabout about going so fast they might throw up). I tell them it’s ‘puke day’ but I can’t spin them fast at all. One of the older girls says ‘it’s rubbish’, but she says it playfully.
In conclusion

In concluding the stories of my latest week at the playground, in these after school sessions: sure, this is different in some ways to the open access holidays, but there are still a lot of positives that can be drawn from the way things are here. Children come in straight from school and there are always going to be transitions from one environment to another for them to go through. The children are free to play though.

There’s no rigid structure that could oppress the children or contribute to a build-up of stress (as I’ve seen in many other after school facilities). There are stressful times here, for the adults and for the children alike, just as there may be at many other after school places; however, for the most part, the children’s use of the space suggests that this is their space and maybe we adults have to find coping strategies.

There are pockets of ‘things to do’ but these are very far from rigid adult-led ‘activities’: children come and go or ignore as they see fit. Food time, similarly, isn’t a specific rigid arrangement. Food comes out and children get it or make it when they’re ready. Playworkers remind children that it’s available. Children eat it where they like. It’s all a lot more stress-free this way.

At the end of the week, we’re tired though. If anyone thinks this work is easy, perhaps they’re not doing it right! There are some challenging aspects to some of the children’s play — though ‘challenging’ is, of course, a subjective term, individual to each adult. I was challenged by not knowing some of the children’s abilities and sensibilities with, for example, use of a power drill, playfighting spilling over into aggression, etc. My colleagues had other challenges like observing multiple playfight play frames, children banging on the metal cabinet, some children’s antagonisms of others.

We talked about these things, as colleagues, before, during and after the session, informally. The children have fluid arrangements of issues with one another, sometimes with staff, sometimes with school escorts or with school staff. This, I think, is to be expected in environments where many people are jammed together. The key to working with children in this playwork way is, perhaps, listening, accepting our own feelings, accepting the children for who they are on any given day, and knowing that — whatever day today has been, excellent or challenging — tomorrow is another day.
February at White City APG

White City stories: part 13

Continuing the stories from my recent after school sessions playworking week at White City Adventure Playground, London.
Mad Thursday

Rich tells me that Thursdays can be a little hectic. It’s the group dynamics and the presence of certain individuals, no doubt. There seems to be a high level of energy today as soon as they start to come into the building from their various schools. The doors are open to the playground but a lot of the children choose to kick around inside to start with. All the boxes are out (when a new box arrives during the day, from food deliveries or the like, it gets emptied and thrown on the pile). It’s not long before the boxes are getting trashed by the children though. Some children are stamping on them and waving them around. Some children are throwing them and tearing polystyrene chunks apart. We usher these children outside, scooping up armfuls of boxes as we go. I figure that that destructive play will be better suited out there. Somehow, and initially, there’s less adult anxiety (or maybe it’s just me) with this sort of play in the relatively uncontained space outside. The boys run around with the boxes, using them to crash into on the slide and as shields and fighting instruments.

Inside, two girls are waving pool cues around in a wide arc. It’s not aimless; rather it’s a sort of playfight without touching. There’s an edginess building in the whole group. One of the boys seems to be in the middle of all the playfighting. I’m watching, watching all the time because I think this could spill over anywhere at any time. Soon there’s plenty of playfighting going on all over the playground.

Two of the boys are fine, I think, because M. is on top of J. but he seems to be self-regulating his strength, and J. isn’t angry — he even seems to be happy with being set upon; A. and C. are younger and smaller, close friends, darting in and out and teasing others: little fish nibbling at the sharks. Here’s Ja. (I use this abbreviation because Ja. is central to pretty much everything today!) Ja. snaps a few times and it’s not easy to be certain if his play is play or if it’s aggression, at times, and whether to intervene or not. The playfighting tumbles around the playground and I find I’m positioning myself far enough away so as not to be intrusive, close enough just in case, and able to see in three or four directions at once, to see all the pockets building up.

Where possible, the staff swap around. I’m always on my feet, except for one two-minute spell, earlier, where I grab a plate of pasta and sit down on the wooden rocking contraption, outside on this cold February afternoon, wrapped up in coat, scarf, hat, gloves, to eat and observe over the playground: Hassan is with a group of children on the football court; one or two children are occupied on the playground; others are inside. I feel in the moment in my playwork practice.

The playfighting bubbles on. Some children get clattered, some get angry, some keep teasing. Once or twice we have to step in, calm things: the edginess, the very edge, the good edge, has spilled over. Some girls are inside in the room where all the art stuff is kept. They’re hyper too! They’ve found the lumps of clay we left out (not an ‘activity’ as such, just things to find and do with). I’m moving indoors (always moving, always on my feet on one of my sweeps round. I see the girls throwing the clay around and they say straight away that Hassan said they could. I’ve got know way of knowing what was said or what wasn’t: either way, the girls are enjoying their play and I know, right here and now, that no harm’s being done. It’s an instant appraisal of the situation. Similarly, when M. (one of the girls) stands on a chair, on the edge of it, and two other girls stand up on the table to try to stick clay to the ceiling, I suggest they maybe ought to get down. It’s not because I have a problem with the play, as such; it’s because the dynamic in-the-moment risk assessment in my head is telling me that these girls are hyper, dancing around, and they may only get more hyper and may not be able to see the slip hazard of the plastic sheeting on the table. (Perhaps, for similar reasons, I would also have suggested getting down if there were no sheeting — I was focused on their mood and actions. I don’t know!)

All this happens in a moment; the same moment, co-incidentally, as Rich tapping on the window from outside. Maybe he hasn’t seen me at first, but a mutual independent understanding that ‘this is the time’ seems to happen (as it does outside when we observe some playfighting, talking about edginess possibly overspilling and if/when to intervene, and both deciding at the same time that ‘this is the time’).

Later, I pass back near the room where the girls are playing and overhear M. talking with a boy. All the children in there are playing with the clay at the table and M. is saying to him, ‘It’s a good job I’m a Catholic or I’d mess you up!’ (by which she means she’d physically hurt him — though it’s a playful conversation!) I don’t go in the room. Later still, I see M. using the broom in a brief weapon-play way, a way without touching, and I don’t see who she speaks to (it happens so quickly, maybe there is no-one else) but she says, ‘I’m gonna fuck you up!’, again playfully, which also amuses me!

Ja. is playfighting on the plastic grass strips outside and with his sister and M. and another boy near the end of the session. He isn’t aggressive during this play: maybe it’s the presence of the girls, or the non-presence of A. and C. (who tease him, little fish as they are), or both. The four children tumble around together. I sit on the tyre swing to observe. When there’s just J. and M. left I think about the apparently innocent grappling and the ‘just playing for the sake of it’. They laugh and get the better of one another and really seem to be enjoying their play. Ja. has had a difficult session and he’s settled at last. He stands up soon enough and says to no-one in particular, perhaps to M., perhaps to me (I haven’t been acknowledged as observing up till that point) that she’s got him ‘in the private parts’. He repeats it, then goes into what I think of as a bizarre sort of posturing dance — after belching a couple of times — a posturing like he’s acting out being a flamingo with angled out hands up by his head! It’s almost like some sort of primitive display of manliness, I think, there and then — a sudden shift from apparently innocent grappling to potential flirting or a show of coming of age. These are just my interpretations, and they’re over in a few seconds, but it’s interesting to see the shift all the same.

to be continued . . .

White City stories: part 12

Continuing the stories from my recent after school sessions playworking week at White City Adventure Playground, London.

In between being invited into football (‘be the goalie’) and more ‘chase don’t tap’, the next day, I sit on the bench outside, wrapped up warm, and observe a fluid arrangement of children as they gradually build a den under one of the platforms. They drag over bits of things they find: a log, two plastic moulded shapes that used to belong to something, things to sit on, a long cardboard tube they find, bits of plastic guttering, a wooden rocking contraption, like a boat, that one of the children and I had dragged up to the path slope because she reckoned it would slide down, even though I reckoned it wouldn’t beat the friction. I observe the children gradually finding things for the den, and I think of the activity of Wombles!

Wombles' den
Drilling holes just to make holes

Hassan is with a boy at the bench, and the boy has a lump of wood and a power drill. The child is drilling holes part way through the wood: just drilling, process over product. I watch from nearby and then take over supporting the boy when Hassan is called away. I find I have to make constant reappraisals of my comfort level here in my dynamic risk assessment. I don’t know the child or his skills or awareness levels. I remind him a couple of times about not waving the drill around (a younger child has come to watch too, and there are also my eyes to watch out for!). He gets the drill stuck a couple of times, but he works out how to back it up with the button on. Soon enough I see that he’s OK, but I feel I also need to remind him once or twice to watch his fingers. He and the girl then take it in turns to drill through a cardboard tube they find. This is all contained by the children, but I find myself just a little on edge, if I’m honest.
A brief account of adult-child play forming

Later, children are chalking on the paving slabs. This is another of those joint adult-child experiences forming: a younger girl and I draw cats and fish and a shark, copying one another. She takes it on herself to draw fish bubbles. Later, I come back and other children are block-colouring in the shark.
Amusements of bodily functions

It’s Wednesday and I go into the computer room near the end of the session. Two children start typing various words into ‘Google image’. I stay just to see. They don’t seem to pay me any undue attention as they type ‘poo’ and ‘wee’ and ‘fart’ and talk about these things and about the pictures they find. They gross out at drawings of piles of poo! I stay just in case some images might not be suitable. The children aren’t looking for such things though: they’re looking for poo and wee and farts!
Loose food experiments

Earlier, a girl of about 9 or 10 wants some pure orange juice which is left over from tea. There are cartons on the counter. I say ‘help yourself’, so she does — three cupfuls, and it has an effect! It’s like a sugar rush (I didn’t realise there would be sugar in it like this!) and she bounces around inside and outside. She finds some old football netting and wraps herself up in it. She’s extremely fizzy. She and her two friends are laughing and she’s falling over and picking herself up and laughing out loud. She makes out she’s hurt and hides from her friends on the cushions in the store area. I go to see if she’s OK and she says not to let on and to tell the others she’s hurt. I say I won’t lie for her!

Rich and I had decided we’d do tea a little differently. Food time is fairly loose anyway — children come when they’re ready, make use of the kitchen, as far as I can see, use the serving counter. We decide we’ll just get all the food out and put it on the table tennis table so the children can make it themselves out there. A younger girl wants to help me get the stuff out (I said I’d sort the food out today). So I give her packets of crackers to take over, tomatoes, juice cartons, cups and plates, mayo and salad cream, bread. As the children start to come over (they don’t get stopped in their play; they just notice when food’s out or, if they don’t, one of us will say it’s ready when they are, as we move around the spaces), they’re a little unsure to start with. They soon work out that they should do it themselves though. They ask for jam, so I go find that. I’ve forgotten the cheese, so I bring out a big slab. There’s no problem at all with the food being done this way. Children make what they want and go off to eat it where they want.

to be continued . . .

White City stories: part 11

I usually write every Friday, without fail. This week I have an excuse: the opportunity to return to White City, London arose — so, this jobbing playworker took that chance to work there again (this time in the after school sessions rather than in the open access holiday schemes). There will follow a series of stories focused on the children’s play there (they should be read in conjunction with Parts 1-10 from August 2012 at the open access summer schemes). I hand-wrote these stories in my notebook, as I went along. What I wanted to capture was the feel of these after school sessions, as opposed to the open access summer.

After school facilities in the UK vary a great deal. However, I’ve seen a fair amount of them in capacities such as trainer, assessor, consultant, quality assurance mentor, etc. In a lot of such after school facilities there do seem to be a fair amount of adult agendas going on. Sure, children’s parents are paying for the service and they want certain things in return for their money. However, there are ways and means of doing this. Rich is the manager of the play centre at White City and has a lot of balls to keep juggling. In my opinion, despite the inevitable challenges of working with children fresh out of school each day, and with children en mass in any circumstance, these after school sessions at White City have a lot going for them.

So, here are the stories from February. I write them as they come into my notebook (sometimes the writing flips between days, and I write the highs and the challenges because, to reflect effectively, we need to see it as it is).
Play spaces away from school

This is the space: outdoors there’s various playable stuff just lying around — tyres, bits of wood, lengths of plastic grass, tubs filled with water in the process of icing over, chalks, things to find (like cushions, fabrics, etc.), the remains of the fire pit in the old flower bed planter, fabric hung from trees and railings, things that had been played with and which are waiting to be played with again.

Just lying around
Indoors: a couple of tables dragged out with bits of old keyboards on them, a sofa, a pool table, table tennis table, football table, hot glue gun, bits of track, some papier maché, etc. In a room next door, during the session, the children pull out paints and lots of glitter and old bathroom tiles and they get on with whatever they’re getting on with. Monday, the table tennis and table football don’t get used, as far as I see.

We’ve pulled loads of boxes out from around the place (some had been brought over by Dougie, who will do some maintenance work). We pile the boxes in the main space, leave them. When children come in, a couple poke around the pile, not quite sure. I kick the sole of my foot against the boxes. The children get stuck in.

Box pile
Later, I come back and a house/castle/something has been built. Sharon (staff) has been sticking a large box down to the floor with masking tape: a door. Earlier, the children come in in dribs and drabs from the local school runs, walked back by escorts. They have the indoor space and the outdoor space to use (though I know Rich would prefer them to be mostly outside, as the open access scheme operates). I open the shutter to the playground area when we get back with the first eleven children.

It doesn’t take too long for some of the children to ask me to play ‘tap’ with them — though, just like in the summer, this is more a game of ‘chase don’t tap’ (they like to run and see if they can’t be caught). They call time-outs and ‘homey’ whenever I’m close. I’m aware of not getting too caught up in the play.

Food isn’t a sit down affair — children are free to take snacks and go eat them where they want and when they want. Staff go around the playground asking small groups if they’ve eaten yet.

Later, as the light fades, the children are in the playground and a group of five younger children are playing on the bank underneath the floodlight. I can’t hear them but I see that they’re just flopping around up there.
Accidental pizza

Me, Hassan, Rich and Sharon tend to take turns in wandering round the spaces, either indoors or outdoors, wherever we are, observing in each if there’s no adult near. It’s fluid. Indoors, two of the younger girls are playing in the box house/castle/shop/something. I don’t know what it is. One of them asks if I’ll come play. I knock on their box door and, when a girl answers it, I say, ‘Hello, can I have a pizza please?’ I immediately think whether this is strictly what the theory/literature takes as acceptable or not. I mean, this is me to have suggested/‘directed’ the play. I have been thinking recently though, in the back of my mind, what if parts of the theory aren’t as accurate or ‘real’ as they could be? What if what’s happening with today’s children is different to what others know/have seen/have written about?

I asked for pizza and part of me wondered if that was ‘right’ and part of me knew it was fine. Straight away, without blinking or questioning my right to impose on her play, the girl said, ‘OK, what would you like on your pizza?’ And so the play went on. My thinking is that this play frame took place at the end of the session (on my first day, Monday) and so the children had had time to get used to me. I was accepted. Of interest to me was that, the next day, without my direct sparking input, the girls ended up repeating and extending the play frame (building with the boxes and serving pizzas with a tennis racket and a polystyrene box) and going on to ask other children if they wanted ‘Nandos’ in small boxes they served them in. What are Nandos? I asked Rich. It’s a local chicken restaurant chain, he told me.

So, was my original input ‘wrong’? Or did my unplanned input (spontaneous, potentially and unconsciously hooking into the mindsets of two of the children) spark off two days of play? (Or, bits of those days at least).

to be continued . . .

This playworker’s work (or, for better SEO spreading of the word, what is playwork?)

It’s becoming clear to me that this is a period of great change. When we meet new people, we often ask (as a means of fixing one another with some reference point, some template to colour in), what do you do? The best answer I’ve come across (and I forget the source) is, I do the best I can. Telling people you’re a playworker, I find, often results in puzzled looks, or replies like, ‘So, you teach children?’ or maybe, ‘So, you teach children how to play?’ or anything along the lines of keeping children in line or out of ‘mischief’.

More and more these days, I’m realising that interaction in- and for the play world is my ‘vocation’ (something that inspires me); my ‘work’, however, is in advocating (call it ‘preaching’, if you will) for play. Playwork Principle 4 (for those readers not of the playwork world) highlights the need to advocate for play. There has been some debate, in that playwork world, as to whether this advocation is indeed for play or for playwork, i.e. playworkers justifying why they’re needed in order to get paid. My ‘work’, I’m finding, is not paid.

I talk with the man in the pub, family, work colleagues of family, the man or the woman I meet in the street, the mechanic, fellow writers, neighbours, friends, etc, about how play is play because it’s play. I talk about how agendas for early education, informal teaching in parenting, outdoor learning and opportunities for understanding about the world are all understood and appreciated in their own contexts; however, what about play for its own sake?

A Moroccan contact recently sent me links to video clips made by a children’s TV channel out there. The clips, Youssef tells me, show traditional Moroccan play as a reaction to the perception of lots of computer play (so, much the same debate as we have here in the UK). I’m ignoring the adult education agenda here though because I wanted to highlight the second half of the second clip, which shows a group of children skipping. Watching this I was thinking that, when children skip, they skip just to skip. They practise how to skip just in order to be able to skip. They don’t go into their skipping thinking about the social skills they might learn, or about their gross motor skills and muscle development, or how this practising will help them later in life. No, they practise skipping in order just to skip. They play for the sake of play.

I find I do this advocating (or teaching, or preaching, call it what you will) sometimes despite my better judgement. I recently enquired about a playworker role I saw advertised. They were asking for a Level 3 qualified (so, experienced) playworker (or, as they wrote, ‘play worker’, which bugs me because that small gap between the words has always, somehow, suggested to me that ‘playworker’ is not what they understand or want). The advert suggested that a person with QTS (qualified teacher status) would also be good. After several communications in my line of enquiry, I was told that I was considered to be ‘over qualified’.

What does this mean? Can a doctor be over qualified to diagnose patients? Can a lawyer be over qualified to practice law? Can a teacher, a nurse, a carpenter, a social worker be over qualified? What this phrase means, I suspect, is more along the lines of, ‘We’ve seen your type before, and we don’t want you to rock the boat.’ In the greater scheme of things, being turned down doesn’t matter; it was a line of enquiry: though I am saddened by the implication I pick up — employers want people to work with children in their play environments in ways that might work better for those adults than for the children. I wrote to those concerned, courteously enough and without, I hope, arrogance — though it may well be perceived that way — and I passed on links as to what a Level 3 playworker is and does. I’ve not received a reply.

I’ve long been dispirited by the soft policing of children’s play. It’s something that I see taking place in many settings and out in public too. Perhaps it has a lot to do with my own childhood: we can only truly work from starting points of things we’ve experienced ourselves. My play was my play. I played with others and I played on my own. I played out and about, and I played indoors. I fell off things. I hurt myself. I worked things out. I was lucky. I try to think, sometimes, what I would have felt if adults were controlling my play, telling me not to play now, or here, or stop playing, or play like this, or do it like this so that you can learn this or that, or share, or say sorry, or sit quietly, or don’t shout, or walk don’t run, or just no.

Play is what it is. Play is what it needs to be. Playwork has a history: it’s not just some made-up new-fangled thing. It has experienced people at its heart: people who had, and still have, a vision for something beautiful to have the space to take place. If playwork is the noble cause of doing what needs to be done so that children can have the opportunity to play (in the ‘compensatory spaces’ of play settings, e.g. when children can’t play, for whatever reason, in ways and places that I’ve described in my own childhood above), there is still so much to do. Adults, in the UK and perhaps in the US too, generally speaking, find ‘play for play’s sake’ such a difficult concept.

There is still, also, so much to do out and about, ‘out there’: in the pub, on the street, at large. We don’t get paid for this work, but this is the work that, perhaps, needs doing. This is not a way of saying those who are playworkers are better than others. No. We can all learn from one another: parents, teachers, early years workers, all of us, can be positive lights in a child’s life. The work, for this playworker, just keeps happening because he just can’t keep his mouth shut!

So, the message is played two ways:

For the playworkers reading here, I’m preaching to the converted but keep on keeping on at others.

For the non-playworkers reading here, I’m preaching because it’s my unpaid, necessary ‘work’: play is play because it’s play — it is just what a child must do, and it belongs to them.

White City stories: part ten (reflections)

As a tenth and final instalment of stories from my summer’s playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London . . . a list, albeit a little long, of ‘reflective sparks’ based on my observations of play, discussions, practice and feelings.
Part one

New playwork-thinking projects can work and develop in places where, in recent times, more adult-structured thinking has been taking place. It’s a process, sure, but it’s a process well worth taking.

The old chestnut of ‘planning the play’ really ought to be wiped from the collective consciousness. I hold my hands up to having tried to ‘plan the play’, way back. It’s what we knew back then. Now, we know differently: ‘Planning for play’. This can, and does, happen in all sorts of weird and wonderful places: over a beer, on the train home, as the day goes by, whilst observing children at play, etc.

Messy play (like painting) is all about how the children want their space (and themselves!) to look. Armani best gear is not best gear for play! Dressed down children make for less stressful parents – play can be messy. Playworkers know this, not all parents do though.

Playwork is messy. Don’t come in your Armani best gear. Come dressed down.

Messy play gets everywhere. Don’t just think it’ll stay in one place. It won’t. So, indications that ‘this is the messy play area’ just don’t seem to fit with what play actually is.

A simple rule of thumb for children and colours: children won’t stop mixing paint till they get brown. Brown is the optimum colour. Brown is good.

Standing back and saying ‘go on, paint stuff’ means that stuff will get painted. Lots of stuff.

The play frames of older children can be challenging (like running around with a drill, for example). It’s still play to them though. That isn’t to say that that play is something that shouldn’t be paid careful attention to though. It’s a delicate balance.

Some playworkers are better at defusing potentially volatile play situations than others. That’s OK. Know what you’re best at. Be a team.

Groups of children and young people, who we adults often label as ‘gangs’, like to play too. Their play can be quite challenging, and it’s a lot easier in reflection than it is sometimes in the heat of the day on the playground. However, reflection on this sort of play is important. Talking about what the playground is for and how it can benefit the older children is crucial (no matter how much those older children challenge and push buttons).
Part two

Slow times on the playground, before the children get there, are the times when the base work is done (thinking about safety, informal discussions on previous observations of play, setting up play places and throwing around ideas, the possibility of writing about the feel of the place – this all helps to focus the mind on the gem that the playground is and can be). Time spent in this fashion isn’t wasted time, although others might not appreciate exactly what’s going on under the surface.

Some children take time to build up their knowledge and understanding of regular adults on the playground. Be patient: if it comes, it comes; children accept adults in their play spaces in their own time.

Some play cues can look, to the untrained eye, like the child is being [insert whatever negative word you feel appropriate here]. In reality, the child throwing a water sprayer might just be about the child finding out what happens next. Play cues take lots of different forms. Knowing that ‘this could be play’ is a special skill.

Teamwork that just happens, a natural flow, is far better than rigid, over-zealous attention to rotas of ‘manning’ certain areas. Just as play is fluid, so should staffing be. Keep talking as you go by.

Children have some great ideas about how they can shift their play into other play, e.g. using a paddling pool to go down the waterslide with. Some adults don’t understand this. Appreciate the play that’s unfolding around you.

Sometimes, children take a lot longer to get involved in a play frame than others: they need time to feel OK about that play. So, girls going down the waterslide in their dresses might be something those girls need time to contemplate first. Playworkers should have an appreciation of time and how it’s needed. They should be aware of what the moment is, when the moment finally comes . . .

Children can also come up with some mad ideas that, maybe, they just know won’t work so well, but they try them anyway, e.g. trying to go down the waterslide in friction-heavy plastic crates!
Part three

Scavenging is an art form that all playworkers should practice as readily as the actual work they do with the children. Learn from masters of the art. Be humble in admitting others have greater scavenging skills!

Things I can learn from a master of scavenging: be polite and courteous; call shopkeepers ‘sir’ and ‘gentleman’ (what would be a modern politeness to a female shopkeeper?!); be gracious (even if the shopkeepers don’t smile or make you happy); tell someone who smiles how they’ve lightened your day; there are opportunities for scavengeable material and resources in many unusual places – in shops, in skips, left to throw away in people’s gardens, in alleys, in shops being refitted.

Some people have amazing grace. Some people have stones thrown at them and yet are still humble and forgiving. I have no words to explain, still, how inspired I am by a woman I met who was all of this.

Some parents are so enthused by the work you do on the playground; give them time to tell you. Make time.

Sometimes, adults create risky play opportunities accidentally. ‘So, climb over the top of the gates.’ Perhaps it was meant as a joking challenge. Perhaps it was a serious challenge. Either way, a challenge is a challenge, and adults standing back, not being negative or repressive, is a catalyst for children to throw themselves in at the deep end.
Part four

Given the opportunity to make use of tools, children can be very proficient with them. As with many things, the only way you truly find out how to use or do something, you have to do or use it yourself.

Play can take place in all sorts of places. Sometimes, adults jump in too quickly, for all sorts of adult reasons, as to why play ‘can’t happen here’. A little patience, accepting what the place chosen for play affords the players, and magic can start to take shape.

Sometimes, created play places can only be ‘owned’ if those places have proved to have lasting power. Some places that children choose to play in get abandoned quickly. The ones that get ‘owned’ include the ones that others choose not to destroy.

Sometimes, adult ideas for sprucing up the space get taken on by children in other unexpected directions. Play takes this fluidity. Accept it.

Reading the signs of what children leave behind is a rich experience. It’s interpretative, sure, and the adult interpretation can sometimes be wrong; however, looking for what children leave behind is like forensic archaeology. It’s a process of piecing together clues, and I’m more and more fascinated by it. I don’t know what the product of what I’ll learn by doing this will be, but the process of doing it is a stimulation in itself. Just like play, I suppose (process not product).

Observing the on-going leftoverness of play is sometimes like observing accidental art forms taking shape. The art of play having a life of its own.

When we think about and set up places for playing, we can get hooked into the artiness of it all ourselves. Maybe the set up process is adult play: it’s OK because the children aren’t directly affected in their play? Playwork as art?
Part five

When the rain comes, which it will do, get on with it. Come prepared: put on your waterproofs and boots and get out there.

Be prepared in fixing up the playable places. You don’t need to watch the news, get all you need from the weather report.

We will probably get cold, as well as wet, in the rain, and so will the children. Playwork doesn’t mean not caring about the children. We may be living on a hostile planet (Bob Hughes), but we all live on that planet and we can all take care of one another. We can connect. We should connect. Give offerings such as warm things to wrap up in: it doesn’t make you any less of a playworker because you interpret the literature as saying ‘children should get on with things themselves’.

Older children can play like younger children too. Soak up the magic of this when it happens. If an older boy is ‘giving birth’ to a fabric baby, for example, hold onto this moment as magic happening. It’s not ‘inappropriate’ (say, because it’s non-gender stereotypical, ugly, ‘rude’, etc); it’s a removal from peer pressure.

Little pockets of magic like this can happen in lots of secret corners, or pass by in the blink of an eye. If the opportunity arises, take care to mentally note this play that’s happening. It all adds up to a bank of magic moments inside the playworker. Bank them: they’re stories that can be told over and over, and oral stories are part of human fabric.

You my be wet and cold and tired, but try hard to serve the children when their eyes light up about play (try hard to serve them when they’re feeling down too). Sometimes, it’s just not possible. Most times it is, and what are we on the playground for if not for the children?

After a time, the children’s language and local culture will seep into you. Maybe this is a sign of them having accepted you: a two-way vibe having formed.

Little things like raindrops on drums are often overlooked.
Part six

Sometimes, children ‘require’ playworkers to be a part of their play. Maybe playworkers who are asked, say, to push the children down the zip wire, are acting as the mechanism that affords that play to take place. Others say that children’s risky play is entirely their own business and that playworkers should not get involved. Certainly, on reflection, there’s something to be said for not getting involved because, on a different tangent to self-sufficiency, playworkers can accidentally cause risky play to tip over into being dangerous, or too risky for the children. However, this is one of those ‘you have to be there’ situations, I think. In the moment, on the days in question, I felt trusted, connected, myself as mechanism, play-needed, in a symbiotic arrangement.

Play objects, which don’t start off as play objects, mutate into different play objects on different days. I know this; others might not though.

Good playworkers keep talking with one another. Planning for play can happen accidentally. Take others’ observations and ideas gracefully.

A play frame that happens only briefly, no matter how much previous talking and thought has gone into setting up the playable place, is still a play frame that has happened. It’s all good.
Part seven

What happens behind the scenes can seem mundane and, sometimes (like banging nails through planks of wood), possibly even as an unnecessary use of time. This is necessary work. It should be appreciated by those outside the playwork sphere. It’s also to be appreciated in the moment by the playworker doing the work. Banging nails has a somewhat therapeutic and mind-focusing affect!

There are always better methods for even simple, mundane tasks like these. Accept that others can be learnt from in these ways too.

Pass-through spaces can be made into playable spaces if given enough thought.

A pile of playable resources (such as a tower of tyres and some planks of wood) can often prove irresistible to a child’s destructive drive. Destruction is not a negative in this sense: it’s the play that can happen.

Careful observation not only allows playworkers to learn about children’s play, but it also builds up a bank of possible outcomes to take ‘educated guesses’ about. Testing these banked observations is an adult mental play in itself. Playing this is fine; just accept that sometimes you will be wrong. Bank that too.

Little moments of deep play can happen (like being inside a tower of tyres). Playworkers can also be called upon to help this play happen, to support it. Take care here though: children’s wishes need to be heard and adhered to. Children’s trust shouldn’t be played with.

Maybe the act of observing children (with video equipment, but also just by sitting back to watch too) affects that play. Sensitive observation is the key. Get out of the way.

Sometimes, ideas like a spider’s web to play in and around need time to come to full fruition. They might then take unexpected shapes in the transformation into playable places and in the play itself. Play doesn’t always happen how you think it might.

Despite some adult reservations about play such as with tools, those reservations should be acknowledged as the adult’s issue. Sure, keep an eye on what’s going on, but accept that children can do all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
Part eight

Being invited into chasing and catching play is not always about catching. Sometimes it’s just the act of chasing that the children are after.

Taking care also means taking care of yourself on the playground. Remember to always keep a keen sense of your own size and capabilities and what this play actually is. It’s easy to forget this in the moment though.

Minor scrapes happen. Playworkers know this . . .

Sometimes, a playworker is required to be in multiple play frames at once. This is a difficult thing to do. It might look, to the outsider of the play frame, like the playworker is ‘just playing for himself’. What the outsider can’t see though is what’s going on inside the head of the playworker. By the same token, the playworker who’s hurtling around the playground should also be aware of the possibility of what’s happening inside the head of others as they watch on.

Being part of multiple play frames with the children should then also be extended to being aware of the children, their play, yourself and your size and speed, your actions on the children and their play, of how you look to other adults observing you. It’s not about playing for the playworker. Or it shouldn’t be.

It’s a fine line between creating a dependency situation in play frames and knowing that play frames might break down if you’re not there. Knowing when to pull out is a good skill. Sometimes it gets overlooked or forgotten.
Part nine

Children and fire can mix. Some children don’t have play experience of this element though. Despite knowledge of fire seemingly being part of our genetic make-up, inexperienced children’s play shouldn’t be taken for granted. Observe carefully.

Be aware of your own actions in this set-up though. You can forget how much of an affect you have. Sometimes you are the problem when children push others’ buttons. Know this and don’t take it personally. Accept that others can do better than you if you remove yourself from the situation.

Be aware that practice can get a little too inflexible if you’re focused too much on the inexperience of play in certain situations.

Tidy up as children play, if they’ve finished in that area. They’re still playing. You either get paid to serve, or you volunteer to serve. Either way, children are there for play.

Play doesn’t stop just because the shutters come down or because it’s the adult designated end of a period of time (like ‘the end of summer’). Play carries on. Just a reminder to self . . .!


White City stories: part nine

A ninth instalment of stories from my recent second summer week of playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
Thinking on fire play

For a couple of weeks now, Rich and I have been mulling over the possibility of making use of fire on the playground. It does work, and children can be very respectful of fire because it’s kind of built into us, as humans, to know about this essential element. For understandable reasons though, some people are cautious of mixing children and fire. As I understand it, the children on this playground haven’t had access to this sort of play opportunity before. They’ve had access to all the other elements (wind, water, earth), as well as engagement in risky play with tools and with height. Fire seems a logical next step.

We talk about starting off slowly, because unknown play opportunities (despite a fire knowledge seemingly being built into our genetic make-up), need a little getting used to. We talk around using tea lights and sand trays. As the week goes on though, we find we could do a barbecue on the last day. Not a conventional barbecue; rather one in which the children can engage with the fire, something small scale. Earlier in the week, I’d been talking with one of the girls – coincidentally – about food, and we got onto the subject of cooking bananas over a fire. I told her that we could see if we could do this, add in melted chocolate. She seemed intrigued. Every day she reminded me of the conversation.

So, Rich buys small barbecue trays, fruit, flour, chocolate, brownie mix. There are a fair amount of children on the playground on the final day. It’s warm and we choose the area near the trees, where the raised beds are, to set up an area before the children come.

Affecting play

It’s not an activity, as such (as in ‘adult-led’), but it does need a little more careful attention than some other play opportunities the children have engaged with recently. I’ve got my bowl of water out already, just in case we need it. It’s nearby. We use the mud area of the raised beds. I suggest to Connor that the children can use the matches themselves. The children are eager to try this. It only needs one or two lit matches to light the paper on the charcoal, but children want to light more. There are only a few children gathered around to start with: we don’t broadcast what we’re doing; we just bring out the barbecue trays. Children start to filter over though.

Now, maybe some factors have gathered in one place here for me because I’m not totally happy with my practice. I’ve done fire play with children before, plenty of times, and sometimes I’ve been more comfortable than others. It comes down to careful observation. Before long, you get an idea of what the children will do. At first here, though, maybe I’m too mindful of the conversations we’d been having about children on this playground not having engaged with fire play opportunities before. Maybe I could have been a little more out of the way. Either way, I affect the play.

One of the older boys is keen to get involved. He’s forceful and the other children all seem to bend to his will, though they don’t seem to want to. He takes the matches and lights them. Later, when the children have found frying pans to cook up their brownie mix, he monopolises the small barbecue. So, I set up the other barbecue tray on the other mud area for the younger children. The older boy comes over and takes over this one too. So, I’m getting frustrated. I’m getting hot. He starts playing with a flame on the very end of his stick by holding it against a long blade of grass. Normally, this is no problem at all. Here though, I’m frustrated because he has all the play of the barbecues. It’s not that I’m on the verge of saying ‘share’ to him, because those who know me know I lecture often on this! However, the other children just so want to get their own frying pans and bananas, which he’s pushed off, onto the grill too!

What does a playworker do? He comes to his senses, stands up, walks over to his colleague and says: ‘Connor, swap?’ The older boy is pushing my buttons, I know this. Connor swaps barbecues with me, sits down, and in a couple of minutes I say to him: ‘How did you do that?’ The older boy’s agitations have fizzled away. Of course, it was me who was agitating him, and vice versa. Sometimes, we just need to recognise that we’re part of the problem ourselves.
At the end of summer

Soon the area is a culinary mess! The children have melted mixtures of brown sludge in frying pans; bananas and oranges have been cut open, cooked and putrefied over the fire; marshmallows have been blackened or been gooed onto the grill. Some children use the kitchen microwave to cook up brownie mix. They bring it out in plastic cups for all to eat as they like. A tub of microwave-melted chocolate comes out, and children smear it over cooked fruit or swipe fingers around the tub, lick it up. We use up the plastic spoons quickly and so bring out metal ones, which instantly get caked in mud or buried! We’ve bought lemonade and use the ice-cream tubs in the freezer to make ‘ice-cream floaters’. I think I’m still a little in ‘agitation mode’ though, and I really should just let go of the lemonade more and leave the children to pour their own. Part of me thinks that it’ll all just get used up quickly though. Either way, remembering the children gathering around me like baby birds, I think: I can do this better.

Shortly though, sitting round the barbecue fires is another chance just to chill, to talk with the children, to ‘be’ amongst them. The sun is shining, the children seem happy. No-one puts their hand on the grill or into the hot charcoal. No-one picks up the barbecue trays and waves them around. No-one gets burnt.

Near the end of the session, the children pour the bowl of water over the barbecue charcoals and they fizzle. The children who are left around the scene scatter off. There are dead spoons lying around, melted banana skins, a well-scraped out chocolate tub, discarded ice-cream tubs and cups, bits of spat-out orange, the cooling charcoal trays. We tidy up as the children play.

Soon, it’s time to pull down the shutters for the last time this summer. The children are still on the playground. They don’t seem to want to go. I’ve only been around for a couple of weeks of the summer here, but I feel sad to be pulling down these shutters. Three or four children gurgle and laugh on the other side as the mechanism grinds down. They poke their feet under the slowly closing barrier in a small defiance, a small act of deep play perhaps. I say goodbye, goodbye. Then all that’s left to see is their toes pulling back. Then clunk, as the barrier touches the paving slabs. The children bang away on the other side. We bang back.

Summer’s over (our work on the playground, at least), but I hear the children scatter off. Out the window, I see them carrying on their play.

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