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.
 
 

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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.
 
 

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.
 
 

Short notes: observations on modern childhood

Not being ‘off-duty’ has its fringe benefits. Episodes of observation, amusement, fascination, non-comprehension, challenge, and something bordering on bewilderment can happen. A few short tales of not being ‘off-duty’ gathered in me as the week just gone passed by. I didn’t write them down at the time because, sometimes, letting stories float around inside for a few days allows them space to form.
 
What do you do?

I’ve had this question asked of me many times, in various ways, by adults in other areas of the children’s workforce sector. I’ve had it asked of me, once or twice, by children – an air of honest inquisition on their faces when they say ‘What is your job?’ (I remember a child once telling me, rationally enough, and in a particular moment of functional and frustrating playwork practice on my part: ‘Well, if you don’t like working here, just get another job’).

Whilst sitting around eating toast and cheese with the boys, the youngest asked – in German – what it was I did, professionally. I thought for a little while. It’s hard enough explaining it to English-speaking adults sometimes; it’s a difficult thing to tell an English-speaking child and without patronising or dumbing it down. How to explain playwork to a German child? I did the best I could, in English, because my German or my Deutschlish wasn’t up to it: I do my best to make sure that play can happen (or words to this effect). His mother translated. He screwed up his face and made a small noise that I can only transcribe, roughly, as ‘Eh??’

I thought some more. I couldn’t elaborate. Words and thoughts didn’t stretch that far. Later, I threw back to him the small stuffed white cow – Weisskuh – that comes with us on every trip, and I kept throwing it back and back each time it came my way; on the beach, each day, I gathered stones, stepped away, or built, as per requirements; I made passing comments to other adults on the site where we stayed, on notes of play; I made myself available for the children to arrange their play through me  – ‘Football or beach?’ (I fancied a trip to the sea, myself . . .) – ‘Football,’ the boys said, and I was necessary, apparently.

(As an aside, is an understanding exchange of no actual words between playworker and parent – such as the parent of the young girl who sat at the beach – a silent advocation for play?)

Overall here, sometimes – in attempting to answer questions – ‘doing’ is far better than saying.
 
A small inquisition

The youngest is having a conversation with his mother, in German. The rough gist of his questioning, as he eats, is this: ‘If you were a child now, would you prefer child labour or school?’

I don’t know where this conversation comes from; I have no context. I do know that the question intrigues me. I have no conclusions. I leave you to piece together your own. His mother is a teacher.
 
Modern love

Family meal times are a good source of information in the on-going study of the state of being ‘child’. The youngest is on fine form. The conversation is about girls. He has an ex-girlfriend, apparently. We should put this in context: he is adored, it would seem; he is an innocent; he has a stuffed white cow. We talk about the ex-girlfriend and he tells us how he was forced into the relationship. ‘How?’ we ask. ‘On Facebook’. He managed to get out of it online too.

Weisskuh, stunt-cow today, waits patiently with his feet jammed into the windows of a model Mini Cooper.
 
Modern dance

We adults are drinking beer. The eldest is deep in German conversation with his mother. The youngest is documenting everything in snapshots and short videos on his mobile phone. I don’t notice all of what he’s doing. There’s a dance floor, and it’s a family place so there are plenty of children around. The dance floor clears but one girl of about eight years old stays and dances on her own. The music is coming from a laptop on the stage; the laptop is hooked up to the amps. It’s some cheesy modern pop that I have no way of differentiating from any other such cheesy modern pop. It doesn’t matter. I notice that the girl on the dance floor also has a mobile phone. When she spins around as she dances, and although I’m a good thirty feet away, I see that she’s got the camera pointed towards herself (I see a close-up of her face on the screen, even from this distance). She’s dancing away in her own little bubble of a world, and she’s talking to her image on the screen. She waggles her finger at the image, playfully, as if she’s singing to it. Her image is her audience. She seems totally oblivious to everybody else in the room. She can obviously hear the music, but she chooses to block out everything but this and her own image.

I find this fascinating. On the one hand, modern technology has enhanced the play opportunity – developing the usual dance play into a dialogue between the actual self and the (literally and psychologically) projected self; on the other hand, I’m a little bit bothered – is there such a bond, such a dependence, on mobile phone technology in some of today’s children that they can’t, or won’t, see the world around them? Is the screen version of the world just better than the real thing?

She pops back into the real world, eventually. Maybe. Maybe she’s popped out of the real world of play.
 
 

Beyond being just out of sorts

How do you know your children are out of sorts? Or just slightly more than simply out of sorts? Sometimes they’re just not themselves, not there in themselves; something almost too tiny to spot for other people who don’t know them well. What do you see that, to others, just gets absorbed in the whole slop and swill of the play space they’re in? What tells you that you’re focused hard on your children as individuals?

Do they get spooked by strange things, things that don’t usually bother them? Just tiny agitations that others might ignore or not pick up on. Things like momentary, out of character and only very occasional selective mutism. Things like a fleeting irrational response (even more irrational than the irrationality that play is). Things like a sudden look or twitch?

Do they give up on their usual play cues? Are corners or other places in the environment – where unreturned or rejected cues happened – shied away from, ignored, taken aggressive grievance against? Can you see the usual manner of cues, for any individual child, shifting slightly into other types of cues?

Do the children you’re observing, focusing on, find it difficult to absorb themselves in the play flow? What’s causing this? Are they preoccupied, do you think? Is there too much or too little stuff? Are you in the way? Are you in the way even if you think you’re well out of the way? Following on from some of Bob Hughes’ thinking, in the quantum world – the science of the very small – at the atomic level, the instrument used to observe an electron (so, a light beam) affects that electron. Zoom back out: is it the very fact that you, the instrument of observation, are observing that child that affects their ability to drop into play flow? Is the child out of sorts because of you?

Is the child associating what happened with some play resource, on any other day, or in any other place with a similar play resource, in a negative way? Did the feel of that resource affect them, or the way it broke suddenly, or the way it fell down and trapped them underneath for a few seconds? Do your children seem to merge days and play and resources into one huge swill? Is it as if time and space and objects can be easily interchanged with other time/space/object constructs? That’s not to say your children can’t differentiate, simply put, one place or time from another; rather, I wonder how time and space runs through children.

Just how much are your children picking up on your own mood? You’re hot, you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re feeling slow to respond. You do respond, return cues; you do this in good time for your child to be vaguely satisfied, but it’s all vague, it’s all ‘not quite quality enough’ for them. They know you’re returning, though not in those words; they know you’re mostly there; they know you’re not totally with it. Their subsequent play cues aren’t exactly aberrant, dys-play, perceivable as aggressive, ‘wrong’: they’re just listless cues. They cue but they half-cue.

How do you know when your children are out of sorts? Do you know them well enough, within the context of the general slow-motion maelstrom or great huge whirl of the whole group, to be able to look beyond ‘they’re feeling tired, unwell, hot’? What’s unseen, beyond what we usually see?
 
 

Magic: mystic force and playwork incantation

‘What 20 years in playwork has taught me, again and again, is that extraordinary things happen in charged moments . . .’

‘We have to know and share the charged moments [so as not to] in some way lose the essence of playfulness that we are supposed to be advocates for.’

Eddie Nuttall (2012), Scribbles from the Noosphere Pt 1
 
 
At an adventure playground, once, I was talking with Ian (of a playwork persuasion) and he told me about the ‘mad magic’ in that place. Attempts to define this magic are futile really: the point of magic is that it’s magic. It’s not of the realm we usually see of the world. Except it is a part of the world, this place and planet we inhabit, the universe no less. We’re all a part of it, not apart.

I don’t wish to try to finely define magic here, strip it to its bones, but I am curious to dig a little deeper. Bear with me: this could get convoluted.

Magic is here. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the mystic force that flows everywhere, through everyone and everything, or it’s the practice of focusing forces to make things happen, visible: or it’s both. Primitive culture and religions all around the world believed in magic. It’s still deep down in all of us: in superstition, in wish-fulfilment, in irrational attachment to objects. Magic is here. I’m not talking about illusion or trickery. Magic is of, and in, the world.

There are playwork writers out there who allude to how the act of adults observing children at play breaks ‘the spell’ – the children’s focusing of mystic forces in formation of their play?; or, at least, it changes the play. Perhaps, just perhaps, the act of observing brings the magic out into this world we move around in. Look and you will see. Sometimes, I’ll observe and the magic that is everywhere, the essence, the mystic force, becomes apparent. I spread a watery flow of paint over the hidden candlewaxed message; I sprinkle glitter on the invisible gluesticked marks.

This mystic force, this mana (as the Melanesians called it), in us, in supernatural entities, in objects, is the dark and light matter. In Guinea, western Africa, Portuguese sailors used their word ‘fetish’ to describe the natives’ reverence of certain objects. These objects had supernatural force imbued in them. Rituals were undertaken, and these rituals could make the force attach itself artificially elsewhere: a kind of ‘charging’ process. Incantations, spells if you like, could charge objects with the mystic force: objects like effigies, trinkets, charms, pieces of cloth or wood. Fetish in the reverence of object. Maybe people (person as object revered) can sometimes also be seen in such light of ‘fetish’ . . .

The reverence of the child. The child as object of wonder. The sacred child. Do not break the spell of the play of the child. Do not adulterate the play. The sacred child plays. There is magic here and it must not be disturbed. Playworkers are afflicted by primitive calls.

The Polynesian word ‘taboo’ refers to the sanctity of the ‘charged one’. Do not touch. Stay clear. Revere. Risk ill-effect and misfortune on your spirit if you breach the taboo. In playwork, purists: risk ill-effect on your playworking self – do not touch; do not adulterate; do not sully the play frame by your presence through it; stay in the shadows, phantom one.

Yet . . . the mystic force, the magic, is there all the time in the play. Will it really crumble away with the slightness of our observation?

We don’t, or won’t, always see the magic of the mystic. Do we need to evoke spells and incantations to make it apparent (‘freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated . . .’)? Stay clear of the chosen one. Or do we need to spread the glitter over gluesticked marks by our very observation?

There is mad magic, and mayhem, in the world: of that I’m sure. ‘Belief’ being what it is though, I can’t substantiate this. It’s just something that must be ‘known’. It’s irrational, but then we don’t truly live in a rational world. I touch wood that my words are understood. Magic comes in many forms . . .

A moment from my notebook, November:

I help Freida make sure the sheets stay over the climbing frame dome on this windy day: we do it in layers and the sheets stick and mould well to the frame when the netting goes on top. We’re at the darker end of the garden: the sun has long since set anyway. A little while later, I go over to see if she’s still in there. Quietly I check through a gap in the sheets. She doesn’t notice me or, at least, she doesn’t show that she does. She’s lying on her back, in the semi-dark, playing with a toy that lights up red. She’s on her own. I leave her be. 

As I write, literally as I write, a message comes through from my sister, to the effect of: that blue tennis ball [that my 18 month old nephew and I were playing with on Sunday last] . . . he hasn’t let it go since; even sleeps with it.

A reverence of object: magic imbued and charged within it. Also, though, this message comes in magic: as I write of magic, magic happens, magic is seen, presented to me. It’s a true story of now. It’s weird, but such is also the fabric of the primitive belief.

Extraordinary things happen in charged moments.
 
 

Structure and frameworks of freedom

Where do you start on a new blog? In the middle. Jump right in, I guess. So, to get things kick-started, there follows a version of a posting I made recently on the Playwork Bloggers Network forum. Morgan Leichter-Saxby asked: Do adult-structured activities have a place in playwork?

This throws up the question of children’s freely chosen play.

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking on ‘freely chosen’ over the last couple of days. Sure, ‘freely chosen’ is the pink and fluffy ideal, but last time I looked we don’t live in Utopia. We do live in reality. There’s an argument to say that we can always strive for the best situation/deal/quality in anything though (as opposed to the Homer Simpson school of thinking: trying is the first step towards failure!)

Recently [in the PBN forum], I wrote: The question asked must depend on what this thing called ‘structure’ is.

Vicky Edwards wrote: Would you agree it’s more of a case of the children not knowing how to play how the adult wants/thinks they should play?

Suzanna Law wrote: Sometimes it’s not all that simple. And ‘structured play’ might fall into this category.

Morgan wrote about: Adults having an ideal form of play that they expect to see, and then viewing children’s other choices as somehow deficient.

I’m reminded of Gordon [Sturrock] and Perry [Else]’s writing in the Colorado Paper (1998), where they make reference to Heidegger’s thinking on freedom not being limitless but contained. Now, this is easily misinterpretable. As I understand it, in the context of what’s written in that paper, by developing our own frameworks, containers, boundaries, ‘structures’, call it what you will, we can engage in freedom within the boundedness of our play ideas. It is the play idea of the player. It is not an imposed structure. The child at play creates the play frame and the playworker can help to preserve the meaning of this frame. The child has choices and freedom to manoeuvre in that engagement. Perhaps the playworker’s containment is a form of ‘structure’ in itself, but it’s a holding of the frame created by the child. It’s not imposed, the child’s frame ‘shape’ is negotiable by way of play.

Digging it out: ‘Containment,’ write Sturrock and Else, ‘. . . has been taken to an extreme in playcare with content and programme provided by the adult.’

So, this makes sense to me. ‘Structure’ isn’t a simple concept. Sometimes children will want, and do often enjoy, adult-devised things to do (activities). That said, there’s also an argument to say that children operate only in the realms of what they already know or are accustomed to. ‘Consult’ with children about what food/activities they’d like and, often, they’ll tell you about what they’ve had/done that day, or last week, rather than what’s outside their experience base. So, if children are only offered ‘structured’ or imposed activities, they’re not going to know what creating their own frameworks of freedom feels like.

And sure, children will sometimes engage in play in return for some extrinsically motivated reward (call it bribery!) Done too often though and a negative Pavlovian stimulus-response loop gets set up. That said, we should give consideration to the concept of ‘free will’ (not in the theological sense, but philosophically).

OK, distilling all of this down, where I’m going with all this is that children ought really to be deciding their play, of course, and if they want to use the clay to make pots and dragons and nests and stuff, fair enough; however, adult structured ‘now today we’re doing clay or football or drawing, that’s it, choose’ is about the adults’ needs for structure for the sake of it, order, control, dominance, a quiet time, outcomes, the playcare brand, etc etc.

I should write my own blog!

[Here it is!]
 
 

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