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

Posts tagged ‘playwork theory’

Structural dynamics of play: a technical analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play and (un)certainty

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

— Lester and Russell (2008, p.62)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine lines and play narratives

It’s been a while since I’ve focused some writing on some playwork theory. It does raise the old question of how much does theory really influence practice (and maybe vice versa)? However, that’s a side point here and now. Every so often I start wondering again about my influence on and in the play. In the back of my head, I’m aware of the requisite requirement not to unduly affect the play. Increasingly, however, I find myself realising how I get drawn into the play by the children themselves. I do try not to take it over (because, after all, and as we know, it’s not about me). The fact is, though, sometimes the children actively encourage my play narrative co-creation of things. It’s a fine line sometimes between any form of ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, or maybe even slipping into ‘teaching’) and responding in playwork-approved ways.

Five girls in the group, these past few weeks (either in sub-groups of the whole, or en mass), have taken to actively drawing me into their repeated play narratives as soon as they see me out on the playground, often late in the day. The children range between the ages of 7-10 (or, as I think it as I write, seven getting on for whatever ‘precociously worldly wise’ amounts to). As I’ve touched on in recent writing, some of these children have repeated play frames, which they like to re-engage with on seeing me. The other day, the five girls surrounded me, and they all explained their play narrations at once (in the way that sometimes ‘you’ll do this, I’ll do that’ sort of play unwinds itself as a pre-play form of play in its own right). There was almost exactly repetitious play requested, forms of adaptations of previous play, and, unaccountably, the new introduction of Ninjas (who proceeded to demonstrate what Ninja-ing was all about as they hit and kicked me, laughing, and as they explained the play that was going to happen!)

I’m building up to the original enquiry of the fine line between playwork theory ‘adulteration’ and responding in playwork-approved ways. Bear with me. Sometimes, to be honest, responding to individual cues can be difficult enough (how to read the situation; how to judge between the right balance and blend of tone and response and joke and seriousness and so on, for any given child; what and when to say what might work for the child to keep that moment potentially precious). Responding in a likewise fashion to five children, all at once, with near enough five variations of narratives forming, whilst being Ninja attacked by two of them, is a different animal altogether! Eventually, probably more through luck than judgement, the narration of the play before the play, which is play in itself anyway, shifted into something that was more or less acceptable to all the children. I was involved, required, and drawn in.

Over the past few weeks, several areas of the playground have developed prison names. They’re becoming almost like short-term legend markers, as it were. I wonder if the names (or, in fact, the prisons themselves) will still be around come spring. When one of the children tells me (in the depth flow of the narration within the play narrative itself — yet another layer to their play), what each prison is called, I try to listen in carefully. I repeat what she says. On the one hand, I’m interested in this ‘naming of places’ business anyway; on the other hand, it seems essential to the play that I know these things. I’m told of the ‘air prison’, ‘the tree-house prison’, ‘the creepy prison’, ‘the mansion prison’, ‘the scary prison’ (and, recently, a new addition — put out there as a tester, I suspect, by one of the children — which may or may not re-emerge: ‘the dreadful prison’). One of the older girls in the group is fairly new to us. She’s taken on the narratives, absorbed them, re-played them, and adapted them. The prisons on the playground are co-created affairs over weeks.

When I’m required to be part of the play narratives that the girls play, if I don’t play ‘properly’ they tend to know. It’s basically a form of chase-tap, except the children stand around talking to me (in the narration that pre-empts the ‘play proper’, and which blends into the latter, and they tell me that ‘now I’m going to steal your watch/gold/wallet, etc.’ and then they keep standing there, with the stolen invisible goods held up, not running away!) How can I catch someone running away if they’re not running away?! This play is, essentially, morphing into not ‘chase-tap’ but ‘tap-prison-escape-repeat’. Sometimes, often in fact, the girls will tolerate the development of the narrative by myself. They take on board the things I say in the play, in passing, and they absorb them into the narrative (this is where ‘the air prison’ came from, being the idea of not being able to escape from a swing up in the air, after all).

Here’s the thing: it’s a fine line between some form of playwork ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, say) and responding in playwork-approved ways. Last week we ended up running away from the older girl (who morphed into the ‘cop’ suddenly) by flying to Brazil. The other girls buried their swag in the sandpit. In trying to connect this part of the narrative (if it needed it) with the unseen play of the ‘cop’ on the other side of the playground, or to keep it intact for the sandpit children, there may come a point where you drop all the balls, as it were. Being ‘in it’ might mean not necessarily seeing ‘all of it’.

The play across the playground had shifted condition. The older girl had created another narrative that didn’t involve us. This we discovered on going to investigate why the sand-buried swag wasn’t important any more. The sandpit girls were still accepting of me; the other children had lost interest in things over our way. I realised I’d been balancing the fine line and I made my excuses and drifted away. No ‘unwanted adult’ agitation had been caused, it would seem, I think: this time.

The next time I saw the children, variations of chase-tap, tap-prison-escape-repeat, narration-play narrative geared into action again. I write to remind myself: I write to think as I go about playwork theory’s impact on practice, and vice versa, and if those things that I thought might matter actually do still matter at all.
 
 

Play just is

I really am growing very tired of the constant over-emphasis, in the proclamations of adults in general, that ‘play aids children’s learning’, or variations on the theme (‘play reduces obesity’, ‘play aids social skills’, ‘play teaches children right from wrong’, and so on). What is consistently missed in all this ‘be a better person’ rhetoric is the whole experience of being a child. If, firstly, in the case of playwork (though not too overwhelmed by the above notions), the sector takes pride (and yes, pride before a fall) in being ‘the only adults in the children’s workforce who try to see things from the child’s perspective’ (as I was taught), then there should be a lot more discussion on ‘trying to see things from the child’s perspective’ going on.

The playwork sector aside, I sometimes find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact that children’s play is their play and that those children do it, by and large, because they want to, because such and such is there to spark off that play, because it’s just what needs to be done, there and then, because . . . well, just because — or because (as children have often insinuated or directly pointed out to me), ‘because, I don’t know why.’

I’ve been in this writing area many times before, but the message just keeps coming back and demanding to be repeated. Sure, and I say this often in deference to those who tell me that children learn things in their play, sure they learn stuff, as a kind of by-product, and sure they can look back on experiences and find that they do things differently or modify their expressions or ways of being because of what’s already taken place (in their play), but here’s the point: from the child’s perspective, play is something to be engaged in just because (not because of any adult-designed outcome). Play just is.

When you were six or seven, maybe, did you start your play with definite outcomes in mind? That is, say, ‘by the end of this session I will have understood how to adequately make use of gross motor skills in order to balance on this railing without knocking my teeth out’, or ‘I will have successfully developed the ability to share so that my friend won’t end up screaming that I’ve taken all his cards’. You might well have had some vague abstract aim of not knocking your teeth out, or not being the cause of a commotion, but these were no doubt all part of the trial and error of the moment. You didn’t get any certificates or awards or pats on the head from approving adults for the play that was your play. If you did or didn’t knock your teeth out, or if you did or didn’t cause a commotion, sure you may have learned stuff, but you didn’t go into that play with the targeted aim of ascertaining that outcome of learning something. If it was your play, you did it just because. You might have gone into your play with the aim of beating your own world record of batting a ball against a wall, balancing along a railing without falling off, or riding your bike around in circles, for as long as possible without stopping, and before your legs turned to jelly, but you did all that just because.

There has been plenty written on the importance of play in terms of its evolutionary, neurological, physical, sociological, psychological, and so on benefits, and these outward-looking-in perspectives are appreciated. However, these are all adult researcher constructs. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff around in the literature on play theory, playwork theory, healthiness and well-being, psychology and psychoanalysis, child development, even zoological study and animal behaviourism. Where is the depth of literature that records what play is (as opposed to what it’s for, or what it’s good for) to the real experts on the subject? We’ve all been children, and so we’ve all been experts (past tense). Now, the real experts’ perspectives are under-represented.

There are studies that have taken on board what children say about their play: the what and the how and the where. There are not enough though to adequately affect the dominant political-media presentation (thus influencing the broad sweep of socio-cultural opinion) on what play is. Instead we have a skewed view that play is only good for certain things: for supplementing the ‘learning and acceptable morals’ diet fed to children through early education, schools, youth provision, and through the socialisation tactics of the government; for reduction of pressure on the national health system, ultimately resulting in economic benefits for government coffers, via the obesity agenda; for containment and moulding of acceptable opinion, ways of being and behaving, suppression of traits likely to result in mass conflict aimed at the ruling minority. Call me cynical, but there’s an argument to say that ‘play’ is moderated by the puppet-masters who wish to engineer a certain society that’s beneficial to a certain few.

I digress. Play is used to help mould the individual and the collective. There is a counter-argument to suggest that the activist for play (for play’s sake) is also looking to engineer a society into a certain form. This is, however, viewed from the play activist’s screen as acceptable, because the message is not ‘let them be how I contain them to be’ but rather ‘let them be.’ From the children’s perspective, if given fair representation to express their views, wouldn’t they also express their views on their play, by and large, in similar terms? Let us be. Let it be. Play just is.

There are difficulties in gaining children’s perspectives on play: sure, they have the right to express their opinions (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12) and the right to play (Article 31) — though really, does the UK government actually take these seriously? — but asking children about their play might mean, essentially, disrupting that very play to ask them about it. Even if we think we’re working ethically enough and not disrupting that play, we can make mistakes. I recently made the assumption that I was on even ground with a couple of children I was working with: we were sat around talking, and they were talking about play in a way that I assumed was OK for me to say something to the effect of, ‘Play happens all the time, right?’ It was, on reflection, a moral imposition. They looked at me and one said, ‘Er, no. There’s school, and home, and going to school, and . . .’ What I understood from her was that play was very much parcelled up for her into ‘allowable time’, but also that even here in this assumed-to-be even ground, I’d overstepped the mark and trodden on the talking play that was happening.

We can get children’s views and opinions, but we just have to be careful about the how of doing that. When we’ve worked out how to do that, we’re in a good position to get the (non-token) views of these experts: this is what’s largely missing from all the talk on play out there. There is some opinion from those who matter most — stay focused, the children! — in the written literature, and there’s more in the anecdotal material that potentially floods every playground (though often this is either missed, or not recorded, or not fully registered, or stored in memories that need to be tapped); however, this material isn’t yet flooding the national socio-political consciousness.

I’m confident, from anecdotal collection, observation- and personal- experience, when I say that, by and large, for children play just is. This is a simple message at the end of a lengthy post. I find it difficult to understand why any given adult can’t understand the very simple fact of it. We should, I suggest, all try seeing things from children’s perspectives more: we might be surprised at what we find.
 
 

Embracing interactions and tolerances

With the advent of the annual playworkers’ conference this week, and with so many people who go by the title ‘playworker’ (or who have links to playwork) there, I’m wondering what this playwork thing looks like to the people at the centre of it all: that is, the children. We in the field of playwork have, and continue to have, debates about what it is we do, why we do it, what its worth is, whether we’re needed at all, and so on, but how much do we know of what the children say? We do, after all, profess to putting them first.

I’ve read a fair few books on playwork practice, and these include theories for ways of working, stories of play observed, ideas on what play is good for, what it helps or does, and so on, but I’m not so sure the sum total of writing on ‘playwork from the child’s perspective’ is any great percentage of that whole. What do the children care about developmental, evolutionary, or therapeutic angles on adults working with them? What they care about, I’m prepared to stick my neck out here, is that adults who they happen to have to share their places of play with should be: people who they can get along with; who are fun to be around (though not in any overtly ‘wacky, zany’ sort of way); who listen when they should listen; who tell stories when they should tell stories; who know when not to say something to someone else, and who know which stories of the children’s they should keep quiet about; who will be honest with them; who will help and protect them if they want that; who won’t jump down their throats if they choose to swear, stick up their middle finger, or fling a paint brush loaded with paint up into the air or against the wall just because they feel like it . . .

Whilst there are aspects of the playwork books that certainly point towards such tolerance, they don’t all frame it in terms of relating. In my experience, this relating is essential to the children. They tell it in the stories and play they present, in the looks in their eyes, in the way that some may take an adult’s hand or rest their elbow on their shoulder when that adult’s knelt down. The children tell it in the things they don’t say directly about the playworker in question too: I’ve often had children tell me of their ‘teacher’s bad day, every day’, or the like, or how certain other adults in their lives just annoy them. Maybe I annoy them too, some days, but that day that I’m not part of the story in question, when being told the story in question, this I take as the children saying to me, ‘You’ll do’.

Plenty of the playwork literature links to thinking on standing back from the play, being invisible, retreating into the background, servicing and resourcing and making the environment good for play, whatever that play may be: this all happens, and can take great skill and self-discipline on the part of the playworker, but the children don’t always want just this. Sure, some days they want nothing more than for the adults to just butt out, stay back, get out of the way, turn a blind eye, and generally kindly do as they’re told! However, they’ll also often have half an eye on the adult (in staffed provisions) just being around, just in case, for dealing with emergencies, for sorting out being ganged up on if they can’t eventually resolve it themselves, or if the gang pressure outweighs the risk of social ridicule by them then not being able to sort out their own problems. ‘Resilience’ is too simplistic a word here: children often cope, to a point, and then there are finer social nuances to have to contend with.

In terms of play, I’m pretty confident from my experiences of observing it, of being invited into it, and of listening to the stories of it, that children — by and large — don’t go into their play for outcome attainment (developmental milestones, cognitive and motor skills enhancement, the roping in of obesity, with awareness of their health, with concern for their future citizenship in terms of their good consumer unit potential, or with an eye on reduction of the national health service’s cost savings per capita!) I am being somewhat facetious, but the point is that children will go into their play because it is play. They’ll call it play if they’re not told to do it (‘doing homework’ isn’t play, as the children I’ve related to say it, even if the child likes the subject, because someone is still imposing on that child’s time to play).

In my experience, children have quite a sophisticated view of when their play is: it is that quality time that isn’t imposed upon by others, though it can also be the moments of possibility within that imposition (homework can morph out of being homework and into spontaneous play away from it). Often, unimposed time is squeezed in between other things (‘work’, ‘structured dedicated times for sport’, and so on) and children have the ability to view time in between times, as well as time within imposed upon time, as time that’s playable. Plenty of adults don’t see this. The children, meanwhile, often express the need to be around others who appreciate their in between time, as well as that time that is given over entirely for play: these others will be other children, but it will also be those adults who ‘just get it’.

Whether those adults call themselves playworkers or not, children will often directly express a preference for their company (whether the old-schoolers of playwork literature like this or not), or children will indirectly express who the adults who ‘get them’, and their play, are. By ‘company’ I’m not talking about ‘best mates’, though I’ve certainly known children who’ve chosen to call me ‘friend’: by ‘company’ I’m referring to anything from just keeping an eye on the fact that the adult is there or thereabouts, to actively pursuing play cues and returns with that adult, deeply engaging them in the fantasies and flows, narratives and confidences of the play. It isn’t about a replacement of another playing child, in its most sophisticated form: it is, as I register it, an acknowledgement of relating, of shared histories of space and place, of a development of mutual knowing.

Children will play without adults being directly around, but the fact is that adults are indirectly around them in the urban and the rural landscapes of society as we know it, even if those adults don’t directly witness that play itself. Playworking embraces tolerances. Playworking also embraces interactions. It is this, in my experience, in my observation, in my listening, and in my relating, that I suggest as a way of seeing how playwork looks from children’s perspectives.
 
 

Back to basics playwork: the simple how and why one child climbs a tree

Some days when with, or around, children at play, I find myself taken back to basics. That is, through the interaction or the observation I remind myself about what play is or what it could be. Last week, on the playground I found myself in the presence of a child’s sheer determination to achieve what she’d set out to do, her ability to perfectly well risk manage her own play, and the coming together of a small collection of ‘ingredients’ to enable her to problem solve in her play.

In the last hour or so of the after school session, one of the older girls was talking with me and she shoved her new thick winter gloves into my coat pocket. It was an action of trust, as I saw it, but also of continued connection. She decided she wanted to climb the tree at the top of the bank where I’d been standing because, perhaps, a couple of other children had been jumping around in the lower base branches of it. Ordinarily, I think, I’d have been more OK with this because I like to think I get the idea that children’s play often includes some experimentation, risk taking, and exploration at height. On this occasion, however, I had a little concern because the tree may not be in the best shape for climbing. I also had to factor in whether the child in question was a good tree climber or not. I didn’t know, but in retrospect should have known because I have seen her climbing around and balancing on other structures with ease.

Up she climbed and I watched as the branches gave a little under her weight. It made me wonder what it was like up there for her. Even so, after a while, I suggested that maybe she ought to come down now, though I shouldn’t have done: it was, at this stage, more about my own comfort levels than hers. She was more than capable of climbing. She placed her feet carefully on each branch before testing its bend or rigidity, and she moved on up. Then, it transpired, she spotted the basketball stuck high up in the furthest branches. It wasn’t clear what was happening to start with, but I soon realised, as she talked with me, that she was reaching up for an already broken-off thin long branch to use as a prodder. She couldn’t turn it around up there, so she passed it to me and asked that I hand it back to her the other way up.

She took the prodding branch from me and edged her way up and outwards more. She stretched the branch up to try to reach the basketball, but she was still some way short of it. ‘Can you see it?’ she asked. I said that I could. I moved away from the base of the tree, and I realised that I was much more comfortable with the play now because I’d observed for time enough to see the way she could move. We talked together about the ball, the branches she was standing on or wanting to stand on, the possibility of shaking certain branches by hand, how far off the ball she was from my perspective down below. She took my suggestions on board, tried out the ones I guess she thought might be useful, carefully moved her feet to other branches.

At one point she put a foot on one branch that really did look like it wanted to splay out sideways on her contact. I wasn’t sure she appreciated this. I said that her left foot looked unstable up there to me. She tested her weight, and moved her foot to another branch. Although I wasn’t so worried about her by this time, I did wonder what I might, or could, do if she fell. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to catch her or how many branches she’d bounce off, if any, on the way down! The experiment exploration lasted for a good twenty minutes or so. I kept my periphery eye on the rest of the playground, though most of the other children were elsewhere, and I knew a colleague had a distant eye on the tree too, but mostly I was focused on the child in her determination to reach the basketball.

Eventually she got close enough with the four- or five-foot long prodding branch to touch the ball. It didn’t shift. She tried out all manner of ways to knock it down: pushing hard, short prods, moving the branches underneath. She didn’t show frustration, just bloody-minded determination! Then the ball moved, but it got stuck a little further down. She adjusted her position and kept trying. Eventually, the basketball fell and bounced down the hill to land at the palette wall of the fire pit. The child shouted her triumph. She carefully climbed down towards me and passed me the branch, saying for me to ‘look after this: it’s my lucky stick!’

When she came down, and when I passed her back the lucky stick, I asked her if she wanted the ball. It had become almost an after-thought in her mind, or so it seemed. She asked where it had gone, but it didn’t seem to be that important. It was the act, the problem solving, that was the reward in itself. She ran in to tell others what had happened. Later, I saw her lucky stick laid on the table tennis table, as if in a museum (though her mum really didn’t fancy taking it home when she came to collect!). I wanted to tell her the story, but another time.

There are three main things I draw from all of this: the first is the immediate thinking/reminder to self, there and then, about the playwork world’s concept of compound flexibility being in operation (i.e., in short, the flexibility of variables or ‘ingredients’, as termed above, of an environment — things can be used in various ways — supports experimentation in play, leading to self-confidence and self-awareness, leading to greater ability to problem solve, leading to more flexible play environments, and so on); the second thing to consider, back to basics, is that children’s play is or could be this experimentation, exploration, self risk management (play is this, rather than what we think it should be); thirdly, and similarly back to basics, we can trust those children because they know perfectly well what their play is about.
 
 

A personal tribute to Perry Else

Playwork has lost another of its own. This week Professor Perry Else passed away: I wanted to add my own thoughts following those who’ve already taken the time to reflect and write. In a sector that has a certain intensity in its discussion, ideas, experiences, conflicts of perspective, depth of thinking, there is also a cohesion just because of all of that. Perry was one of our own. Of course, playwork has lost others over recent years, but on a personal note Perry’s passing was a little different because I knew him, or at least, I had the privilege to hold discussions with- and be listened to by him. When I heard the sad news on Sunday this week, I was shocked. I knew that he wasn’t well, that there was some treatment involved, but I didn’t know the nature of his illness or the true extent of it: Perry didn’t seem to need to say it to everyone.

So this post is my tribute to Perry, based on the short time that I knew him and on the affect he has had on me. I don’t remember for sure the first time I met Perry: it may have been at Beauty of Play in 2007, or it may have been at another playwork event or conference somewhere around the country. It doesn’t so much matter because what matters is that, having read the Colorado Paper I was at once inspired to be in the presence of one of its authors (it remains a seminal text in the playwork field, if not totally comprehended by all) and also at ease in his presence. Perry had a way of concentrating on what you had to say, listening in, respecting the opinion, before taking the conversation on. I always knew I was in for a challenge of my own concentration when we talked though.

A few years back, at Beauty of Play one year, Perry sat down with me over breakfast, at the table overlooking the trees in the dip at the back of the old country house in Stone, Staffordshire. He was already alert at 8am (which might have been an earthly hour for him, but which has always been an unearthly hour for this playworker!) I had to concentrate especially hard as he talked about his latest writing, his thinking on play, and so forth. Some of it went in but that was my fault for getting out of my tent before double figures in the morning. I remember that Perry said to me that morning that he’d appreciate it if I didn’t tell anyone yet about the contents of that conversation (and he’d had conversations with others, of course) because he was still working on it. I didn’t, as requested.

In the summer of 2012, if memory serves me correctly, Perry and I had a conversation about me delivering a session at Beauty of Play that September. I’d presented before at the event and that year I needed to go but couldn’t fund it so well. Perry offered me a deal and then suggested some research subjects to work on over the summer ready for the event. We agreed that I’d take up the study of epigenetics, and how it related to play. Perry supported my research, offered advice, and took the time to talk things through with me. I really did appreciate his mentoring.

Every so often I would cross paths with him at other events. One year I was tasked with trying to explain parts of psycholudics at the National Playwork Conference and Perry must have been doing the advanced psycholudics discussions, in the same track. It felt like being his ‘warm up man’, either way, and in a way, even though it wasn’t a straight me and then the next guy gig! It focused me. It made me realise I had to get everything spot on for my own audience because they might well then head on to Perry and find out about this psycholudics thing straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Another year Perry and I were both in amongst a large group of playwork colleagues at the Playwork Conference, listening to a colleague discussing the play cycle. It must have been strange, in a way, for him to sit mostly in silence as others discussed the writing that he and Gordon Sturrock had done years before; there again, maybe he’d got used to it. He listened carefully, as seemed to be his way. That session, I related an observation of play that I’d once mentally taken (never having fully written it down), of children lounging around on the platforms of an adventure playground I’d visited in London a few years previously: I used it to explain some learners’ ways of understanding the ‘metalude’. Perry carefully made corrections at this point. He explained the metalude not, as he perceived the example, in terms of a whole ‘thinking process’ taking place in the playing child, but more as a kind of ‘presence’. I didn’t focus well enough to capture his exact words. I wish I’d raised it again with him when I saw him last, in March, at this year’s Playwork Conference.

What transpired was that I collared Professor Else after the workshop, sitting on the floor, in a small group of playwork colleagues, explaining my experience of a number of years of attempting to teach the finer nuances of psycholudics, as I understood it, and how it all seemed to feel like the Colorado Paper had been diluted down to ‘just the play cycle’ bit (through a combination of teaching methods and learner comprehension). Perry listened, accepted the stance, and my memory is of a good discussion held with a man who seemed to respect the contributors, the feedback, the material, the possibilities and consequences.

This year, at the Playwork Conference, towards the end of the day I sat on the sofas that myself and Arthur Battram had set up specifically to engage some salon dialogue. I was tired, having talked with and concentrated on listening to my peers all day. Perry came by and sat down on the sofa. I was instantly aware of concentrating hard (not because Perry spoke a different language, as it were, though others might playfully disagree!) but because I always felt inspired to focus in his presence. There are things, now, that I wish I’d asked him more about.

My deepest condolences go out to Millie, Perry’s daughter, who I met at Beauty of Play, she of the most beautiful singing voice. Perry would tell long tales around the campfire down there at the edge of the woods: tales we’d often heard the year before, story-jokes that wound about with that particularly languid tone of voice he had. Millie would later sing, and I hope she’ll sing a beautiful song for her Dad.

Of course, we can never have known someone as a family member might, though the passing of one of playwork’s own is significant: it’s tinged with extra pertinence if that person has directly affected any other.

Peace be, Professor Else, sir.

Joel with Perry (2012)
 
 

A theory of the real (part two of some)

Back in August 2013 I wrote a post and called it ‘A theory of the real (part one of some)’. Coming off the back of a summer of direct playwork practice, matters of ‘walking the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’ were very much at the forefront of my mind. I’ve just come out of another intense period of open access playwork over Easter and I find that the ‘theory of the real’ is again percolating through. This time, however, it seems that a slightly different angle is trying to nudge itself into my conscious thinking.

Eight months ago I wrote (with regards to what’s written down in playwork books, for example):

When truly observing play, when deeply engaged in the unfolding actions and in the possible formation of verbal legendary narratives, it becomes clearer to me that something other than dry ‘on paper’ play is taking place. Something ‘very other’ takes place, in fact.

This ‘theory of the real’ is fraught with difficulties: not least of these is the potential for those who ‘buy in’ to the idea of ‘doing it for real’ having a total disregard for all that’s been researched and written. There is the potential for some who work in the sector to disregard the literature purely out of laziness or to conceal their apathy at reading.

All of this still registers as ‘true’ to me (or ‘true’ from my particular perspective); however, my reflection on my own recent practice and my observations of my colleagues’ practice directs me towards looking at the work of the team rather than just any given individual — how a good, effective blend of skills/knowledge is essential. My reading of the playwork literature isn’t that the books suggest that every playworker must be whatever that book in question says they should be, though it could be read that way I suppose; it is, rather, that in the reality of the playground (rarefied space, magic fabric), that good team blendedness is difficult to grasp in between pages.

Something other than dry ‘on paper’ playwork takes place, in reality; though something of the book pages is also needed in the mix of the team and its work too. This isn’t a contradiction of what I wrote previously in part one of this occasional series; on the contrary, it compliments the sentiments of that second quoted paragraph, I feel — we must first understand the playwork pages in order to see if they crackle with dryness or with the flickerings of possibility. Total disregard of the literature, out of laziness or apathy, is a little like saying let’s make it all up as we go along because we can.

Once, I made it all up as I went along and I had a great time. That’s just it though: it was me to have a great time and I don’t know about anyone else. Why are we there, on the playground, if not for the children? (As an aside, as I was opening up one morning this week, one of the children on the other side of the gate started questioning me: ‘Do you get paid to work here? How much? Why do you work here? Do you like it?’ To which I answered, respectively: ‘Yes; I’m not telling you; because it’s what I do; absolutely’). Once, I made it all up as I went along, but then I started realising more about my affect on the children I worked with.

So this brings me round, via my affect on the children, to my affect on my colleagues, and my colleagues’ affects on me, and on our affect, as a team, on the children. I thought this week on what sort of playworkers we could be and what any given playworker could be described as. The phrase ‘technical playworker’ has been bouncing around for a while in my head. I’m thinking of it in terms of ‘technical footballer’ (whatever that is, but it’s a phrase I hear plenty of times in sports commentary). There seems to be a sort of praise going on for the technical footballer, by the commentator, an admiration, but also perhaps a suggestion wrapped up in this that is ‘well, the technical footballer (read ‘playworker’) may have the skills-knowledge and general application but lacks in a certain something’. He knows how to ping a seventy yard cross-field pass, inch perfect with the outside of his boot, but can he judge a type of tackle from his repertoire of one when he’s employed as a ‘creative midfielder’? (Apologies to those not up to speed with my footballing analogy!) To bring it back to the playwork:

Perhaps the technical playworker knows what’s what from the books, can observe minutely and at length, can tell their play types apart and why, but has a one-knot repertoire which they use on temporary tarpaulin rain shelters, or when fixing rope swings to branches, much to the vexation of their ‘more than one knot’ repertoired colleagues!

I’m a one-knot playworker, I admit! The technical playworker aspect of me isn’t so cut and dried though. I also know that ‘relating’ is essential on the playground. Those children who want to relate to this adult in their space will find someone who knows that the child with the smiling eyes bouncing up and down at the start of the day is smiling because she really is happy to see him today, and he’ll respond to this because it’s needed; or, the child who offers this playworker just something that they’ve made (a concoction of felt and glue and glitter and feathers), in lieu of perfect English, because the playworker has made time for them for their play to happen, perhaps, should be thanked and have their offering taken seriously. The offering was made that way after all. I haven’t come across such things in the playwork literature yet.

When I see such relating taking place between my colleagues and children, I find myself just stopping to see from a distance. I watched for several minutes, one day this week, stood in the middle of the playground with it all flowing around me as, in the middle distance, up on the hill, I could see a small group of children gathered around a colleague who seemed to be engaged in some sort of play involving self-defence! One of the children, a spiky, funny character by and large, did all the moves (and I couldn’t hear any of the words) and she finished it off with a flourish at my colleague, along the lines of — in the interpretation — ‘Yeah, OK, whatever, girlfriend.’ You know? She seemed to be totally focused on my colleague’s relating to her.

So we have the technical and the relating playworker (the theory of the real thinking hasn’t suggested a better title for the latter yet), but these two personas can come wrapped in the same person. The blend is in the individual but also in the collection of individuals in the team. What I lack in my knots repertoire or in my ability to knock up anything quickly with a few lengths of wood and a power drill, I fill with other skills. Every playwork team, perhaps, needs creatives and builders, relaters and observers, the go-to soft policer, the scavenger or blagger, the overseer, the consultees or sounding boards for ideas, the makers of decisions, those who mix paint, and those who instinctively know a hundred and three variations of messy play that could happen, and so on.

Also, importantly, every team needs a good blend of men and women. What happens when too many men get together in one play place without female balancing is the potential for gorilla (not ‘guerrilla’) action; what happens when too many women get together in one play place without male balancing is the potential for mumsiness. (Both are stereotypes, but both I’ve seen happening in various places).

So, this theory of the real in playwork, as it stands, is a blended affair: read but don’t be a robot to it all; question the books and theories, but only when those books and theories are understood; be as many things as one person can be, but know that being all things is probably impossible; accepting our own strengths and limitations also, perhaps, feeds into seeing the strengths in colleagues; we can compliment our colleagues and vice versa; this team needs many skills to function . . .

Within it, there is the appreciation of what a happy bundle of smiling eyes is, and there is a useful knowledge of a range of different knots; there is the ability to defuse an argument between pre-pubescent teenagers, enraged at unfair pool table etiquette, and there is the ability to mix the exact right shades of paint that will inspire for that day; there is the calming influence of the overseeing observer, and there is the artful scavenger with another car full of things nobody else can see the play value in.

Playwork is many-faceted in the theory of the real, and it would be a static affair if we were all the same, robotically reproducing the same actions, reactions, interactions.
 
 

On the writing of real children

In my continuing thinking on play between generations, I find myself very much absorbed between the pages of a particular book. This is not a playwork theory book, but a work of fiction based — as it is — on real people who are clearly loved. What draws me to write here is that, as I read that book, I became more and more aware of how I was, in part, reading with my playworker’s sensibility in place. The book in question is The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (my review of which can be found on my other site, here).

The Summer Book was written in 1972, originally in Swedish, and it’s the loosely connected reflections of the author regarding the relationship between six year old Sophia and her Grandmother on a little island in the Gulf of Finland. The playworker in me slowly started to make his conscious appearance as I read and as I began to realise that here, in these pages, were plenty of things we might reflect on in our modern play settings and on play in general: Sophia engages in physical play that makes her Grandmother anxious; she connects with nature and living and dead creatures; she sucks up the comments, or teachings, or ways of being of her Grandmother, and so on. It is, however, to one chapter in particular, and my linking of it to the playground, that my thinking is mainly concerned with here as I write.

Towards the end of the book is an account of around eight pages in length (titled Of Angleworms and Others) in which Sophia becomes suddenly afraid of all the small creatures of the island. She accidentally cuts an angleworm in half with a spade and this causes her some distress. Her Grandmother (who only goes by the character name that is ‘Grandmother’ throughout) takes an interesting approach to try to deflect Sophia’s anxiety: after her initial attempts to calm the child’s concerns fail (she says of the two halves of the angleworm ‘They’ll grow out again’), Grandmother then says, ‘You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever taken a sufficient interest in angleworms. Someone who’s really interested ought to write a book about them.’ Later that evening, in the narrative, Sophia starts to write a book about angleworms.

As I read this part of Jansson’s story, I thought on the sparking of play. I read Grandmother’s approach as a subtle means of alleviating and deflecting concerns but also of opening up a door to some form of therapeutic play to take place. The opposite, perhaps (seen many a time in play settings of various flavours of play-comprehension), is the sledgehammer adult-directed approach that is something along the lines of: now, we shall make Mother’s Day cards; now we shall do cooking (and it shall be chocolate brownies); now we’ll all get out jigsaw puzzles. (How I loathe the ‘jigsaw puzzles on the trestle table and nothing else out to play with’ approach!)

Jansson wrote the Moomin books for children (which I’ve heard of but never read), so I don’t wonder at the sensitivity shown in her writing here. What does make me think here though is a string of unfolding flowers: the ‘rose-tintedness’ of 1970s play, in its generalised form, is often denounced — play is no less worse off now, it’s said — but Jansson’s 70s writing here treats the perspective of children differently; could it be that the Scandinavian approach is, and has always been, just ‘better’?; some writers just understand more, in their non-playworkerness, than some who use the ‘playworker’ term do.

In Of Angleworms and Others in The Summer Book, Jansson writes how Sophia dictates her own book, which the latter calls A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart. Grandmother writes Sophia’s increasingly frantic thoughts and, in so doing, supports the whole play process. Sophia is flowing in her concern and in her subject matter, sometimes terse in her communications with her Grandmother because of her absolute focus in the moment, and she is a little precocious too. In this narrative device that is Sophia’s dictation, her speech, and in other aspects of The Summer Book as a whole, I began to wonder about whether Sophia represented a ‘real child’, as I knew children to be. That is, could Jansson avoid the trap of writing a child character as a stereotyped form?

You’ll need to read yourself and draw your own conclusions here, but my reasoning for writing this above, here and now, is that it made me think of the playwork books I’ve read. I’m more and more engaged in the thinking, in my work on the playground, that I’m calling ‘the theory of the real’ and whether what I’ve read and re-read in the playwork literature can be seen to relate to what still happens ‘out there’. What seems to be lacking in the playwork books is a general deficit of real children. Sure, there are reflections and stories scattered here and there (Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood’s Reflective Playwork, and Bob Hughes’ Evolutionary Playwork and Reflective Analytic Practice spring to mind, and there are moments in other books of collated offerings by various authors), but by and large I miss the real children in the general body of literature. Theory is all very well (and it is appreciated that sometimes concepts need to be explained as such), but without the individual children, the individual child, without Mikey or Livvy or Adam (all of whom I find instantly floating up from my long-stored memories of real children), then isn’t it all in danger of being somewhat dry?

There are issues around child protection or children at risk, and confidentiality of information in such cases and so forth, of course, (and it’s a great shame that we often have to think about changing the names of certain children we’ve observed and written about in public arenas), but bear with me here and come along with the thinking that is: what if there were more real stories of real play, engaged in by real children, real characters, for us to try to understand all that we study as playworkers?

Fiction offerings sometimes come along and leave us speechless (such as Jansson’s Summer Book did for me) though thoughtful: could Sophia be a real child (by which I mean, not ‘is she based on a real child?’, but ‘could she be real ‘out there’?’) At other times, fiction offerings completely miss what childness is (in the stereotyping, in the inability to see play, or in the treating of its child characters as merely minor unformed adult beings in waiting). If the ‘real child’ is written in the fiction, and by extension in the playwork books, then the possibility of real relations between generations starts to form: that is, if you can write a ‘real child’ you can comprehend the ‘theory of the real’ aspect that is, in my experience, the shifting fluidity of acceptances between the playworker and a child, this child, that child, Lucy, Ryan, Laura . . .

In A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart, in Of Angleworms and Others, in The Summer Book, the fictional Sophia (based on a real Sophia) dictates a passage that, to me, reads as an allusion towards the child’s concerns over a separation from her Grandmother (the analogy that is the splitting in two of the angleworm). The writer in me wants to believe this as a very real and possible way in which deeply buried concerns can manifest themselves; the playworker in me rejects the fictional writer and asks, ‘would a child think so deeply and so analagously as this?’, before reminding himself that yes, of course, a child can think deeply. (I remember, I think, a story written by Bob Hughes regarding a child’s drawing of a wedding dress and blood). It is more of the ‘real child’ that needs writing, more of this child, of that child . . .

Once, maybe twenty years ago (I forget for sure), Jaimie (who I only guess now as being about eight or nine years old, because I didn’t write it all down at the time), brought a matchbox into the hall where the children played. Inside the matchbox was a dead spider and she was keeping it safe. Jaimie’s father, I knew, had just recently died. We didn’t talk much about it, but we both knew about the spider.

Stories on play, of real children, stories that stay with us, make us richer in ourselves and in our relations between generations.
 
 

The 13th commandment of playwork: thou shalt not educate

Following on from my previous speculation on the ‘Ten-ish commandments of playwork’ (which were well received, all things considered), I realise I forgot one. Well, maybe I forgot a lot and I need to keep adding to these as the thinking happens. We’ll see. Anyway, for now the one I forgot is the one about education. Let’s call it the 13th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not educate’ (if we’re talking from a playworker’s point of view, that is). Education is for others, concerns of play is for us. That’s a given if we’re working in the field of children’s play for play’s sake, right?

Maybe it isn’t so cut and dried. The thing we adults don’t tend to do so well regarding children is resist the urge to ‘help’; the passing on of what we like to perceive as our individual and collective wisdoms; just show the way. It can be frustrating watching the minor struggles of everyday play taking the most circuitous of routes to achieve the desired next part (I won’t push my luck and stretch that to ‘the desired end’, because play is not about ‘product’): take the example of, say, the six-ish year old who can’t find the end of the cellotape because she hasn’t worked out that folding it over after each cut-off (or bite-off) of a strip will mean no lost end; or maybe a child can’t figure out the way to light the matchstick when trying to get the tealight burning, holding it at unworkable angles against the matchbox; maybe a child can’t work out how to get the water from the full container to the guttering, wanting to bring the mountain to the sandpit, as it were, instead of the bucket to the pond.

All of these play situations I’ve been party to in recent weeks. Sometimes we just get it wrong, according to the ‘Playwork Scripture’: give the opportunity to discover and experiment over to the children; they can make their own mistakes and find out their own ways of doing things.

At the playground the other day I was asked for help by a younger girl who was making some sort of bag: she’d been hoarding apparent essentials away, for possibly a few days before that, in a cardboard box (you know, other smaller boxes, bits of shiny paper, paper and glue-smeared things); now she needed a bag. She didn’t know how to make it, and she couldn’t find the end of the cellotape. I said for her to give it all a try (I didn’t know what she wanted her bag to be anyway). She’s quite self-sufficient in most things and doesn’t seem to need too much attention. She made the bag’s shiny blue handles (which I thought wouldn’t carry the weight of glue-smeared smaller boxes and so forth, but what do I know?) She just didn’t know how to get her bag started. I knew. I had to fight the urge to ‘educate’ her on it. I tried to walk away, in a supportive ‘I’ll be back’ kind of way, but she wouldn’t have it: she kept calling me back. I started a bag off for her (heinous playwork sin!). I left it part way through though because I knew she was more than capable of finishing it off. She did, but she didn’t tape up the bottom of it. I fought the urge to tell her. I told her (another heinous sin). I said, ‘You haven’t got a bottom to your bag.’ She piled her glue-smeared box and shiny paper and other essentials into it anyway.

The other week, I knelt down in the gathering gloom as the children huddled round and attempted to light matchsticks to light their tealights. They were all very patient and waited for the matchbox to come their way. One of the younger children just wasn’t getting it though. She was somewhat tentative with the matchstick, which I could appreciate (after all, the playground is probably the only place she’d get to do this). I’d discussed the fact that this wasn’t to be done at home, don’t worry. The girl dragged the matchstick slowly towards her. I said to do it away from her. She held the matchstick at a flat angle and dragged it away from her several times. I said maybe strike it at a different angle. Nothing happened several times over. I knew exactly how to light the matchstick. This is frustrating for the adult.

On another day, an older boy had found the guttering I’d put out in the sandpit area. I’d set up deliberately that day because, for a few weeks I’d been observing how some of the children had been poking around the discarded plastic pond moulding that had filled up with rainwater. I filled it up with clean water and the happy co-incidence of finding the guttering round the back of the site added to the idea. I put it out there with some pots and pans and flower pots with holes in them and so forth and left it be. I was a little surprised to find the older boys getting so into it later. One of these boys said to me, in passing, that he was ‘building a facility’. I don’t know what sort of facility it was! Another day, when the play was still happening there, he needed the pond water close by the sandpit. It was heavy and a bucket to the pond would have been easier, but no, the pond had to come over. He didn’t get the idea though that two of us pulling was easier than one of us pulling and one pushing. I let him in on the secret (shh).

So these are just small examples and maybe the children got what they wanted or needed from my actions in their play before I left them be again. Maybe, though, my presence and my actions stopped something else from happening: that self-discovery. Thou shalt not educate, so says the scripture, because that ‘compound flexibility’ effect (odd playwork-leaning phrase towards self-confidence and self-esteem) may be being curtailed; also here I think mainly of Bob Hughes’ writing on neuronal short-cutting when we also add Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) into the mix.

Some playwork literature/scripture to add in here then: Hughes (2012, p281) quotes Smith (1994): ‘The ZPD is the difference between what the child can achieve unaided and what he or she can do with the aid of a more experienced, probably older person to help.’

Hughes later adds (p282): ‘However, the biggest problem with the ‘zone of proximal development’ approach is that adult help will introduce ‘short-cuts’ to learning that will leave the child with gaps in its understanding or in the neuronal pathways that are formed as a consequence of new learning, that may make it difficult or impossible for the child to undertake similar tasks unaided.’

I’ve taught adults from the playwork scriptures for a fair few years now. I preach to my students not to do things for the children (sometimes quoting Hughes and sometimes going as far as looking at neuroscientific research into brain growth, and so on). I’ve got no reason to doubt what these books tell me; I tell my students and anyone who’ll listen that play isn’t about children going into their play specifically to learn things (did you do that as a child?) However, sometimes we adults do have an urgent need to help, to just chivvy things along a little, to get things going for them before walking away. Sometimes children ask for that help.

Here Hughes also adds (and its buried away so that I haven’t fully taken this on-board before — blinded as I have been by the ‘weighty neuroscience’): ‘Certainly if the child initiates an intervention then limited help should be given.’ The focus on onus in these passages though is still on the child. Can it be that unsticking the end of the cellotape and kick-starting a bag design, helping with the lighting of a matchstick, or showing a way to bring a pond full of water to a sandpit (in their minor moments) all contributed to this neural short-cutting? Or were these forms of a ‘play education’ that were desired by those children? Certainly I’m still against the wholesale education of children in their play settings: they get plenty of educational input from school, and maybe also from their parents; they’re not at their play setting to ‘get educated’; it is their play setting after all, or it should be.

So, thou shalt not educate: should we grit our teeth and bare the frustration of the obvious solution to the children’s play problems staring us in the face?; or should we just accept that we’re there in the play setting, us adults, so we might as well ‘help’, pass on our perceived individual and collective wisdoms, show the way?

Speaking ill of the playwork literature/scripture doesn’t sit easily for me sometimes; yet, in the ‘real world’ of the playground, I know I also get just slightly frustrated at clumsy cellotape-‘not thinking ahead’-ness, at awkward tools use, say, and at failures to spot the blindingly obvious (well, the blindingly obvious to me, at least).

Thou shalt not educate (even on a small scale) may well be a tension for lots of people who work in playwork: some though also go off way down the road towards Education (with the capital E) and should therefore, perhaps, relinquish the playworker title altogether. Where, though, is that line in the sand?
 
 
References

Hughes, B. (2012), Evolutionary playwork. 2nd edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Smith, P. K. (1994), Play training: an overview in Hellendoorn, J., van der Kooij, R., and Sutton-Smith, B. (eds), Play and intervention. Albany: State University of New York Press. Cited in Hughes, B. (2012)
 
 

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