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

Posts tagged ‘playwork theory’

A personal tribute to Gordon Sturrock

It was with sadness that I learned of Gordon Sturrock’s passing, just a few weeks ago now, pretty much five years exactly since the passing of Perry Else. The two are inextricably connected with one another in my mind and studious experiences. Just as was the case with Perry, I knew that Gordon was unwell, but that his illness was terminal (he said as much a year or so ago at the PlayEd conference in Cambridge). I knew also, by this spring just gone, that Gordon had only a matter of a few months left to live. Even so, the inevitable news of such final events still has the potential to leave a recipient a little caught unawares. It is, therefore, all the more laudable that Gordon’s late flurry of writing and communications with other playwork writers and thinkers took place with such focus on his part.

I had spent the best part of last summer developing ideas with Gordon, via email, and writing those ideas into what became our joint paper, published in the autumn. I was acutely aware of the support he was providing, not just for myself, but for others engaged in study and development of their playwork writings. Gordon seemed to have a need to make use of what time he had left to succinct effect. He wrote at length to various groups, and to individuals; he sent books and other gifts. It was, in my reading of his focus, a way of saying to those he communicated with: keep it all going, think, keep thinking, take this all on further.

Around Christmas and the New Year, Gordon launched into an array of lengthy written communiques with a group of play and playwork thinkers and writers. He was passionate therein about an urgency in social and political constructs. He kept a keen eye, and also fed into his other various writings, the goings-on of the ‘gilets jaunes’, the yellow vests, and the mass protests taking place in France at that time. He sent a gift of a yellow vest, compelling that it be worn with pride. Gordon was seeing playwork and its reason for being having a place amongst the precariat. Those missive communiques, pamphlets reminiscent of tubthumping calls to arms of days gone by (I imagined they might be carefully typeset and nailed to telegraph poles, or illicitly pasted up somewhere, in alleys in bohemian quarters, maybe, in the deep of night), those pamphlets sit quietly awaiting my re-reading again, visible in my email intray.

Those who have read much of Gordon’s work would no doubt agree that his writing often required a great deal of concentration. Gordon was of the opinion that those who failed to understand the words he was using (and his vocabulary was extensive) should invest in a dictionary rather than him dumb it down. I readily admit that my vocabulary has improved significantly because of Gordon’s writing. In person, however, you seldom needed that dictionary.

I have an abiding memory of Gordon observing me as I was (what I now come to term more and more as) playworking. It was maybe a dozen years ago and we were at a small conference. There were maybe only a couple of children there, maybe only the one, the son of a delegate, and there was a break in proceedings. The boy played and, every now and then, cued me into the flow of things. I went with that flow. Gordon was nearby, quietly taking everything in. He later told me what I was doing, a level I was operating on, which I was conversant with as he explained what he’d seen but which, over the years of reflecting on this one play frame, I understand better and better as I replay recent playworking through that same lens. Gordon had explained to me his observation of a playworker witnessing their practice as they worked. As with other significant moments of appreciated feedback, I have never forgotten this or him taking the time to observe and see to it that it was worthwhile to tell me.

His explanation linked very much with certain aspects written into the Colorado Paper, which he co-authored with Perry Else. This remains, to this day, a seminal paper in the playwork field, even though many still haven’t read it, and few have understood it fully (suchlike as this was in one of Gordon’s final laments). I will not claim that I understand the Colorado Paper fully, but I become more astutely aware of its inner workings every time I consider it and every time I run it through my current reflections and practice. On more than a few occasions, Gordon used the idea of a paper or thinking process being ‘a North’. I read that as something akin to following the Pole Star. The Colorado Paper is a North.

Gordon’s background in psychoanalysis has taught me plenty, or set me off into trying to find out plenty, on the significant matters of potential neuroses, therapeutic (small ‘t’) interaction, and the sheer weight of what might be in our day-to-day experiences around children. Play, and the playworker (minus the possible manifestation of the ego), have great and graceful, small and significant affects that can, under conducive circumstances, make such difference. Gordon knew this. If we indulge in the slightly reductionist exercise, for a moment, of choosing which strand of playwork thinking suits our own experiences and worldviews best, mine has for a long time favoured Gordon and Perry’s psycholudic consideration, a little ahead of Bob Hughes’ evolutionary writings (as valued as they also are) or developmental schools.

What Gordon gave me, through his writings and other communications, was the gentle persuasion to explore deeper and deeper into concepts I thought I already knew well enough, but of course, didn’t quite. I am aware, currently, that a regular group of children can bring to this playworker, daily, all their play, all their stories and continued narratives, all their possibilities and all their tumbling agitations with one another, with where they are, with the adult world and so on, but they also bring all their projections and all their transference. One of the last things that Gordon wrote, deep down in a missive to be relocated, was about how we should, as I read it, examine the counter-transference in our practice.

Gordon had always engendered in me the desire to think, and he still does, just these few weeks after his passing. Peace be to you, Gordon: an Artisan-Erudite.


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.

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.

Protected: Play just is

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Protected: Embracing interactions and tolerances

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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 pallet 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), Janey (who I only guess now as having been 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. Janey’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.

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