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

Posts tagged ‘playworker’

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 3 of 3

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Parachuting playworkers and parents
There are many, many ways for a parachute to benefit the play. There are also many ways for the adults near the parachute to benefit (or not) the play as well. The large colourful affair was a standard piece of our kit wherever we went this summer: in the parks and halls of the villages, at the festivals, at the youth pavilion. Sometimes the play naturally morphed into the standard set of parachute games (it sometimes feels like the set list of a gig: not that it’s a lack of imagination on the part of the playworkers, it’s just that the children seem to want/know the same games). Sometimes, at certain sites, the parachute has good times to be brought out, something different, something new (the wind can bring this thinking on, or it can be flapped to say ‘this is a playable place’). On some occasions it was good to see parents come over, pick up the edge of the parachute when they saw something starting to happen, and go with the flow as children ran underneath or around it. It’s entirely possible for a group of disparate adults who’ve never met each other before to fall into an organic and co-operative motion and knowledge of what’s happening and why. The why is the children’s play.

There is the opposite too, of course. One day, we’d laid the parachute out at the widest part of the playable area at a festival (nominally the entrance to the children’s dedicated enclosed area, though it was right in front of the chemical toilets, which wasn’t ideal!). Nothing organised was happening, and it was fine. A woman came over though, quite forcibly, and she picked up the parachute and proceded to instruct a child to play. The child went with it, and he didn’t seem too perturbed (perhaps he was used to it). Some of the playworkers came over to hold the parachute too, in support, though we said nothing. The woman was irritating me a little, I admit, but the child was playing, and it became his play, of sorts, so I didn’t intervene. After ten minutes or so, the woman decided that the play was done. Off she went with her child. I don’t remember seeing her again. Perhaps I should have said something; perhaps it all ended up fine, or sort of fine, in the end.

At the pavilion, a few days later, it was a windy day. I was working as the only playworker outside on the grass. I brought out the parachute and spread it out on the ground. I didn’t really think I’d be doing ‘games’ because it didn’t look and feel like that type of a session. A group of younger children played underneath the parachute and, without really realising how, I was then involved. The children seemed to enjoy running down the centre of the barrel shape that the parachute made as I lifted it from one end. The wind was the only support I needed there. We ran the parachute down the field, going with the wind, turned and ran it back with the children running underneath it as it billowed. They shouted at me to let it go, so I did. It flew and they chased it. ‘Again, again,’ they shouted. So we did it all again, and again, and again.

I can’t leave the subject of parachutes without making reference to my younger playwork colleague (she of the non-gloop childhood) who, one day in a village hall, as we were trying to make what we call a ‘mushroom’ shape with the parachute, did something just amazing and small and beautiful. We only had a handful of children with us at the parachute so it was a little tricky getting enough lift to billow the fabric up (even though we had a couple of parents with us too). I decided that, if we stepped forwards a little as we lifted, this would give that little bit of oomph that we needed to float the parachute: except, I decided this in my head and I didn’t say it out loud! As I stepped forward, from the corner of my eye I saw her watching me carefully. She stepped forward with me. The parachute lifted up high. It’s a small thing, but it was important in the moment.

Holding patterns
I’ve been reminded again this summer, on occasions, of what it means to ‘hold the play frame’ for a child or group of children. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about ways in which an adult may be in service to the play by keeping it viable (not controlling it but just being the glue for a while). Some children have bounced their play ideas off of me, or sought quiet affirmation that ‘this use, with this thing’ is not against some rules, or sometimes they’ve played out their ideas including me, through me, around me. Occasionally, I’ve reflected that I was the glue for several play frames (or bubbles of play in the metaphor I’ve used before), from different children, playing different things, all at the same time. This is no easy task. If the chosen playworker isn’t there to maintain the viability of the play, the play doesn’t happen in the way the child is indicating they want it to. If the playworker stays too long in the play, it stops being the thing it was or was intended to be, and could become play disagreeable to the child or children, or it could become the play of the playworker. I don’t know what this says if the playworker finds themselves in an almost constant state of holding the meaning of the play, or being the mirror, or the glue, or whatever metaphor is preferred, for two or three hours almost non-stop. I do know that to do it right, it needs judgement.

When adults play
When children come to a site where I’ve brought the play stuff, I quite often say to the parents who come along too that ‘adults can play too.’ Now, on the one hand, this play stuff is not for the adults; it’s for the children. On the other hand, however, there is some benefit in (a) children and parents playing together (provided, I think, that the parents don’t take over the play or direct it), and (b) adults being made comfortable with the fact that, just because they’re adults now, their play-engagement doesn’t have to be over. By saying to parents, ‘you can play too’, I hope this starts to break down any preconceived notion that children do xyz and adults do something else. I also hope that they can start to interact with their children at these sessions on terms which they might not necessarily have done before.

At one park, I remember, we had just a small group of younger children with us but we’d spread all the making and sticking and cutting and so forth stuff out on the tarp on the grass. A couple of the parents sat there too and all the adults chatted as the children played and, somewhere along the line, I felt, the parents started playing too. It was respectful of their children’s creations (the children were busy smooshing up clay and playdough and jamming beads and googly eyes into it all!), and the parents weren’t telling the children what and how to make things. The parents made their own things, almost as if their hands were doing things independent of their conversations. It was good to see.

Observation of adult engagement with play was a little different at one of the festivals. We didn’t have such arts and crafts play stuff out on the main strip between the designated children’s area and the coffee stalls and such like, but we did have a long skipping rope! I’ve long known that adults don’t particularly enjoy the idea, generally speaking, of participating in what they perceive as ‘children’s play’, at least not in public view! (It’s strange then that those same adults are quite happy to dance at the bandstand, to dress up as if it were normal day-to-day attire, and to engage in the cultural or religious play of devotion, worship, prayer and such like at the stone circle). So, maybe we were being a little provocative and playing for ourselves when we decided to stretch the long skipping rope half-way across the main strip: those walking up the slope along the well-worn track would need to either engage with the rope or walk around it. Plenty walked around it. I do remember one young couple walking by though and the woman, who was probably no more than in her early twenties, looked at us as if to suggest a question. We nodded and she seemed pleased to be given the opportunity to skip for a short while. Adults sometimes need more than just a rope strung across the grass to accept the invitation to play.

Children, by contrast, can often see a rope and make decisions of their next actions based on different starting points: this rope is here for me if I want to use it or not. The children on the main strip of grass soon somersaulted over it, limbo danced under it, jumped it, skipped as we swung it.

This all said, over the summer there was plenty of adult play observed (either after explicit permissions given, as above, or of those adults’ own accord): lots of use of poi (either the ribbon-tailed, or water poi, or glow in the dark variety); making and crafting (under the guise of it being a ‘workshop’); rituals and celebrations; dancing and singing; playing instruments at the bandstand in what looked and felt like spontaneous groups, comings-together; drinking beer, of course! The thing is, though, and I think I may be largely right here, though I will stand corrected if not, I’d dare say it was only the playworkers (or the play-literate/play-mentality adults) who did or would call this all ‘play’, their own play. In the world of ‘being adult’, all of the above (and other examples) are known by different names: celebration, festival, ritual, healing, relaxation, recreation, hobby, pastime, sport . . . really though, they’re all play, and that’s not a bad word to call it.


Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 2 of 3

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Experiments in bubbles
All summer I had been experimenting with making batches of variously mixed ‘bubble juice’ and prototypes of homemade bubble-making equipment. Are these rods and cord contraptions known as bubble wands? I don’t know. In the garden, at home, family children christened them ‘bubble knickers’ (because these ones were made with scrapstore elastic — though I think this elastic was first used for bra straps rather than knickers, but hey, the name stuck!). We attached the elastic, hung with metal weights (what look like army dog tags, and sometimes old drawer handles), onto sawn off bits of bamboo or thinner garden cane. Various bubble knicker contraptions worked in various ways. Various juice mixes (water, washing up liquid, glycerine, cornflour, baking powder) also worked in individual manners. We found that big bubbles need bigger spaces than those confined by fences and houses to be free to fly!

I took the bubble knickers and the juice batch of the moment to play sessions at a youth pavilion site (where there were children from babies to teenagers), and to a beer festival, late on in the summer. We were invited there as part of the play support. We must have got through several buckets’ worth of bubble juice that day in the sun! What struck me was that many of the children were very determined and persistent in trying to make their own bubbles. Often, when you go to festivals and they have bubbles on, the bubble-adult doesn’t let the children create (the children will have a good time chasing and popping the bubbles, sure, but more can be offered). So, after some of the children asked me the odd question that is, ‘Is it free [to play]?’ (to which I said, ‘Of course’), they took the bubble knicker sticks and kept trying and trying, not losing faith, that they could make those big bubbles. When they did, they seemed pleased with themselves.

Other, mostly younger children, who wanted to play were helped by their parents. I use this word loosely: there’s ‘helping’ and there’s ‘now darling, do it like this, here you go, look you’ve made a bubble, well done, let’s go and see what else we can do now.’ I tried to distract some parents with conversation. I noticed, as the afternoon went on, in the good and welcome sun, that the very young children seemed just to like putting their hands in the slimy mix. This worked out fine because they got their sensory input and, strangely, bubble juice sometimes works better with the added whatever-extras from lots of inquisitive hands!

Play of the subverts
At the youth pavilion site, for a two week stint, I took play stuff that was probably more geared towards the younger children (so bits and bobs that needed space, like various balls, a parachute, chalks, and so on) and a fair amount of art and crafts stuff (beads and various papers and card, clay and playdough, things to cut with, things to stick on, etc). We experimented daily with the layout of the place (it being used not only by us, but also by the local teenagers and pre-teens, and by members of the public because it was also a café space). What I found was that, gradually, more and more of the teens and pre-teens were joining in, though on their own terms.

One day, a group of boys were outside and that day I’d brought some proper tennis rackets with me (I’d observed on previous days how the smaller, thicker rackets had been used, and I thought these full size ones might work well too). I hadn’t anticipated that there’d be a group of teens who’d want to use them. They started batting the tennis balls up against the windows and then, soon enough, up onto the pitched roof of the pavilion. The balls rolled down again and, I thought, these returns made by gravity were returns of their cues, so it was all good. Then the balls got batted harder and over the ridge of the roof. It was all done ‘by accident’, of course. There was a small yard at the back of the building, and access to it was only by way of a usually locked door at the rear of the main room. The boys batted the balls over the roof and into the yard, I had no doubt, just so they could go ‘help’ by being allowed access to the yard by the youth worker staff and to retrieve them. Here I don’t use the words in inverted commas above in any cynical way: rather, it’s a making note of subversions by the teenagers at play.

Of stuff and other words
For nearly every session at this site, I also took family children with me. They’re old enough now, and excited enough, to ‘come to work’ with me. Princess K. (so-written-as here because of a continuing partiality for over-glittery Barbie stories and extra-squeakily sanitised fairy tales!) and the Boy Formerly Known as Dino-Boy but who’s now more Viking-Boy are well-used to what we tend to call ‘stuff play’: that is, the shed is (currently) neatly arranged (though not always!) with an array of bits and bobs for making with and experimenting with and just, well, playing with, however the need arises. So, to them, the boxes of stuff that (later in the summer) I neatly tessellated and re-tessellated every day into the back of my car were filled with the possibility of whateverness. There’s no adult agenda along the lines of ‘now, today we’re going to make this, do this, have this theme’ with stuff play. I did, however, say to them that we may have to curb one of our usual joint-play behaviours (that is, the way they and me all interact, in our family ways of being, in our play fashion, sometimes): there are certain words (low-level and funny though they are to us) that others might take offence at! So, stuff play was engaged with plenty and, one day, the agreements having been reached and acted on with certain word play, we shut the car doors ready to go home again and Princess K. asked me, ‘Can we play the insults game now?’ Cue lots of ‘bum’ and ‘fart’, and so on, as we drove off.

Further and continuing reflections on gloop
As well as it being a summer of bubble experimentations, I also had access to a stock of cornflour. Cornflour ‘gloop’ (cornflour and water mix, though not too much water or it’s just a mess and doesn’t ‘work’) is one of those things that I’ve long taken for granted as a standard play resource (I’ve also done a few years as an early years practitioner, as well as being a playworker, and this sort of stuff was pretty omnipresent in nurseries then). However, and I think I may have reflected on this before elsewhere in my writings, I keep coming across adults who’ve never experienced gloop. There may be readers right now who are in this category. It doesn’t make a person less if they haven’t experienced a certain form of play (just because I grew up in the 70s, say, it doesn’t make my play better than someone who grew up in the 2000s); that said, I do tend to come back to the thinking on what I loosely call ‘gloop deprivation’.

This is a broader conversation than just gloop but I use it to illustrate the point that, for whatever reason, what may be deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ play forms or resources by some adults can, in effect, deprive a child of a sensory input or experience which they then grow up without. I took cornflour gloop to the pavilion and also to some sites in the villages, as we travelled around. (Note to self: just because you put a tarpaulin down in a village hall, don’t expect gloop to stay within this boundary!). I worked with a younger colleague who, herself and for whatever reason (experiences at nursery school, the general vogue of what play is/should be at the time, etc.) hadn’t ever played with gloop or knew what it was. At the pavilion, the babies seemed to enjoy the mix, spreading it over their hands and legs and over the grass.

To be continued . . .

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 1 of 3

Summer has come and gone, and it has been one of first looking forward to all of the different things that might happen, in all of the different places, then jumping right in: play support at various festivals, playworking in the villages, a regular stint based at a youth centre in a local town community, being at home with the play, some sessions of play support for children who had re-located countries. It has been a summer of the jobbing playworker. What remains in the reflections?

The Thunderdome
We made two separate excursions, on different dates and for different festivals, to locations along the winding stretch of the River Severn where England and South Wales meet. Unfortunately for us, we seemed to have arrived in storm season. The children didn’t seem to mind. Tents put up on exposed hillsides in near constant sideways wind and rain are prone to potential submission though! The weather made putting up the big teepees and yurts somewhat tricky. On the main field, one of the dome frames was left without its canvas for a couple of days: the children swung and jumped from the frame as we walked past. It reminded me of the climbing frame constructions I used to play on as a child (except ours weren’t dome-shaped, they were stacks of brutalist cubes of what may well even have been scaffolding poles, and we didn’t have grass underneath, or ‘safety surfacing’: we had concrete — it was the 70s and we laughed in the face of Health and Safety!). The children climbed on the dome-shaped frame and I didn’t even realise it was the frame of a yurt (until days later when the canvas went on). Children can transform things into playable things, and in so doing those things can have the capacity to take on new mental forms for observers. At some point, the frame was named ‘The Thunderdome’: the children jumped onto an old crash mat and played rough and tumble fighting in there.

A cardboard slot in the weather
We had one good afternoon of weather at that particular festival (notwithstanding the school of thinking that goes: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’). It was the Saturday afternoon and I’d been assigned to do some art and older age-appropriate storytelling with the pre-teens and teenagers. It wasn’t ever going to be an ‘activity’, in my head, as such, but rather more like, ‘here’s this gig, with this stuff, let’s go with what happens.’ It didn’t turn out that way either: not with regards to art and storytelling for this age group, at least. I’d taken a whole pile of corrugated cardboard (the side panels of bike boxes, which I’d blagged from various local bike shops and scrounged from the yard round the back of Halfords a few weeks earlier), a box of chalks and a pile of charcoal from the fire pit. That was it. I had some story ideas in my head. I didn’t need them. The sun came out just as I was setting up and I thought: let’s just be outside on the grass, not in the inside tent space we were allotted. I’d been observing the play of the various age groups over the previous days and I’d had a feeling that something ‘other’ was going to happen. So it turned out. After a short time, a bunch of older and younger children were playing with the cardboard and chalks, but the older children soon lined the card panels up, end to end, to make a slide. When they were done the co-creation of a cardboard fort started happening with the younger children.

I had my penknife with me and the children directed me as I cut slots into the card, and arrangements of walls were built. Soon they were saying, ‘I need a window’ or ‘Can I have a door?’ I cut windows and doors, and roofs were made. The play morphed and flowed and walls were taken down and rebuilt and smaller houses were made and moved. It was all in the flow. I stepped back and talked with parents who were watching on.

Two young brothers, who I’d seen around and who were — shall we say — a handful at times for their parents, bundled into the cardboard constructions. The youngest was bashing away at the walls but he was happy enough. The other children weren’t best pleased though. All they saw was this boy being destructive to their constructions. It struck me in one of those moments of ‘not really knowing for sure where it comes from’ that all the boy was after was a compartment, a space within the construction, for himself. He was trying to get into others’ small inhabited areas but they didn’t want him. I quickly constructed him a space of his own. He laid down in it, still and seemingly content. There are moments in playwork when you get it right, either by luck or by conscious or subconscious good judgement, or all of these.

Just as we were starting to pack away (the frayed and damaged cardboard was on the way out anyway, and my gig time was up), the rain started sploshing down and disintegrating the card. It felt portentous, significant, in its own way!

Executing play: context and momentary witnessing
The children at this festival wandered the site and, in passing the play that’s already happening, the keen observer can be surprised or fascinated or rendered thoughtful about what has just drifted by. One day I was walking across the main rectangle of grass (kind of like a village green, I suppose, flanked by the larger marquees — the main meeting space, the children’s tent, the café and stage; the Thunderdome was at one end, and a large teepee was nearby; in the middle of the green was the flag circle). A small group of children were going past, not paying any attention to me. I heard one say out loud to the group, ‘OK, who wants to be executed?’ So, yes, that got my attention! There was a small clamour for the privilege of being the chosen one. The chosen one was led away, arms lightly secured, and into the darkness of the large teepee. I have no idea what happened next in the play: I wasn’t in a position of privilege in the play frame, both in psychological- and physical-boundaried terms.

I was, at once, slightly disturbed, intrigued, mindful of what I was actually witnessing rather than what others might describe it as. I witnessed this for maybe thirty seconds in passing, but it’s a stand-out moment of the summer. It’s laden with all manner of potential background narratives of what might have happened previously in the play, what had been seen or talked about, what had been absorbed, what had been invented and why. What I saw was out of context, and I won’t ever know what the fuller context for that play frame was.

Elsewhere, I’ve done some play support work with a small group of children whose families have come from other countries. One of those countries we’ve seen on the news quite a lot as of late. We have, perhaps, become desensitised to what’s been going on there. I won’t write here of anything said or played in that group, but let’s just say that a brief conversation with one child, about nothing much on the face of it, suddenly struck me, in my moment of epiphany, about what war does.

To be continued . . .

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 grounds us

After something of a sojourn, I have a need to begin to immerse again in the thinking on play and in the ongoing practising of playworking. I have been away, overwhelmed: not by play but rather by the microcosms I have moved within. It’s some small wonder that all our faculties might remain more or less intact, in the adult unreal world, what with all the psychological and emotional bruising we receive in the accumulation of all our interactions. There are times when we just need to stand well back, to breathe, to look around and see and be again. If it’s like this for adults sometimes, just what must it be like for today’s children?

So, here is a statement for moving forwards: play grounds us.

We tend to live within a society or structure of adult thinking that is, at best, concerned with polarities and, at worst, content just to repeat the received ‘wisdom’. To this end, it’s ‘play’ or ‘work’, ‘find solace from work in play’, and so on. Of course, as the wiser know, play is intertwined through life, integral to it, not able to be stripped away from it. It all comes down to an attitude, perspective, a way of seeing and being. What can we see if we attempt to remove ourselves from the ‘typical-adult hegemony’ manner of perception?

Children tend to ‘get’ a playful adult. I have experienced this, talked and written about it many, many times. Earlier this week was the most recent, in discussion with someone about ways in which we might talk play with parents. This discussion, as well as others I’ve recently had or anticipate having soon, gives me a little pause for thought though: perhaps I should start shifting away from the term ‘playful adult’ to something more like ‘play-focused adult’. The former is beginning to feel a little hackneyed, a bit too ‘wacky, zany’ and I’ve long since had a low tolerance for the interchangeability of ‘hey, look at me, I’m wacky-zany’ and loose approximations of playworking (I make no apologies for the lah-de-dahness inherent in this statement): the former is a clown; the latter is something very different. Maybe ‘play-focused’ though has too much of the whiff of ‘focus group’ or somesuch about it? It’ll come.

So, pending a settling of satisfactory terminology, children tend to ‘get’ play-focused adults: when in the moment of just such a situation recently (a younger child at a play session seemed to have sized me up pretty well in her progressive interactions with me), I was able to switch out of adult-think as I tried to appreciate what was important for her. What seemed important was the moment of rolling the hoop, again and again. It was a similar perception recently whilst working with children at a camp in the forest: what seemed important was the sudden play cue (one of the most sudden and direct I think I’ve ever been offered) of a younger boy who just turned around where he sat, without first giving any eye contact or other immediately recognisable communication, to initiate catch-throw with me. What became important was the need to carry on the cues and returns (on both of our parts). Another day at the camp, a younger girl also had a need for throw-catch, and we threw the beanbags to one another over and over and over and over. She said ‘bye’ and a cheery ‘thanks, though I’ll never see you again.’

‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily relate here to the idea of a stern attitude: on the contrary, the ‘instant play cue’ boy, for example, just kept laughing as the cues and returns continued! Later, I found out that it’s practically impossible to do a good job of face painting with a child who just makes you laugh so much! Some children are deadly serious about face painting (not packing mirrors helps). So, ‘what’s important’ in play has its context. In the woods, we started to set up what I thought might turn into some small sort of spider’s web of elasticky line between the trunks, but then a few children asked to do some webbing too. Give up any lingering half-baked design ideas at this stage because the ‘co-produced’ becomes something else entirely. They just kept winding and winding and making an ever expanding 3D sort of sculpture. They would have carried on all through the forest, I’m sure, if there’d been enough elastic. It seemed important to the children, this winding and web spinning, in the moment. The area, just beyond the rope swing, earned itself a name almost straight away (named places earn this because of significances levied on them, and named places grow in stature because of being named — think aboriginal songlines): the place was called ‘The Lasers’. Various parents were summoned to gaze wondrously on The Lasers or to try to navigate through it. Later, across The Ditch of Doom, I spotted a rope bridge had been constructed. It was all ‘necessary’, ‘important’, and of the now.

In the evening, children clumped into factions as the games swilled around: the older children and a few younger ones played some form of hide-chase-tap; the younger girls led a few younger boys out into the trees for a ghost hunt — they came back for torches and trooped off again. No adults were called upon to be part of that play, except to source the torches. Despite all of this, I had the feeling (a playworker on site as I was) of never really being ‘off duty’, which was fine. That is, the children seemed to have ‘got’ this play-focused adult fairly quickly and, whether I was sat reading a book, having a quiet beer, eating, or carrying equipment around, play cues came. Play doesn’t switch on and off, if the non-polarity of thinking attitude is engaged with: play is just there.

Or rather, perhaps, we might think of play in simplistic Schrödingerian terms: play is both there and not there, potential and actual, kinetic and static, and more, and all of these.

It’s all a ‘perhaps’ and, after something of a sojourn from thinking on play and the practising of playworking, after a period of feeling somewhat overwhelmed by an accumulation of typical-adult hegemony interactions, it’s good to be climbing back in the saddle. Play grounds us, in many ways.

What’s the point of you, playworker?

It’s that time of the year again when I’m minded to ponder back on playworking actions, non-actions, things learned along the way, and things to chalk up to further experience. If we forget to write these things down, we don’t seem to remember all the finer points and nuances. I’ve been less frequent as of late in my play and playworking writings: the specifics of a wider work responsibility have definitely contributed to this. That said, the beauty of play and playwork is that there’s always something to reflect on.

The other day, close to the end of term, I was walking back from school to the adventure playground with a group of children. One of the boys was on a bike and he likes to ride ahead on it. It’s usually not a problem because he has a fair to good road-sense and he stops at the corners for the rest of us (most of the time!). This day, however, I asked him not to speed off ahead of us. I didn’t really think it through and the more I asked him, the more irritated he got with me (of course). It ended up with him swearing under his breath at me, shouting ‘What is the point of you?’ at me, and finally he threw his bike down in the middle of the pavement and walked off ahead in a quiet rage. I shrugged and breathed in deeply. I decided to leave the bike there. Luckily for him one of his friends picked it up at the back of the group we were in and walked it back for him. The boy and me were not on the best of terms, at that moment, I could clearly see.

When we got back to the playground, I waited for him to stop being so angry with me and then I asked him if we could have a conversation. I said it exactly in those words: a conversation, an informal one. He said yes, OK, so I said, ‘OK, you rant at me and I’ll shut up and listen. Then I’ll say what I have to say. OK?’ So, OK. We sat down on the main hall sofa and, with him above me on its arm, he said how I was ‘the worst’ and he repeated again, briefly: ‘What is the point of you?’ He shut up. ‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘That’s all.’

So, that’s the jumping off point for this post: what is the point of me (in playworking terms, not getting all metaphysical about it!)? It’s at this point that there’s a danger of ‘Ego’ creeping in though. Playwork shouldn’t be about ego, surely? If we weren’t around, would children play anyway? Sure, they would, so that then leads the mind along the oft-trodden reflection of what playworkers do again. What is it that I’ve done this past year, these past years, for the children around me at play? If you’re a playworker too, what have you done?

Sometimes I’ve got in the way. Absolutely! The other day, a group of boys were riding their own and borrowed bikes down the concrete ramp (as is their current fad), slamming their brakes on at the last moment to execute a skidding circular stop. They mostly missed the metal storage container wall by a foot or two. One younger boy came down the hill on a bike a little too big for him. He neither braked nor turned the handlebars. He slammed into the old upturned waterslide panel in the corner. Naturally, I thought, I ought to drag a big old crash mat over there, prop it up so it didn’t take up any discernible circling space, and walk away. No, though. What I got was a resounding, ‘Oh, now you’ve ruined it! You’ve taken away what this place is for!’ OK, fair enough there, though some of the boys did then evolve the play after that into deliberately slamming themselves into the mat rather than turning the bike.

Similarly, a short while back, I observed as (probably) the same group of boys stood on the edge of the pool table indoors and as they took running leaps and somersaulted to land on the crash mat placed on the floor a few feet away. I noted the gap between the table and the mat and moved the latter forwards a little. I was greeted with the moan that was, ‘What is it with you? It’s all about safety, safety, safety!’

Is it? Is that true? So maybe the point of me is to try to make sure no-one breaks their neck? Perhaps the children only ever see these moments of me when I’m too in their faces: they don’t see the way I observe them climbing the tall trees, poking their heads out from the very top branches (me, flinching at it all and holding my breath); they don’t see how I observe the way they find and drag a big old section of telegraph pole right across the playground, fixing it first to the top of the waterslide, cantilevering it into space, then hauling it up the difficult steps of the treehouse, cantilevering it out again and securing it with ropes and bricks in bucket weight systems; they don’t see how I watch on as they’re climbing on the top of the filing cabinets, or waving fire sticks on the air, or smashing old electrical equipment from great heights, and so on.

I can’t even begin to weigh up all the play I’ve seen on the playground this year, let alone all the play out there in the streets of the city, on public transport, at schools, in little moments met in passings-by. When I have occasion to briefly meet a child I know, as they walk past, recognising me for a fraction in between their conversations with siblings, friends or parents, I often suddenly think just how many children I have worked with and for, over the years. Just like all of us who’ve been around for a few years, I can confidently say the number is well into the thousands. That causes just a small pause sometimes . . .

The other day I was talking with a playworker colleague who’s been doing it just a little longer than I have: between us we have something like fifty years of stories of working with children. He told me the story of how he recently met a woman who was a mother now but who had been a child at one of his work places, back in the day. He said that he knows they all grow up, the children he used to work with, but it was still a little strange. It made me reflect on how all those children are kind of preserved in their childhoods in the memory. All the play, and all the interactions, my colleague said, were still there in his mind. It’s true: all these things come back as if they never changed at all.

It was a coincidence then, around about that time of the week, that I was driving home, listening to a comedy show on the radio, and the announcer offered up a name I thought I recognised: she, the named woman, was someone I thought I knew, way back in the day. I listened in hard to her voice when she came on and did her ten minute slot. Was it her? Did I hear the announcer corrrectly? Was this a child I knew way back in the day? Then she told me a few little facts about her life and I knew it was her! What a strange experience. It turns out she’s quite big on the comedy scene now. I knew she’d been aiming for that (rumour had it), but I didn’t know she’d ‘made it’. I didn’t realise that she, as with all of the children I once knew, had grown up.

I often wonder what the children, back in the day, remember of me and my interactions with them at play. I don’t think of it in an ego kind of way: just curiosity. Maybe they don’t remember my name or anything particular about me, but maybe they remember that one day I said something, did something, understood something, became significant in some way. There are thousands of such scenarios floating away out there, a thousand thousand, and that’s just for me alone.

‘What is the point of you?’ the angry boy with the bike shouted at me recently. Later, after the conversation on the sofa, after agreeing that all we both needed to say had been said, when he was collected at the end of the after school club session he called out goodbye to me at the door, and of his own volition.

What we do, as playworkers, apart from trying to create more and more opportunities to play, protecting the play frames where we can, protecting the playable environments, pushing and advocating for play tolerance to all and sundry, looking for small and large pots of funding to maintain those fenced-in spaces and those street spaces, reflecting on moments of getting it right and moments of getting it wrong, taking to task the politicians (both lower case and upper case) of the world, working with teachers and head teachers and early years workers and youth workers and health professionals and artists and parents and grandparents and carers and the man and the woman in the street, and so on, in trying to appreciate play, play for play’s sake, play for the here and now . . . what we do, as playworkers, apart from all of this, and more, is try to do all of this without us being the ego at its core. It isn’t easy; it isn’t about us. Maybe a little of us remains, years on, despite our intentions.

What is the point of you, playworker? Maybe the children can tell us when we’re all too old to run around any more.

Psychological repair: the playworker as sticking plaster

Every so often I get on my high horse about certain repeated (and repeated) themes and situations that seem to always crop up in this, my playworking life. Often, that theme is wholly something along the lines of ‘just accept that play is play in the player’s head, and nothing to do with instrumental ways of educating, socialising, and so on.’ Sometimes, the theme is more along the lines of ‘just let them play’. At other times, the theme is ‘respect children.’ Other themes crop up along the way. This post is another in the continuing action in support of children, bringing a combination of these themes back out into the light.

There’s a line from a poem, or a title in itself, I forget which and by whom it was written, but it highlights the idea of ‘waiting for the echo’. You shout out into a cavernous space, and you wait for the call back of agreement . . . It really isn’t so difficult a concept, I think (I have always thought), to understand that play is play (just that), and that we can and should just get out of the way of that, and that we can and should respect children (them, as people, because they are, and their right to play). Hello? Hello? Waiting for the echo back.

I’ve been witness to some pretty shocking adult disrespect of children and their play recently. For sure, we all have bad days as adults (that’s what being human encompasses, I suppose!), but a continual belittling of children and their ideas by certain adults, or talking at them as if they’re stupid, detestable, or malignant creatures is only going to go one way. I have seen this done recently by parents, teachers, and teaching assistants. It shocks me that those adults who are amongst the closest to children (in terms of family and in terms of time spent with them during a day), can treat them with some contempt. A disclaimer is necessary at this point, as I often do at times of such ranting: the above examples aren’t the over-riding majority of recent experiences, yet they are significant for being noticed.

If a child is playing in a way that a playworker knows he likes to play in (for example, rough and tumble with a friend, who he knows he might hurt, and who he knows might hurt him back, but in a way that neither is really trying to hurt the other), and the playworker on the scene knows and sees all this — understands and feels it — what will the power dynamic of overbearing control imposed on that play frame by an unsympathetic adult do? The children may change their play behaviours instantly, out of fear, or out of intelligent ‘towing the line’ until the controlling influence has gone, or out of embarrassment, and so on, but ultimately this is a drip feed of unnecessary anxiety delivered upon that child. What will the accumulated net effect be?

These command and control adult tactics can often be metered out in seemingly trivial areas for expected compliance. They can be delivered with the ‘shock and awe’ approach that just makes everyone stand still, shut up, and watch, or they can be delivered in more low-key ways. One of the seemingly trivial areas that controlling adults often insist on, in either of the above ways of delivering it, is the old (not so) favourite that is ‘now, share.’ I recently witnessed a group of younger children playing on a wheeled contraption away from the playground, and this thing they played on wasn’t big enough for all of them. The children who weren’t on it were pleading with the children who were on it to let them have a go. Instead of opening up a possibility for the children to negotiate, or instead of saying to the pleading children that they would have to wait (hey, life’s like that sometimes), or instead of doing nothing and just observing because sometimes, often, children can work these things out, the adult in attendance screamed at the children to share. It was a demand, it was forceful, and it was embarrassing. The place of interrupted play was then tense. The adult wasn’t a playworker.

Now, of course, as we need to keep reminding ourselves: none of us is perfect and sometimes we have bad days, and sometimes we get it wrong. There is, however, wrong and there is wrong! Some days I know I’ve operated in what the eminent Mr Hughes detailed as the ‘functional’ approach to playwork practice. It happens. Some days, I have slipped into what he calls the ‘repressive’ approach. This happens too. We can be tired, worried, or any number of other ways of being off-guard or not on the ball. We should get over that though, and quickly. We should reflect in the moment and after the moment, and continue reflecting on it. We should, at the very least, apologise to a child if we have, in any way, caused them unnecessary anxiety.

Quite often, when I see that someone else, some other adult, has caused a situation of unnecessary anxiety in a child, and that they clearly aren’t aware of it (or that they don’t care about it), or they aren’t reflecting (which you can often see in a person’s actions), or that they haven’t apologised, I feel the need to make amends in some small way to that child. Recently, I have sought to distract the anxiety-causing adult in full flow; I have positioned myself between them and the offended child (not as a means of physical protection but just as a kind of psychological blocking off); I have stuck my tongue out at the child as a play cue; I have bent down to their level to try to re-engage them in their play, or to offer them new play cues to be getting on with. All of this is repair.

Maybe this is all an important part of a playworker’s reason for being, his or her duty, their value out there, away from the more cosseted fenced-off playground places, in the public realm. I hadn’t thought of it all this way in so many words before. I knew that advocacy for play comes high in public spaces, and I knew that urban spaces could effectively be ‘repaired’ for play, but what about the playworker as sticking plaster for the repair of other adults’ imposed anxieties in the public realm . . .?

Observations of summer play

Five weeks of summer open access on the adventure playground have come and gone. It has been, for the larger part (and despite my early-on reflections and feelings of emotional and psychological absorption, as written way back at the end of July), a good summer. There has been a whole shift in dynamic these past weeks though: plenty of regulars haven’t been around, which has given the other regulars greater room to express themselves; some of the usual children have grown too old for the place (by their own admissions), and we have gained plenty of new children (those passing by, those coming by word of mouth, and those who just seem to come out of nowhere!). It’s all good.

Early on in the summer I decided not to write every week, as I have done in years gone by: this summer I would observe as best I could, let the play sink in where it could, and then (about now) write up whatever stuck. I did this by taking an early walk around the empty playground this morning, before any of my colleagues came in on this, our tidy up and rebuilding week, when we have no play sessions on. I stood and cast my eye about, as I have done in times past, and tried to ‘see’, remember, imagine, let the play that has happened fall up again to the surface. As I looked around, I found that more and more recent play came back to that surface. It’s just a different technique for observation and reflection that I wanted to try because I’ve noticed that this, accidentally, has worked for me in the past.

As I looked around the playground I realised that there were pockets of play frames that came to me, ghost-like, and then there were flowing play frames that (from this perspective in time) seemed to merge in on themselves but were, in reality, evolutions and repetitions of play that took place over a series of days (or weeks). What follows is just a small selection of the pockets and flows of play frames that came to me from out there in the five weeks past of mostly hot and blue-skied summer.

One boy and his dog kennel
Early on, one boy would badger us for tools: he could access the tool shed cabinets, the saws and so forth, but he wanted the jigsaw so he could cut out shapes in large sheets of wood. Before long he had what looked to me like the bookends of a church going on. I didn’t really know what he was doing. As the days went on, a dog kennel materialised out of the building play. Lots of time was spent on the kennel: hammering and sawing, painting with special silver paint, the co-opting of the boy’s sister into exterior decoration, repainting over what his sister had done, and so on. It transpired, however, that this boy didn’t own a dog. I wondered if the whole build was a ruse for the boy to try to convince his mum to get a dog. Then, sometime on, we discovered that the boy had drawn up a contract with his mate (who did own a dog, and who sometimes brought it onto the playground). The dog boy could have the kennel but the builder would claim the right to take it back if and when he got his own dog. The next day, the contract was retracted, amidst much hand-wringing and other agitation because the dog boy hadn’t turned up that day at the playground (not because of the kennel, just because it wasn’t a day to come in, for him). The builder boy took a trolley backwards and forwards to the dog boy’s home, hoping to catch him in. Eventually, the kennel made its way to the builder’s home. Play is sometimes invested with much time.

All summer on the waterslide
It struck me, part way through summer, that some children had spent every single day, for hours at a time, going down the waterslide on the limited supply of cushion skins or floats, up the steps and down the chute again, over and over. We’d managed to hook things up so that the hose reached all the way across one side of the playground, up the small hill to what the children used to call the ‘treehouse’ (despite there being no tree near it), into a sprinkler set-up at the top of the platform. At the bottom of the slide (where, if you skim down at just the right speed and angle, with the right amount of water, you can fly off the edge), the children landed in great splashes of collected water, and zipped over the small bump in the mats to crash land on the foam at the end! Many times we saw adults and children on the other side of the fence just pressing their noses against it, watching . . . For the children on the waterslide, I thought, what better thing was there to do all summer than this?

Alpha boys
Several older boys spent much of the summer testing out their relative strengths: they hefted pick-axes, axes, the sledgehammer, climbed ropes, did capoeira, and did weightlifting. We have a bench and the support posts for a weightlifting bar, though we don’t have the weights. The boys found the bar to be easy lifting, so they invented their own way of making things more challenging. One day, whilst supporting each other (and I was impressed, early on, with their self risk assessments), they found tyres from the playground and loaded them with concrete building blocks on the ends of the bar. One of the boys was on hand to support the bar, another two supported the ends where the tyres and blocks were. They proved early on how trustworthy they were. There was plenty of alpha-male testing going on, but it was all good-natured and refreshing to see after several years of the negative kind of these engagements swilling around the place.

The language of play
One of the younger girls is Italian and she and her brother come over each summer with one of their parents so that they can play at the playground. I was talking to the children’s father one day (all summer he would drop the children off, bring them lunch during the middle of the day, and then respectively leave again till the end of the session). He said that during the summer he and the children were staying on the other side of London, and each day they took the tube to us, where he would wait for them out of the way and off the playground somewhere. When I heard that I said that he had to stick around for a while with us! Even then he stayed in the hall, out of the way. His daughter gradually developed her friendships over the summer: from being very much a one friend at a time child, she later found it easier to play with others more and more. She was pretty much happy all summer, but she still seems to speak very little English. It didn’t matter. One day I saw her and a friend far off in the corner of the hall, on a sofa. They were communicating with hand gestures and nods and shakes of the head. They suddenly got up and ran off together. It seemed to me that they understood each other perfectly and had learned each other through these communications over the course of the summer.

Toad in the hole
My colleague had found uses for a pile of old doors we’ve had sitting around for a while now. Some of them he built into an odd little folly-type thing in the middle of the playground and the children soon used it as a form of prison or a place just to sit on top of and look out from. More doors, he built onto the side of one of the main structures and around an existing fireman’s pole. The children slid down the pole and the smaller children couldn’t get out again! They had to climb up by holding onto the pole and then wedge their feet into the edges of the panels and the gaps where the letterboxes used to be. Some made it up eventually. Some didn’t. These were the ones I heard shouting out for help. I looked down into the door prison hole and said, ‘Come on, you can do it.’ The younger children tried but didn’t have the upper body strength. You have a choice here: leave them to it or help by holding out a hand. Other times, one of the older boys would come over and hook a foot underneath the struggling child and hoik them up. The children kept going down the hole though, just trying to get back out again.

The time for building
One day, early on, the boy who owned a dog came up to me and asked me for the tool that makes holes in the ground. He wanted to build off the top of the hill where the main structure meets the path. It took him several days of chopping and sawing, of hacking bits of the elderberry tree to make a route through, of making safe and making do, to create a platform. He took his actual tea breaks! The older boys, at this point in the summer, were also building. They used the chop saw and made safer and stronger one of the balancing beams by inserting diagonal struts. Building play has taken off this summer. Maybe it’s the right dynamic for it at last.

Jewellery garden
A couple of times over the summer we had a local parent of one of our regular children come in and volunteer with us. The parent also works at the local school so some of the children already knew her, though it was noticeable that her son’s play was just a little different, at first, when she was around (even though she kept well away from the main areas by positioning herself in the fruit and veg garden to do some jewellery-making with children who wanted to join her). I’m not an advocate of what others often term ‘activities’ (i.e. adult-led things to do); however, there are ways to do things and we can only judge on what we see and on what the children are showing us. The parent didn’t tell everyone that they should come to her and only those who wanted to play came. Some children like that small object play experience.

The evolution of rope
Inside the hall, one day, a rope was slung over one of the metal trusses. Some of the older boys swung on it whilst other children watched on from the sofa. The ladder was nearby. The boys self risk assessed again as one of them climbed the ladder and one held it. The boy at the top of the ladder placed his foot in the loop of the rope, with guidance from the others, and launched himself into a swing. The boy holding the ladder moved it out of the way. Soon, over days, this play evolved. By the end of the week, crash mats were brought out after a colleague had created a stronger rope by plaiting it tightly together. The older boys climbed that rope to the top, testing their upper body strengths. My colleague had brought a climbing harness and younger children strapped themselves in as older boys and other younger children hauled on the rope to try to lift them up. The friction on the truss slowed things up, so one of the older boys pushed the younger child as the others pulled down. Later, the loop of plaited rope was used as a circular swing as children swung around in wide arcs, aided by the playworkers with an occasional push, the higher and faster and nearer the wall the better for them!

A tyre just hung in space
Late on in summer, a colleague had set up a tyre which was suspended between two poles of the main structures by ropes on either side so that it hung a few feet off the ground. A few children looked at it as they passed it by and asked, ‘What’s that for?’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t know. Find out.’ They tried to get onto the tyre, to sit in it, but it was just slightly higher than they could reach easily. When they did get in, the tyre flipped because the body position had to be just exactly so to keep it level. The crash mats were dragged over and soon, the younger children began to develop ways of holding on to the ropes so that when they lost balance they hung there in mid-air. A little later still and the children had worked out how to flip right over, face first, and land the flip on their feet whilst pushing their backsides out of the tyre. Some sprung up with a small ‘Tada!’

About forgiving
On the last day of the summer open access, six girls were going up to the ‘treehouse’ (which has no tree nearby) and down the waterslide over and over, as usual. All summer the children had been self-sufficient and had regulated their play amongst themselves. I watched on from a short distance. There seemed to be a bit of a disagreement going on but I kept where I was for a while, thinking that they might work it out because they had seemed fine over the past few weeks. The disagreement wasn’t shifting though, judging by the body language, so I went over and made a small but honest mistake. One of the girls said they weren’t getting a turn on the good mats. There were six girls and three fast mats. I asked one of the girls with a good mat if she wouldn’t mind giving the other girl a go. I didn’t ask or tell her to share; I said it as I’ve said above. I expected her to say OK and then for the play to carry on as it had done all summer. However, it didn’t turn out that way, and the long and the short of it is that the girls got their turns at first but things fell back into disagreement again and I got the blame for ‘not helping or doing anything’. I’d tried to explain that six into three doesn’t work out so that everyone gets their own mat, and I offered at least two solutions. I walked off to see if they could negotiate a plan amongst themselves, but they couldn’t. Two of the children, the twins, were very grumpy with me. They went off to make a card. It was addressed to me and it said on the front (a trick, as it turned out) how wonderful I was (which looked like a genuine sentiment) but on the inside they wrote how much they hated me and that there would be ‘revenge’. A short time later, I was summoned by another child to the roundabout across the far side of the playground. There the twins waited with a couple of other children. As I approached I thought what to say. ‘Ladies, I truly apologise for mucking up your play.’ They gave me hard glares, told me off for ‘not doing anything’ to help again, then decided to forgive me. ‘Push us on the roundabout?’ they asked. If only we adults forgave so genuinely and gracefully!

Notes on playworking absorption

Over the years I have often said to students of playwork, whether they’re those I have been formally teaching or those I’m working with on site, that if we’re not going home at the end of a session working with children in an emotionally, mentally and psychologically tired state (or any combination thereof) then we’re not doing it (playwork) right. I stand by this, despite the efforts we might make to try to stay ‘professional’, whatever that might mean, and objective. I’m reminded of this mantra today, as I write, early on in the summer of open access after a day that has seen me take on wave after wave of certain children’s intensities of energies.

This absorption that playworkers can be subjected to can have a dispiriting affect. The peer group leadership of the playground, as I write (and it might shift again shortly), is now in the hands of one particular older girl and her entourage, after several years of older boy control. These particular girls of the group affect by way of some sort of emotional psychological attrition. Periodically (there being lulls and heightened stages of individual and group agitation), this playworker, for one, has been subjected to being told, obliquely, how if injuries happen it’s my fault, and I’ve been verbally abused, ignored, disdained, subtlety threatened (such as with words like ‘don’t touch me’, even though there’s no intention of this at all), and so on, followed a few minutes later by pleas for help, support, or being sided with. What it must be like for other children continually subjected to such similar attrition I can only guess at.

With regards to how the present peer group leaders have been reacting to me recently, I’m wondering about the psychology of projection. That is, what is it, if anything, that’s manifesting in them to find a small grab-hold in something they’ve seen in me, throwing it all out at me when really it’s their own baggage they’re displaying? That is, to further explain, could it be that they’ve seen a chink of something vulnerable in me that’s also caustic in them, and they’ve thrown it all out to say ‘what I don’t like in me is something I’m dumping onto you’? Maybe it isn’t projection at all in operation here, but it’s something. Whatever it is, there is a high adult absorption of child psychic material here. This has its affect which, now as I write, some four hours after the end of the play session, is only just beginning to diminish.

One girl in question, today, waved a saw around at her male peer adversaries. I intervened. ‘What?’ she said. ‘I’m playing.’ If it was play, it was very close to some edge. To her credit, she seemed to know what the focus and purpose of my and my colleagues’ roles were supposed to be. However, the moment was laced with a drip of acidity within the flow of it all. When we receive this continual drip, all day, or when we feel we do, we can become reactive rather than in-the-moment reflective.

There are different styles of playwork practice. That is, there are those who prefer to work closely with individuals and small groups, and there are those who like to keep on the move, seeing as much as possible for as long as possible, and variations in between. I prefer to keep moving. The advantage here is a greater and deeper understanding of the playground dynamics as a whole (though I’m also a believer in playworkers as relaters, though not to the extent of fostering shadow-children who follow you everywhere). What this approach also creates, however, is a direct and indirect absorption of a large quantity of psychic matter. We can become overwhelmed by all that we’ve observed, anticipated, received and not received. Whether we’re working closely or in a more wide-lens view with children on the playground, we can potentially absorb such emotional and psychological intensity that we require outlets ourselves. My own approach seems to blend all the observational and dynamic comprehension of wide-lens and individual relating with the possibility of personal emotional and psychic overload. I don’t find it easy to ‘tune out’ of situations for the good of my own state of mind. I have been told I’m easily frustrated, but in reality it’s a long, slow burn, which others generally only see the snap-end of, if that’s what the end is: they neither see the long observational build up, potentially, or the greater quantity of moments of subjective beauty. Those of us who are long enough in the tooth in playwork have heard the following plenty enough: ‘so, you just play with children?’ Yeh, OK, right.

There is a qualitative difference between the teenage or pre-teenage agitations of boys and girls: the former engage in cocky, nascent alpha male displays of no great overall depth until they develop through the phase; the latter are attritional until they get bored of it. Until the playground becomes the rule the roost territory of the older girl it’s difficult to appreciate the ‘survival mode’ that other children must go through. Sure, the boys inflict their own particular form of agitation on the other users of the place (such as we’ve seen in covert placings of arms over shoulders, leading the chosen round the corner and smacking them in the face, leaving them bleeding profusely without voluntary witnesses to account for events, for example), but the girls affect their own long and more drawn-out stings. ‘What makes them this way?’ I asked a local youth worker, but really the answer is tied up in the social circlings of being caught up in all of the above, which I realise.

There is play amongst it all, but it’s a dysfunctional form in part and a form that isn’t always so easily palatable. ‘I’m playing,’ said the older peer group leader today as she brandished a trowel, scraping it in the cornflour gloop, but readying herself for threatening someone else with it, or so I felt. She’d waved saws, the trowel, a sledgehammer, a pair of scissors today, as well as aiming barbs of insults, aggressions, pragmatic confrontations just to see which buttons stuck. If this was play, it was a nuanced form. She was one of maybe fifty children on the playground today.

Everything can affect when working in the field of human relations, and playworkers just play with children, it’s often said: yeh, OK, right, if you like. Maybe, if you think so, and if you think you’re doing it, this playwork thing, you’re not doing it right. Or, maybe, we the affected are absorbing more than what’s rightly good for us.

First world blame

What happens when an accident happens? Maybe, when it’s our own children suffering such an event, or a child in our immediate family, something quite bonded and natural kicks in with us: we have an absolute concern that that child isn’t feeling pain, or not too much pain, at least. When we’re working with other people’s children, children not in our own immediate family, maybe something else happens first (in this age that we live in): how much does the natural concern get over-ridden by a fear of being blamed?

Others have trodden this well-worked route of play and accidents before, but I wanted to take a kind of ‘natural/synthetic’ perspective on what children do and what happens, sometimes, when they do what they do. If play involves experimentation (as is the received wisdom), then play involves things not quite in the plan (whatever that is) and that includes accidents. We know this. We’ve all had them. We all continue to have them (though maybe in less repeated ways, perhaps in more spectacular ways!), as we progress through adulthood.

When accidents happen to children we’re working with, any number of immediate thoughts might well enter our heads: keep calm; think; don’t think, just act; use common sense; what should I do here?; what can I remember of my first aid training?; did this happen because of me?; what should I prioritise here?; was this avoidable?; is this my fault?

Some of these questions can be reflected on later. Some of them just need to be pushed aside because, actually, there’s a child who’s hurt here and they’re human too and they need help. I wonder though if a ‘synthetic’, imposed, thinking process has somehow taken over the tendency for care and concern. In the heat of the moment, or more usually, after a short period of poorly constructed thinking, blame is often the quickest route to take. Once a precedent is set, a fear of repeat actions is lodged and starts to roll itself out, more acutely each time an accident takes place. It’s a negative feedback loop that only keeps strengthening and taking deeper and deeper root.

If it’s our own children who are hurt, we may have a weak negativity swimming around us (those people who look at us as if we’re bad parents, or bad in loci parentis): ultimately though, maybe, the care-concern bond here is stronger than the loop that binds us when we’re with other people’s children. Is this a first world problem? How did we get here? Was it, and is it, always this way?

I wonder at our species’ evolutionary growth and whether our ancestors’ concerns for their own offspring (if they had these concerns in the way that we do) outweighed any concerns they may have had for other villagers’ children, or for the loss of social stature that may have occurred if others’ children incurred injury when with them. If your neighbour’s son was injured when out hunting with you, was it your fault? Would you have been beaten, or maimed, or ostracised for it? I don’t know. Would the gods have been blamed? Would there have been an implicit understanding that the injured boy just needed to run faster, jump or land more carefully, be better at what he did?

None of this is to imply that, in our modern days of working with other people’s children, we should absolve ourselves of any form of responsibility. Later, when we reflect after an accident, we can be calm and study the situation more carefully: did what I put there, do there, not do there, somehow adversely affect the natural flow of what may have happened otherwise? Maybe we can say that an accident witnessed is an accident that happened because of a change created by our very presence, but this is a very pessimistic perspective. How many factors might be involved, of which we are only one tiny one?

Perhaps the over-riding of natural concern by synthetic imposition of fear of being blamed is a first world problem (by which I mean ‘those of us supposing we’re in the vanguard of global society, being in the digital age as we are’). Do the indigenous tribal societies of the non-digital realm of today impose insidious blame on one another? I’m reminded of the 1970s studies of Clifford Geertz, regarding Balinese men who risked their social stature on the outcome of who won or lost in cockfighting bouts: the playing out of spiritual representation through their fighting animals. Here I read a much deeper malcontent, dis-ease, than the word ‘blame’ could ever carry. If a man here lost his social stature because of the death of his fighting animal, could he really care if some first world blame was levelled at him because his neighbour’s boy tripped over a tree’s root and bloodied his nose?

Our first world fear, having over-ridden our natural care-concern for others, perhaps, has blinded us and left us with a spiritual dis-ease nonetheless. That is to say, we’ve disconnected, somewhat, from what matters most. It isn’t even the oft-cited ‘American-style’ litigation culture that’s troubling here, in the moment of writing: it’s the soft but pervasive and just as damaging fear of being seen as incompetent, untrustworthy, unobservant, blasé, devil-may-care ‘anything goes’ nonchalant, irresponsible, unworthy of being in the service of and for children. Our disconnect, via that negative feedback loop, becomes less and less about the people we should be concerned with (the children) and more and more about ourselves. We live in a self-fuelled culture, as we know: though we can make change, on personal levels, about this.

So, we do well, on the whole, to navigate our individual 365 days of every year without a scrape, without falling in front of a bus, or without tripping on kerbs or falling into plate glass windows at every turn. We do well, though we do suffer some accidents along the line because none of us are comic-book super-human. As we get older, our accidents might get more spectacular: we might think how stupid we were for doing what we did, and we might hope that no-one saw it too. We keep on learning, hopefully. If we’re continually blaming others, what does that say about us?

Geertz, C. (1972), Deep play: a description of the Balinese cockfight in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play — its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.

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