Continuing the stories from my recent after school sessions playworking week at White City Adventure Playground, London.
Rich tells me that Thursdays can be a little hectic. It’s the group dynamics and the presence of certain individuals, no doubt. There seems to be a high level of energy today as soon as they start to come into the building from their various schools. The doors are open to the playground but a lot of the children choose to kick around inside to start with. All the boxes are out (when a new box arrives during the day, from food deliveries or the like, it gets emptied and thrown on the pile). It’s not long before the boxes are getting trashed by the children though. Some children are stamping on them and waving them around. Some children are throwing them and tearing polystyrene chunks apart. We usher these children outside, scooping up armfuls of boxes as we go. I figure that that destructive play will be better suited out there. Somehow, and initially, there’s less adult anxiety (or maybe it’s just me) with this sort of play in the relatively uncontained space outside. The boys run around with the boxes, using them to crash into on the slide and as shields and fighting instruments.
Inside, two girls are waving pool cues around in a wide arc. It’s not aimless; rather it’s a sort of playfight without touching. There’s an edginess building in the whole group. One of the boys seems to be in the middle of all the playfighting. I’m watching, watching all the time because I think this could spill over anywhere at any time. Soon there’s plenty of playfighting going on all over the playground.
Two of the boys are fine, I think, because M. is on top of J. but he seems to be self-regulating his strength, and J. isn’t angry — he even seems to be happy with being set upon; A. and C. are younger and smaller, close friends, darting in and out and teasing others: little fish nibbling at the sharks. Here’s Ja. (I use this abbreviation because Ja. is central to pretty much everything today!) Ja. snaps a few times and it’s not easy to be certain if his play is play or if it’s aggression, at times, and whether to intervene or not. The playfighting tumbles around the playground and I find I’m positioning myself far enough away so as not to be intrusive, close enough just in case, and able to see in three or four directions at once, to see all the pockets building up.
Where possible, the staff swap around. I’m always on my feet, except for one two-minute spell, earlier, where I grab a plate of pasta and sit down on the wooden rocking contraption, outside on this cold February afternoon, wrapped up in coat, scarf, hat, gloves, to eat and observe over the playground: Hassan is with a group of children on the football court; one or two children are occupied on the playground; others are inside. I feel in the moment in my playwork practice.
The playfighting bubbles on. Some children get clattered, some get angry, some keep teasing. Once or twice we have to step in, calm things: the edginess, the very edge, the good edge, has spilled over. Some girls are inside in the room where all the art stuff is kept. They’re hyper too! They’ve found the lumps of clay we left out (not an ‘activity’ as such, just things to find and do with). I’m moving indoors (always moving, always on my feet on one of my sweeps round. I see the girls throwing the clay around and they say straight away that Hassan said they could. I’ve got know way of knowing what was said or what wasn’t: either way, the girls are enjoying their play and I know, right here and now, that no harm’s being done. It’s an instant appraisal of the situation. Similarly, when M. (one of the girls) stands on a chair, on the edge of it, and two other girls stand up on the table to try to stick clay to the ceiling, I suggest they maybe ought to get down. It’s not because I have a problem with the play, as such; it’s because the dynamic in-the-moment risk assessment in my head is telling me that these girls are hyper, dancing around, and they may only get more hyper and may not be able to see the slip hazard of the plastic sheeting on the table. (Perhaps, for similar reasons, I would also have suggested getting down if there were no sheeting — I was focused on their mood and actions. I don’t know!)
All this happens in a moment; the same moment, co-incidentally, as Rich tapping on the window from outside. Maybe he hasn’t seen me at first, but a mutual independent understanding that ‘this is the time’ seems to happen (as it does outside when we observe some playfighting, talking about edginess possibly overspilling and if/when to intervene, and both deciding at the same time that ‘this is the time’).
Later, I pass back near the room where the girls are playing and overhear M. talking with a boy. All the children in there are playing with the clay at the table and M. is saying to him, ‘It’s a good job I’m a Catholic or I’d mess you up!’ (by which she means she’d physically hurt him — though it’s a playful conversation!) I don’t go in the room. Later still, I see M. using the broom in a brief weapon-play way, a way without touching, and I don’t see who she speaks to (it happens so quickly, maybe there is no-one else) but she says, ‘I’m gonna fuck you up!’, again playfully, which also amuses me!
Ja. is playfighting on the plastic grass strips outside and with his sister and M. and another boy near the end of the session. He isn’t aggressive during this play: maybe it’s the presence of the girls, or the non-presence of A. and C. (who tease him, little fish as they are), or both. The four children tumble around together. I sit on the tyre swing to observe. When there’s just J. and M. left I think about the apparently innocent grappling and the ‘just playing for the sake of it’. They laugh and get the better of one another and really seem to be enjoying their play. Ja. has had a difficult session and he’s settled at last. He stands up soon enough and says to no-one in particular, perhaps to M., perhaps to me (I haven’t been acknowledged as observing up till that point) that she’s got him ‘in the private parts’. He repeats it, then goes into what I think of as a bizarre sort of posturing dance — after belching a couple of times — a posturing like he’s acting out being a flamingo with angled out hands up by his head! It’s almost like some sort of primitive display of manliness, I think, there and then — a sudden shift from apparently innocent grappling to potential flirting or a show of coming of age. These are just my interpretations, and they’re over in a few seconds, but it’s interesting to see the shift all the same.
to be continued . . .