Often, when I’m away from playwork practice in children’s settings, or reading, researching, writing playwork – when I’m ‘off-duty’ (as it were) – I’m not off-duty at all. Often, thinking on play just doesn’t leave! I’ve just spent a week in the West Country with German friends. We’ve known each other a long time, myself and these boys’ mother. The boys I’ve known half their lives. I’ve seen the way their play has evolved over the years. The eldest is now fourteen (complete with hoodie!). His younger brother is twelve.
Now the boys are older, they’ve learnt some English. Our communications have developed into a hybrid form of Deutschlish (although we can communicate in English, and sometimes my German stretches just enough to make myself understood in this way). Deutschlish it is though, for the most part. So, we’ll los to the Strand, or it might be essen time. Of course it’s a deliberate mashing of the languages, but it’s language play. Being ‘off-duty’ doesn’t last much longer than a few hours outside the airport.
We’ve all been up Ben Nevis in t-shirts and trainers, up a mountain in the former East Germany, up to all sorts of mastery play on beaches in Cornwall and along the European North Sea. This week, despite the boys getting older, beach play is again – apparently – necessary. Piecing together how individual children play is a journey in observation. Some years ago, the boys dug a hole in the sand in St Ives harbour. We left the beach for a while and, when we came back, the youngest asked why the hole had moved away from the sea. Once, the overflow pipe needed damming. It took quite a while.
The boys pull me into their play of futile mastery. They know, though, that the act of trying to stop the water, or the sea, is futile. This is nothing new to those who work with, or have their own, children. What’s new this time is the expression that peppers the boys’ beach play. ‘We will win!’
Each evening, when the beach has emptied and the tide is creeping up the shingle of the beach, we spend a couple of hours at the shoreline. The sun is setting; it’s still hot. There are handfuls of tourists poking around looking for fossils. The locals, perhaps, are the experts – armed with geologists’ pick hammers. The boys have a passing interest in time-frozen ammonites: if a small one crops up in the accidental finding, their mother is called out to. The boys have more pressing play concerns though: there are stones and boulders to be stacked, the sea to be held back, a tower to build.
We arrive at the beach and there are piles of standing stones, which have been left behind by others.
This is one of my strands of interest: the leftoverness of play. This leftoverness has an added extra layer here though: there are piles of these standing stones all over the beach and, I think, it harks back to our primitive roots. Our distant ancestors moved and piled stones: in rituals of worship and early honouring of the dead. On the Cornish coast, farther west, there are pyramids of stones on the cliff top. This stone use just seems to be something that hasn’t really left us, in some way.
When I walk on this beach, I’m very aware of the leftover artefacts of play: the stone piles (and sand holes and sand sculptures) should be revered. I walk around them because play has happened here. When the boys start building their own standing stone constructions, and when I’m part of the play frame too, I try not to take stones from structures that have been left by others.
If this sounds a little pretentious, a small play story observation here: as we build, I see a mother (presumably) and her son standing a few feet from a collection of other standing stones. These stones are his, and the sea is close to taking them. The mother seems to know the importance of ritual here. They stand and watch, silently. I appreciate her understanding. There’s more than just this here though: there seems to be some sacred importance to having the sea take back the stones (or letting it, or knowing that- or, standing aside and accepting that- it will take them back); washing around the stones’ bases, sweeping and sucking at the sand, slowly swallowing those stones.
We build our standing stones and there is then a great need to protect them from the rapidly encroaching sea.
The boys find large rocks and boulders. They build a wall between the standing stones and the water. The eldest throws rocks over. The youngest and I build them into the wall. The eldest pulls at a log that’s laying up-beach. Together we get it in place. We go back for the thick heavy tree branch, which we have to roll and man-handle. We don’t use English, German or Deutschlish in this period. The tide comes in. Now, the words: ‘We will win.’ The eldest is so competitive. However, he also seems to know that we can’t beat nature. When the tide is too strong and close, we stand back and watch.
The next evening, I’m instructed that ‘we’ll just build a wall’ tonight. We go about the repetition of shifting rocks and boulders. The log has washed up farther up the beach. The heavy branch is also close by. We use them both in the wall. After a while, as I’m poking around up-beach for rocks, I notice a young girl of about five come over and just sit herself down a few feet away from the wall, on the dry side. The boys build away and ignore her. She doesn’t communicate with them. I’m intrigued. I’m caught between two minds: on the one hand, does she want to be part of this?; on the other hand, maybe she just wants to watch. I take a wide berth around her, behind her, away from her. I don’t want to make eye contact in case it pops the bubble. I look around and there’s no apparent parent in sight. The girl sits there for quite some time. She fiddles with her shoes, watches the building play, looks out to sea. She’s very patient. There’s something very graceful about her.
Eventually, as I swill around in the gathering slosh of the shallows, I decide to take a chance: I wash off a rock. It’s an offering. I hold it out to her from about ten feet away. ‘Want to play?’ She can’t get up to join in quick enough! She doesn’t speak, and I don’t ask her her name. I keep my distance, and she travels far out on the beach in search of rocks: farther out than is strictly necessary – there are good rocks nearby and the tide is coming in quickly now. The boys absorb her into the play frame. Occasionally, she says a ‘yes’ or a similar quick response to a question or comment of mine. As she’s busy building the ramparts to try to stop the water coming in at the side, and as the boys and I are scooping sea-water out of the ever-deepening pool inside the curved wall in an act of great play futility – I look up to see a woman, presumably the girl’s mother – smiling on, up-beach. Some parents do understand. Some time later, the sea has won again. I look around and the girl has gone, without a word. Something beautiful has happened here.
The following evening, we are to build a stone tower. We should build it up-beach. It’s the plan of the eldest. The youngest goes with the flow. We choose a suitable site on the sand. There is, I soon realise, the ulterior motive of trying to build just beyond the high tide line. This is intended as a tower in defiance of the sea. We build with the largest rocks we can find and move, small pebbles, gritty sand, and clay that lies around the cliff base in abundance. The youngest applies the clay. The eldest rolls boulders up the sand. The tower takes time. It is an application of devotion. The sea rolls in and the site chosen is not beyond the high tide line after all. The eldest says that we should stay to watch the imminent destruction. We don’t stay so long, as it transpires, but the ritual is acknowledged.
In the wind-swept, rainy morning I try to find the remains of the boys’ tower. It is their tower. There’s nothing left of it, physically, but the beach is scattered with others’ standing stones, small stone circles, a burnt-out fire pit in the sand, feathers stood on end. The beach is scattered with the invisible play of days; of evenings holding off the tide, scattered across the sand.