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

Posts tagged ‘primitive’

White City stories: part 13

Continuing the stories from my recent after school sessions playworking week at White City Adventure Playground, London.
 
Mad Thursday

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 . . .
 
 

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Beach play: primitive understandings

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.
 
 

Magic: mystic force and playwork incantation

‘What 20 years in playwork has taught me, again and again, is that extraordinary things happen in charged moments . . .’

‘We have to know and share the charged moments [so as not to] in some way lose the essence of playfulness that we are supposed to be advocates for.’

Eddie Nuttall (2012), Scribbles from the Noosphere Pt 1
 
 
At an adventure playground, once, I was talking with Ian (of a playwork persuasion) and he told me about the ‘mad magic’ in that place. Attempts to define this magic are futile really: the point of magic is that it’s magic. It’s not of the realm we usually see of the world. Except it is a part of the world, this place and planet we inhabit, the universe no less. We’re all a part of it, not apart.

I don’t wish to try to finely define magic here, strip it to its bones, but I am curious to dig a little deeper. Bear with me: this could get convoluted.

Magic is here. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the mystic force that flows everywhere, through everyone and everything, or it’s the practice of focusing forces to make things happen, visible: or it’s both. Primitive culture and religions all around the world believed in magic. It’s still deep down in all of us: in superstition, in wish-fulfilment, in irrational attachment to objects. Magic is here. I’m not talking about illusion or trickery. Magic is of, and in, the world.

There are playwork writers out there who allude to how the act of adults observing children at play breaks ‘the spell’ – the children’s focusing of mystic forces in formation of their play?; or, at least, it changes the play. Perhaps, just perhaps, the act of observing brings the magic out into this world we move around in. Look and you will see. Sometimes, I’ll observe and the magic that is everywhere, the essence, the mystic force, becomes apparent. I spread a watery flow of paint over the hidden candlewaxed message; I sprinkle glitter on the invisible gluesticked marks.

This mystic force, this mana (as the Melanesians called it), in us, in supernatural entities, in objects, is the dark and light matter. In Guinea, western Africa, Portuguese sailors used their word ‘fetish’ to describe the natives’ reverence of certain objects. These objects had supernatural force imbued in them. Rituals were undertaken, and these rituals could make the force attach itself artificially elsewhere: a kind of ‘charging’ process. Incantations, spells if you like, could charge objects with the mystic force: objects like effigies, trinkets, charms, pieces of cloth or wood. Fetish in the reverence of object. Maybe people (person as object revered) can sometimes also be seen in such light of ‘fetish’ . . .

The reverence of the child. The child as object of wonder. The sacred child. Do not break the spell of the play of the child. Do not adulterate the play. The sacred child plays. There is magic here and it must not be disturbed. Playworkers are afflicted by primitive calls.

The Polynesian word ‘taboo’ refers to the sanctity of the ‘charged one’. Do not touch. Stay clear. Revere. Risk ill-effect and misfortune on your spirit if you breach the taboo. In playwork, purists: risk ill-effect on your playworking self – do not touch; do not adulterate; do not sully the play frame by your presence through it; stay in the shadows, phantom one.

Yet . . . the mystic force, the magic, is there all the time in the play. Will it really crumble away with the slightness of our observation?

We don’t, or won’t, always see the magic of the mystic. Do we need to evoke spells and incantations to make it apparent (‘freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated . . .’)? Stay clear of the chosen one. Or do we need to spread the glitter over gluesticked marks by our very observation?

There is mad magic, and mayhem, in the world: of that I’m sure. ‘Belief’ being what it is though, I can’t substantiate this. It’s just something that must be ‘known’. It’s irrational, but then we don’t truly live in a rational world. I touch wood that my words are understood. Magic comes in many forms . . .

A moment from my notebook, November:

I help Freida make sure the sheets stay over the climbing frame dome on this windy day: we do it in layers and the sheets stick and mould well to the frame when the netting goes on top. We’re at the darker end of the garden: the sun has long since set anyway. A little while later, I go over to see if she’s still in there. Quietly I check through a gap in the sheets. She doesn’t notice me or, at least, she doesn’t show that she does. She’s lying on her back, in the semi-dark, playing with a toy that lights up red. She’s on her own. I leave her be. 

As I write, literally as I write, a message comes through from my sister, to the effect of: that blue tennis ball [that my 18 month old nephew and I were playing with on Sunday last] . . . he hasn’t let it go since; even sleeps with it.

A reverence of object: magic imbued and charged within it. Also, though, this message comes in magic: as I write of magic, magic happens, magic is seen, presented to me. It’s a true story of now. It’s weird, but such is also the fabric of the primitive belief.

Extraordinary things happen in charged moments.
 
 

An adult affect in play settings

‘Human beings are predisposed to satisfy certain archetypal needs . . . if the environment does not fulfil those needs, then psychopathology will result.’

Bob Hughes (2012), Evolutionary Playwork, p.50, referring to Stevens and Price (1996), Evolutionary Psychiatry.
 
 
Play environments. Environments where play can happen. Playable spaces and places. Play might be everywhere, or can happen in many places. Being able to stand back and separate the woods from the trees is a luxury in some respects: I’m thinking here and now about all the play settings I’ve visited over the years. Of course, I can’t remember every one of them, but the investigation process of ‘things that are common’ started a long time ago.

I have to be careful with what I’m about to say. We adults can be a little touchy when it comes to certain statements: sometimes we think someone is attacking us personally. Here’s the statement: some play settings can have quite repressive feels.

OK, so some play settings are staffed by certain adults who very consciously and deliberately go out of their way to have it all their way. Statements I’ve heard such as ‘I’m a control freak; I need order; I want children to play in a certain way’, spring to mind. Elsewhere, there are more subtle repressions in place. In other play settings, there’s an unintended hampering of the children’s play.

What does this do to the children? There’s a whole thesis to be written by someone, somewhere on this. I have a limited space here. In the limited space of a repressive play setting (the adult-imposed limitations as well as the physical limitations, i.e. the human affect is important too), what happens to the children? Total unthinking obedience? Fear? Timidity? Reliance on the adults?

Looking at Hughes’ writing again in a little more detail:

Human beings are predisposed to satisfy certain archetypal needs [simply speaking, not being able to engage, in this case, in certain forms of play that are common to everyone].

If the environment does not fulfil those needs, then psychopathology will result [psychopathology being variously described as: abnormal, maladaptive behaviour; the manifestation of a mental or behavioural disorder].

Repressive environments go some way towards creating mental and behavioural disorders?

What happens when that repressive culture is lifted? Perhaps there’s a lingering after-effect that takes place. What I infer from Hughes’ writing is that, if I haven’t got the post-repressive environment right in a setting I’m working in, then psychopathologised behaviours will also be exhibited. It is a journey of recovery that must be taken.

Once, in a play setting, I observed as children – who had been chaotically engaged in post-repressive play – became absorbed in what I thought of as ‘primitive’ bow-and-arrow play. The play happened by accident. One child found a stick and took it indoors. He wanted something, ‘just something’, to make it into a bow. He found elastic. He created a bow and arrow and other children did the same. It wasn’t adult-led or structured play. The children seemed calm that day. This recapitulative play was intriguing in its calming effect.

Just to throw a spanner in the works of this progression from repression and psychopathology to recapitulation and calmness/coming back from chaos, an area of thought I’ve been interested in for a while springs to mind:

In his book, No Fear (2007), p.78, Tim Gill refers to the Institute of Psychiatry’s claim of a doubling of emotional/behavioural conduct problems amongst children and young people in the UK between 1974 and 1999. However, he goes on to write that behaviours once seen as the norm (e.g. quarrels, tantrums, introspection, playfighting) have now been pathologised as psychological problems.

In other words, children’s play is seen differently as time goes by (despite children doing the things other generations did, or even that our earlier ancestors did). Could it be that, the more that repressive play settings become the norm, the more the resultant children’s behaviours of unthinking obedience, fear, timidity, or reliance on the adults are seen to be ‘the norm’?

Sterilised play; sterilised childhood.
 
 

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