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

Posts tagged ‘risky play’

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.

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!

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.

Play and (un)certainty

‘Children create situations of unbalance in an attempt to regain equilibrium (Spinka et al, 2001).’

— Lester and Russell (2008, p.62)

More or less, this line above is something I’ve been thinking about or gearing towards for a few weeks now. I knew of it, though not in any precision of word order, and when I looked it up and typed it down, it sat there and waited patiently as I sat there and looked rather ponderously at it for a few minutes. Taking it at face value, it doesn’t wholly fit. The quote comes from Play for a Change and relates to a section of writing on stress response systems and risk in play. ‘Risk’ is often seen predominately in terms of the ‘physical risk’ but the emotional and psychological aspects of risk also come into play. So, what if, for some children (or maybe even for all children), it’s certainty that they’re looking for in the risks of their play, rather than uncertainty in order to regain their equilibriums?

I write it like this because I don’t see the process of regaining balance (physically or emotionally/psychologically) as being the same thing as the seeking of certainty in play. Besides this, I know plenty of children who seek more and more ‘unbalancing’, as if this in itself is a form of certainty. The Play for a Change authors cite Caillois (1961) and Kailliala (2006) in referring to ‘dizzy play’, or vertigo, and some children I know often like to spin fast, and faster, on the roundabout — just for the spin of it, I suspect (not for the regaining of the stability of terra firma, and not for that particular sort of receding nausea that some of us also remember from our own childhoods). This dizzy play is for the sensory nature of being in it. Going fast is never fast enough.

However, this post is not particularly focused on such spin. It is the potential seeking of certainty in children’s play that draws the attention. A repeated play frame — an instance of play, or ‘a material or non-material boundary that keeps the play intact’ (Sturrock and Else, 1998), for those who’ve forgotten playwork terminology — repeated play frames such as those I’ve described in engagement with children’s play in recent posts, are a seeking for certainty in this context. This is how I’m reading the play. However, despite the possible best intentions of the players to faithfully reproduce the play of a previous time, conditions surrounding the new play aren’t going to be exactly the same as the previous instances: so, there will be differences in the play, new formations and directions; the players must be after the best fit of how the play felt. It does, perhaps, suffice to say that if ‘this, that and the other’ is replicated, as best as can be arranged, then ‘this, that and this’ is how the play is expected to feel or be.

I see this seeking of certainty, as I read it, time and again: if it’s not a near-as-damn-it replication of a previous play frame, then it’s a recreation and re-ordering of elements of that play frame; or it sometimes involves the repetitions of stories or it might be the re-positioning of new ‘actors’ into an old scene. It doesn’t always involve repetitions and recreations of previous play: the seeking of certainty, in this line of thinking, extends to the child who won’t jump from the jumping platform for fear of landing awkwardly, too hard, too far out, or for fear of hurting themselves in other ways, for example. Some adults throw themselves out of aeroplanes after they’ve thrown their parachutes out first, for the buzz of it (and good luck to them!); some children jump from swings or walls or platforms without seeming to look and without ever having jumped from that particular swing or wall or platform before. Isn’t there something just a little pathologically disturbed, however, about someone who doesn’t have even the slightest degree of confidence that they’re more ‘certain’ than ‘not certain’ to make that jump? (OK, so I’ve never jumped out of a plane: what do I know? Would you do it though if you thought you had no chance of landing in fewer than two whole pieces?!)

Our lives are uncertain, but this is all the more reason to seek some degree of reassurance that we won’t face death at every corner, or emotional torment or psychological ridicule every way we turn. Uncertainty does permeate through play, in its way, but it’s one thing saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my play; isn’t it exciting?’ and another thing saying ‘Everything I do in my play is a physical, emotional, or psychological rollercoaster that scares the living shit out of me’. One of Garvey’s (1977) prerequisites for play was that it be valued, or fun. Can play be play when it’s a constant engagement with things you can’t be even a little certain of?

I’m certain, in as far as I can be (yes, here’s a stick: hit me over the head with it!), that I’ll finish this post and write something else pretty soon (unless there’s a sudden meteor strike, or unless I suffer a stupendously unlucky imminent physical catastrophe, or the like); I’m pretty certain that if I don’t surpass my ‘optimum limit’ minus one for beer consumption, I won’t suffer for it in the morning; I’m certain that if I’m suddenly reacquainted with Walking in Memphis whilst driving, I’ll be singing loud like no-one can see me! This is all my play, and give or take a negligible percentage of conditions dictating that things won’t work out the way I think they will, things will work out the way I think they will.

What I’m not seeking is not to finish my writing or start any more writing ever again, to exceed my optimum beer consumption limit, or for Walking in Memphis to finish so I can drive like a grown-up again! I’m not supposing for a minute that children necessarily go into their play reflecting on the degree of certainty that will result from replicated play frames, or suchlike; however, I do suppose, here and now, that some (maybe all) children play with some internal nod towards certain possibilities.

Caillois, R. (1961, 2001), Man, play and games. Translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Garvey, C. (1977), Play: the developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books.

Kailliala, M. (2006), Play culture in a changing world. Berkshire: Open University Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. and Bekoff, M. (2001), Mammalian play: training for the unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 76(2): 141-168. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing (the Colorado paper). Leigh-on-Sea: Ludemos Press.

An unwordedness of affect

There was a girl of about four years of age bent over inside a tyre swing as I passed the small enclosed park, one day last week in London. She was positioned in such a way as to have her stomach on the tyre and her feet just touching the floor. She propelled herself around in slow and little circles, lifting her feet to then float round and round. I kept walking but it suddenly occurred to me that she was in it all, the play, for the affect. That is (and this is one of those things I already knew but needed to remind myself), she was seeing what it felt like, letting it all affect her — daydreaming, maybe, and it was all a positive washing over her.

Of course, I don’t know at all what was going on inside her head, but we have these clear certainties come across us sometimes and ‘play for the affect of it’ was what I knew right then. I carried on walking but I kept on thinking about the idea of how play feels. Such minor moments of play observed can leave such marks. This is, in itself, of ‘affect’.

Back in January, I wrote a piece that I called Connecting to the spin. In this I asked:

‘Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?’

I like to re-visit previous writings and ideas. Of course, back in January I was writing about ‘affect’, but I didn’t say it in so many words. This post today is nothing new to those who have worked around or studied play for a while: it isn’t intended to be. Instead, this post is intended to be a reminder to self and to others.

At the weekend, out at the park with Dino-Viking Boy and Princess K., the children took interest in a two-seated contraption which allowed for round and round and up and down motion all at once. They weighed pretty much the same and so, balanced out, they needed me to push them started. Off they spun, and when one pushed their feet onto the ground the other bounced up. They wanted to keep going and keep going, to have booster pushes, just to keep going. The children played on this equipment for at least half an hour without pause. We talked of nonsense things, and of important things, and of important nonsenses.

The young girl at the tyre swing in the London park was circling around slowly, and the children at the weekend buzzed by and by, but they were both about the affect of it, I suspect: what does this feel like?; what can I sense?; what are these emotions I have?

These were, however, not the conscious thoughts of the children, I have no doubt. Play doesn’t tend to work that way. I use the questions here in an abstract, clumsy manner. When we look up at clouds drifting by, with the breeze on our faces, what thoughts pass us (other than those that tell us that this cloud looks like a dog or that that cloud’s moving faster than all the others)? When we sit in the garden and we’re still, and we hear the tinkling of the metal chimes, what do we think? Words aren’t always what move through us in these situations.

We’re more than just the simple recognitions of the sensory inputs that come to us; we’re more than just the simple formation of fears or excitements or happinesses. When we stand up high, balancing precariously, we’re aware of the drop, of the possible slip, of the inevitable pain, but we’re also aware of the moment of the now, of the very edge of things (literally and internally). We couldn’t say what it is in words, truly.

The lack of words is also true of the brief buzz down the zipwire, of standing on the cliff with the wind in your face, of burying your feet in the wet and sticky sand, of staring into the fire in the depths of a winter evening, of singing in the sunshine to a favourite song turned up high on the radio. There aren’t words that adequately describe what this play makes you feel, in sensory and in emotional terms.

Sometimes we don’t think we’re playing, but we are. When we walk and we’re listening intently to the invisible birds in the trees, or when we peer down to the river bed to try to catch the flickering of tiny fish, or when we’re people watching, or driving fast, or blowing bubbles with our lips or making little popping sounds, or when we’re tapping the rings on our fingers onto metal bars on the Underground or on buses or waiting in line in the Post Office queue, we’re playing. We don’t have the words for these things that we feel because there aren’t any but also because, maybe, we don’t see that we’re playing.

At least, when we recognise this, we may be able to then come closer to the idea that what we see taking place in the actions of the children around us, in the streets and in the parks and in the schools and in the homes, is play. Play, as we’ve seen, is wrapped up with affect, with the sensory and with the emotional. It leaves its psychological imprint. The world is full of possibilities that are slow or circular, fast or bright, strange or comfortably familiar, and more.

Walking past the girl on the tyre swing last week, for five or six seconds, no more, this being the entire length of my observation, I had the feeling that this brevity of play seen would turn out to be much longer in the mind than the time it took to pass by. So it is, I know, in the instances of play recalled, and in the wordless affect that lingers, in the minds and in the bodies of the players.

Signs of the times in places to play

I have several ‘soapboxes’ that I tend to wheel out (if you can do such a thing!) when it comes to setting up to spout on about general attitudes towards children and their play. All of what you about to receive shall be spouted out from the soapbox that’s labelled ‘how children, by and large, come second’. Before I’ve written anything, it must be said that I am appreciative of the fact that we all share our urban and rural landscapes, adults and children alike, and that the former shouldn’t be neglected in their needs too; however, where children’s needs for use of those urban and rural areas are pretty much ignored or buried under the priority of the adult, this is the on-going concern.

Children occupy a strange position in UK society (maybe also in the US and other countries too): the dominant rhetoric towards children is one of protection, yet when it comes to hearing their voices (in terms of what they want and need, but also quite literally in hearing their voices), or when it comes to giving thought to children as equally deserving of consideration in terms of ‘space’ use, for example, children are often the poor relations. What was it that George Orwell wrote? It was something along the lines of ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.

The catalyst for this post is a photo I took whilst wandering the west London side streets and hidden bolt-hole squares, in a wide circumference around the adventure playground — scene of many of my recent-years’ writings. I was in the newer part of the ward, by the looks of things: a big tall perimeter wall separates a semi-private cul-de-sac from the main carriageway; small apartment blocks, arranged in neat semi-circles, flank this enclosed cul-de-sac side-road which extends for some way in traffic-less calm until it comes to a full stop against the end fence that abuts an empty grassed and hemmed-in lot. Along the cul-de-sac are parking bays. At intervals in each of these parking bays is this sign:

No Ball Games, No Skateboarding, Etc.

Including this photo in this post is in no way intended to be derogatory towards the people who live in this street. It is, rather, a statement on the attitudes towards children of those who built the housing development. On the one hand, sure, this ‘roadway’ is a ‘roadway’, and this car park is a car park; however, on the other hand, when I was ten, or thereabouts, this roadway and this car park would have been a pretty good approximation of a playground. When I was ten, or thereabouts, I rode my bike around my local estate’s roads and paths, and in between the houses along the alleyways (and if I’d have had a skateboard I’d probably have used that too, down the slopes, though I actually used some other fairly precarious contraptions found or contrived, speeding downhill, along the middle of the road, on my belly, my face three inches from the roadway, without brakes other than my shoes, with no means of turning other than with faith and blind luck, towards the hedge or the brick wall or the parked car, and so on). This photo doesn’t show a scene of a hill (alas), but the roadway is long with a few speed bumps, if I recall correctly (perfect for bike hops at speed, or kicking a ball along to see if it’ll go all the way to the end before touching a wall, or the like).

I’ve had a few informal and ad-hoc conversations with children recently about places of play. These are, admittedly, not part of any as-yet comprehensive study but, in discussion, the children tend towards the highlighting of what I’m thinking of as ‘destination places’: that is, parks, other large and bounded green spaces, other fenced-in environments such as school playgrounds and after school clubs. This is a shame, in some ways: what about all the other areas of in-between? What about, in the new interpretation, what I remember being told of what an old architecture school lecturer used to call ‘the toothpaste’ of a city (as opposed to its more tangible ‘monuments’)?

Children in the city (and in the rural areas, let’s not forget) can get overlooked. That is, the preferences of their play and where that might happen (if permitted a greater luxury of finding out for themselves), can be seen as just not important enough or even not properly thought about at all. I wonder how many children are genuinely consulted on matters of public space, in comparison to the consultation of groups who are routinely considered as they who ‘should be consulted on matters of urban change’ such as ‘residents’ (that is, adults), ‘the elderly’, ‘the ethnic minorities’, ‘the youth’ (that is, teenagers), and so on.

It’s not just the overlooking and ignoring that I find peculiar within this dominant combination rhetoric of ‘protection/lack of consultation or representation’: the general perspective on children could be seen to be children as ‘incapable’, ‘untrustable’, even borderline ‘stupid’.

Here’s a sight that made me think, in passing, which was why the photo needed taking:

Children Must Not Play on This Site

Whilst I’m not advocating that children should necessarily play on scaffolding, sure, what made me think is the sudden realisation of what would happen if I turned the sign on its head, as it were? That is, sure, ‘children must not play on this site’, but what about adults? Can they play on this site? There’s no sign on the scaffolding to say that they can’t. Adults, it must be supposed here, are either socially competent enough to know not to play on such a site without a sign telling them otherwise, or they’re not in need of a sign because adults don’t play (really?!), or actually adults are allowed to play there because there’s no sign to tell them otherwise. OK, so I’m being a little facetious, but in all seriousness it does beg the question as to the point of signs, and to the general attitude towards children as I perceive it.

There are some signs that do recognise that children will play in certain open areas, that they do play there, and that — perhaps — nothing can be done to change that, so the ‘powers that be’ acknowledge and accept it:

Children Playing Sign

It’s a start, but better still would be a state of affairs where there were no need for such signs at all: it being implicitly understood that children may be playing in any give place, designated ‘playground’ or not (OK, maybe not on the dual carriageway, but you get my point); it being implicitly understood that children’s choices of play and places to play in may be very different to adults’ own places of play (yes, adults play too), or different to adults’ ideas of children’s places of play. The protection rhetoric, counter-intuitively, might even be better served this way; children, within this, would also be better listened to in adults’ appreciations of their preferences.

Berlin sites given over for play, and considerations of urban public space use

During a recent trip to Berlin, Germany, I met old friends and submerged myself on the tourist trail (along which I readily engaged in what an old architecture school tutor used to call the obligatory ‘Kodak Spots’ — photographing the well-known places then moving on: Brandenburg Gate, what remains of the Berlin Wall, the site of Checkpoint Charlie); as I went though, I also felt a need to take passing photos of various playgrounds. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this documenting, as ad hoc as it was, or what conclusions I might draw from it. I’ve now had a little time to sit on it all and think it over a little.

When we pass by places set by for children to play or be in, we should trust that voice inside us that may tell us what we might feel like as a child in that place ourselves. Adults of the world too often dismiss the world of the child, and in so doing they forget about themselves: that is, they forget about the fact that they were once a child too. It wouldn’t do any harm to see the world through children’s eyes a little more. A good way to start is to look at the world through the eyes of the child that you were yourself.

As such, without any great in-the-moment analysis, my latent child’s interest in places set by for play was taken a couple of times in Berlin, for different reasons, although there were also occasions of the opposite happening too. It seems that this latter disaffection, created by a general adult disposition towards how to cater for children in the urban environment, is played out across many cities and countries.

Berlin Playground 1

Pockets of space are given over, sure, but it sometimes feels squeezed in, thought of after the buildings. The positive spin on this is at least there are pockets of space given over. There are questions of functional necessities (such as high fences for football pitches) . . .

Berlin Playground 2

. . . but when is a ‘pitch’ actually a ‘pitch’, and why do some function elements have to be so reminiscent of keeping ‘dangerous individuals’ (that is, here, children) away from the good and law-abiding others? I don’t know what the blobby dinosaur shapes are all about here, but maybe they’re intended to soften the blow of all of the above.

Fences and other means of protecting ‘defensible space’ are worth continued consideration in regard to play and urban environments. In 2012, on a study tour of Malmö and Stockholm, Sweden, we learned about the Swedish concept of ‘Allemansrätt’ (the right to roam) and a general lack of need for fences to divide areas. In Berlin, thinking on fences must have filtered through my photographic snapshots:

Berlin Playground 3

A lack of fences is all very well, but what the ground contains is also due some consideration.

Similarly, the surrounding environs of places given over to play (squeezed in, or ‘at least they are there’ spins, whichever you prefer) are also due some thought:

Berlin Playground 4

All cities seem to be forever changing themselves, turning themselves continuously inside-out in the building and re-building, but what then happens is little pieces of the city (and little pieces of the populace, e.g. children) get either marginalised or they cling on bloody-mindedly in amongst it all.

Where my latent child was stimulated somewhat in Berlin was in the chance discovery of a playground structure of some novelty to me:

Berlin Playground 5

Berlin Playground 6

Berlin Playground 7

Berlin Playground 8

My in-the-moment thinking was what it might be like to be up on these odd rubber walkways, but my adult analysis also kicked in when observing a lack of barriers above the UK fall height of two metres. I’ve only just noticed that there’s a child in one of these pictures looking out over the edge.

Novelty might only last so long, by definition, but the initial catching of attention could be a factor in design of fixed play equipment. A playground house caught my attention briefly, somewhere in Schöneberg perhaps, but I wouldn’t have played or at least stayed here long as a child:

Berlin Playground 9

Near Winterfeldtplatz we discovered what we read to be a school:

Berlin Playground 10

Berlin Playground 11

Here, it seems, is some form of fusion of thoughts on this latent child’s in-the-moment stimulus, fencing and defensible space, and considerations of the child in the city. As a child here I would probably have hid myself in amongst the trees, just to watch out and see! I was taken, in my relaxed state, by the design of the fences (which were, admittedly, still fences marking boundaries of areas in un-Swedish-like ways), replicating the landscape somewhat. The place felt, in the immediacy, more tangible to a human-ness of experiencing the world than many of the stark concrete blocks of the former East Berlin and the grandiose town houses of the former West of the city.

Berlin, in these snapshots, demarcates children’s useable/allowed space from that of the adults in the same way that probably every other city in the world does, though there are instances of novelty and stimulus to be found. What would be truly inspiring, however, is if the adult populace of cities (being the ones who currently exert formalised control over such things as urban planning) worked more towards acceptance of the blending of spatial needs: those of children as well as adults. Yes, this is somewhat Utopian but not impossible.

This is not to say that children aren’t being given the opportunity to play out there in the world at all (sitting in a pub at a busy intersection in Shepherd’s Bush, London, whilst the circus are camped out on the Green, on a late sunny afternoon during a school holiday, observing all the play between the roads and the circus fence, goes some way to showing this, though those children are still ‘hemmed in’ to a degree): what this all is to say is that tolerance of play should be the norm, not the exception; that children squeezed in to spaces between buildings, fenced off from the city for reasons of corralling, is disingenuous to the popular refrain of ‘putting children first’.

Connecting to the spin

When we observe play, or when we’re invited into it, we can lose sight of what that play feels like for the child. Perhaps, on the whole as playworkers, we don’t connect back enough to what any given instance of play actually feels like from the child’s point of view. Sure, if we’re invited into the play we have our own ‘in-the-moment’ feelings about what’s it’s like for us there and then, but this isn’t the same thing as trying to see the moment of play from the perspective of being a child. This is my build-up to ‘thinking about it as I write it’ on play I was a part of last week and something I said whilst there.

This story concerns the roundabout, which is towards one of the far corners of the playground. Sometimes some of the children like to be spun by one of the playworkers (despite the fact that, as observed, they can pick up even greater speed by having one child stand at the centre, holding the centre-piece, and rotating the boards with their feet). I was asked to spin, one day, by one of the younger children: I could see a few murky shapes of other children playing in the shadows of the middle of the site. ‘How fast?’ I asked the child who wanted to be spun, ‘Do you want fast, sick-fast, or super-sick-fast?’. ‘Super-sick-fast’, she told me, matter-of-factly, as if this was obvious. (I also had to factor in the possibility of the double-meaning of the local parlance version of ‘sick’, as in ‘good’, as I understand it).

She has good balance for her age. I’d seen this before but I still started off slowly (this is also necessary to work up the momentum!). ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Faster — this is rubbish’. So I went faster, really putting my back into it. She sat there, variously looking up at the spinning sky, putting her cheek against her hand, whose elbow was nonchalantly propped against the rail, spinning so fast that I was beginning to feel somewhat nauseous myself, just focusing on her zipping by every one third of a second or so! ‘Faster,’ she called. I couldn’t go any faster.

Soon enough, from out of the playground’s shadows, we were joined by more children. I put on the brakes so they could pile on. Pushing became somewhat more difficult, but I gave them the same speed options. They chose the fastest, naturally. One boy brought over the entrails of a tap and its tubed gubbings (a random piece of stuff, in the model of loose parts, that’s found its way on site). He hooked it over the rail and was simply and ridiculously excited to see the centrifugal force spin it out almost horizontally as the roundabout spun around. Other children told newer children, in their own words as they zipped round, about that centrifugal force, and how they’d found that they’d got stuck to the edge as they’d gone faster.

When the extra children had wandered off again after stopping (one really wanted the thing to stop), the first child demanded more spinning. She got her wishes, and after I’d stepped away to let the roundabout wind down of its own accord, and to give myself a breather, I said to the girl, ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that. I never did that when I was your age.’ She gave a sort of shrug.

Of course, however, in the moment I was feeling a little nauseous just watching the spin of her on the roundabout and thinking what it might be like if I, the adult me, were on there. Of course, I’d forgotten to remember the moments of being the child that I was because, I think, the adult sensibility of the moment was too strong. As a child I would roll down hills, spin till I felt almost sick, swing as high as I could, and so on. Here, now, away from the play and the playground, I think of Stuart Lester talking about ‘being in control of being out of control’, of Roger Caillois’ writing on ‘ilinx’, or ‘vertigo’, and the spin that this type of play is, and I think of Bob Hughes’ ‘problem immersion’ in which there is the advocation to think on what play feels like for the child, re-connecting to our own play as a child.

This is more difficult than it might at first seem. I find that the process of thinking about the roundabout has taken me from ‘I don’t understand why you children like it going so fast like that; I never did that when I was your age’ to ‘I did that sort of thing’ to, now, ‘Why did I do that sort of thing?’ I really don’t know. Why did I roll down the hill, spin till I felt sick, swing as high as I could?

Perhaps I rolled down the hill because it was there, because it was steep, because it was covered in hay, because it was sunny, because I wanted to win a race. Perhaps I stood and spun around as fast as I could till I felt physically sick because I wanted to see how far I could push myself, how fast I could go, if it was actually possible to be sick, to feel the nasty queasiness of the spinning world after I’d stopped, to have the sensation of the world slowly blurring and easing itself to a stop as I lay on the grass, to have everything come back to normal. Perhaps I swung as high as I could because I could, because I wanted to beat a world record, because I wanted to see if I could jump farther than I’d done before, because I knew I could be the master of the swing and control it, because it was like flying.

In truth, I really don’t know for sure what I was thinking when I was six or seven or however old I was when I rolled and spun and swung like this. Maybe it’s the same for the girl on the roundabout last week: she knew she wanted to go fast, she felt it when she spun fast, wanted to go faster still, but if asked directly ‘Why do you do this?’ she couldn’t really say. She just does it: because it’s there, because it’s something that can go fast, because there’s a world record to beat, because she wants to see if she really can be sick, because she can ‘win’, because she can be the master of the roundabout, because she wants to experience the blur of the world easing back to normal again around her: all or some or none of these. I won’t know for sure.

All I can do is stay on the edges, like I am when I spin the rail on the perimeter, watching on, thinking later, like now; then, I can think on this in the moment of play observation/play invited into, connecting back to my own play as a child to further try to ‘get’ the play of this child in the now. Then I’m better in the spin of it all, without taking it over, but knowing what it feels like and knowing what should and shouldn’t be done.

Fifteen short observations/reflections to get back into playwork thinking and writing

It’s the other side of the weekend after the children’s first week back at school and their first after-school week back on the playground. I’ve taken a few days to get round to writing: it takes a little time, playing catch up, this side of a long holiday. I’m a playworker always, but it’s true to say I’ve had a bit of a rest from the thinking. I’ve forgotten how much energy all this observing, thinking, making intervention/non-intervention decisions, writing, reading, talking it all through takes up. When you’re in it, you maintain it. When you rest, everything shifts.

‘Getting back on the horse’ is my phrase and thinking of the moment. The way to do this, for me these past few days, is to let things be, let the observations and the thoughts on the play seep in, then sit quietly and still: what comes to mind from the first week back on the playground? Getting back on the horse of writing involves writing it as it then comes. Later, another week, I may tackle analysis of General Comment 17 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 31. Maybe! To keep thinking on play, on our work as playworkers, on the place we maintain for the children to be able to play, we keep up the practising of observing. Here is what bubbled up from last week when I just let it be, sat quietly:
1. Why are your legs so long?
Myself and a younger girl were trailing behind the main group as we walked back from school. She opened up her conversation with this line: ‘Why are your legs so long?’ Umm, I thought. I didn’t know. I went for the jokey reply: ‘Well, if they weren’t so long, I wouldn’t reach the ground.’ She dismissed this. I said, ‘Hey, look at that guy there. He’s way taller than me.’ She shook her head. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I was talking about your legs, right?’ It was a way of making me concentrate, I guess: a way to focus on the things she was saying. We talked about other things I don’t fully recall that just seemed to need some saying on the way back from school. The words themselves may not have been so important.
2. What’s your name again?
A brother and sister who both know me well enough to know my name, or so I thought, independently of one another forgot my name in the midst of their play. It was, for each of them, one of those blind spots of thinking that we all have, maybe. Either way, the trick is to not take it personally. I reminded each of them, an hour apart, what my name was. To the girl I made play of it. ‘What’s your name again?’ I asked her, knowing what it was. I went through all the possible names I could make up in ten seconds. She scowled at me and I let it be.
3. A mask made from things just kicking around for weeks
At the end of last term, an old Apple Mac became the latest victim of having its innards smashed out with hammers. Some of the children like to do this to the old and no longer useful tech we offer them for this purpose. Part of that Mac survived by kicking around the playground for a few weeks without any love or attention. It became a legitimate piece of stuff, in the model of the theory of loose parts. It was ignored for a while, left in the wheelbarrow at the end of the day. One of the girls picked it up last week. Over the course of a few days she’d engaged in the project of using various tools to crimp and shape the metal innards into a mask. Things can have other value, eventually.
4. About the photos board
We’d spent the best part of the last day of last term tidying and cleaning and also sprucing up all the photos that line a couple of the walls indoors. The children often like to make use of the playground camera, taking it off for a whole session, taking stills and videos of play: you never know what’s going to come back at the end of the day! It’s like seeing what gets hauled up in the fishing net! We take plenty of photos of the play ourselves too. We’ve amassed a huge amount over a few years. Some of the children spent time last week just pouring over the A4 photos we’d printed out and pinned up. Some seemed to get a lot out of being reminded of the things they’ve got up to recently (and one photo from a few years back was of particular interest to one of the girls). Some of the photos were deliberately chosen to spark an intrigue of recall. A couple of the children, however, were dead-set against their photos being on the wall. We printed out others and swapped them in their place.
5. The continuation of favourite play frames
Before Christmas, one of the favourite things to do seemed to be playing indoor football with a soft plastic ball the children had found. It could be kicked hard against the walls, the furniture, the door frames and doors, and all was good. This side of Christmas, the indoor football carried on, almost as if there were no gap in between the last and the next play of it. Parents come in and get playworker protection, or they learn to duck!
6. Scavenging leftover Christmas trees
Last January or thereabouts, I remember, our Christmas tree found its way out onto the playground and was used for a few weeks by being dragged around, jumped in, and finally discarded. This week, again, our tree is outside, but we’ve seen others on the streets as well: want not, waste not. On the way back from school, there were three trees, variously left out, looking forlorn. One of the older children didn’t see the point of dragging one of the trees back and scowled at me when I asked if she thought we should have it. Another two trees were nearer by, however, and later myself and another child decided we should rescue them. We dragged them in, them shedding needles everywhere, and deposited them outside. Within an hour or so, all the trees had found their way into various dens. They might also burn up well in a few weeks’ time. For now, one graces the palette den which has taken on the form of an outside living room, armchair, tables and all; the others are secreted farther afield.
7. This is the children’s place
I have always known this but a short time away from the playground and a return can refresh the understanding. I picked up a sense of how the children’s expressions here are important to their inner balance (well-being, stability, release, a kind of therapy, call it what you will). Where else can they fling paint against the side of a whitewashed storage container, paint the door of the bin shed when, perhaps, they feel they’re out of the range of any given adult’s disapproval, write their quite clear words of whatever they’re feeling in the moment on the chalkboards recently found?
8. The normality of fire
This is something that’s really struck me this past week: the children here are used to the fire in the fire pit area (and sure, some are excitable around it and this requires extra playworker vigilance), but not only do we adults who are playworkers see this fire play as normal, so too do the parents. Many’s the time, in training work, that I’ve come across other adults (teachers, parents, any given other) who can’t link the possibility that children and fire play can work. The fire is more and more a part of the culture.
9. Eating popcorn made in a pot on the fire
One day, I was poking around the fire pit area when a small group of children came charging out from the door to the toilets and hall nearby, carrying a pot and its lid, shouting that they were going to do popcorn. We resurrected the makeshift upturned table frame that we used at the end of last term when cooking dinner, and we put the popcorn pot on. It took a while and plenty of trial and error, but they got some popcorn in the end. There’s more to be tried in cooking here.
10. A wheeled chair crashing into plastic chairs
One of the older boys, he of the fascination with smashing up old technology, was sat in the chair that one of my colleagues had bolted wheels to the base of last term. There was a rope for pulling a rider and the boy used this, initially, as a seat belt. I came indoors to see him sat there trying to manoeuvre himself around. I left him be. A little while later I came in and he was stacking plastic chairs in arrangements that reminded me of that scene from Poltergeist! He was trying to knock them down with a wooden block. There was no-one else in the room but I knew his play needs for destruction, so I said if there was anything else other than the block he could use. There wasn’t. A little later still, I came back in. He was sat in the wheeled chair as other children lined up the plastic seats and a colleague was pushing him so he crashed into them (not hard enough to cause damage to anyone or anything, but enough for the thrill). Other children needed to play to. I thought, where else could this happen?
11. Dancing and papers
There’s a six foot or so high wooden box construction in the middle of the playground. It’s been there for a couple of months now. The children climb in it and over the top of it. It’s developed a name from some of the children, but which I won’t tell because it’s a secret! I was talking to the mother of a boy who was stood up on top of the box when she came to collect him. He was dancing and acting out all his moves in dramatic fashion. We both observed. I told her about the other play I saw him engage in. I told her how he expressed himself in is play here. I haven’t told her yet how, on the first day back, he had scattered papers and pens as far as he could throw them outside! It’s all expression, and it’s all fine.
12. Children sat around in scavenged upright armchairs
In the last weeks of last term, the playground came into possession of half a dozen or so upright armchairs: the kind that probably line the rooms of old people’s homes. There’s a small area just beyond the fence, at one corner of the playground, where stuff like this tends to get left for collection and disposal. The chairs looked serviceable enough, so they became re-housed, and they scrubbed up OK (until one of the older boys of the open access group had come in on the last day of term, poking around as we tried to tidy, making a meal of ‘helping’ but really, probably, just needing to be there: he found a spray can and promptly went and sprayed things like ‘Don’t sit here’ on the chairs!). Now, the chairs are either in the dens outside or some have found their way into a circle indoors. I’ve often thought it would be great to have a place of play that was an old ramshackle country house, complete with these sorts of chairs and big old rugs thrown over rough bare timbers: the children sat around in the chairs indoors last week, eating their food or just lounging, being decadent, and talking. It had a kind of ‘country house’ feel to it!
13. To intervene or not?
Some of the boys’ — and sometimes the girls’ — playfighting can sometimes shift, if not into full-on fighting, then into teasing bordering on the possibility of bullying by repetition of the action. It’s always a tough call, this one: sometimes, when does the playfight shift? Sometimes, when does the teasing become more potent? Perhaps the children are getting used to being in their own place again because some play challenges this side of Christmas. A playworker has to get up to speed again. A small gang teased and harassed and then the boy who was at the thick end of it cried. I intervened but don’t know right now if I did it right, soon enough, should have done it all. Of another playfight/fight, I don’t know whether I got it right or not because of different results: I observed a brother and sister trying to get a length of pole from one another. I knew they’d had scraps before, so I observed carefully. It seemed to be play, but edgy enough. I was alert and twenty yards or so away. The children didn’t look at me. Then the girl was bundled over and wasn’t pleased. She came over to me and kicked me in the shin. She knew I was watching, I guessed then, and I told her that if she’d asked for help (tough as I see her as), I would have helped. She kicked me again and later punched me on the nose! I may have some ingratiating to do!
14. A quiet attempt at damaging
Whilst at the fire pit, listening out for popcorn kernels popping whilst leant against the palette wall, I saw a short distance away how our resident ‘destructo-boy’ had been quietly cellotaping up a shopping trolley so it couldn’t escape. It was nothing unusual because, as well as hammering the life out of bits of old metal and plastic, he does sometimes have a need to play this way too. I observed from the corner of my eye. A short time later he fetched the sledgehammer from nearby. He gave me the slightest look, long enough for him to register a disapproval that I might give. In the lack of any negative sign, he went about his quiet business of hefting the sledgehammer to try to damage the stricken trolley lying on its side in the mud. The sledge proved too heavy to inflict any pain! It amused me anyway.
15. The playground as home
Some of the children buzzed around me every now and then, one day, asking to have the gate to the ‘pitches’ opened (this being, actually, just one hard court pitch beyond the fence of the playground). There was a member of the public on there, but the children badgered and badgered me, so we asked permission and were allowed on. The children organised their own game as I loafed around the edges, my hands in my pockets to keep warm. They told me I was playing, and they told each other I counted for two as I was an adult. They put me in goal. One of our open access regulars soon turned up and slipped himself into the game. He hung around, not being part of the club, but being part of the scene: he’s part of the furniture. He often climbs over the fence to let us know he’s still around, running around when he knows he shouldn’t be in there (though, actually, it’s just as much his place too). When all the children had gone home, we de-briefed and went to go too. He was sat on the railing out front, waiting for the youth club to start. This playground feels like it could be home to some.

A playworker’s end of year self assessment

It’s closure time of the year. Just as the self-employed undertake a self-assessment for the paying of tax, I thought I’d undertake a playwork self-assessment for the year. I do this not to beat my own drum (there are some things to improve upon after all), but in the hope that other playwork people might be inspired to do it too (at the very least, in the privacy of their own thoughts or notebooks). Plenty has happened this year: there’s no way I can capture it all, so I aim to write a flavour overview as a means of sparking what might lie in others’ consciousnesses.
With due regards to time, with grace
I’m aware of the passing of seasons on the playground. Although I won’t write every section here like this one, I’m thinking clearly about that long, wet January when the place seemed underwater continuously, and when we developed a swamp in the centre of it all; February brought the realisation of how long the open-access children have to wait between the short times they get the playground for (October to February is a long winter). We waited so long for the first flowers, and then the grass grew long, and it grew through the scattered tyres. I resisted the cutting of the grass for a long time: there are hiding places to be had. In the end though, things change: this I know. Before long, those new long hot days of summer were on us. We had to adapt to the water bombs, to the spin of the play. The autumn stretched summer out into long shadows and the heat stayed on until one week when the winter came. The light left and the children played in the dark. The tree den became empty through the branches because all the leaves had gone. The fire pit became the centre-piece to plenty of the play.

In all of this, I find I needed resilience and the ability to cope with soaked denim — even when I asked for it not to be water bombed; I needed humour when I had no reserves left, and sugar (in the form of fizzy energy drinks and chocolate!) Overall, I was aware of the need for grace. Some days I find this deserts me; more days I realise that moments make up everything, and that I am in between, and that the slightest gesture carries weight. Grace, like time, is in the fabric of the playground.
I think of an eight-year-old who told me to fuck off, not so long ago, so I fucked off
I want to write it like this because it’s true. This boy told it to me straight (and it wasn’t this year, but this further thinking on it, on personal ‘ways of being’ progression, is of this year). There was a time when I would have objected to his words, for various socially absorbed reasons (that is, what I took on board, without questioning it, about what others told me I should think). So, when this boy told me I was wrong, in no uncertain terms, I realised I was wrong. I continue to think about ‘being wrong’.
I think of the good days in which I serve
Some people I’ve worked with have objected to my reasoning that I should ‘serve’ children. They seem to be saying that I shouldn’t be taking a stance that they themselves see as overly self-deprecating. I don’t see it this way. I see it, more and more, as essential in good quality playwork: I am in service of the play. My purpose is not to control, or to teach, or to dictate or direct. I can and have served in many ways: on good days. There are days when I’m not so on the ball, in honesty. These are the days I can work on, in my continuing thinking on ‘being better’. On good days, I serve the play directly, or indirectly, walking away. The children tell me with the looks in their eyes or with words I don’t expect . . .
I make some mistakes that I recognise
There’s a small difference between me using the word ‘that’ and the word ‘which’ in this heading: the former is my admission that there are some mistakes that I make and that are recognised and, therefore also, some that I may miss; I choose not to use ‘which’ because this implies to me that I recognise all of my mistakes. The mistakes I’ve made, I’m working on; those that I don’t yet recognise are those that may make themselves clearer in the fullness of time.
I listen to the indirect and direct problems that children bring me
On the whole, I’ve not been a great believer in the ‘playworker as always basically invisible’ school of thought. I did go through a phase of being more invisible than visible, but then the children I work with now got to know me better. I work in a human environment. In that environment, those children bring me their small and great issues of their day-to-days, on occasion. I don’t know what to do about this, often, because what can I do? So I listen when I can. Sometimes I might go about the listening process in ways the children don’t want (see my previous post about the boy on the roundabout). Generally though, these children here will bring me things if I am the one they wish to unload on. We might be sitting round the fire, or we might be just talking at the hatch to the kitchen, the children sat up on the counter (some of the girls see this, I think, as ‘their place’, sat up against the wall eating pasta straight from the pan, or the salad straight from the bowl!) I do my best to listen, and if I get it wrong the children tell me in no uncertain terms.
I get my hands filthy, my clothes wet and smoky
Really, I think, this year, playwork involves a fair degree of this. There’s no point standing around pretending to be interested, constantly checking your phone, looking at the clock, hugging the corners of the playground (or whatever the place might be termed as) in tight little lines of personal comfort zones: you’ll get found out. Children know. Your colleagues know. You might be the only one who doesn’t. One day, one week, if I’m on form (and we all get tired, sure), I earn my way this way of filthy hands, of wet and smoky clothes. There’s still nothing quite like getting on the Underground at the end of a summer session, covered in mud and paint, stinking to high heaven, still talking play, even though the day’s come and gone, and heading for the pub, drawing the attention of slightly freaked-out fellow commuters!
Some play concerns me; some play I’m required in
I use the word ‘concern’ in two senses: some play concerns me, as in ‘it troubles me’; some play concerns me, as in ‘my presence is required in it’. I find I’m fine with some children climbing some trees, but other children climbing other trees has its worries. What I do or don’t do is then important. I decide to consult with a colleague, and I step away from the play as she observes. Yet, some similar play doesn’t concern me at all: I watch on amazed as the older boys perform all their parkour moves way up above me, jumping off the highest platform points, rolling, and bouncing off and on again.

Some play concerns me, as in ‘I am required’. I often wonder, when cued to play, about the difference between ‘neediness’ and ‘being required’. I see these as different in quality. If I’m well-received for a quality of ‘being me’, one day, I’m a necessary aspect of the play. It isn’t my play, but I’m a part of it. When it’s done, it’s done, and I’m discarded like any other object of the loose parts variety. Some days, the play might not be this way inclined: I inherit a personal little shadow. I try to give that shadow away to a colleague, in hopefully sensitive ways. It is this aspect of ‘being required’ that I find some fascination in though.
I’ll step away and around the play that doesn’t concern me
This is something I have been aware of for a fair while. I think of it every time my intended path comes into contact with a play frame/instance of play in front of me. It doesn’t take long to stop, wait, choose the right moment to pass on around the play, where possible. What I have learned is that I think about this more and more. On the days I get it wrong, because I’m requested elsewhere quickly, or because I just mis-time it, I tell myself this for next time.
I continue to learn the tools of the playground, recognise my limitations and inabilities, recognise the skill of others
Is being a good playworker about knowing which end a sledgehammer, screwdriver, saw, or power drill operates from? My limitations have always been my use of such tools (ask my woodwork and metalwork teachers at school!) However, slowly, slowly, I learn where the ‘on’ button is for most things! I will always be useless at doing the things that others can just do, seemingly, without even being aware that they’re doing it. My hat is very much off to them. I’ll keep trying.
I de-personalise the children’s criticisms, but take their said and unsaid praise
On some occasions this year, children have told me that I’m in their face, I’m bugging them, I’m not needed, or I’m something I just don’t understand because I haven’t got the local child parlance quite off pat yet. Yes, sometimes I’ve felt aggrieved by things said, but more often than not I know that that is what was needed to be said by that child in that moment. Tomorrow always brings a different light. ‘Tomorrow’ might end up being a few months down the line.

In contrast, when children choose to say how much they appreciate you, it’s usually not a superficial communication. In some ways, the following example is the catalyst for this post today. In the last week of school term, one of the older girls had discussions with various playworkers about whether they were on her ‘nice list’ or not. (It transpired that she’d been to Spain, apparently, so she told me on her way back from school one day, where those not on the ‘nice list’ get lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings). I found myself on the ‘nice list’. She smiled at me and told me that I always opened the door to her and her friends, bowing, saying things like: ‘Hello, ladies’! It’s true: part in playfulness but also part, in truth, because this is my way of saying an honest welcome to them. The point is that these ways I take for granted, over time, hadn’t gone unnoticed by this child. It has made me think on plenty of other ways of ‘being playworker’.
I write carefully, mostly
‘Being playworker’, for me this year, involves ‘being writer’. Words are important because they can either heighten or destroy the possibility of meanings. I try to choose wisely because words have play in them too.

A short while ago, I came across some words attributed to Barry Schwartz, regarding the cultivation of ‘practical wisdom’ in a piece entitled ‘Our Loss of Wisdom’, which I believe can be found via the TED talks website. Schwartz discussed ‘being wise’, and I thought as I read this passage that I could transplant his words ‘a wise person’ with ‘a playworker’; here’s what I can leave you with for 2014:

‘A playworker knows when and how to make the exception to every rule . . . a playworker knows how to improvise . . . real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A playworker is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand . . . to serve other people, not to manipulate other people . . . and finally, perhaps most important[ly], a playworker is made, not born.

‘Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people [who] you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, [to] try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures . . . and you need to be mentored by wise teachers.’

I have my chosen teachers. Some are excellent playworkers, some are much younger . . .
Seasonal malarkey to you all. Playworkings will return in January.

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