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

Posts tagged ‘ritual’

Play, which is non-restrictive approach to action, and its grammar

Being a playworker offers privileged insights into the many-faceted nature of play and, by extension, children’s culture. We, as the adults, are by definition on the outside looking into that culture. That said, the observant, the trusted and the fascinated can be subsumed: just as parliamentary privilege grants its members the leeway of undertaking certain protected actions, playworker privilege (or, at least, play-literate adult privilege) grants that playworker the luxury of being allowed to co-exist in the child’s play. This post, however, isn’t going to carry on about constitutions and the like: privileged insights on play, over time, manifest themselves into a form of grammar that can be seen to be taking place. This is it: play has its grammar.

First though, a quick explanation overview on the choice of title (feel free to read ahead if you know the difference between ‘restrictive’ and ‘non-restrictive’ clauses). Simply put, a restrictive clause is an element of a sentence that is essential for its meaning. A non-restrictive clause can be omitted without the sentence losing its meaning. For example, omitting ‘which is non-restrictive approach to action’ from the title doesn’t greatly shift its overall gist: ‘Play and its grammar’.

Play is non-restrictive, i.e. it doesn’t restrict the subject (that is, in this case, the playing child). If we shift the title of this post to include a restrictive clause, then we shift the meaning of it, e.g. ‘Play that is non-restrictive approach to action and its grammar’. Play that is non-restrictive suggests that there is a non-restrictive and a restrictive sort of play. If it’s restrictive (or restricting) for the player, is it play?

I’ll stop on that choice of title whilst I’m still marginally ahead! Over the years a playworker can amass several books’ worth of privileged insights into the grammar of play, as they’ve seen it. Anything I write here in the next thousand words or so will only scratch the surface. Suffice is to say though that there are lores and codes, the sense of the non-sensical, the necessary unnecessariness and vice versa, the repetitions and recreations, the shows and tells, the long lines of finding out, ridicule and ridiculousness, the not knowing and just staring out but just knowing . . .

Play, as observed, seems replete with ‘this is how it is-ness’. That is, those lores of ‘We got here first’ and ‘I invented this game’ are ingrained in the fabric of play from those players’ points of view. Recently, play had unfolded inside the hall, over the course of a few days, whereby a small group of children strung string or wool around like webs. Of course, this irritated other children who wanted to use that exact same area too. The stringers claimed the moral and play high ground by invoking the ‘we got here first’ clause. Clauses like this are written into the language of play.

Non-sense (written deliberately here with the hyphen) is not a trivial aspect of this language. Non-sense is a code in itself. When ‘Cops and Robbers’ happens on the playground, and when I’m the cop because that is my designation, some of the children will stop running and stand in the middle of the site, in the mud, with a finger placed across their upper lips (or, sometimes, it’s a twig or something else like this). This non-sense makes perfect sense to the players: all of us. The children standing with their fingers poised horizontally across their upper lips are in disguise, sporting moustaches. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ the situation requires me to say to any of the girls stood there, ‘but have you seen any robbers around here?’ The children will often say no, so I’ll say, ‘Oh, sorry to have bothered you, sir’ and this is their cue to take down their moustache disguises and the chase is on again! If you ‘write’ the play in other ways, sometimes, if you play it out other than expected, it doesn’t seem to read right.

Within play there are necessary unnecessaries and unnecessary necessaries. Glitter is a thing of the moment (a necessary necessary within the other lines of thinking, being, doing). One particular younger child attends our off-playground outreach sessions every day we’re out there. Every day, without fail and at some point, he’ll find the pot of glitter (which we take out there because the other children have been gluing and glittering and feathering pictures and plasticine and tables for weeks now). Every day we’re out there, as soon as he’s found the glitter pot, this younger child will pour it all out onto the nearest surface (usually the ground!). It seems absolutely, unnecessarily necessary for him to do this, or vice versa. I haven’t quite worked out which. Either way, it’s a twisted grammatical construction, as complex as it is: threading through and hanging in the play, the child has his own reasons. It is a dangling participle of the language of play.

Play like this happens again and again. I’ve written of repetitions and recreations of play many times here (yes, that is an intentional and considered previous two lines). In some form of necessary way, players often seem to need and want this repetition and recreation. Perhaps the play that has happened hasn’t strung itself out fully yet; perhaps the play just needs repeating in order to try to conjure the affective felt conditions of before (as I have written of before); perhaps, in the repetitions and recreations, in the grammar of these lines that thread through days, there is something of the ancient ritual, of the magic incantation, of magic protective circles, and the like. These are not necessarily about the extensions of play that happens (being the on-going concern of a play frame over days — like, for example, the cafés that currently unfold around the playground); these are clockwork repetitions. One boy with autism repeats the same actions at the fire, piling on cardboard and any paper sheets he can find, sitting and watching and saying over and over, ‘Little flames, little flames’ and ‘Strawberry jam’ or whatever I can’t translate from his Slovenian or Croatian. Other children, without autism, repeat their play at the swings, at the trampoline, at the netting, with the bikes, with the sand and mud pies, with the whatever is ‘in’ of the moment. It seems readable: as if there are messages within it all.

Some children create elaborate constructions of play and there are more messages embedded in all of these. These are shows and tells. The playworker has to be hyper-tuned to register the frequencies of what’s going on around him- or herself some days. There are wavelengths that are longer too though. Sometimes the amplitude, as it were, is so shallow, though the wavelength is so long, that the on-going play can be missed, unseen, entirely. The long lines of finding things out are written in the way that names and uses of them unfold, in the slow fluidity of shifts in friendships, in the ultra-local legends of very particular places within the place that is the playground. These are subject-verb agreements within the grammar of the play.

Some children, in the play, are objects of ridicule (because they don’t know or don’t care what and how they do things, or because they’ve chosen a way, or because they can only be that way, or because they’ve wanted to be). They act like punctuation marks because you know how they’ll affect the sentence of the play as a whole. They’re both needed and unneeded by the other children: an aspect of the selective descriptive grammar, in this case, rather than the prescribed ‘you must do this, be this, be that’. Ridicule is part of play but play also subverts and embraces ridiculousness. On the face of it, when does play start? It’s ridiculous to suggest that it either starts or ends when, sometimes, narrating (or prescribing) the play — what will happen (‘first I’ll do this, then you do that, then afterwards we’ll do this’) before it’s happened — is part of the play in itself. Then it shifts condition. The blocky adult perspective of ‘non-play action, non-play action, play, non-play action’ is the ridiculous here, which children are fluent in turning on its head. It’s a way of writing upside down. At the same time, play embraces the ridiculousness of being. ‘What would you like from our café, sir?’; ‘Octopus pie and a slice of hippo, no cucumber please’; ‘OK, just wait here.’ It’s mirror writing: through the looking glass.

Play, which is non-restrictive (or how can it be play?), has its grammar. This is, as I read it, a complex affair. It embraces other philosophies and fields in its ethics, in its amplitudes and wavelengths, in its calligraphies and natural magic. There are clauses in the lores, ways of reading, twisted constructions and hidden messages within it all; there are subject-verb agreements, objects in relation, subversions and subsummations of others’ ways of being. Play is a descriptive, non-restrictive grammar because it won’t be exactly pinned.

Sometimes, all we can do (and sometimes all children need to do), in the just not knowing, is just a staring out, but just kind of knowing all the same . . .

Here there is time

Every once in a while we find it possible to step outside our usual routines and into a different place to be. Routines are, perhaps, somewhat superficial: being self-imposed in order to give some form to our own lives. What we believe is true, or true enough, and we find some comfort in our regular comings and goings. What has this all to do with play? Patience, we’ll get there. This week I’ve gone about interrupting my usual comings and goings. Summer has come and gone, and there has been an enormous amount of other people’s energies absorbed, travel to and fro, and attempts at juggling the thinking processes of what I’ve observed and felt: the clash of magical thinking and scientific rationale is an internal movement in itself.

This week I sat in the stone circle of Avebury. This trip was both a finding out of somewhere known of but never seen, and a pause. As we drove north up through the Wiltshire countryside, I realised that there just seemed to be a north-south axis to the land I was in: not just because of the route we were travelling, but because of the line of monuments and markers that we followed — from Stonehenge and Woodhenge, up to Silbury Hill and the Long Barrow, with the chalk White Horse in the distance.

There were tourists, we were tourists. The whole place is a restoration, it would seem; yet we come — what we believe is true, or true enough. Four and a half thousand years or so ago, the people who were at what was to become Avebury set themselves to the massive undertaking of a near-circular earthworks. I’m struck by time when I see such things that still exist: there are the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort near where I live — such earthworks as those that surround this can only be appreciated with a pause about what we’re walking on. There are plague pits near that fort site too, from centuries later, and time sits there. At Avebury, time sits in the huge near-circular ditches, once later filled with detritus, and in some of the stones. I wondered whether those stones, which were once felled for the preparation of new building, were desecrated relics or if it was necessarily done. I wondered if restoration should have been done at all.

So, after a while I sat down just to see what was there. At Stonehenge there’s a hideous new layer of modern life opened up in the form of its latest visitor centre (amongst other layers); at Avebury there are two rather forlorn souls sat at the end of the car park peddling leaflets. There’s the other modern layer too, but it’s somewhat absorbed in the village. In my life, I wouldn’t go without my hot water and technology on tap, I don’t think, but there’s something about modern layers that is superficial.

We sat at the base of a standing stone, looking out at the Portal Stones, or beyond, out along the line of the West Kennet Avenue. I was still juggling my magical thinking (which is rejected by sceptics as an excuse, a means of making meaning where there may be nothing there at all) and scientific thought. What is it that is here? I’d come to sit because, when walking I stopped to see a huge flock of rooks or crows (not blackbirds, I’m told, which won’t flock!) as they cascaded out from the clump of trees high above the Portal Stones. I watched them and listened to them as they formed a black wave against the sky and dispersed into the distance or into trees farther out there, I wasn’t sure.

So I sat at a stone in one of the inner circles. I saw that the Portal Stones were huge but that the trees were even greater. I listened to the German children playing in between stones nearby, picking up words of their language here and there. I watched the slow parade of beige-trousered elderly tourists as they stepped in single file along the earthworks bank as if towards their own demise. There was a small girl of about three years of age, skipping around between us and the Portal Stones. She was wearing a flowery sort of dress and was accompanied by what I presume was her father, Druid-like attired, and his large dog, and a woman who may have been the girl’s mother, though I wasn’t sure of this either. We make assumptions sometimes in the observation, and I wondered if Druid-dad had created his daughter in his image or if she was naturally so disposed.

The girl seemed completely well-at-ease here at Avebury, in the long grass between the standing stones. Whilst the adults in her party talked distantly some way away, and the dog stood at heel, the girl went to sit on a smaller stone laid with its surface just a short way from the ground. It struck me, observing her in her quiet-focused play with flowers and suchlike, for those few minutes, that here there was time. I could blur out the background line of elderly tourists on the far-off bank, the sounds of the German children playing to my right, the occasional car on the road into the village, the Druid-dressed man and his partner-perhaps and their dog . . . here was a small child playing amongst the long grass, on a stone which now has a name, but which once was part of something else. The near-circular earthworks of Avebury surrounded a playing child. Here was time. What would this play have been four and a half thousand years ago?

There may have been scenes of horrific ritual at sites like these, and this our modern selves can’t square and cannot ignore. What can we say of play though? Was there play? In my magical thinking, because what we believe is true, there is a great earthworks, a brilliant white great chalk-lined ditch, with massive stones on its inner rim; the trees have their enormous branches shaken by a swathe of rooks, or crows, flocking out in a huge black wave, dispersing into the distance; beneath the birds, a small girl sits in her quiet-focused play with flowers amongst the long grass, four and a half thousand years or so ago. In my magical thinking, here there is time: still.

Gifts of positive relating

In the lull that is the week between Christmas and New Year (and the imminent return to school of our children), I find myself thinking on children’s relationships with adults. Positive relating between generations is something I’ve long been driven to give consideration to. What a world our children could enjoy if only every adult always understood and respected them.

Around this time of the year, children are given more consideration by the adults directly in their lives and, indirectly too, by other adults. That is, Christmas has morphed from a Christian religious affair to a secular kind of thanksgiving for family and friends, albeit fuelled by a consumer position, and/or a midwinter break from work and other pressures: children are often placed at the centre of this modern ritual. However, of course, gift-giving because of love and gift-giving because of the usuality of ritual can easily merge to the point where those who give aren’t quite sure what they’re motivations are any more. I wonder if children benefit or not.

Don’t worry: this is not intended as a ‘bah humbug’ post! The older I get the more I understand the positives about this time around Christmas in our calendar. That said, gift-giving to children just because it’s gift-giving time in the calendar has its obvious drawbacks: gift-giving centres on this time of the year (and, in the culture that I’m used to, on birthdays too) — there is the possibility of false relating here though because objects given can be seen as just ‘representative’ of love.

Children can suck it all up, of course: give me this, or give me that; I’ll be good. They’re greedy in this respect because our culture has taught them to be. Our ancient rituals have morphed, from pre-Christian society, into modern rituals. It’s not the children’s fault, though they are a part of it. So children will want the latest gadget or toy, and when they receive it they’ll see it as something they’ve earned by negotiations of behaviour, or as something they deserve, or as something they’ve been given because it acts as a token of family unit belonging, etc.

These tokens may well be given with love (who am I to say whether any parent loves their child or not?) — but tokens are, by their very nature, representative of something; they’re not the real thing. If you receive a plastic chip and you put it into a slot machine, you can then go and exchange your plastic token winnings for real coins. Coins themselves are just tokens, used in exchange for other physical goods — an Xbox maybe. An Xbox, in this continuation, is just a token exchange for the idea that someone is loved or valued. Our society is fuelled by tokens. Is there reality in our relating?

What is this reality of relating anyway? Perhaps it’s a quiet look between adult and child (be they members of the same family, children of friends, children worked with on a regular basis, children worked with but just met, etc.); perhaps relating is in the way the child’s face shifts in expression when the adult is in the room, or in the building, and the child knows this; perhaps the child’s whole demeanour takes on a subtle yet significant relaxing; perhaps, dare I say it, playworkers of the old guard, it’s when a child just must wrap themselves around you, a hug without words, because they consider that you have ‘it’.

Children give their physical gifts too, of course, but this gift-giving takes place at any time of the year. If objects of the adult world can be seen as tokens to represent other things, then so too, I suppose, can objects given by children. However, more often than not, there is something ‘more real’ and ‘less token’ in children’s given things: a scrap of paper with a few squiggles and scribbles on it, saved for a while, stuffed into a pocket, brought out when that child meets the intended adult, is a token of a child’s love but it often has more integrity than an adult gift: an adult may not often give an Xbox just because they feel like it, at any time of the year; an Xbox isn’t hand-made, spur of the moment, kept in a pocket for days till the intended child is met again.

Gift-giving is an important part of our culture. Our tokens represent our love, and it is appreciated when we receive these given gifts. Perhaps we, as adults in our society which also includes our children, should also just give randomly, at any time of the year, more offerings of hand-made love (and other, non-material, love: sit at carpet level, talk with children, listen to children, laugh with them); perhaps we should give more offerings just because the children are appreciated.

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.

Objects of resonance and fade

Gack calls up the stairs: ‘Gol. Gol.’ My time at the computer screen is over for now. Work plans are suspended: Gack is calling. Downstairs, he putters around in the garden and, when he sees me, I kneel down – but he scoots straight off to the shed door, scratching at it like a cat! He knows where the play stuff is. Not that I ever tried to hide it from him: there’s a lot to clear out in there and I want to be able to spread it out so that he and his cousins can get to it easier. Later, after cake, Gack wades in there anyway, obliviously barefooted, with a patient: ‘Else?’

What else is in here? Gack uses a kind of shorthand vocabulary. He gets by on this. So: ‘Else, Gol?’ We rummage around at the light end of the shed. ‘This?’ I say, pulling out buckets or netting, cardboard tubes and old tin cans. Gack is patient. We pull out most of the play end of the shed, bit by bit, and it slowly scatters across the garden. Before it all comes out though, Gack pulls out a garden sprayer that’s upside down in the trolley I used to use for hauling hefty NVQ portfolios around in. ‘This, Gol?’ I don’t ask him to ask for things: he can have what he wants, but he’s patient and polite with me and the play stuff. He pulls the sprayer out and comes back for the other ones. A few days ago, we’d had the sprayers out and Gack sat and dismantled several of them in an attempt to find out why they weren’t working. (Maybe they weren’t working because he’d dismantled them). The ones we couldn’t piece together again (a process rather like what happens with flat-pack wardrobes and bits and pieces left over at the end), we left as playable with in some other way, but the ones that could be sprayed with got a big fat black tick on their bases. I watch Gack as he quietly checks the bases of the sprayers, these few days on.

He chooses the best one, the one with the longest spray, to cue me (whilst surreptitiously placing the other working sprayers on the decking at the top of the garden so that I can’t reach them easily!) Our previous spray play involved a few minutes of going round in circles, in the rain, dogfight fashion; today, we’re face to face, attack mode. Gack cheats.

Now, I think of those sprayers and of my previous thinking and writing on magic. If magical processes include the charging of objects with the mystic force of the universe, or if magic is here in everything all along in objects revered, devoted to, then Gack’s garden water sprayers are small magic in the making. It is a formation of the meaning of objects: not in conscious ritual, yet it’s ritual all the same. Over days and weeks it is the repetition of play, of devotion, of understanding about the objects, the moments, the people around at that time that this ‘ritual’ is. This thinking is all more than merely being about the transitional object, such as that a small child will make use of. It’s more than this because meaning is infused in the object and it lingers over time. Or potential is recognised as already being there in the object, and it still lingers. Years down the line, maybe Gack will come across one of these sprayers with a big fat black tick on its base. Maybe that will mean something.

I cleared out a lot of old stuff recently. Now, this is related to the above. During the course of this clearing out of cupboards and long-forgotten boxes, I came across objects of my childhood. Some of these objects still fizzed with the possibility or played-with-ness in them. Some of these objects, however, just didn’t. I found things I either only vaguely remembered (not all from my childhood) or things I just didn’t recall at all. Some objects still resonate with the charge of the person who gave them to us, somehow. That person, kind of sealed in a freeze frame time bubble, there in our pasts. Some objects’ resonances, though, fade to the point of becoming bare of any fizz at all.

Is it just a lack of remembering, or has the object’s magic just seeped back out to the universe around it? If the magic has seeped away, it would suggest that the object needs re-charging, re-loving, by someone the same or new to it. It would suggest that magic is not there in everything all the time. Or, perhaps it would suggest that magic is there, potential is there, it’s just too pale to be seen by this individual: or, rather, we’re too far removed from its possibility to see it. Look and you will see?

Gack systematically dismantles the contents of the play end of the shed (‘Else, Gol? Else?’) as the afternoon drifts on. The garden is strewn with play detritus: not just in the stuff, but in the moments like after-images that slowly recede onto the air – this is what happened here, and here, and here.

Gack’s got an impressive memory. When the garden was bare he looked at the empty wall where, a few days ago, we closely examined a climbing snail. ‘Snay-eel, Gol?’ (He has a way of squeezing two syllables into a word where there ought rightly to be space for only one). The snay-eel isn’t there. Its previous presence still resonates though. I don’t know which objects and moments of played places will resonate for him in later life, and which will just fade out. All that can be done is to open up the possibilities in the now.

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.

The Olympics: ritual, politics, war and play

The Olympic torch passed through my town today. Apparently. On some level – indicative to some, perhaps, that I might have too much time on my hands – the Olympic Games trouble me. Why do people get so excited about it? What are the modern Olympics really about? Is it play?

Vicky recently wrote on her blog, asking whether professional football is play or work to the footballers involved. Perhaps it all comes down to a matter of perspective. A small tangent: René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe (‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’) and the title (‘This is not a pipe’) highlights ‘perspective’ to me: the artist is drawing our attentions to the fact that this is not an ‘actual’ pipe, but the representation of one. Marcel Duchamp, I believe (although I will stand corrected if need be), said that a work is a work of art if the artist says so. So, is play ‘play’ if the player says so?

What’s all this got to do with the Olympics? I need to work back through my three questions – but, before I do that, a little history (with a sprinkling of legend).

The first Olympic festival is commonly understood to have taken place at Olympia in 776 BC. There were three other Pan-Hellenic festivals, held every two or four years, also taking place in the area at this time: the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games. Pindar, a poet from the 5th century BC, claimed that Heracles initiated the Olympic Games in celebration of his defeat of the city-state of Elis and the killing of King Augeas. Or, if you prefer mythology, Pausanias (a Greek traveller), claimed that Zeus and Cronus fought over the ownership of heaven at Olympia; Zeus won and declared the Games to take place there. We can go back further, to before the first Games: in the Iliad, Homer described the funeral of Patroclus, and such funeral rites and honouring of the dead have been linked to the origins of the first Games. From honouring the dead to killing rivals and honour of the city-state, or to contest over ownership of other-worldly realms.

So, from ritual or mythology or acts of warfare, came the first Games. At that time, in the region we now know as Greece, city-states competed with each other for power and prestige. Sparta, a city-state set up for the perfection of war-skills, was dominant. The city-state of Elis had assumed control of the Games at Olympia, but Sparta muscled in. In the resulting alliance, Sparta took on the role of ‘protector’ of the Games (a way of advertising their power and prestige), whilst Elis had control of the religious aspects.

Out of this construct and background of city-state politics and war came the idea of the ‘sacred truce’, i.e. competitors from all parts of Greece and its colonies could come to the Games even during times of war. This was the way of things for many quadrennial Olympiads. The Games at Olympia continued right up until 392 AD.

Fast forward several hundred years. It’s interesting to note that, over the course of the modern Olympics, the ‘sacred truce’ has been spoilt on several occasions: the 1916 Games were scheduled for Berlin, but World War I put paid to them; the Antwerp Games of 1920 did not include competitors from the defeated powers of the war; the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled; in London, 1948, Japan and Germany were not present; in Melbourne, 1956, Sweden, Spain, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands boycotted as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary, whilst Lebanon and Iraq withdrew over the Suez crisis; Mexico City, 1968, suffered from threatened boycotts by African and black-American countries and competitors, resulting in South Africa’s expulsion, in protest at apartheid; Munich, 1972, was marred by Palestinian terrorists’ attack on the Israeli compound;  in Montreal, 1976, African countries boycotted the Games in protest at the New Zealand football  team’s tour of South Africa; Moscow, 1980, saw protest by the United States and over 30 other countries regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in Los Angeles, in 1984, the Soviet Union and some of its allies reciprocated a withdrawal with claims of insufficient security; the 1996 Games in Atlanta were marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing; human rights activists called on the 2008 Beijing Games to be boycotted.

So, whilst the ancient ideal of the ‘sacred truce’ has been well and truly ignored in many modern Olympic Games, the old heart of the piece seems to run through it: that is, ritual, political machinations, warfare. In a word: contest.

In his book, Homo Ludens: a study of the play element [of] in culture (various editions 1938-50), Johan Huizinga claimed ‘contest’ to have the characteristic of play. ‘Like all other forms of play,’ he wrote (p.49) ‘the contest is largely devoid of purpose.’ By this he means that the contest gets enacted out, start to end, and beyond that, before and after that, the result doesn’t matter. ‘The outcome does not contribute to the necessary life-processes of the group.’

Except that the outcomes of contests such as war and sport and athletic prowess do matter: people’s reputations and honour and incomes can depend on the outcome of contests such as the modern Olympics. Yet, just like the perspective of whether something is art or not, whether some act is play or not, it only really matters to the person who’s doing it. Right? The Olympics only really, truly matter to the athlete.

So, why then do people line the streets in every town and city that the Olympic torch passes through on its way around the UK? (Or rather, an Olympic torch, a manufactured symbol with many other similar copies). Why do people get so excited about the ritual of watching a symbol pass by them for thirty seconds on the street, let alone the ritual of the Games itself?

Is it play for the spectators in the watching of the torch as it passes by? If it is play, then it’s with some irony that the play of a streaker yesterday has been brought up quickly by the legal system: ironic because the original Games were performed in the nude. That aside, is the play of the spectator the reason why the torch relay (and also the main event) is being embraced by many? If play is doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, where does the potential social obligation for watching this whole affair fit in? Of course, just because I don’t care for the Games, it doesn’t mean that others should feel the same way. I am slightly troubled by the unthinking embrace of the whole affair though: an embrace on the grounds of some form of nationalistic pride subtly being suggested to us (by the media and politicians).

Why do people get so excited about the Olympic Games? Genuine or subtle suggestion of nationalistic pride? What are the modern Olympics really about? Ritual, political machination, warfare, contest. Is it play? At some level, maybe. At another level – well, I’m not an Olympian . . .
[Historical source: Collier’s Encyclopedia]

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