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

Posts tagged ‘rules’

Reflections of a jobbing playworker: part 2 of 3

Continuing the observations and reflections on play and playwork practice from the summer just gone.

Experiments in bubbles
All summer I had been experimenting with making batches of variously mixed ‘bubble juice’ and prototypes of homemade bubble-making equipment. Are these rods and cord contraptions known as bubble wands? I don’t know. In the garden, at home, family children christened them ‘bubble knickers’ (because these ones were made with scrapstore elastic — though I think this elastic was first used for bra straps rather than knickers, but hey, the name stuck!). We attached the elastic, hung with metal weights (what look like army dog tags, and sometimes old drawer handles), onto sawn off bits of bamboo or thinner garden cane. Various bubble knicker contraptions worked in various ways. Various juice mixes (water, washing up liquid, glycerine, cornflour, baking powder) also worked in individual manners. We found that big bubbles need bigger spaces than those confined by fences and houses to be free to fly!

I took the bubble knickers and the juice batch of the moment to play sessions at a youth pavilion site (where there were children from babies to teenagers), and to a beer festival, late on in the summer. We were invited there as part of the play support. We must have got through several buckets’ worth of bubble juice that day in the sun! What struck me was that many of the children were very determined and persistent in trying to make their own bubbles. Often, when you go to festivals and they have bubbles on, the bubble-adult doesn’t let the children create (the children will have a good time chasing and popping the bubbles, sure, but more can be offered). So, after some of the children asked me the odd question that is, ‘Is it free [to play]?’ (to which I said, ‘Of course’), they took the bubble knicker sticks and kept trying and trying, not losing faith, that they could make those big bubbles. When they did, they seemed pleased with themselves.

Other, mostly younger children, who wanted to play were helped by their parents. I use this word loosely: there’s ‘helping’ and there’s ‘now darling, do it like this, here you go, look you’ve made a bubble, well done, let’s go and see what else we can do now.’ I tried to distract some parents with conversation. I noticed, as the afternoon went on, in the good and welcome sun, that the very young children seemed just to like putting their hands in the slimy mix. This worked out fine because they got their sensory input and, strangely, bubble juice sometimes works better with the added whatever-extras from lots of inquisitive hands!

Play of the subverts
At the youth pavilion site, for a two week stint, I took play stuff that was probably more geared towards the younger children (so bits and bobs that needed space, like various balls, a parachute, chalks, and so on) and a fair amount of art and crafts stuff (beads and various papers and card, clay and playdough, things to cut with, things to stick on, etc). We experimented daily with the layout of the place (it being used not only by us, but also by the local teenagers and pre-teens, and by members of the public because it was also a café space). What I found was that, gradually, more and more of the teens and pre-teens were joining in, though on their own terms.

One day, a group of boys were outside and that day I’d brought some proper tennis rackets with me (I’d observed on previous days how the smaller, thicker rackets had been used, and I thought these full size ones might work well too). I hadn’t anticipated that there’d be a group of teens who’d want to use them. They started batting the tennis balls up against the windows and then, soon enough, up onto the pitched roof of the pavilion. The balls rolled down again and, I thought, these returns made by gravity were returns of their cues, so it was all good. Then the balls got batted harder and over the ridge of the roof. It was all done ‘by accident’, of course. There was a small yard at the back of the building, and access to it was only by way of a usually locked door at the rear of the main room. The boys batted the balls over the roof and into the yard, I had no doubt, just so they could go ‘help’ by being allowed access to the yard by the youth worker staff and to retrieve them. Here I don’t use the words in inverted commas above in any cynical way: rather, it’s a making note of subversions by the teenagers at play.

Of stuff and other words
For nearly every session at this site, I also took family children with me. They’re old enough now, and excited enough, to ‘come to work’ with me. Princess K. (so-written-as here because of a continuing partiality for over-glittery Barbie stories and extra-squeakily sanitised fairy tales!) and the Boy Formerly Known as Dino-Boy but who’s now more Viking-Boy are well-used to what we tend to call ‘stuff play’: that is, the shed is (currently) neatly arranged (though not always!) with an array of bits and bobs for making with and experimenting with and just, well, playing with, however the need arises. So, to them, the boxes of stuff that (later in the summer) I neatly tessellated and re-tessellated every day into the back of my car were filled with the possibility of whateverness. There’s no adult agenda along the lines of ‘now, today we’re going to make this, do this, have this theme’ with stuff play. I did, however, say to them that we may have to curb one of our usual joint-play behaviours (that is, the way they and me all interact, in our family ways of being, in our play fashion, sometimes): there are certain words (low-level and funny though they are to us) that others might take offence at! So, stuff play was engaged with plenty and, one day, the agreements having been reached and acted on with certain word play, we shut the car doors ready to go home again and Princess K. asked me, ‘Can we play the insults game now?’ Cue lots of ‘bum’ and ‘fart’, and so on, as we drove off.

Further and continuing reflections on gloop
As well as it being a summer of bubble experimentations, I also had access to a stock of cornflour. Cornflour ‘gloop’ (cornflour and water mix, though not too much water or it’s just a mess and doesn’t ‘work’) is one of those things that I’ve long taken for granted as a standard play resource (I’ve also done a few years as an early years practitioner, as well as being a playworker, and this sort of stuff was pretty omnipresent in nurseries then). However, and I think I may have reflected on this before elsewhere in my writings, I keep coming across adults who’ve never experienced gloop. There may be readers right now who are in this category. It doesn’t make a person less if they haven’t experienced a certain form of play (just because I grew up in the 70s, say, it doesn’t make my play better than someone who grew up in the 2000s); that said, I do tend to come back to the thinking on what I loosely call ‘gloop deprivation’.

This is a broader conversation than just gloop but I use it to illustrate the point that, for whatever reason, what may be deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ play forms or resources by some adults can, in effect, deprive a child of a sensory input or experience which they then grow up without. I took cornflour gloop to the pavilion and also to some sites in the villages, as we travelled around. (Note to self: just because you put a tarpaulin down in a village hall, don’t expect gloop to stay within this boundary!). I worked with a younger colleague who, herself and for whatever reason (experiences at nursery school, the general vogue of what play is/should be at the time, etc.) hadn’t ever played with gloop or knew what it was. At the pavilion, the babies seemed to enjoy the mix, spreading it over their hands and legs and over the grass.

To be continued . . .


Protected: This week immersed

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Protected: Exploring the idea of children and boundaries

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Protected: On swearing to tell the truth

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Protected: Children’s play is not about you

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Play and honour

Yesterday, the most honourable of my footballing team-mates asked, rhetorically, why people got so worked up by the Chinese, Korean and Indonesian Olympic badminton players’ recent ‘cheating’. These players, if you’ve been living on the Moon for a few days, all contrived to lose a game in order to get a better draw in the next round. To my footballing team-mate, what the badminton players did was just a way of gaining a sporting advantage; there is, he said, no rule against what they did.

As we were talking, that part of my brain that stores all the weird and wonderful information I often don’t mentally tag with references, kicked in; except this time, I had mentally tagged my previous reading – Johan Huizinga wrote about cheating:

The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ‘spoil-sport’. The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat [who] pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle [of the play’s rules].

Johan Huizinga (1950), Homo Ludens (Beacon Press reprint)

In other words, Huizinga is saying that the spoil-sport tends to be treated with disdain; the false player, or cheat, is tolerated more because they only bend the rules. I’m going to let the word ‘cheat’ go in this writing here because Huizinga’s definition has more of a playful, positive spin than our current society’s model of ‘the cheat as a negative’. Instead, I’m going to use ‘spoiler’ and ‘rule-bender’.

So, were the badminton players spoilers or rule-benders? The interpretations are two sides of the same coin. To the players, they were rule-benders (let’s ignore the fact for the moment that, apparently, there’s no actual rule that says they shouldn’t play badminton in the way that they did). The players were bending the unwritten, or unsaid, rules of the game, i.e. you play to win, try your best. To the spectators, however, the players were spoilers. The spectators inside the arena had entered into a social transaction with the athletes: in this case they’d paid money to watch them, in the expectation that the athletes would try their best in return.

Perhaps my footballing team-mate, who hadn’t paid money in that social transaction and had been spectating from home, didn’t therefore feel the need to be ‘paid back’ in return. He was then free to have sporting empathy for athletes who were merely bending the rules. For him, nothing had been spoiled.

Now, what about children’s play? There are social transactions in place here too: the unwritten, or unsaid, ‘rules’ – the agreements that just get acknowledged, that seem to be inherently known, without needing to be outlined to one another at the start of, or during, the play. However, as soon as any unwritten rule of play is bent so far as to be seen as broken, then things change.

When the child-law of ‘finders keepers’ kicks in, for example (e.g. when a ball that Johnny drops gets taken away by Jimmy), Johnny sees Jimmy as a spoiler because Johnny’s making use of the child-law of ‘I got it first’. Jimmy’s invoking the child-law of ‘finders keepers’, so he’s just bending the rules a little bit by finding and  – not just keeping but – running away with the ball as well. The spoiler and the rule-bender are two sides of the same coin in play.

I realise that this line of reasoning could be why I won’t say to any child: play fair. ‘Play fair’ means me coming down on the side of one child or the other. ‘Play fair’ means: (a) I’m drawing the line of what the unwritten/unsaid rules should be, making them into ‘said rules’; (b) I am, in effect, saying who shall be seen as ‘spoiler’; (c) I’m carelessly brushing at the intricate web of child-law, it having been diligently constructed over years and generations.

So, we come now to honour. What is this? You can’t make someone honour someone else, or be honourable. These are not written or said rules that you can impose on someone else. Honour is something that comes from within. The act of honour is something we choose to do because this honourable person is who we choose to be. My internal referencing system kicks in again at this point:

Last year, at the International Play Association conference in Cardiff, I listened to a presentation by Marc Bekoff, a leading American animal behaviourist. He was talking about morality in the animal kingdom and said that there are four basic ‘rules of animal play’: be honest; admit when you’re wrong; ask first; follow the rules. So, animal honour.

Being animal play rules, these are, of course, unwritten/unsaid rules. Animals play, and when any playing animal goes too far (is seen to be a spoiler) they tend to get thrown out of the group. This, says Bekoff, can have dire consequences because animals not in groups have a higher mortality rate. Animals, therefore, have an ulterior motive for honouring the four unwritten/unsaid rules of their play.

Children don’t like being left out either. There may not be the same consequences that animals face when children are thrown out of the group by other children, but maybe the same evolutionary mechanisms are still in place, hiding under the surface. That is, deep down, children may well have a feeling that being on your own is not a good place to be.

When the basic unwritten/unsaid rules of play are seen to be bent too far, or spoiled, it is a dishonourable act. Dishonour is treated with contempt.

Yesterday, as the spontaneity of a play session evolved into a full-blown affair of merging two gardens, creating a colourful sensory wind-blown fabric-strewn den-world, as neighbour-children came over to play, I found myself unintentionally acting dishonourably not once, but three times.

‘Gol,’ said Gack, standing at the wooden table, unable to reach the centre of it. ‘Helicopter’ (which was the toy he couldn’t reach). Of course, he wanted me to help him. I walked up, as if I was going to help, looked and said: ‘Oh right, yes’, before walking away. Gack shot me daggers. How dishonourable of me.

The eldest of the neighbours had wrapped himself up in the fabric and netting play (actually, and emotionally, I suspect). There was some rough and tumble. His shoe ended up on top of the parachute den, somehow, and he couldn’t reach it. He was not happy. I had not honoured the social play transaction.

Gack brought a chocolate biscuit to me and asked me to help him unwrap it. I was still caught up in the play. I unwrapped it and said thank you to him and pretended to start eating it. Gack was not happy at my action.

These might seem small things, but in three small instances I became a spoiler. I was fortunate to recover my worthiness of being honoured (perhaps by taking past good conduct into account, Your Honour).

When all is said and done, I can only look after my own actions, work on my own self, choose to be honourable or not, or try to rectify my dishonourable actions; I can’t impose on others that they be honourable, ‘play fair’, not be spoilers. When we impose our own ‘rules’ and expectations on children at play, we start to shape that intricate web of child-law into something less refined.

No matter how much I may not like the spoiling actions of the Chinese, Korean and Indonesian badminton players, it’s their own honour they’re affecting. In play, children find their own way too.


I shall be away from the screen for eight days now, to further find my own way. Playwork practice calls . . .


Rules of play: part two of two

Eric Berne, M.D.’s Games People Play, the Psychology of Human Relationships (1964) is on my plate: my food for thought in respect of adults’ play. Adults play, of course they do. Berne knew this (though in different ways to the simple phrase that is: adults play). He called what we adults do ‘games’. We’re all wrapped up in games with one another. Berne listed whole categories of games: life games, marital games, ‘party’ games, sexual games, ‘underworld’ games, consulting room games, and ‘good’ games.

So, for the uninitiated in this area, paraphrasing Berne, a ‘game’ is, simply and generally, a communication between people with expected returns but also with hidden messages.

A quick overview of some of Berne’s games, for example:

How bad I’ve been; see if you can stop me.
I owe money; I have a purpose.
Why does this keep happening to me?; my misfortunes are worse than yours.
I’m only trying to help you; I’m covering up my feelings of inadequacy.
See if you can present a solution I can’t find fault with; gratify and reassure me, give me attention.

All these games we play! It’s a minefield. We need signs, rules to help us out. What if adults were confronted with rules all the time, like children are in their play? Of course, adults have to put up with rules on signs out there in the world (keep left, keep right, don’t cross, push here, no parking, don’t go in the Olympic Games Lanes, etc), but I’m not talking about having rules for adults in their driving, shopping or general day-to-day going about their business lives; what if adults had rules all over the streets that told them how to ‘be’? Children are told how to play, how not to play, how to conduct themselves . . . so, these are the rules for how the adult should be:

General rules:

Only work in the right places.
Work nicely.
Use your outdoor voices.
Respect your sofa, your Wii, and your toaster.
Share: the road with people who cut you up on the motorway; your stuff with people who steal your stuff; your house with people who squat in your house, even though you got there first.

Basic rules:

No running.
No swearing.
No fighting.
No chewing gum.
No shouting.
No ball games.
No ‘adult games’.

Deeper ‘games’ rules:

No drawing attention to yourself.
No being debt-free and happy.
No feeling sorry for yourself.
Don’t be inadequate.
No running your life constantly about you.

Existential rules:

No dreaming too loud.
No dreaming out loud.
No dreaming.
No wondering, pondering, brooding, questioning.
No naval-gazing* (or even navel-gazing!)
No philosophising on street corners.
No doubting.

These rules – and more – to be up on signs on every street, every wall, in every open space, in the work place, in pubs and other adult places of play, in taxis and on buses and on trains, in shops, on the little squares of grass wedged in between buildings on housing estates, etc.

The games adults play need rules: it’s for our own good, after all.

Rules of play: part one of two

Reading other people’s blogs helps kickstart the creative and thinking process. Vicky recently posted a photo from her day out: ‘rules of play’. I’ve taken the liberty of copying and pasting that photo here (I trust you’re OK with that, Vicky?!) because it’s a springboard for some thinking.

Thinking about my play in the virtual play frame of Vicky’s blog, I had to add my own:

(i) No playing beyond existential boundaries;
(ii) No sharp poetry in play areas;
(iii) No backflips off speculative ledges;
(iv) No saying no;
(v) Play nicely with the other primates;
(vi) Respect the other children’s atoms;
(vii) Only breathe in the right places, oh and have fun.

Let me put some of those in context. I’ve visited a lot of schools and out of school club settings and there are often ‘rules’ up on the wall somewhere. I’m pretty sure that most of what I’ve seen are not the children’s own rules, and even if they did have something to do with devising them (a) how much of the rule-making process was truly in their control?; (b) how much of the rule-making could be attributed to what the children themselves were saying, rather than being a mouthpiece for what they, the children, thought the teachers, or setting staff, or their parents wanted to hear?; (c) what’s the point of rules anyway?

So, one at a time: do children who are being ‘consulted’ with actually have the free rein to express what they truly would like to see on such a litany as ‘the rules’? That is, how much of what a child says to be a ‘rule’ won’t make the final cut? One child says they really don’t like another child and would like to ignore them at all costs. Will that fit neatly into any given school or setting’s social agenda?

How much of the rule-making is actually the child saying what the adults want to hear? I’ve seen it time and time again, potentially, with ‘rules’, dog-eared and cellotaped to the wall for quite some time, or laminated: No fighting, no swearing, no running, say please and thank you, etc. A small part of me suspects the children are wise to the game and know that something more interesting is waiting for them just as soon as this ‘rule-making activity’ is over.

What is the point of rules? They’re only going to get broken, used as the ‘law of the local land’, that which must be adhered to, or else: contributing to defiance, ‘rule testing’, perceived aggression, ‘disrespect’, or the like. ‘Ah, but we must have rules in society’ is the standard defence. Why don’t we try asking other people, those imposed upon by rules they didn’t invent or subscribe to, what they want? That means ‘really ask, and listen, and do something about it.’ That means making agreements, not imposing on others.

I once visited a school with a large empty playground. At the far end, on one wall, was a list of rules as long as (proverbially and actually) my arm. At around Rule 7, I will always remember, came something along the lines of: Only play in the right places. I have no idea what this means. The children who were there that day paid no visual attention to the sign. They played where they could. What does the sign mean? What are the right places for play? It was all the more confusing, this sign, when looking out across and beyond the playground to a tall chain link fence that separated the school from the local grass and park area. Just on the other side of the fence, literally, some free range children were climbing a tall tree, snubbing their noses up at the children inside the fenced area (the children not being allowed to play on the fixed play equipment in the school playground area). Was the tree a ‘right place’ outside the fence, but if inside that fence would it have become ‘not a right place’? I’m not so naïve as to believe that poor old ‘health and safety’ wasn’t being evoked again, dragged backwards daily through the school halls to the ringing incantation of ‘none shall so much as graze their knees on school property’; however, that really is the problem, isn’t it?

(Being a magpie again: this time lifted from Arthur’s blog).
Other conundrums of my ‘rules’ sign-reading travels:

(i) Play nicely. Really, this confuses me terribly, and always has done. What is the message here? Close synonyms for ‘nice’ are: pleasant, polite, lovely, fine, good. Play pleasantly, politely, lovely, well? Play sedately, idyllically, to a good standard? Anyone?

(ii) Use your indoor voices. I wasn’t aware I had different voices for different places. OK, yes on this occasion I do get the euphemism for ‘whisper’ or ‘talk quietly’ or ‘don’t shout’, but (a) why not just say what you mean, if you really have to? – children aren’t stupid; (b) sometimes shouting is absolutely necessary, as in ‘Yes! I just played really nicely!’

(iii) Respect the toys/furniture. Again, one of those ‘don’t say what you mean’ situations: how about, ‘please try not to break stuff’? (There’s no harm in adults using the ‘p’ word too, by the way). Respect the toys/furniture? Why? They don’t respect me.

(iv) Share the toys with the other children. Why? (my five year old self says). I got it first; he wasn’t anywhere near me when I got it; he didn’t want it when I first got hold of it, now he wants it only because I’ve got it; also, he smells funny, et cetera, et cetera.

Imagine adults having to act in such conditions!

Scene: United Nations.

Peace broker: So, Ambassador of [insert country #1 of your choice], you’re laying claim to this piece of desert/sand pit? Why don’t you just play nicely with the other countries?

Ambassador #1: What?? Anyway, I got there first. I want it. He didn’t want it when I wasn’t in it.

Ambassador #2 of [insert second country of your choice]: Not true. Liar, liar.

Peace broker: Sshh. Please. Use your indoor voices.

Ambassador #1: But it’s really echoey in here. And anyway . . . not fair, not fair. He started it.

Ambassador #2: Did not, but I’m starting this . . .

Peace broker: Please, Ambassador, don’t whack the other Ambassador round the head with that peace treaty. You’ve got to respect the heavy document, you know?

Ambassador #2: Why? It’s just a bunch of pages.

Peace broker: Now, Ambassador. And you, Ambassador. Why don’t you just share the sand pit?

Ambassador #1: Why? I got there first.
Ambassador #2: I got there second.

Peace broker: I’ll knock your bloody heads together.

Ambassador #1: And he smells . . .

[End scene]

Perhaps that’s how it does work! Who knows?

%d bloggers like this: