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 . . .
 
 

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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 . . .

Namaste.
 
 

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