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 . . .


This week immersed

A week immersed in the life of a playground, in discussions about play, in teaching the arts of playwork — as they appear to this playworker — can be a long time. The immersion is akin to the immersion of being in play: plenty happens, plenty has the potential for happening, plenty awaits just at the edges of perception. I started the week thinking on ‘rules’ (that is, the rules we adults often want to apply to the children’s ways of being), but I got distracted into thinking on playworker action and inaction, about being in the middle of the play-swill whilst observing, about being in the play and how and when to walk away, and how playwork is just so much more than the view that some might have that is ‘just playing with children’.
The rules

Adults can get so weighed down by ‘the rules’. What are these rules, and who wrote them anyway? That is, things like: you must walk this way, act that way, treat each other like this, share that, behave in this manner, stand or sit or talk or eat or listen in this or that way, and so on. I came to the conclusion that some children will blindly follow these ‘rules’ simply because they know no other way of operating in the adult-heavy world. This way of adult imposition becomes ‘normalised’. The ‘rules’ become absorbed, the children grow up, and they pass ‘the rules’ on to the next generation. No thought or challenge takes place. I’ve certainly met young adults who have regurgitated ‘the rules’, as they’ve absorbed them from adults around them, in unthinking ways. When these young adults are challenged to justify why any given ‘rule’ is in place, they look blankly at you, incredulously, and say something like ‘It’s the rule: without it there’d be chaos, anarchy, social meltdown’ or whatever phrase best fits.

There’s a deeper level of consideration to be had in all of this (civil liberties, governance, rights and responsibilities, and so on), and greater minds have already had and continue to have those discussions. What strikes me here though, in the context of children and their places of adult-staffed places of play, is that often ‘the rules’ are either blanket-written into a policy statement or two, or they’re listed in adult-imposed restrictions and diktats on the walls (with little or no child consultation), or they’re just not written down at all and children are expected to follow whatever the adult says because that is what the adult has said.

Policies often gather dust and fail to reflect the dynamically shifting sentiments of the playground; consultation exercises often become just that — ‘exercises’ in ‘doing the right thing’; how I loathe anything on a wall with the word ‘golden’ attached to it (‘golden time’, ‘golden rules’) — gold is the highest standard here, but it suits the adult; children challenge all the time, and adults could be better at realising that sometimes, just sometimes, children are right in what they challenge about ‘the rules’.
Action and inaction

When we turn a blind eye to a ‘breaking of the rules’, what’s happening here? We’re not being negligent (unless we choose to ignore, say, a child attacking another with a sharp stick and a plank of two-by-four); we’re understanding the playfulness of a situation; the children are communicating that ‘the ‘rule’ in this case is perfectly well understood but we choose to ignore it because it’s stupid and makes no sense in the context of this play that we’re doing right now, in this particular place, with this particular object or other person’.

Our playworker inaction can, often, be perceived by the children as the perfect action. When a child walked outside this week with a disposable cup full of water, I was stood leaning against the open double door frame just watching out over the flow of things. The boy took the water away from the inside areas and threw it, and the plastic cup, down onto the wood chips. He turned around and smiled at me and made to walk back inside. He knew, I trust, that I knew it was play. I didn’t feel the need to say, ‘Oi, pick that cup up’. Why would I need to have done that? I don’t know why he did it other than it was play. It did no harm. Others may see the scenario differently.

When we, as adults on the playground, start to let these play occurrences get to us though, they build and build. I’m certainly sometimes prone to the build-up of challenges of play, dynamics and niggles between individual children, teasings and deeper agitations: we are human, let’s not forget. However, when we forget to step back from the edge, the edge takes us in before we realise it. Tensions in individual adults can pass between team members and before long ‘action’ surpasses ‘inaction’ as the dominant response. ‘The rules’ get added to as a means of trying to step back from the edge. Our ‘action’, our interferences and insistences, dilute the play and the potential for play.
Observation in the middle of the play-swill

I use this phrase not to infer a negative (play is not an allusion to ‘pig-swill’), but rather to suggest the nature of a swirl. Our ‘inaction’, our deeply understood comprehension that this play is play, and this play needs to happen, here, with this, with these people, and without me, now, is essential. One day this week, a day when we were all calm as a team because everyone seemed to be in the position, to me, of comprehension of that play at that time, in tune, when the sun was out, when all the dynamics of the children just slotted together, I stood up on the platform in the middle of the playground and observed. I got in no-one’s way. I was a camera in the midst of it all. I turned around to see the whole panoramic view.

Nearby, and up on this level under the tree on the hill, a colleague was sat with a small group of children who had laid a box beneath the tree. One of the girls was kneeling before it and was saying a prayer. My colleague had a paper cone in her hand, and she waited patiently as she sat. Soon, the group were walking slowly along the platform levels, my colleague carrying the stricken box above her head, with what I termed in my thinking ‘professional wailers’ trailing in mock sorrow! They walked all around to the wobbly bench and then to the sand pit. The box was left under the tree there. Later, I found out it was a funeral for the dead cardboard box robot.

As I turned to follow this play taking place, I knew that down below me another small group of children had found a long spool of ribbon-like material from inside and had started wrapping it around the playground, beneath and between, and separate to, the funeral entourage. They were seeing how far it could get before it snapped, then starting again. Beyond that, at the sand pit, some children were continuing to dig what turned out to be the River Thames: the hose pipe trailed from the stand pipe, via the old sunken bath, and into the length of the pit where there was plenty of tubes and guttering channels and bits and bobs for the engineering with. On the opposite side of the playground, on the makeshift small football pitch nearby, between the platforms and the zipline, there was a match going on. I felt in the midst of it all up there but that I should stand carefully and still for a while: comprehension of ‘action’ and ‘inaction’ being what they are.
About being in the play and how and when to walk away

‘Doing it’ and ‘teaching it’ are different animals. This week, when I taught (or told stories), I attempted to continue the idea of ‘this is children’s play, not yours’ but found myself in the area of ‘play cues and responding to them’. Like learning how to write, we make plenty of mistakes when beginning the process of this art form that is playwork. We continue to make mistakes as we get better at it, but at least we recognise our errors and what we might do about them. I was particularly heartened to hear one learner tell me how he knows that sometimes he just gets so absorbed in the play that he forgets to see anything else going on. I didn’t expect that at this stage. His task, like all of ours, is to now think what he can do about it when he gets absorbed again. I thought about my week on the playground. I hadn’t thought about it so much at the time, but the teaching focused me on my practice and I think I’m pleased with the way the details of this small story to come turned out. I said (the edited highlights of the following):

One day this week, an older boy wanted me to play football with him. His usual partner in play wasn’t around and the boy needed me to play. As it turned out, he didn’t need me that day (because the next day he needed a colleague): I stood in the big goal (the children have the big goal and the small, palette board goal, but they don’t seem concerned by the discrepancy) and he wanted me to ‘play to win’ because he’d told me, the week before, ‘so let’s start again because I know you’re not playing as hard as you can and we should play properly now’. We played for a short while and then some other boys came over and just blended into the game. It was with a sudden epiphany that the play had not stopped, broken down, or been corrupted in any way, and that I was now surplus to requirements, that I stood still at the edge of the makeshift pitch. I waited a second or two, just in case, then quietly snuck off. There was positive ‘action’ and ‘inaction’, observation in amongst it all, and a non-adherence to ‘the rules’ of social interaction and football in general. I reflect that I got it right.
Just playing with children

Some days I get it right, some days I get it wrong. Some days ‘my wrong’ affects the children, my colleagues, myself, to such an extent that I question whether I’ve got the hang of this playwork way of working at all. Some days I know I’ve got it right because I haven’t dictated to the children, imposed unjustifiable ‘rules’ on them, I’ve listened to them and consulted with them, I’ve admitted that I got such and such wrong to them, and done something about it, I’ve observed play because it’s play and not got riled by the things I’ve seen, I’ve stood still and carefully, or I’ve given the child exactly what they need at that time, in that place, and then I’ve left. This week, I figure, it’s about grace and timing, levels of comprehension, turning a blind eye, and knowing, always knowing, that it’s not about us. ‘Just playing with children’ has long since disappeared from my beginner’s thinking.

Exploring the idea of children and boundaries

‘Do you think that children need boundaries, Bob?’
‘Perhaps you’re asking the wrong question.’

Private conversation with Bob Hughes, 2012
I’ve been troubled by the idea of ‘control’ for quite a while. It doesn’t sit easily. There was a time, a way back, when I first worked with children and I admit — though the heart was in the right place — there was a lot of adult need in the practice. It could be said that, in some or even many who work with children, there’s still an adult need (though that’s a story for another time). The need I’m looking to investigate further here is the control need.

This is a recurring theme in my thinking and writing, I realise. What is it that troubles me so much? After all, in our adult lives we often try to impose requirements on others: pay me my dues, abide by the laws we tend to all subscribe to, treat me as you’d expect to be treated yourself, etc. Is this a form of attempting soft control?

We have in-built interpretations of ‘what is fair’. That is, we’re settled if we (the centre of our own universes) are roughly in balance. When someone or some organisation or some situation unsettles that equilibrium, we are ‘unfairly’ treated. Is attempting such soft control on other adults justifiable because of ‘fairness’? On the other hand, what right have any of us to impose upon another? Perhaps the ‘right’ can be activated after others have unfairly treated us. I don’t know for sure.

When it comes to the idea of ‘boundaries’, I find myself tying in these concepts of ‘fair’, ‘rights’ and ‘control’. If a child plays in a certain way (expressing themselves loudly, say, or throwing things around to see what will happen), causing the adult’s system to be imposed upon, is it justifiable that the adult then impose upon that child? If we look at it carefully, the playing child is unsettling the ‘centre of the universe’ that is the attendant adult; the adult feels out of control; the adult imposes some (let’s call it) ‘boundary’ in order to regain the feeling that ‘fairness’ to him or her has been restored.

Is it right to impose a boundary on a playing child just because the adult feels unsettled?

This word ‘boundary’ has troubled me for a long time: it’s the idea of trying to fix someone else into our way of things that bothers me. You can read here and agree or disagree with whatever’s said, but I can’t make you do things ‘my way’ if we don’t see eye to eye. I write this blog to open a window onto the things I’ve experienced and continue to experience. I can be opinionated or subtle, but you choose your own way.

Do children need adults’ boundaries? Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. If we are to use the ‘boundary’ word, what boundaries do children need? I’ve had these conversations many times. Often, top of the replies list is ‘boundaries for their own safety’; or ‘for learning how to get by in the world’; or ‘to respect others’.

Regarding safety, there are many times when children can work things out for themselves, though there are many other times when they’re just blind to what’s going on around them. Tagging along with Gack (you have to read back in the archives here too!), who’s three, as he peddles along down the gradual slope on his bike with stabilisers but no brakes, he stops at each road, like we talk about. We come to the crossroads next to the bus stop. ‘Anything coming?’ I ask. ‘Nope,’ he says without looking, attempting to push out into the road. ‘Yeh right,’ I say. ‘You haven’t even looked.’ He can hear a wood pigeon on a roof from fifty yards, and he can see an ant on a black surface from six feet away, but he doesn’t see or hear the bus walloping around the corner towards us.

I’m more comfortable with the word ‘guidance’ here. Maybe it’s just a word, but it feels more positive than ‘boundary’ and ‘control’. Am I controlling this road safety scenario?

At the park, Gack talks loudly about the man who’s just come in to the ‘outdoor fitness area’ (they rip up the children’s play area to slot in a series of gym devices which hardly get used, but that again is another story). Gack likes to come in here, I guess, because it’s a smooth surface to ride his bike on. He uses the equipment in unusual ways too. The man comes in and Gack talks about him as if he, the adult, can’t hear: ‘Why is that man here? What’s he doing now?’ The man soon leaves and we go on flicking elastic bands around. I have no intention of imposing a ‘boundary’ on Gack so he can ‘learn how to treat others’, ‘respect them’, or generally just not unsettle them. There’s no ‘guidance’ I can, or want, to offer here either.

In the garden, another day, Gack’s cousin (who’s two) pokes around the pond, which is a deep green ooze. He can’t get in easily, though I wouldn’t put it past him to try. He bides his time before playing in other ways: an ornamental duck is dropped into the murk. Later, he finds another duck and I know what he’s going to do only at about the time he gets just far enough ahead of me not to be able to reach him. He runs across the patio, duck by the neck. Plop. He watches it sink. I stand there and just consider the fact that what has been done has been done. The duck is already sunk.

What would be the point of imposing a ‘no’ or any other rebuke? The duck has already been dunked. There are other ornaments that might like to go for a swim. What do you do when you have such trouble with the concept of ‘control because the adult doesn’t like the action’? It’s time to put money where the mouth is: I try to make play of the situation. I don’t know if I get it right, though no more ducks are harmed in the course of the afternoon. What would be the problem if they were though?

So, what ‘boundaries’ do children ‘need’? It’s been my contention for quite a while now that it’s not children who need boundaries, but adults. Adults need ways of balancing their own systems, comfort levels, sense of being central; children need other things. If a ‘play need’ is essentially gaining access to some play opportunity that their environment (including the human environment) doesn’t provide them, then maybe children’s other needs are a result of other deficiencies. So, for example, maybe they have a need (as opposed to a preference) for guidance in road awareness, sometimes (because of a current deficiency in understanding about the impact of buses, say); maybe they have a need for initial ‘assistance’ in tools use in their play; maybe they have a need for adult understanding. Maybe these aren’t children’s needs at all . . .

There’s a difference between what a child needs and what an adult wants of them. In the latter, it’s the adult who’s at the centre of things and it’s the adult who then becomes settled because of the ‘boundary setting’. If we’re imposing ‘boundaries’, instead of attempting to understand what and how the child is playing, are we really thinking of the child at all?

On swearing to tell the truth

Language use — and in particular, some children’s use of certain language — tends to cause all sorts of ruffled feathers in the ‘right thinking’ sensibilities of many adults. In the doctrines stuck to by those adults (educationalists, some parents, maybe, etc.) when children are around, hearing swearing sets off instant reprimand reflexes. Yet, when the children are gone and the adults are in the company of each other, fuck . . .

If there are words that aren’t understood, I agree with the principle of a certain playwork writer who advocates the buying of a dictionary. So I want to know what certain words mean, or use to mean . . . so I go to the dictionary. In the spirit of another certain playwork writer, who advocates ‘proper deskwork’ research (i.e. those things we used to have, back in the day: books), I pulled out my two huge 1979 edition Oxford English Dictionary (OED) volumes. Now, what do these words I hear mean, or what did they once mean?

First though, a preamble: I come to this subject area to write on because it’s been rumbling around in the back of my mind for the best part of the week. Bits and pieces of conversations, reading of others’ writing, reflecting on the things I heard on the playground in London recently all comes to the typing fingertips.

There was a time, I admit, when I also engaged my instant reprimand reflex on hearing children saying certain things that didn’t fit the ‘moral compass’ I’d had instilled into me. It was something I’d absorbed from my colleagues at the time, and from the set-up of the places I was working in. I wasn’t advanced enough in myself to question the doctrine, so I just went along with it.

I remember back a good few years (it’s funny now I think of it from this playwork perspective) when I was in the staff toilet, washing my hands. Next door, in their own toilet room, I could hear two younger boys, about five years old, talking with each other. They were the sweetest little things, ordinarily. You can guess what’s coming! I suppose they didn’t think they could be overheard. Out came a stream of various ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ and so forth. My instant reaction/reflex was wrong: it was a ‘I hope I didn’t hear what I just heard’ comment (albeit playful in itself).

Really, though, what does it matter? Like I say, we swear, and children swear and will continue to swear when they become adults. They’re only words. Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we have to pay attention to the intent of those words: there’s a difference between saying: ‘Fuck off, I don’t believe you!’ and ‘Fuck off’. We’re adults and we should be able to read this stuff here without the emotional baggage; hence I write it like this.

Appreciating the intent of a set of words, there are two arguments for ignoring them that immediately spring to mind. Firstly, we all grow up in a certain culture (by which I mean our family and the environment in which we and our family live). That culture is a complex organism and our use of language is embedded within it. So we accept that we have different cultural backgrounds. Secondly, even if the intent is aggressive, we are emotional animals and emotions will out. I don’t like being told to fuck off, just as you may well not like it, but it’s how I choose to deal with it — rather than trying to make the other person not say it — that’s important and more productive.

Playworkers don’t live in a moral vacuum but we also try not to enforce our own views on the children. This is a point that many adults can’t fathom: it is, perhaps, because of that ‘reprimand reflex’, which they blindly believe in. I don’t know why.

So, to the proper deskwork research! It’s a little disappointing that the OED (or my copy of it, at least) doesn’t make reference to ‘fuck’ or any other such words that are guaranteed to offend many adults. A quick search engine quest does throw up a variety of ideas on the source of the meaning of the word; however, as with many things on the great and vast interweb, you take your chances there in believing any of it. So, to the books, which despite not giving a fuck about fuck, do give a fuck about ‘arse’, ‘bastard’, ‘piss’, ‘shit/shite’ and ‘twat’ (which I find somewhat amusing in itself!) A choice selection of cuts therefore, for your amusement, curiosity, and delectation:

Arse: the fundament, buttocks, posterior, or rump of an animal; heavy arse: a lazy fellow; to hang the arse: to hold back, be reluctant or tardy; arse upwards: in good luck; arsed: having an arse; arseling: backwards.

1530: What up, heavy arse, cannest thou nat aryse.
1711 Swift: Do you think I have nothing else to do but to mend and repair after your Arse? [i.e. behind you, in your rear]
1768 Ross: Then Lindy to stand up began to try; but he fell arselins back.

Bastard: one begotten and born out of wedlock; a sweet kind of Spanish wine; a kind of cloth; a kind of war-vessel, a variety of galley; a large sail used in the Mediterranean when there is little wind; a particular size of paper; an impure coarse brown sugar, made from the refuse sugar of previous boilings; of abnormal shape or irregular size.

1677 Moxon: The Bastard-tooth’d file is to take out of your work the deep cuts.
1695: Covered with an Arch of Bastard Marble.
1859 Darwin: The ‘bastard-wing’ [set of three or four quill-like feathers placed at a small joint in the middle of a bird’s wing] may safely be considered as a rudimentary digit.

Piss: probably onomatopoeic; to discharge urine.

c. 1386 Chaucer: How Xantippa caste pisse up-on his heed.
1600: [an] intolerable stench of pisse and goates dung.

Shit/shite/shote: excrement from the bowels, dung; to void as excrement.

c.1400 Lanfranc’s Cirurg: If he may not schite oones a day, helpe him perto . . .
1484 Caxton: The wulf shote thyres by the waye . . .

Twat: erroneously used by Browning under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.

1660 Browning: They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat, They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.

The last of these being, of course, my favourite of the found OED quotations! Context is as important as intent when using words, and modern usage has shifted older versions into newer versions; however, the point here is that words good enough for Darwin and Chaucer and Swift, etc., can be good enough in playful context too. What was that rhyme I used to sing in playing games with other children when I was maybe seven or eight or nine years old . . .?

Ip-dip dog shit, fucking bastard, silly git, O-U-T spells out, so out you must go. Or something like that. I didn’t know what the words meant: they just rhymed and scanned well. I just knew that the rhyme was the rhyme for finding who was out. It was no big deal.

Children’s play is not about you

A message to adult readers: children’s play is not about you. Really. Children’s play is their play. Playworkers are unique amongst adults who work with children: true playworkers are focused on play — not on educational outcomes (as teachers will be), on preparation or foundation for future years (as early years workers will be), on law and order and fitting in with rules and regulations (as, say, police community support officers will be). Playworkers work with the child’s agenda, not with the adult’s agenda.

There are so many adults, for one reason or another, who can’t or won’t get this though. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told that children ‘have to respect the rules, because I have to’; that children ‘should conform to society, because we all have to’; that children should ‘play the way I want them to, because I don’t like noise or mess or anything I think is too risky for them.’ Adults — it’s not about you.

So, I reply to them with a question: Why can’t children choose to do what they want to do? There’s usually a direct and quick response, along the lines of, ‘Well, then there’d be anarchy, wouldn’t there? We can’t have that.’ This shows me two things: (i) that the adult in question doesn’t understand what ‘anarchy’ is really about (but that’s another story); (ii) the adult in question is a product of the system that this country, the UK, is unfortunately churning out, i.e. you must conform to the way things are.

So, children’s self-expressions, making noise, making mess, rough and tumbling, engaging in risky play, etc, are becoming more and more frowned upon: regarded as ‘abnormal’, ‘anti-social’, ‘undesirable’ because these behaviours don’t fit with the dominant adult desire to have things their own way — the adult need to control. Why do adults control? Perhaps adults feel controlled themselves, powerless themselves, and need to control and have power over others to balance things up.

Children, and by extension their play, are easy targets. However, children’s play should not be treated with such contempt. I imagine a bunch of adults standing around, each with a handful of marbles — one adult grabs the marbles of another and announces, ‘Now, that’s mine.’ I imagine a bunch of adults standing around, each with a handful of children’s play . . .

Children’s play is not about you. It’s not about what you want. Children’s play belongs to the children.

What do adults want from children’s play? What are the adult agendas? They want children to learn information; to learn how to do things; to learn how to be (or how the adults want them to be) with other people; to run around so they don’t get fat; to not try things out because they think they, the adults, have a better way of doing it; to not slip or fall or hurt themselves in any way. On the face of it, most of these things have a place in care or education environments. This isn’t to suggest that playworkers don’t ‘care’: of course they do. Playworkers care greatly. Perhaps that’s why we get so worked up about these sorts of conversations. Playworkers care about the play of children (and, of course, the children themselves), and play is more important than I can say in just a few lines.

As a playworker, I’ve observed children’s play for many years, and I’ve learnt a great deal. I can only be an absolute authority on my own play though. When I played, as a child, I didn’t go into that play — consciously — in order to learn factual information, or how to make something, or how to share, or how not to be obese, or how to prove that adults were right, or how to carry out personal risk assessments. I might have got a lot of information out of my play as a result of playing, but why did I play? Why did I go into my play?

I played in the woods because they were interesting and dark and wet and close and sunlit and just down the road.

I played on top of the old bungalow because there was an overgrown garden full of somebody else’s eggs and brown sauce and flour, and so I used them to trash the place.

I played on my bike, going round and round the block, just because I wanted to make it to a hundred circuits.

I played by putting snails in empty drinks cans and putting them in the middle of the road, then sitting under the bridge to watch, because I was curious.

I played in the stream by the lake, scooping along in the shallows, because I liked the feel of the water on me and the breeze in my hair.

I played football up against someone else’s house because that was where I found myself when I decided that I needed to play football; because the wall was a good sized wall; because there was a bit of a slope that bounced the ball back at me at unexpected angles.

I played by ‘selling’ comics to other children on my front door step because I had comics and because the hallway made a good shop and because other children were interested in my comics.

I played football with other children because I liked football.

I played by standing at the end of the street with the children from that end, and we talked about our dreams because I was fascinated that other children had had the same dreams as me (or, they said they did!)

I played by sliding down the stairs in a sleeping bag because the sleeping bag was slippery and because the stairs made you go fast.

I played on top of the living room table because that was the best way, at the time, to get from one part of the room to another without touching the floor.

I played with my sister and brother by communicating through the central heating grills, each of us in different rooms, because I thought this was a good way to communicate, and because I imagined this to be our own secret way of communicating: a way that the adults couldn’t hear!

I played by standing on the edge of the parapet above the garage, maybe a twenty feet drop to the road, because this was a drop that needed looking down on from the edge . . .

In my play, I wasn’t thinking about conquering my fears, or developing my confidence or self-esteem, about sharing with others, about learning how to pedal or how to kick a ball coming at me at unexpected angles. I wasn’t thinking about my fine or gross motor skills, about my cognitive awareness, or the developmental outcomes of any kind. I wasn’t thinking about the feelings of other people inside the houses around me, or about the feelings of the other children I played with: if they didn’t like me that day, or if they didn’t like what I was doing, they told me; so, I went off and played on my own. That’s life.

My play was my play. It wasn’t the construct of adults: it wasn’t adult-directed, or shaped, or suggested to me. It wasn’t about the adults.

Children’s play, my fellow adults, is not — or should not be — about you. If it is, it isn’t children’s play.

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?

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