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

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In praise of some colleagues of play

Reading through the posts and pages of this site, as I have been doing as of late, it’s occurred to me that I write a lot in praise of play, in support of children and their rights, about what those children do or how they are (it is a blog with a certain focus, after all) — in echoing A. S. Neill, of Summerhill, I am ‘on the side of the bairns’ (Neill, 1916; cited by Croall, 1983: 57), but I don’t always give as much credit where it’s due to the adults who are also focused in such a way. That is, in respect of the current thinking, I thought it high time I wrote a little about some of those who I’ve worked with, over the years, in our joint focus of working with and for the children, who I’ve either learned from, been inspired by, or just simply enjoyed working with because they enjoyed working with the children and were good at what they did.

Now, the caveat here is that I’m not looking to raise the status of playworker (or the playworking-minded) to an ego-focus (maybe, ‘raise’ isn’t the right word here) — as I’ve written elsewhere, and more than once, play (and the playground) isn’t about the playworker. What I am looking to do is to say that this person, or that person, has had a positive affect, even if they didn’t know it at the time. For this caveat above and because of privacy, I won’t mention any names: if those people read here, they’ll hopefully recognise themselves. If they don’t read here, then it’s here for anyone else, or for them if they ever find it.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason for the list I’m forming in my head, other than what I’ve already written above, so there will be omissions and that doesn’t mean that those people weren’t good either. There has to be some start process though. I don’t want to write things out in chronological order either, and nor do I wish to create some sort of hierarchy of ‘value’. I shall press the internal shuffle button and see what transpires.

This post wasn’t going to be written with the added extra of academic references, but now in the flow I can see another relevant one floating up in my mind’s eye: Hughes (2001: 172) writes about what he terms as six different ‘playwork approaches’ and the ‘quality of child/playworker relationship’ as he sees it, in each. These six approaches are broadly grouped into four degrees of relationship interaction, namely: poor (for the ‘repressive’ and ‘nosy’ approaches); better (for the ‘functional’ approach); good (for the ‘enthusiastic’ approach); high (for the ‘perceived indifferent’ and ‘controlled authentic’ approaches). For the purposes of writing about my previous play-minded colleagues, I find myself thinking about the latter three approaches of the above list. (I’m not differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘high’ quality relationships for the purposes of this writing: it’s all on a level).

I’ve worked in many places and with many people over the years, and some of those adult colleagues can easily be seen as enthusiasts (though they could spill over into taking over the play, they had their hearts in the right places and the children seemed to love having them around); some have practised, with intelligence and sophistication, that sometimes difficult skill of being acutely aware of what’s going on around them, though whilst exhibiting apparent indifference; some have been authentically engaged in support of the needs and preferences, the anxieties and just plain random strangeness of the children around them, and those children ‘know’. I’ll leave you to figure who fits where in the Hughes model. So, with the preliminaries over, onwards and onwards.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away!), I worked with a group of teenagers who (though we didn’t call ourselves playworkers at the time) were playworkers in training. I wasn’t so much older than they were myself, but it did strike me that these amazing people were worth their weight in gold. One in particular was always bright and beautiful, always focused on the play, even when she wasn’t so upbeat in herself (she found a way), and I just appreciated her energy. I’ve written about ‘grace’ a few times before, in respect of those who populate a place where children play (whether they are the children or the adults), and when she and I worked together, I felt that. Years later, in another place and in another life, I remember another colleague who, I think, is probably the most grace-full person I’ve ever worked with. She was quiet and caring, fragile in some ways, but just right, in my opinion, for those particular younger children there.

Maybe this is turning into a list of attributes for the ideal playworking person. Let’s mix it up. Zoom forwards another few years: I met a male playworker of roughly the same age as me and we were fairly chalk and cheese in many, many respects. We worked together closely, a lot, and so we had the easy ability to wind each other up: he would do it deliberately and I often took the bait! That said, I have to give it to him, when he was on form as a playworker, he was definitely on form. He had a look in his eye that told me that not only could he sense the play and the actions of the adults all around him, but that he wanted to push his luck a little more and more, just to see what would happen! He enjoyed the provoking, but he also knew the importance of play and wanted others to see it too. The children, most importantly, I think, also ‘knew’ and sensed him.

I’ve been lucky enough, over the years, to meet and work with plenty of people from various other countries (those from India, America, Finland, Sweden, France, Italy, Morocco, and Spain spring immediately to mind). Some of these people became good friends. A while back I had the good fortune to work with someone who came to England on a form of cultural exchange, and who later became a music teacher, I believe: we worked with children in forest locations and he was open to trying just about anything, and he was softly amazing with the children. In a similar vein (and if you trawl through the posts on this site, you’ll find this next person quietly amongst the words), I shall always remember the support worker who pushed a child in his specially adapted wheelchair up the steep inclines to where the forest school session was being held, and she worked with that boy and focused all her energy and attention on him without a word of personal grievance (if she had any at all). Some people just stay in the mind for simple acts, for years gone by.

A few years back, I worked with a man I had so much time and respect for, and over our years of working together he would bring me stories of his own children’s play, or he’d show me short films he’d made of them at play. It took me a little time to acclimatise to his humour, to his ways of working, to his ways of being, but when I did I realised that this man was the absolute heart and soul of the place. Many of the children loved and respected him, and he would often go out of his way to do things for them if they needed it, in difficult circumstances.

In a slight detour away from playwork colleagues, I did a short piece of work in a school once and was just struck happy by the sight of one of the teachers I was working with as she got inside a plastic barrel and interacted with the children on the level of play. It could have been perceived as inauthentic, some could say, but in that moment, with that teacher, with those children, in that place, it felt good and fine. You can often read things fairly accurately by reading the reactions of the children.

When it comes to reading skills, in the context of how I describe it above, two more playworkers come immediately to mind: together, and in overlaps of time, we developed a place for play, somewhere that the children also developed in their own fashion and for their own reasons, and we adults all needed to be very aware of what was happening, when, maybe why, and what might happen next, and so on. My colleagues were excellent readers of the place (by which I mean a combination of the built, the natural, the human, the temporal environment), and I respected their opinions, their ideas, their observations more than I think I could ever truly get across.

There are many others who have also had such positive affect on those around them (children and their families, other colleagues, me), at the time, and in time. There are those who listen without prejudice (yes, you know who you are!), and there are those who give great care. It’s not all been plain-sailing, of course: there have been ripples and great waves and everything in between in the seas of playworking interactions; that said, there’s been plenty of fire and grace, attention to detail, softness and oddness of idiosyncrasy along the way, so far.
 
 
References:

Hughes, B. (2001), Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Neill, A. S. (1916), A dominie’s log. Herbert Jenkins (1916), Hart (1975). Cited in Croall, J. (1983), Neill of Summerhill: the permanent rebel. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
 
 

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Engaging with mythic material in the play

Back in September, I told the story of telling a story about mermaids. It was a way into writing about ‘myth-narratives’ and ‘oral histories’, which our modern selves may well have forgotten all about in our technological, world-unconnected modern ways. I have a tendency to return to favourite themes and ideas, and so I find myself thinking this week about oral histories and stories, not this time of mermaids, but of Vikings.

Princess K., at home in September, wasn’t too perturbed by my suggestion that mermaids don’t exist. Her younger brother is also sucking up everything he can about the ‘real stories’ I can tell him. He has the moniker here of ‘Dino Boy’ because that’s what he was into when he was younger. Now, having passed into his Marvel Comics ‘Superheroes’ stage (with a particular focus on Hulk and Thor), he wants to know all about the Vikings. He seems to like the blood and guts of it. A while back I told the children the legend of Beowulf (with as much gore as I could paste into it!). Now, we’re onto stories of Ivárr the Boneless, and by extension (hopping around in time), King Alfred, and the like.

I don’t know too many Ivárr the Boneless stories, but we’ve both latched onto this character as someone of great villainous potential. Viking Boy, as I may have to now call him here, stops me every so often, mid-story, or when I’ve reached a natural pause, to ask, ‘So, who are the Goodies and who are the Baddies?’ Things seem to be so binary in this four-year-old’s world. Maybe that’s a result of modern televisual renditions of older stories. Maybe it’s a modern sign of the times. Occasionally I answer him by saying, ‘Well, who the Goodies and the Baddies are kind of depends on which side you’re on?’ but I don’t think he really gets the significance of this. So, for all intents and purposes, King Alfred is the ‘Goodie’ here, and any given Viking is the ‘Baddie’.

Just like stories of mermaids, stories of Vikings are important. As I inferred in September, we risk losing the richness of traditional tales if we stop telling them. Why tell stories of Vikings if we’re not ‘Viking’ ourselves? Well, as I said to Viking Boy when he asked me ‘are there any Vikings now?’, where we live (that is, England) we might all be a bit Viking. The mechanics of descendancy may also have passed him over.

In our stories, I’ve told how King Alfred fought the Vikings, and how he ran away to the marshlands of Somerset. Viking Boy knows now how King Alfred was supposed to have burned the cakes there. He’s listened to speculations on why Ivárr the Boneless was ‘boneless’, and sucked up everything I know about the Danelaw and the division of the north and the south, longships, the legend of King Cnut, Viking swords, and Jorvik, embellished in places, of course, with plenty of blood and guts in waves of early Viking raids. There’ll be more to tell.

A few weeks back, I got into drawing the battles with him. He watched closely at first, his face pressed near to the paper where I was telling the story as I lined up Alfred’s men against some unnamed Vikings. Viking Boy named the Vikings: there was Jeff the Viking, Jeff the Boneless, Andy the Boneless, and — for some strange and so far unfathomable reason — Locust the Viking! Then he laid into the men of both sides with felt tip pen, which was the blood and guts and gore. We had a similar battle, later, and later in history, with Harold’s men against the Normans (‘sort of Vikings’, being the only way I could describe descendancy) on the fields at what came to be known as Senlac, being better known as the Battle of Hastings. Viking Boy confused his own history at this point, but we still needed to go into graphic and particular detail on the legend of Harold’s gory demise (possibly, in a four-year-old’s head, due to the archers of Ivárr the Boneless: this adult listener forgiving the mash-up of a horde of time travelling Vikings!).

I think we’re still a little way from being able to mutually agree on what is legend, alleged history, and what is ‘truth’; Viking Boy has a binary mindset when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and when it comes to ‘made up’ and ‘real’. To him, it seems, the stories are ‘real’ if I tell them and if, when he asks ‘is this true?’, I tell him yes. I make room in the answer for the potential for alleged legend, but just like another strapline (Marvel’s Spiderman), with great power comes great responsibility! With story-telling comes great responsibility. Viking Boy looks at me with wide eyes, sucking up the ‘truth’ of what I say.

Later, when we drive past one of the old stone gates out of town, he pipes up from the back seat, asking what that’s about. It leads me into a story of King Alfred and his fortified burhs. Viking Boy listens carefully. Every so often, when we talk about the time we went to the cathedral, he brings up the story of all the kings there and ‘can we see the bones all mixed up in the boxes?’ because these are the stories I’ve given him. Stories get absorbed. When he runs into the room brandishing two thick cardboard tubes, jumping in front of me, proffering me one of them with a ready stance, he says ‘Can we play fight?’ (he leaves a small gap between the ‘play’ and the ‘fight’). Sometimes he follows this with a ‘You be the Goodie and I’ll be the Baddie’; sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s no in between, and he’ll often whack me on the knuckles as soon as I’m weaponised, or he’ll bundle in with his feet and arms waving: sometimes there’ll be a flying jump and no apparent plan regarding a landing strategy (other than maximum ‘enemy’ damage). ‘Do you know? Do you know?’ he sometimes says in a pause in the attack, ‘You be Alfred, and I be the Viking.’ I suppose that means he’s the Baddie again.

Stories get sucked up and played out. Is this playworking? I don’t know, though there is the engaging with the play material of the child in it; is this teaching? Perhaps — there is the engaging with the factual (and mythic) material, as requested by the child, in it. I don’t know if Vikings are on the syllabus of the national curriculum, but if they are (or, when they are), I’d like to know how that goes for Viking Boy’s teachers. Maybe he’ll have moved on further in his absorption needs by then.
 
 

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

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

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

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

Berlin Playground 1

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

Berlin Playground 2

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

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

Berlin Playground 3

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

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

Berlin Playground 4

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

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

Berlin Playground 5

Berlin Playground 6

Berlin Playground 7

Berlin Playground 8

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

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

Berlin Playground 9

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

Berlin Playground 10

Berlin Playground 11

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

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

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

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