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

Posts tagged ‘sport’

Embracing interactions and tolerances

With the advent of the annual playworkers’ conference this week, and with so many people who go by the title ‘playworker’ (or who have links to playwork) there, I’m wondering what this playwork thing looks like to the people at the centre of it all: that is, the children. We in the field of playwork have, and continue to have, debates about what it is we do, why we do it, what its worth is, whether we’re needed at all, and so on, but how much do we know of what the children say? We do, after all, profess to putting them first.

I’ve read a fair few books on playwork practice, and these include theories for ways of working, stories of play observed, ideas on what play is good for, what it helps or does, and so on, but I’m not so sure the sum total of writing on ‘playwork from the child’s perspective’ is any great percentage of that whole. What do the children care about developmental, evolutionary, or therapeutic angles on adults working with them? What they care about, I’m prepared to stick my neck out here, is that adults who they happen to have to share their places of play with should be: people who they can get along with; who are fun to be around (though not in any overtly ‘wacky, zany’ sort of way); who listen when they should listen; who tell stories when they should tell stories; who know when not to say something to someone else, and who know which stories of the children’s they should keep quiet about; who will be honest with them; who will help and protect them if they want that; who won’t jump down their throats if they choose to swear, stick up their middle finger, or fling a paint brush loaded with paint up into the air or against the wall just because they feel like it . . .

Whilst there are aspects of the playwork books that certainly point towards such tolerance, they don’t all frame it in terms of relating. In my experience, this relating is essential to the children. They tell it in the stories and play they present, in the looks in their eyes, in the way that some may take an adult’s hand or rest their elbow on their shoulder when that adult’s knelt down. The children tell it in the things they don’t say directly about the playworker in question too: I’ve often had children tell me of their ‘teacher’s bad day, every day’, or the like, or how certain other adults in their lives just annoy them. Maybe I annoy them too, some days, but that day that I’m not part of the story in question, when being told the story in question, this I take as the children saying to me, ‘You’ll do’.

Plenty of the playwork literature links to thinking on standing back from the play, being invisible, retreating into the background, servicing and resourcing and making the environment good for play, whatever that play may be: this all happens, and can take great skill and self-discipline on the part of the playworker, but the children don’t always want just this. Sure, some days they want nothing more than for the adults to just butt out, stay back, get out of the way, turn a blind eye, and generally kindly do as they’re told! However, they’ll also often have half an eye on the adult (in staffed provisions) just being around, just in case, for dealing with emergencies, for sorting out being ganged up on if they can’t eventually resolve it themselves, or if the gang pressure outweighs the risk of social ridicule by them then not being able to sort out their own problems. ‘Resilience’ is too simplistic a word here: children often cope, to a point, and then there are finer social nuances to have to contend with.

In terms of play, I’m pretty confident from my experiences of observing it, of being invited into it, and of listening to the stories of it, that children — by and large — don’t go into their play for outcome attainment (developmental milestones, cognitive and motor skills enhancement, the roping in of obesity, with awareness of their health, with concern for their future citizenship in terms of their good consumer unit potential, or with an eye on reduction of the national health service’s cost savings per capita!) I am being somewhat facetious, but the point is that children will go into their play because it is play. They’ll call it play if they’re not told to do it (‘doing homework’ isn’t play, as the children I’ve related to say it, even if the child likes the subject, because someone is still imposing on that child’s time to play).

In my experience, children have quite a sophisticated view of when their play is: it is that quality time that isn’t imposed upon by others, though it can also be the moments of possibility within that imposition (homework can morph out of being homework and into spontaneous play away from it). Often, unimposed time is squeezed in between other things (‘work’, ‘structured dedicated times for sport’, and so on) and children have the ability to view time in between times, as well as time within imposed upon time, as time that’s playable. Plenty of adults don’t see this. The children, meanwhile, often express the need to be around others who appreciate their in between time, as well as that time that is given over entirely for play: these others will be other children, but it will also be those adults who ‘just get it’.

Whether those adults call themselves playworkers or not, children will often directly express a preference for their company (whether the old-schoolers of playwork literature like this or not), or children will indirectly express who the adults who ‘get them’, and their play, are. By ‘company’ I’m not talking about ‘best mates’, though I’ve certainly known children who’ve chosen to call me ‘friend’: by ‘company’ I’m referring to anything from just keeping an eye on the fact that the adult is there or thereabouts, to actively pursuing play cues and returns with that adult, deeply engaging them in the fantasies and flows, narratives and confidences of the play. It isn’t about a replacement of another playing child, in its most sophisticated form: it is, as I register it, an acknowledgement of relating, of shared histories of space and place, of a development of mutual knowing.

Children will play without adults being directly around, but the fact is that adults are indirectly around them in the urban and the rural landscapes of society as we know it, even if those adults don’t directly witness that play itself. Playworking embraces tolerances. Playworking also embraces interactions. It is this, in my experience, in my observation, in my listening, and in my relating, that I suggest as a way of seeing how playwork looks from children’s perspectives.
 
 

Tokenism’s leak into the real world

I had a brief brush with one of those ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms this week. They’re usually decorated with a line to the effect of the giving of such information as ‘ethnic origins’ being voluntary, and I usually volunteer no such information. This week though, on the form proffered to me before seeing the dental consultant, I decided I’d keep to my oft-vented tub thumping that ‘I was born in England, that makes me White English not White British’. I amended the box and handed it in.

Later I realised that what I should have written, rather than ‘White English’, was more accurately: ‘White ish, also nominally English, of various extraction via the possibility of Spain, Scotland, Ireland — maybe — Morocco or Algeria, depending on the accuracy of my late Grandmother’s stories, and then, four or five generations back, or more, it’s anyone’s guess really, though if Stephen Fry is to be believed (via that font of all reliable modern trivia, QI), descended, as we all are by the principle of mathematical certainty, from King Charlemagne of France ish; also maybe Mongol via Genghis Khan’. That is, in summary, member of the human race. That, or something quite like it, is what I should have written. Maybe next time.

The point here is that I have always abhorred tokenism. These ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms have always seemed somewhat tokenistic to me. What does it matter how many people of Caribbean, Bangladeshi or Chinese origin (whatever that turns out to be) are pumped through the sausage machine of any given service? It may be possible that I’m entirely of the persuasion that amounts to ‘missing the point’. However, in the real world (by which, here, I mean the diverse children’s playground), in my experience, children are generally oblivious to the overtures of tokenistic adult agendas.

Sure, there are tensions between children in such playgrounds, and some of these tensions can then dissolve into a focus of ‘difference’ in appearance or beliefs or ways of being, but in the more diverse community of west London I’ve not yet come across racial tension. It may be that I’ve not yet heard any comments between children, or directed at children by other children; however, from what I see, the children treat each other as just other children, irrespective of their skin colour, family language or country of origin, and why shouldn’t they?

It’s in the play settings of, say, 95% white communities where the true scale of token effort and affect come into play. I’ve never heard a child in west London revert to the ‘race card’ that is: ‘Is it because I’m black?’ In contrast, I’ve heard this a fair few times more from children in settings where they’re the only non-white child in attendance or on the roll. Children suck up the sensibilities of the adults around them: so, when they’re fed a diet of ‘you’re different to the majority here and we’re going to highlight that’ (albeit under the banner of ‘equal opportunities’), it isn’t any wonder that they start subverting that message via a persecution complex.

The message is out there constantly. The other day I was reading the Metro newspaper on the train. On the sports pages there was an article about how Clarence Seedorf, a Dutch footballer, had been appointed manager of AC Milan in the Italian top division. When I first heard that news the day before on the TV, I thought ‘OK, I remember his playing days’ and thought no more on it. The Metro chose to highlight that Seedorf was only the second black manager in the league’s history.

It’s a general statement on professional football and a specific one on the Italian league, sure, but the reinforcement of such statements only helps to perpetuate the potential for feelings of persecution. There are racial issues in sport, communities, society, yes; however, this approach of the media and institutions (who want their equal opportunities forms filled in to tick some boxes, no doubt), is counterproductive.

Allow me a moment of facetious indulgence: does the same box ticking happen in New Delhi; in Kingston, Jamaica; in Abuja, Accra or Addis Ababa? Is there a concerted effort in those places to monitor and ‘help’ the isolated white community members in some token gesture of equal opportunities?

The other day I was at an after school club setting, just visiting. The main room was jam packed with children; it was getting hot in there; the children went about their play in genteel manner. Something, however, was odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while. I looked around the room, at the children playing, at their play, but it wasn’t necessarily the calmness of it all that was the oddness. Then it hit me: there were forty white faces in one room. That’s not the fault of the setting — if the make-up of the community is like this, then this is what it is.

What this observation did do though was spark the thinking, later, on how quite a few settings I’ve seen ‘address’ the 95% or 100% white face scenario with a token play resource (very much the singular): a black baby doll, a sari, or suchlike. They’ll have a watered down nod towards Diwali or the Chinese New Year, or invariably a poster saying ‘Welcome’ in 32 different languages like Urdu, Swahili and Welsh. That’s it — job done. Box ticked. It drives me mad and has done for quite a while. I’m pretty sure the Diwali Festival of Lights amounts to more than a few paper lanterns and pretty patterns sprinkled on the floor, as I’m pretty sure Chinese New Year (and, by extension, Chinese culture) is about more than a blank colouring-in sheet of a dragon.

Token gestures and misplaced media focus can’t be helping the matter that is the equality of opportunity for all individuals. Let’s not ‘treat everyone the same’; let’s treat each other as individuals. When I’m out and about interacting in London, when I watch the football on TV, or when I observe and listen to the children on the playground, I’m thinking of those people of my focus as those people of my focus. I’m not thinking black, white, Chinese, Bangladeshi, and so on. In the tokenistic world where there are white majorities, however, messages are distributed and absorbed. Children, as we know, can be like sponges.
 
 

The good, the bad, and the PE teacher: or, the saving grace of play

The other day I met a fine arts student, and her ‘art world’ and my ‘play world’ came together in the conversation. She told me that she’d recently attended a lecture in which the subject of play (in order for art to become) was prominent. This was interesting in itself to me (I said I wish I could have sat in on that); however, she also said she thought that ‘playing gets taught out of you.’ She’s twenty. This all triggered my thinking.

The subject of creativity in education has been tackled before, but I’m going to touch on it from perspectives of a fictional near future and an actual distant past. Let’s imagine that, here in the UK, the current Coalition government has morphed — in x Parliaments’ time — into a full-on post-Govian shock to the system: ‘back to basics’ learning by rote, no-one gets out without heavily ink-stained fingers and their twenty-five times tables weighing down their blazer pockets. I am fictionalising, you understand; yet, here, where is the love in play and the art of finding out?

This is not going to be a post about teacher bashing (though there will be some teacher bashing involved). There are good teachers out there. I know this. I also have friends who are teachers, family in teaching, and I’m a teacher too (albeit an adult education teacher, but I still teach). This is going to be a post that directs to the ‘love’ and the ‘art’ of play.

In the actual distant past (way back in a land that time forgot, i.e. the 1970s and into the 80s — yes, I know some of you readers are even longer in the educational tooth, but bear with me here), I learned maybe three ‘academic’ things in my school life. I often like to joke about this, but I think I could be right. I learned how to read, how to write, and how to use a calculator (including the ability to add up in the head first to check that the calculator would be roughly in the same ball park). That’s it. Really. I may have had some good teachers (by which I mean ‘good people’), but I don’t remember them teaching me anything useful apart from these things. There were a lot more teachers, and the contents of their possibly coffee-stained lesson plans, who completely passed me by:

I remember coming away from classes run by endless nameless supply teachers (we were the guinea pig class) with my prune-skinned fingers stained black-purple: the fault of splodgy fountain pens which we were chain-ganged into squelching out repetitions and repetitions of the same cursive lines with. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote.

I remember sitting at, for then, hi-tech desks with (if memory serves me right) individual clunky big cassette slots, in which I watched units the size of whole Betamax machines spool round as I lip-synched any old rubbish that sounded vaguely French, sitting there with my enormous elephantine headphones on (the kind that would probably pass as ‘fashionable’ these days). Je suis m’appelle a la vive le une banane et un baguette, s’il vous plait. Or something like that. It was the style of French teaching back in the day, you understand.

I remember some old guy with white hair and a white coat droning on about . . . something, but it was broadly labelled as ‘physics’ and it seemed to involve a lot of wheeled contraptions which could have smashed into one another to prove something, but I don’t remember that they ever did.

I didn’t see the point of endless repetition (I already knew how to write), French (with the best will in the world to those who do see the point of this), and with no apologies to anyone, the dull grey world of early 80s physics. Throwing things ‘up’ invariably ended up in things coming ‘down’: that was all I ever needed to know on the subject.

So, from the nameless and the forgotten to the good. Dear Mrs McCoombe. I loved her very much. She was old (well, I was five, and everyone’s old when you’re five). She may now be sixty, or she may be ninety, or she may no longer be with us. I don’t remember a thing she taught me, but I do remember I could play with clay, and I do remember being ruthlessly turfed out of her class (not by her), my little tray of worldly belongings in my hand, sent packing across the playground to find somewhere else to exist, one year. It probably didn’t happen exactly like that in reality, but it’s how a five-year-old’s memory is stored. She was my favourite because she cared.

I do remember, at the age of seventeen and at college, I was having a tough time. I stood in the corridor and my tutor looked me in the eye with that almost Buddha-like calm he had, and he smiled. He said: ‘You can do anything.’ I don’t remember anything he taught in class. Thanks, Trevor, wherever you are now.

I do remember good old Mr Lodge. He was tall, very tall (everyone’s tall when you’re short) and he had enormous hands. I saw him on TV a few years back. He was on one of those public forum studio shows. He’d made it to head teacher, and he still had huge hands. I have no idea what he taught me, but once he promoted me to the school football team’s A-team. I got to wear the home yellow, instead of the red with blue shorts of the B-team (which I never felt quite worked as a football kit!) We played our local rivals. We lost 6-0 and, whilst trying to clear the ball in the heroic last minute, I managed to score an inglorious yet spectacular overhead own-goal from a good inch and a half out. I don’t remember playing for the A-team again, but I played once and Mr. L didn’t make me feel bad.

So, we come to the slush pile. Unlike the good I’ll protect their identities, because I’m decent like that . . .

There were teachers like the biology teacher who gave me my first detention for the slight misdemeanour of failing to hand in my (pointless) homework: she watched me diligently do my antiquated lines; naïve as I was, because I handed them to her fully expecting her to read them, or something, anything but just rip them up like she did and throw them away, dismissing me as she did so. Witch. What’s the point of cutting up frogs anyway?

There were teachers like the stereotypical PE teacher, sadist as he was (we’ve all had them, right?), who used to stand there with his hands on his hips, whistle round his neck, skinny t-shirt pulled over his six-pack whilst we shivered in the bleating winter’s indifference, on the ice-cold, rock-hard rugby/hockey/pointless all-sports field, him saying: ‘So, you lot who want to play football [barely controlling his contempt], over there . . . those who are real men, over here for rugby!’ I chose football, partly because the man was clearly a moron, and partly because rugby was pointless.

It’s a good job I spent a lot of my non-school time out in the fields, in the woods, in the streams and lakes, up on roofs, burrowing through hedges, hurtling down hills, etc. Without the freedom to play, I’d have been caught in a world that could have turned me into a repetitive drone, a non-thinking yes-man, half-heartedly blathering along to pointless things I didn’t ever believe in in the first place. Skip forward several decades and into a fictionalised future . . .

I worry about the possibility of what could come. That is, in a fictionalised future where children’s play space (space to play) is frittered away, replaced by ‘don’t think, just learn’, playing could well and truly be taught out of them; creativity gets redefined as the ability to say ‘yes, sir’ in a slightly unacceptable manner. Of course, I’m going too far . . . perhaps.

So, finally: one of my nephews is two years old. Some of his ‘things’ at the moment are spinning around till he falls over, and licking people! I’d be sad to see his playing get taught out of him when he reaches ‘schoolable’ age, just two years from now. His is the art of play, a love with which he plays and with which his play is seen. Play is art in itself, and you can’t teach it. Let’s not teach playing out of them.
 
 

The Olympics: ritual, politics, war and play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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