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

Posts tagged ‘structure’

Play and time and the art of sitting around

It has been conference week in the playwork ‘world’ (as you who were also there are aware!) Conferences are often odd affairs: they never seem to last long enough, or you never get to participate in everything you like the look of, or they leave you tired and playing catch up for the rest of the week; yet, you will bring away something. This year I brought away fragments I’m now piecing together after sitting around at conference.

I mean that literally. The past few years, when I’ve attended, I’ve facilitated workshops, or I’ve built and manned adult play rooms, or I’ve run around in the background with set-ups and helping to keep it going, or I’ve snatched times here and there to listen to someone speak. My position has changed. This year there is time. This is a post about time.

Others who attended this week have already posted up, or will no doubt post up, their experiences and learnings (I’ve just read Vicky Edwards’ reflections on her experience of conference — good stuff, Vicky, by the way). I have been thinking for a couple of days. It’s been background thinking because the drive was long; because the experience of being surrounded by hundreds of others of similar mindsets can overwhelm (in a positive way); because the beer buzz affects the molecules! I have been thinking of time.

I did facilitate again, with Arthur, and the space was a different space to those I’m used to: it was a space, as I reflect on it, of depths and uncertainties. The subject was love, or thereabouts. When we talk about love in accepting spaces, strange things can happen: love begets love, love causes love. There were moments of being on the cusp of something, or so I perceived, and moments where I saw eyes glisten. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas though; the first rule of Fight Club is that we don’t talk about Fight Club, etc . . . So, what happened were small weightnesses of time.

This is what I’ve been thinking about, and it’s only now that I type it that I think I know what it is: moments happen. I had every intention to go listen to others in their presentations and facilitations and machinations of ideas; yet other forces had other ways of influencing me. The structure of the conference timetable just fell away. I saw and talked with my playwork friends when it was just time enough for that to happen. This is all about time.

I sat down at a table in the main conference hall (one of those large round tables) waiting for the coffee to kick in and for the ability to make a decision likewise. There comes a point though that neither really happens, and so we just give in to the flow of things. I sat with Rich and Arthur and Lily and others, and then when some had gone, Eddie joined us, and Lisa came, so did Morgan, and others came and went. There were lazy discussions on nothing much, and lazy discussions on nothing more, and discussions on playwork thinking and reflections of childhood, and minor rants, and silly playground humour (the best kind of humour!), and plenty of otherness. Two or three or four hours in I said; ‘Eddie, I’ve just had a moment, an epiphany! This is all an ebb and flow, a tide: people come and go, and it all comes to us’. Or words to that effect. I sat at that table for the very best part of four or five hours, watching, talking, learning, eating, drinking coffee, floating along. This is all about time, you see.

It strikes me, thinking and writing here, and thinking in my background way in the last few days, that there’s a correlation here with this and with the play of children. Take time — I mean this in several senses: take time to see the time taken by children; take time, have time, as children, to play in the lazy flowing, sometimes intense, sometimes over-tired silliness, sometimes ranting, sometimes love-friendly way that play can manifest as; take time . . . take time, take it away, out of the equation — see that ‘structure this, structure that, organise here, activity there’ can just squeeze all the possibility of play from the children before it can even take root. Play happens in its own time.

In my play at conference I took time from it. I took time and found that there are other ways of lovingworkingplaying (thanks Arthur); that others have deeper respect than I ever appreciated (thanks Lily); that there are common experiences, hopes and thinking, which were kind of known but not known (thanks Eddie, Morgan); that other appreciations also remain, after years (thanks Vicky, Neil, Rikki, Polly . . . and others).

I have been thinking of time: its ebb and flow, its depths and weightnesses, its way — if you’ll let it — of just taking you along. I let it play through me.
 
 

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White City stories: part 14

Continuing the stories from my recent after school sessions playworking week at White City Adventure Playground, London.
 
Come down at the end of the week

Friday is much calmer than ‘Mad Thursday’. Before the children arrive we think more on the space. The boxes are piled away (perhaps they were a catalyst for some of yesterday’s wild play), as are the plastic grass strips which the children use as a kind of playfighting arena. We’ve cleared out the room where the art stuff is kept, ready for some units to go in next week, and we’ve left an old metal storage cabinet in the main room — not specifically as a play object, just out of the way. Hassan chops wood in preparation for the possibility of a fire. When the children come they seem calmer. Maybe it’s the group dynamic, maybe it’s the way the space is today. I don’t know.

There’s some chase play going on. M. (a boy, not M. the Catholic girl!) immediately finds the plank that Rich has left on the tyres. M. takes it away and soon enough he’s trying to bang it into a wooden post with a hammer and a long screw he’s found. I go bring him some long nails, which he accepts. He finds it difficult to get through the wood still though. After a while he tells me, ‘I’ve had enough of that now.’

Inside, the children have found the metal cabinet and they climb in two at a time. Others shut the door. Others bang on top of it by climbing up onto another smaller cabinet. This play goes on and around for quite a while. I’m walking in and out, and every time I come in there’s a group of children doing this: this is an accidental play resource.

Hassan brings some mod-roc out and some of the children get into this. Others are keen on using the computers. Later Rich starts off a small fire in the mud area of the planters outside. He doesn’t call out for children to come over. One or two take note and come over when they want to. He stands back. Others come and go.

Fire play I

Fire play II
 
There’s no playfighting that I can see today, though M. and J. have a conversation, whilst banging the plank into the post, about yesterday: ‘Do you remember that fighting yesterday?’; ‘Yeh, it was brilliant.’ Little fish A. is playing football with me and Ja. and another child. A. moans to me that Ja. has pushed him as they go in for a tackle together. I tell A. that football’s a contact sport and he should man up. Later, as I’m poking around at the fire, I find it amusing as I hear Ja. tell A. during more football: ‘Hey, A., just like Joel said, man up!’

The chase play is a constant play theme of the week. The children make up ‘time outs’ and the standard ‘homey’ is the roundabout. I hear them say, behind me when I’m far enough away in the chase don’t catch, ‘OK, time in.’ Six or seven children pile onto homey and I spin them, as I did the other day (a day where we talked at the roundabout about going so fast they might throw up). I tell them it’s ‘puke day’ but I can’t spin them fast at all. One of the older girls says ‘it’s rubbish’, but she says it playfully.
 
In conclusion

In concluding the stories of my latest week at the playground, in these after school sessions: sure, this is different in some ways to the open access holidays, but there are still a lot of positives that can be drawn from the way things are here. Children come in straight from school and there are always going to be transitions from one environment to another for them to go through. The children are free to play though.

There’s no rigid structure that could oppress the children or contribute to a build-up of stress (as I’ve seen in many other after school facilities). There are stressful times here, for the adults and for the children alike, just as there may be at many other after school places; however, for the most part, the children’s use of the space suggests that this is their space and maybe we adults have to find coping strategies.

There are pockets of ‘things to do’ but these are very far from rigid adult-led ‘activities’: children come and go or ignore as they see fit. Food time, similarly, isn’t a specific rigid arrangement. Food comes out and children get it or make it when they’re ready. Playworkers remind children that it’s available. Children eat it where they like. It’s all a lot more stress-free this way.

At the end of the week, we’re tired though. If anyone thinks this work is easy, perhaps they’re not doing it right! There are some challenging aspects to some of the children’s play — though ‘challenging’ is, of course, a subjective term, individual to each adult. I was challenged by not knowing some of the children’s abilities and sensibilities with, for example, use of a power drill, playfighting spilling over into aggression, etc. My colleagues had other challenges like observing multiple playfight play frames, children banging on the metal cabinet, some children’s antagonisms of others.

We talked about these things, as colleagues, before, during and after the session, informally. The children have fluid arrangements of issues with one another, sometimes with staff, sometimes with school escorts or with school staff. This, I think, is to be expected in environments where many people are jammed together. The key to working with children in this playwork way is, perhaps, listening, accepting our own feelings, accepting the children for who they are on any given day, and knowing that — whatever day today has been, excellent or challenging — tomorrow is another day.
 
February at White City APG
 
 

An adult affect in play settings

‘Human beings are predisposed to satisfy certain archetypal needs . . . if the environment does not fulfil those needs, then psychopathology will result.’

Bob Hughes (2012), Evolutionary Playwork, p.50, referring to Stevens and Price (1996), Evolutionary Psychiatry.
 
 
Play environments. Environments where play can happen. Playable spaces and places. Play might be everywhere, or can happen in many places. Being able to stand back and separate the woods from the trees is a luxury in some respects: I’m thinking here and now about all the play settings I’ve visited over the years. Of course, I can’t remember every one of them, but the investigation process of ‘things that are common’ started a long time ago.

I have to be careful with what I’m about to say. We adults can be a little touchy when it comes to certain statements: sometimes we think someone is attacking us personally. Here’s the statement: some play settings can have quite repressive feels.

OK, so some play settings are staffed by certain adults who very consciously and deliberately go out of their way to have it all their way. Statements I’ve heard such as ‘I’m a control freak; I need order; I want children to play in a certain way’, spring to mind. Elsewhere, there are more subtle repressions in place. In other play settings, there’s an unintended hampering of the children’s play.

What does this do to the children? There’s a whole thesis to be written by someone, somewhere on this. I have a limited space here. In the limited space of a repressive play setting (the adult-imposed limitations as well as the physical limitations, i.e. the human affect is important too), what happens to the children? Total unthinking obedience? Fear? Timidity? Reliance on the adults?

Looking at Hughes’ writing again in a little more detail:

Human beings are predisposed to satisfy certain archetypal needs [simply speaking, not being able to engage, in this case, in certain forms of play that are common to everyone].

If the environment does not fulfil those needs, then psychopathology will result [psychopathology being variously described as: abnormal, maladaptive behaviour; the manifestation of a mental or behavioural disorder].

Repressive environments go some way towards creating mental and behavioural disorders?

What happens when that repressive culture is lifted? Perhaps there’s a lingering after-effect that takes place. What I infer from Hughes’ writing is that, if I haven’t got the post-repressive environment right in a setting I’m working in, then psychopathologised behaviours will also be exhibited. It is a journey of recovery that must be taken.

Once, in a play setting, I observed as children – who had been chaotically engaged in post-repressive play – became absorbed in what I thought of as ‘primitive’ bow-and-arrow play. The play happened by accident. One child found a stick and took it indoors. He wanted something, ‘just something’, to make it into a bow. He found elastic. He created a bow and arrow and other children did the same. It wasn’t adult-led or structured play. The children seemed calm that day. This recapitulative play was intriguing in its calming effect.

Just to throw a spanner in the works of this progression from repression and psychopathology to recapitulation and calmness/coming back from chaos, an area of thought I’ve been interested in for a while springs to mind:

In his book, No Fear (2007), p.78, Tim Gill refers to the Institute of Psychiatry’s claim of a doubling of emotional/behavioural conduct problems amongst children and young people in the UK between 1974 and 1999. However, he goes on to write that behaviours once seen as the norm (e.g. quarrels, tantrums, introspection, playfighting) have now been pathologised as psychological problems.

In other words, children’s play is seen differently as time goes by (despite children doing the things other generations did, or even that our earlier ancestors did). Could it be that, the more that repressive play settings become the norm, the more the resultant children’s behaviours of unthinking obedience, fear, timidity, or reliance on the adults are seen to be ‘the norm’?

Sterilised play; sterilised childhood.
 
 

Structure and frameworks of freedom

Where do you start on a new blog? In the middle. Jump right in, I guess. So, to get things kick-started, there follows a version of a posting I made recently on the Playwork Bloggers Network forum. Morgan Leichter-Saxby asked: Do adult-structured activities have a place in playwork?

This throws up the question of children’s freely chosen play.

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking on ‘freely chosen’ over the last couple of days. Sure, ‘freely chosen’ is the pink and fluffy ideal, but last time I looked we don’t live in Utopia. We do live in reality. There’s an argument to say that we can always strive for the best situation/deal/quality in anything though (as opposed to the Homer Simpson school of thinking: trying is the first step towards failure!)

Recently [in the PBN forum], I wrote: The question asked must depend on what this thing called ‘structure’ is.

Vicky Edwards wrote: Would you agree it’s more of a case of the children not knowing how to play how the adult wants/thinks they should play?

Suzanna Law wrote: Sometimes it’s not all that simple. And ‘structured play’ might fall into this category.

Morgan wrote about: Adults having an ideal form of play that they expect to see, and then viewing children’s other choices as somehow deficient.

I’m reminded of Gordon [Sturrock] and Perry [Else]’s writing in the Colorado Paper (1998), where they make reference to Heidegger’s thinking on freedom not being limitless but contained. Now, this is easily misinterpretable. As I understand it, in the context of what’s written in that paper, by developing our own frameworks, containers, boundaries, ‘structures’, call it what you will, we can engage in freedom within the boundedness of our play ideas. It is the play idea of the player. It is not an imposed structure. The child at play creates the play frame and the playworker can help to preserve the meaning of this frame. The child has choices and freedom to manoeuvre in that engagement. Perhaps the playworker’s containment is a form of ‘structure’ in itself, but it’s a holding of the frame created by the child. It’s not imposed, the child’s frame ‘shape’ is negotiable by way of play.

Digging it out: ‘Containment,’ write Sturrock and Else, ‘. . . has been taken to an extreme in playcare with content and programme provided by the adult.’

So, this makes sense to me. ‘Structure’ isn’t a simple concept. Sometimes children will want, and do often enjoy, adult-devised things to do (activities). That said, there’s also an argument to say that children operate only in the realms of what they already know or are accustomed to. ‘Consult’ with children about what food/activities they’d like and, often, they’ll tell you about what they’ve had/done that day, or last week, rather than what’s outside their experience base. So, if children are only offered ‘structured’ or imposed activities, they’re not going to know what creating their own frameworks of freedom feels like.

And sure, children will sometimes engage in play in return for some extrinsically motivated reward (call it bribery!) Done too often though and a negative Pavlovian stimulus-response loop gets set up. That said, we should give consideration to the concept of ‘free will’ (not in the theological sense, but philosophically).

OK, distilling all of this down, where I’m going with all this is that children ought really to be deciding their play, of course, and if they want to use the clay to make pots and dragons and nests and stuff, fair enough; however, adult structured ‘now today we’re doing clay or football or drawing, that’s it, choose’ is about the adults’ needs for structure for the sake of it, order, control, dominance, a quiet time, outcomes, the playcare brand, etc etc.

I should write my own blog!

[Here it is!]
 
 

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