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

Posts tagged ‘white city’

Observations of summer play

Five weeks of summer open access on the adventure playground have come and gone. It has been, for the larger part (and despite my early-on reflections and feelings of emotional and psychological absorption, as written way back at the end of July), a good summer. There has been a whole shift in dynamic these past weeks though: plenty of regulars haven’t been around, which has given the other regulars greater room to express themselves; some of the usual children have grown too old for the place (by their own admissions), and we have gained plenty of new children (those passing by, those coming by word of mouth, and those who just seem to come out of nowhere!). It’s all good.

Early on in the summer I decided not to write every week, as I have done in years gone by: this summer I would observe as best I could, let the play sink in where it could, and then (about now) write up whatever stuck. I did this by taking an early walk around the empty playground this morning, before any of my colleagues came in on this, our tidy up and rebuilding week, when we have no play sessions on. I stood and cast my eye about, as I have done in times past, and tried to ‘see’, remember, imagine, let the play that has happened fall up again to the surface. As I looked around, I found that more and more recent play came back to that surface. It’s just a different technique for observation and reflection that I wanted to try because I’ve noticed that this, accidentally, has worked for me in the past.

As I looked around the playground I realised that there were pockets of play frames that came to me, ghost-like, and then there were flowing play frames that (from this perspective in time) seemed to merge in on themselves but were, in reality, evolutions and repetitions of play that took place over a series of days (or weeks). What follows is just a small selection of the pockets and flows of play frames that came to me from out there in the five weeks past of mostly hot and blue-skied summer.

One boy and his dog kennel
Early on, one boy would badger us for tools: he could access the tool shed cabinets, the saws and so forth, but he wanted the jigsaw so he could cut out shapes in large sheets of wood. Before long he had what looked to me like the bookends of a church going on. I didn’t really know what he was doing. As the days went on, a dog kennel materialised out of the building play. Lots of time was spent on the kennel: hammering and sawing, painting with special silver paint, the co-opting of the boy’s sister into exterior decoration, repainting over what his sister had done, and so on. It transpired, however, that this boy didn’t own a dog. I wondered if the whole build was a ruse for the boy to try to convince his mum to get a dog. Then, sometime on, we discovered that the boy had drawn up a contract with his mate (who did own a dog, and who sometimes brought it onto the playground). The dog boy could have the kennel but the builder would claim the right to take it back if and when he got his own dog. The next day, the contract was retracted, amidst much hand-wringing and other agitation because the dog boy hadn’t turned up that day at the playground (not because of the kennel, just because it wasn’t a day to come in, for him). The builder boy took a trolley backwards and forwards to the dog boy’s home, hoping to catch him in. Eventually, the kennel made its way to the builder’s home. Play is sometimes invested with much time.

All summer on the waterslide
It struck me, part way through summer, that some children had spent every single day, for hours at a time, going down the waterslide on the limited supply of cushion skins or floats, up the steps and down the chute again, over and over. We’d managed to hook things up so that the hose reached all the way across one side of the playground, up the small hill to what the children used to call the ‘treehouse’ (despite there being no tree near it), into a sprinkler set-up at the top of the platform. At the bottom of the slide (where, if you skim down at just the right speed and angle, with the right amount of water, you can fly off the edge), the children landed in great splashes of collected water, and zipped over the small bump in the mats to crash land on the foam at the end! Many times we saw adults and children on the other side of the fence just pressing their noses against it, watching . . . For the children on the waterslide, I thought, what better thing was there to do all summer than this?

Alpha boys
Several older boys spent much of the summer testing out their relative strengths: they hefted pick-axes, axes, the sledgehammer, climbed ropes, did capoeira, and did weightlifting. We have a bench and the support posts for a weightlifting bar, though we don’t have the weights. The boys found the bar to be easy lifting, so they invented their own way of making things more challenging. One day, whilst supporting each other (and I was impressed, early on, with their self risk assessments), they found tyres from the playground and loaded them with concrete building blocks on the ends of the bar. One of the boys was on hand to support the bar, another two supported the ends where the tyres and blocks were. They proved early on how trustworthy they were. There was plenty of alpha-male testing going on, but it was all good-natured and refreshing to see after several years of the negative kind of these engagements swilling around the place.

The language of play
One of the younger girls is Italian and she and her brother come over each summer with one of their parents so that they can play at the playground. I was talking to the children’s father one day (all summer he would drop the children off, bring them lunch during the middle of the day, and then respectively leave again till the end of the session). He said that during the summer he and the children were staying on the other side of London, and each day they took the tube to us, where he would wait for them out of the way and off the playground somewhere. When I heard that I said that he had to stick around for a while with us! Even then he stayed in the hall, out of the way. His daughter gradually developed her friendships over the summer: from being very much a one friend at a time child, she later found it easier to play with others more and more. She was pretty much happy all summer, but she still seems to speak very little English. It didn’t matter. One day I saw her and a friend far off in the corner of the hall, on a sofa. They were communicating with hand gestures and nods and shakes of the head. They suddenly got up and ran off together. It seemed to me that they understood each other perfectly and had learned each other through these communications over the course of the summer.

Toad in the hole
My colleague had found uses for a pile of old doors we’ve had sitting around for a while now. Some of them he built into an odd little folly-type thing in the middle of the playground and the children soon used it as a form of prison or a place just to sit on top of and look out from. More doors, he built onto the side of one of the main structures and around an existing fireman’s pole. The children slid down the pole and the smaller children couldn’t get out again! They had to climb up by holding onto the pole and then wedge their feet into the edges of the panels and the gaps where the letterboxes used to be. Some made it up eventually. Some didn’t. These were the ones I heard shouting out for help. I looked down into the door prison hole and said, ‘Come on, you can do it.’ The younger children tried but didn’t have the upper body strength. You have a choice here: leave them to it or help by holding out a hand. Other times, one of the older boys would come over and hook a foot underneath the struggling child and hoik them up. The children kept going down the hole though, just trying to get back out again.

The time for building
One day, early on, the boy who owned a dog came up to me and asked me for the tool that makes holes in the ground. He wanted to build off the top of the hill where the main structure meets the path. It took him several days of chopping and sawing, of hacking bits of the elderberry tree to make a route through, of making safe and making do, to create a platform. He took his actual tea breaks! The older boys, at this point in the summer, were also building. They used the chop saw and made safer and stronger one of the balancing beams by inserting diagonal struts. Building play has taken off this summer. Maybe it’s the right dynamic for it at last.

Jewellery garden
A couple of times over the summer we had a local parent of one of our regular children come in and volunteer with us. The parent also works at the local school so some of the children already knew her, though it was noticeable that her son’s play was just a little different, at first, when she was around (even though she kept well away from the main areas by positioning herself in the fruit and veg garden to do some jewellery-making with children who wanted to join her). I’m not an advocate of what others often term ‘activities’ (i.e. adult-led things to do); however, there are ways to do things and we can only judge on what we see and on what the children are showing us. The parent didn’t tell everyone that they should come to her and only those who wanted to play came. Some children like that small object play experience.

The evolution of rope
Inside the hall, one day, a rope was slung over one of the metal trusses. Some of the older boys swung on it whilst other children watched on from the sofa. The ladder was nearby. The boys self risk assessed again as one of them climbed the ladder and one held it. The boy at the top of the ladder placed his foot in the loop of the rope, with guidance from the others, and launched himself into a swing. The boy holding the ladder moved it out of the way. Soon, over days, this play evolved. By the end of the week, crash mats were brought out after a colleague had created a stronger rope by plaiting it tightly together. The older boys climbed that rope to the top, testing their upper body strengths. My colleague had brought a climbing harness and younger children strapped themselves in as older boys and other younger children hauled on the rope to try to lift them up. The friction on the truss slowed things up, so one of the older boys pushed the younger child as the others pulled down. Later, the loop of plaited rope was used as a circular swing as children swung around in wide arcs, aided by the playworkers with an occasional push, the higher and faster and nearer the wall the better for them!

A tyre just hung in space
Late on in summer, a colleague had set up a tyre which was suspended between two poles of the main structures by ropes on either side so that it hung a few feet off the ground. A few children looked at it as they passed it by and asked, ‘What’s that for?’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t know. Find out.’ They tried to get onto the tyre, to sit in it, but it was just slightly higher than they could reach easily. When they did get in, the tyre flipped because the body position had to be just exactly so to keep it level. The crash mats were dragged over and soon, the younger children began to develop ways of holding on to the ropes so that when they lost balance they hung there in mid-air. A little later still and the children had worked out how to flip right over, face first, and land the flip on their feet whilst pushing their backsides out of the tyre. Some sprung up with a small ‘Tada!’

About forgiving
On the last day of the summer open access, six girls were going up to the ‘treehouse’ (which has no tree nearby) and down the waterslide over and over, as usual. All summer the children had been self-sufficient and had regulated their play amongst themselves. I watched on from a short distance. There seemed to be a bit of a disagreement going on but I kept where I was for a while, thinking that they might work it out because they had seemed fine over the past few weeks. The disagreement wasn’t shifting though, judging by the body language, so I went over and made a small but honest mistake. One of the girls said they weren’t getting a turn on the good mats. There were six girls and three fast mats. I asked one of the girls with a good mat if she wouldn’t mind giving the other girl a go. I didn’t ask or tell her to share; I said it as I’ve said above. I expected her to say OK and then for the play to carry on as it had done all summer. However, it didn’t turn out that way, and the long and the short of it is that the girls got their turns at first but things fell back into disagreement again and I got the blame for ‘not helping or doing anything’. I’d tried to explain that six into three doesn’t work out so that everyone gets their own mat, and I offered at least two solutions. I walked off to see if they could negotiate a plan amongst themselves, but they couldn’t. Two of the children, the twins, were very grumpy with me. They went off to make a card. It was addressed to me and it said on the front (a trick, as it turned out) how wonderful I was (which looked like a genuine sentiment) but on the inside they wrote how much they hated me and that there would be ‘revenge’. A short time later, I was summoned by another child to the roundabout across the far side of the playground. There the twins waited with a couple of other children. As I approached I thought what to say. ‘Ladies, I truly apologise for mucking up your play.’ They gave me hard glares, told me off for ‘not doing anything’ to help again, then decided to forgive me. ‘Push us on the roundabout?’ they asked. If only we adults forgave so genuinely and gracefully!
 
 

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Organic community consideration

Community. n. A noun of quality from communis, meaning ‘fellowship, community of relations or feelings’; in med. L. it was like universitas, used concretely in the sense of ‘a body of fellows or fellow-townsmen’.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

 
What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? This short sentence does, of course, have embedded in it a few agitations for those inclined to think in such ways: as the advertising strapline about a book being ‘available in all good bookshops’ opens itself up to being played with (the possibility of stock being available in some ‘not so good ones’ can be tacked on to the end), maybe there are some ‘not so good adventure playgrounds’ out there too; however, by the same token, if it’s a ‘not so good adventure playground’ is it an adventure playground at all? What the real gist of this post is about though is the insinuation lurking underneath the word ‘community’ and, in stripping this away, about ‘proper community’ itself.

‘Community’ is such a widely bandied around word. It doesn’t mean anything if the ‘from the inside’ connections of people aren’t actually there, if the word becomes artificially grafted onto an area for the benefit of agencies feeling smug about ‘their patch’ (which is a patch in name only), seeking to look good to funders or each other because they’ve ‘helped’, or if anything other than ‘live, organic connections’ happen.

Once, over the course of a particular work contract, I had the misfortune of having to visit a certain town (which I won’t name here, just in case it comes back to bite me!). Although I appreciated I was an ‘outsider’, some of the people who I met there, going about my business, were blinded with utter faith that their town was the epitome of community Shangri-La. It was, to me, an utter hole. The best thing about the place was leaving it. It was a two hour drive home, but I was still leaving it and happy to be. Now, of course, there’s no way I could have known about any real community spirit there, but the point of the story is that the ‘feel’ of it all was just so artificial.

I can’t say the same about the adventure playground. In my experience, this playground that I write of regularly, and all other [good] playgrounds, is a breeding ground for live, organic connections. Sure, relationships are developed and nurtured, but these happen when they’re ready to happen, and sometimes they catch you by surprise. I like to think that children, most if not all, can spot a fake a mile off. If an adult visitor to the playground has integrity, playfulness, open-mindedness, honesty, the ability to listen, and so on, the children will know and go with the flow of this, sometimes before any real conversations are had at all. They’re not so needed. Conversely, the fakes can be spotted from a distance and toyed with! The children understand things on such levels, and so too do the play-literate and compassionate adults.

So unfolds the organic and real community. It has often pleasantly surprised me how individual like-minded adults can connect on first meeting one another: an artist will ‘know’ and ‘get’ another artist, of whatever flavour; a rebel will ‘get’ another rebel; an altruist (or as close as it’s possible to get to being such a thing) will ‘get’ another altruist; a playworker will ‘get’ another playworker. These are all states of being, I suppose, rather than job titles or the like: artist, rebel, altruist, playworker, and so on. The point is that we know each other when we meet one other. When we’re all embedded, either for our living or for our working, in a certain geographical area, in a ‘place’ (and I don’t use that word lightly), the ‘from the inside’ community can start to connect.

Community isn’t a thing to superimpose on an area because it isn’t anything that can be ‘placed down’, as such. Community is in the bricks and mortar, in the streets, in the stories, in the connections, in the evolution.

Last week, in the sun that had finally come to soak us, I looked out from the middle of the playground. Across the way there’s a hard court (what the children call ‘the pitches’), and farther out from that is a fixed play equipment park adjacent to the pedestrianised street. Surrounding the whole block are the tenements and the glass of their windows reflect the summer day down into the suntrap. I looked out and, in the combination of the adventure playground, the pitches, the fixed play equipment park, and the pedestrianised area, I couldn’t even begin to count how many children and their attendant adults there were. There was play in practically every corner. The day before, we’d been in the latter park with arts stuff, balls and hoops and mounds of fabric. There were children everywhere. They trailed long pink robes and various cardboard sea-creatures on skipping rope leads, made for them by my colleague, who’s a parent volunteer. At the far end of the park, where perhaps they thought no-one could see, a group of mothers played hula hoops and bat and ball with our stuff. At the other end of the park, a group of children spun around on the trolley we take out, on the flat half a pitch, for ages and ages. Then the ice-cream man came! Play was at the heart of it all.

On the adventure playground, like-minded parents come to volunteer, share coffee, talk, play. We support and are supported. I have the feeling that it all happens in the right place and at the right time, when it’s ready to happen. It is that live, organic connection in action: a social spontaneity, a kind of quantum readyness, popping into existence just at the exact point that it needs nurturing or is ready to give. It is this wanting to give to some person in need, or acquiescence in receipt of giving, that community grows outwards from. It is, to use a favourite word, ‘rhizomatic’: it spreads.

What is a good adventure playground if not a community of like-minded people? In play, we both give and are in receipt. What is a good community if not a ‘playground’ of giving people?

Artificial ‘community superimposition’ is a game without the play.
 
 

Playworking plain-songs

Plain-song. Mus. [Rendering med. L. cantus planus, F. plain chant, It. canto piano.] A simple melody or theme.

— Oxford English Dictionary (1979)

 
Playworking is replete with stories, which are songs, of simple wonder. We can allow ourselves to become over-burdened with all the anythings that circle around and through our time in amongst the children’s play; we can forget to see and listen to the songs that play themselves out around us. These are not literal songs I’m writing of, necessarily: these are songs that vibrate a little differently.

The moments of songs unfolding, recently, have been beautiful . . .
 
Plain-song 1
At last, we all said, a warm and sunny day. We were out on the wedge of grass beyond the playground. Children ran around and parents watched. Children hoarded things at the edges, in the bushes, and we saw this. A couple of maybe four year olds sat in the shade of the branches. They were alone on the clean, new tarpaulin, which we’d secured against the ever-present flap of the breeze with six small concrete blocks at its edges. A makeshift wind-break, made of a pegged-down sheet, slung over skipping ropes, tied between the trees, stopped the paper blowing away. Sat on the grass, nearby and behind them, I watched these two younger children: a boy and a girl. They had found the jam-jar of glue. They had found the glitter. They had found the small treasure of the mosaic tiles. I watched for quite some time as the children focused on the soupy glue they were mixing up, sat in their own world on the clean, new tarp with its makeshift wind-break.

A little later, a parent came to show them how to spread the glue ‘properly’, so that things could stick to other things, like paper.

Plain-song 2
We had brought small rectangles of wood to the wedge of grass beyond the playground. The blocks were half an inch thick and a little rough to the touch. We had brought hammers — both the heavy claw type and the pin type, whose shoddy build is clear enough when any average eight year old chooses not to use them for the con-struction of things. We had brought nails — both the tiny type and the long ones that have the wow factor. One of the girls had built a bird-house, or a house, or a box. I’d seen her use the tools before: when I came by again, she was sat on the tarp tapping nails into balls of plasticine, which she’d stuck to the outside of her bird-house, or house, or box. She didn’t look up when she told me, as she tapped:

‘I really like the feel of this.’

Plain-song 3
One of the younger girls communicates without so many words. One day, when I was laying hula hoops out in an arcing line — red, blue, yellow, green, red, green, blue, or similar, repeated, repeated — on the wedge of grass beyond the playground, the girl who communicates without so many words jumped into a hoop and smiled. I jumped out of my hoop and into the one laying next to it. The girl jumped into her next hoop and waited and smiled . . .

Later, after some antagonisms had almost played themselves out between her and her brother, I sat on the concrete table at the edge of the grass with my feet on the concrete chair. The girl who communicates without so many words, still fizzy from the fresh pesterings and provocations of her brother, climbed up onto the concrete table with me. She leant back against my arm and was still.

Plain-song 4
One boy was in the hall spinning a giant red beanbag around and around. I interrupted his play, though I shouldn’t have done, though he seemed to forgive the intrusion. He took it as a cue, of sorts, and a delicate play fight happened. When the boy who was spinning play fights, he hardly touches. When he fights, he’s a flurry of hand and wrist spins and other little actions. Outside on the playground, later, our play fight started up again, somehow. It must have blown in on the breeze. A thin flurry of willow-stick arms barely brushed against one another. When he glanced me on the edge of a bone, he walked away, looking back, smiling.

Plain-song 5
We were at school, on the playground, and footballs and basketballs and children were flying around. The noise echoed off the brick and concrete. One of the older children came by. She often says, ‘You never hear what I say properly’, or words like this. I wonder if I’m going slowly deaf. ‘It’s noisy here,’ I told her. I’m not going slowly deaf. She nodded. We talked about what would happen if an adult were to suffer an accident there, what with all the flying around. ‘I would so get in trouble,’ she said.

She said that wouldn’t happen with us, at our playground. Later, an adult, my colleague, got hit in the back of the head by a ball. It was fine, though for a moment the child concerned looked more than a little concerned.

Plain-song 6
I was accosted at the door that leads from the hall to the playground: usually, three or four or five of the girls will find me at some point in the session. Some of the three or four or five will run to me and smile and offer me the warmth of their belated hellos. The others will come and watch. I was accosted at the door by four of the girls coming to offer me their variety of hellos. I had dust in my eye. I had tried to wash it out but I’d only made it worse. My eye was red and I had to hold it open with my finger and my thumb. The children didn’t seem to see this. I knelt down to their level to say hello. ‘I have something in my eye,’ I also said. One of the girls started poking at her eyeball underneath its lid. She addressed her friends when she said, ‘If you do this, you can feel your whole eye.’

Within a minute, all the girls were standing around, screwing their eyelids shut, concentrating hard and trying to feel their whole eyeballs underneath. I still had dust in my eye.
 
 

Small stories of grace

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are. This word ‘grace’ comes up often in the general flow of my thinking when working with children, or soon after: if we’re aware of moments, as I’ve long advocated, we can see and feel some beautiful things. Children can be all the things that adults can be, and maybe more (chaotic, unpredictable, bored witless, incandescently angry, just-woken half-way through the day, and so on): in amongst it all they can show amazing grace.

In this grand sweep of thinking, I pick and choose my definitions but largely I’m seeing the graceful child as displaying tact and decency, an elegance of timing, considered courtesy and, all in all, a high emotional intelligence. I’m not suggesting that we, the adults, should be moulding children into displaying these traits of ‘civility’ (indoctrinating them into who and what to be); I’m saying that this grace is already there in these children and that we, the adults, have much that can be learned from them.

I see grace in such small but significant moments. Last week, at the open access play provision on the playground, the place was packed with children and many of them wanted to play their collective favourite chase-tap game of ‘Family Had’ again. The game involves the playworkers chasing after the children before they can get back to the sand pit. It had been raining and the wooden platforms of the structures were slippery. The children didn’t fall over, but I did. The chasees near me immediately stopped to ask if I was OK. When they found out I was alright (if a little bruised, inside and out!), they loudly started proclaiming my fall to the playground, but that was fine and all part of it. One of the girls, a nine year old who’d been a shadow near me most of the day, was quite concerned for me. A little while later, she came and sat by me, offering me a plaster. (On hearing the story later, a colleague said, ‘Oh, I wondered why she’d come to rummage in the first aid kit’).

Another day, near the end of the session, a boy of around 11 or 12 came onto the playground holding a water balloon and striding with intent towards another boy fifty yards or so away. I followed him and asked him not to attack anyone. The boy shrugged me off and largely ignored me. I repeated what I’d said, but we ended up rubbing each other up the wrong way. He talked with the other boy at a distance and turned and shouted a whole flow of his anger at me, calling me all the things you can imagine but which I won’t print here. He left the playground with his middle finger up. The next day, sometime in, I didn’t know he was on site. I was at the fire pit by the gate. He nodded at me, and it was a ‘making good’ and I apologised to him. We talked a little and went our separate ways. His grace was in his approach.

One of our newer children is about eight years of age, I suppose, and he has some degree of physical disability and learning difficulties, though I don’t know him well enough yet to know specifically what those needs might be. It doesn’t matter, in this respect. Every so often I observed this new boy playing and, resilient though he looks to be, I could see that all of the older children were looking after and out for him. One day, one of the older boys, a fifteen year old who’s had his moments of mischief on the playground, shall we say, bent down and tied the younger boy’s laces for him.

I can’t write about grace without mentioning probably the most graceful child I know. She’s around ten years of age and so full of love for her sister and her friends and, indeed, for us in the way that she treats people. She can find herself in the middle of small groups which, because they’re small, often end up ostracising one of their members for no apparent reason other than three’s a crowd or four’s one too many, and she’ll be upset but she’ll be as composed as she can be. She’ll find ways to put her sister or her friends first and I’m always amazed by her. She reads the play around her and the play she’s in herself and she’ll go with its flow. It isn’t some sort of ‘martyrdom’ here because she gets a lot of her own way too, but she just seems to often have that love for others that eases things over.

Towards the end of the last open access session last week, on Friday, I was coming out of the office and another girl of around 11 years old waved at me, slightly, lounging as she was on the sofa on the far side of the hall. She hadn’t been at the playground all week, as far as I knew, and I was pleased to see her again because I’ve known her for a few years. Slight waves and other hellos have a grace about them — as do words that are in between the words: words that aren’t said but which you know have been communicated, in a way. Sometimes children choose their adults carefully and tell us the things they need to tell just us, because it’s us, or because it’s the moment, or because, because . . .

Here, I’m not inferring things that need to be brought to the attention of the safeguarding officer; rather, I’m saying that words between words, given to a chosen adult, suggest that a certain child’s life may be a great deal more difficult than our own. Their grace is in the hint, in the unsaid words that you are the one I know will know, and in choosing not to give more because what more can be said?

There but for the grace of something ‘other’ go we, and often we don’t ever know how lucky we are.
 
 

A februariness of play

February half-term on the playground often seems to be a somewhat special or unique instalment of the various episodes of ‘open access’ that happen year-round. That is, in a simplistic way of looking at it, I tend to come back to the idea that October to February half-term is the longest period between open access provisions (us not currently being able to provide for Christmas), and this contributes to the feel of the place: most children just seem somewhat relieved to be able to get back into that play place. However, other factors must also feed into why February half-term often feels as if it has something a little extra, for me.

The weather plays its part, of course: it’s usually a little cold, definitely mostly coat or heavy jumper weather, but when the sun shines over the muddy, grassy and not yet enflowered open playground, and when the frosted ground not yet found by the weak late winter/early spring sun just sits and reminds you that the season hasn’t fully shifted yet, this has its ‘being out in the open’ positive affect. Working in the daylight is also a novelty in February: for several months of winter after school club, we watch the sun dipping over the roofs earlier and earlier on in the session, and recent memories of play get tinged with how that play recedes into the shadows of the far and dark reaches of the playground.

What strikes me most about the February half-term open access though is the unique magic of it. Sure, there’s magic in the summer months when children spend day after day throwing themselves down the water slide, or when the heat lends a different feel to the play, but February has the quality of smoke and a low sun. There are February days that are, and that have been, every bit as hectic as summer days (take last February’s moments of mayhem, for example), but all in all February has a special quality.

I’ve written plenty about play I’ve been invited into recently, but there follows some observed February play, which is connected to how February generally feels for me.
 
A moment that matters
I spent plenty of time by the fire pit last week, as myself and my colleagues all did, in turns, working more closely with an older boy with autism. He spent hours at or around the fire. Some long periods, when he’d got his fill of backwards and forwards returns to tip more cardboard and paper onto the fire, he sat on the bench and just watched the flames, or stared into space. I sat with him, talked with him, watched with him. One day, in a moment of quietness, as the pallets gently burned, I looked around and, behind me a few feet away, I just caught a few seconds of three girls standing around and laughing with one another, about whatever they were laughing about, in their own play in that part of the playground. It struck me that nothing else mattered to them, that this was a totally comfortable place for them, that this moment for them, and for me observing, was very special.
 
Painting yourself into a corner
Two brothers of about 8 and 10 or 11 spent hours and hours playing with each other, over the days. They didn’t seem to speak much to anyone, or to each other (or maybe I just didn’t hear it), but they just tumbled around the playground, doing their own thing in between the ‘doing their own things’ of all the other children. One day, the boys got really into the paints that had been left out. They painted a sizeable amount of the structures that occupy the middle of the playground (I remember seeing the youngest examining the undersides of his shoes as he stepped on somebody else’s freshly rainbow-painted top of a pallet construction: soon after, the boys were off painting the roofs of the other structures). Later, I was sitting with some children who were threading beads at the table bench nearby and the younger boy, I saw, had painted himself into a corner up there. He’d got his foot stuck, and he’d become immobilised by this and his inability or unwillingness to step on his freshly painted surface. What would he do? I wondered. His brother couldn’t offer any help or advice. The youngest was like a fly stuck on fly-paper! I got up and went over, holding onto his upper arm as he lent all his weight onto me, seeming to totally trust me and without speaking to me, him bending down to unwedge his foot. I set him up straight and off the boys went.
 
The organisation and administration of cookies
My colleague had brought out ingredients for the children to mix up and make cookies with. Things like this don’t get roundly and loudly announced on the playground: they just seem to happen. Some of the children do like to make and eat things. The trestle table gets set up outside, and before long, things get mixed, the kitchen gets used, food is made. I was at the fire pit again when I realised cookies were happening. A girl came over to me with a clipboard in her hand and asked me if the boy with autism wanted cookies (she could have asked him herself: he would have understood, but some children understand this and some children are gradually working it out). Later, when I looked round just to see what was going on on the playground, I saw another girl with the clipboard, pen poised efficiently, being excellently administrative and organised! It made me smile. It made me think, not for the first or last time, that the playground is these children’s, and they’re perfectly capable in their freedoms to be.
 
Sworn privilege
Another moment at the fire pit, I was sat up high nearby, up on the top of the tunnel made from two joined U-shapes of old fibre-glass slide. I was out of the way (though feeling a little conspicuous, in truth, seemingly lording it, as it were). It didn’t matter: one of the older girls came over and sat on the seated area (made from old bits of wood and carpeting) beneath me. She knew I was there, she couldn’t have not known, but she just needed to sound off to those around her about the things on her mind. She was angry and she swore her way through the conversation with the other children of her age. Where else can the children do this if not on their playground? I was not the least perturbed by it. If anything, I felt it a privilege that she should feel at ease, talking the way she did, with this adult in close proximity.
 
One small step, one giant leap
It took a session and a half for one girl to finally manage to jump from the pallet platform onto the cantilever swing. Her friend had taken an hour or so to pluck up the courage (the platform is only four or five feet high but, I guess, this develops a healthy emotional risk in children who are only four or five feet high themselves; the swing also does arc back fairly close to the platform, and this perhaps adds to the charge). The first girl made the jump, after a short while, and immediately went back for more, as I suspected she would. The second girl got up, got urged on by the other girls, steadied herself, chickened out, got down, repeated the whole process again and again. The next day, the same thing happened for a long time. One of the girls was the designated camera operator (on her phone): evidence as witness. The girl who wouldn’t jump was genuinely unsure of it, I felt, but I also suspect there was a fair amount of gaining attention taking place. I wanted to see her achieve the jump, but a combination of not wanting to wait around for ever and being shooed away meant I went elsewhere. A little while later, a huge scream and squeal sounded out across the playground! It was the group of girls by the cantilever swing: the unsure girl had done it! News reached me quickly. Later, the phone-camera girl showed me the seventeen seconds of evidence footage. ‘Yeh,’ she said, scrolling back through a long stream of clips of other aborted attempts, ‘but look at how many goes she had at it.’ After the first jump, the previously unsure girl had immediately gone back up to the pallet platform for more, as I suspected and hoped she might.
 
February half-term is bound up in the end of a long period away, in the weather and in being in the daylight, in smoke from the fire pit and in the low sun, but it’s also bound up in the magic of its particular moments. I haven’t really got an all-encompassing word for it, so I shall just have to invent one: I’ll call it ‘a februariness’ for now.
 
 

Fine lines and play narratives

It’s been a while since I’ve focused some writing on some playwork theory. It does raise the old question of how much does theory really influence practice (and maybe vice versa)? However, that’s a side point here and now. Every so often I start wondering again about my influence on and in the play. In the back of my head, I’m aware of the requisite requirement not to unduly affect the play. Increasingly, however, I find myself realising how I get drawn into the play by the children themselves. I do try not to take it over (because, after all, and as we know, it’s not about me). The fact is, though, sometimes the children actively encourage my play narrative co-creation of things. It’s a fine line sometimes between any form of ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, or maybe even slipping into ‘teaching’) and responding in playwork-approved ways.

Five girls in the group, these past few weeks (either in sub-groups of the whole, or en mass), have taken to actively drawing me into their repeated play narratives as soon as they see me out on the playground, often late in the day. The children range between the ages of 7-10 (or, as I think it as I write, seven getting on for whatever ‘precociously worldly wise’ amounts to). As I’ve touched on in recent writing, some of these children have repeated play frames, which they like to re-engage with on seeing me. The other day, the five girls surrounded me, and they all explained their play narrations at once (in the way that sometimes ‘you’ll do this, I’ll do that’ sort of play unwinds itself as a pre-play form of play in its own right). There was almost exactly repetitious play requested, forms of adaptations of previous play, and, unaccountably, the new introduction of Ninjas (who proceeded to demonstrate what Ninja-ing was all about as they hit and kicked me, laughing, and as they explained the play that was going to happen!)

I’m building up to the original enquiry of the fine line between playwork theory ‘adulteration’ and responding in playwork-approved ways. Bear with me. Sometimes, to be honest, responding to individual cues can be difficult enough (how to read the situation; how to judge between the right balance and blend of tone and response and joke and seriousness and so on, for any given child; what and when to say what might work for the child to keep that moment potentially precious). Responding in a likewise fashion to five children, all at once, with near enough five variations of narratives forming, whilst being Ninja attacked by two of them, is a different animal altogether! Eventually, probably more through luck than judgement, the narration of the play before the play, which is play in itself anyway, shifted into something that was more or less acceptable to all the children. I was involved, required, and drawn in.

Over the past few weeks, several areas of the playground have developed prison names. They’re becoming almost like short-term legend markers, as it were. I wonder if the names (or, in fact, the prisons themselves) will still be around come spring. When one of the children tells me (in the depth flow of the narration within the play narrative itself — yet another layer to their play), what each prison is called, I try to listen in carefully. I repeat what she says. On the one hand, I’m interested in this ‘naming of places’ business anyway; on the other hand, it seems essential to the play that I know these things. I’m told of the ‘air prison’, ‘the tree-house prison’, ‘the creepy prison’, ‘the mansion prison’, ‘the scary prison’ (and, recently, a new addition — put out there as a tester, I suspect, by one of the children — which may or may not re-emerge: ‘the dreadful prison’). One of the older girls in the group is fairly new to us. She’s taken on the narratives, absorbed them, re-played them, and adapted them. The prisons on the playground are co-created affairs over weeks.

When I’m required to be part of the play narratives that the girls play, if I don’t play ‘properly’ they tend to know. It’s basically a form of chase-tap, except the children stand around talking to me (in the narration that pre-empts the ‘play proper’, and which blends into the latter, and they tell me that ‘now I’m going to steal your watch/gold/wallet, etc.’ and then they keep standing there, with the stolen invisible goods held up, not running away!) How can I catch someone running away if they’re not running away?! This play is, essentially, morphing into not ‘chase-tap’ but ‘tap-prison-escape-repeat’. Sometimes, often in fact, the girls will tolerate the development of the narrative by myself. They take on board the things I say in the play, in passing, and they absorb them into the narrative (this is where ‘the air prison’ came from, being the idea of not being able to escape from a swing up in the air, after all).

Here’s the thing: it’s a fine line between some form of playwork ‘adulteration’ (dominating the play, playing for yourself, say) and responding in playwork-approved ways. Last week we ended up running away from the older girl (who morphed into the ‘cop’ suddenly) by flying to Brazil. The other girls buried their swag in the sandpit. In trying to connect this part of the narrative (if it needed it) with the unseen play of the ‘cop’ on the other side of the playground, or to keep it intact for the sandpit children, there may come a point where you drop all the balls, as it were. Being ‘in it’ might mean not necessarily seeing ‘all of it’.

The play across the playground had shifted condition. The older girl had created another narrative that didn’t involve us. This we discovered on going to investigate why the sand-buried swag wasn’t important any more. The sandpit girls were still accepting of me; the other children had lost interest in things over our way. I realised I’d been balancing the fine line and I made my excuses and drifted away. No ‘unwanted adult’ agitation had been caused, it would seem, I think: this time.

The next time I saw the children, variations of chase-tap, tap-prison-escape-repeat, narration-play narrative geared into action again. I write to remind myself: I write to think as I go about playwork theory’s impact on practice, and vice versa, and if those things that I thought might matter actually do still matter at all.
 
 

Connecting stories

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of observations that I called White City Play Stories. I’ve continued this thread of writing since then, but for some reason I’ve no longer tagged them as such. Stories, whatever you tag them or call them, are all stories of ‘worth’ though. Following on from last week’s writing on immersions in others’ play memory stories and on how we’re interwoven with place, I’m thinking of the play that surrounds us in our day-to-days. We’re embedded in it, even if we don’t realise this. Lines of stories flow in all the places we traverse. It’s like we’re enmeshed in a huge spiders’ web, where every thread is a story spun out, spun between the lines of other stories. It is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional weftwork, and we’re right in there in the middle of it.

We come from an oral culture and this part of us still survives, despite our written representations of language on pages and on screens, and despite our relatively recent cultural predisposition towards the instant photographic record. When we tell stories, we’re engaging with that old in-built desire to share and tell and to connect to other things as yet unsaid. Writing and photography have their places. When we write, we write sometimes because we may not be able to say, directly. When we write our stories, or when we display our photographs (and if we think of it this way), we try to shine a light on the weftwork that surrounds us in different ways. The spoken, the written, the imaged . . . everything is a story, or a fragment of a story, in the whole.

My observations, in and of the play, are written in the spirit of illuminating that part of the enmeshment that I see myself to be in. If the reader can appreciate the stories not directly experienced, as the listener of old oral tales was asked to do, maybe they can then see better the weftwork that they themselves are in. This, I suppose, is why I write my stories of play, though I’ve not articulated it in this way, precisely, before.

The following set of stories shall be tagged and categorised under ‘New White City Stories’: the whole is a multi-layered story for the finding.
 
A story about stories
I was in communication last week with someone from a local mobile library service regarding stories, books and children. From my experience of having worked with very small children, older pre-schoolers, and up to the older primary school years, I wasn’t so sure that the latter would engage so well with being read to from books. Sure, it can work out, but I said I found that these older-aged children generally engaged better with performance-story or the improvisational. As chance had it, that same week I was sitting in the sun on the outside sofa with one of the after school club children, just talking around, and we were soon joined by three other girls and the conversation turned, by them, to telling stories. We made up stories as we went (with no morals, with no real structure, with no concern for what might offend others). When the girls wanted me to talk, and when I’d managed to engage their attentions with a story line of their liking, I was very aware, in the moment, of the looks on their faces and of the focus of their body language. Stories about telling stories may well repeat over the following weeks.
 
Stories of repeated narratives
I feel sure that I’ve written something about repeated narratives somewhere before (which makes this story about a story a repeated narrative in itself!) Some children engage this adult in repetitions of service to the play, or in roles, or in layers beneath the surface of the immediately apparent. I’m not on the playground as much as I used to be and some children are aware of this and are patient for a Friday when I make sure I’m there and when the narratives that they seem to want and need to unfold can do so. Two children want/need engagement with ‘earthquakes’ on the netting (they also know that they, and only they, seem to have the capability of giving me static electric shocks because of their headscarves against the rope!) Another child’s trampolining is replete with other messages to other adults about her play (which, here, I can’t say — in entrustment of the moment!). The repeated narratives that entangle me in them are, I feel, all soaked in other messages.
 
Baby birds
I remember a story I told a few years back about feeling like the mechanism in service to certain play: that was, the pushing of children on the zipwire swing. There is a school of thinking that says that we adults shouldn’t be involved in this, which I can appreciate. However, there is another human level that can’t easily be resolved in playwork theory or in the dryness of qualifications literature: play is a connection, and sometimes we adults are very much connected with. Some children have recently played with the fine line between knowing exactly how to push themselves on the traditional swings and getting this adult to do it for them (or, rather, with them). The children know what they’re doing. This isn’t about laziness, this is about connection. They each take one of the swings on the hex-construction, facing inwards, and one after the other, like baby birds, they demand to be pushed, and high! I run around in service to their needs. When they get low, they squeal again! This is time spent connecting.
 
Playing the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘cops and thieves’, and other mutations
I can’t remember the exact order of the play that happened, this day when everything tumbled around, and when I seemed integral to things mixing and merging and mutating. One girl tried to cue me by inventing a valuable picture of mine (‘How much is it worth?’; ‘Oh, ten thousand’ [unspecified currency]). She found a slab of splash-painted wood. I couldn’t unfurl myself from other conversations though. A little later, she ‘stole’ my gold (made of gold paper, which apparently was mine). Cops and thieves took place. There are a number of ‘prisons’ currently on the playground. Some have names: ‘the Mansion’ is the hidey-hole with the other outside sofa in it, where children often sit and look out, in the dry, in comfort; the place that might become a fort is difficult for adults to traverse but easy for the children; the hut, which is even more difficult to get through, might become the ‘children’s world’. These prisons are ebbing and flowing in relative importance.

At some point, one boy shouted out ‘Who wants to play the Hunger Games?’ I didn’t know what this might entail, though I had a vague notion of the book and film. I wasn’t sure how many play frames were happening at once, what with the ebb and flow and take-up and fall-away of ‘cops and thieves’ and other play, but finger-guns, and stick-guns, and sword-guns made of a cross of wood pieces, and hockey sticks all appeared and were fired or whacked around. Children rarely act out being shot or sworded. They have in-built invincibility. One girl declared her invincibility outright and kept turning my finger-gun back on myself.

Where did the zombies come from, and why?! At some point, after I’d been shot or sworded for the umpteenth time, I must have become a ghost because one of the younger girls waved her hands around occasionally to ‘unghost’ me. Maybe the zombie mutation happened after this. Three children I know from the open access holiday scheme were pressing their noses up to the other side of the fence: this zombie adult was required to push some of the children on the roundabout (even though they were quite capable of doing this themselves) in the interior of the play and playground. The children outside looked on, engrossed. The zombie noticed this and threw cushions and old bread crates their way, poking his fingers through the small squares because it was dinner time for him! The children outside were somewhat in the play at this. They ran away and came back again. They knew me well enough as me, but they engaged with the character. Soon, somehow, the Hunger Games boy — having been cornered in open space by a small band of sword/gun wielding others — became involved with me in a stance of ‘no guts, no glory’. This adult, ex-zombie, was whacked several times on the thighs and on the backs of the knees by one of the warrior girls! These children play hard. The child in question stood off when I went down. She bowed like a Samurai, as I imagined, and left me alone . . .

These are just a few of the stories, connecting stories, of the multi-layered weftwork I’m in.
 
 

Immersed in the layer of the children’s city, then and now

Stories of play can prove immersive. I didn’t write a blog post last week because of immersion in others’ memories. There’s more to a place than what, at first, meets the eye: this I’ve known for a long time, but when you start to dig down deeper and deeper into the recollections of others, you realise just how much has happened somewhere and how much you didn’t ever fully appreciate before. When we stop to look around a playground, how much play has happened there? When we stop to look around a city, how much play — likewise — has happened there? How much play continues to shape itself, even as we look and speak?

Of course, this is only part of the depth story. With play in any given place, there’s also the on-going formation of attachment. When I think of my own childhood play places, I think of the physical reality that they were, that they are, and of the emotional, psychological and social realities of myself as linked to there. We’re interwoven with ‘place’. This is why, when I found a whole treasure trove of west London play memory stories that stretched back some seventy or so years, I found myself immersed not only in the play of those stories but also in the social history that I was delving into.

When I walk around the estate in London where I work, I sometimes stop and have conversations with the children that I know there. They’ll ride by on their bikes, or they’ll be walking to or from school, or the parks, or catching a bus, and they’ll often stop to have a conversation. Last week this happened a few times (the children who, at first, I overheard whilst they were riding their bikes towards me, talking to each other about the water slide in the adventure playground; one of the girls from the open access holiday provision who opened up conversation as I dragged our stuff back from a play in the park session; the child who stopped me on the way to the playground so she could rummage in the bin shed of her flat, offering me some bits and bobs of loose parts play materials, and so on). None of these children had any adults in tow, and it made me realise that here, now, were recollections in formation. More than this though: here, now, was a layer that the ‘old timers’ had touched on in the stories that I’d read, though I put my own spin on it — this was a layer of the city that I had privileged access to, the layer that is the children’s city. This is something that not all adults can see, let alone be allowed to enter.

Sure, the layer that I talk about swills around some adults (almost as if they can hear the children at their feet, but they mean nothing in the greater scheme of things); for some adults, the layer of the children’s city is wrapped up in the language of the ‘anti-social’; for others, as I felt last week, it’s something much, much richer. Yes, there’s play, but there’s also the aspect of the conversational trust of certain adults, of the subtle conspiracy of understanding. It’s a reciprocal affair. The language is on a level, adult-adult, as open as it can be. There’s more to this again though: between the words and the actions there seems to be an implicit knowledge of things that don’t need to be said.

Perhaps there’s some of this in the stories that I’ve read, though I’ll have to read deeper in yet to see if this is true. There are stories of the children’s city that have tales of trusted adults mixed into them. There are all the characters of yesteryear pacing through the pages as if they still exist like that: which, in essence, perhaps they do because memories work this way. When I emerged from reading and when I found myself standing, back in the middle of the site of all these tales, it was like looking at the place I have known these past few years with magic glasses on! The things you can appreciate in between the buildings, in the streets, if you learn to see.

When I walk around the estate, now, I think about the stories that are forming in the children that I know. I wonder what the place will ‘look’ like in the memories of those children when they’re seventy or eighty years of age. What will the buildings and the streets be? Which areas will be strewn with play? What play will fizz still? Who will they be thinking of from those they played with? Which adults will they think of and why? What will the layer that is the children’s city of the now look like to them?

We can’t entertain the idea that none of this matters. Despite the negativity towards whatever depth of the children’s city any given adult might perceive, those adults often seem to forget one vital thing: they were all children once too. In this there’s also the truth that we have all been immersed in a layer of the local environments where we grew up, and this was ours; it was also, possibly, alien to many of the adults around us at that time. What is it that we lose along the way to mean we can’t at least appreciate, in peering in, that place where we once were?

That place is quite unique. I call it the layer of the children’s city, but it’s also the children’s ‘wherever that child is’. It’s full in ways that are often invisible to the as-yet uninformed adult. There are nuances and trusts, actions, inactions, and possibilities within it that only the privileged are allowed to see. It is a privilege, however, that must be earned. All cities have their many layers, and in the continual updating of their various histories the layer of the children’s city should be further written in. In this way, perhaps, we’ll begin to see a richer depth of what a place is, having greater reverence for the ‘social’ embedded in the streets, in the built, and in the built upon.
 
 

Moments surfacing from in amongst the wave

Having just come out the other end of a full-on, hectic couple of weeks of open access Easter holidays on the playground, it’s safe to say that a few days rest has been very much needed. In such weeks of so much going on in the play, the not-so-play, and the not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. The playground has ebbed and flowed from the quiet first fifteen or twenty minutes each day of what, for a while now, I’ve called the children’s ‘poking around’ time, through the swell of the build-up of something taking shape in the group dynamic, right up to something (which in the moment feels) very edgy, teetering there either like the proverbial wave that won’t crash or falling over in some places like on stretches of the shore.

In this edgy, sometimes niggling, often fizzing state, the playground is one long anticipation of that something-ness that may or may not take off, when the day’s like this. These past few weeks there have been water balloons and factions, the hose pipe, water buckets (sometimes the buckets themselves being thrown), the filling of the pool table with water (‘for underwater pool’) and spadefuls of sand and dollops of paint thrown on for good measure too; there have been balls kicked blindly up high to land into crowds of unseen children on the other side of the site; the workmen in the road have had their patiences tested with children throwing bits of old piping over the foreman’s roof; palettes have been smashed; arguments have risen and fallen or grudges have sustained themselves over days. I often come back to the suggestion, when talking about playwork, that even on a calm day if you’re not going home mentally exhausted (from observing, at least), then maybe you’re not doing it right; the edgy days are even more exhausting.

In amongst all of this, we might be forgiven for missing the little moments of play that happen quickly, quietly, on the periphery of the dominant dynamic of it all. If we sit back and think though, it is possible to draw to the surface such moments that we’ve noted in passing (consciously or otherwise). It is such moments that this post is intended to celebrate: a recognition that they have been. In no particular order (I don’t know which days they happened for sure in many cases, which may add to the general celebration), there follows notes on small incidences of play that might otherwise have passed us by:
 
Of the ethereal
Not many of the children who attended this open access were also regular after school club children, but there were a few. One was a younger girl who I caught sight of, every now and then, as she just floated by and through the whole fizz and swill of everything else going on. I thought she might be bored or unsure. I don’t know, in truth. I offered her clay that was already out and stored on a high shelf, once, and she and her older sister took it to a corner of the playground and nothing of the edginess seemed to bother them out there. The younger sister had a serene disposition whenever she wandered through the place, as all manner of buckets and language flew around her and the playground. She wafted from one place to another, stopped (perhaps to see the way the world was from there) and disappeared for another hour or so.
 
Dandelion girl
The same girl picked dandelions at the edge of the site near the zipline. A colleague caught my attention to show me this because he’d never seen it here before. Later, the girl picked dandelions elsewhere at another edge of the playground. She gave them to my colleague, and she laid more out on a long stretch of carpet that I’d put there in our set-up, by the hammock swing, because perhaps someone might lie on it.
 
Circular dozing
Another girl had been asking me and asking me to find her some slime powder for a while, and I hadn’t been able to achieve this because of everything that was happening at that time. Finally, I found the powder and put it in my pocket ready for when she was ready again. I saw her at the roundabout. She was lying in the centre of it in the sun. The other children there said she was asleep. She was dozing for sure, as the roundabout went slowly round. I cast a small shadow over her as I watched on, I remember, in my curiosity. There was no slime till the next day.
 
The lucky hammer and the catapult
A boy carried a hammer around with him all day, banging away at whatever he could find. I remember thinking that maybe he was testing us, but none of us were saying ‘don’t do this’. He kept the hammer with him and the banging gradually decreased. Near the end of the session he told me it was his lucky hammer. Earlier, he’d badgered me to help him make what he called a slingshot (but which was, as I later understood, a desire for a catapult, and which I understood in the moment as a ‘see-saw’). He wanted to nail two pieces of wood together and I said go do that but maybe a Y-shaped strong piece of branch would work out for the task. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for finding this. After the weekend, he searched again and came back and back with progressively stronger Y-shaped wood. I wondered if he’d been thinking about it all that time. We fitted it with elastic bands and duct tape to tie them together. He had his catapult/slingshot, and the lucky hammer didn’t re-emerge.
 
Diwali boys
Three boys found the stash of powder paints in the storage container. I’d seen one of the boys in this sort of play before: that is, he likes to dip his hand into the paint and throw it to the breeze and cover himself in the process. The boys engaged in the powder paint play around the playground, getting themselves good and dusted in brown (being the choice of the moment). Later, the boys were in the container again and there was powder paint of various colours a good half-inch thick covering the floor. ‘What has happened here?’ I asked them in a manner I hoped would be taken for its intention as observation rather than admonishment. ‘Fun has happened here,’ said the boy. We’d noted the festival nature of the play in our conversations earlier.
 
A tidied corner
One day, and briefly, I caught sight of a small group of younger girls who had swept the boards that now cover the old fire pit, where we’d left a trestle table which had accumulated bits and bobs and which they’d removed. They’d positioned wooden cabinets at the corners, turned inwards, and neatly created some outside room without the walls. They were busy painting the furniture. I walked on by and didn’t see this again.
 
Ethics on the mound
Somewhere along the line, one of the boys decided that it would be a good idea to put a live worm in an old tin can and roast it alive on the fire. There were some brief discussions between myself and some of the children, though I left them to make their own decisions. Later, I was talking unconnected things with a parent nearby and, as I did so, I overheard two children behind me as they sat on the mound of earth at the entrance gate. They were digging for worms and I couldn’t concentrate so well on the parent because I wanted to hear what the children were saying. There was general talk of worms and God, and ethical scraps that passed me by, but which I wanted to hear more of.
 
Tales of swings
Two girls spent some considerable time, over a period of a couple of days, grappling with a socket set to extricate the bolts that held the tyres onto the swings. There was a general consensus of a small section of children that the swings would be better this way. The girls finally freed the tyres ready for a colleague to unhook the chains from the beams. Later, or another day, I caught sight of the swings going high without the extra weight of the tyres on them, sometimes with just one child swinging almost horizontally, sometimes with all of the swings used by children at the same time, synchronised to meet in the middle of the frame structure at their highest point, their toes. Once I heard, in passing, the lull of a song as a group of older girls swung.
 
An occasional piano
We have a piano positioned in the alcove between the tool shed and the main door towards the office and just behind where the children like to have the pool table out in the sun. Every so often a child could be seen or heard there, tinkling away at a few notes. One child, late in the week, diligently repeated the same refrain, over and over. It was a small repetition of notes and nobody bothered him. He came and went. I came and went.
 
A smiling smurf girl
It was the end of a session, one day, and one of the younger girls had found some blue powder paint near the fire exit and the storage container. She set about covering her skin with it as we bustled by, as children used up every last minute they had left on site in their darting to the toilet tap to fill up balloons, and as we were trying to usher everyone out. The girl stood in amongst it all with a big grin on her face. I stopped to see and she made me smile, her just looking like a big smurf, as she did! One of the older girls of her family screamed at her to ‘wash it off, now!’ She was in parental mode, as has often happened.
 
Just hammering
For a few days, for twenty minutes or so at a time, this same younger girl sat herself down on a low platform in the middle of the playground, after a quick trip to the tool shed, and proceeded to bang nails into the wood for no reason other than to bang nails into wood. When she was done she was done, until the next time.
 
One pan full of bubbles
A long time back at the very beginning of the open access days, one of the girls found a pan. I saw her a little while later with her pan filled with bubbles (or, as some children call the washing up liquid for the water slide: soap). She headed for a colleague who was sat on one of the old people’s chairs that was later to take a battering by having its back broken somehow. The girl smiled with her bubbles, looking at the hatless, hairless victim that was my colleague sat in the chair. My observations moved along . . .

In amongst the edginess, the hectic dynamic of the ebb and flow and swill and play, and not-so-play, and not play at all for some, it’s often easy to miss the little moments that might otherwise pass us by. There have been challenges these past few weeks, but there have been these moments too, and more. They rise to the surface.
 
 

Reflections of a playworker in Tottenham

Last week saw a trip out across the far reaches of the other side of the city of London (that is, a trip up the Victoria line, and then a fair hike up Tottenham High Road!) to pay a visit to Somerford Grove Adventure Playground. I have been to Somerford before, some seven or eight years ago, and I have some clear memories of the play that was taking place that day in the sun, but what struck me this time, from the vantage point of coming from within the playground culture of one part of west London, was that there are similarities in what’s at stake and what takes place in those playgrounds, and there are uniquenesses too.

Cathy and Tam at Somerford received us with plenty of stories, trials and tribulations, passions and celebrations, and there were plenty of these that I, for one, could relate to (if not always directly, then with a certain sympathy). I’ve met Cathy that once before, and I feel confident in saying we seem to be ‘of the same page’, as it were. Tottenham, as I read it through these stories in our short visit, is somewhat of a melting pot of cultures, and the playground is more than just the mere superficiality of that simple word. Later in the day, I was left reflecting on how this person called ‘playworker’ is, or can also be, someone to rely on, someone to support, someone to be pushy in the face of adversity, someone who stands up to a multitude of adult agendas, someone who might be (lower case initial letters) some form of ‘pastoral help’, ‘advisor’, ‘protector’: in short, much more than merely someone who’s seen in terms of ‘so, you put things out for children to play with’, as I paraphrase of many discussions I’ve had, or erroneously as ‘so, you teach children how to play?’

There are some similarities between the two playgrounds of north and west London here (as there are, perhaps, between all the playgrounds in the city and beyond): in this comparison of north and west alone, there are similarities in that there is a cultural mix, there are various peripheral groups, the potential for or actuality of gangs, to greater or lesser degrees, the continuity of the playworkers within it all, the ebb and flow and swill of the playground and its constituent parts. Where there are uniquenesses, I suppose (without a full understanding of Somerford) I concentrate on the particular comings and goings of individuals we know well, of the way of the local community, and of the general way of things farther out beyond the estate.

As an aside, on matters of a local flavour, I was surprised to overhear the contents of some workmen’s conversations the other day, whilst I was painting signs that are strung up on the outsides of our fences. They, the workmen, were hanging around in the street, in the preliminary stages of putting out road blocks in order to pedestrianise the street immediately to the side of our most public fence. One of their number was telling another, in a broad accent I couldn’t place, but which I figured not to be local to where we were, that (and I paraphrase) ‘these sorts of estates are full of crime, of course; we’ve got these sorts of places where I’m from’. I had to smile because I thought I have to say something. I waved my paintbrush in the air and I put on my best local accent (even though I’m ‘not from around here’ either!) and told him, sure, there were police stats (I’ve seen them) about recent crime levels, but a third of those were for ‘anti-social behaviour’ and I wondered out loud if that might not correlate to ‘play’ in our books!

The point is that (apart from my opportunity to blat on about play to some unsuspecting souls), we should rein in our preconceptions, shouldn’t we? Yes, the playground is dead-smack in the middle of rows of tenements and the estate is, pretty much, a zone in its own right, but let’s not discount everything and everyone therein because of what we think we might know about it and them. The playground, perhaps, also comes under this sort of scrutiny: people might well look through the fence and see all the half-mangled stuff and bits of wood and old tyres and general air of ‘disorder’ and think to themselves ‘well, that could do with a good scrub up’; however, what they’d completely miss is all the play therein, the possibilities and the histories of that play, and all the otherness of ‘being playworker’ that flows right through it, or could flow through it. That said, the term ‘playworker’ would, I suspect, not register on such thinking processes. There’s time to address this though.

I digress. Coming back from Tottenham, and on further reflection, I’m quite acutely aware of the challenges we all might face, and the privileges we’re afforded, in and around the playgrounds in the communities in which we work. I’m also aware of the fact that we are, or that we could be, or that we might someday be called upon to be, more than just, simplistically, ‘that person who puts out the gloop and the paint, and who makes sure the zipwire’s up, or who knocks up something out of an old palette, or who chops up a couple of days’ worth of wood for the fire’. There are considerations of gang influence to be had, as well as the possibilities of drugs, or of the affects of developing hormones in the older playground users and their peers; there are the skills needed to understand the varying needs and expressions, the disturbances and the inter-disturbances of individuals and groups who might aggregate in terms of gender, age, beliefs, family background and culture, or any combination of these and more; there are the constantly fluxing ways of interacting and understanding, or trying to understand, the agitations of the fads and fashions of growing up, or just being, in that place that those children are in; there is the need to be able to bring everything to a point of ‘being on the children’s side’ (as paraphrased of the attitude of A. S. Neill, of Summerhill School), putting aside personal difficulties for long enough to be significant in those children’s lives, indirectly, when fighting their corner with every other adult around. Some days might be smooth, some days might not be.

Play runs through it all, of course, and play will happen without us, but playworkers can help show that ‘this is play’ when others see it otherwise, or they can be that ‘something else’ (lower case initial letter, insert any given other here), if that play, as such, is so detrimental to the well-being of the individual, the group, or the community at large. This is not to say that playworkers should be (capital letters) ‘Teachers’, ‘Policers’, ‘Leaders of Social Reform Amongst the Young’; this is to say that they are, potentially, part of something larger than just the geographical and psychological area inside the fence. This is how I read the work of those at Somerford Grove, and potentially of others based at other playgrounds around and about. Thanks Cathy and Tam, if ever this writing finds its way to you: I trust there’ll be many more stories that can be shared.
 
 

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