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

Posts tagged ‘world play’

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

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

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

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

Berlin Playground 1

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

Berlin Playground 2

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

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

Berlin Playground 3

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

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

Berlin Playground 4

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

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

Berlin Playground 5

Berlin Playground 6

Berlin Playground 7

Berlin Playground 8

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

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

Berlin Playground 9

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

Berlin Playground 10

Berlin Playground 11

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

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

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

Comparing children’s play in Alexandria, South Sinai, and Brunei Darussalam, Borneo (guest blog)

Every so often the opportunity to develop greater understandings of children’s play in different parts of the world comes along. In recent months I’ve been fortunate to have had correspondence with a fellow writer, Val Cameron, an experienced teacher who’s now based in South Sinai. Val has taught widely overseas in places I can only dream of visiting, and her angle on children, their play, and the socio-political frameworks in which they play and engage with one another is just one of those opportunities to take up.

The following is a guest blog written by Val, as requested by myself, and interspersed (i.e. edited in) with further notes from our various communications (published following the author’s final approval). I trust I’ve sewn everything that she’s written for me together in a way that best represents her extensive experience.  
Author biography

Valerie Cameron has been teaching English language for 35 years, mainly overseas. She considers herself lucky that her ‘career’ has been a protracted working holiday. She started in Europe and then travelled around West Africa for three months. Crossing the Sahara desert on a sheep lorry, Val says she found peace in its silent emptiness. A year after ‘the Wall’ came down, she worked in an industrial town in north eastern Hungary. Afterwards — in Salalah, South Oman — she was able to camp out with Bedouins, observing their disappearing way of life. More recently she has spent two years teacher training in a large government school in post-revolutionary Egypt. When the job was suspended due to unrest, she moved to Dahab in South Sinai, where she volunteers in a local nursery. She is interested in traditional cultures: particularly desert tribes.
Children’s play in South Sinai and Alexandria

Dahab, on the south east coast of the Sinai peninsula, is far from the unrest of Egyptian cities. Previously under Israeli rule, it became popular as a hippie-hangout. Today it is one of the Lonely Planet’s top ten places to chill. Traffic is light and most drivers never reach fourth gear.

I pick my way over the stony ground in the lane that leads to my house, past   children playing marbles: this is their playground. An occasional truck stops play, otherwise goats keep to the fringes. These games make me feel nostalgic. They are reminiscent of Britain in the 50s, before cars took over. The lanes are quiet and safe; every child is known to the community. Commercial toys are unusual and children make do with what’s there.

Left to their own devices, Bedouin children in South Sinai play with bits and pieces that Western children might ignore, e.g. bicycle tyres for rolling, rocks, cardboard and wood. There are games with stones.

They go swimming here, boys and girls together, running around in bare feet. It’s certainly freer than the Gulf countries. In the Middle East, after puberty, girls have to stay at home and must be accompanied by their brothers or another male family member if they go out: so no playing outside, or going out with their friends (hence the popularity of going to college — escape!)

Egypt is more liberal than the Gulf countries and teenage girls can go out in groups like the boys. Since the revolution though, the teenagers in the street can be menacing and threatening. You don’t see many children playing on the streets. I never saw young girls on the street playing. Fights are commonplace among boys. Rarely you see them playing football due to lack of play areas. In the Gulf countries, boys play football since there is space. You do not see girls playing on the street, only boys.

Sinai is a poor region and has more traditional play than petro-rich Brunei (below). Favourite games in Sinai include sega marbles. This is played on level ground in side streets or lanes. Equally popular is kika: children throw stones at a target of a pile of stones. Depending on the number that fall, the player must hopscotch along squares in the sand. Each square is numbered. When they get to their number, they have to jump 360 degrees and return. The winner has the most stones down. Smaller children play hide and seek. At the edge of tarred roads, a popular game is rolling a hoop or bicycle tyre.

There is a difference in behaviour between the Bedouin children in South Sinai (who come from largely illiterate backgrounds but have the run of their areas) and the children in Alexandria, Egypt. I was often shocked by the roughness of city boys, pounding each other on the ground, bullying; crying was very common (at school too). School playgrounds are battlefields. Classroom assistants control fights by hitting the children with rubber pipes, sticks or even kicking them. Teachers do not often interfere since they are afraid of being injured.

The majority of urban Egyptians live in tower blocks and the streets are choked with traffic. Undoubtedly, the combination of being cooped up all day in school and in a flat with no garden leads to frustration. By contrast, Bedouin children in general do not fight so much with each other. They come from large families where the average number of children is ten. Relatives tend to live nearby. They swim in the summer and play outside all year. Alexandrian children who can afford computers spend hours surfing the net. On the other hand, the Mediterranean is a resource for swimming, fishing, and for boys to climb over concrete breakwaters: not so the girls. Children visit each others’ homes or go out to the city’s Royal Park along the coast. They play hide and seek, tag, and ball games. There are some private beaches where it’s safe to swim.

In Sinai, the weather is benign except for a few exceptionally hot weeks in the summer. The local population is poor, relying on tourism which shores up the south, sidelined by the Egyptian government. It was taken back from Israel after the Camp David Treaty in 1979. Since the revolution, businesses have gone under and financial difficulties are widespread. Children use their imaginations and each other to entertain themselves.
Children at play in Brunei Darussalam, Borneo

I also spent three years in Borneo among Muslim Malays. Brunei Darussalam is a small country in north west Borneo, on the coast of the South China Sea. It is a multi-ethnic society with three main groups: Malay, Chinese and tribal. The Malays are Muslim, while the Chinese are Buddhist and Christian. The tribal groups of Iban, Dayak and Kelabit traditionally live up-river and are animist. The groups, to a large extent, fall into two categories, namely: tribal and town-dwellers.

Tribal Borneans tend to live in longhouses along the country’s rivers which are its roads. The settlements are permanent. Children play outside in the river and jungle. They keep unusual pets such as monkeys, lizards or birds. At a young age boys go hunting with the men, who use blowpipes, while girls help with the cooking, which is played out in ‘make-believe’ games. They play with woven and wooden toys and objects found in the river or forest.

In these rural areas, where there is less money to buy the latest high-tech gadgets, children are more likely to play traditional games such as congkak, getah, spinning tops, ketingting, wau kites, and marbles (guli).

Ketingting is similar to hopscotch. It cannot be played on grass, which is unsuitable for marking with chalk. Sometimes children play on the veranda of a longhouse.

In getah children jump over an elastic band held across the floor. It is raised gradually by two helpers on either side. The winner is the one who manages to jump the highest without touching it.

Wau kites are made from bamboo sticks soaked in water for up to two weeks. Paper is placed over the frame; rice paper is cut out and stuck onto the wings of the kite.

Congkak is a game for two and popular throughout south east Asia. It consists of a board which has seven holes on either side, ‘houses’, and two larger holes, ‘storehouses’, at either end. The objective of the game is to gather as many congkak seeds into the ‘storehouses’ on the player’s side. Each ‘house’ hole is filled with seven rubber seeds or cowrie shells before the game. On a turn, a player removes all pieces from one of the seven holes on his side. He then distributes them clockwise — one in each hole to the left of this hole — in a process called sowing. Sowing skips an opponent’s ‘home’ but not a player’s own ‘home’. If the last piece falls into an occupied hole, then all the pieces are removed from that hole and are sown in the same way (clockwise from that hole) in another round. This player’s (current) turn ends when the last piece falls into an empty hole on the opponent’s side. The game ends when no pieces are left in any hole on both sides of the board. The players now count the number of pieces in their own ‘home’ and see who has won.

Brunei Darussalam has a high per capita income. Expats from Europe and Asia work in the oilfields. Children living in air-conditioned townhouses have adopted more modern pastimes such as Playstation and computers. Ideas for reviving traditional games include games showcasing at weddings and school games clubs.

The Chinese are freer and tend to have more extra-curricular activities like music or sports lessons.

(Author’s note: these views have been recorded after personal observation and are not based on academic research).

Valerie’s blog can be found via

Cardboard adventures . . . guest post

I’ve had a series of face-to-face conversations and online communications recently with people who either grew up in various parts of the world or who have worked there. Stories of play from around the world are always intriguing. Sometimes I find similarities in the play that I’ve seen and taken part in in my own country; sometimes there seems to be some sort of exotic otherness to it all. I’m hoping to be able to pull together some of those stories in the not too distant future. Either way, I have a ‘world play’ section on this blog already and adding to it every so often has always been the plan.

To that end, I asked the permission of another blogger, Stuart M. Perkins, to share one of his play stories. I found this story a few weeks ago. Stuart’s in Virginia, USA, and has given his permission to reproduce something that I liked the feel of: Cardboard Adventures. This is one those play stories that feels familiar, rather than ‘exotic’, but that’s why I wanted to post it up here. I usually shift American spelling to suit a UK audience in things I find, but I think I might just leave this one be here. It’s Stuart’s voice, after all! He writes:

Riding the bus home from work this afternoon, about two stops from my apartment, a mother and her young teenage son got on and sat behind me. The son had apparently just come from the dentist and was still a bit whiny from the experience.

His mother said, ‘I know it was rough, but when you get home you can go upstairs and play with your Xbox.’

A nice day like this and she instructed her son to go inside and play with his Xbox?

When I was his age, Mama told me to go outside and play with a cardboard box.

Not just any cardboard box. One of the huge cardboard boxes from the T.V. shop.

When my sisters and I were kids, there was a T.V. shop across the field. As new televisions were delivered for display, the huge cardboard boxes they were shipped in were then stacked behind the shop for disposal. If we promised to ask the owner first, Mama would occasionally allow us to drag one across the field to our backyard. Along the way, we attracted the attention of cousins playing outside and they joined the fun.

Although Mama allowed us to drag a box home from time to time, she did so reluctantly, knowing that ultimately she would be left to dispose of the ragged remains. Sooner or later we would be done with the box. Sooner if it rained. Rain is cardboard’s enemy.

Those huge boxes easily held me, a sister, and one of the smaller cousins all at the same time. An old rusty pair of scissors in Daddy’s garage helped us shape each box into the fantasy of the day. Once, we cut portholes in a seaworthy box and hacked off the top to make an open air deck. We crawled inside and waited for tidal waves.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked as she walked by to pick tomatoes, clearly wondering how long it would be before she had to dispose of our creation.

‘A cruise ship!’ we answered back.

‘No. It’s trash is what it is,’ she said.

We once hooked two boxes together and made a train. We cut away the front of one box so the engineer could wave to cars, and we cut away the back of the second box so that passengers could wave from the caboose. We crawled inside and waited to arrive at the station.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked as she swept the sidewalk.

‘A train!’ we answered back.

‘No. It’s trash is what it is,’ she said.

One particularly grand box that had held a console television made a perfect army tank. We cut a lookout hole in the top, made several holes in the walls to shoot from, and we crawled inside and waited for the enemy.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked as she carried in groceries.

‘A tank!’ we answered back.

‘No. It’s trash is what it is,’ she said.

There was a period when we’d gone quite a while without cardboard adventures. It was during this bleak time that a Sears delivery truck backed into my neighbor’s driveway. As we watched the truck maneuver closer to the back door, one of my cousins was the first to realize the magnitude of the event.

‘Mrs. Brenneman’s getting a new refrigerator,’ the cousin whispered, so as not to hex this dream come true.

We salivated.

After what seemed an eternity, one of the delivery men appeared with the empty cardboard box that had held the refrigerator. With some effort, he dragged it into our neighbor’s yard and went back inside.

Four of us kids, working like ants carrying bread, managed to slide, drag, and inch the massive cardboard box over to our backyard. We climbed in to savor the smell and experience the silence. The silence was momentarily broken as our collie pushed her way in, licked each of us in the face and left. Even she seemed amazed by our good fortune.

We sat there inside the cavernous box trying to decide what to turn this gift into. Before we reached a consensus it got dark outside. Cousins had to go home and my sisters and I had to go inside.

The morning came and horror of all horrors, it had rained in the night.  We ran outside to check on our massive cardboard box. The rain hadn’t ruined it completely, but the once stately walls now sagged, corners were rounded over by the rainwater, and the smooth outside was now wrinkled and peeling.

A couple of cousins walked up. We stood looking at our sagging mound of a box, not wanting to believe our prize was ruined, but it appeared to be so.

‘What’s this one?’ Mama asked on her way to get the mail.

‘It’s trash is what it is,’ we answered back, resigned to the truth.

‘No. It’s an igloo,’ Mama said.

We looked at each other and grinned. We ran to the rounded shell of a box, molded the wet cardboard so as to give us one long tunnel as an entrance, and we crawled inside and waited for polar bears.

I suppose as I type this, the young teenager just back from the dentist is playing alone with his Xbox. I never had an Xbox, but unless it came in packaging large enough for cousins and me to fashion a cruise ship, train, tank, and an igloo, I don’t know that I would have wanted one.

The things I remember and the things I don’t (guest post)

David Allen, a fellow writer, has given permission for me to republish one of his posts. I’ve been meaning to open up a category on play around the world for a while now, and David’s post has kickstarted that plan into reality. All being well, this will be an occasional series, as with a couple of my other categories. I shall ask permission to use pieces by other writers in my day-to-day online and real world contact with them, but I also know non-writers out there in ‘meatspace’ (I do like that phrase!) whose play stories I can collect from around the world.

So, onto David’s writing. This comes out of the United States, presumably, but what I was drawn to was not only a few insights into childhood play (which affirm beliefs in archetypal play), but moving on through life there’s also observation on interaction between the young adult and the teacher. I’ve taken the liberty of editing for spelling and punctuation (for a predominately UK readership).

David writes:

I can’t remember my invisible friend’s name. But I remember he’d ride my tricycle and I’d push and pull him on it. The tricycle ended up being thrown in the blackberry bushes and I don’t remember playing with the nameless friend any more. I can’t remember the first book I read, but I can remember it was a collection of short stories that were abridged so that children could understand them. One of them contained the story of Rumpelstiltskin. It scared the shit out of me then and it still scares me now. I remember the first time I crashed my bike. I remember struggling to find the brakes. When I found the brakes, they only worked on the front tyre. I must have done a full flip before scraping across the gravel.

I remember writing terrible stories when I was a kid. Stories about dinosaurs, street fights, and senseless violence that I must have seen on TV. I remember stapling pages of computer paper together and making my own ‘real’ books. No lines though. I’d try to fill them up. I remember I wrote a story called The Ancients. It was terrible. But it was something I finished. It had something to do with discovering a cave that went so deep into the earth that dinosaurs came out of it. I was really into The Journey to the Center of the Earth and Jurassic Park. I remember trying to make book versions of movies that (unknown to me) were already based on books. I had a wild imagination at that time. I remember reading one of my terrible stories in front of my 5th grade class. I don’t think I wrote much of anything or read much of anything for a while after that.

I remember my first cigarette, stolen from my grandma’s carton above a counter in the kitchen. Virginia Slims. I don’t know why I took it. But the act of doing something I knew could get me into trouble thrilled me. I don’t think my heart has still ever beat that fast. I smoked my Virginia Slim in the backyard next to the campfire. I felt like a real cowboy. Tough, rugged, cool. For a child in 6th grade, I was a real ‘badass’. The next year I got my first skateboard for Christmas. Now I was really cool. The year after that I bought my first full pack of Marlboros. Or was it Camels? I remember they didn’t even card me.

I can’t remember ninety percent of my teachers’ names. I can remember the ones who cared about me though. I can remember the ones who didn’t care whether I played sports or not. The ones who searched and prodded and interrogated until they found what I was good at. I remember being told I was trying to live my life in a straight line, when what I really needed to do was take the scenic route. I remember being ashamed years later when I realised how much extra time certain teachers spent on me. I remember being positive certain teachers passed me simply because they knew where I was going after I graduated. I remember being miserable for a really long time.

I can barely remember the four years after graduating high school. The Marine Corps is a blur and I don’t think about it that much any more, other than the people I miss hanging out with. And the Marines who raised me. When I got out, I don’t remember what made me decide to go back to school. I don’t remember what made me start writing again. I don’t remember what made me want to write. But I remember I started getting good grades for the first time in my life. And I remember thinking about the teachers who cared about me. The teachers who saw through my act of trying to be cool and trying to fit in. The teachers who knew there was something in there that was worth encouraging, even if I didn’t see it. And even if I still don’t.

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