Sunday, 10 August 2014

Unicorn Moments

On Tuesday I was preparing one of our vans for National Play Day. Filling it with various loose parts of different sizes, shapes, colours and whatnot.
But prior to filling the van with these things I first had to empty it of contents from our summer playschemes. It was at this point when two boys I knew came over and asked if they could help. By all means they could help; and immediately they jumped into the back of the van and began throwing everything out of it. Not the most methodical of ways to empty a van but effective nevertheless.
They both emptied the van whilst another playworker and I carted the loose parts onto the playground.
Within minutes they van was completely empty and these two lads were asking for brushes to get the sand, grass, dirt and whatever else had accumulated on the van base.
We continued to transit the loose parts onto The Land when two more lads passed us. "Is the playground open?" they asked. It wasn't at the time but they quickly found their way into a container I and my colleague had been using. We left them to play and continued our loose part ferry.

Jump forward half an hour and there were now several more children in the van, many had made their way into the front, and others were in the back. The two boys who had been playing atop the mountain of cardboard in the container had also made their way over to the increasingly busy van. My colleague and I had now finished shifting loose parts onto the playground. Now began the process of filling the van with different, fresh loose parts for Play Day 2014.

It soon became hard to keep track of the amount of children in the van, as each time we brought another loose part to the van there was a different face greeting us. Often there were five children squeezed into the front of the van, and at least ten stood in the back.
And with each additional loose part we brought the degree of playfulness increased. From a distance one could see the van rocking and voices coming from within, as now they had all closed and locked the doors.

I was shocked, worried and anxious.
But I felt alright and knew it would be fine.

Each time we reached the van the tribe of children would buzz with activity. Those sitting in the front would relay the message to those at the back "They're coming!" and when we were paces away the door would open. Multiple face would become illuminated from within the dark rear of the van and the children would take the loose part/s from us. The door would then close and I would here them shout "Go go go!!!", at which point the child behind the wheel would pretend to drive off at full throttle.

This playful, magical period continued up until the van was nearly full of what was needed. And as the clock ticked towards 3:30 I went out and told them that the playground was now open. That they needed to vacate the van. It took a few moments, and I accidently allowed the van to roll over a paint can; but they came out incredibly easily. Only one child kicked up a fuss, to which I replied "Come on, I've let you play in here for hours". He climbed out and I locked the van; they all flooded into the playground and the days session proceeded.

I was astounded at the whole thing in hindsight, thinking about what had happened and how it had happened. One of the most irritating things about children being in front of the van is when they beep the horn. It begs for a complaint. Yet on this occasion, with the multitude of children in the van at one time, not a single child pressed down on that horn.
And looking at the faces of the children who had been in there, I came to realise that at any one point in time each of the children had clashed with, and/or fought with, at least one other child who had been in the van. Yet there they all were, for well over an hour in a confined space, co-existing in a magical narrative.
Had they chosen to they could have locked the doors, cut wires, destroyed loose parts and just reigns havoc over the whole vehicle. But they didn't. They opened the door whenever I or my colleague got close and didn't inhibit our work in any way.

It was as though each of the children knew that what was happening was a special moment, that it hadn't happened before and wouldn't happened again. I think that this could be sensed too, that the air was full of playfulness. That being why I felt that it would be fine and that no intervention was necessary. 
And although it existed on a knifes edge for the entire time, on that edge is where it remained. When it came to the point where I had to end it, they all understood. The moment was over, as all moments much be at some point.
It truly was a Unicorn of moments; where play reigned supreme and all else was forgotten.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Curious Robin

The subject matter of this post isn’t any sort of theory or idea that has been plaguing my mind as of late, nor is it even about children or their play. More of a group of observations that I’ve found quite humbling…

Recently, with the coming of sunshine (however brief) and the coming of summer I have begun to notice more than children existing on the playground “The Land”. And I’m not just talking about cats, which wander on often throughout the day; my favourite being Jekyll. All of a sudden there has been an influx of life on the space, but also I’m more aware of it, looking for it, so I see it more.
It begun when I shifted a load of tyres, swapped the base of a swing and cleared the brook of any loose parts blocking its flow. Standard playground maintenance. Then I sat back at the base of a tree and looked at the space, hoping for inspiration for a new modification to breathe new life into loose parts that hadn’t been used in ages.
That was when a blackbird flew down from a tree and began hopping from tyre to tyre. And at the same time a robin flew into view and settled on the swing, slowly shifting its body weight as the swing swung. I didn’t really think much of it, other than that this was a cool robin, until it charged at the blackbird and scared it away. The robin then jumped around and flew from tyre to tyre, hopping along the edge of the brook all before flying back onto the swing as it still swung lightly in the wind. It was fascinating to see, that it was inspecting every single loose part I had moved or modified, wanting to know what had changed.

Since then I have marvelled at our peaceful colony of mining bee’s (which have now left us), of the pair of pool frog that live under one of our loose part bridges, or of the lesser British water boatmen that glide their way atop the brook. Of the fresh water shrimp below them or of the tiny, rare, carpenter bee’s we’ve only just realised weren’t black flies. All the different beetles, spiders, snails and birds, or the squirrel the keeps doing bird impressions outside the office. We’ve even got footage of a young fox prowling around at night. Only yesterday I froze upon realising that a was four feet from a female blackbird as it stood near the brook, We looked at each other before it jumped in the brook and had a bath. Dunking its head under and shaking its wings, once finished we looked at each other again and then she flew off.

I may work on the playground, and children may play there, but all these examples of animal life, they are born here, they live on here and they die here. This space if their home and that curious robin wanted to know what I was changing to it. It makes me realise that “The Land” is bigger than the children that access it, that there is an added degree of naturalness to the space and that there is even more to discovery then than I previously realised.

Sunday, 11 May 2014


This, whilst a topic of its own, follows on from my Adulteration post published in April last month.

Depth is a word I often use to illustrate or explain a thought or feeling I'm having about a child or my own playwork practice. It helps me, within my team, reflect on where I am as a playworker and on my playwork practice that day. And it helps me know when I am adulterating as a playworker, and reassures me when I'm not.

It is a gauge, measured by intuition, concerning both relationships and immersion.

It based on the metaphor of a swimming pool stating that, each an every child exists at their own unique depth inside that pool. Some children's depths may be closer to another's, or perhaps they are metres apart. But the point is that everyone exists at their own depth.
Through knowledge of the children we work with, observation and reflection we can begin to speculate which children exist at a similar depth to other children. Perhaps they are friends, perhaps not. And by that same logic we can speculate on which children exist at opposite ends of this imaginary swimming pool.

Considering depth allows us to identify relationships, or the lack of relationships that exist between children. Of course we don't need to create an imaginary swimming pool to know which children are friends and which aren't. But it is the rest of the concept that I find helpful; I've split it into 4 parts.

  1.  Each and every child exists at their own unique depth. However these depths are not set in stone. They are as fluid and ever-changing as the children who they represent. Children will grow, they will change, their opinions will alter and their views will shift. Thus their depth will shift accordingly.
  2. Some children exist at depths that are far more specific, narrow or ambiguous than others. That whilst no two depths will be identical, nor will the nature of those depths.
  3. As playworkers and playful people we too exist at our own unique depth. However it is the ability of a playworker to dive into the swimming pool and swim at a variety of different depths. Yet even still there is a limit to each individual playworker, there will be some depths that each of us can't reach. However it is important to recognise those depths that we can't reach, even if only to acknowledge that they're there.
  4. When two individuals (child/child or child/playworker) arrive at near the exact same depth, they become immersed in the action at hand and become immersed in each others company.

As always I'm not saying that this is right, but it helps me often in understand what I did, why I did it, and why things happened the way they did.
And that's my pondering for today.

(P.s Referring back to my post on adulteration. Being more than a player refers to leading the play, to engaging the child at a depth too deep for them. Being less than a play refers to inhibiting the play, existing at a depth too shallow for that child. But existing as a player, neither more or less than one, comes from existing the right depth at the right time; leading to immersion).

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Boys, Girls and Dinosaurs

A few days back on a playscheme I sat in the sun (indeed it was one of those rare days Britain gets sunlight) and began to observe the play on the site.
For the whole session the children present were largely uninterested in the presence of playworkers, being far more interested in each other than us or the loose parts. However the playscheme lent itself as a foundation for the social events to follow. So I spent most of that session observing, trying to keep out of the way and let things exist as they are. was not the easiest sessions to sit back and observe. There were four girls, three boys, tubs full of material and five mattresses. The boys had piled the mattresses high and were lounging on them, like basking lions, and the girls endeavoured to build their own dens with cardboard, materials and a tepee. But what I observed was not moments of magical play, of discovery or hilarity, but of social discomfort and frustration.
One of the boys, "Carl" had been dating one of the girls "Julia" (obviously not their real names) up until the day earlier. So the entire playscheme revolved around these two and their now non-existent relationship. The boys would run over to the girls and say "Carl wants to go out with you again" and then the girls would run over to the boys and say "Julia thinks Carl is ugly". Meanwhile both individuals remained silent. And while Julia was quite vocal throughout the session, Carl remained mostly silent. Only now and then telling Julia that she looked like she had been hit by a bus.
But what was hard for me was how tyrannical Carl became, running around kicking over the girls dens, calling them names, robbing their phones, bikes and materials. It was clear that he had some feelings that he was unable to articulate, and that they manifested themselves in these behaviours.
In truth he reminded me of a documentary I had seen on chimpanzee behaviour, erratic, aggressive and distressing to others. The other boys found it funny, as no doubt they would. And as the session went on I noticed that the girls always kept a distance from him, a circle that they all kept outside of. Like a crocodile surrounded by flamingos.

I found it quite difficult not to say anything as, like I said before, he was quite tyrannical and only a few of the girls were left by the end of the session. The others having retreated to higher ground.
I had to think back to one of my favourite Playstation 2 games to stop me from saying anything: Jurassic Park; Operation Genesis.
In the game you basically built your own Jurassic Park, and for a child who wanted to become a Palaeontologist it was perfect. However once you got so far through the game the player unlocks a different mode called "Site B". And it was Site B that helped me as on it you chose your dinosaurs, designed the island and then they were born.
That was it.
There was no theme park, visitors or blockbuster disasters, it was all about creating the environment for the dinosaurs and then watching them exist. It was about building the right trees, planting rivers in the right place, choosing the right dinosaurs that could eat one another or live alongside each other.
I had to remind myself that I was on playscheme, I wasn't trying to make sure everyone had a turn on the rides, or that turns were taken. I wasn't trying to instil harmony or police behaviour.
It was was Site B.

So I sat back and held my tongue, observed behaviour and ensured that I remained a playworker, difficult as it was.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Beauty from a Lie

Just a quick post this time about a realisation that I came to, about a playscheme and my relationship with the children that access it.
The back story to this is that I am a compulsive liar when it comes to children asking me my name. As a rule I try not to introduce myself to children when I first meet them, whose to say they want to know me at all? They may want nothing to do with me; and that's ok. On the whole I get asked what my name is quite early on at a new site though...other than...wait that's not the point.
The point is that when I get asked what my name is I always lie and I don't know why. I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing (albeit potentially unethical) but before I can think about it I've already explained that I'm Net-man, The Driver, Gary, Erasmus etc... to name the ones that first spring to mind.
In fact in one site most of the children refer to me as Net-man still, nearly a year after that initial lie.

But whilst peculiar I don't do it maliciously, it is with playful intent and on every occasion I have done it, it has been received in this way. They may keep asking me my name and I'll keep giving different name until they decide or realise that indeed my name is Luke. Or they'll ask other staff or playworkers when me and my lies are elsewhere.

Which brings me to the latest site and my latest lie. The group of lads I first met were all very intrigued by playscheme and quickly realised that we weren't constraining or prescriptive adults. That in fact we were very playful, especially when they wanted us to be.
So they asked me what my name was...and I told them I was called Gary. So they were all shouting Gary at me while I was trying to slay them all with a foam sword. And later on one of the lads came up to me and asked me my name (presumably they hadn't heard that it was Gary).
So I told him I was Rodney.
This led to a very confusing game of football when Gary was put on one team and Rodney on another. Neither party had realised that they were one and the same.
The following session went very well and the air was fully of laughter as another game of football spawned (these lads are incredibly fond of playing football) and included shouts of "Pass the ball Gary", "Over here Rodney".

But on the third session in this area the issue came to head. "Whose Gary?", "That is", "No, that's Rodney". And then they all looked at me in a moment of silence and confusion. "Rodney" one of the lads said "Yeah?" I replied, "Wanna play football?" they asked me; and we played.
These group of lads now know that my name isn't Rodney, Nor Gary. But they don't care what my real name is and derive more fun from calling me Rodney, Rodders, Rodger or Martin Luther (Not Martin Luther King Jr), than in trying to find out what my actual name is.

These children now have complete ownership over what my name is, and from the view of playworkers as loose parts I find that quite beautiful.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


In my experience I have noticed that adults have the desire for structure in any form or construct, and that play is no exception to this desire. Since the dawn of playwork there has been literature dedicated to the classification and explanation of nearly everything. From The Colorado Paper (Sturrock and Else) to the play types (Hughes) to the playwork principles, to the theory of Loose Parts (Nicholson). And while there are a sea of more examples I could use to illustrate this point those are the most well-known; I assume.
And what all this classification has done is made things clearer and easier for playworkers to understand what it is they are doing, why they’re doing and how to do it. Or does it?
As if it doesn’t then I have to wonder what the point of it all is.
In my experience, whilst helpful, all the literature surrounding play and playwork that I have encountered has often become fuel for argument. Each individual may interpret the work differently, implement it differently or have their own beliefs, approaches and ideas that haven’t been published.
And I think this is because play is a subject of philosophy.

The topic I am trying to get around to is adulteration, and that I now realise how different my view of adulteration is to those around me and elsewhere in the play sector. And that only now do I see that adulteration is subject to the same ambiguity that so many other terms are.
The dictionary definition of adulteration is “the addition of impure or inferior materials” which strikes the extrapolation of the term into playwork for me as genius. Re-reading The Colorado Paper (Sturrock and Else 1998) I came across this sentence “There is a danger that the play aims and objects of the children become contaminated by, either the wishes of the adult in an urge to ‘teach’ or ‘educate’, simply to dominate, or by the worker’s own unplayed out material”. And when first on P3 training I was introduced to the concept of adulteration as “controlled or spoiled by adults”.
From what I have been taught there is no doubt that it is adults that adulterate. Yet at what point does an adult begin to adulterate and at which point are they not adulterating?

I have seen adults try to “teach” and “educate” children on a play setting, I have seen them control play or push it in the direction they want it to follow but is that all adulteration is? The example that comes to mind most often is of an occasion when I saw a playworker standing, watching children play on a rope swing. And when those three children spotted the playworker they instantly became ridged, they let go of the rope swing and that play in that space at that time ceased. They went elsewhere to do something where that playworker wasn’t.
Surely was adulteration.
Did that playworkers presence not inhibit that play? Did it not have a negative effect on that play frame?
So it is not only our actions that can adulterate but also our presence.

From that logic I realised that even when I was trying not to adulterate to the best of my abilities, I was still adulterating with my presence; even when I didn’t realise it. That simply by existing I was adulterating and that as an adult there is nothing I can do about that.
Which unfortunately resulted in me being paralysed for the next three to fourth months of my playwork practice. I struggled being involved in any sort of play with any children, convinced that my presence and actions were adulterating. That the play would be “better” therefore is I wasn’t a part of it. That I was “the addition of impure or inferior materials”.
But over those months I came to realise that, through the minimal interaction I had with children, I was making no detrimental impact on their play. That whilst, by existing, I was adulterating, I was doing no harm. That although it is inevitable that I will adulterate, that there is a distinction between adulterating as an adult (which is inevitable) and adulterating as a playworker (which is not).

I think adulterating as a playworker comes from being more or less than a player. More than a player being leading and taking over the play or expecting outcomes. Less than a player being putting a stop to play (which I admit has to be done in some situations however rare they may be), reducing the possibility of more possibilities (Stuart Lester) or simply refusing to interact all together. As are we, as playworkers, not the most diverse loose part of all? With the most diverse uses and the most infinite of interactions?
And being a player (neither more or less than one) comes from Depth. But that is a concept to write about another time.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Rough Thought on Play Wants (Part 2)

It didn’t go; in fact it’s worse than ever.

For play not to be innate goes against the very core Principles of Playwork and everything I’ve ever been taught about it.
Heck the very first Playwork Principle states, and I quote “The impulse to play is innate”.
And it stands to logic that it is innate.  Yet at the same time it’s such a big concept that I wouldn’t know where to begin. I think I’ll explore the concept of it not being innate first and then let you guys find the flaws in what I’ve said and what I’m probably about to say.
I use the word happiness in its most general definition, that being any form of positive emotion.

At the moment, however at war with myself as I am, I think that in the wider sense, in the practical field of Playwork, the concept of play not being innate makes little difference. For it to be innate or not doesn’t challenge the importance of play or how to go about supporting and facilitating it. It just challenges the origins of such behaviour.
On that note, if such a train of thought was to be followed and play was considered the method by which we seek positive emotion, following out first good feeling as a foetus or baby. It could be said that not only are there infinitely more types of play than previously conceived (as now anything that makes us happy is a form of play) but also; that play is nurtures means to natures end. Nurture here referring to anything that isn’t biological.

But on that thought play could be innate, a natural process that is only triggered upon our first good feeling. Much in the same way that puberty doesn’t occur until later in life. The understanding of biological processes that don’t occur from birth could rectify my conundrum.
Yet my mind remains unsatisfied.

So now potentially Play Wants are even more abundant and important than originally thought. The Play Need is happiness and play itself is a biological trigger that activates after our first experience of positive emotions; only to expand and evolve as nurture increases in influence.

Play is the means by which we seek happiness. That much I’m sure of.