Jun 242013

Laburnum tree
A group of Playworkers were reflecting together about the little open spaces in the city where they make it possible for children to play.

Several of the Playworkers had not grown up in this country and several others had parents who had not grown up here and who had not had the wisdom about plants and the natural kingdoms passed on to them.

So they made extra certain that they shared the things they grew to know about this other kingdom and passed this on to the children who played.

‘In our play garden there is a beautiful tree with clusters of yellow flowers hanging down like bunches of grapes. It’s smell is sweet and its blossom brings the colour of sunshine to an otherwise ugly space. The children are excited by it and love to play under its branches which hang down like long hair.’

‘Oh my friend. Beware for from the words you share with us , it would seem to me that that tree whose virtues you extoll is a Laburnum tree, the pods containing its seeds are poison to the little ones should they ingest them” cried another Playworker in alarm.

At this exclamation there arose a great flurry of concern from the reflecting Playworkers.

‘Oh what shall we do, for it is one of our primary concerns to keep safe the little ones as they play?’

“This Laburnum Tree, that at first appeared to be such a blessing , is indeed a curse. We must move the playing to another space at once’

” But this space is so perfect for the mothers and for their offspring to use for the refreshment and relaxation that they find in each others company and through their playing. I say we take a sharp axe and hack at the trunk of the trunk of the Laburnum Tree until it is no more.”

“Now in this city that is so filled with greys and browns, which sharp angles and unyielding surfaces, it seems to me to be a sin to end the life of a beautiful tree. Why do we not find a brightly coloured ribbon, so garish that all may see it and attend to its message. And why do we not take this ribbon and wrap it around the whole area in which the laburnum tree doth dwell. It will show to the world that this is a place of danger and that those who wish to preserve their lives, should stay far far away from this accursed growth.”

” But my friends and beloved colleagues. The whole space in which these children have to play is so tiny within this great desert of a city, it seemeth unjust to remove the permission of the children to play throughout the whole of it.”

“Perhaps it would be an advisable move to gather around us the mothers and fathers, the uncles and the aunts of the little children and offer them a paper upon which they can sign their names to offer their permission for their precious children to play in the proximity of this malign plant?”

” It occurs to me that we know little of the Laburnum tree and its ways. I will consult the great web of knowledge and see if there is any wisdom to be gained that will offer us insight into the presumed evil of this tree”

” It doth seem to me that you are really on to something there my friend. For indeed it is never a waste of time to increase our knowledge base. moreover, I have just realised that although we have rejoiced in the playing of the little ones for many months in this space,yet none of them have expired and passed away yea even though they have been playing beneath the fragrant locks of said Laburnum tree.”

” Oh my foolish colleagues, and in this insult I include myself for my slowness of wit and lack of application of the Knowledge that has been imparted unto me. We have been blinded by the pernicious works of the risk averse. For surely, if we are to do our work as it is understood throughout the World of Play and take our guidance from the sacred texts of The Playwork Principles’ we would come swiftly to an understanding that it is a our duty and indeed our great joy to advocate to the right of the children to play when confronted by the adulteration of this space presented by the toxins contained within this poor tree. Indeed these tree toxins are as of nothing when set side by side with the creeping hysteria of the risk averse.”

“By all that lives and breathes, you are right my friend. We have been duped and our thinking has been stultified and we have been made stupid by the fears that spread like the virus of a winter cold throughout our lands.”

“To be sure , your speak the truth. We Playworkers know full well that children are wise and grow to become more wise and stronger the more that they play. Here is what we need to do. We show the tree unto the children and we tell them that this tree is indeed a thing of great fragrance and beauty, like an unexpected rose against the railings or the sunlight reflected in a puddle. We talk with the children and encourage them to inform their elders of the many advantageous properties of this tree, which we will name for them that they may increase their own knowledge of its delights and dangers. We will tell them of the toxins that run through its fibres and we will give them Information about how to avoid incurring harm to themselves and their friends in their relationship with this glorious plant”

“Your plan is one of great wisdom , insight and maturity my colleague. And I will add but a snippet in addition to complete the proposal with which you have illuminated our thinking. For let us now work together and draft a document that reflects this wisdom and finesse. Let us make it clear and simple for all the world to see and know. And let it be called a “risk benefit assessment for the Laburnum Tree in the space where the children play” and let us mark it with the date of our revelation of understanding and sign it as a group who have travelled the paths of ignorance to reach this point of understanding. And let us revisit it from time to time to remix ourselves of the action we have chosen to commit to.”

And so throughout the ponderous reflections of the Playworkers, the children were able to continue to play beneath the branches of the laburnum tree, which, like the young ones, lives and thrived and grew in strength and beauty. And the Playworkers, the parents and the children grew in their understanding of the tree and of themselves. And no trees or children were harmed.

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Oct 042012

Catch ‘em doing Something Right.
Some thoughts on Social Behaviour.

To many of us who have tried to understand the organisational twists and turns of attitudes to play in public spaces, we are often frustrated and bewildered by the fact that almost all conversations take as their default setting the perspective of Anti-Social-Behaviour (ASB.)
Wearied by this constant conflict of agenda, we have decided that perhaps it is time to embrace the ASB rhetoric and use it to examine what is seldom mentioned, but which underpins the agenda, that is, Social Behaviour.

But first, what do we understand by ASB?
We are well used to the association of ( young) people with Anti-Social-Behaviour.
There are many stories about the need for landlords and Local Authorities to take action to mitigate against excessive behaviours by a minority which make life intolerable for a majority.
The list below is by no means comprehensive, drugs dealing, for example, is missing. However it gives the general flavour of what we generally share as an understanding of Anti-Social-Behaviour.
‘In 2003 the Anti-Social Behaviour Act amended the original Act and introduced further sanctions such as Child Curfews and Dispersal Orders.
The following list sets out what behaviour the UK police classify as anti-social:[5]
Substance misuse such as glue sniffing
Drinking alcohol on the streets
Problems related to animals such as not properly restraining animals in public places
Prostitution related activity such as curb crawling and loitering
Abandoned vehicles that may or may not be stolen
Vehicle nuisance such as “cruises” – revving car engines, racing, wheel spinning and horn sounding.
Noise coming from business or industry
Noise coming from alarms
Noise coming from pubs and clubs
Environmental damage such as graffiti and littering
Inappropriate use of fireworks
Inappropriate use of public space such as disputes among neighbours, rowdy or inconsiderate behaviour
General drunken behaviour (which is rowdy or inconsiderate)
Hoax calls to the emergency services
Pubs or clubs serving alcohol after hours
Malicious communication
Hate incidents where abuse involves race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability
Firearms incidents such as use of an imitation weapon.’

We can be fairly certain that most of us would find the behaviour above unpleasant to be around. A righteous NIMBI-ism has us folding our arms and nodding with approval as the Police metaphorically put finger and thumb to the ear of the offensive and cart them away for a sound drubbing that will surly make them see the error of their ways. ‘Straighten up and fly right’ (as quoted in Piranha 1)
We like it when we have the moral high ground. It is easier to pick off our targets successfully from up there. And if we are The Righteous, we feel somewhat more worthy and pious than the sinners. We are the privileged who can sit in judgement and sort the the goats from the sheep.
I met with a gentleman who told me an anecdote about him walking through his small town centre and seeing a group of hooded youth larking about in a boisterous and uncontrolled manner. He, like the rest of the pedestrians swerved to avoid them as they threw snowballs and were generally noisy and big in the way that only a rambunctious group of teen age boys an be.
It was at this point that he recognised his son as one of the boys and the rest of them as his group of friends. Children he had known from their earliest years. They were playing in the snow, relaxed, happy and confident, absorbed in their playfulness and not intending or committing harm to anyone.

Now for the Social
However worthy this ASB agenda is , it has done some-thing to our perception of shared space and time which skews our world view.
I am reminded of a TV advertising campaign for the guardian a few years back. A young guy is filmed rushing towards an older white man.
As the picture unfolds we realise he is not attacking, but saving the gentleman from a catastrophe that he was unaware of.

A brief Google search for ‘Social Behaviour’ turned up very few pieces that were not prefixed by the ‘A’ word. However there was some interesting writing from Homans.
‘George Caspar Homans (1910-1989) is widely regarded as the father of social exchange theory. ‘
‘In sociology, “behavior” itself means an animal-like activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to “social behavior” which has both. In a sociological hierarchy, social behavior is followed by social actions, which is directed at other people and is designed to induce a response. Further along this ascending scale are social interaction and social relation. In conclusion, social behavior is a process of communicating.
In Playwork terms, we would refer to this as Play Cues and Responses leading to a Play Flow. ‘A process of communicating’ indeed.

‘Henderson believed that the subject of interest in sociology—be that a society, a community, or a group—is best conceptualized as a social system. 
Examining small groups
George C. Homans’s great conviction was that sociology begin its analysis from the observed behaviour of individuals, and not from roles, structures, institutions, and other abstractions. This is not to say that the latter are not real only that they are created by individuals. For Homans, explaining how individuals create and maintain social structures requires taking into account the given conditions that influence individuals’ behaviour: their stimuli, rewards, and punishments. Once created, social structures exert back effects on the behaviour of their makers (Homans 1987: ix). At bottom, “both the structures and their back effects consist of the behaviour of individuals” (Homans 1984: 354), and therefore individualistic as well as structural sociology must consider the principles of behavioural psychology.’

In what could be seen as a nifty parallel to the list of ASB quoted above, Homan defines Social behaviour.

‘ George C. Homans’s five propositions of elementary social behaviour are as follows:
If in the past the occurrence of a particular stimulus-situation has been the occasion on which a man’s activity has been rewarded, then the more similar the present stimulus-situation is to the past one, the more likely he is to emit the activity, or some similar activity, now (Homans: 1961: 53).
The more often within a given period of time a man’s activity rewards the activity of another, the more often the other will emit the activity (Homans 1961: 54).
The more valuable to a man a unit of the activity another gives him, the more often he will emit activity rewarded by the activity of the other (Homans 1961: 55). (“Value” here refers to the degree of reinforcement that is received from a unit of another’s activity. “Cost” refers to the value obtainable through an alternate activity which is foregone in emitting the present activity. Profit=Reward – Cost.)
The more often a man has in the recent past received a rewarding activity from another, the less valuable any further unit of that activity becomes to him (Homans 1961: 55).
The more to a man’s disadvantage the rule of distributive justice fails of realization, the more likely he is to display the emotional behaviour we call anger (Homans 1961:75).’

I suppose we could categorise this as positive re-enforcement offering people something to live up to VS the unreasonable enforcement of flawed justice, antagonising people into an angry response. (‘Well, if I am going to get punished for something I haven’t done when I am trying to be good, then I might just as well be bad.’)

Ken Blanchard coined the phrase, “catch them doing something right.” He was thinking about human management structures within industry and the power of positive recognition in personal motivation .

‘Contrast this to the Broken Window syndrome (Wikipedia.) ‘The broken windows theory was first introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in an article titled “Broken Windows” and which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.[1] The title comes from the following example:
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.’

If we perpetuate a climate in which suspicion and fear is the default setting, then we are building an environment where the ‘broken window’ of negative judgement establishes the condition of human relationship. One of judgement rather than communication.

Is there an argument to be made that ill informed enforcement , poor policing and needlessly authoritarian and opaque regulations can cause Anti-Social Behaviour?

I know of one officer whose job title is Anti-social Behaviour Development Officer. How clear can a pre-determined agenda be?

Rose Tinted Spectacles or Gritty Realism?

Do we see a group of children chalking on the pavement as a traditional and harmless play activity? Do we see it as ‘Encouraging older children to feel that graffiti is permissible.’

Sitting in a housing office I hear an officer describing a young man in shockingly negative ways. Looking out of the window during this monologue, I see the same young man helping an elder along the street with her heavy shopping.

Walking past a stairwell on a rainy winter afternoon a group of young people are huddled. They are smoking cigarettes. A beautiful double rainbow arcs above the estate. I pause to look at it. The kids say, ‘We were just talking about that. Isn’t it lovely?’

The parents of group of children are delivered notices calling them to meet with the landlord and the police. They are told that there has been a complaint. About them. They are not shown the complaint. They are accused of gathering in large groups outside the estate shop and the youth club, of smoking in stairwells, playing football an using and using and dealing drugs. There is no evidence provided for these allegations.
They are told that they will be expected to sign an Appropriate Behaviour Contract, ABC. If they do not comply with the ABC then they will be given an ASBO and their family home tenancy / lease may be withdrawn.
The children are not invited to bring representation. They are not given a chance to prove that the allegations are unfounded.

The fact is that we have entered a sort of twilight zone where ‘The Authorities’ can decide what is Anti Social behaviour but do not feel beholden to share this definition. They have the unchallenged power to punish and yet there is no fixed or agreed penalty system. Infractions of the unspecified rules can result in curfews, dispersal order zones, the threat of the termination of tenancy/leasehold for the family home.

Positive behaviours are unseen and certainly unrewarded.

What is social behaviour?

There is no understanding of the role that (young) people play in fostering the safety of the community by spending time on the streets, of looking at the bridging role that they have between the children and the adults, of their energy, friendship, enthusiasm and optimism.

Residents may be discouraged from arranging communal gatherings in the shared gardens that they have created, from having even the most restrained of garden parties, for those of them that have gardens. They are not permitted to grow climbing plants up their Walls, to have flowering tubs and window boxes, from hanging flags outside their homes.
Of course ball games and by implication, playing, is prohibited by the posting of signs that carry no legal clout whatsoever.
Developers can argue that as new build flats have balconies, no common ground is necessary. Despite the Guidance provided by the Mayor of London, this argument still takes precedence.

So what constitutes Social behaviour?

Playing out in the community allows children get to know each other beyond the differences of culture, faith, race. They will mingle and bond with family groupings around them. A culture of shared responsibility and care for the youngsters of the community develops rapidly, with many eyes protecting and nurturing them. Gathering around this play focus, parents and grandparents, kinship groups and extended families will share a vision of playability and join in, finding their own playfulness in shared events for special occasions, learning about members of their neighbourhood who need extra help and support, sharing child minding, making sure that elders are looked out for, sharing food and shelter when that is needed. They will meet each others basic needs.

There is a strong case to be made for the ASB staff employed by landlords, Police and Community Police Officers, to be trained to see the positive aspects of community behaviour. They could be Social Behaviour Officers. Understanding how to ‘catch them doing something right.’

Much of the difficulty with the understanding of the workings of a community comes from a misreading of the Secure By Design, SBD guidelines issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers, ACPO. Reading the SBD guidelines one senses that people live in constant high levels of fear of The Other. The basic premise of the guidelines is to eliminate crime and Anti-social Behaviour. Life in a war zone rather than a village. If one re writes these guidelines substituting ‘play and playability’ for ‘crime and Anti-social behaviour’, we find that the documents read with a very different tenor. Yes, there should be easy way-finding, there should be good quality open spaces for all sections of the community to use, yes there should be good sight lines so that the whole community can keep an eye out for each there well being. The whole community should be able to live and play together. Take a look at the document and re read it for yourself with these changes in mind. http://www.securedbydesign.com/pdfs/SBD-principles.pdf

Playworkers have long joked that the people who interrupt and annihilate the play process are being anti social. We understand that play is at the root of human sociability, whatever the age of the players, it is essential to meaningful social cohesion. We argue , therefore, those who interrupt this play process should be issued with ASBOs.

Is this a radical suggestion? Possibly. And more than one thing can be true at any one time. Sociability can be viewed as inconvenient by those who desire a predictable ordered environment. The more we try to control people’s free choice, the greater the rebellion that that control inspires. The lighter the touch and the greater the recognition of the value of a strong community, the more likely that community is to positive behaviour.

There is a fable. The wind and the sun were arguing about which of them was the stronger. They saw a traveller making his way along the road beneath them and agreed to settle their dispute by showing which of them could get the traveller t o lose his cloak. The wind went first. He blew and blew and tried to rip the cloak from the shoulders of the traveller. The harder he blew, the tighter the traveller grasped his cloak to his body. Then is was the turn of the sun. She shined down on the traveller as he walked, gently she grew stronger and stronger and the traveller let the cloak slip from his hold and enjoyed her warmth.

Penny Wilson
May 4th 2012


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Jun 092012

It started with a rethink of a little nursery garden.

This was a charming space, it took very little to imagine a natural playspace with climbing plants, a play house, water play sink and giant sandpit.
Working with a talented craftsman and gardener and his team, the work is now pretty much finished, there are some mirror tiles o add to an overhang, fairy lights, fruiting vines and resin to protect the jewelled step.

The project has grown and we have decided to use an alleyway that ran beside the building to create a play lane and village. It will wind it’s way down to the next playspaces used by the older children. In turn this can join to the gardens used by the after school club. On guerrilla sunflower planting day, the children made a sunflower circle. They will be able to sit in the middle of the circle surrounded by yellow flower heads.

While we were finding ways of transforming the nursery garden, we began to see a wonderful way to open the use of the space at the bottom of the steep bank, where the wetland and the rugby pitch are.

We will make more shallow the largest of the wetland pools so that children can play safely around it. We have already repaired the swings and Ariel runways, put bleacher seating in the banks, there will be an edible garden, a bridge, hedges, swinging gates, grass settees, all sorts of design ideas to make the space easy for families to linger in the beautiful space. Time to stop and relax and be, take in the quietness and the gentle noises. Find a way for people to re-create themselves and their experience of the Isle of Dogs.
This is the largest City Farm in London, it needs to offer more than animals and nature trails and education and lovely caves. It needs to offer a snippet of a taste of what it is like to live in the country. Instead of living surrounded by angles and unnatural harshness, families will breathe in the cow parsley and may trees,, look at green not grey.

Urban Grey. Village Green

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