Once upon a time, when the day was fading to purple and the crisp excitement of an early autumn evening had gathered, a little knot of people felt their cheeks tingling with cold going warm as they hunkered around the too small table. They sat on even smaller chairs, hands curled around steaming cups.
The building that had been a disaster area a few moments ago was transformed to create the illusion of order and was softly gleaming again where it had been dripping with played out paint and water. The jumble sale of dressing up possibilities had, at the snap of fingers, been shaken and folded and stacked into boxes on tidy shelves.
All was safely gathered in, ready for the adventure of loose parts next week. Fresh and clean and carrying the promise of brand new playing and some of the same old games. A play harvest.
The time had come to do the same sort of job with the content of the day. Shake it out, gather it in, take stock. Think about what the group had garnered, seen, heard, felt, smelt and intuited all of it could be aired and stored in minds and set down the book, to be continued.
The minutes of our meetings turn into a kind of shorthand story book. They are not fairy tales but they are just as evocative and powerful. Though of course we know it is not magic. But they give us the same thrill.
What happens in this park has not just happened.
It has matured, evolved, grown.
We are still for a second or two before we dive into the bubbling pool of the meeting, peering into the reflective surface of ideas and images clamouring to get out, bumping into each other in eagerness to burst on the surface of the conversation. Then we plunge together, trying to net one thing at a time, try to chase out the different streams and strings of the day, not so as we can untangle them but just so that we can explore their warp and weft. So we can un mix our metaphors.
‘Can you believe that girl!
Her play vocabulary has got so big. ‘
(yes, some-one said that. How eloquent!)
We dive into the memory.
She had come to us a couple of years ago. Her Mum was worried that her delicate medical situation had lead to her having a very over protected life and she wanted her to be able to play out with her mates, like mum and mum’s mum had done before her on the same streets. This girl had played only on adult terms before, she had little idea about her own play needs let alone how to direct them. Because she is delicate we had to be with her all the time she is with us and this had not helped her to define her own play needs. But slowly, slowly we had weaned ourselves out of her tightly adult bound world. Weaned ourselves away because we have such fun playing with her. The world transmogrifies through her eyes.
She has taken to dressing up in a very big way.
We think of it as extreme dressing up.
She swathes herself in layers of garments and colours and masks and props. She doubles her size like a pantomime dame. But she puts more and more layers on rather than taking them off.
Until this week I had seen her dressing up as an activity with an adult or group of adults, a small clan of pantomime dames wrapped in parachutes and organza waving leaves and cardboard tubes and casting spells on every one around them.
This week it was different. She needed an adult help to dress her in the outfit of the day, but that adult was not invited to join in.
She began to be a little bossy, telling us what she was going to do.
Rainer and I exchanged looks and pounced into action. This is what we had been waiting for for all this time and we were not about to miss our cue / her cue.
She was being bossy!
So we let her boss us.
She giggled as we clowned around doing her bidding and finding the most cumbersome and slapstick way to make her wishes come to life.
Then she pushed him.
She gently pushed him away.
She gave him a kind, funny keystone kops shove and he, being the astute dancer that he is, went skittering all around and about, falling in the worst possible way with shrieks and howls of outrage at having met ‘the strongest woman in the world’.
She pushed me and I followed his cue.
We were both pushed away in turn, spinning drunkenly and tumbling down hills and having to help each recover from her rejection, shying away from her when she came too close, but never quite avoiding the pushes, still gentle, partly because she was helpless with giggles. She liked to be the strongest woman in the world. Choosing to reject us, playing with etiquette.
We felt the game becoming a ritual, we span away further, falling into clumps of bushes and staying hidden. She dusted her palms and left! She walked away from us in search of another game.
Later I watched her sitting beneath the willow, still in full drag, cooking meals for passers by from twigs and leaves and inviting people to sit and eat with her. Not for long, once the miming of the meal and a bit of polite dinner table talk had been done with, the next person was invited. I had to have a special vegetarian spaghetti bolognaise cooked for me, but she was bored by my mention of eating with the strongest woman in the world.
That game had passed.
When she came to us first, she did no physical , imaginative, social or intellectual playing at all.
She learned to ride a trike with us.
She is 15.
Our playground is in a public park at the heart of the borough. It sometimes feels as if we are in the eye of a vortex, some alchemist with a silver spoon is stirring in fresh ingredients all the time. The land that used to be a bomb site is now a playground, local children and families are drawn into it and have made it their own. A spoonful of playworkers and disabled children, sand and water and bean bags, a room of fantasy and the latest ingredient, fire.
The fire arrived today, sparked into life by play trained Park Rangers.
Children dropped what they were doing and stood, like deer, stock still.
‘Is this supposed to be happening?’
‘Yes, its for you, go and see’.
As if the moment was not for real, they rush, urgent, to see this thing before the illusion disappears into a haze. Is it the fire or the permissiveness of adults that is so fragile?
They gather around the growing flames.
One lad, quivering on the balls of his feet, trembling at the warmth of the whole experience, could not believe it. He was allowed to throw sticks and twigs onto the fire. He was able to communicate with the playwork trained park rangers, who did not know him, because they were picking up his non-verbal cues, reading his play cues. Imagine that. He expected us to understand and was kinda looking to us to translate his wishes for him, but there was no need!
We had worked with to coax himself out of his passion for playing chase with his own shadow. We had cajoled and wheedled and enticed and gradually, gradually we had found a comfortable place for him to expand his playing. Instead of chasing his shadow, he was chasing us. Playing sword fighting with us with sticks. This child, who used to skitter away from unpredictability, was now, sometimes, choosing not to come and play with us because he wanted to play out on his estate with his friends. This is the child trembling with bliss at the edge of the fire, safe and sound and wafting smoke from his eyes.
Next to him there is the climbing daredevil. The boy who will not do shoes. He who rejoices in a thin trembling edge to balance along. Did he know about fire, would he try to experience it with his feet the way he did with the rest of the world? No. He is snuggled into a playworker, eyes wide and fixed on the licking flames. Toes alternately reaching out to the warmth or curled under in sheer joy.
They cooked and ate pancakes, they smelt of smoke, the local kids and the local disabled kids sharing this first fire together differences going up in smoke.
They had fed the fire and the fire had fed them.
Then the big kids came. The 16 year olds. The raucous, rambunctious loud and hooded crew. You could feel a knot of tension around the gate and it followed them like an ulcer pain as they puppy fought across the site.
But look. Look what is happening. They are asking if it is ok to grab the bean bags that were left lying after the little children had used them to jump off the spider’s web a giant’s height from the ground. What changed? A word from one of us, a spell of welcome.
They grabbed the oversized cushions, chosen to be in colours anything but primary. They ran with them to the broad slide and piled onto them, sandwiches of bean bags and adolescents laughing without inhibitions.
Look, one of them is a girl, she is looking after her little brother. ‘Let him have a go.’
They adapt the game to accommodate him but only a little, all the fun is still there. They are too weak with laughter to realise that they are weak with laughter. They are playing for all they are worth. We invite them back as they tidy up the bean bags at the end of the session… ‘well it keeps us out of trouble innit?’
And through all of this the silent gliding world of Tom slips from group to group watching play and wondering if he could do this. He pulls at leaves and touches crumbles and smells the crushed vegetation. He ambles through the high grown weeds as tall as him. Rejoicing in the quiet and solitude so often withheld from him. Free to be alone and thoughtful and at peace with his looking, yet allowing his playing to be teased out, his cues followed ,softly, slowly he lets us play with him. He allows his world to expand because we take his time.
When his father comes to collect him, we know exactly where he is, hiding behind a clump of bushes, watching the big kids play and laughing with them in silence.
These are our reflections.
Our memories. We have delved into the recall of the day.
By sharing these thoughts of what we have experienced second hand, we have experienced them for ourselves, then we have separated ourselves from them.
We have set them down in the book and our shared thoughts are to be brought out and used like the paints or the dressing up, next time we work together.
They will not haunt us.
There will be no hangovers or ghosts for us.
There is no alchemist, there are no fairy tales, there is no magic. All of these things may feel as though they are there. Instead there is a real magic, there is play and the practice of the playworker.
From the songlines of the Australian aboriginals through the stories of faiths to the mouths of babes we trust in the truths of stories.
We trust in play. We play in trust.