© 2008 by Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson is a playworker in London, England and an international advocate for children. This essay is adapted from a presentation at the playwork conference held on May 15, 2007 in Franklin Park, Illinois, USA as part of an ongoing play development project by the U.S. Alliance for Childhood and the Park District of Franklin Park.
My family recently bought a house in France. Like the other houses in the village, ours is about 500 years old. It is a barn of a building, formerly used to manufacture copper bowls and dishes. Metal was melted and hammered and shaped and finished and polished there. This was the industry that the community was founded upon.
The village is at the foot of The Black Mountains. Water from the mountain is still channeled down each of the three roads in the village through culverts set into the middle of each. These were designed to drain the chemicals from the copper pots that the artisans had made. A river runs beside the village and around the houses. On either side the arms of the mountains encircle us with wild forest-covered walls of rock.
A few years back, the copper trade dried up. The community almost disappeared. Now only a residual tourist business remains.
When we first heard of the place some six years ago it was a hamlet without families. There was no infrastructure to support them. A couple of English families found the place at the same time as some Greeks, Germans, and Americans. Slowly a little bit of money crept back in. The newcomers either nestled into the pace of life set by the remaining villagers or visited for holidays and adjusted into the local rhythms while they were there.
Now we have joined this community. We go every holiday that we can, in our family car, a red London taxi, sickly and tired after a two-day drive.
Almost at once, the children change. They roam as far as they want to. They find fields of bamboo and invent games, make boats to sail in the rivulets, mooch from place to place, doing very little and being very busy. They spend their time in process, not productivity. They are free to choose their playing and control how it goes, driven by the urges to play within them.
More French families have moved back or visit again for the summers. Little kids hunker down in the middle of the road damming the culverts and floating flotsam down the streams, absorbed with the movement of the water. The occasional car has to make a delivery, but the pedestrians take priority, and French drivers seem prepared to wait for a cat to get up and yawn and stretch and move on to a different sunny spot before driving on down the road.
In the summers we have to search for the children when we want them. They are by the river chasing lizards or sketching or out rummaging for blackberries. Their playing is unadulterated by adult agendas. In a few years they will be old enough to ride their bikes up the steep hill that the Tour de France flowed down a couple of years ago. (There’s Lance Armstrong! There’s Jan Julrich! There’s Iban Basso! There they go! Allez, allez!) The children will be able to hang out by the lake. They managed to run around it in half an hour last year.
They very quickly leave their urban lives behind them and pick up where they left off last visit, finding their secret places and suspended adventures. They are playful in London, too, but life takes on a different quality here. There is a different sense of time—time that stretches and is measured only by the church clock ringing the hour. As adults we slow down as well. We are busy with our talk and our pootling about with home building tasks.
This is a playable space.
Why? It’s not only that this is a rural place, that there is loads of space, that we are on holiday, and that there is no traffic. The difference is that all the village shares the watching of the children.
I have recently done some training with a group that included three Nigerian playworkers. They spoke about their childhood experiences, about being free because the whole community valued their playing and watched over them. Indeed, they actually said, “It takes a whole African village to raise a child.” I had never heard this familiar proverb stated with such passion. Never had it made such sense to me.
And then a playworker who had grown up in London described the same thing. “We played at the base of three flats. All the families would be looking out for us. We were part of the community. They understood we needed to play.”
The word “community” was not strong enough for what he was trying to capture. He had to invent a new word, “communitization,” to make us hear what he was saying.
Both communities offered only minimal interventions to the children: water, food, and rest. The children were greatly loved and their playing was valued, trusted, and recognized as separate from the adult world.
In London, there is such a shortage of playspace that we are having to create schemes that use so-called Spaces Left Over After Planning (SLOAPs). Playworkers support children playing in these spaces and also train parents and elders to watch over the SLOAPs and claim them for play.
Our French dream home is little more than a shimmer of mother of pearl at the moment and there is much to be done while we camp out on its dirt floors or tiptoe over the rotting timbers. We make ourselves busy doing a great deal and nothing in particular. It will be beautiful and it is beautiful to be there. We play and write and think and take photos and walk and sit with each other.
A visitor inspecting our “investment” recently described it as a mudpit and a shell. He saw only the problems, not the possibilities, the creativity, the dream, the vision.
In some ways he is right. It is all that he said. Just a property and a lot of hard work. But I felt crushed by his remarks because we are investing in something quite different.
I sometimes wonder how children feel when their mad ideas and thoughts and impulses to playfulness are crushed by the responses of adults who do not get their creativity.
I am old and tough and have confidence in my inspirations and aspirations. How would a tender young shoot feel to be told that it is foolish to aim for the sun?
One of our key sayings in playwork in the U.K. is “play is a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” Are we frightened by the quirkiness of our children’s creativity? Of our children’s playing? Why else would we repeatedly stifle something that sets such solid foundations for inspired lateral thinking?
We are all touched by our own creativity. We are touched by our dreams.
The good dreams we hang on to. The fearsome ones we awake from with a jolt. These we become fearful of and try to run away from. We must all have had the nightmare about speaking, telling something really important, and not being heard. But if we allow ourselves to remember the good dreams, then we can savor them at will. We can keep them as our touchstones, our guides, as our visions, our prophecies.
We are touched by each other’s dreams as well. “Last night I had the strangest dream I’d never dreamed before; I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.”
In my children‘s school in London, where half the children are Muslim and half are of some Christian heritage, with a few Jewish and Hindi children thrown in, the children sang and signed this song after September 11th. It was a very real event to our children.
“I dreamed I saw a mighty room; the room was full of men. And the paper they were signing said they’d never fight again.”
We live in the east end of London, close to the city. It could well have been us next. The planes could have come for us.
And later we were bombed.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike were touched by the terror of the London Underground bombings. I was on a bus on a school outing with my daughter’s class when we passed Kings Cross just after the bomb there went off. I was running a playscheme where and while the bombers were arrested, playing to a backdrop of armed police, gunshots, and helicopters.
Martin Luther King’s dream moves us now, our eyes still mist at the awesome simplicity of a dream of little black and white boys and girls playing together. How can we not be moved? Children valued for the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
He willed his dream into reality. He rolled out his vision. There is an adventure playground named for him in London where this part of his prophecy is played out every day.
How much more can we achieve if we are driven by dreams rather than by fears? If we are running towards something rather than away from something?
I had a dream.
I dreamed about what happened when I returned to Franklin Park this year. I spent many months thinking about what has been and what might be in this place. What can we explore together when we are next together? What are the stories that are being played out now?
I am hooked on this community.
I have been hooked since coming here three years ago and finding a group of playful people wanting to put right something that they could not quite touch, not knowing quite what to do, trying to put words to a part-remembered dream of something that was so very sweet. And yet catching hold of it was like trying to lasso a cloud.
We worked hard to find what it was. We tried together to grasp the rainbow, to describe a smell, to explain what moved us about our childhoods and to pin down what was different about the lives of our children now.
It’s not just that “children are not the same as they were when I was a kid.” It it a genuine anxiety, a fear that the process of childhoodness is gone. Remember, play is a process, not a product.
We were not sure at first if we were running from a fear or towards a dream. We were careful not to stomp on each others’ playing.
Brian Sutton-Smith says that the opposite of play is not work; the opposite of play is depression.
A samurai sword is made of metal that is beaten down thin and folded and worn down again and folded and beaten and folded until the finished product is a blend of layer upon layer upon layer of foil-thick metal with ingrained memories of strength, melded together to hold fast and cut and slice and stab and protect and defend and strengthen and give pride and a sense of our own past and self worth. Thus the multiple layers of playing, and thoroughly played-out material, fold into one another to build a tool that makes us strong and well equipped through the course of our lives.
Can we see our children out there with nothing to arm them for the world they are to face, with no playswords to wield?
This was the fear that we might have been running to escape.
My dream of Franklin Park was dramatic and very different. In my dream, I was met by a tall, quiet man who was humbly proud. We turned a corner into what I had remembered as the main street, and found a space lined with low dry stone walls, natural rocks set in place to form soft barriers enclosing a sandpit that used to be the road.
Children hunkered down in this space, building, idling in their relaxed creativity. They were totally absorbed in their ancient discoveries of damming and building. They were learning what could be done with wet sand and dry sand and exploring decorations and tunnelling.
They played with the way things worked and the way things looked and what they could create that represented the puzzles of their everyday lives. They worked alone on making and exploring their dreams and visions and they worked together at building negotiated other lives. They teased and fought and tumbled and tickled.
No adult interrupted them unless there was a really big problem or they needed food and drink. The adults—parents, elders, and teen-agers—were looking out for the children.
We know from our experience that spending time watching other people be creative makes us want to create, too. It is like sneezing and yawning; we cannot help but be touched by it. We find our own creativity. It might be in conversations or jokes or whittling, sewing, embroidering, knitting, drawing, designing, or building. By watching play, we validate it.
In my dream on the other side of the wall was a shallow splash pool with small boats and paddling people of many ages. The walls here had been widened because their use had been observed. Here the older children, the teen-agers, sit and gambol and play. They had a playful childhood and are now “play literate.” Many of them were playing with skateboards or bikes.
Right next to them was a group of elders who were just being together, watching the little children and being near the bigger ones because that was pleasant for them to do, together with the people with whom they had shared their early playing years.
The tall quiet guy was not sure where his kids where. They were off playing somewhere. Then he saw a son of his open a neighbor’s window and lean over into a room where a girl lounged on a settee, enjoying the window light and reading a book. The son asked if she wanted to come out to play and she said yes, later, when she had done reading. The boy cheerfully closed the window and scampered off to play alone or with other friends.
The houses in the district were decorated in individual styles. They were all neat and loved, but each had a quirkiness that said something about the people who lived there. Some had paintings or mosaics on the outside, others had small objects dotted around. Crystal droplets making rainbows or dreamcatchers. There were wild and wonderful plantings and vegetables flourished in amazing gardens. Lots had big cardboard boxes and loose parts left out on the lawn. Or swathes of colored fabric. Children had played there, then run off to play somewhere else, and the objects were left there for them to come back to.
There were a few plastic playhouses. Mainly the children had created their own dens.
There was water and mud and sand to play in and campfires with children cooking food over them.
All the space available to them was used.
It was not messy but alive, really alive. Living on the curl of a wave where order and chaos meet and where the power of creativity is. The town was wild with individuality, the life of the place was outdoors and indoors and in and out of each other’s houses. Doors and windows were open and people moved in and out freely and with respect. Books were exchanged and impromptu meals arranged in the streets and gardens. The people swapped skills and information. They left flowers or tiny gifts at each other’s doorsteps.
This was a town that had seen and addressed the play needs of its children and had extended the understanding of those needs to the whole community. This place enjoyed itself. It buzzed with creativity and interest. It was relaxed and busy and at peace with its playful self.
I awoke to find myself certain that I had visited a Franklin Park as it could be. Franklin Park though the looking glass, or better yet, in wonderland.
Can you imagine such a place?
How people would flock to be there! They would want their children to grow up in this model of how the world could be.
Early philanthropic capitalists in the U.K. created idealized communities for their workers, with good housing and gardens and allotments and community spaces, but they forgot the children’s play. Port Sunlight, Bourneville, and other such places missed what would really keep the vision alive. They created living museums, not blissful living spaces.
A play-based community is one that will be strong as a samurai sword because the layers of wisdom and experience, founded in play, will be folded in onto each other, reinforcing and melding the wisdom of elders, parents, teen-agers, and children, and taking the best, not the worst, from each. A samurai sword is made with earth and fire and water, free of adulteration. It is made of the stuff of play.
I fall asleep in the French village. The children are rosy-cheeked with tiredness. My mind is whirling with half dreams and thoughts.
I listen to the streams running though the streets and remember the stories about playing that I have heard from all over the world. Mango trees climbed, rivers and canals jumped, and high-rise flats, beaches, and mudflats explored. Play is the same the world over and brand new to each child.
I remember that I first heard of building ice houses in Chicago and then in Denmark.
I remember what two wise men said, half a world apart with no knowledge of each other: “Play is like a river that runs through a mountain and comes tumbling out the other side. It runs through us all, though all human history and through the lives of every one of us. It goes on and on and on, doing what it has to do.”
It spreads possibilities and actualities. Sometimes we harness its power. Sometimes we admire its beauty. But it is there, constant and ever flowing. And we must appreciate and preserve it so that it does not dry up and leave our communities with a barren landscape, sucked dry of inspiration and nutrition.
I am fascinated by people who have a vision, who have a dream and then make it real.
Joan Almon did this with the Alliance for Childhood.
Martin Luther King did this with his dream, though he was not alive to see it advance so far as it has done today. (We still have a ways to go, Dr. King.)
Lady Allen did this with almost everything she did. Adventure playgrounds. Adventure playgrounds for disabled children and their peers, Play associations.
Bob Hughes had the living dream of his own childhood, which he translated into a Newtonian realization that there needed to be a theoretical underpinning for play and playwork.
Lady Allen dreamed of bombed-out land and dead homes transformed into living, breathing play spaces. Can you imagine how it felt to see her mad inspiration argued through committee after committee? To scrape and save for a pilot project and have people thinking that she was totally barmy? But she was thorough and systematic. She spoke to community groups and to the local people. She was more impressive than Bob Geldof in her fundraising tactics. And all this for an idea that was brand new then and that still is considered extreme today.
Bob Hughes formulated a new language and new perspectives for a new kind of practitioner—playworkers—who were generally thought to be simply mucking about with kids. (“You get paid for doing that?”) In the U.K. we now have the Playwork Principles, which allow us to view the work that we do as being equal to and different from the work of other professionals working with children. But that took more than twenty years.
All of this is yours to come. You are to be the visionaries, the mad people who are sure of what is right and are going to be looked at with dubious expressions, with rolling eyes.
You are going to have to create a play strategy.
You are going to be tied up by bureaucracy. You are going to have to walk the streets and map the playable spaces and the spaces already claimed for play. You are going to have to speak with inspiration and confidence about the need for playful communities. You are going to have to change the minds of people who are stuck in their ideas and think that they know best and that you know nothing.
It will be hard.
You will have to find points of agreement rather than conflict. You will find supporters in the strangest places. You will be delighted and disappointed.
Can you imagine the vindication that Lady Allen felt on watching the first day of the first adventure playground? Can you imagine the sheer joy of seeing that she was right, knowing that her dreaming was a prophecy?
I want to tell you about something that happened to me in Flint, Michigan when I was there earlier this year. It has taken me a while to understand exactly what was going on that day, and I think that you will see how obvious the need to tell it is.
Elizabeth Goodenough watched her children playing and saw the magic of their playlines held in time and space. As her children grew, she saw that the imprint of this playing stayed with them and made up the fabric of who they were. But she also saw a decline in play, as you all do, and began to feel the need to investigate where playspaces had gone. She produced an exhibition and a book and imagined a documentary film about playfulness and the spaces that children play in.
For this documentary she arranged a session in a school in Flint during which I could go into the classroom with children and play for an hour. These children were 9 and 10 years old. The crew was to film this session.
I introduced myself to the class and said that we had permission to play in the classroom for an hour and we could make whatever we wanted to with the cardboard boxes, fabric, tape, rope, and other materials I had brought. I got the children to offer suggestions. A castle, said one child. Others said a den, a palace, my bedroom.
Then one little kid piped up: “A prison.”
He was a skinny kid, alert and bright-eyed and disarmingly sure of what it was he wanted to make. I tried not to be fazed or give a shocked response. The kids burst into action and the creativity started. The children threw themselves into it. Wonderful buildings started to appear.
My little man took a different approach. I was alert to him now. I was watching him with half an eye for the whole session. He found a big plastic box with a lid and folded himself up inside it, pulling the lid on. (We fixed it so he could have air to breathe.) He stayed in that box the whole hour. His friends came to check up on him, as didseveral of us. But he was fine. He was where he wanted and needed to be.
I gave a fifteen- and then a five-minute warning before the end of the session so that the kids could wake up slowly from their dreamings. I was particularly concerned about how this boy would emerge. I went up and wibbled the box. I heard an answering giggle and knew that he was willing to be coaxed out. So I dragged the box all around the room, sometimes quite fast, because that feels nice. When we got to the group of children who seemed to be his friends I tipped the box and started to shake him out. The camera was on us by this time. The child spilled out of the box, but before he let himself tumble, he announced, “I am Darth Vader!”
I found out later that this boy’s father was indeed in jail. And the sheer genius of his playing hit me really hard.
He had imprisoned himself in an artificial coating, like Darth Vader, and he was seeing how it felt to be his father, who had done wrong, who was a villain, an anti-hero and a hero all at once. What did it mean to be closely confined? Would his friends come to visit him, or would they forget him? He wanted to explore the possibilities that Luke Skywalker explores in the Star Wars movies. Would he, the son, turn to the dark side, as his father did before him, or could he turn to the good and redeem his father?
This play was essential to this child. He knew the depth of it. He knew the job he had to do, the working out that was necessary. He was clear, right from the moment he knew what the play session was about, that this was what he was going to do.
In a playful community the children will always have the chance to play out the things that they need. Is there any doubt that this child experienced something important in this play? What if we had not done this session?
An Australian playworker in London, who had grown up playing in the rainforest of Byron Bay, told me with amazement of the children on an adventure playground she was working on. These children had discovered that they could play archaeologists anytime and anywhere that they wanted to on the site. They could always be certain of digging and finding treasures from the bombed-out homes. They could unearth artifacts from a time, not so long ago, when play was not a commodity.
To rediscover this time must be our dreaming, our vision, our prophecy.
This paper makes oblique references to the individuals works of Bob Hughes, Gordon Sturrock and Arthur Battram to whom I am endebted for their inspirations.
Lady Allen of Hurtwood introduced the concept of Adventure Playgrounds into and bombed and battered world and has always been a personal heroine.
Elizabeth Goodenough has written on the literature of children’s play and was the beautiful dreamer up of the project that produced the PBS documentary ‘Where do the children Play?’
The Playwork Principles are available from www.playwales.org.uk
With thanks for the delicate and joyous work of Ed Miller in his fine editing work and support and to both Ed and Joan Almon for escorting me through the privilege of being playful in America
For Kipper Bug and Bird
Copyright 2008 by Penny Wilson. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of this material is prohibited by U.S. and International copyright law. For more information write to firstname.lastname@example.org.