As a flanneur with an interest in play I find myself continually coming across little areas of left over land that contain Play equipment which are catalogue bought signifiers to adults that an architect or landscape designer has ticked the ‘play area’ box..
inevitably the areas are fenced off from the whole space and wet-poured all over. There are bent metal ‘structures’.Hideous ghosts, mutated from a hybrid of sports halls and the structures of adventure playgrounds. There will be a small bent metal thing for toddlers, fenced off from a slightly larger version for slightly larger kids.
These are ‘play spaces’ ?
If you are in your teenage years, these are spaces of exclusion to you.
The size of the equipment and the insy binsy fences around them send out clear messages that you hoodies are not welcomed here, in fact this space criminalises you. The scale of these places positions you, in the public perception, as a threat.
Looming giants in the merry little land of Oz.
A large part of my life has been spent in environments which are physically and attitudinally accessible to children with and without disabilities.
If I were to roll up here on one of these play areas now with my mate Ricky, what would he do?
Sit and watch I suppose, if his wheelchair could get through the insey weensy gate.
Just like the menacing hoodies (Why does no-one say that they work with Easy to Reach Youth?), for disbabled children these ‘play grounds’ are spaces of exclusion.
In Tower Hamlets and neighbouring boroughs, a blue fence has been erected around what used to be called ‘Community Space’ and what has re-labelled ‘Waste Land’. Inside the blue wall will be a glorious confection of space designed for legitimate rather than marginalised playing.
The Olympic complex, the ultimate example of finite gamespace, is being made out of spun sugar promises and moonbeams. There will be a post Olympic legacy, too late.
The pre-Olympic legacy, created in this New Stratford City of promises, is that there are children and adults and every one between, standing with their noses pressed against the knotholes in the blue fence, waiting for their chance to play.
For some, it will not arrive in time.
The Olympic legacy is creating a huge space of exclusion, creating mass play deprivation.
Here, as in so many places, children’s intrinsic motivation to play is becoming an impairment. A need that society does not meet which then becomes a disability….
Play itself as a space of exclusion.
We have perception of play that is infantilist, locating it safely and neatly in a few months of very early childhood in which can comfortably permit the toddlery to have inane fun without it doing to much damage or being too scarey. It is dream toddlerhood filled with ‘perfect’ children and Kodak moments. Little adult pleasing structures to contain and control who plays and how. Toys that are powered by batteries, not children’s fertile minds, which do the playing for them. Just in case they get any bright ideas of their own.. we distract them with flashing lights and tinny music and beginner versions of digitized adult creative experience.
The prevailing image of childhood is as a time of preparation for adulthood. With this thought in mind, play sits comfortably as a whimsical pastime which may be permitted for short periods as a reward , an indulgence bestowed upon children from the sweetness of the adult heart , a favour.
This is the age that we permit the use of bouncy castles, zooamorphic face painting. We may even permit a fancy dress costume to be worn to the shops. A child wanting to do these things in later childhood will be firmly discouraged in one way or another.
We organise after school activities for our children and make sure that they do their homework. We force them into little moulds of adulthood. We measure their outcomes and standards of attainment.
We do not read their first language, the first language of all children, play.
Perhaps we see play as somehow lesser than the real occupations of adulthood. As adults we do a sort of playing that we call by different names, sports, conversation, sex, intellectual activities… are we jealous that we can never regain the intrinsic playing of childhood? That language we have to work at re-learning and re-understanding?
The skills of this understanding can be experienced by any adult with the sensitivity and perception and desire to nurture childhood. However, the craft of this work, at the moment, rests with a small group of artisans, playworkers.
It is through the craft of the playworker that real thought has been given to the play process for its own sake.
Though various attempts are made to hijack the play of children, Playworkers stand as guardians of it, advocates of time and space for play.
Playworkers see children through the lens of play like a paediatrician sees children through the lens of medicine or teachers see children through the lens of education. Ours is a craft of equal importance. Some would say or greater importance at times…
I knew nothing of this when I entered the field, but I intuited it, as many of us do. Through studying winnicott, my own reflections and those of my colleagues, I built a home-spun understanding of what I had to do. Throughout the world I find people who have come to the same conclusions by their own routes.
In the UK we have the advantage, because here we have theorist and practitioners who have written their thoughts and spent time passing these on. At the core of the theory are some simple concepts and obvious truths. But the fluency of play, an intricate, filigree subject, as all second languages are, is filled with delicate nuance and complex grammar, the understanding of which is essential for the translation of it by ourselves.
One of the complicating factors that we have as play artisans is the playing of disabled children.
Again, our conditioning, on the whole , has led us to have the image of disability as something that is some how not so cool ( I remind you that cool is the natural predator of quirky and quirky is an essential ingredient in any play environment.) It is seen as some thing that is ministered over by a small army of saintly-types or gorgons-on- a –power-trip.
My ill-informed reactions to people who told me that they worked with disabled children was one of revulsion. I could feel, according to their presumed perceptions, either a tremulous fear of life captured and bullied, or the fear of soft toy voiced ladies, with their heads permanantly tilted to one side, wearing pastels and practical, yet feminine shoes. They are clean faced and sweet and I felt like a cumbersome alien in their presence, me with my art-school post punk heritage.
Then I met Amber and Ryan and Tony.
Thrown into a Thatcherite work placement, I was disgusted with the situation that these children were dumped in each night after school and for interminable days during their precious school holidays. Yet under the most repressive and gorgonish regimes, Tony, Amber and Ryan found playufulness. Their humour was clever and a quick as my scouse mates. They were happy to welcome into their circle ,an empathetic face. Their lust for life burned beyond Iggy Pop’s words. Not drug induced, just savouring each other and the moments that they could steal away from the gaze of ‘The Man’.
And I caught the fire and kindled it and I was hooked.
I found my way to Chelsea playground, at that time run as a high quality inclusive adventure setting.
My doc martens and unshaved legs were the norm. I could, without having to be ‘The Man’, make the playing that the children desired actually happen. It felt like magic.
But it wasn’t.
There were robust advocates for the children in their teachers and in my colleagues, we playworkers talked constantly about what had happened, what we had seen and what we thought. We were aware that many of the children would not live for long, many died, but this did not induce sentimentality in our work, rather a determination to machete away they obstacles to their playing so that they could find a cleared space to get on with it.
We did not have a language to describe what we were doing, but in the end our recognition of a child fulfilled in play was the shared achievement.
We worked with nothing.
No specialist play equipment, no sensory rooms. No designer swings, fancy bits of kit, not even a hoist. We used our imaginations to find solutions to the needs of each individual child. We treasured our fence. It surrounded us and held us. This was our physical boundary , our embracing arms against the world, the incandescent membrane of our bubble.
We locked the gates and kept the world out and us in. without the thought of leaving the site or the world breaking in, the children could play contentedly within the perimeters of the play space.
We used fire and water and earth and sand, twigs and leaves and broken tree branches. Anything that we could recover from skips. Everything was risk assessed and assessed for its play potential, Potential Assessments. We got dressing up clothes from charity shops. We used lycra to make hammocks and to hold children into swing seats that they could not hold themselves into. Cooking utensils served as sand toys and donated toys as loose parts and small world equipment. We took old mattresses as crash mats and got through thousands of cardboard boxes.
The imagination of the children and the receptiveness and insight of the staff made anything possible. The children played and the staff learned to understand this language. It was a gesamstkunstwerk ,a total artwork, a complete experience.
We were all alive there.
Those places have gone, swallowed up and subsumed by the petty beurocracies that have reduced the sublime to the ridiculous.
Since that time I have fought against the commodification of equipment for inclusive play, preferring the home made route of loose parts and intelligent staff attitudes, informed by reflective practice and now, by play and playwork theory.
The sensory room is the equivalent of the battery powered toy that does the playing for the child. It is a lazy solution. Give us instead a grassy knoll for plots and plans and intrigue and the sun and the wind and the beauty of light or rain , the smell of water on dry soil or cut grass or cow-parsley and we will have a richer play experience than any plug in solution could offer.
We could experience the whole range of Playtypes with the children and explore physical emotional and spiritual content of the lives of their unfolding play as they made sense of the world around them. Their internal worlds coming out to play in the external worlds they, at last, could share with each other.
Inclusive playwork has no purchased solution. It comes from a sound understanding of children at play and a sensitivity that comes from good quality play practice and experience rather than tick boxed, ill informed assessments managed by beurocrats rather than people with their lens on the playing of children. The problems of inclusive play cannot be solved by a focus on the adulterating agenda of the disability rights movement, or a series of tick box points prescribing the ingredient parts for an inclusive play settling.
It’s far bigger than that.
So now, with the wisdom of our craft encapsulated within the playwork principles and the wealth of writing and discussion at our disposal is the task easier?
Not at all.
We still struggle with the minute observation of each child , fighting to find their playing.
We still wrench with each ‘sibling’ who has had to subsume their everyday playfulness to the overwhelming needs of their disabled brother or sister.
We still have to place ourselves directly in the body and mind of a child without movement or speech, sight or hearing who feels the intrinsic motivation to play and discover, with them, how we can make that happen it happen, outside of their heads.
We have to deal with the emotional tsunami of the projection of the playing of the child upon us. This is even more acute when playing with disabled children because, very often, play would not happen without us.
Sinasson says that we prefer to make ourselves stupid by choosing to believe that disabled people do not have emotional intelligence, than dealing with the pain of comprehending that they do.
We used to get angry or drink it into submission or live fast or weep. Now we can understand the whole process, because we have our theory to give voice to it, just as we give voice to the playing of the children by validating it with our serious attention.
We should not allow ‘The Man’ or the sweet/gorgon woman to adulterate our inclusive play.
We are not doing this for health or educational reasons, for every child to matter. We are not doing it because when children play together they experience relationships beyond difference or because the Disability Discrimination Act tells us we have to.
All of these things are and interesting by-products.
We are doing it because children need to play and they depend, in this instance, on us to do it.
Here is Mohammed.
He could not play in a bent metal playground.
Some of you may have met him before.
He cannot see or hear or move without support.
He does not speak.
His muscle tone in his back tell us what is good or bad for him.
Try it out.
You can do that too.
He just needed a good artisan, a sound observer and reflective analytical playworker to say..
‘Look, feel, see , hear, intuit with all that you have, he likes Tamla Motown.
He is dancing to his own songline.’
Copyright Penny Wilson. February 2008