May 012020

Screen Playing.

Playkx was designed as a play offer in the Kings Cross development area that was not a built play environment. Instead of timber or steel structures there is a team of experienced and skilled Playworkers and a vast collection of loose parts, playthings to be used in any way that children need. There are dressing up clothes, masks nets, ropes fabrics, blocks, animal creatures, artificial plants and flowers, all of which can be used for dressing up, the construction of a den, sociodramatic playing of the creation of wild and wonderful fantasy worlds. Nothing is fixed. Everything is flexible.

We were quite careful in those days of another age, to clean and wash and launder and disinfect on a regular basis. The whole-head pigeon mask could be worn by 20 or 30 people a day. No body batted an eyelid. The Imagination Playground blocks were chewed by many teething people, handled by hundreds of children and adults from families from all over the world who had never met before and never would again. We cuddled and tickled and tagged and lifted up and swung around children…. these are things of a faraway time. How unthinkable they seem now.

We counted our visitors, adults and children alike.
Each day our numbers increased. In the winter, when we had access to a large covered space, our highest head count was about 650 people a day.
Outdoors in the parks, numbers were harder to gauge. Families spent the day, often when they expected to visit for only 20 minutes or so. They would bring picnics and birthday parties and meet up with friends and the grown ups would behave as if they were beside the sea, lounging back, relaxing together and keeping an eye on the children as they got on with their own playing.

We made a point of saying hello to the adults and making sure everyone had enough water, watching their playing children with them, listening to them marvelling at the unfolding play. Very often they hadn’t stepped back to watch this before. It was an easy step, which they made themselves, to an understanding that what they were seeing was important and seemed magical and that if they as adults interfered with it, the spell could easily be broken. So yes. We counted both children and adults in our numbers. When we gave out stickers, we gave them also to grown ups … ‘after all the children wouldn’t be here without you!’

The adults became the advocates for the free playing of their children…. that’s how you build change.

Unlike a great many play projects, our funder agreed to pay us for our work to continue throughout the period of isolation. The deal was that we continue to provide a play experience and some online resource, which, just like our play sessions, would be free to use and ‘have the same crazy flavour as the PlayKX we have come to know.’
This was far from being a hardship to us. In fact I suspect that it has proved to be not only a financial lifeline, but a sanity clause.

So within days of the closing of our solid world play provision PlayKX went live with a zoom presence. It was, I suppose, an obvious solution. We have 5k Instagram supporters, most of whom are families who have used our play times. A fair percentage of those families are regular visitors, who live or work in the King’s Cross area. Most others visit us from around London. Some from much further afield.

Somehow we ended up being slightly ahead of the game and had worked out that the the changes that were coming were going to turn our Playworld upside down. We had also managed to work out a few ways to continue. Some of our plans fell by the wayside, some may be used in later phases of our life with isolation. However we spent a few days working out how to use this new Zoom thing, and were ready to start offering online play sessions without missing a single scheduled time slot for our project delivery. We were seamless.
So we sat, like swans, trying to reinvent the way in which we delivered our Playwork. Calm and carefree on the surface, head and shoulders serene and elegant, gliding like the proverbial swan, with the frantic panic and uncertainty out of the sight of the camera.

We have limited technology in our homes, working from iPads or lap tops, the bigger gatherings possible through Zoom and other platforms, were beyond us at first, and to be honest, being limited to nine busy play filled windows on a screen was challenging enough. It is surprisingly exhausting.

We agreed on some basic safeguarding measures. Participation to a play session is by parental request and booking through messages on our Instagram account. Then individual invitations are sent to those parents. No one can join a play session without an invitation, unless we are hacked. In case of this happening the host closes down the whole session immediately.
We sometimes message parents to check in that everything is ok after session if the child seemed out of sorts, or to tell them how brilliant … or to say Thank You.

We hide anything in our homes that can identify our location or personal things we do not want to share. We advise parents to be mindful of this too.

Parents are given a few hints about how to make it easier for the child to participate. (Put your child’s name in the tag in the bottom corner of the screen so we all know who we are playing alongside. Don’t have private phone conversations during the Zoom call. Don’t have music playing as it is distracting to the sound balance and priorities for quieter children’s play. Try not to urge the child to play, let them watch and they can grow into it if they choose.

We make sure that we have a 10 minute, 5 minute and 2 minute countdown to the end of the session and a clear and deliberate greeting and leave taking wave. A small ritual, but it helps.

We agreed that the online work would be grounded in the Playwork Principles, of course. But children were bemused by seeing familiar faces stuttering and freezing in separate little boxes like so many Max Headrooms, and so, in truth were we. We had to devise new ways of presenting play to enable us all to get beyond the screen.
It was obvious that we needed to be more obvious, a more exaggerated version of our usual playing selves. Yet it was also clear that less is more. The cartoon exaggerations that are needed to communicate to children on screens that faulter and sound that is delayed, can be overwhelming and crudely crafted, lending even the most accomplished and subtle of Playwork practitioners the gaucherie of a 70s Saturday morning children’s TV host.

We thought about muting participant screens, but the ability to unmute by the children and the process that they would have to go through to recognise that they wanted to make a deliberate spoken contribution seemed untenable. Instead we prefer to play almost silently ourselves responding to cues.

We needed to think very carefully about our personal backdrop, about camera angles, how we used sound and movement, our scale close to and away from the screen, how we could use the loose parts we had at our disposal to respond to, and offer, play cues. Just as we would in our previous play settings we take a cue or part of the environment and incorporate it into play. When the screen stops moving we maybe follow this up by playing that we are frozen ourselves for a second or so, like ‘grandmothers footsteps’. If a child wants to go into space, we can judder the screens during take off and roll and twist them or turn upside down when we become weightless.

One boy started a session by telling us he had invented a machine with two buttons, one makes things bigger and the other one makes things smaller. We found that this could be true if we moved away from our cameras or pushed our faces close to them. He could control this.

Sometimes it is easier for children to play when our faces are flat on to the screen like the traditional newsreader talking head. Sometimes it is easier to use an external camera and have a profile shot of Playworker faces, it can feel both intense and exhausting to have a huge face peering at you as you play.
It may be fun for an agile Playworker to do handstands or have their feet on view on screen. Frequently this will be in response to an acrobatic display from a child. Though sometimes it will not be. Animals (toys) objects and faces can turn sideways or dangle upside down. Again with an external camera Playworkers and children can be upside down for an entire session.
Other children enjoy a camera turned on the screen so that all of the players can be seen at once repeating into infinity. You can log in from more than once device and have multiple versions of your playing self, turning the sound off prevents the sci fi sound effects cause by the looping of microphones, or you can play with this eerie echoing.
Jake is a musician and can make lovely twangling noises on keyboards or guitar the children sometimes just enjoy the sound but on other days we make beautiful music from many homes, it sounds randomly ethereal.

We just discovered that Hide and Seek lends itself surprisingly well to this medium, (just make sure that one person is nominated to Seek, otherwise, just as in the solid world, it can become tedious.)

Some play sessions are run with one Playworker. These tend to be calmer quieter times and are great for children who don’t care to be too rambunctious. Most of our play times are run by a three person team. We have worked out that it is good to have one Playworker in narrator mode, bringing in play cues and making links between the players verbally. Another Playworker will do this same work visually and the third will keep a quiet watch being calm and keeping a still peaceful window in the screen which seems to help keep things grounded.

From a practical point of view, we find it more important than ever to have a reflective practice time before and after the face to face work. In exactly the same way as would happen in an adventure play setting or a busy play session. Every one sees different things and there is a huge need to compare notes and learn to hone our craft with the benefit of hindsight.

Sessions run for 40 minutes, initially this was because it was the length of a free zoom meeting, but it turns out that this is just the right length of time for adults and children to be able to focus. Any shorter and the ending feels abrupt. And longer and it peters out uncomfortably.

We are experimenting with themes at the moment, running fairly loose topics like Space, Magic and Pirates which can go almost anywhere that the children want, or can be ignored or abandoned easily. It seems to be helpful to families preparing for these sessions to have props and ideas and stories to hand. These are frequently very improvised but could not be more successful if they had been the most expensive bespoke pieces of kit in the world. The Playwork team learned a lot from observing this. In our anxiety and performance nerviness we had had a tendency to over prepare some quite lavish back drops and supplies of loose parts. We soon decided that this was way to heavily interventionist and went back to things being a bit rubbish and homemade and delightfully improvised.

It soon became obvious that with the right support children quickly saw each other playing in their own homes and picked up on what the others were doing, the things they were playing with, or the gist of their play using household objects, rushing away to find their translation of the loose part to join in the experience together. So on our very first play session all of the children had found a blue block of some sort to show us. (Many of the families nockname the project as The Blue Blocks because of the Imagination Playground Blocks we use.)

My cat comes and sits in front of the screen, and within seconds children are holding their own cats, usually soft toys…. but not always.
Dens spring out of nothing, rockets or boats transform from settees. Children crawl in and out of identical laundry baskets in homes miles away. They make each other laugh. We pour cups of tea from real or imagined empty tea pots in to real or imagined cups through our computers. We throw pom-poms or ballooons to each other, eat snacks and sumptuous invisible banquets. We fall asleep and wake each other up scare each other or tickle, blow kisses, find butterfly wings to wear, research what a gekko looks like from our bookshelves for someone who absolutely needs to know it at that very moment. We can all be rabbits. We can talk about cheering together on Thursday evenings. We can listen as a soft toy whispers into the screen that they wish that they could go out to the playground.

Whilst some of the play we see is concerned with demonstrating an inventory of possessions or taking control by becoming Elsa from Frozen or becoming a creature with magical powers, most of the play narratives are about escaping, into space, onto a ship or a train, about children making their own worlds so that they can make it all right again. Miniature townscapes, dens or houses that can be as they should be, or as they were before. They are making their own Narnian gateways for us all to travel into other worlds where we can play together again.

At the end of a long days boat building and fishing on another planet we had travelled to on a spaceship, we all rested our oars and sails and admired the fishes we had caught and with a minute to go until the end of the session, one child whistfully sang ‘Row Row Row your boat’ to us all. It is probably the only time I have ever found that song heart wrenchingly beautiful.
It is our responsibility as Playworkers to catch these nuances, as fragile as whisps of smoke, and hold them tenderly for an extra second or two. Treasure them and keep them safe, precious and attended to.

We have noticed that the older children who have used our Kings Cross sessions have been far more comfortable in playing with their friends across screens than the younger ones. They are able to process the screen image of a play mate and work out the logistics of this play medium to get to the nub of the matter. With littler children it is a more confusing and rather more tenuous process. Our Zoom users are by and large from this younger age group of our community.
This in itself is strange territory to us.
However it is obvious that the 3-5 year olds frequently have younger siblings or are only children. They are not experiencing play with other children, their contact coming largely through structured on line classes and spotting rainbows in windows during their permitted daily ‘exercise’ to remind them that other children exist.

We feel that this isolation may have a dramatic impact on them both now, and afterwards but we cannot anticipate how it will manifest itself. Similarly we have had children explain the Coronavirus to us. They talk about germs on other people, on things and on themselves. What will this intrusion of this invisible danger alive on bodies, in the air between people, on food and front door handles and toys have upon them? How will this knowledge and the behaviours it necessitates affect the growing of their growing brains?

As a team we have thought a lot about what sort of psychological effects this may have for children. Will they be able to Rough and Tumble together in future, playing with all feelings of pretend and real conflict and resolution that this has always carried in the past , and ingore the real fear of the touch of skin on skin?

One major drawback of playing on Zoom is that children do not get to choose the time that they are ready to play. We have been very aware that until recently most children only used screens to star in a conversation to grandparents or far flung family and friends. Now, in our shared play times, they are expected to move through the screen and into the imagined world within the real world of another home. The intellectual leap is huge and we as Playworkers find it challenging. However if they can have the luxury of support through a reticent start, they will be able to figure it out and get down to the business of play, somehow. The draw of it is so very strong, it seems to override most other agendas. Skilling up parents is vital if children are to reach that goal.

We know that many of the families we play with are in flats with no outdoor space or even balconies. The poor soundproofing of those flats is an issue that crops up time and time again. Jumping with enthusiasm is charming for us to see but can unleash a torrent of abuse from Mr Heckles (F.R.I.E.N.D.S.) downstairs. This eventually gets passed on to the child in some way or another, either from furious and frustrated parents or sweet kindly requests for the child to step lightly. Imagine, you are locked up in your flat in isolation, your world is confusing and the outside is somehow dangerous and you have to keep quiet on top of everything else.
We have to be aware of these agendas too. We avoid games that include jumping about or setting up saucepan percussions.

We have played with children and families we have got to know very well from the solid world of Kings Cross. Other families have built a play relationship with us for the first time. Some of them settled into our oddness immediately, some take a little while to acclimatise and others find it doesn’t suit them.
That’s all ok.
We have played with families in South Africa, Hong Kong, Turkey and California. All of them are facing the same frustrations. We have drawn pictures and maps together, told each other stories. We have caught together the whisps of important moments.
Oh and the children have made all of us cry with laughter. They are witty and clever and funny and considerate of all of us. They seem to know that by being funny they are making things better. It is within their power to do this when they play.

Today, in a quiet moment, T showed me what he had built from his wooden building blocks. He has, or course, prepared a den, but it was the small wooden palace that he wanted to show me.
“ I live high up in the roof. Here are Mummy and Baby and Daddy has a work room down here. There is a garden with a playground right outside and here is Penny’s House, Jake’s House and Sioned’s house. Of course we don’t all really live together in the same place but we do here.”
“T” I said, “ You have just built my Mind Palace.”

Then the others arrived and things got busy.

  •  May 1, 2020
  •   Comments Off on Screen Playing
Mar 222020

The Play Things come from PlayKX play sessions running in the Kings Cross Development area in London. The sessions use only loose parts and Playworkers and families who come along to play. We ensure that the unadulterated play of the child is at the heart of each session. We are ‘instead of a playground’ with a richer offer, that allows flexibility of space and a variety of affordances. PlayKX is managed by Assemble Studio.

For Every Child

We have pulled together a sample list of Play Things which we know work because we use them in our practice at PlayKX play sessions running in the Kings Cross Development area in London. This list is intended purely as a way of sparking ideas and possibilities. We have looked for Play Things that are free or cheap, have as light an environmental footprint as possible, are domestic or bizarre, and are stunningly beautiful or slightly ominous.

These Play Things can be used alone, with other play equipment, and in spaces where the combination of possibilities become deep and rich and umami. You can use them in any situation at all where you want play to take root. Play Things are suggestions to get you thinking or yourself, that encourage you to be informed by your observations of children playing, looking in Charity shops, scrounging about, and, most of all, spending as little as possible so that you can provide a rich playing environment for Every Child.

Dressing up

Dressing Up gets overlooked and undervalued in play settings. It can be adventurous, creative, risky, hilarious, and beautiful. It allows children to explore who they are and how they look.

Choose clothes and accessories of many different sizes, including grown-up stuff of variable uses (skirts can be capes, dresses, or hats). Look for varieties of colour, texture, and style. Find shiny things and dark things, bags and shoes, lengths of luscious fabric. Shop in charity shops for best results, though donations from school and am-dram societies are always a cornucopia of possibilities.


We watch hours and hours of play each week. Some- times we understand the narrative in a child’s playing; sometimes it is a complete mystery to us. That’s absolutely fine, of course. It’s not our job to analyse or interpret what we see.

We see objects and dressing up accessories used in loads of different ways. We don’t always understand that either – why does that toddler always search until they find the deconstructed party pom pom? Why does the golden sequined vest cause such separation anxiety at home time?

Objets Trouvés

Many of our most beloved objects have been things we have unex- pectedly found: strings of Christmas beads wriggle beautifully, ribbon can be used for lots of things, eyeliner can be used to draw on the skin. We have noticed that some objects have an archetypal weight that means they keep getting used to recreate fairy stories, ancient or contemporary myths.

Mirrors are vital. We try to get hold of as many acrylic mirrors as possible. It’s great for all of us to see

ourselves dressed up or doing poses or actions. Without mirrors, the only way that a child can see how they look is via an adult-posed photograph (“smile please”). Mirrors give children the chance to see themselves through their own eyes, front and back, and into infinity.


Play is a great way to be a sociable creature. Left on their own, children playing together don’t seem to be aware of their differences. There is just a broader range of possibilities that comes along with each new player.

Sometimes children need inanimate friends. Since we introduced odd, soft toy creatures to our collection of Play Things, we have found that strong friendships have grown between children and the objects. The children will rush to the chicken with open arms. They will search with infinite care until that have found all four of the badgers. The animals become part of play narratives, role play, fantasy, socio-dramatic play, and all sorts of other things we don’t fully understand because they are private. Sometimes they turn a different sort of object into something to have a conversation with, to care for, or to be cared for by.

Sometimes children just need something for a comedy gold moment – those moments of helpless laughter from a child who has made other children – or even an adult – laugh. Whatever it is that these creatures are doing, we like it. As one beautiful child told me about her creatures, “We talk together. They help me to work things out.”


We were surprised to find that the children are drawn to (and reinvent each play day) a big old tangle of wool. Perhaps because it is in neutral colours and has one long strand sticking out. It is almost always a pull- along object – most often it is a dog to be walked.

Pom-poms are a delightfully funny way to throw things at people. We had lovely white ones over the winter, of course they were often snowballs. Wheels are also important. So are axles. Watching things turn and move can be fascinating. It’s quite fun to have off- centre options

May Be Useful

Old style wooden dolly pegs: good for attaching things to other things, and also turning into other beings.

Wooden picture frames: great prop for playing with self-image, and for the child to ‘frame’ the adult. Wooden spoons: can be a tool for storing and carrying, a conductors baton, a drum stick…

Sticks: while they seem to strike terror into the hearts of adults, children invariably use them safely if you show them how (just as with ropes, scissors, knives, water, and climbing). Sticks are great. They can help wave a fabric flag twirling high in the air, they can be a wand, a hurdle, a fishing rod, and all the other things.


During the cold weather we bought blankets to wrap up in. We bought pillows for pillow fights.

Almost always we found that these had been snuggled up into little dens to make bedrooms. These were used by children and objects to take real or pretend naps or just make an excuse for comfy restful times.

Quiet options are always massively important options in play settings. The contrast between high energy play and sweetly soft times is important. And every child has different play preferences at different times.


A gripe with outdoor fixed-play of bent metals is that they are nothing more than a kiddie gym and don’t have affordances for the sorts of brilliant playing we see happening when Play Things are available. The same can be said for some large scale ‘loose parts.’ Used in isolation they are an amazing offer. Used with Play Things a whole new world of stuff becomes possible.

We could work with cardboard boxes, butter knives, and tape all the time. These things never fail.

Deliberately Sourced Stuff

Here are a few of our favourite things:

Coffee sacks: we play with them and use them for storage.

Cable spools: because of wheels and balancing and vases, etc.

Rope and string: two very different things, both absolutely wonderful.

Plastic plant pots: you can put things in them, including your bums or your heads. Mostly they are worn as ‘hearing hats’ because they look silly and change the sound of everything around you.

Keep Your Eyes Open for:

Lengths of drainpipe: for rolling things down, making bridges, supporting beams, or water if there is some nearby.

Buckets: they are great to collect things in and carry around. Adult-sized buckets are a little bit unwieldy and heavy for a child, which is a positive thing. It makes them more appealing. Also, you may want to find some washing line to tie to the handle so that it can be dragged along.

Robust wind-up torches (flashlights): for exploring dens and light through fabric.

Building blocks: made with up-cycled containers, filled to a satisfying – but not crushing – weight with sand (or whatever) and sealed with duct tape.

Making the Sea

In the park where we play there is a constant breeze. This is one of the very best Play Things that we have access to.

Sometimes we tie a huge tarpaulin between two sturdy trees. (We protect the bark of the trees from damage from the rope.) Depending on how we tie it the tarpaulin can be a rippling pool or a surf wave that you can lean into. It can also be a big den or tent shared by families or big groups of children. The noise it makes is amazing.

Be aware that if the winds get strong, the tarp can pick little people up and send them flying, or whip them with flapping edges. An adult nearby is the best way to support this.

Catching the Breeze

Purchasing a pre-used parachute is a good investment. They are designed to do spectacular and powerful things. Again, children will need to have an adult around while they use this.

Children seem to be very used to parachutes, but the ones they have at schools are single thickness and circular. The children and adults will stand around and flap them up and down.

By comparison a heavier parachute is a wild and untamed Beastie when there is a breeze. It is the inside of the belly of a whale, a wall of water, the sky falling in, then rising again. It teases and rages and dances and shelters. It makes small people laugh and stare in awe.

Scaffolding Net

This is the netting that is draped over the outside of buildings when work is being carried out. It comes in many different colours, in huge long rolls. It is strong and delicately translucent and, it is cheap.

When we pack the net away we daisy chain it, like a crochet chain, so that it is fun to pull apart at the next session. The children watch with incredulity as the net expands and expands and becomes a giant filling the space beyond anything they had expected. It can be used to make hammocks, mazes, paths, or a giant thing that follows you or that you can be pulled along on top of.

Strong Stretchy Stuff

In the days when we worked on an adventure play- ground, we were always looking for cheap ways to adapt what we had into what we needed. We started to use Lycra to make swings and hammocks that held onto children who couldn’t hold on to the swings. Tied be- tween trees (higher up than you would expect) it is an adventure to get into and out of. It bounces and swings and holds you close. It is restful and exciting. We have never stopped using Lycra. It is great fun in large quantities.


I have seen children playing with plastic objects on plastic ground. Often the plastic is designed to look like something from the natural world. Fake wood Wendy houses, fake grown-up dress-up clothes and hats, fake grass. Why do we think it’s ok to lie so blatantly to children, and why do we find it so hard to notice that this lie is being perpetrated?

Find as many textures as you can. We use fake fur out of preference but have had real fur donated to us and some children love the touch of it. Velvet is a luxury with a weighty lavish feeling. Silks and satins are a sensual delight as they slip like water around you. Linens and cottons are cool and refreshing. Use as much variety as possible.

Breathtaking Beauty

To many children a strong element in play is an aesthetic one. I can’t justify this with any formal research, but it was true for me, for many adults I have spoken to, and is evident in what I see in playing children. It is so frequently overlooked in play settings. Somehow mess and scrappiness are given priority over the beautiful and breathtaking.

We have a blue piece of sequined fabric that sends out shards of light. It is a royal cloak, a merperson tail, an ice dress. It is something that children search out upon their arrival, remembering it from last time.

It helps adults warm to the Play Things when they are beautiful, but it is the children who absorb that beauty into their playing.

Something Like Sweet Wrappers

Colour. Vivid, undiluted, dense or translucent colour. A way to colour with light. A thing to give shape to the wind as it flies and twirls. I grew up playing with sheets drying on a washing line in the back garden. Since children seldom get to do that now how do they see what the wind does? How do they feel that?

How does it feel to grab a long length of organza and wrap it around you, or tie it to a long stick and twirl it in the sky? Drape the frame of a den with overlapping colours. Make jellyfish colour bubbles over hot air vents.

How does it feel to run your whole body into a long wisp of fabric as it flies to meet you? It’s the perfect illustration of qualia. “I can feel the red.”

  •  March 22, 2020
  •   Comments Off on PlayThings: Loose Parts Play in Good Times and Bad
Mar 192020

Loose parts.

For years We didn’t have a name for the Things.

I worked on an inclusive Adventure Playground. Every year we had to take the whole playground to pieces and make way for the Chelsea Flower Show. The process of dismantling and reassembling the playground took so long that we lost almost three months of play at the most beautiful time of the year.

Eventually, we came to realise that we could manage without the big structures and focus our playing around grassy slopes and overgrown perimeters and sand and water and The Things.

It turned out that as we got better at understanding the role of The Things we saw that they had a much richer and more inclusive offer than the built structures had ever had.

We didn’t buy much. Most of The Things were found or donated. We bought fabric though. All different sorts of fabric.

What we were seeing played out in front of us was The Things used as voices or symbols.
We did our reading and learned from Margaret Lowenfeld about her work with sand trays and objects, Things, loaded with meaning by children who hadn’t yet the linguistic capacity to express themselves in words.
We learned from Winnicott about Transitional Objects and Mirroring and discovered ways to use The Things to triangulate relationships with children diagnosed as being on The Autistic Spectrum. We had conversations through the mirrored slapping of wet sand, the dripping of water or the scrabbling of soil or ripped paper confetti.

We noticed where children liked to play at certain times of day and positioned fluorescent plastic buckets to hang from the bushes so they glowed with the low afternoon river bounced sunshine caught bursting in them, waiting, ripe to be plucked for play by the passing child.

Things became favourite play mates, going on adventures together with a single child or a group. The Thing would be dressed up or be given Things of its own.

The Things would be whatever the children needed them to be in their playing

Years later Playwork adopted the term ‘Loose Parts from an article written by Simon Nicholson. Things now had a jargon and a theory. Soon the world beyond Playwork discovered ‘Loose Parts’ as well and they became big business. Companies started to manufacture wooden ‘open ended’ toys in the shape of people and houses and cars and trees… or blocks… or collections of cotton reels and dolly pegs that you could buy on line. In imitation of Regio Emilio glass beads, pine cones or wood rounds , stored in beautiful woven baskets or waxed wooden bowls started to appear in early years settings and called ‘educational Loose Parts’.

Somehow the stuff of childhood, The Things, had been invaded and colonised by Adult theories and aesthetics and business.

Nicholson’s description of the play behaviours of children was forgotten somewhat… the finding of a seashell or a water shiney pebble of the beach which then become powerful talismans or weapons or magical pockets of noise or dinosaur poo; the finding of beads from a long burst necklace or sequins dropped on tarmac the small objects which catch and hold light and colour and are treasured amongst the pocket fluff, The ‘Precious’ Things all these subtleties and nuances had been swallowed up by ( cynical? willfull?) misinterpretations.

When we began PlayKXr we based our work entirely on the use of Loose Parts and Playworkers.

We knew that with The Things made available to them children would have a rich play experience, much richer than one that could be afforded by a cumbersome built structure that didctates to the children that play should be and will be a physical excersize above all else. A physical playground like a child gym, with little to manipulate to ones own being, instead having to adapt your own body and mind at play to the repertoire laid down by the physicality of the play Structures .

We gathered ropes and pegs and tarpaulins, intensely vibrant and shimmering lengths of organza to take to the breeze like sweet wrappers. We tried to chose Things with a light environmental footprint. We tried to chose Things which adults would see in use and understand how cheap and how never endingly possible….. how anything can be anything.

As time moved on we got bigger and bigger and scoured charity shops for things to dress up in or Things with no apparent purpose that we though may be of interest. A cheap garden urn became a hearing hat, reinvented by every child who picked it up. A tangle of beige wool is always some sort of a pet or a nest or a wig or a monster or a pillow. In the winter we made dozens of pom poms with left over yarn, we thought we would have snowball fights, but they were collected in buckets and fed to them animals’ or carefully pulled apart strand by strand to make worms to feed to the toy hen. Emergency foil blankets are landscapes and cloaks and crowns and den walls and robes and ripped up they are gold or oil or petrol or treasure or just something joyous to throw into the air or knot into butterflies and float like sycamore helicopters.

There is no single preordained use for any Thing. There is no fixed use of any Thing. We do not expect a single outcome or product, but a chattering bubbling stream of possibilities, none of which come from the adult, all of which are within the control of the child. Things can be used to be precious or scary, as a functional building resource or an embellishment.
With two trolleys of Things we roll infinite variety out to play.
Nothing is fixed in purpose or place. The possibilities of our space and place are constantly shifting, waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing creating liminal places of possibility like the sea shore. Children explore what they can do with the stodginess of a blue block, the light as air sheen of organza, the sleek slip of a tarpaulin and the rough hand burning rope.
The Things all move differently, offering play cues to the children through their potential character. A foam noodle can slap the floor and make a huge sharp sound or can be fitted with a curl toed slipper and wobble sedately.

Things, Loose Parts have a reciprocal call and response relationship with children.

They offer themselves to the child as The Thing That Can Be Anything They Need In Their Playing and the child will reinvent themselves,for the first time ever in the whole of their history creating the Hearing Hat, that has been invented for the first time ever a hundred times that morning. In turn the child may see a Thing move or imagine it moving and the Thing will suggest a playing and the two will meet and something new will happen.
Old things happen too. Children will remember the object that had a particular resonance for them, and will seek it out visit after visit in a ritual recapping and episodic play narrative. These Things should be noticed and respected by the adults, without a word to the child. The Thing should just be there for them. (Sometimes. Often times, Things need Playwork help to be in the right place at the right time.) Like the triangulated relationships between Playworkers Things and children diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum, we need, sometimes, to relocate Things so they can be discovered or elevated. Maybe we need to give them a suggestion of movement so that their animation becomes obvious. Sometimes Playworkers will do something obvious, release organza into the breezes of the park, pull a scramble of scaffolding net out to its full length so that it become enormous and tug-of-warable, or wearable as an Egyptian mummie or a caterpillar. But mostly Playworkers need to be invisible and unobtrusive, deferring to the playing relationship between children and Things, which left to their own devices, meld into a self choreographing improvisation within the space.
Like a flowing river, it’s never the same twice.

Margaret Lowenfeld


The Playwork Primer

Simon Nicholson

Bob Hughes .in conversation. See also ‘Evolutionary Playwork and Analytic Reflective Practce ‘ Routledge

Scrap store
Playkx Instagram @playkx

  •  March 19, 2020
  •   Comments Off on Thinking about Loose Parts . For Alliance for Childhood UK newsletter. March 2020
Nov 282019

Unbrashing the Landscape.
How to Rewild Play

1 Chelsea Adventure Playground

It sat in the grounds of the Royal Hospital off the Kings Road and near CheyneWalk, an inclusive site where Children with a huge range of needs their siblings and friends were mostly bussed to us from the less wealthy corners of Kensington and Chelsea

In quieter hours, we opened our doors to other visitors from the several very expensive private schools in the area. These children would be marched in strict crocodile formation to play for half an hour or so.

These half hours were some of the most challenging times that the team worked.

The children had no experience of free play.

Their lives were tightly controlled by the constraints and expectations placed upon them by their backgrounds of wealth and privilege.

This was happening in the 80s.
‘ Eat the Rich ‘ t shirts were in vogue.
Thatcher was in her prime and We as a team were inclined to be fairly angry.

We all wanted to think of ourselves as working class. (In my case this was utter piffle.)

But watching those children play, I felt my heart twist.

They were weighed down by what they had to live up to.

I tried a thought experiment, what if I viewed wealth in terms of a disadvantage a disability. These children were not responsible for the wealth, but they were being groomed to be made responsible for it.

That made it easier for me to empathise.

Every child… this was before the UNCRC.. Every child has the right to play.

What happens if they are pressured to behave like a young gentleman, conduct themselves as a little lady, speak properly, study Latin, not knock over antiques…… where is their playhood?

And do we want these children of wealth to grow up play deprived…. and powerful?
Coz look around. That’s what’s happening.

2 France.

There is a tiny picturesque village at the foot of the Black mountains in the south of France where we have made an occasional home.
We were drawn to this village because through each of the three streets of cantilevered houses runs a rill tumbling and spluttering with ice cold water from the mountains.

Every child visiting the village plays with this water. They dip their fingers or toes in it, plough their bare feet upstream feeling the strength of its flow and watching the movement of the water as it slips around them.
They make and race boats down the current.
They raise the dam on the little reservoir and create a mini tsunami wave down the street then lower the dam quickly and watch the stream almost run dry for a few seconds.

The children who live in the village also play constantly with the water in less tentative ways, sending huge sprays kicked or thrown at each other, frozen for a split second in the intense summer light, like a firework.

The people of the village are beyond tolerant of this.
Because many of them grew up doing the exactly same things as children have done there back through the years. It is second nature..

As adults they use the streams for watering the plants, shaking way the table cloth crumbs, making little dams up and down the street to chill rosé bottles, let the dog drink after a walk or cool their heals after cycling in the mountains.

It’s never the same stream twice but it is a constant presence.

If you sit beside it on a hot day to let it refresh you. You wave to every neighbour doing the same. You nod at the children as they play.

We sit either side of the stream each night and natter. Its voice chips in occasionally.
We begin not to be aware of it it as the days of our visit stretch out, but it’s being there draws us all together. It is so much a part of this community that it is almost unseen, the playing that this water brings to every street.
These streams make the village playable.

If it had been designed into the streets of Malmö, it would be a tourist destination

But when we suggested that the village hold a fête de l’eau, as one of the regions visitor attractions in the summer, there was a great deal of forehead slapping… why haven’t we thought of this before?

Play is like a spring that bubbles up within the child. Almon
Play is a river that runs through us all. Battram

3 A Faith Community.

It nestles in the most achingly beautiful valley, tucked away modestly from the roadand the rush. A home to gentle, peaceful, good and kindly group of people.

They are pretty much self sufficient sharing the labours of the farm and woodland maintenance between them all, from the oldest to the youngest. Children wielding axes to chop firewood. Elders passing on their skills to them.

At every little knot and junction in the footpaths between buildings there is a small evidence of play.
Between the communal dining room and the school houses is a beautiful tree with dipping and swooping branches worked shiney by small feet and hands. Little treasures are laid out in the twigs and on the bare earth beneath the tent of its foliage.

We walked the perimeter of the community through deep ancient untouched woods and old old farmland.
She told me how they loved twilight walks here to watch the badgers.
She told me of the children coming here to play and building their own swings from the trees, daming, fording or bridging the streams, making little places of ritual marked with leaves or twigs or flowers laid in exquisite patterns, mandalas.

“ We don’t disturb these things that they leave behind, but we notice them and pay attention to them. It helps us understand their playing.’

Term has just finished.
Behind the school house is a clearing by a wood with a panorama overlooking the surrounding hills.
Here the community have been gathering loose parts for the children to use during their summer holiday . There are pallets and lengths of timber and planks and tyres and pots and pans, rope, fabric.
The trees are filled with climbing children.
There is running water from a hose, lots of mud and fire when they want it.

Here is everything that you could wish for in an urban play setting with the magnificent addition of free access to the surrounding paradise of the country.

These children are play literate and quietly confident. They paid very sweet attention to the adult in Playworker as he shared his ideas for the summers playing, then subtly changed the flow, like they would divert a little stream, and redirected the playing. They decided that in their play, they wanted to rif on the studies that they had shared as a whole school topic, based around castles and the communities within the castles.

So they recreated a banqueting hall, a pottery, ramparts , water and drainage systems, domestic cooking spaces and other such inventions as they felt were necessary they build this community within a community.
They were independent and strong and inventive.
At the end of the scheduled play time, though the children and I barely noticed it, little knots of parents came to gather and watch what they had been doing. They stood respectfully observing the playing, and these quiet observations continued as they headed off for their shared evening meal.

I asked my host, “Why do you place play at the heart of the community as you do? That is so unusual. I have never encountered it before.”
“Well” she replied ” We are a community that is built upon our faith in a creator God. We see play as a beautiful and important part of living a creative life in his image.”

4 Pogo Park
The first time I visited the Elm Street Play Lot I saw no play traces.

I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
I felt upon me from every direction.
Toody said that the houses around the tired and almost disused park were used for drugs and gun dealing. The crime rates in this ‘’Iron Triangle’ had recently been amongst the highest in the United States of America.

It is only a small triangle, defined by railway tracks and nestled in the shadow of the Chevron oil refinery. Pollution and leaks from Chevron have been dramatic.
The soil is highly polluted.
(Don’t make tea out of the wild fennel that comforts you with its aniseed smell as you brush past it.)
There is nowhere to buy fresh food and no money to buy it with.
But the cornucopias of the farmers markets in Berkeley are only a 15 minute drive. Chez Pannisse and The Edible Schoolyard are only a life chance away.

The community of Richmond are almost all people of colour African Americans or of latinex?origin.

They are the generations that remained after the Rosie The Riveter recruitment drive during World War Two called for called men and women from all corners of the USA to come and build war ships. And they came, escaping from Jim Crow Laws, escaping from poverty and persecution. And after the war, they stayed, not wishing to return home, unsurprisingly enough.

Years passed and guns and drugs and deliberately prejudicial policies happened and the community clenched and hardened itself against the world.

Right in the middle of this triangle Toody began to reclaim the park and support the community to re-see itself, starting with play and always, always holding it at the heart of the changes.

Her strategic thinking was flawless.
The dealing houses were bought up and rented out to families.
The park was re-designed to be fit for purpose.
Play pieces were designed and built by the children, teens and adults, all acquiring new skills together.
The neighbourhood staffed the park, deciding on rules that would enhance the playing of their children.
A second park was established, again on a well trodden route through the neighbourhood.
The same process.
Community build, Community staff.
Another project is on track to build a Yellow a Brick Road a playable safe route through the triangle to reach the primary school.
Play will take priority over cars.

Elm Street Play Lot is now lit up with fairy lights in the evenings.
The curtains twitch if any one unknown approaches, but now you are likely to get a smile or a wave.
During the daytime in holidays and weekends and after schools, children and families from round about will spend time there together.

There is food. (There must always be An Abundance Toody says.)
There is kindness and tolerance here.
Disapproval, when appropriate, is signalled with kissed teeth and A Look.
Subtle discipline, but acceptable boundaries are important here.
The children are absorbed in play, the parents are zumbaing away with great style and energy.

Little stories and big sagas are aired here.

A fire killing a family,. A boy volunteer on the playground shot dead at its gates.
Disclosures of abuse.
Tears shed over childhoods without childhood….
these things can seep out now because they can be safely held; by the neighbours; By the railings around the playspace; By the old house that sits in the Play Lot; By referrals to counselling services and welfare; By the community based policing which means that the children are growing up waving to the police who now take care of them in a Mary Poppins rather than a Sporanos way.

This place now changed.
It hold it’s head up.
It is ferocious enough and gentle enough to support play for its children, for itself.
It has Abundance.
Turns out Rosie the Rivetter was right about the people of the Iron Triangle when she said, ‘We can do it.’

5 Baltimore.

I’d watched The Wire.
I couldn’t watch too much at once though.
The naked cynicism and bald prejudice of every aspect of life within the systems of the city made me feel nauseous and trapped.
I could imagine no way for the characters to escape.
No way to be safe and live with pride and dignity and freedom.
No way to live actually.
Occasionally I found myself focussing on the acting and scripts and production values to give myself respite. And I was just watching TV

Now here I was driving through the streets of Baltimore thinking about how what I had seen on the screen would impact on the children I was going to meet.
I had to ask the inevitable question.
“ How do people round here feel about the representation of Baltimore in The Wire?”
Ben has a slow soft way of speaking.
He considers a lot chosing his words with care.
“Well I would say that we encourage people to watch The Wire so that they understand what is going on here.
In every aspect of life here,
every series,
right on the mark.”

Oh fuck. Oh fuck. oh fuck.
I wanted him to say it was an over dramatisation. Exaggerated.

Ben and Courtney were taking me on a tour of the neighbourhoods. We were driving through projects and I kept expecting to see that settee on the grass.

People were hanging round on street corners.

There were heart wrenching murals on walls, making beautiful eloquent calls for peace and justice. Memorialising young men shot on the streets, shot by police, children and mothers shot in playgrounds.

The wood frame houses were crumbling and rotting into evil mockeries of flat packs next to homes, almost more heartbreaking, with makeshift tubs of flowers and faded trim little easy chairs on the scrubbed clean front porch.

Abruptly our car turned off the main road and I found myself in an English village with a duck pond and a little stone bridge with Enid blyton style houses and shiney shiney cars carefully and neatly parked.
The world here was a million miles away from the crumbling homes, the tired shop fronts, the pleading murals and the knots of guys hanging round on corners.
A million miles? Actually a couple of hundred yards.

I am used to a more speckled life of London

But here I was like Alice walking through looking glass land.
With no warning I found myself moving from a black square to a white square at a single stride.

And I was conflicted.
I couldn’t decide which was The Good Place and which The Bad Place.

It’s what I had read about. It’s what I was expecting, the snap finger change from poverty to wealth, private police for safety, to police as a threat, white and black, Privilege and injustice.

I wasn’t prepared for how it felt though.

Courtney and Ben had started a drop in play project in the grounds of a community school on the edges of a ‘white area’ in Baltimore because they noticed that black children were using the open grounds of their nursery as a safe place to hang out on their way home from school. They would stop to play on the little tyre swing hanging from a tree by a slope or mess around on the grass because they could. They were in a white square. The neighbourhood might be racist, but it was safer to hang around here than it was where they had come from or where they were going to.

They made a play sanctuary.
The children, some of them well into their teens, seized the opportunity.

I was there to talk with the team about Playwork.
So I asked about their play memories.
One guy told me about his childhood.

“I worked really really hard to stay safe and clean and keep to the right streets.
But you have to know the word on the streets to know where is safe and where isn’t.
A friend of mine, I said Goodnight to him one evening and he was dead minutes later. It’s not safe. If you are a black kid , you are a suspect. If you’re a black kid the perception is you must be using or dealing or carrying a gun. You must be guilty.

And you have to fit in. There is serious pressure on you from your peers too. There are always folks around who try to tempt you do do a little dealing …
So complicated to stay out of trouble.
No I didn’t play out on the streets or anywhere else for that matter.’

That was me told.
My play memories exercise usually works a treat.
Not here.

I felt a little like Gulliver having the logic and etiquette of a strange new world explained to him

If parents were worried about you playing out, they weren’t being helicopter parents, they were trying to protect you from death

If children were discouraged from playing out it was because the stakes were too high

There was no freedom of movement, no right to roam or hang out for these children.
No free play, no one to even think about how the lack of play would affect the rest of their lives. The primary concern was that children should be able to have the rest of their lives, for many years to come.

In the sanctuary of Free For All Baltimore, children can play.
In Abundance.
There is food and thoughtfulness and kindness, dignity and as much safety as possible.
Like That Bit in Aliens, Ben and Courtney and people who work along side them have climbed into their armoured exoskeleton and are standing over the children while they play, protecting them from the corruption and the dirt that owns their streets and neighbourhoods.

They have started something.
As Marjory Allen said, ‘The work I have chosen to do will never be finished.
And in the words of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley
“uh oh…. I made a clean spot here. Now I’ve done it. Guess I’ll just have to do the whole thing……

6 Mile End

Eric Street is one of those corners of London where generations of families have lived since before the postwar reconstruction of the east end.
Communities birthed by the Nuns of Nonatus House, in the terraced houses that were considered sub par, and are now massively desirable. They were moved neighbour by neighbour into new glimmering tower blocks and low rise flats. Little individual garden or yard space was replaced by larger communal green areas, or slabby stretches of paving and the cars began to rule the streets.

The Play Association TowerHamlets learned that this delightfully overlooked, shitty forgotten little corner of Mile End was to be redeveloped, and started to work with with the social landlord on ways to regenerate open spaces and the community alongside the major building works.

It’s a long story, but the gist of it goes like this.

At this time a walk down Eric Street was bleak and far from enjoyable. There was scant greenery in sight.
It looked a little like a monochrome perspective drawing with straight lines everywhere.
The blossoming cherries, Virginia creeper and false acacias that had marked out in splats of glorious colour the seasons in Mile End, as surely as a Christmas wreath, had all been removed.
Seasonal variation was now dry grey or wet grey.

The odd patches of grass that remained were enclosed by locked railings, mowed bald, and used as dog toilets. True to the broken window theory, a place that had been a nifty little neighbourhood, became a most excellent setting for drugs dealing and attendant violence with machetes, guns and cars to run people over.

It had become an unpleasant experience, keep your head down and scurry through it quickly. The dental appointment of shortcuts.

The community shut itself in, drew the curtains and turned the telly up. Only going out when they had to.

We secured a £20k grant to build a natural playground from Kerygold, and identified a buzz cut area of fouled grass that we could transform.
The space was on a well used short cut, it was on many doorsteps

Tania, a local resident and force of nature with a genius for common sense and bold kindly speaking out was our hero. She knew everyone, talked to everyone, and pushed me in the small of the back in the right directions.

We had two months to make this transformation, so we acted super quickly, flying in the face of the slow play movement which was our prefered style.

We ran a play sesssion with lots of loose parts and sand and water, fabrics and stuff, and had Playworkers there both to support the children and encourage the adults to watch and see what their kids were actually doing. We made everything about this consultation as home made as possible, we wanted to have the community feel they could look at our rubbishy drawings and feel that they could do just as well.

We asked them about their own play memories, rekindling the excitement and variety of things they had done and feelings they had had.

Eric Street had lost play recently enough to be profoundly nostalgic about it. They mourned it’s passing. Like being away from home, they were play sick, they missed it. And they were on side with this project.

We told them what the budget was and how much play equipment cost and showed them alternatives that would support the children to play in ways that were not dictated by expensive tangles of bent metal. They liked that.

The quick turnaround time created a flurry of activity and interest and unlike the other laborious consultations of the last few years, which had as yet born no fruit and had wasted a playhood in dithering, this time the community could see the stuff they had asked for taking shape every day in front of their doors and their eyes.

There was also a grassroots environmental agenda at work. “We don’t see no birds or bees no more. We want a Bee Road down Eric Street.”

So we created what they asked for, a fruiting plum tree attracted a bird within moments of being planted, there were hills to roll down and climb up, water to play with, although the supply was really only for use in the growing beds in the space beside the gate.
There was native species planting that offered pollen and berries and herbs and flowers to pick and eat and play with. A great change from the municipal mahonia and pyracantha which hurt you and put you off nature.

There were seats and tables and logs to climb and scramble over and a life sized wooden cow, which had been included in the proposed plans only as a stupid thing which every one could reject, but which was universally loved.

This was a playable space, it was somewhere shared and pleasant.
A Playground would have remained largely unused, but this garden had something for everyone. (Except the drugs dealers who were frightened away by the inclusion of the fairy lights in the plum tree. The residents started leaving their curtains open so they could enjoy the twinkling. There was something of of Jane Jacobs at work here, the power of natural surveilance.)

We knew that for children to have a decent play experience, it would have to be enticing for everyone. Everyone would have to feel welcomed and welcoming.

This tiny garden changed the whole of the open space and community development on the estate. It did it by maintaining a focus on play and understanding that the community longed for play, they wanted to rewild it.
The street naturally became a play Street with drivers defering to children chalking in the car parks and little children running up and down the pavements in fancy dress without an adult in sight, but being watched from every kitchen window along the street. And there are birds and bees and outward facing people, and there was a cow, really truly, there was….

7 playkx

The development area of Kings Cross has cost about £4bn and it looks like it.

It’s home to Google and every other big prestigious, snazzy, high class bit of stuff you can imagine.
The old yards designed as trains sheds or fuel or goods houses, have been exfoliated and buffed and slicked and now have a post industrial, faux-shabby, chic.

The Heatherwick roof spanning the two wings of Coal Drops Yard, looks like some gigantic stone bird, a Roc, that has, in an achingly cool act of casual opportunism, delicately settled to roost.
The developer asked Assemble Studio to build a fixed playground in the largest of open spaces on the site.

Assemble, who some would consider to out-cool a Heatherwick roof, looked at the space and said, No.
They pointed out that a playground is actually a very poor play offer. That it is used by a small demographic for a small amount of time and that it fills up empty space which otherwise could be used for a huge variety of purposes by a huge number of people.

By way of an alternative they suggested employing a team of Playworkers and loose parts with a Playwork presence on site for the majority of each week.
The developer agreed.
This was a bold decision that would never have happened in this place with a voluntary sector play organisation. But being under the aegis of Assemble lent the right credentials and kudos enough to be acceptable.

That’s how Playkx began.

We provided fre Free play, open to everyone for a full day for six days a week for the first six months, then this was halved.
Still three full days is a lot of playing time… glass half full.

We wanted to look beautiful.
We wanted a flexible, adaptable, universally accessible play kit and a ferocious aesthetic and wit.
We wanted a glorious and robust play offer for children that would attract and please the eye of their parents, be photogenic and hold its own with Heatherwick et al.
We wanted a team of experienced, committed and passionate Playworkers working to a play ethos supported by the Playwork Principles.

Our model needed a clear fresh focus.

Most of us had worked in adventure playgrounds where parents were often excluded or made unwelcome. Yet Playworkers on these sites constantly moaned about how nobody understood them or the importance of play… talk about shooting your self in the foot.

There are are, generally speaking, only three categories of people who give a dam about play and actively seek it out.
One is Playworkers, obviously.
Two is children, even more obviously.
And three is parents of young children who see for themselves the wonders that happen during their child’s playing. This is glaringly obvious.

We decided to welcome the adults every bit as much as we welcome and respect the children.
We chat with them so they can ask all the questions that they need to; so they know that it’s ok just to watch and enjoy the playing, dipping in and out of it as needed, understanding how important it is to their childhood have control of what they are up to, remembering their own playing and finding ways to get as much of it into their child’s life as possible.

Here in King’s Cross, we play with children of the rich and famous, the wealthy, the well off, the comfortable, the ok, the budgeting, the struggling and those who are at their wits end, all at the same time.
We have children of families from families across the world, we have people of many faiths and of none, of a range abilities, different orientations and identifications.
This is the most diverse community that we have ever worked with.

We dot our playing in many locations around the development.
We work wherever people are.
The parents, the children and the Playworkers occupy space in this privatly owned place that is so perfect that it looks like an architects model. We animate it together.
We have filled up parks in the summer with picnicking, partying lingerers; explored the jewel box world of mirrors in Gasholderpark; filled to overflowing the east wing of Coal Drops Yard (though we did have a problem with a Rapunzel plait lowered over the balcony which unfortunately dangled in front of the Paul Smith shop frontage. )
We have played in front of an exhibition of covers from The Face magazine, by the fountains of a paved square and alongside a perfectly manicured and equisitely manufactured hand-made craft and artisanal food market.

In front of Central St Martins, the playing of the children mingles with the flocks of exotic-bird-like fashion students, the studious chin stroking spacial practices students, the quirky performance artists and the somewhat intense fine artists.

They all are excited by what the children are doing and see parallels their own practice. Especially interesting are the architecture students who have been given a starter project to design a playground.
They want to understand how play works

To each of them we ask,
“Where do you think your creativity comes from?
Children have the genius of play which is the root of creativity.
What follows in adult life is a sequel to that playing.
It was because of your own genius childhood playing that you are here.
Read Playwork theory. Observe and reflect.
And consider how the structure of the whole of the built environment impacts upon children. Consider for a moment why you don’t see children playing in public places all the time. Why is this project so very unusual?

We will be working with the Central Saint Martins Lethaby Gallery on their Turner prize winners retrospective starting tomorrow.

We will be playing beside the gallery and giving out Turnip prizes to every child who wants one. Photos and film of this playing will be shared by the Lethaby Gallery

The work that will be in Turner Prize exhibition is the sequel to what those amazing artists did as playing children.

And Assemble, as their contribution, are screening their film, The Voice of Children and a new piece of footage of us playing in the park in the summer.

So remember,
Every child, has the right to play.
A playable environment is a better than a zoned area of play equipment.
Take play to where people are
Support all adults to support play
Play builds bridges, it is social glue.
Remember to boldly advocate for play,
To claim the time and space for it because children cannot do that for themselves

Remember that Play is where creativity comes from.
Without it, the landscape is bleak and grey and all straight lines.

  •  November 28, 2019
  •   Comments Off on Unbrashing the Landscape. Presentation for ‘Towards the Child Friendly City’ Bristol. November 27-29 2019
Aug 142019

I had borrowed some money from my Mum and bought tickets, a hotel room and a      place at the IPA USA conference in Baltimore in the early years of the 2000s. I don’t remember now why I had felt the need to do this, but I do recall that it was slightly cheaper to attend the conference if I were to present a workshop. So I sat down to write up stories from the Inclusive Adventure Playgrounds that I was running in London, thinking that these might make for a pleasingly interesting presentation.

I suppose that I had been naively thinking that The United States of America would be ahead of the curve when it came to play provision and that I might hear new and exciting thoughts and ideas.

What I actually learned was the under the Presidency of Bush the state of play was appalling .

There was little or no recess time in schools for children and the pressures of ‘No Child Held Back’ policies had led to adults organising educational or sports activities in the out of school hours that had traditionally been used for children’s free play.

Most of the stories I had prepared for the workshop talked about the play deprivation that we had seen our work in London playing for children with multiple and profound disabilities, their siblings and friends. These stories also showed the huge impact the introduction of freely chosen child led play had on the lives of these children.

In short the stories that I had thought would be mildly entertaining to an American audience took on a totally different quality.

Stories of play from a Playwork perspective were new to the ears of my audience.

At the end of my workshop I was approached by Joan. ‘I want to talk to you’ she said.

And my life changed.

She quizzed me about Playwork, about inclusive Playwork, about organisational structures supporting play in the UK, about funding and training.

We swapped contact details.

She said, ‘I will find a way to get you over here to do some work.’

I was flattered but thought little of it.

But I didn’t know Joan then.

Within months she had identified a district in Chicago, Franklin Park Parks district along with funding to cover my expenses and off we went on our first adventure.

I spent ages writing presentations and preparing training.

The presentations stayed, but the training had to be entirely re-thought and ad- libbed as the wonderful team, employed by Joe Modrich, realised what was missing from the life of their parks.

The experience was moving for all of us as the team realised that they had forgotten what free play was, and reached back into their memories to recover the spirit of what was lost.

Play ceased to be a Four Letter Word, and became the single most important goal for the parks team.

Joan and Ed (Miller) and I were stunned, shocked maybe, by what we had seen happen. We sat in a curry house in Oak Park and tried to work out what came next…. because none of use doubted that there would be a next. The intimacy and profound experiences that we had shared with this beautiful team had shown us all that change was not only possible but yearned after. We learned what we needed to do from them.

There was no squeezing back of the toothpaste into the tube. Joan had seen a way forward to ‘Rekindle Play’ and there was no looking back.

At this point I should mention some of the talents unique to Joan that are less well known than her tenacity, seeringly intelligent strategical nouse, phenomenal networking, unnerving instincts and doggéd hard work.

1 She could always find the parking space she needed.

2 She always found the best places to eat, that were never stupidly expensive, just exquisite.

3 She always made sure we had fun on our many road trips.

4 Fortuitous coincidences happened to her so frequently that she almost, but never quite, took them for granted.

So we found Frank Lloyd Wright Houses in Oak Park, and on almost every trip thereafter a theme of Frank Lloyd Wright visits and superb dining experiences became a subplot to our work and gave gracious backdrops to our precious reflective practice.

We spent an inspirational weekend delivering workshops at Sarah Lawrence. It was here

we met Nancy Barthold who was in charge of playgrounds and rec staff in the New York with the Parks Department. Together we introduced the idea of child led Free Play using loose parts as a viable alternative to highly structured adult led activities in all on the NY Parks. We presented our thoughts and plans at The Arsenal with Adrian Benepe adding his support (and showing us his collection of Sponge Bob Square Pants memorabilia. )

We worked with Rockwell in advising and testing out Imagination Playground blocks and loose parts with Marc Hacker, Cas Holman and David Rockwell himself.

We were present at the birth of the New York play coalition (‘please don’t call it nyc4play’) and spent beautiful time with Roger Hart and his team.

We travelled to the west coast to San Franscico to meet with Community Playthings who supported our work big style, to San Jose , which our GPS system could not find (do you know the way to San José?) to make a pitch to a Silicon Valley funding consortium.

We became frequent trainers at children’s museums and speakers at conferences, recorded a PBS documentary, ‘Where the Children Play’ in Flint Mitchigan, staying in Ann Arbor with the beautiful Dr Liz GoodEnough. We dined with Vivienne Gussin Paley, talk about a power lunch! I sat and listened in awe of the company.

We went to Philadelphia, to Bryn Moor, speaking there was like speaking in Hogwarts, but oh the people! Magical.

We went to zoos and museums in Chicago and in Providence, with Janice Mac Donald, Richmond when Pogo Park was still a drug and gun dealership.

We flew to Alaska after criss crossing the state in a tiny tiny plane, arriving in time for the first of 24 hour sunlight day; (‘Don’t go for a walk Joan. There’s a bear in the garden.’) We were visiting KaBOOM! to make film about play when Darel Hammond came back to the office and called everyone round to tell them that Marion Wright Edelman had just introduced him in a meeting to Michelle Obama who had listened and spoken passionately about children’s play. All of us felt emotional at the possibilities enshrined in that moment.

And again at a KaBOOM! conference where she left me sitting with a dear colleague Ingrid Kanics while she chased a Senator down a corridor to ‘have a word’ with him. (‘We won’t get this chance again ‘ she muttered.)

She seemed to know everyone, except the people she hadn’t met yet. And she soon put that right.

Everywhere we went we networked and listened and talked and were profoundly moved by each experience.

She got me to write The Playwork Primer. Ed edited it.

We called a Play Symposium of the most amazing and inspirational people from all across the states. It was held in the hall across the road from Joan and Clopper’s beautiful buttercup-lawn house. Joan did the catering and orchestrated the whole event. Such ideas, such inspiration gathered all in one place! I met her neighbours and their children, Clopper cooked The-Best-Pancakes-Ever using home milled flours. He also taught me about french gardens of the Roman era.

We drank coffee all over the states, most often in her niece’s flat in New York. But in so very many, many other places.

We had rows. We made up. We were inspired and inspired each other.

I met Joan several times in London, as she networked with new people, saw play environments, talked to playworkers. She never tired of seeing play spaces and hearing about Playwork and play, squirrelling away information that would be useful and sharing her  reflections. No opportunity, no experience, no time was ever wasted with Joan.

The last time I saw her was, coincidence, in Baltimore. I was spending time with Free For All Baltimore doing some work with Courtney Gardiner and Ben Dalby. Joan picked me up in her car and took me on a tour of her youth, telling me stories I hadn’t heard before. She had decided where we would eat, we had never shared southern food…. uncharacteriically a parking space was not immediately outside the restaurant, so she turned up a side road. There we found waiting for us a treasure trove of quirky houses, chalked games on the pavements, toys in gardens and a signs that she asked me to take pictures of for her. We had stumbled on a playable street and it gave us joy. It seemed like a shred of hope in a bleak political landscape.

I met her in Greenwhich two years ago. She was poorly but we still managed to go and wonder at the painted ceiling of the Maritime Museum and have good coffee and a good meal.

We ate a great meal, then the tour of Joan’s youth continued to the house she had shared, the Waldorf School she had started and the exact spot where she and Clopper were married, she told me the stories. She was a great teller of true stories.

These last two visits were entirely times of friendship. The closeness we felt surprised us both. After the business and turmoil what was left was a joy of knowing each other.

She drove me back to my hotel and we sat with Courtney, Joan still networking and drinking a glass of wine in the roof top bar with the whole of the city laying like a map of possibilities beneath us.

We stayed in contact after that meeting.

Over the years she had prepared me, and many others I suspect, for her death. This was so characteristic. She wanted her work , our work, to continue. She wanted to make sure that we were in a good place. Wise and strong and determined.

The political landscape continues to dip and swoop and spiral with stomach churning vertiginous plummets.

More clearly than ever I hear her voice telling me that I ‘can’t just sit around knitting socks’, I feel the kick of a sensible shoe in the small of my back and a crocheted cap beating me over my head whenever I become complacent or feel things are hopeless.

I was writing an essay that was a rerun of one of our tour presentations from my home in France. It was about water running through our village and how this was a constant player in the lives of children and the people of the village. About how the river of play runs through us all. (Battram). I was writing it because I knew that there were experiences that had to be shared to support other folk to know that change is desirable and doable.

I finished the piece with Joan’s quote from that tour. ‘Play is like a spring that bubbles up from deep within a child.’

I finished writing those words, and knew that she was gone.

I am proud and happy to have known Joan. I doubt if ever again I will spend so much time with someone who made the world so very much better, and allowed me to help with this work even a tiny bit.

With love, and as we toast each other in the small water-flowing village in France, ‘Bon continuation!’

With love.

Photographs are from our day together in Baltimore, April 2019.

The first shows the shadows of Joan and I with her pointing out the places where the stories

of her life and work and marriage took place.

The second is of the sign she spotted in the quirky playable street which she asked me to photograph and send to her, because she wanted to share it.

Penny Wilson

July 29th 2019.

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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.

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.

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