Playworker and writer Kelda Lyons visited the Shop of Possibilities for three days in January 2015 to observe the play sessions and introduce new loose parts into the space. Here are here thoughtful reflections on what she observed.
This project came about after I went to playworker and writer Joel Seath’s talk in late 2014, one of the Play Local Topics talks that happen at the South London Gallery (SLG). I was really glad to find these talks, as for me it meant finding a place outside my existing play networks where I could meet and hear from people from other disciplines who are interested in play. I have a playwork background, and I’m currently doing play development work with staff in children's settings; what I do is changing and expanding, but my interests and focus are always around play, playwork, inclusive public spaces and the built environment, and creative and outdoors opportunities for children. I want to be a part of increasing other professionals knowledge of children and play, (architects, urban planners, and others), and increase my own understanding of how other professionals view and understand play, and the place it has in their work, so I can support others to create more playful places. How I am going to do this isn’t obvious. It is a case of making it up as I go along, talking to people, meeting people, and finding good ways and places to share knowledge. I already meet all sorts of people in the course of doing my work, but finding the Play Local Topics was different, as they have a physical base in the gallery, are organised and run by two staff, Lauren Willis and Jack James, and supported by the gallery as a whole.
I was really inspired by Lauren and Jack - it is rare to meet people whose work focus is not solely playwork, who really understand play and why it is important for children, and who facilitate and support projects with non-playwork professionals, like artists, in a play setting.
After Joel's talk, I visited a play session in the Shop of Possibilities (SoP), which is where a lot of the play sessions that Lauren and Jack run are based. There are also more play sessions on other estates nearby. I then proposed doing a small project in the SoP, based around introducing loose parts for playing with light and dark, and observing how the children played with these.
Aims of this project were:
• To bring something new into the play sessions - loose parts for playing with the darkness, indoors and out.
• To get a written account of what I saw and thought was interesting about the play sessions to share on the Play Local blog.
• Me doing a supported piece of play writing.
• For me to get support with moving from holding a lot of knowledge about play and not always knowing how to share it, to being more of a ‘knowledge sharer’, by doing a piece of play writing in a defined context, with knowledgeable and sympathetic (to play) people.
• To support my professional development; as well as doing play development work with staff in various children's settings, starting to collaborate with other professionals such as artists, architects, urban planners, more schools, community gardens people, and others.
What was planned and what happened (overview):
I attended three play sessions in the SoP on Sceaux Gardens, behind the SLG, on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at the end of January 2015. I haven’t written about what I saw in a chronological order, although sometimes I will specify when something happened, if the timing or order of it is important.
Staff bought and found some new loose parts; candles, string, gas lighters, small and giant matches, torches, loads of glass jars, and other materials. We planned to get them out on the second day I was there, so I had some idea of what a normal day looked like at the SoP, but because the weather was predicted to be so bad for most of that week, we decided to make the room dark the first day, and get the torches out when it got dark outside, so as to make the most of being able to play around in the dark outdoors on all the days I was here.
Me and Lauren Willis, the Children & Families' Programme Manager at the SLG, who was there on the first and second session I attended, decided after the first play session that we wouldn’t talk about the sessions until I had seen all of them, and that I wouldn’t attend their staff meetings that take place after each session, so that my impressions of the sessions remained just that.
Purpose and meaning of the project for me:
Doing this project means that for the first time, apart from whilst doing a play theory module as a stand alone course at university, I have a planned, defined context to write about play observations within. SLG has an existing place to share information, here on their blog, and in books and other material that they publish.
Playwork colleagues and mentors have been encouraging me to publish my play writing more for the past few years, saying that I have a really special perspective on play, playworker relationships with children, and children's views of their worlds and places. However, the ethics of sharing some of my written observations of play has often been difficult for me. Children have shown and shared very personal feelings with me in many playwork settings, and I have experienced very sensitive material being played with, including children talking about abuse and neglect. I believe that children choose the adults that they share these things with, who they sense will be able to respond to them in a sensitive way. I have always struggled with the ethics of publishing material which I see as private for the child who shared it with me, as I believe that these very personal experiences, feelings and thoughts have been shared with me in trust. At the same time, I also want the wider world to know about what I regard as amazing moments in playwork, that I think are important (and possibly therapeutic) for children, that happen in the context of good child-playworker relationships. My reluctance to disregard what I see as children’s privacy, means that I have not published a lot of incidental, but amazing observations that I have recorded in the course of being a playworker.
As a playworker, I have professional networks, but there is no institution or formal professional association that I know of for playworkers, that holds clear guidance on the ethics of publishing play observations. Most places that employ playworkers do not include the aim of supporting or disseminating writing about play in order to share it more widely, as they normally exist to provide play services to children. So for me, there is a great value of doing this writing in a supported way, with a project and institution who I respect, and who have established methods for sharing what happens in their play sessions.
How observing, how writing
Here are some notes on how I approached going to and observing the play sessions, or how one playworker approaches this. Observing can intrude upon, change or alter children's play, by making them feel self-conscious, or by adults presence affecting them in other ways (they may not swear as much, or talk about sex in front of adults for example). So I always do observations aware that I may be affecting what is going on. It’s a drawback of any observation, but a necessary one in order to do it at all.
Doing planned observations is pretty new for me. I’ve done one semi-planned observation in a playground (not planning when or what I would observe, but planning the permission in advance), and play observations in public for my play theory module. Mostly, I’ve seen interesting things happen on playgrounds I have been working on, and gone home and written about them after work. I started writing about play out of amazement and wonder at what I saw and experienced, diaries that didn't have intention to be shared. It was also part therapeutic, trying to process my experience of working in a place that is culturally different to where I grew up, and dealing with children's and adults reactions to me, and me being there - some of which were hostile, and racist. Then I started to include observations of myself more - interactions between me and children, and how I felt about this.
Doing the observations felt O.K here, because of the existing documentation of the project. I know that children are used to people coming in and seeing what they are doing, and the SoP looks onto public space through a big window that people can look into if they are passing, however I still felt a little uncomfortable about it, which I think will probably always be the case for me. I went into the SoP ready to be sensitive about the effect I might be having on the children.
• Asking Lauren to buy A4 versions of the same kind of notebooks that I use. In the past when I’ve drawn and sketched in play sessions when having to supervise small indoors spaces, in order to give the children some privacy, I found that children always wanted to sketch too, and we have all ended up drawing together, sometimes for days on end. I thought that maybe if the same notebooks as mine were available here, then it might mean that me writing would be something which children could do with me if they wanted, which is what happened.
• Turning up relaxed and ready to meet people and go with the flow of the session.
• I was ready to be honest and open with children about what I was doing there, with my notes available to read at any time. This is one reason that I wasn't writing much detail about individuals, but more general things I noticed, main words and ideas.
• I make the assumption that the playworkers, and me in this case are part of the human environment and therefore the observation. I am, and the playworkers both affect and will be affected by the children and their play. We are not outside or separate, so I was also ready to observe myself, and how I felt about being here.
At the start I wonder: how will I be regarded by the children?
Children’s comments and questions about me being there included:
‘what are you doing?’
‘you’re taking notes’
‘there are four people working today’ (meaning the three playworkers and me) then discussing with playworkers what days I will be here. They definitely wanted to know who I was, what I was doing here, how long / many times I would be there, and possibly what my role was here.
My role was to observe, think and write. Normally I am responsible for the safety of children, maybe some staff, and equipment, buildings, etc. Here I am not responsible. It frees me up to just observe what is going on (on the first and second days anyway. It was a bit different on the third day when the children started playing with candles and fire more, and I got more involved). My relationships with children here are not familiar, loaded with meaning, and care-based like they are if I do playwork somewhere on a regular basis. These children don’t depend on me to be a steady, stable figure for them. In play spaces where I am very familiar with the children, I tend to notice very detailed play narratives, close interactions between children and me or other staff, conversations or actions of close friendship groups, and patterns of play across whole weeks, months or seasons. I couldn't do that here because I don’t know anyone well enough. This means I noticed more general things than I would normally, such as movement across the whole space, types of sound and sound levels, large body or motor movements, and how the building functions. Imagine squinting and looking across a large room with people moving around in it, it was a bit like looking in this way.
These three days, and doing this writing, are giving me a place where I can consider how I observe and record, and the effect of this upon me and others. Looking at methods and ethics of observing links to a piece of play research I am working on; it is giving me a chance to consider approaches to observation for research purposes, and to experience how a play project approaches documenting what happens in their setting in a defined and planned way.
At first I found myself comparing what I was seeing to other play spaces, in particular, adventure playgrounds that have a building, like the SoP does (as opposed to mobile play projects, playwork in estates, etc). The fact I was making these comparisons annoyed me. I didn’t find it helpful, as this is a play project run by an art gallery, and where the indoors play space leads directly onto public space, which is something I have never seen before in a play setting, apart from adventure playgrounds which have a gate that connects to a fenced sports pitch in a public park. I decided not to deny these comparisons in my head, and to approach this by thinking of whatever I noticed as being unique to this play setting, as I know that by nature, all play spaces are unique.
Themes and observations of the play sessions
What did I notice and choose to write about, and how did this come about? / Themes
I ended up with eight themes. These emerged whilst I was observing, and when I sat in the gallery cafe after the play sessions and wrote in more detail. Most of the themes connect with each other somehow, such as noise, voices and statements, which intertwined a lot; I’ll do my best to describe when and how I thought different themes linked together. Sometimes links between the themes will just be put in brackets, so you can read very simply how I perceived different moments of play to link together. Sometimes I will give more description of the detail of what was going on.
So much went on in the play sessions, so how did I choose what to write about? I always write in a mindmap style, using a method I have developed over about five years. I write down main words that occur to me when I am observing, then make more notes around the main words when I see something that I think is relevant. The more notes that appear around the main words, and the more links there are between the main words, the more I continue to observe and reflect upon these topics, exploring what I thought was special about what I saw, and why I thought it was important.
This writing is a combination of me aiming to describe some of what I saw, my interpretations of what I noticed, and what I perceived that play to have have been about. I write with the default assumption that I cannot know about the play, and only the child or children themselves might know - an outsider can observe and try to explain, but will never know what the play means or is like for the child. This piece also includes what I thought was special and interesting about this place, project and playworkers.
To summarise, all the themes that arose for me somehow revolved around space; how children and adults behaved in it and moved around the space that is the SoP, and the outdoors space it leads onto (a walkway through the estate, between blocks of flats, paths through grass, trees and taller and more low-level buildings). What noises, creations, performance and routines took place in different parts of the indoors and outdoors spaces. And what I thought was interesting about the function, design and use of the space. I’m also writing about the public/private aspects that this space affords the children, which I think are really special. I don’t know if this is unique in the U.K, but I have never seen one that offers children both the privacy, and the possibility to use public space as their play space like they can here.
The other main theme that seemed to be furthest from the space theme, possibly because it is much more personal than physical and spatial, was the atmosphere, and the ease and comfort of interactions between children and staff. Some themes ran through the sessions in quite a strong way, such as conversations and play around the subjects of homework, detentions, teachers and school (permission/authority).
The things that stood out for me when we brought in loose parts that gave the children new ways to play with light and dark (candles, matches, torches, and other stuff), were how children played with control and language, experimented a lot (which they also did at other times), and interactions between boys and male playworkers.
• voices / statements
• routine / repetition / ritual
• permission / authority
• the things that happened around the candles
intro / first day
On the first day I was there, which is the first play session of the week at the SoP, it was quite cold outside, and warm inside the building.
Lauren told the children my name, and that I was going to be there this week to hang out and see what they were doing at the Shop. I pottered around the room for a bit, saying hallo to the children who slowly came in, looking at the loose parts and storage room, and at the things Lauren had bought for this week in preparation for doing some more playing with light and dark. I ended up sitting at a table in one of the main rooms, that had pens, pencils, the sketchbooks that staff had bought on my request, and some other basic craft materials on. I made a mask out of tinfoil, string and tape, like a superhero eye mask, put it on, then kept it on while I sat at the table for quite a while, then whilst I wandered around inside and outside on and off, seeing what was going on. I had my notebook on the table, and was writing a little. Some girls wanted my notebook, and asked whose it was. I pointed them towards the notebooks that the staff had brought in, they looked pleased and asked if they could have them and take them home. I said I thought probably not, as we wanted to use them all week, but that they could use them and draw in them while they were here. At some point I think one of the children said that my photo needed to go on the wall (SoP staff take photos of most staff, children and visitors with a polaroid camera, then put the photos on the wall along with all the existing ones, and write that persons name underneath in black marker pen). Lauren took a photo of me with the mask on and put it on the wall. I kept making masks for one girl throughout the session, but what was interesting for me about the mask was noticing how I felt as a visitor and new person, knowing that I was here to watch things, with the mask on, and then with it off. I felt a bit more hidden behind the mask. Maybe it was my way of getting comfortable with being here, and observing.
‘make me a mask’
‘make me another mask’
‘make me two at once’
One girl asked me throughout the whole session. They were fragile and kept tearing. Maybe asking me to make them was a game, a getting to know me game.
The two girls who were writing in the books were writing their names, and wanted me to write my name, and said they wanted to learn my name and copy it. We sat at the table and they asked why I was here, and what and why I was writing. Each time I started to give the response of ‘I’m a playworker and I’m interested in kids play places, and I’ve come here to see what you do and write about it a bit’ but I never got more than halfway through this sentence before the child who had asked wandered off. I thought about this afterwards, about what they were trying to find out if not what the answer was. Was it to see if they would get an honest answer, what do I sound like, how would I respond to them, was I straight up or not? I concluded that it was one or all of these things if they walked off before they had heard the answer; that the answer for them was knowing something about me, not why I was here.
Lauren had planned to turn all the lights off when it got dark outside, and get lots of torches out. She did this at about 4.20. Before this I sat on the sofa a lot, reading, or pretending to read a book about tree I.D. Children came and asked what I was doing. One asked why I would want to identify a tree, and I told her that I make fires, and teach children about nature, and want to know more about trees because of this. She said ‘oh’, and walked away. At one point I was writing in my notebook, and when I looked up, one of the girls who had been drawing with me at the start of the session sat in an office chair, higher than me, with one of the black notebooks, facing me and looking at me occasionally. It felt like she was mirroring me in some way. I thought maybe she wanted to observe me back, or put herself in the position that I was in, of looking and writing. I noticed that she was physically higher than me whilst in the office chair. In most places children are physically lower down than adults. Play spaces can be some of the few places where children get to be physically higher than the adults around them. She was drawing her own picture. This is an example of how we can’t assume much about what is going on for a child when they do something. I wondered all sorts of things about the girl sitting on the chair while she was looking at me and drawing, but I can’t assume anything about what was going on for her, or why she was doing this. All I knew is that it was an interaction between us, she chose to sit near me and look at me, and that I had a gentle feeling when I noticed it, and that I thought that it might have been to do with her being curious about me, or me being there.
voices / statements
Near the start of the first session, the door went bang and there was a loud ‘I’m here’ (noise), and one younger boy walked in.
At one point I heard a very loud ‘hallo’ behind me, from a boy who was coming out of the toilet, which is next to one of the main rooms - it was definitely a communication to me, but I didn't know if it was a play cue, or him just checking me out, letting me know he was there, or trying to get comfortable with me. I turned around, smiled a bit, and said hallo back.
There was a comment on where the project might move in the future, maybe into another nearby building, if the SoP has to move from this one. One boy said very clearly ‘I don’t wanna go in there, it caught fire’ whilst pointing to a nearby building.
When me and the girls were sitting at tables near the start of the first session, we were writing names in the books when one of the playworkers came around with a football and asked me to write my name on it. Lots of children had put their names on it. I thought that this was nice as there was no obvious reason for doing this, it was just a thing to do. The playworker was doing it in a really natural way, as if to say ‘this is what we do here, things just for the sake of it’. An adult doing it made it seem really normal (atmosphere). Afterwards I thought about this as another statement about people in the space, people writing their names down together, making some kind of playful written record of who is here, like the photos on the wall.
Over the three days, I saw a lot of testing, trying, and experimenting going on. This happened with loose parts, and the candles, and when we were outside on the third day, with children seeing how high they could climb into a nearby tree to put a candle in a jar in the tree (space).
I ended up noticing movement because along with the sounds I heard, this is how I worked out that children and adults felt comfortable and easy (atmosphere) in the play sessions, or in this space. I had written the words ‘comfort’, ‘ease’ and ‘easy’ in my notes quite often, then had to work out what validated this - how did I actually know that people were, and felt comfortable here? This is another reason why doing this project is valuable for me, because I am testing out what I was taught and asked to do when learning about play theory. Trying to explain how I knew that children and adults felt comfortable at the SoP is also related to chapter I am currently writing for a book. I am writing about playworker knowledge; how do playworkers know what they know, and where do they get their knowledge from? (Playworker knowledge is rarely gained in an academic context). So in trying to work out ‘how do I know people are comfortable in the SoP?’ I was also thinking about playworker knowledge in general. I realised that a lot of what informed me was the movement of individuals; people’s speed, pace, smoothness of movement, lack of hesitation, posture, and assurance and skill with which they moved. For example, the way the boy who made ramps outside didn't hesitate when he walked in to get the materials he wanted. The relaxed stance of the playworker who just started singing or gobbledygooking in the middle of the room. And the speed and grace with which children moved objects around to turn them into a stage, or classroom desks for role play.
This is one of the first times that I have looked at movement so closely, as I am normally more involved in conversations and interactions on a play space. I also find language of children really interesting, especially working in different areas of London, and I tune into sounds really easily, as this is probably my primary sense, the one I use and notice most.
On the first day there was a lot of movement around the indoors and outdoors spaces. Children were interacting and talking with each other lots. I saw dancing and jumping at different times (atmosphere – conducive to this and created by this). A ball of string which I had got out to make masks with was walked around by a younger girl - a thing moving all over the space. She went about 40 or 50 feet outside with the string, onto the grass. Other things that were moved around the space were junk, candles, torches, a large blanket, and large pieces of furniture and box/table type objects in the main room which had castor wheels on, and served lots of different purposes.
routine / repetition / ritual
One boy came into the building on the Tuesday, walked straight to the shelves in the corner, and took wooden planks, tyres and old bits of furniture outside, making a ramp that the children could try and ride a small toy car down, or walk down. Him and other children played with this throughout the day. I was outside for a little bit, and played on it for a bit, but not for too long, as I felt conspicuous being outside and looking at the children, but didn't really want to just wade into what they were doing without invitation. The next day the same boy came into the building, took out similar bits and pieces, and made a structure that was similar, but had variations and improvements. He didn't ask if or what he could take out, just walked over to the shelves and got what he wanted. I got the impression that this was a sort of routine for him. He seemed to be really comfortable and confident doing this.
Another older boy came in on two different days, sat down and got help with homework from staff, and talked about it. Discussions with different children about homework and detentions followed on from this, with the discussion about detention going on for most of the session. Some more play on the same theme followed this, which I’ll talk about in the section on permission and authority. I was only there for a few days, but still I perceived this building, and doing of homework with staff to be a routine - maybe doing something regular with the staff, a way to talk to them, and settle in. I’ve seen this in other play projects as well - in one, it was hugs. The children would come in, go to their chosen staff, get a hug, maybe say hallo or not, stand around us for a minute, then shoot off and play, sometimes coming back at points for another hug occasionally, sometimes not. Packing away at the SoP, which staff were telling children to do, I sensed to be part of a nice routine and ending of the session for the children.
Really stood out for me in these sessions; how noisy it was, on the first day especially. And the freedom that a lot of the children and staff seemed to feel to make and express themselves with all kinds of noise (voices / statements). Some of this, I perceived as people making statements about being in the SoP, through using their voices (voices / statements) – making it known that they were here, or had arrived, or trying to communicate something else about being here, like the boy that came out of the toilet and said ‘Hallo’ behind me. Like the way you express yourself when you are alone, or at home; making noise, shouting, or talking nonsense - except here it was in front of other people.
There was a small portable speaker which the children asked the staff to get out early on in one session, which a boy plugged a phone into to play music on. ‘I’m in charge of the music’ said one boy (voice/statement, noise). He carried the speaker and phone around inside, and at one point got on a box, saying it was a stage, and started some kind of performance. On the same day, I heard bashing and banging noises started outside, made by one younger boy. I heard a bit of singing outside as well.
At another point, one boy started speaking nonsensical language, in the middle of the room near the front door. I wondered what this was about - was the boy telling us he was here, making some kind of claim on the space, seeing what would happen and if anyone would respond to him, or just being and doing what he felt like in that moment? Whatever it might have been, I felt there was something significant about him feeling able to do, and doing that.
Children seemed to flow easily between the spaces, and to manipulate and change how the rooms were set out very easily and quickly (permission / authority - knowing this was O.K with the adults there).
There was flexibility of movement of people and stuff through space, like when the children set up the tables and boxes for the role play, and the rooms looked different at the start and end of each day. It looked different to the time I visited last year, when the sofa was in the middle of the room, instead of against the wall like it was throughout this week. There was hardly any ‘dead’ space; I saw nearly every part of the indoor space used by someone across the three sessions. I got the impression that the space was created together, by everyone who was there, although my prior knowledge that the SoP was designed with children may have affected this impression. The arrangement of some of the space was created by children, and jointly with adults during these sessions at least, with large objects being moved and carried around as the children requested, or for things they wanted to construct. Children and adults moved objects together, and negotiated the space together - like playworkers clearing flammable things away when we got candles out. The only thing about the space that a seemed to be disruptive were playworkers on one of the days often telling children to close the door to keep the room warm.
When the children were playing with the ramp the boy had built outside, a man was going to cycle past the SoP, but looked and worked out that he wouldn't be able to make his way around the ramp the children had built. He turned and went another way around, round the back of the building. I saw this as children being able to claim the space, which was a public space, for themselves - something children don’t get to do very often. In this case it was in an adult supported space. The man didn't appear to mind.
The SoP has two main rooms which are used for the play sessions, which are partly separated by a wall (see sketch below). These rooms have big windows that look onto the estate. There are some storage rooms at the back of each main room, which staff can go into. There is a toilet, and tea cupboard off the sides of the main rooms. There is a smaller back room which children also use in the play sessions, which leads onto one of the main rooms, via a doorway on one side of the room. There is also a hole in the wall between this back room and one of the main rooms, which means that from the back room you can see through the main room, and onto the estate. A table has been put in so it goes through the hole in the wall, and is partly in the back room and partly in the main room. For staff, this means you can glance through the hole in the wall, and be aware of what the children are doing without having to walk into the room and look at them - so the design of the space supports staff being able to supervise children in a more subtle way, and give them some privacy. For children, it also means they can choose to go away from the main space, which might be quieter sometimes (or might not!), where there is less movement of people through the room, whilst still having some connection to the action and other people in the main room. So the opportunity to be quiet without being isolated. On one day, some of the girls were doing a ‘secret club’ in this room. It’s also a place to watch the estate from. CCTV means we are often watched, and children are often watched by whoever is looking after them in schools, after school clubs, and other places they are looked after. When do children get to be the watchers instead of the watched? This back room offers a place for children to observe the world from. The fact that a lot of thought had gone into the design of the space was obvious. The tasks that the playworkers had to do were made easier by the design; most objects were accessible, easy to get out, put away, and easy for children and adults to see and get hold of.
I heard conversation flow smoothly between some staff and children, starting and stopping quite quickly, without hesitation of what was said, or how.
A visitor came by to say hallo one day - maybe a young person who used to come here? It looks like Play Local is really local.
Staff were happy to start playing with the candles, and there was a willingness to experiment alongside the children, and not needing to be the adult who ‘knows’. Staff seemed to know how to play. At one point I saw one playworker burst out into some playful kind of noise, in the middle of the space. It didn’t look like it intruded on any of the play. It just looked like an expression of what this playworker felt like doing in this moment, and indicated to me that they felt comfortable here. (noise, voices / statements)
permission / authority
It was made very clear to children what they could smash up or not, and what was precious and should be or was desired to be kept in tact by staff. At one point, a child wanted to break up a large piece of furniture. One playworker spoke to him along the lines of ‘you can destroy most things in that room, but the things in this room, and this table (pointing) we want to keep as furniture so we can keep using them’.
On the second day, after the children had been playing with the torches in the dark, and turned the lights back on, some of them got into some role play, pretending to be in school, with one of the playworkers playing a teacher. She kept saying things like ‘I don’t know how to be a teacher’ and ‘I wouldn't be a good teacher’. The children moved the boxes with wheels around (space) to make desks, and the playworker as ‘teacher’ was at the front. She was playing a really disciplinary role, and telling them off, pretending to be very strict. What was happening seemed to be led by the children, with them directing her a lot. She responded to the children a lot, and got really stuck into the role play. At some point, she went into the back room, which had been turned into the school office, and pretended to be phoning a parent about a misbehaving child. After this, she came out and said to the group ‘draw a picture’ in what had become her teacher tone and voice. The children all shouted ‘yaaay!’ and one asked ‘Miss can I have paper?’ and sat there, waiting to be given paper. It’s like they turned the space on it’s head, sitting and waiting for paper when in the play session, they would have walked over and fetched it for themselves. But within this scene, they were still playing, the role play, and then also genuinely having fun getting into drawing pictures. Like a game within a game. The general idea seemed to be that school and teachers are authoritarian, strict, and make the children do things they don’t want to do. The school game turned into a game about the police, but I didn’t follow this as I was moving in and out of the room at this point.
This play came after a lot of conversations about detention, and homework, and being kept in school when children didn't want to be there anymore. They had also talked earlier about how many hours they are in school for sometimes. A lot of conversation, and this play, came up in my notes as being about authority; systems, places, and figures. This was fascinating for me as I am interested in finding out about how children experience the world, and what they think about the situations they are in. I believe that because children keep having different experiences every day, and have all sorts of feelings about what they experience, that it is important to keep hearing from them and listening to them. I really got to do this when I was near this play.
When it got to the usual tidying up time the SoP has, the playworker kept it as part of the game, telling the children to ‘tidy up’ in the teacher role and voice she had adopted. The children stayed in their roles too, tidying up. I thought this was a really graceful, skilful piece of playwork, doing what needed doing whilst keeping the play going for the children, who were still very much immersed in the role play when it got to and past the tidy up time.
I noticed language that children used when they were playing with the candles, I think because it was a little different to other language which I had heard them use so far. I heard ‘shiny seaweed’ at one point, and the girl who was wrapping tinfoil around a jar asked ’where’s the milk?’, wanting to know something about the melted wax, and not having a word to describe it. Children using different language is something I have noticed around fire in other places, so it was interesting to see it here, even briefly. I’m interested to know what the SoP playworkers think about this.
things that happened around the candles
On the second day, we (me and playworkers) got tea lights and gas stove lighters out. We cleared the wood blocks on wheels, which in this case functioned as a table, and put lots of glass jars and tea lights on the table. The children had a go at lighting them. We were gathered around the candles, one playworker talked about celebrating, celebrations, and one child asked if we were going to do ouija boards and talk to dead people. There was something special about the togetherness of everyone sitting around the candles, just for a minute. It felt like everyone who was sitting there was doing so with a strong intention. Just like wondering how I knew people felt comfortable in the SoP, afterwards I tried to work out – what told me the children had a strong intention? Thinking about their body language, they were leaning forwards, and looking closely at what was being brought out. They looked interested as a group about what was going to happen – there were lots of questions about the candles, then moments of quiet. I got the impression that these children are very used to being offered new things as a group, and are comfortable with choosing whether they want to join in or not, and wandering off or opting out if they aren't interested in the new thing, project or person that is here. The children started to play with the candles some more, lighting them, blowing them out, talking about them, and carrying the jars to different places. There were torches around too, and children were holding onto these, and shining them mostly onto other people, to see their faces and hands. It was interesting to see what parts of people, or actions, children tried to look at when they had the torches and had to choose exactly what things they wanted to see - faces and hands! Two boys took a load of jars and tea lights into the back room, put them on a large chest of drawers, and went into their own quiet zone of playing with the candles very calmly, and talking a lot, quietly. I went through to the back room as well and sat at the table, away from the boys. I made a lantern by wrapping tinfoil around a jar, then making holes in it. One younger girl came over and started doing this with me, finding it awkward, and talking about it a lot and wanting me to do most of it. She wanted it done in a particular way. I showed her how to choose a smaller jar which would fit into her hands easily. As a whole, the children went through noticeable waves of calm, then excitement when playing with the candles. They were scared of the flames, and it looked important to them to be able to control, or be in control of the candle flames; children talked about really wanting to make individual flames bigger, and keep a certain flame going. They argued over who would be the one to light a candle, or put it out.
Two boys started making a pile of sticks with the matches. This got moved outside. The male playworker went outside with the boys, and made a small ‘fire’ inside a tyre, on the ground. I do not know why this particular staff went outside with the boys, if they specifically asked or wanted him to, or if it just happened to be him that went outside. But I saw something special in that moment when I saw them making their mini fire (a tealight and a few sticks on fire). I thought ‘where else can boys and men do things like this together?’ and ‘is it important that that can happen for boys?’ I wondered if it mattered to the boys that they were doing this with the male playworker.
Some children chose not to play with the candles on the third day. Whilst most other children were sitting in the main room playing with the candles, and the boys went outside to make the tiny fire, some of the girls went into the back room and turned the light on. In my experience this can indicate that the children feel confident to do the play that they feel like in different moments, because they know that something else interesting will come along in this place soon, and they don’t have to grab at the thing that is taking place that day or that moment.
A parent came by at the end of the session, and commented on the fire smell. The staff said what we had been doing that day. The parent said ‘aah, that’s nice’. This was another time when I saw adults expressing comfort with something new happening here (atmosphere).
photographing & documenting
I was interested in this, because I have never worked somewhere where there is an aim to regularly and widely document and share the play, and here, the projects that are going on. I’ve worked in places that aim to offer private play spaces for children, where they know they can play with as little monitoring as possible, and that also don’t have any resources assigned to recording and documenting what goes on. I was interested to see if and how it affected the children or the play, how documenting took place here, and what the children felt about it. I can’t answer all these questions by observing a few sessions, but I did see that:
• The whole space is visible to the public, and the indoors space leads directly onto an outdoors public space. So most of the SoP is very public anyway, though it offers a lot of privacy as there was not a lot of footfall outside on the days I visited. Maybe it is different in summer.
• photographing happened openly
• the children seemed to be used to it
• it was openly discussed between staff and children, there was a conversation about different kinds of cameras that were used, and their names
• staff didn't ask kids to pose to do particular things so that they could take photos
• the different senior workers seemed to know it was their job to record what was going on
This conclusion is being written about seven weeks after I did the visits and observations, and a few weeks after doing the main piece of writing above. It is a summary of what I thought was most striking in the play sessions in the Shop of Possibilities, and the benefits and learning that I have gained from the whole process.
Main things I noticed
The main things that stood out for me were the ease with which children used the space, and how expressive adults and children were with their bodies and voices. Permission to be playful was important for this, which I saw adults communicating to children through conversation, actions, and playful behaviour. The physical aspects of the space also offered permissions; storage, lack of signs, and changing and quirky space (like the table which straddled two rooms through the hole in the wall).
How the SoP explores public space, and that the children get to use and affect the surrounding area was for me one of the more important aspects of the SoP, as I am interested in how the built environment can include and be more responsive to children; The SoP could be seen as a sort of enquiry into this, and maybe an example of how this kind of intervention (adult supported) could be used in other places to let local people see how children can have more of a role in, and right to play in public space.
I saw how design professionals, using smart design principles, and a consultative process with children, can create a really functional indoors play space.
Seeing the benefits of my observing and writing method
During the writing process, I realised how subjective and personal my observations are. My own past, playwork experience, and existing perspective on children, play, and public space all affect what I see and how I look. I realised that the way I write play observations takes into account as much of any play environment as I can physically see. Now I see that this can offer the possibility to relate many different factors to the play, or aspect of play that I am looking at in any given moment. In beginning to study play theory a couple of years ago, I have found that many play studies, by nature of having to limit research in order to know what is being researched, tend to focus on particular aspects of play, or play behaviours, therefore also limiting looking at what might be affecting the play as a whole. Looking at a whole space means that you can continue to look at children's play in the context of all the other things that happen around it, rather than in isolation. For example, rather than looking at an interaction between the boy saying 'hallo' behind me when coming out of the toilet solely as an interaction between him and me, that you take into account his interaction in the context of the whole space, of that afternoon so far, maybe his previous visits there, his friendships and other relationships with whoever was in the room, and whatever else was happening in and around the space at that moment, the weather, temperature, etc. This is the first time that I have stepped back and looked at this aspect of my writing as particular, and potentially useful when doing play observations. I think it is maybe the first time I have really thought of my observations as play studies, or being part of play studies, which is a big realisation for me.
Benefits for me
I’ve learnt how to better clarify and present what is observation, and what my own interpretations and responses are. The general support from Lauren and Jack, Lauren putting the writing into a blog, and having feedback on my writing during the process, have been really useful in helping me to understand the aspects of my play writing that might be valuable for others to read.
This was a small collaboration, and it has enabled me to see and properly understand the benefits and opportunities that can come out of collaborating, whilst it happens. I now understand that collaboration can partly be about suggesting something, having a go, and working with others to see what good things can happen. And that a shared process, even with smaller aspects of joint work, can automatically have unknown possibilities, simply because of the nature of having different people involved. I have known this by seeing in the past, and now I feel like I have my own understanding of it, which I am going to carry through to other work; first of all, a playful project which I am currently proposing to do at an arts festival this year, with 3 other play and arts people.
This process also made me more comfortable to not be fully in control of a project, be open to changing my initial ideas, and be more responsive with following other peoples suggestions.
-Kelda Lyons (Playthinking)