It feels slightly ridiculous, having a long and suspenseful lead-in to this final posting on play memories – especially because the suggestion I’m making here is so obvious. It also feels hypocritical, because it’s a suggestion for everyone to do something that I don’t do nearly enough of myself.
Duh, isn’t that always the answer?
In all seriousness, I’ve outlined some of the issues that come up when trying to help people connect with their younger aspects through play memory exercises. I still think that those exercises can be astonishingly effective, and can take people on journeys through their own selves – I just don’t think they’re the whole answer.
We also need to create opportunities for adults to play, for the adults in the communities where we work as well as the adults we send to work in them. The need to play does not disappear from us as we age, and while some remain playful their whole lives I have seen many playworkers who forget to take care of their own needs outside of the session. For some (and I put my own hand up here too) it is easier to advocate for the needs of the most vulnerable than it is to meet our own.
There’s a reason why we’re advised on airplanes to put our own oxygen masks on before we put on those of children traveling with us. We’re more use to them when we’re looking after ourselves – and the same goes for playwork.
When I was in the shop, I’d often have parents who came in with a tidily dressed, docile child who was quickly settled at the arts table.
“Draw Nanny a boat,” the Mum might say. If she was ignored, the mother might start jabbing at the paper, repeating herself or forcing crayons into the child’s hand. I started putting paper and crayons next to the parents, and sometimes didn’t have to say a thing. They’d start drawing, and the child would shrug and get back to business.
In larger settings, such as Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, we’d often see adults creating these large “Parent Projects”. It was one way parents and carers had of engaging, at least at first. And I think that for adults to be enthusiastic about play can only be a good thing – what we were looking for, as playworkers, was for those parents and caregivers to feel secure enough in the environment and in their children to let go of control.
“I used to fight with my brothers all the time,” one Dad might say while watching his children go at it with sticks.
“Yeah?” I’d say, leaving a long pause for him to fill if he wanted to. And often, if it felt right, I’d pick up a couple of sticks and hand him one, tap his with mine in invitation.
When adults play, memories and associations rise up from the depths of our experiences. Just as children do, adults who have been deprived of play can be aggressive or withdrawn, suspicious or jealous when they see children get what they have been denied. Just as children do, adults benefit from a physical and social space staffed by sympathetic professionals, people who will hold the play frames when they cannot.
When adults play, they are able to recognize and meet their own needs – needs which may have festered for a long time. Feelings that cannot be voiced may arise, as the person finds themselves once again in their own bodies, trusting their own instincts, communicating with strangers as well as loved ones through the looks and postures that make up the language of play.
When adults play, they learn again the absorbing joy of it. They reconnect to the world, to themselves, to one another – and they find that the things that had seemed ordinary (a cup, a sheet of paper, a walk to the park on an overcast day) are made suddenly magical by their own actions.
No matter what the particular challenges of the communities you’re working with, helping the adults to play will make your case more effectively than talking about it ever could. When they are fully absorbed in a play setting they feel its importance on a level that words cannot reach – and, what’s more, your role within the setting becomes far more clear to them.
All-ages provision will also help embed the lessons of playwork beyond the site, beyond the session. Parents and caregivers who are ready to follow their children’s lead are often amazed at the competency their children display. They begin to hear how often they say ‘no’, to realize how frequently and reflexively they intervene.
“I never realized how much I shouted at (my child) until I was somewhere I didn’t have to,” one Mum said to me.
I’ve learned a huge amount from doing playwork – lessons that have had wide impact throughout my life, the most important of which was to have faith in the process itself. But the lessons from play are sometimes harder, more daunting, to accept. There is a vulnerability to play that runs alongside the joy, and we do not encourage adults to make themselves vulnerable. Our society is dense with fears of looking ridiculous, of being wrong, of losing control that was only ever an illusion anyway. When adults hang on to these fears they transmit them to children, whether they are parents, caregivers, teachers, or playworkers adulterating the space.
When adults release themselves from these fears, when they meet their own needs in bravery and joy, they create an air of permission that children respond to. They demonstrate that it is possible for play to effect change, for children’s play to be a touchstone for social revolutions big and small. Most importantly, adults who play are able to recognize children as the experts.
And when we do that, when we, as playworkers, make sure that our own needs are met before we land onsite? When we invite adults in the community to play sometimes? Then something amazing happens to our play memories.
We make new ones.