Not enough time and nowhere to spend it

There have been a few articles lately, comparing the amount of time spent outside each day by schoolchildren and prison inmates.  The results are…  depressing.  It’s a travesty that children are spending their days locked inside, with their faces held to the grinding stone of endless stupid worksheets.  I usually try to be more gentle in my tone when writing online, but honestly.  This is insane, and if we were hanging out in person you’d be treated to my full routine of militant soapbox ranting.

Instead, here’s another question with an equally depressing answer:  When children are allowed outside during the school day, what sort of places can they go?  I’ve been asking this in workshops for awhile now, to designers and teachers and everyone else who would rather be looking at adorable pictures of adventure playgrounds (they get those too, but the contrast is important).

I show this slide.


These are pictures of school playgrounds that I found on google.  One is helpfully vintage, black and white and reminding us that our ‘modern’ formal educational model is still deeply rooted in the factory system.  Two are contemporary playgrounds in different countries, showing how little this notion has changed across hundreds of years and thousands of miles.  The fourth is Alcatraz.

The playgrounds that we think of as conventional (or, heaven help us, ‘normal’) in schools are highly standardized.  They are large tarmac squares, fenced in.  Sometimes there is equipment, all of it focusing on the gross motor release of ‘excess’ energy.  Any stones are removed.  Any loose parts prohibited.  And so, not only do our children spend less time outside than prisoners – they spend that time in a space almost indistinguishable from a prison yard.  No wonder so many recess supervisors stand at the edges with their arms crossed, making up new rules every day.  Their most obvious role, in a place like this, is security guard.

A prison yard is what you get, when you design for maintenance and surveillance.  These big, empty squares with a few places to lift your body around – these are spaces built to contain a population that authorities do not trust.  Every corner speaks of fear: adults fear children, which in turn breeds children’s fear of one another.  No wonder educators are so worried about conflict at recess.  They have accepted as conventional a space which fosters hierarchies and gangs, which privileges the strong over the weak, which both requires sneakiness to survive and punishes brutally any subversion.

But then, people might say, if school playgrounds looked like this for so long then why is the problem suddenly so urgent?

Here’s why.  Because crappy as the school yard is, it’s also most children’s best chance of playing outside at all that day.  It’s almost certainly their best chance to meet peers, in a time that is comparatively self-structured.  Recess time is vital, and the fact we give them so little opportunity is the real crime.

Are you interested in one of the best jobs in the world?

Since January, I’ve been lucky enough to work at the Parish School’s Adventure Playground. It’s a beautiful site, built by the fascinating and brilliant children who attend. You can see a little of it, and hear their voices here:

There are so many stories here, caught in the names of places in this landscape – the ship, that was once a hotel. The castle, that is sometimes a treehouse. The toolshed which, one afternoon last month, was briefly a Baby Store. AP opened in 2008, and is (I think) the first of the US’s New Wave of adventure playgrounds. The staff are talented, diverse and dedicated.

Would you like to be their latest member?

Parish is advertising for a remarkable playworker position for the 2016/7 school year.  In addition to staffing every day of AP (which runs Monday to Thursday), you’d also be part of recess provision and help to weave rich play opportunities into every children’s school day.  You’d work closely with Jill Wood – one of the most inspirational playworkers I have ever met and an all-around marvelous person. She’s looking for someone passionate, dedicated – someone who shares this vision of a strong, long-term place that holds children’s freedom of adventure in its heart.  She’s willing to provide training, so don’t worry if you’re early in your playworker journey – you might be exactly what AP is looking for!

Apply now, or contact Jill or myself with any questions.

Horse trading

(This is the second post about Rose.  The first is here.)

Rose has been digging out the rocks again, some from the hill and some from the sandpit.  One day, though, she brought me over and showed me a small plastic horse that she had found.

“I have a little horse at home,” she said.  “But I like this one better.”

“Uh huh,” I said in a non-committal tone.  There was a pause, when she realized I wasn’t going to say she could take it home.

Two weeks later, she brought me to the horse again.

“I have another horse at home,” she said.  “And I like this one better.  But mine is bigger, and it has pink on it and some people like pink.  There aren’t any pink animals here.”  She turned the brown plastic horse over and over in her hands, and pointed to the place where one ear was scraped down to the white.  “I can fix this at home,” she said.  “I have a Sharpie that’s the right color.  I’ve done this before.  My Daddy helps me.”

“Mmm.” I said.  She looked up, looked me right in the eye.

“Can I bring my horse and trade it for this one?”

“Yes,” I said.  Who could say no to such a thorough and impressive pitch as that?  She’d carefully shown how this trade would benefit her, the other children who like pink, and even the horse itself.

Soon she had another thing to do, apart from collecting rocks.  Rose spent whole days collecting the animals (which had nearly all disappeared to points unmapped by mere adults).  She washed them in a plastic bucket I filled in the adult’s bathroom, and explained to me that other children might like to see the animals so clean.  She wondered if her animals from home were happier here, where “they have lots of other guys (meaning, animals) to play with, but they also get left in the sun a lot…”

One day another girl saw her splashing and brushing them clean, and asked what she was doing.  They started washing the animals together and organizing them.  I moved a short distance to what felt like the frame’s edge, and when they ran low on animals I quickly gathered up others and dropped them in a heap nearby.  Rose didn’t even look up, saying only “oh look, here are some more”.  I felt that flash of playworker’s pride, where a lightness of touch is more rewarding than being thanked.

But that friend went away, and Rose was confused.  “I don’t know where that girl, that girl we were playing with, went.  She took some animals to the sandpit, but then she didn’t come back”.  Soon, Rose’s class was the only group out at recess.  Her class is mostly boys and very physical.  They were spinning on roller boards and flinging each other around using pool noodles.  She looked intrigued, but a little alarmed by what they were doing.  I stood up, and said I was going to take a look and see what was happening.

“I’m going to follow you around,” she said.  I said that was okay.

Gabriel called me over, asking me to pull him around.  I did, and Rose stayed right beside me as we spun around the hardtop.  I asked her for help, and then offered to hold her cup of rocks while she pulled.  There was a moment when she looked at it, then at me, and set the Dixie cup into my hand.  I put it down on a table nearby, and turned back to see Rose pulling Gabriel around and grinning hugely.  I smiled back, and they flew around the hardtop in big busy circuits.  Gabriel shouted direction, asking to be bumped into his friends, demanding to go faster.

Their teacher was so pleased that she kept them out longer, looking at Rose and then at me with a look of shock and joy.  With extra time, the play developed further – another child took a traffic cone from the recess materials and propped it up on a tire, announcing “the first annual teachers-pulling children scooter board tournameeeeeeent”.

The teacher and Rose and I pulled the others around, bumping them together and everyone laughing.  We took turned pulling each other through a shallow lake, where the plastic tub that had been an animal bath spilled over.  Rose’s cheeks turned bright red and she stopped looking for me in the crowd.  There was no time, because the other children kept shouting, “Rose, Rose, ROSE!  Pull meeeeeee.”

When they eventually went inside, their teacher laughed and said “we’re doing science now, and that’s kind of perfect because it’s motion.  Let’s go get some water first!”  Rose ran inside without looking back.  I felt so pleased by what I’d witnessed, so filled up with Rose’s reflected happiness, that it wasn’t until I’d finished putting away the noodles, scooterboards and animals that I went back to the table.  There I found a small paper Dixie cup of pebbles.  Her cup of rocks, forgotten.

Adults need play, too

I was at the US Play Coalition at Clemson last week, presenting twice and hanging out with some of the finest people around.  Jill Wood and I shared our early findings in a study comparing injury rates between the fixed equipment recess playground and the adventure playground after school program at Parish.  We’ll be sharing those more publicly soon, but spoiler: the adventure playground won!  Joan Almon also led a panel on playwork projects in the USA, and generously invited Pop-Ups to participate.  In between these sessions I did the usual things – tinkered with slides, scouted out the scones, and looked for old friends and new.

This conference attracts a broad mix of people and definitions of play.  There were some mutterings in the hallway about what had been included in the sessions as well as what had been left out.  One person commented that there was too much focus on children’s play, and no time at all spent on play for adults.

“Adults need play, too,” he said.

“They definitely do,” I agreed.  His colleague elbowed me gently.

We do, you mean.”  Oh right, I thought.

He smiled a little, as if I’d forgotten myself as someone who needed play.  Really, I’d be thinking of “adults” as a category made up of non-playworkers.  Civilians.  Only yesterday a child asked me “are you a child, or what?” and when I said that I was an adult she replied only “huh”, in extremely skeptical tones.  Of course, I was inside a giant plastic tub at the time.

That man was right though, because while I do know that adults need to play, the main reason why I prioritize it in my own life is because the children I meet at work (and Suzanna) remind me daily not to be a hypocrite.

There are so many opportunities for most adults to play deeply, authentically, but we rarely make full use of them.  Sports can let us access that feeling, as can drawing or cooking, choir or pottery.  Sometimes it’s the time spent quietly that’s most important, when we invite that tiny inner voice (so long ignored) to make itself known again.  Sometimes it’s time spent puttering, allowing ourselves to try something, unfettered by the need to be good at it.  Wherever we find it, play allows us to process and release whatever is troubling us, weighing us down.

Some children who arrive onsite are so nervous, so fully trained in the dark arts of obedience, that they look to us again and again for permission.  We can give it verbally, we can choose materials that support the process, but on some level we also need to carry that permissiveness in our bones.  When we are in play flow, time and space shift around us.  Instead of pressing in, as they do when we are stressed, they expand and breathe.  When we live in the present moment we are lightened, and bring that to the site in our lightness of touch.

Meeting our own needs for play reminds us to take playwork seriously, but ourselves not seriously at all.

For me, play often means creative writing.  If that’s true for you too, consider signing up for a weekly writing prompt!  It’s free, and hopefully delightful for us both.

Enfolding frames

This is the second in an occasional series on play frames.  The first one is here.

Children have so many ideas for how to play, and so many ways to tell us whether our place is outside their frame or within it.  They might cue us in with a look or grin.  They might ask us explicitly to participate, or simply tag us and run.  The other day, we arrived onsite and a boy came to me with a length of rope.

“Can I be your doggie?” Harry asked.

“Of course,” I said.  “I’ve always wanted a dog.”  We put the cord around his waist and set off.  He didn’t seem entirely secure in this game, looking back at me often with a questioning look.  When he did, I’d affirm it by saying “good dog!” in a bright voice or scritch him behind the ear.  Every time he grinned, and panted with a look of relief.  As we completed our second tour of the site, another child ran up, tagged me and ran away.  When I didn’t chase her she walked back, looking confused.

“Chase me,” she said, sounding a little annoyed.

“We’re playing doggies,” said Harry.

All of the children here have some diagnosed learning or language-based difference – one diagnosis or more from a list of overlapping names.  This is compounded by play deprivation.  To put it in our terms, if play is a language then many of them struggle with its a system of cues, queries and responses.  They often have difficulty holding and communicating the boundaries of their play – identifying whether children are already in a frame, moving fluidly within frames as circumstances shift, and holding a frame secure.  Having these difficulties, and playing with others who share the same difficulties, is hard – for some of the children onsite, it’s much easier to play with an adult who will carry that for them.  There aren’t enough adults to go around, and we try to facilitate their play with one another.

“I’m playing tag,” Karen said.  I was considering, in that small moment, how to connect them.  These are the moments when doing playwork can feel like a magic trick, a sleight of hand that shows you two shining rings and then links them together.  While I was thinking, Harry looked off to the horizon and then back again.  When he spoke, it was quietly.

“Doggie tag?” he whispered.  Karen howled with pleasure and tagged him, then ran away.

Is there a word for this, for the way in which a child can stretch their frame to enfold another’s?  I’d seen both of them struggle before, building play frames that were inflexible and brittle, and was so impressed by Harry’s inventiveness.  I wondered, would they need a witness?  A participant?  Would they prefer to be left alone and take this frame careening around the site, faster than I could run?  Harry ran a few steps after Karen, barking at her, then came up to me.  He put one palm on the zip line’s platform, and I sat down beside it.

“Pretend…” he said carefully. “Pretend your name is Morgan”.

So I did.


Last week was Spring Break, so I skipped out of Houston for a couple of days work outside of NYC and then drove up to see my parents and some friends in Vermont.

These friends have two children, and I spent a chunk of one afternoon sword-fighting with their eldest during an afternoon walk through the cemetery.  We ran, leapt over tracks of mud, and parried with long sticks.  After awhile, I proved myself in combat and he explained that now we were on the same side – and under attack.

“There’s another tank!” he said firing his stick at the helicopters above us.

“There’s so many!” I said, throwing a pine cone bomb at a hedge.

After that, I came back to Houston and spent two days plugging through neglected work emails and editing projects, with Xena playing in the background.  As gloriously absurd as that show remains, it carried through an unexpected theme of swordplay across my vacation time.  I’ve often joked that my taking fencing at school had turned out way more professionally useful than anyone had expected but the truth is, I have a lot more fun with it now than I did then.

Being on the fencing team was less romantic than I’d hoped.  There were the white kevlar outfits, for one thing, and adolescence is hard enough without wearing white breeches and a giant plastic bra.  We didn’t leap onto tables to kick soup tureens into the air, or hang from chandeliers.  Instead we were plugged into a long electric cable, counting off points while someone shouted at us in French.  Competitive sports were never really for me, but there were moments of real play hidden inside.  There were moments when self-consciousness left me and the blade felt like an extension of my arm.  There were moments when the kevlar and cable were forgotten and it all became somehow real – not real violence, but real fencing.  The coach told me that these were to be guarded against, that a smart fencer stays cool and conscientious.  A smart fencer wins.

There’s something similar happening during playwork, as we constantly balance professionalism and deep participation.  We need to be present in the moment’s detail, but keep on eye on the scene as a whole – how it shifts, who arrives and departs, if other members of the team need us.  When fencing with children, I carefully balance defense and offense, trying to provide an appropriate level of competition and protect both our eyes.  In the cemetery, I noticed the mud seeping into my tennis shoes and steered him backwards towards the grass.  I heard the voice of his little brother with his own stick saying “pew pew” and trying to get involved.  And yes, when I crouched down by the grass slope and looked out for tanks, there were moments when the warmth in my blood rose and I felt some of it as play.

We need to be careful not to let children’s play become our own.  But there are times when we feel absorbed in the moment, a phrase or feeling that connects beyond the frame to something deeper, something larger.  This was a rare chance for me to take playwork skills from my professional hours into my personal ones and when I looked across the scene as a whole I saw my friends pushing the stroller, laughing.

Play frames

Playwork has so many gloriously useful bits of theory and vocabulary.  It’s full of words which are essential to this unique understanding of play and ourselves.  One of my absolute favorites, particularly when talking with people outside of the field, is ‘play frame’.

Wood and Kilvington share the most commonly used definition in Reflective Playwork: For All Who Work With Children, saying:

“A frame is a boundary or a surround for something.  The play frame can be a material or non-material boundary (a place in the environment or in the mind or emotions) that contains play episodes that can last from moments to weeks or months.”

In Sturrock and Else’s work on the Play Cycle, play frames are said to  physical, narrative or even emotional, as “when play is exploring a particular feeling, so the props, the action, the place and the story can keep changing because it’s the experience of the feeling that holds it all together”.  Once frames are understood, all sorts of other playwork theories and terms start to make sense.  Students can then grasp concepts such as the play cycle, annihilation and (perhaps most importantly) adulteration.  But play frames themselves are nuanced and delicate things, right at the heart of our practice.  We can start by noticing how they function in our own lives – think of a group of friends talking in a public place.  That conversation has a physical and social perimeter and when someone crosses either in a deliberate trespass, conversation stops.  We already perceive and navigate the frames of others all the time, but adults often miss noticing those of children at play.

I’m putting together a little series of blog posts on play frames.  We’ll looking at different aspects of how people perceive, communicate and respect frames in practice.  Then, we’ll get into questions of holding the integrity of a play frame, and ways we might reframe what’s happening – not alteration for its own sake, but to allow play to continue when it otherwise might be shut down.  If you have stories or questions or aspects that you want to share, let me know!