We at Play Times ran a session on a nearby estate the other day, on a high flat grassy spot that’s surrounded by different generations of housing blocks but feels exposed, bright and windy.
A few days prior a leaflet had gone through people’s doors saying that we would be there after school, and that there would be jewelery-making and a rope swing. We’ve found that it’s better to promise something specific early on because so few people know what playwork means, but we’re careful to bring objects that can change with the play rather than restrict it to “activities”.
Rainer, Zoe and I sat there for awhile, then a boy appeared, asked if we were there to play, then disappeared behind a fence when we said yes. We laid out the rope and staked down the tarpaulin to provide some obvious play cues, and waited. Soon children emerged from their houses to play in the gathering wind. The girls settled to pick through beads, the tarp flapping beneath us like a magic carpet and sheets of tissue paper lifting from the props bag and taking flight. Some were fixed to stakes and put in the ground as a tissue paper garden, and I tied two to Zoe’s wrist as a butterfly corsage.
Meanwhile, the boy returned with a friend and looked expectantly between me and the rope, which was coiled and waiting beneath the tree. We’d promised a swing, but this was just a rope and two trees, and he had trouble imagining how to make these into what he wanted. He asked what to do, and I told him he could do anything he liked with it, use it to scramble up the tree, drape it between them. Anything.
I believe in low-intervention playwork strategies, always aiming for non-intervention, and I think that children are so used to being told ‘no’, to having their readings of the play potential of their environments invalidated by adult rules of behaviour that sometimes playworkers are needed simply to say ‘yes’.
Yes, you can try that. Yes, you can climb there and stack those, and yes you can sit here for as long as you like watching the clouds. We won’t ask anything of you, and you can’t get this wrong. There is no hurry.
Yes, you can experiment with your world. You can dismantle it and find new means of assembly. You can come up with a plan and put it into action, deciding and evaluating, for yourself, every step of the process.
Pretty soon the boys had worked out effective knots around the tree trunks and fetched down a hula hoop that had been stuck high in the tree for as long as we’d known the place. They threaded it along the rope and made a swing that twisted through the air, all the more precious because no one knew how long it would last. The boys in particular drifted towards this, testing their climbing and acrobatic skills, demonstrating their daring for the group.
A family of children (two girls and two boys) stayed after everyone else had left, swinging and shouting “I’m flying!” as they balanced on their bellies, arms and legs outstretched. After one girl had her turn turned to leave, then ran back to put glitter on a tissue paper flower.
“There,” she said, sounding satisfied, and headed for home.