“So okay, what do I really know about play?”

Playworkers, whether on a dedicated site or working in public space, tend to bring a selection of materials that children can use to create their own play activities.  Common materials might be paint, tubs of glitter, pavement chalks, a rope for tug of war or a swing, and perhaps some dressing up clothes.  We generally try to bring as little as possible when we go out on session, for a number of different reasons.

We don’t want to perpetuate the widely-held notion that everyday play requires stuff, or that it requires any stuff other than that which surrounds you anyway.  Play is best when it is most basic – climbing trees, digging in the earth, building and using your imagination.

We also don’t want to create a dynamic where the playworkers are seen as bringing all of this stuff to the children as a form of entertainment.  We want to facilitate, not provide.  The whole point of playworkers going out into public space is to help children gain confidence in using the places in which they live, encouraging them to view pebbles, grass and leaves as perfectly adequate toys.

However, we know the amazing potential of good quality loose parts to expand a child’s understanding of play and of themselves.  The difference that dressing up clothes can make is spectacular, and bright chalks and glitter transform the whole area into a dazzling kaleidescope of play.  Loose parts can also compensate for an area that is lacking in them – it’s nearly impossible to build dens in most public parks where brush is tidied away and disposed of and children today rarely have the chance to get messy.

At the same time though, we have become quite dependent on the materials we bring – on the ‘arts and crafts’ options and the sports equipment – to get play started.  Kit bags get bigger and bigger as children ask for new things, for different things, and we want to provide them.  That’s why when one of my colleagues told me about a session she recently ran with no stuff at all, I was enthralled.  It seems ridiculous, but I had never heard of such a thing.  Below are all quotes from Kitty Suchard, who works at the Play Association of Tower Hamlets.

“We had been bringing loads,” she said, “especially crafts because we were trying to attract new children.  We wanted to see how it would be if we brought nothing at all.  It was a slow start and some came and then went.  Play took longer to initiate and involved us all asking a lot of questions.  We hung out at first, then they would suggest a game.

We played hide and seek, we played with cracks in the pavement.  After a while it was almost as if (the playworkers) weren’t there, and they were much more focused on their relationships with each other.  They were gossiping amongst themselves, and the older children led games.   Not us.”

As we talked I could feel myself getting a little uncomfortable at the thought of bringing absolutely nothing.  It seemed like going to a party without a gift.  She agreed, saying that it felt new and strange, and we wondered how playworkers had got to that point – so dependent on the trappings of play, even as we tried to convince children they weren’t necessary.

“You feel quite out in the open without the backup of stuff,” she said.  “We had to step back as playworkers and say ‘so okay, what do I really know about play?’  It was much more physical; we were involved.  We were running and playing ourselves, not just handing things out or helping when they asked.

“(Before) they were always asking for direction with the stuff, like we had become just another object.  But that day was amazing, we made daisy chains, they brought some of their own favorite toys out from their houses and shared them with us.  And it spread out over the whole estate, rather than just being centred around a bag of kit.”

After this conversation I ran my own stuff-free sessions on three different sites and I have to agree with everything Kitty shared.  Materials had previously been a source of contention at times, with games of theft of materials starting to impact upon other forms of play and everything liquid being emptied over us.  We had solved this first by changing the materials from paint to cotton wool balls, for example, and bringing nothing we were afraid to lose.  These last sessions, however, had none of these issues.

We played hide and seek and the children shared their favorite hiding places.  We jumped over scars in the tarmac and collected pebbles to pitch at the drain.  We dredged up games from the dim recollections of our own childhoods as they explained the rules of their games to us, and we sat for ages deciding what to play and how.  In the process we came to know the children in different ways than previously.  Perhaps most importantly, we were fully and implicated in the play both socially and physically, running and jumping until we nearly passed out.  And when we left, there was no period of cleaning up the detritus of play that had always bothered me, with its suggestion that play there was ‘over’ for the day.  Instead we just nodded to one another that it was time and left the site saying that we were going home for dinner.  Behind us, the children stayed out to finish the games they had started.

During our reflection on these sessions, we decided as a team that we might slowly reintroduce a few carefully considered materials individually – such as a mask one week, or a box.  The difference that a particular object can make for a child with poor play skills is too important to neglect, but it will be done differently than before, and far more deliberately.  It will be done with close attention paid to the needs and interests of the children as we come to know them better – and for that reason, it won’t be for a while yet.

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