We all come from different worlds of experience and expectation.
We use the same words to mean different things, and often assume that other people agree with us until it’s proven otherwise. It’s difficult to accept how little we know about other people’s lives or the ways they understand them, but that’s the great thing about playwork – you have to be willing to get your mind blown.
Sometimes though, your mind can be blown by other staff members, or by the difference between playwork and other approaches to children.
I was working at a summer camp this July in Northern California. The job of Camp Counsellor is different to that of Playworker – and this was a good summer camp, thoughtful about the opportunities it provided for children to learn about and explore the natural world. Even so, I was bewildered by such concepts as ‘time waster games’, designed to fill those troublesome gaps between activities with structured physical exertion. Play was scheduled in at various points throughout the day, when I leapt in.
After lunch a child might suggest a game that had been introduced earlier as a ‘time waster’ and we’d see who wanted to join in. It would then be adapted, altered with new spontaneous rules and elaborations until it became something quite different, until it became play.
“So I’ll hide and you’ll seek, but if I’m up a tree when you find me then I’m a monkey and you can’t get me.”
“Unless I’m the Hulk.”
These sessions were a source of useful conversations between me and the other staff members, not least about trusting the children. As long as I talked with the children about how far they could roam during a game, the other staff members returned to their lunches and the kids and I got on with it. Some wanted to play in a big group, others split off into pairs or solitary thinkers, and we repurposed water bottles as noise shakers, splash bombs and goal posts.
The children asked me repeatedly for permission – permission to play, to run and be noisy or go to the corner and whisper. Many had trouble keeping a game as play, or difficulty negotiating or perceiving other children’s boundaries. Some just kept asking me what to do. These were children used to structured provision, used to having their time “wasted”.
There was one session though, a whole afternoon slot I was given along with fabric and branches and string and clothespins, and we set off to play in the woods. We had become an activity! But it was a chance and I grabbed it. Aware that we were being observed by other counsellors I gathered the children together first and we discussed a framework for the afternoon. We agreed that stealing materials from another den would be fine, but that fighting over them was not. Most of the children were so expectant that I’d solve any dispute that the found they discussion itself pretty funny.
It was beautiful, the building and the tearing down, the groups that formed and reformed around materials stolen as totems, the brief and ferocious wars that broke out, the collaborate peace of rebuilding.
Halfway through though, I was pulled aside for a chat. Oh no, I thought. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one to see Mark land that punch on Alec after all. Since returning to America I’d heard the admonition to ‘play nice’ about a thousand times – far more often than the ‘play fair’ I had been expecting. The children’s play at the dens had been impassioned, generous, frantic and bitterly guarded. It had been a whole universe and civilization that rose and fell in a handful of pine-scented hours – but it hadn’t been ‘nice’ at all.
“One of the other counsellors was concerned,” the Camp Coordinator said. “She saw some of the kids playing at guns. We can’t allow that here.”
It took me a minute to connect what she’d said to what I’d seen, but then a memory of Steph rose up. She quietly threaded a cardboard tube inside one slightly larger, then punched it through towards another den while screaming “FIRE!” This immediately and widely popular.
“Oh,” I said. “The bazookas.”
I didn’t know what to say at first. These children were growing up in the extremely rural north of the state, in a town where numerous residents had hand-painted their pick-ups in camouflage. The general store had a ‘Kills of Pride’ pinboard covered in snaps of locals holding up enormous fish, kneeling beside opened deer carcases, or with their arm around the head of a bear as it rested on the hood of their truck. These were children who, by the age of about ten, often had real guns of their own. When I’d asked one girl what she did over the weekend she replied “I shot me some squirrels.”
It is so easy to impose our own prejudices and interpretations upon children’s lives. That’s why we have to be so careful.
When we see them reflect back an aspect of the wider culture that we find troubling, it is easier to stop them from playing at it than it is to prevent big scary thing from actually happening. The workers on this camp were not hunters (though neither were they vegetarians), and they responded to children’s play at guns by connecting it to pre-existing associations of school shootings, violent video games and gang cultures. These may have been the associations that the children were playing with – or may not.
The point is we don’t know what exactly a child is playing with or through, and unless we absolutely have to intervene then we don’t have the right or need to. Fearing that a child who plays at violence (or sex, or smoking, or anything else prohibited) with grow up to do the thing for real is misguided – it’s nearly superstitious, this fear that a pretend version of the thing will conjure up the reality. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that the reverse is true – that children will return to the interrupted games later in life, playing at sex and drugs and violence in far more serious ways as adults than they would have as children. When we ban this kind of play we’re saying that we don’t know the difference between play and real – and we’re denying children the chance to make sense of their lives in the best way they know how.
No wonder they look at us like we’re crazy.