I worked on a public site recently with some brand-new playworkers.
We’d done a brief training the day before, but that was only skimming the lake – volunteering at this event was jumping right in. It was a busy site, jam-packed with kids, materials and adults (some of whom were more involved with their children than others) and the new playworkers were keen but novice. One of them approached me late in the morning.
“I need some help,” she said. “The kid there, curly hair, red tank top?” She nodded towards him. “He’s waving that pole around and he’s going to hit somebody. I tried to take it off him but he got really mad, so I thought…” She shrugged, clearly out of ideas, and I thanked her.
Going over to him, I crouched down near him and to one side. He was shifting the weight of the 8 foot bamboo pole from hand to hand, sliding it through his palms and making fast wide circles in the air. He watched the other kids build forts but didn’t look behind him, didn’t see the toddlers ambling about in the path his pole was tracing. We made eye contact.
“Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?” He looked at me, shrugged. “You wanna make something?”
A burst of emotion flared from him and he nearly shouted, his voice rough with a mix of anger and need. “I can’t! I don’t know HOW!” His frustration and loneliness rolled over me in a wave.
“I can help, if you want.”
He nodded and we were off, bringing his pole to a bunch of others and making a teepee. I looked back and the new playworker was watching us, smiling.
We played for hours, tackling the challenges of building. Tape sticks to itself, wind is quiet until you turn your back – then it blows your plastic sheeting away. Whenever I tried to leave the boy (having brokered a tentative friendship between him and the boy nearby who was building a house for the three little pigs complete with security alarm made from an oatmeal can) he would immediately come and find me. Whether I was unscrewing a bottle of water, or checking in with another member of the team, or getting directions to the toilets, Curly Hair Red Tank would appear at my elbow with an enormous grin. “I found you!” he’d say. “You said you’d come back! I need more HELP.”
And he does. I tried to tag-team with another volunteer, asking him to handle the duct tape, but he said “I had him all day yesterday (at a local children’s centre) and I could put that tape right over his mouth”.
It reminded me of the teachers I know – dedicated, passionate teachers – who will sometimes refer to specific kids as “little shits”. This is what happens when we have firm expectations of children’s obedience, and when we respond to their challenges by taking more (toys, time to play) away from children who already have very little (social skills, security). When you meet a kid like this in a play setting, however, it’s clear what they need. They ask you for it again and again and again and, even when it gets exhausting, what they need is something we can provide.
UPDATED: Check out the comment thread for an extensive analysis of this with Arthur Battram, as well as some further context and reflection from me!