“I found you!”

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!


7 thoughts on ““I found you!”

    1. That’s true – I absolutely could have done that. It’s certainly possible that I should have.

      I would never want to imply that anything I’ve done on a play site was the right or only thing to do. It’s just what I did, because it seemed like the best thing I could think of at the time.

      This blog is a sort of public reflective practice for me, which is a bit risky because the internet is a Wild West of public opinion (bullets flying everywhere). It’s a way to open up some of the details of playwork as I find and do it, and to encourage discussion.

      So while I agree that playwork isn’t about helping kids, I think it can include that – when that’s what they’re are asking for.

  1. A truly eloquent and well-reasoned response to random unwarranted criticism. And now for a less eloquent and less well-reasoned one: not helping a kid who asks for help in the name of what playwork is “about” is never going to be the best thing you can think of at any time.

  2. Morgan is always eloquent and charming; this does not preclude her sometimes being incorrect.

    Her response is nothing less than I expected – I knew she could take it on the chin.

    And I would love to discuss ‘helping’.

    Oh, so many crimes against the person committed in the name of helping. My own playwork was hugely informed by this man’s book:

    When we help, who do we help? When I help you, do I help me?

    Brandon worked with homeless people, people with whom Sturrock recently suggested, along with the working class, the disdvantaged, that playwork should make common cause with (‘Campaigning by Canapé, IPDIP recently).

    Ask a beggar which is harder: asking for help, giving help or receiving help.

    So the issue of blogging, and criticism and debate and such: as Morgan says, “This blog is a sort of public reflective practice for me, which is a bit risky…” This point is well understood on the interwebs, to the point of being a cliché: less well appreciated is the risk of the respondent who dares to disagree: that is truly the risk.

    By blogging I stand up to be admired and appreciated (look back and see my admiration and appreciation of the one I dubbed ‘Morgan Le Play’). By disagreeing, as Mrs Bono amply demonstrates, I expose myself to attack, to accusation, to conflict; at best I can expect, well, what Morgan gave – a quiet acknowledgement and a measured defense. One hopes for more: one hopes for play, possibility, exploration…

    The pattern with Mme de Bonio (little fun with the pseudonym – please note PleXity is not a pseudonym – I’m also a blogger here – click the name to find my blog and discover far more than you care to about me), the pattern here is absolutely classic: a blogger posts, someone disagrees, tersely, someone else leaps in on behalf of the blogger: classic victim/persecutor/rescuer cycle, the conducting of which trashes the aim of the blogger to provoke debate.

    Should I not have been terse? Do I not have a duty of clarity? I think not, for that is to defend in anticipation of attack, to anticipate conflict rather than invite thought and possibility. Unless we expect to fight, surely we can be terse? surely we can just ‘put something out there’? surely we can reasonably expect or words to be listened to, our provocation acknowledged? and if we are unclear, if we ar terse, or gnomic, then surely we can be asjed to explain, to say a little more, to insert our head further into the noose before it is yanked? No offense, Morgan -yank joke :-), tee hee.

    The criticism was not random, it is rooted in the UK playwork ethos and the Playwork Principles, as Morgan herself will be well aware. (Have you noticed dear readers, how this discussion, twixt heroic rescuer and evil persecutor is now sounding like a case conference? Only missing detail: Morgan is not sobbing in the corner.

    Someone very wise warned of the dangers of followership. The leader has nothing to fear from the critic, Instead fear the true believer.

    Unwarranted criticism? Morgan herself (would you like a tissue,dear?) doesn’t appear to think so, judging from her response.

    Now, to the issues. BTW, I’m aiming here for the pomposity of an Oxbridge tutor, as a way of articulating whist concealing my emotions – yes, of course I am annoyed with the true believer! I attempt Socratic dialogue; I hope to avoid Socratic dying.

    The issues – this helping.

    Helping who? Let’s read back over the original blog. Morgan’s help is demanded (if that’s not to strong a term) by a fellow playworker – ‘keen but novice’ – in this new setting. Would Morgan have intervened if this other adult had no demanded it? Who is being helped here? The child or the adult (the other worker, not Morgan, I mean).

    So much playwork is adulterated (technical term, Ms Boho, look it up in the playwork knowledge domain) by managerialist demands such as this between the two workers.

    So, an intervention is demanded by an adult. An intervention based on the perception of a risk. The perceived risk is that the child swinging the pole is unaware of his surroundings: from Morgan’s account it is unclear to me whether he was unaware of the toddlers nearby, despite her saying he wasn’t looking, “didn’t see’”, he may well have noticed them a few seconds before she arrived, we don’t know. Nor do we know whether they were actually in danger of being hit or just nearby. He may have not noticed them AND they may have been in no immediate danger. If there was no immediate risk that one of them was about to be hit, then I would (as I did) prescribe a low intervention strategy. That was my starting point: this boy is on his own, he may be a little odd, he may be playing nicely or he may be unaware, let’s not leap to judgment.

    So much playwork is about NOT KNOWING, and so much crap playwork is about KNOWING. The other worker KNEW there was a problem, and I beg to disagree.

    The intervention I offered Morgan in my comment has a low risk of disrupting his play frame (more jargon, sorry Ms B); instead it allows him the CHOICE of acknowledging me, and allows me, using a mode which from memory Bob (Hughes, First Claim, more specialist stuff, sorry, B) calls something like ‘Perceived Indifferent’. I would use this as a way to INVITE an interaction with him, in the softest way I could devise, WITHOUT running a high risk of disrupting his play frame. And – and this was my cunning plan – as I move behind him I put myself in the line of fire, protecting the tiny innocents from a PERCEIVED risk of a blow to the face from a pole (what a hero I am), but WITHOUT disrupting his playframe and without implying any moral judgment about his behaviour. Note that Morgan’s intervention didn’t imply that either, which is excellent; we’re not discussing a bodged interaction here, merely one with potential for improvement.

    What I am clear on, is my criticism of her chosen intervention – too ‘high’ and evidently totally annihilating of his play frame. His emotional response shows us a distressed child ‘over-sharing’ with a stranger IMO, throwing himself into victim mode in need of help – what a contrast with the studied moves of a would-be martial artist seconds ago!

    There he was, enjoying the sensations of his play, the whoosh of the stick through the air, classic boy stuff (must-resist-temptation-to-digress-ugh-into-gender-issues-in play, phew), practicing mastery play and perhaps lost (and therefore perhaps unaware, PERHAPS) in a reverie, a fantasy play of martial artistry.

    Either way a kid playing with a stick is now presenting as a nervous wreck. Which is interesting. Hmm… (strokes beard) maybe we should find out more about him, or maybe not…

    Either way, let’s stick to the issue, which is as I see it, simply:

    Kid playing, perceived danger to other kids, how do we protect other kids while allowing kid with stick his right to play with his stick? Simples.

    No biggie (or it wouldn’t be if I hadn’t been strongly requested to ‘help’ another adult. Their ‘problem’ isn’t necessarily ‘a problem’ nor is it ‘my problem’. My only problem is: is there a problem here? Ah, the joys of co-workers).

    Side issue – who decided sticks were in the kit on-site? What are the policies on big dangerous highly attractive bamboo poles? It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man on finding a big straight stick, must be in want of waving it about like a ninja – should not these ‘weapons’ be guarded and kept to the den-building zone, for safety reasons? Should there be ‘zones’? Are we cool with random kids wandering off with big sticks? Do we have floating staff as part of our space management to provide oversight? Should we? Is that playwork? Why are there toddlers on site? Are parents responsible for them? Millions of questions of playwork, of management, and of the management of playwork rear their heads, but for now let’s sweep them aside and focus on the issue (and I’m guilty of not defining my terms clearly at the outset – sorry, but I have now, belatedly.)

    So kid with stick… I am behind him, in between him and the tinies who may be at risk; I have walked slowly, and btw, I haven’t initiated eye contact, neither have I avoided it, but I’m sure to be noticed by him: by not making eye contact I leave it up to him whether he acknowledges me or not. Once I am in position I can glance at him, and choose my next move based on his response – he may invite me to interact, he may ‘ignore me’, it’s up to him. If he persists with his ‘dangerous’ pole-play then I have options; my preferred one would be to shoo the tinies away from his path and to exaggeratedly ‘avoid’ his swings on my way to an imagined destination ‘elsewhere’ then, as I pass him, I can perhaps say something like ‘ I’d watch out were you’re swinging that pole old chap, they might take it off you if they think you don’t know what you’re doing’, again leaving him options, making the point about safety (if needed, we don’t have the data to decide unless Morgan can add something more to her account) all the time, minimally affecting his play.

    Or, if at any point in this HE chooses to ‘notice’ me, then we can roll with that; it’s up to him. Bonus if he choose to stop waving the sodding stick at the weenies, that way I don’t get have to get all John McLaine on his ass.

    His play being his ‘first claim’ on us, his right to his play, his way – unless it carries a HIGH probability of causing MAJOR harm to himself or another, not just an over-protective, blanket elfandsafety ‘maybe’.

    Why all this emphasis on low intervention and his play and his choice? Because the help at issue here, IMO, is the help demanded by the other adult. We can reasonably conclude that this other had actually botched her earlier interaction with the boy (“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…”).

    Ok, I’ll stop now. I’m leaving unexplored the points about helping, and who is being helped – adults or children, and how best to help them. I’d love to explore those issue with you Morgan (and I can think of 2 others who would be both up to it and up for it: Kelda and Eddie.)

    And Mrs Bono – I hope you’ll tolerate my playfulness with your pseudonym and thank you for being the agent who evoked these thoughts.

    And Morgan, thank you for being up for my criticism. Well played Ms Le Play.

    And of course playworkers help children, they just don’t do it by helping children…

  3. Oh, and just one quick point: he didn’t ask for help: Morgan offered. That’s the point.

    If he had asked for help… different story…

    (Note to the internet – feel free to not read the long and considered piece above which sets the context for this brief point which I omitted from the longer piece, in favour a quick knee-jerk reaction.)

    Note to Morgan – thanks again for all this. Risky play for you – well played.

    1. Oh my goodness! There should be a special word (or prize?) for a comment that is twice as long as the original post.

      So, deep breath: here’s my response.

      This story does relate the use of a higher level of direct intervention than I would normally employ. This was chosen deliberately – though of course not flawlessly – and softened as much as I could (by crouching to one side, not touching him or the pole, and positioning myself so that he could ignore or dismiss me. Again, I am not saying that what I did was the best thing possible – just that it is what I did, that there were reasons for it, and let’s talk about those as well as what happened next.

      This seems to be a question of how do we determine what an “appropriate level of intervention” is, to the best of our flawed abilities?

      Firstly, I believe that we have to trust the playworker who is there to pick up non-verbal, difficult to explain aspects of the situation. This is hard to do, so we train playworkers in 3 stages: information and training ahead of time, team support during the session, and reflection afterwards. That’s the only way that I think playworkers can develop and trust their instincts, can develop that level of informed improvisation that is so key. That’s the only way I know to do playwork (which is a concept I feel much clearer about these days than ‘playworker’). So, reflection time!

      In this instance many things external to the child informed the intervention I selected, and I admit to that clouding my judgment in the moment. It was a busy public site where I – and all my mad ideas – were guests. There were volunteers who were barely trained in playwork, whom I did not know. There were parents. There was a child, who had just been told off by an adult wearing the same T-shirt as me – an adult who, as far I could see – had already smashed whatever play he was engaged in and transformed him from a boy waving a stick to a pissed-off and alienated boy waving a stick.

      Any child who has an adult try to remove something from him and then leave can reasonably assume that another, probably scarier, adult is on their way.

      When I watched him briefly, these are the considerations I was trying to make sense of. What did his stance and his attitude suggest of his state of mind?

      Beyond that were the things that I knew which he might not have known: that at any point one of the parents of the toddlers was quite likely to intervene, to boss and shout and pull rank, perhaps have the boy removed entirely.

      I realize that in the above paragraphs are a lot of my own concerns, my own interpretations of the day’s context, and that the fact that I saw some of these echoed in boy’s posture and facial expression does not mean they were there. We are all very capable of finding what we are looking for, after all.

      Given that we are now unable to know for sure what his state of mind was before I came along, or what the potential losses to his play from my intervention were, I believe we have to look at what happened next.

      It is true that I offered help; he did not ask for it. You can characterize his response to this offer as ‘over-sharing’, as placing himself in the role of victim, but you have no way of knowing that – any more than I can know that any of my suspicions are right, either. He may have had this precise resentment boiling up inside before I came along, who knows? We are all searching in the half-light.

      What we do know is that after I offered help, after he got started and I tried to withdraw, he fetched me back again and again and again. This implies that the experience provided something that he needed.

      Given that my mid-level intervention was a compromise position, taken in the heat of the moment, I think reflection and discussion are appropriate and necessary. That’s what we’re doing now.

      Do something, discuss and reflect, do it again better. This too is playwork.

      We will all inevitably be less than perfect. All we can do is try to be better every day than we were the day before, and hope that we are forgiven our missteps by children – and adults – who know we only had the best of intentions.

      1. hi Morgan,

        lovely reply.

        As I said to you privately, I’m going to write up my thoughts on ‘helping and playwork’ and will draw on your material here, with your permission (note to others – M has graciously allowed me to do this and I have, of course agreed to let her see it before I publish. We are cool with each other about this, as you can see from her reply and the tone of the conversation between us here, as in: “Morgan, thank you for being up for my criticism. Well played Ms Le Play.”)

        Just to reply quickly by simply saying YES I agree! to this:
        “ Given that my mid-level intervention was a compromise position, taken in the heat of the moment, I think reflection and discussion are appropriate and necessary. That’s what we’re doing now.
        ”Do something, discuss and reflect, do it again better. This too is playwork.
        “We will all inevitably be less than perfect. All we can do is try to be better every day than we were the day before, and hope that we are forgiven our missteps by children – and adults – who know we only had the best of intentions.”

        Well said, M Le P.

        You’ve given us a chunk more of the ‘case story’ – important context for the situation, a rough count tells me 5 significant points. And I fully understand your piece as a superb example of a good ‘playperson’ (let’s dodge the ‘definition/s of playwork/er for now) doing that rare thing personal reflection on her practice.

        I’m not, as I hope you can appreciate, interested in micro-managing a tedious nano-detailed case history of a ‘problem’. Pointless without access to a type 40 Tardis. As you may be aware, I’m an advocate of a thing called ‘solution-focused consultancy’ which is about what can we learn, what is already working and so on, building on strengths and and all that.

        My interest is rooted in my concerns for playwork, which I’ll list here to avoid further explication:

        • what is playwork in C21?
        • playwork as craft ( http://plexity.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/craft-and-playwork-science-tells-you-that-your-opinion-is-worthless/
        • strategic playwork – my term ( a poor one but it’ll do) for an approach to the proper management of playwork at all levels (operational, policy, strategic, front line, ethical, etcetera) focusing on doing a ‘proper long-term effective job for society'(I have to say that to avoid a long diatribe about management jargon). Strategic Playwork is the sensible ‘playwork-friendly’ term for an approach that is the opposite of ‘managerialism’.
        ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Managerialism )
        • what is reflective practice in the internet age?
        * how can we support ‘playworker’s’ personal development ?
        (a category that you. M, despite providing a superb case for me, might not want to be included within)

        enough already.

        final note: I’m not advocating my interventions on your blog as a model of playwork mentoring! I’m more like the bigger kid who came over and nicked your stick…


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