“Oh, I hate glitter,” some playworkers say – people who you’ve never heard be so vehemently opposed to anything. I think I understand their reasoning. It’s unusual these days to advocate for children to be given power tools, to be allowed to climb trees, and it’s cool to argue those cases. Glitter is often more associated with the arts and crafts table than the wild outdoors. It’s a bit naff, and it’s wildly impractical.
Suzanna has twisted her face up on many occasions when I’ve mentioned glitter before, so I asked her for her thoughts on the stuff. “I have MANY THINGS to say about glitter”, she texted back. “Mostly negative, but I have a lovely story to tell…”
Here is Suzanna’s story:
The very adult part of me hates glitter. It looks fabulous contained in whatever container it is in, but as soon as you open it… It. Gets. Everywhere.
Back when I was a playranger, I spent a lot of time setting up and cleaning up playful sites. It had to be a quick process – 10 minutes before the kids came, and 10 minute’s worth of the key holder’s patience after the children had gone – so it had to be fast. I was always very efficient with my activities, basing choices of materials on a vast number of playful opportunities it offered as well as loose part quality, but I always ALWAYS measured out how long it would take to clean up. Glitter, in my book, was simply not worth the hassle. My playranger partner never thought like this though and ALWAYS brought glitter. It would be absolutely everywhere, and then I’d have absolutely no time to clean it up. Then the adults would get angry cos the kids made a mess, and I would be sad cos they’d take it out on me.
Not only that, but post-glitter, you will – almost without fail – find a tiny bit of glitter on your face that sparkles occasionally like a dying star and takes you three days to discover and remove, only to rediscover on another part of your face the next day. This makes Zan sad!
The playful part of me, however, likes the idea of glitter.
Especially when watching a particular little girl with a tray of glitter, a small spatula of glue and a piece of paper. “One spatula of glue and glitter for the paper, one spatula of glue and glitter for me.” is the running commentary that I had imagined was going through the 3 year old’s head. Worried about the effects of glitter and glue on the insides of the little girl, I asked the little girl why she was eating the glitter. She looked at me, with a look of “oh, you’re here too?” and then stared at the spatula. Her mum pipes up from behind “oh, she eats anything!” which alleviates my worry momentarily, and I tried again “You’re gonna get sparkly poo if you carry on”. The little girl looked at me, then looked at the spatula, and dug it really far into the tray of glitter before taking another mouthful of sparkly awesome.
So there you go. If I’m being responsible and grown up, I hate glitter. But if I’m being a playworker, I step back and let the glitter do it’s thing.
It seems that some aspects of our work get right to the heart of it. The way we talk about risk and privacy, for example, often reaches towards some larger truth to do with childhood, society, playwork. Glitter does that too.
It is beautiful, uncontrollable. Once set loose it is adored, consumed in a moment and impossible to eradicate. It forces us to consider the possibilities of the space, of ourselves as staff, and to balance the presumed play value of one item against our own concerns – our own grumpiness.
I have a story too, of when I was doing ranging sessions with PATH on the housing estates of East London.
We’d found a space that was marked “playground” on the local estate map, but from which all the equipment had long been removed. The space was fenced tarmac, the black surfacing bubbled in some parts and sunken in others as if it had been boiled. There were the stumps of equipment, and the remains of a torched-out bench. Our first step there every session was to clean away the shards of broken glass that littered the space and made it sparkle.
When we went we brought all kinds of different materials. The children would unpack lengths of fabric, balls of string, tiger masks from the bags we brought and drag them all over the space. Streamers would be tied to the railings so they’d flap in the breeze. The children would run with the masks on, arms out like airplanes.
It was only after months of going, of cleaning and playing and cleaning again, that we arrived one day to quite a different site.
It sparkled at us from a distance, but when we approached with our plastic gloves, our bucket for the pieces of broken glass, we realized that it was no longer glass but glitter that made it shine.