I’m off again, tomorrow morning! Back to the States.
While I’m flying, here is the first of a 3 part post on Play Memory Exercises. I hope you enjoy, and let me know what you think! Especially if you disagree.
Play memory exercises are used by a number of people working in play and playwork (and undoubtedly other fields too) to help adults remember their childhood experiences. These play memories can be elicited by simple questions, by prompted visualizations, and participants usually say that the process was far deeper – the memories far more powerful – than they would have anticipated.
Like many people, I was first introduced to the idea of play memories by Penny Wilson. She has used play memory exercises beautifully on many occasions – helping to awaken adult’s recollections of long-ago summers as well as their understanding of and sympathy for children. I have seen her begin with play memories and and to start them people on a road to play advocacy. She has also completed a gorgeous photo and story series called “The String of Beads” that combines images with interviews with local older people to tell an oral play history of London’s East End (buy it here).
I have used versions of these exercises myself in a number of different settings, and agree that it’s powerful stuff. On an individual level, it is astonishing to see how people’s whole demeanors can change, how their expressions soften and they say the unlikeliest of things.
When it works
“I was bully,” one 92-year old Greek Cypriot woman said to me.
“You were bullied?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard correctly.
“No!” she said. “I bully, I take from other children. Dolls, oranges. I see and I take.” She reached out her arm, the hand thin and crabbed now, and snatched at the air. She laughed and laughed at who she used to be. All around the table those who shared her sheltered accommodation rolled their eyes at one another, unsurprised.
Another time I began a short workshop with a play memories exercise, encouraging anyone who felt moved to share a memory of a place or beloved object with the group. It was stilted at first, then one man spoke very softly.
“I, I played by the railway tracks,” he said. “It was quiet there. It was mine.” He looked at me, with his eyes shining. The air in the centre of the circle became warm, and as people talked of their favorite spots, their games with pebbles and shells, we all joined together in seeing how all of us had shared similar experiences in very different countries. Afterwards, the man approached me.
“Thank you,” he said. “I have not thought of my childhood in so long, and remembering it was like a gift. A gift I did not know I possessed.”
When it doesn’t work
There were two younger members of that second circle who looked distinctly uncomfortable. Two people with very little to share. Many professionals in the field have told me the same – that the younger members of their classes and workshops simply didn’t play out as they did, didn’t play as freely, and don’t have the memories to draw upon.
This can be extremely problematic. Those afore-mentioned professionals have expressed to me their concern that adults who didn’t play as children will be less able to support children’s play – they’ll have a limited skill set for play, their own needs will be too great to be put aside during sessions. In truth, if we as a field say that play is vitally important, doesn’t it follow that practitioners who were denied those opportunities themselves will be less able?
Then there’s Brown and Lomax’s 1969 study linking play deprivation and serious violence. This study, or summaries of it, are read in playwork training sessions all over the UK.
Having a coffee with a new volunteer playworker, this study came up in conversation. The new volunteer was nervous, fiddling with her teaspoon and not meeting my eyes, but the words seemed to boil up from deep inside.
“I nearly quit the course,” she said. “I mean, I like playwork and all, but I thought it wouldn’t like me.”
“How come?” I asked. She twisted up one side of her mouth.
“I didn’t do all that,” she said. “Running about, getting into mischief. I was at home with my sisters, watching TV, looking after my Dad. And well, I’m not a serial killer.”
This made me reconsider some of my assumptions around these exercises. If I hadn’t had that year of living on a boat, what warm and powerful play memories would I be drawing upon? For many of us, remembering our childhoods is not a simple or comfortable process – many memories are opaque, troubling, or buried under sediment that requires time and gentleness to sift through. There was lots of wonderful stuff in my childhood, but I also remember strong feelings of frustration, of loss of power, of loneliness. Memories of those feelings are without question essential to my own playwork practice, but are not to be dragged up casually, or in an open forum with people I do not yet feel comfortable with. I am not alone in this, and when asked for a play memory in public I realized that I draw upon one or two that are safe, well-worn, outdoors and free – ones that feel appropriate to what is being asked of me.
I remembered how many of the older people I’d interviewed said how lovely it was to remember their childhoods – and how one of Penny’s interviewers had flatly refused to remember his. It seemed to me then that asking people to draw upon those memories so they would come to see the value of our position is irresponsible, perhaps even psychologically unscrupulous. At the same time, being interested in the children that we all were, the children that we will always carry with us, and gathering oral histories, reawakening our younger, playful selves – this is powerful, vital stuff. How to reconcile these positions?
Practically speaking, play memory exercises are often our first port-of-call in building conversations around play – and this may be more exclusionary than we realize.
“Think of a favorite childhood place to play,” Tim Gill began when speaking to a crowd at Shoreditch House. “How many of you are remembering a place out of doors? Hands up.” And the hands went up. He asked how many of these had adults around, hands rose and fell. He did not ask whether those adults were parents or not (something I would have been interested in) but did mention the difference he sees when doing this exercise with groups of different ages. The younger the audience, the less likely it is that people will have played out of doors and away from the adult gaze.
How do we frame this discussion carefully, when telling someone that children today are being robbed of something that they were also robbed of, and that this loss has real and terrible consequences? It is delicate, to say the least.
On a site in East London, I was speaking with a parent who had come up to complain. She was furious with the children who played in front of her house, with us for attracting more children and then ‘rewarding’ them with string, tape and plastic tiger masks.
“All this, all this noise,” she said, spitting out the words. “All this mess. And they ride their bikes around and around, anywhere they please!”
“Where should they go?” I asked. “They cannot cross that busy road.”
“They should stop in,” she said. “Stay indoors, that’s fine. It was good enough for me. I had none of this,” she shook her hand in anger at the warm summer day, at the loops the children were making with the bicycles round and round the hollowed-out playground, at the bags of fabric and chalks that caring adults had brought and shared. “I had none of this, and I turned out alright!”
We need other ways, in addition to the elicitation of play memories, to help adults recognize the importance of play in the lives of children, and in their own. We need ways of doing this that do not highlight the lack, but instead help them to build upon what they have so that they, like the children we work with, can create the environments they need to play – and to play out, both physically and psychologically.
And that’s what I’ll be exploring in the next installment!