Greetings from Ithaca!
I’ve gone to visit Rusty Keeler and the Anarchy Zone that he and a range of wonderful people have begun. Details and photographs to follow!
In the meantime, here is the second part of the series of posts on play exercise memories.
As always, let me know what you think – especially if you disagree.
I’ve often thought that playwork should be one of those professions (like therapy) where professionals are obligated to seek those services for themselves.
We’re all drawn to this work for complex, shifting reasons – because it feeds some hunger we have for self-healing, for joy, for time spent outdoors, for inspiration, for hope. There is an old Jewish idea of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and sometimes it’s suggested that we choose tasks of repair that mend for others breakages that we suffered ourselves. We can end painful cycles, spare others and triumph over our old wounds.
For me, playwork appealed to my anger at the breakages I saw in the world, the systematic silencing of people in the basis of age, ability, orientation, strangeness. Coming at this from an eco-feminist, anarcho sensibility, playwork offered tangible, practical and joyful possibilities to help disregarded and disempowered young people make immediate changes in their worlds, and to do this with humor and compassion.
We are all imperfect, troubled and flawed. We all nurture secret hopes. We have all been hurt and all have an instinct for self-healing. We each have our reasons for doing this work (and those reasons are clearly not money, fame or popular respect) but how do we separate our reasons from the work itself?
Last week I shared some stories about these exercises, and others shared their own in the comments, so let’s delve into the processes of these exercises so that we can better understand how to observe, reflect and respond to what is happening. Instead of focusing on groups which we have led, let’s try this for ourselves. Take some time now to cast your own mind back, to sit in the sensory recollections, and let them fill you.
What do you feel when you recall your own childhood?
What do you remember?
For me, ‘play’ and ‘not-play’ memories are all jumbled up, and they don’t come running when called. I remember burning the soles of my feet on the summer-hot concrete of San Diego docks, skipping shade-to-shade all the way home. I remember being small for my age and hating it when adults thought I was younger than I was, or called me cute. Playing Barbie and Ken with a neighbor girl, how she took all of their clothes off, and the plastic clinks they made when she smacked them together. Day-dreaming in my room, and the glow-in-the-dark stars I stuck above my bed. I remember loving my cuddly toys for far longer than I thought appropriate, and the fear that this love was childish and somehow weak.
The immediacy, the potency of childhood memories is still striking and for a moment I am caught, a taste in my mouth of the sticks we’d chew and call “Indian gum” but the mouth itself thirty years old and in another country. The skin on my arms and the back of my neck rises in bumps.
Putting these memories into words is a thinning process; I flatten them to push through a letterbox of communication. A memory told changes character, becoming something that takes place publicly outside of the remembering body – just as Stuart Lester says that asking a child to explain their play is “disembodying”, so is explaining a memory. The trade is the possibility for connection, for airing and releasing something which was carried within for so long.
We rarely give enough time to these exercises. We make assumptions as to their effect. Some adults are reconnected to a forgotten joy that spills over easily into advocacy – but not necessarily. Play memories relocate us within our childhood selves (or reawake the children within us), and these children are hungry, curious, selfish and strong. The process from this to advocacy is one of translation, of projecting your own needs (met) onto those of children today (unmet) and then recognizing what you can do to make a difference. For advocates, we need adults who can step aside from their own remembered needs and understand how to support children’s play as an adult.
For the play deprived adult, however, the experience can be rather different. It is easy to slip into jealousy, suspicion, anger or withdrawal – all the emotions we see in play-deprived children every day. Alice Miller wrote on our need to process childhood oppression, developing sympathetic understanding for ourselves and for the adults who couldn’t do any better. If not, we simply pass these on to children in our care, looking to them to meet our needs in explicit and subtle ways, and in doing so continue the cycle of abuse and mistreatment. This can be true for parents and caregivers, teachers and playworkers.
Miller, a former psychotherapist, had grown disillusioned with the notion of the ‘talking cure’ and argued of the danger of creating or continuing a ‘false self’ – one that says and does the right things, one which performs but cannot truly experience, reflect or grow. This false self masks the true one and old traumas, these scabbed-over wounds that itch and trouble us and yet remain unexamined.
We recognize the impact of our own childhoods upon us, and of ourselves upon the play space. And yet we are often terribly British about these potential conflicts, with the professional message often seeming to be that “you must handle your problems, just not here”. And indeed, how are we to address these problems? If simply talking about them isn’t enough, and we are wary of revealing so much to the people we work with, how are we to proceed, as individuals and as a profession? And how are we to effect the widest possible change in children’s lives?
In the next and last post in this series I’ll discuss another method which can be used in parallel with or replacing play memory exercises to help adults learn to recognize and meet their own play needs, draw up childhood experiences in a supported environment, reconcile past traumas, and connect with others.
What’s more, we’ll do it using the skills we already have.