On First Sessions

I was at the Berkshire Museum recently, doing training and event support for their Ten Days of Play. It was fantastic fun at a wonderful location – and they made a funny little time lapse video of the first day. It includes our conversational training and play session at the beginning, then some scurrying when children arrive, and a brief sit-down before re-staging the materials.

You can see a busy period of den-building, sword-fighting and tape-tearing when a childcare group were there, and an abrupt lull when they all departed. The new playworkers looked at each other with wide, exhausted eyes, panting audibly in the loud and sudden quiet.  A storm had passed and been survived.  Everyone fell towards a circle of chairs, just visible at the edge of shot.

“Oh man,” one said. “Is there a part of this training that involves sitting down for awhile?”

“Yup,” I replied. “Reflective practice!” And we had a our first chat about what we’d seen and done, before the next group arrived.

I love being there for events like this, providing information at the beginning and then supporting the new playwork staff through their very first sessions. Whether they’re teachers, museum educators, park rangers or any other adults interested in children’s play, there’s a glorious combination of enthusiasm, confusion, instinct and nervousness all bubbling together like champagne.  I know lots of you have had similar experiences of training and mentoring new playworkers – some have generously contributed their thoughts, feeding into my workshop on the subject at the National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne.  More are always welcome.

It also reminded me of a post I drafted ages ago, reflecting on one of my very first visits to an adventure playground. I wasn’t a playworker then, just an anthropologist doing fieldwork. It would take another few months before I took the leap and set the clipboard down to join in – and in the meantime I was totally unprepared for my carefully scheduled chat with the Senior Playworker.

I had my pen and paper, voice recorder and interview questions laid out on the bench in front of me. The Senior had smiled and we were just about to start when a child approached. The boy was agitated, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

“I’m doing a thing,” he said to the Senior, who nodded. “A hard thing.”

“Okay,” she said softly.

“I need some. I need some help.” He pointed towards the back of the site, where the high wooden frames reached into the dense treeline. There were moldy blankets back there tied to high branches, broken pallets and flattened drink cans littering the ground. There was a scuffling sound around the adventure playground’s perimeter and the boy looked towards the noise, looking equal parts impatient and afraid.

“I’m going over there and can you look out for me?” He pointed towards the noise with a large stick.

“Look out for you how?” the Senior asked, her voice neutral.

“Like, be here. If, if I need you.”  He scarcely looked at her, eyes scanning the far wall and twitching with his need to go, his need to stay.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll do that.” He nodded, satisfied, then looked down at his stick. It was almost as thick as his arm and very solid, with a few bent nails poking out.

“Do you need to take that stick with you?” she asked him gently. He nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s… important.”

“Okay then. I’ll be right here.” Then he ran off and she turned back to me, to the dull and forgotten interview I’d planned. “Now,” she said. “Where were we?”

Witnessing that one exchange changed everything for me. I was shocked by the faith she displayed in him, her willingness to be what he needed without question.  I’d gone to look at children’s building, but had seen something far more revolutionary – evidence of freedom.  More than anything, I realized how rare this exchange was beyond the adventure playground fence and how desperately I wanted to be doing this work rather than any other.


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