New Girl

In the absence of actual children, I’ve been going through those half-written blog posts that sit on my desktop for months, cluttering it up with good intentions.  Here’s one from the days of the Pop-Up Play Shop, recording an instance when I felt truly useless.

First time visitors sometimes hesitated at the door, so when I saw two figures approach I stood up with a ready and welcoming smile.  The mother was on the phone, towing the girl behind her.  The girl’s expression was polite and a little blank as her mother paused in her other conversation just long enough to drop the girl’s hand.

“Go and play now,” she said, returning to her call.  She deposited her daughter by me, at one end of the arts table, and took a chair to the far side of the room to talk.  I smiled a ‘hello’ at the girl, and for a few minutes she watched the other children play – two brothers were wrapping each other up in pink cellophane, laughing and hitting each other with cardboard tubes.  A toddler slapped a pool of glue with her palm, laughing as it splattered a mixture of paint, glitter and stickiness all over her sleeve.  The new girl began to sneak looks at me while I puttered about with the tea things, but when I looked up she looked away.  One of her fingers traced circles on the tabletop.

Finally she looked at me long and searchingly enough that we made eye contact.  I smiled.

“How’s it going?” I asked.  She tipped her head to one side.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“This place is for play,” I said.  “So you can make or do whatever you want.”  That didn’t seem enough for her, so I after an long pause I kept going.  “And if you can’t find something you need, or have a question, let me know.”  She seemed to consider this for a while, pulled up a chair and sat on it for a moment before getting up again, moving across to watch the boys who were now piling things up on their heads and laughing.

“But what do I do?” she asked me again, suddenly back at my side.

“Well,” I said, thinking she was looking for ideas.  “We have cardboard boxes that would make a great den.  Or we have fabric and scissors.  Or you can just dig through those containers and see what you can find.”  I had the feeling of ham-fistedness, of flapping my mouth but not communicating.  I sat beside her in silence for a moment, trying to sense my way towards whatever was blocking her, trying to imagine what it was that spoke to her, what her spark might be.

“Is there something wrong?” I asked finally.  “Or something you don’t understand?”  She nodded, very carefully.

“Yes,” she said.  “I don’t understand what you want me to do.  I don’t know what you want from me.”

Now how do you answer that?  I tried, believe me.  I said that there was nothing that I wanted her to do, that this place was about her discovering what she wanted to do, and that my job was to be here if she needed something.  She looked at me politely, confused, as if she lived in a tent and I was trying to sell her double glazing.  I rolled a ball across the table towards her and she picked it up, handed it back to me gently and then walked away.

I didn’t see that little girl again afterwards.  She looked through a bag of fabric scraps, laying some of the pieces out in a row.  It’s true that I can’t know what she was feeling or getting from this, but from the outside she didn’t look particularly engaged.

When her mother finished the round of phone calls, she stood up and gestured – the girl ran over straight away, and together they walked out without another word, without a backward glance.


3 thoughts on “New Girl

  1. Chilling.


    I was in a poncy gift shop in North Norfolk, one of those mirrors made of driftwood, everything limed or Farrow&Ballsed up, tonenail clippers made from recycled fishermen. A yummy mummy came with the six year-old girl in tow, both in full Boden, mum maybe a dash of Monsoon. They looked around for a few moments, child following elastically, like a ball-bearing pulled around on a glass table top by a magnet, then YM’s phone rang. She escorted sprog to counter and barked “Don’t move!” then walked out of the shop, leaving me to glance at the shopkeeper, an affable gap-year Jeremy, with a rueful WTF? The child did not move. We are talking superglue.

    I agree with the Daily Mail: some people shouldn’t be allowed to have children.

    Thanks for evoking that one from the ‘pernicious parenting’ anecdote bank.

  2. Sad story, Morgan. As we’re trying to figure out how playwork practice aligns with our work in children’s museums in the US, I find myself reflecting on this story and thinking we would probably have been somewhat more proactive. For one thing, children’s museums have all these designed spaces and activities – one of the differences with pop-up play places and playwork elsewhere. Here in Providence, anyway, we’re practicing standing back and giving kids more of a chance to direct their own play than we have in the past. But in a case like the one you describe (and we’ve seen that sort of thing too), our people in the playworker role (we call them play guides) would likely have brought the child to a big box and said something like, “Want to make a house with me? Where shall we make the door?” or something else – but have been a bit more directive at least until the child found a way to play without guidance. My question is, how would some intervention like that square with playwork principals?

    1. I don’t think we can feel guilty about directing play for those children who do not know how to play. Perhaps sitting next to a child and doing something ourselves with the materials for them to mirror is a good start or involving them in a project with other kids? This post makes me very sad – we need to spread the message to schools and pre-schools that every child taking home a uniform painted toilet roll is robbing children of the ability to be creative and make choices.

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