We sat, side by side on tiny chairs, staring at a crumpled workbook. The little boy writhed on his chair, wailing “but why, but why why why” as if all his toys had perished in a fire. We were so close to finished, with just one page remaining and then he could go to recess. Five objects and a list of letters beside each – our task was to circle the letter that each object name began with, but he’d hit a wall. I looked down at the little drawings, all stacked in a column: a frog, a bike, a cow, a car, a birthday cake.
“What if we made it into a story?” I asked. He looked up. “It could be a story about… about a frog who got on his bike…”
“Frog.” he whispered, a smile creeping open. I smiled back.
“The frog got on his bike and then…”
“Then he went to his friend the cow.”
“Yes! And then together the frog and the cow got into a car…” He was grinning now. “Then what happened?”
“Then the car was hungry, and it ate the birthday cake!” I laughed and he cracked up, slapping the table with his hand.
“That is a funny story.”
“Yes,” he agreed. Then, very casually, I tapped the paper.
“What letter does ‘frog’ start with?”
“F,” he said. Then, utterly calm, he ran down the cartoon list. “Bike. B. Cow.”
“Cow begins with?”
“C,” he sighed, circling it twice with his pencil and then smiling. “Car, another C. Birthday cake. B.” Two more penciled circles and we were done.
This summer and autumn, I’ve seen children in lots of different settings. The Children’s Room at my local food co-op, where small children come with their parents and slap 5 piece wooden jigsaw puzzles against a miniature kitchen set. A wedding, where I looked after a boy with complex needs and danced with him on a grassy patch a short distance from the crowd. House parties, which now I’m in my 30s have become far more intergenerational affairs. And, on that afternoon, a classroom. I’ve been curious how playwork approaches might apply to all these different environments, and what I could learn from seeing children in other contexts.
About ten minutes later, that boy and I were eating snack out of small plastic bowls. He lifted up a raisin and a peanut, smushed together in a ball. He grinned at this and dropped it into his mouth as if he were a baby bird.
“Hey,” he said. “You. Do you remember the time we made a story?”
“Yes, I remember,” I replied. He nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, wistfully. “Our story was so funny. A car that eats a cake!”