Have you had a child attach themselves to you, and never seem to leave your side? Has one ever cast you in a specific role every day? When this happens, it can feel like a strange mix of deeply personal (they picked you after all) and utterly generic, because what they’ve chosen you for has little to do with you at all.
It might start with repeated requests to play, a series of questions coming fast. It might start with a need, with an anger thrown at you for reasons unclear. You make the best guesses you can about the role you’ve been given, but this kind of playwork can feel most acutely like a combination of intuition and hope. These are the relationships which are often the most challenging, and the most educational to us.
A girl attached herself to me my first summer out there, a rough-and-tumble girl who needed to wrestle, hard. Jenna hadn’t learned to pull her punches and too many children had left her embrace bloodied while she shouted “HA” after them. She was running out of adversaries and in my first week onside she stared at me hard then kicked me in the shin. These are the children who keep us thinking fast, feeling our way through moments that can seem flammable, soaked in meaning we do not understand.
We fought for weeks. It was all she wanted to do, and pretty soon she only wanted to do it with me. My senior shook his head during reflection.
“She’s picked you,” he said. “We’ll help you out however we can, but something is happening now.” We established signals, so that I could tap out whenever I needed a break from being pummeled. He told me to set boundaries I felt comfortable with, reminded me to eat well, to get plenty of sleep. Even so, I went home most days with bruises up both arms so bad that after a routine checkup my doctor offered me a pamphlet on partner abuse.
When Jenna arrived, her eyes darted around until they caught me, then she’d grin and plant one fist in the opposite palm. We’d wrestle on a mat, me using my weight and strength to contain her, to put her in the holds she wanted to struggle against. Sometimes she’d sneak up from behind and punch me in the ass. I’d tell her when she hit too hard and stop for a moment before resuming. Sometimes I’d hide behind the sheds to catch my breath, eavesdropping on other playworkers telling her I was on break, offering themselves as wrestling partners and being turned down.
Her sister said she’d always been angry, had beaten most of the local boys. “We sent her karate classes,” she said. “It’s supposed to be good for aggression.”
“Did it help?” I asked.
“No,” she sighed. “It only taught her to punch harder.”
One day, Jenna punched me hard in the chest and I wrapped my arms around her. She punched again, kicked out, and her face was twisted with a rage that scared me. I wrapped her arms around her from behind and held her tight, my face tucked over her shoulder so she couldn’t break my nose. She thrashed and howled as we sank to our knees together, my arms locked and her fingers clutching my sleeve. Cries turned to wracking sobs, and then sniffs as her body quietened. I held her for minutes, hours. I have no idea.
When she was done, Jenna broke open from her anger like a chrysalis. She spent the rest of the afternoon taking a bundle of dress-up clothes into a cupboard and shutting the door, saying “don’t look to see till I come out!” My senior came along and clapped beside me as she burst open the door in a series of new personalities. There was an extraordinary sweetness to this play, a smile we’d never seen before spread wide across her face. It felt like fresh air and sunlight flooding in. We heard her giggle, for the first time.
This was seven summers ago, and Jenna turned out to be the first of many rough-and-tumble girls who found me. There was Farha, who wanted to fence with sticks and throw liquids in my face. Then Sofia, who I do not think ever touched me but instead ran elaborate pranks with me, always, as the target. I’d pick chocolate off my shorts or wonder where my lunch had gone and notice her giving me the same evaluating stare, the same twisted lip that Jenna and Farha had shown. She, too, was experimenting with power and limits and trust.
I wonder who will find me now. I’ve been doing playwork in all sorts of locations, but it’s been years since I was in that magical combination of outdoors, wildness, no-parents and the same children for a period of weeks. That is playwork with teeth. Somehow, I don’t think it will be the rough-and-tumble girls again – I don’t run as fast as I used to, and a bad left knee put me off wrestling. I never knew exactly what cues I gave back then, but I’m sure they’re different now.
So now, with schools finishing and summer gaining speed, it’s (as so often in playwork) a case of wait-and-see.