Last week was Spring Break, so I skipped out of Houston for a couple of days work outside of NYC and then drove up to see my parents and some friends in Vermont.
These friends have two children, and I spent a chunk of one afternoon sword-fighting with their eldest during an afternoon walk through the cemetery. We ran, leapt over tracks of mud, and parried with long sticks. After awhile, I proved myself in combat and he explained that now we were on the same side – and under attack.
“There’s another tank!” he said firing his stick at the helicopters above us.
“There’s so many!” I said, throwing a pine cone bomb at a hedge.
After that, I came back to Houston and spent two days plugging through neglected work emails and editing projects, with Xena playing in the background. As gloriously absurd as that show remains, it carried through an unexpected theme of swordplay across my vacation time. I’ve often joked that my taking fencing at school had turned out way more professionally useful than anyone had expected but the truth is, I have a lot more fun with it now than I did then.
Being on the fencing team was less romantic than I’d hoped. There were the white kevlar outfits, for one thing, and adolescence is hard enough without wearing white breeches and a giant plastic bra. We didn’t leap onto tables to kick soup tureens into the air, or hang from chandeliers. Instead we were plugged into a long electric cable, counting off points while someone shouted at us in French. Competitive sports were never really for me, but there were moments of real play hidden inside. There were moments when self-consciousness left me and the blade felt like an extension of my arm. There were moments when the kevlar and cable were forgotten and it all became somehow real – not real violence, but real fencing. The coach told me that these were to be guarded against, that a smart fencer stays cool and conscientious. A smart fencer wins.
There’s something similar happening during playwork, as we constantly balance professionalism and deep participation. We need to be present in the moment’s detail, but keep on eye on the scene as a whole – how it shifts, who arrives and departs, if other members of the team need us. When fencing with children, I carefully balance defense and offense, trying to provide an appropriate level of competition and protect both our eyes. In the cemetery, I noticed the mud seeping into my tennis shoes and steered him backwards towards the grass. I heard the voice of his little brother with his own stick saying “pew pew” and trying to get involved. And yes, when I crouched down by the grass slope and looked out for tanks, there were moments when the warmth in my blood rose and I felt some of it as play.
We need to be careful not to let children’s play become our own. But there are times when we feel absorbed in the moment, a phrase or feeling that connects beyond the frame to something deeper, something larger. This was a rare chance for me to take playwork skills from my professional hours into my personal ones and when I looked across the scene as a whole I saw my friends pushing the stroller, laughing.