This is the second in an occasional series on play frames. The first one is here.
Children have so many ideas for how to play, and so many ways to tell us whether our place is outside their frame or within it. They might cue us in with a look or grin. They might ask us explicitly to participate, or simply tag us and run. The other day, we arrived onsite and a boy came to me with a length of rope.
“Can I be your doggie?” Harry asked.
“Of course,” I said. “I’ve always wanted a dog.” We put the cord around his waist and set off. He didn’t seem entirely secure in this game, looking back at me often with a questioning look. When he did, I’d affirm it by saying “good dog!” in a bright voice or scritch him behind the ear. Every time he grinned, and panted with a look of relief. As we completed our second tour of the site, another child ran up, tagged me and ran away. When I didn’t chase her she walked back, looking confused.
“Chase me,” she said, sounding a little annoyed.
“We’re playing doggies,” said Harry.
All of the children here have some diagnosed learning or language-based difference – one diagnosis or more from a list of overlapping names. This is compounded by play deprivation. To put it in our terms, if play is a language then many of them struggle with its a system of cues, queries and responses. They often have difficulty holding and communicating the boundaries of their play – identifying whether children are already in a frame, moving fluidly within frames as circumstances shift, and holding a frame secure. Having these difficulties, and playing with others who share the same difficulties, is hard – for some of the children onsite, it’s much easier to play with an adult who will carry that for them. There aren’t enough adults to go around, and we try to facilitate their play with one another.
“I’m playing tag,” Karen said. I was considering, in that small moment, how to connect them. These are the moments when doing playwork can feel like a magic trick, a sleight of hand that shows you two shining rings and then links them together. While I was thinking, Harry looked off to the horizon and then back again. When he spoke, it was quietly.
“Doggie tag?” he whispered. Karen howled with pleasure and tagged him, then ran away.
Is there a word for this, for the way in which a child can stretch their frame to enfold another’s? I’d seen both of them struggle before, building play frames that were inflexible and brittle, and was so impressed by Harry’s inventiveness. I wondered, would they need a witness? A participant? Would they prefer to be left alone and take this frame careening around the site, faster than I could run? Harry ran a few steps after Karen, barking at her, then came up to me. He put one palm on the zip line’s platform, and I sat down beside it.
“Pretend…” he said carefully. “Pretend your name is Morgan”.
So I did.