Gender and playwork, the return

This story and picture were kindly contributed by a friend and colleague who wishes to remain anonymous.

“I’m gonna draw you.” says a kindergartener. We’re both sitting by a patch of sand. I had been drawing abstract lines in the sand with a stick while chatting with children and she took to the sand with a stick as well. “Okay.” I said.


“Here’s your head, and your arms are like this.”, she looked up at me then back to her drawing, a practiced artist wanting to get my likeness.
“Stop moving!” Whoops. I had gotten distracted and looked away but got back into my pose at her urging.
As she drew the details of my head she said, “Your hair is short, like a boy’s… Are you a boy or a girl?”
“I’m a little of both.” I answered, with a shrug – one of the handful of answers I give depending on context.
She took that in stride and moved on to my neck, and my body. No further questions needed for now.
I think a lot about how the children see me. I try to make sure I show through my body language that I’m available for play. I’m sure that even if I presented as more stereotypically female or male they’d still get the impression that I’m different than other adults by the way i move: I run and hang upside down on the monkey bars, I climb into small spaces and lie on the ground. But I do think that being read as “in-between” in gender adds to my representing an “in-between” adult.

Two stories on gender, playwork and play

I am lucky enough to live in a small town where different is fairly normal.  One of my favorite moments was noticing a thrift store’s racks of coats labeled not ‘men’ and ‘women’ but ‘butch’ and ‘femme’.  It was so pleasing, such a small thing that felt like recognition.  It makes room to celebrate these clothes as costume pieces, loose parts for grown-ups.
Gender can be a topic for play, and tightly policed.  It’s something that children can be acutely aware of and are often fascinated by.  Over the years, some kids have carefully explained the ‘rules’ of gender to me.  Pink is for girls.  Boys are always stronger.  I’ve usually nodded silently, not wanting to push my agenda – a choice which is not easy, let me be clear.  My feminism is not usually a silent practice.  But I’ve also seen moments of organic realization that made my heart sing, like the shock of a girl at Parish when she heard that the inimitable Jill Wood was in charge.  Eyes wide, she asked “a girl can be… the BOSS?”
For years, children were also the only people to ask about my gender.
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Any nearby non-playworkers would usually laugh awkwardly and tell the child to hush, adding some version of “that’s rude to say.  Of course she’s a girl!”.  Most folks seem pretty attached to the gender binary, or at least view an unclear presentation as failure or shame.  I don’t think they realize that they are the ones being rude.  Usually I ignore the adult, and speak directly to the child.
“What do you think?” I might say, or “right now, I’m a helicopter”.  Once I looked at the child asking me, a solemn face peeking around her well-intentioned grown-up, and said “I’m mostly a girl, I think”.  She nodded solemnly and went back to her plastic truck.
Children have asked me about gender when my hair was cropped short, and when it hung down past my shoulders.  Whichever side of the store I’ve bought my clothes, eyeliner or no, they’ve asked me just the same.  Interestingly, those markers never mattered much to adults, who relentlessly called me ‘ma’am’ no matter what.
I wonder if this is connected to how, on projects without male play workers, I get sought out first for rough and tumble.  Is it the way I walk, the set of my shoulders?  I have been cast as the groom in so many weddings, I probably should have registered for gifts.  What cues am I sending?  What affordances do I provide?
Since reflection happens alone and with colleagues, I’ve been lucky enough to have gorgeous conversations with some other playworkers on exactly this topic.  It’s even part of my PhD research!  There’s one story to share tomorrow, and I’d love to hear yours, by comment or email.

Winter care, for ourselves and our communities

December can be a rough month for folks. We’re with family or we’re not, and both of those options can come with heavy baggage. The world, by me at least, is getting colder and there’s a definite bite in the air. Color is seeping out of the landscape like a Polaroid in reverse.

Are you looking after yourself?

The phrase ‘self-care’ has been heavily co-opted by companies selling complicated skincare products to white ladies, but the case was argued by women who knew their shit. Like Audre Lorde, for example, who wrote that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.

More radical still is the current reframing around community care. Instead of privileging stoic self-reliance, community care reminds us to open ourselves to caring for one another, and to bravely ask for what we need.

Unsurprisingly, I think play deserves a place in this conversation.

Valuing play reminds us that survival isn’t enough. The smallest among us need chances to thrive, to celebrate and explore and express. To dare, in and with all their senses. Play can form a bridge, between people and one another, and each of us with the world. Play can remind us that we are not alone.

In our darkest months, how can we shine a light for one another? How can we take care of ourselves, and lend a hand to others when they can’t?