“Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do.”
– National Museum of African-American History and Culture*
The Black Lives Matter movement has momentum right now. That momentum is built on decades of anti-racist activism and work by Black people.
Racism and specifically anti-Black racism is being talked about more widely than I can ever remember as a white 28-year-old living in Edinburgh, Scotland. This means a lot of, primarily White people, learning a lot very quickly, becoming more politicised and wanting to take action. What is going to hit home soon for people who’ve maybe been less involved in any kind of activism or work around dismantling the deeply embedded prejudices and structural inequalities around us… is that Activism is hard going. It is tiring and the work is never done and what’s more the energy this work takes can feel wildly disproportionate to the time you spend doing it. This only becomes magnified if you are directly affected by those issues at hand.
Everyone has their own limits and abilities and when that is recognised it becomes a strength of any movement. Looking at your own abilities, limits and strengths is key to figuring out how you’re going to make your activism sustainable. Because that’s what we need. When it comes to anti-racism the people who need to be doing the most work are white people which means we need to look at our day to day lives and figure out how we can make anti-racism a consistent part of it.
For me, my practice as Play Radical is a big part of my day to day life and will continue to be. It’s my work, my passion and takes up a large part of my time and energy. So how do I embed anti-racism into it in a long-term way? Here’s the plan I’ve put together:
Talk about race when I do training
I provide training on autism, autistic access and inclusive play. I currently mention race in all of these but, I need to be more informed and explicit. For example in autism training I will talk about how Black autistic people are commonly not diagnosed or often misdiagnosed and how this then affects whether they access the support they might need. But I don’t give enough space to acknowledge or talk this and the many other ways being a person of colour affects a person’s experience of being disabled and/or autistic. Being the ‘expert’ in this context as the person delivering training it’s easy to decide I don’t know enough to talk more explicitly or make more space for something. There is a two-part solution for this; 1. Learn more, 2. Practice what I preach- forget about experts, lean into any discomfort around the idea of being wrong or not doing something perfectly and make that space regardless.
2. Offer free training to Black-led grassroots and non-government funded organisations.
This ones pretty straightforward. I will be working on a way to formalise this as an offer and figuring out what my capacity is for providing this.
3. Challenge racism in my day to day practice
This applies to both the adults I come into contact with and the children and young people. As well as potentially supporting adults who work with those children. I think it’s worth mentioning that this is something I’ve had to do a lot in the five years I’ve been working with children and young people in Edinburgh and surrounding areas. It something I’ve done with varying degrees of effectiveness and need to continue to work on. At its most complicated in my work this means addressing racism when its displayed as part of behaviours linked to emotional distress; when a child in a state of meltdown uses racial slurs for example. I’ve worked with young white people in the past who’ve done this, where it forms part of a behaviour pattern linked to distress, anger and overload. It is essential to address this and work on it with the young person. It can’t be dismissed as just a given part of ‘challenging behaviour’. That’s not to say it’s not dealt with appropriately and sensitively- it needs to be part of a holistic approach to helping a child manage behaviour and emotions. But it can’t be ignored or dismissed. In my experience this is a long-term ongoing conversation with the young person.
4. Read/research/share work by Black practitioners
This means not assuming that work by Black practitioners, be that research, artwork, blogs etc are not there just because I don’t know about them. It means seeking out that work, paying for that work and using whatever platform I have to share it.
So that’s what I’m working with right now, it’s by no means a perfect plan and is something that I will need to consistently come back to, reflect upon and adjust. But I wanted to share it to encourage and support other people who want to do better, or more but aren’t sure how. Whatever roles you have in life, wherever you live, whatever work you might do there will be away to integrate active anti-racism into your life.
To my fellow playworkers, artists, community workers and educators what can you do to embed anti-racism in your practice? Are you feeling stumped? Confused? Helpless? Drop me an email and we can talk it through. I also very much welcome any feedback and suggestions you might have on what I’ve shared here.
“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”
– Ijeoma Oluo**
The image featured in this article is from Jen White Johnson who can be found here https://jenwhitejohnson.com/ and @jtknoxroxs on instagram and twitter.
If one hundred people wrote a guide to creating inclusive play spaces the result would be one hundred different guides. That’s no bad thing, they could be a hundred fantastic and useful guides filled with innovative and creative ideas, but, “inclusive” is not a fixed state. And as it is informed by multiple ever changing factors it never will be. I believe inclusion should be an ongoing collaboration amongst the people within a space, it’s about accepting that no one person will ever find the answer, only, an answer.
So, here, I want to share my thinking process and the ideas I use when I’m working to create play spaces and experiences which I want to be accessible to any child who comes into that space. It’s going to be a little messy and incomplete but, as it’s just one piece of that ongoing inclusion collaboration, messy and incomplete is exactly what it should be.
Inclusion and Access
Firstly, I want to look at two terms, “Inclusion” and “Access”. They are sometimes used interchangeably and confusingly (by myself included) although they mean something different, so I’m going to define how I’m using them in this piece.
When I talk about “Inclusion” I’m referring to the idea that every individual should feel valued for not what they do, say, or look like but who they are. This extends to each individual being able to benefit from, contribute to and simply exist in the social, cultural and physical spaces we inhabit.
When I talk about “Access” I’m referring to the practical consequences of this ideology, the actions we take to try and make this ideology a reality. This includes everything from the way we design and build spaces to the language we use to describe peoples bodies to providing an option of subtitles for an instructional video.
It’s important to try and not confuse these concepts because we need them both. Inclusion needs access to become more than a set of ideas and access needs the foundations of inclusion to be effective.
Universal Play Space
There is a concept used in design and architecture called “Universal Design”. This means that when designing buildings, objects, graphic communication, parks etc. the designer will be working to make the product “as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.” (http://www.universaldesign.com/what-is-ud/). A key aspect of this approach is that accessibility isn’t an afterthought but is integrated throughout the whole process. The outcome tends to be better design for everyone.
This is a concept I adapt and use working in play, let’s call it; The Universal Play Space. Following the concept of universal design, accessibility should never be an afterthought. Of course, the setting and how well you know the children you’re going to be working with will dictate what you know about the access needs of the children. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to predict every need when planning and preparing for a play session. But, here we have an advantage over the designer.
In design the designer will eventually step away from the product and the users will ultimately dictate what happens and how it is used but in play the playworker remains a part of the process. You, the playworker, have flexibility to adapt the session to children’s needs as they come up. This is perhaps not always obvious or easy as a task but willingness to do so, alongside play skills, experience and collaboration with your team and the children, give you a good chance.
Now, keeping the ideas of Inclusion, Access and the Universal Play Space in mind, let’s move on to the process of planning and preparing for a play session.
Play session planning
For the purposes of this article and in the hope of clarity I’m going to break down my process into three parts; finding, examining and adapting.
Part 1: Finding
Usually I have a lot of ideas and will draw from that idea bank when presented with a need. But I might also be presented with a need, such as planning something for a specific youth group, and then start searching for ideas, often consulting with the group. In the best situation the idea doesn’t come from you but a child. However you come to it though, at some point you will have an idea to work with. Perhaps messy outdoor play involving paint and sponges, or an imaginative play session with a ghostbusters theme. Now that you have this idea, you’ll likely have an image of that idea playing out in your head, it may be a very detailed scenario or something pretty vague. Either way the next step is to take that image and put it to one side.
This putting aside can be the hardest skill to learn. My experience in play is that you’ll find yourself surrounded by incredibly creative people who will come up with fantastic play ideas. Often the more invested we are in an idea the harder it is to put our image of it aside. I think this can be particularly challenging for those who practice art in some way because we’re so used to taking an idea from start to finish, often for personal enjoyment or satisfaction. But, with practice it can be done. And, in the context of the role of the playworker it is what we need to do because our initial image of an idea playing out isn’t what we’re ultimately aiming for.
Part 2: Examining
Now that you have an idea and have set aside your personal expectations it’s time to examine that idea. The idea isn’t just the image you had of it playing out, it has unlimited possibilities and interpretations. Let’s look at the two examples from above.
For “Messy outdoor play with paint and sponges” we could think about; the exploration of colour and texture, finding new ways of interacting with the outside environment, the joy of mess in itself whether that’s creating a mess or becoming part of one, the sense of mischief that comes from getting away with something, the physical aspect of playing with sponges, throwing them, squishing them, jumping on them.
For “imaginative play with ghostbusters theme” we have; creating and sharing story lines, reimagining a familiar environment, exploring different social roles, designing and making props, directing and negotiating with others, experimenting with emotions like feeling scared or brave, running, jumping, crawling, hiding games, observing others at play.
When you start to explore and discover all these different aspects of one single play idea it becomes much easier to understand how that play idea can work for any child whatever their access needs. It comes down to what we all know but in practice, with the anxiety that comes along with wanting to ‘get things right’, we can forget; there is no one right way to play. Examining ideas like this enables you to have a broader understanding of what a child is actually experiencing in play and therefore what you could do to enable another child to share that experience in their own way.
Part 3: Adapting
Having examined your idea you can again conjure up your image of how this is going to play out. How has it changed from the beginning of this process? Some of these changes might affect the way you set up an activity and the resources you gather.
For the messy paint and sponge play you may have initially been thinking about just having large quantities of paint for children to dip sponges in and throw but now you’re also considering how a certain child may not appreciate the tactile sensory side of the play but may still want to explore colour. You might make sure you have multiple colours available and pallets to mix in as well as long handled painting implements and perhaps an option of gloves to wear.
For the ghostbusters activity you may have been thinking about a structured chasing and catching game with defined roles but in examining the idea you might have thought about a child who finds these kinds of games stressful but they may really enjoy creating scripts or movies by themselves. Here you might be able to set up an ‘observation booth’ area in the playground where no ghosts or ghostbusters can go but the child can view what’s happening and perhaps film or give directions to the children in the game.
You will likely make adaptations to the preparation and planning in this way but the majority of adaptations will be made in the moment when the play is happening and you observe a child getting frustrated about not understanding a game and struggling to join in, or perhaps trying to do something completely different with an activity but needing permission or assistance. This is where you step in, use your skills, imagination and explorations to make this a play space for that child. Remember, you are the most flexible part of this process.
FIND a play idea, identify your expectations of how the idea might play out and set these aside.
EXAMINE the idea, think of different ways a child might experience the play with different senses, interests, abilities and access needs.
ADAPT to incorporate these different possibilities. Where possible anticipate interests and access needs of the children and prepare for them in your planning. In the moment use your flexibility as a playworker to enable each child to experience the play.
I like to sum up this approach with the statement:
There’s no such thing as just climbing a tree.
Climbing trees seems to be this quintessential childhood play experience for so many people and for a child who can’t physically do this those people might see a huge barrier to play. This is where we need to set aside our personal expectations, and look at what ‘climbing a tree’ actually is. When we do that we discover so many different aspects to an experience that someone can be a part of. In a playground setting that may be finding other ways to experience heights and risk, creating a sensory space using bark, leaves and sticks or using video technology to experience different viewpoints. Remember each child’s play is valuable and valid.
Putting this into practice
“Inclusion” often rings hollow to people because it’s seen as a far of ideology rather than a way of doing things. This means Inclusion often becomes tokenistic, because people put things into practice in the name of inclusion whilst not truly believing in it as a concept. I still don’t have a grand solution but as I stated at the beginning of this article I wholeheartedly believe inclusion needs collaboration to work and I hope this piece of writing can be a part of that. I also stated that “Inclusion” is not a fixed thing, in my own practice my focus is often disability and access but need to continually step back and remember all the other essential factors which could include gender identity and expression, sex, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, migrant status and language. A lot of this kind of work is accepting what you don’t know and unlearning what you think you do know. Which, doesn’t come naturally to most of us.
All that said, I want to leave you with some things that I do know.
Inclusion is not just a matter of practicality, it’s a matter of heart. Just making sure a kid in a wheelchair can get into the playground doesn’t mean they’ll feel like they belong there. Just because you don’t stop a kid from jumping and flapping doesn’t mean they’ll feel free. Using alternative communication in the play space won’t necessarily make a kid feel like their ideas and feelings matter.
All these things are important and essential but they won’t do alone.
Inclusion is about the way we think about each other and how this translates to our relationships and the spaces we create and inhabit together. So when you’re thinking about how to make your practice inclusive, before anything else, you need to examine that thought. Why do I want to do this? What do I think inclusion means? What are my experiences of inclusion and exclusion? Each of us has been conditioned to think about the world in a certain way. In my experience of disability it was a narrative that centred loss, sadness and a life somehow less valuable or worth living. A narrative that I wholeheartedly and absolutely dismiss but need to be continually aware of to understand and recognise how it may impact on my thinking and behaviour.
Doing this kind of thinking can be difficult but is a necessary part of inclusion that stops it being a far off ideology and makes it a tool we can use to each make our practice and life so much better. And then? It’s time to collaborate and create.
Whatever your spoon is made from imagine that it was carved with human hands. No tools, just gently shaped over time.
Inspect the spoon; shape, colour, blemishes, texture, reflections, refractions and then bring a part of your body, perhaps a thumb, finger or chin to rest on the concave side.
Start to move that part of your body, across the inner surface.
Back and forth, round and round, you can settle into a rhythm if you find one.
Imagine your movement is shaping the spoon. Minute bits of material are falling away as you carve it into its Best Spoon Self.
The carving is done, now you’re going to polish the surface. Try to follow the surface exactly, applying as little pressure as you can whilst still moving your skin in contact with the spoon.
Take your spoon between two parts of your body, I’m going to use a finger on each hand. One at the tippity top and one at the tippity bottom.
Pick a point somewhere inbetween and start to move the spoon around that point. As you move try to hold the spoon as lightly as possible. As if you’re teaching it how to float.
If you drop the spoon the spoon will forgive you.
Now, bring the spoon to a vertical position. Move one end around in a circle. Try and match the speed of the spoon with the speed of your thoughts. If your thoughts are quicker than spoon moving capabilities, then try and slow them to match the speed of the spoon.
As the spoon moves pick something to pay attention to other than the movement, perhaps the light and reflections or the coolness of the spoon on your skin. See if that is all you can pay attention too. See if the spoon keeps moving anyway. Start to slow the movement of the spoon and slowly make the circle smaller until the spoon is still.
Now you know your spoon its time to collaborate in an act of balance. Nose, forehead, cheek, chin, elbow, knee. Find a place to place your spoon and hold it there. To unlock ultimate spoon balancing joy hum and smile at the same time.
There are lots of important fantastic reasons to prioritise play for disabled and/or neurodivergent children and young people. I’m sure you can list off a bunch of them without having to think too much; there’s developmental reasons, physical wellbeing, opportunities to develop peer relationships, therapeutic benefits, sensory regulation and educational reasons…
But there is one reason that I don’t see come up that often, and I think its perhaps one of the most important. I’m going to use a definition from the Playwork Principles to help explain;
The Playwork principles say when a person is playing, they are
“following their own instincts, ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons.”
What I take from this is that in play every person is exactly who they need to be. It is the space for all the potential of who a person is; those “instincts, ideas and interests”, with no judgement or pressure or possibility of failure; “in their own way for their own reasons.”
As adults, when we make space, time and create opportunities for children and young people to play we are saying to those children and young people; We value your instincts interests and ideas. We value you.
In fact, we are not just saying; we value you. We are putting it into action.
The thing is, for disabled and/or non-neurotypical children and young people a lot of the world doesn’t do that. A lot of the world can actively oppose that because often those children and young people’s instincts, interests and ideas aren’t even seen let alone valued.
So many disabled and/or neurodivergent children and young people are not seen for who they are. We don’t take the time; we see something else instead or we just don’t know how to look.
Creating space, time and opportunities for these children and young people to play is something we can do to help counteract that experience of not being seen or valued. It can’t erase it, but it can create new, different and better experiences.
Putting resources into making all play spaces more inclusive for those children and young people the ones who sit outside of the ‘mainstream’ is therefore incredibly valuable.
Those play spaces can be somewhere where those children and young people are seen, heard and celebrated. Here are just a few of the ways that spaces designed purely for play have so much potential for this;
Play spaces can exist outside of the social norms or expectations that can be disabling.
They can allow for children and young people to find meaningful activity and meaningful ways of interacting with other people and the world around them.
They can be physically accessible in creative and meaningful ways.
Children can play alone, play alongside each other and play with others. There doesn’t have to be a hierarchy of social needs.
They can feel safe and provide a refuge from an overwhelming confusing world
There’s no a correct or more proper way of communicating, moving, feeling… a right way of doing anything.
They are places of endless possibility, that means any child should be able to follow “their own instincts, ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons.”
Every time we take a step to create the space an individual child needs to play, we show them their value and on some level in some way they internalise that, it becomes part of who they are, part of the way they exist and move through the world.
Perhaps a little to wordy to fit on a top ten ‘reasons for play’ list, but I think it’s the only one we should really need.
Stackable re-usable paper or plastic cups are a favourite of mine to introduce into a space. They’re recognisable but novel; especially in large numbers or unexpected contexts. They’d be easy to dismiss but offer up endless possibilities. This play diary is made up of observations from various sessions where I’ve bought cups into the space. They vary from big groups on a school playground to small groups in a classroom to one to one sessions in all sorts of settings with all sorts of children and young people.
First there comes towers. Not always, but often. Build up knock down build up knock down.
For some that’s a perfect formula, they continue in one way until they’re done, alone or in groups, this might take two minutes it might take forty-five. For others the first tower is just launch point.
Build up knock down.
There are always more ways to build a tower. There are always more ways to knock it down. There’s every way you can get from one point to another and then there are ways that don’t care for those two points at all.
Sam keeps reminding herself to breathe and talking about how she can’t believe how much fun she’s having as she aims her tower for the ceiling.
Jamie doesn’t seek to build high, he builds wide; not towers but apartments and a public transport system.
Ethan doesn’t see a cup at all, he sees a new material to work with and fetches some scissors.
Jake is an all-powerful Crusher of Cups. We build a ‘crushing zone’ so his flavour of destruction can exist alongside his peers’ less permanent versions.
Zoe says she “knows what we’re meant to do!” but she soon forgets the “meants” of it all and lays on the ground looking at the sky through a cup telescope.
Cass is just not that interested at present.
Lou fills a cup with water, drops some bouncy balls in and spends the next ten minutes trying to seal it up. Eventually there is so much blue masking tape involved you can’t see the water or the balls. They’re pretty happy with their creation.
Finley creates a very complicated game, with very complicated rules which she explains excitedly at length.
For Rishi I’m his collaborator and competitor interchangeably; I hand him cups as he stands precariously on his tiptoes to build or I work to stack up cups quicker than he can knock them over.
Eagan holds up a stack and slowly s l o w l y lets one at a time fall through his hands onto the floor. He’s delighted by his level of control and the slow rhythmic drop.
How many cups can you balance on your body at once? What’s the sound of 100 cups falling in an empty hall? Did you know if you have enough cups in one stack you can wiggle them about like some kind of cup-worm?
To me cups are the perfect example of how, when it comes to creating opportunities for play, there is no such thing as ‘too simple’ or ‘not enough’. Also, in a push, they can actually be useful for drinking from!
A refreshingly short blog post today as i’m sharing some news! My illustrated Call to Play is now available online to view. One of the first posts on Play Radical was the first version of this piece of writing and I’m so excited to share this update, it also features a series of my drawings and all adds up to something I feel pretty happy about!
There will soon be printed copies of available for purchase (I’ll be keeping the cost as low as i can). If you’re interested in securing a copy ahead of time please feel free to drop me and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, otherwise keep an eye on my website/social media for updates!
For a long time I didn’t really understand what the big deal was about being with other people. Yes, they could be funny, kind and interesting. But frankly, as far as I was concerned, I was already all of those things for myself. The other people bit, especially when there was more than one, just felt like a chore, something that was just part of being alive, something I had to get through so that I could be alone again. That might sound very sad to some people, they might think I’m describing a pretty lonely life, but to be lonely you have to feel like your missing something, and for a long time I didn’t. I had nature, knowledge and creativity and that was good.
As I got older things did start to change a little, I did start to want company, not all the time and I don’t think I needed it in the way a lot of my peers seemed to, but I did want it, want something. I had friendships throughout my childhood and adolescence, and these were really important and valuable to me but, especially as an older child and teenager, they often didn’t feel like they were mine.
Growing up autistic in a primarily non-autistic world means constant compromise. There’s the more surface level compromise; just doing things you don’t want to do or understand the point of, but don’t really hurt you in any way (in my case putting down a book or a project from time to time and looking at a person). Then there are the deeper compromises, the ones that aren’t always told to you, but you somehow learn. Suppressing the way your body wants to move, talking differently, learning how to answer people’s questions in the way they want you to and not the way that makes sense to you. Not looking too closely, not being too weird not being annoying or boring or repetitive. Compromises that, feel pretty one directional and ultimately just mean ‘be a different person’, don’t be autistic.
When you do this for long enough you lose the memory, the feeling of who you even are. It seems to be quite common for people like me, who get diagnosed or get an understanding of themselves as being autistic when they’re an adult, to go through a pretty significant change in how they behave. This can be in very fundamental ways like how they express themselves and how they relate to others. To the people around that person it may feel like the persons changing into someone else, but to the person themselves it feels like becoming. It’s just figuring out what’s your instinct, what inherent to who you are and what is the result of so much time and energy going into trying to be someone else.
I went through this, it was exhausting, and I’m probably not quite done yet. It’s been profound, confusing, overwhelming, sad and joyful. Often all at once. There are many things that have surprised me but perhaps the most significant of these was what was figuring out what was at the core of my lifelong confusion and difficulty with company, friendships and community. And it wasn’t that there was something just deeply wrong with me as I’d always feared. It’s actually very simple:
You can’t make meaningful connections with other people when you’re not being yourself.
Of course in practice it’s not simple at all. In the context of our culture and society it’s very difficult because the ways of being that are valued and held up as proper and even truly human tend to be very neurotypical ways of being (they also intersect with race, gender and class*). The way we’re meant to talk to each other, the way spoken language is held up as the truest way of communicating, the way we’re meant to sit and look each other in the eye, the things we’re meant to enjoy, how we should sit back and be entertained, respect a social hierarchy and value different kinds of relationships over others. And most poignant to me, the way we’re meant to play and experience art.
Access to communal space and experience is a matter of inclusion in the broadest sense. In my life I repeatedly see people who genuinely want to be inclusive, in their playgrounds, their classrooms, their community group, their theatres or art’s events. But they just miss the mark, they tick all the boxes for making spaces accessible but they’re not truly inclusive. And I’ve begun to recognise that part of that is they’re missing something from their understanding of what a shared or communal space or experience is. It’s can’t simply be a space to be with others, but…
A true communal space or experience is one where people can be themselves, together.
This means we need to acknowledge that for a lot of people in society that ‘being themselves’ isn’t something that comes easy. It’s also often not something they can do alone. In talk about how disabled or autistic people need to be ‘part of the community’ people fail to acknowledge that ‘the community’ isn’t a neutral thing. It didn’t form of its own accord with fixed rules and expectations. We all create and maintain them. And some people have more power and ability to influence this then others.
A true communal space is life changing. It’s motivating, it’s energising, it makes you feel valued. I feel it most when I spend time with other autistic people and feel free of needing to censor myself or change who I am. But I should be able to do this in the wider world too. I meet children who’ve maybe never even been able to do this, being with other people is still just something difficult, painful and suffocating. They are constantly compromising and it exhausts them. But it doesn’t have to be this way and i don’t think they should have to wait until their an adult to figure that out. We can work to create these spaces for them as well as ourselves. For me this is about my role as a playworker and artist in helping create these spaces with and for others. It’s also about giving myself permission to seek out those spaces for myself. For you it might be in your role as an educator, manager, arts programmer or maybe your role as a parent, carer, friend or neighbour. I hope reading this has reminded you or the value of that work and perhaps given you another way of thinking about it.
Connecting with people meaningfully means being able to do so as yourself. Creating a communal space means allowing people to be themselves together. How can you do this for yourself and others today?
I’ve recently had the opportunity to expand my practice into what was a new area for me; consulting with children. In some ways it wasn’t new area at all; ongoing consultation with children is a part of my everyday practice; I’m always seeking to get to know the children I’m working with and learning about their interests and needs and, if you work with children you likely do this too, perhaps without even thinking about it in those terms. But when we talk about a “Consultation” we do mean something slightly different, and those differences can make it feel like a whole new and intimidating task.
A Consultation differs from those everyday inquiries in two key ways. Firstly you are seeking specific information within a specific time frame and secondly you are bringing in an outside agenda to your interactions with the children.
Thinking about how to do this in an effective and non-tokenistic way bought up a whole set of questions:
How do you consult with children in a meaningful way, for the children involved and in terms of your agenda?
How do get information that genuinely comes from the child?
How do you communicate what you want from them and… What are you actually asking?
Throughout this work I’ve thought about, explored and discussed these questions and have come up with a few different ways of trying to answer them. These ideas have informed the sessions I’ve designed and facilitated for children and young people so far. These have been for a few different organisations and have been largely focused on hospital waiting spaces and how the child’s experience of this space could be improved but has also been relevant to some work I’ve been doing with a group of children around the play spaces in their school.
When I put all this together I come up with something like a work in progress methodology! Here’s what it looks like:
1.Interrogate your Agenda!
This is my starting point. I notice two big assumptions that we tend to make, especially when asking big or complex questions. And this kind of self-interrogation can help avoid both.
The first is simply that we assume that we know exactly what we’re asking or looking for from an interaction when actually we tend to pile up a lot of superfluous information without even thinking about it.
The second is perhaps a little more complex. It’s when we assume that the people we’re communicating with have all the tools to interpret what we are saying in the way we are saying it. People tend to find it quite easy to switch their communication or language style for younger children, but, when it comes to slightly older children and teenagers’ I’ve seen adults get a bit stumped. It may be that they’re self-conscious or nervous in front of an audience who so often get a bad rep, but I also think there’s an element of conflating explaining things clearly and simply with ‘talking down’ to people. Which isn’t necessarily true.
I start by breaking down what I’m thinking and talking about into as few key concepts as possible. In a consultation this is likely to take the form of questions. If you can keep these key concepts at the centre of what you do and say, then you can make it relevant for any group. Start simple and then build on that if necessary, but often, you don’t need to do this in a formal way. The building and going deeper comes from the unplanned interactions you have during the process.
I find that creating a graphic breakdown is a good way of going through this thinking process myself, and, it’s also a valuable tool for supporting communication and understanding for the children you are working with. For children with learning difficulties and/or cognitive and language impairments having visual communication support can also be essential for access. I draw, so have a nice easy way to do this, but putting together some photos or symbols works just as well, and possibly better in some contexts
2. Find ways to make abstract ideas tangible
If you’re asking children to think about something that they can’t see, or touch or hear in that physical space then find a way to link it to something they can see, touch or hear. When you ask someone questions about how they experience something or how they want to experience something then you’re asking them to tap into their instincts about feeling and doing. That’s difficult to do just through thinking, especially for children. For consultations I did around waiting spaces in hospitals I created a ‘waiting space’ in the room using plastic sheets and chairs, it wasn’t particularly complex and wasn’t as effective perhaps as being in the actual space, but it made the idea of a physical space where your sit and wait more tangible to the children in the room. They could pretend that space was a waiting room and then think about what it should be like rather than do all that in their head. My thinking is that this will encourage more authentic responses.
3. Get them doing
An unfamiliar adult asking a group of children questions, especially when they might be introducing quite new or complex ideas, is potentially quite an intimidating figure. If the children feel under pressure to please or say the right thing, they’re less likely to give genuine responses. Getting the children doing something, and even joining them in that task can help ease that pressure. When children (and probably adults too!) are engaged in a practical and/or creative task you have an opportunity to ask questions and tease out information in a more natural way. The activity/tasks will come from the ideas you’re consulting on, this is an opportunity to be creative and playful. Focus on getting the children engaged in something first and then, when they’re a bit more comfortable you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions.
4. Have multiple ways of participating
Following on from the ‘getting them doing’ point, that ‘doing’ needs to have multiple entry points or ways of engaging. Different children will participate and communicate ideas and feelings in different ways. Building this into your session creates a more inclusive environment as it allows you to facilitate a space with children/young people with a range of needs and abilities. To do this you can think about scale, perspective and ways of expressing self. If you have a big collaborative creative activity planned you an also set up a smaller version that a children can work on alone or take to a quieter area. If you have an activity planned using written words and images, make sure there’s also an option for children to draw or even record their voices (most smart phones have the ability to record audio). Some children will stick to one thing throughout and really commit to and enjoy it. Some will try everything systematically and some with jump erratically between everything. Having different options and flexibility will make your sessions generally more interesting and stimulating but it could also enable a child to participate who wouldn’t have participated at all if there was only one option that just didn’t fit for their way of thinking or communicating.
5. Ask questions based on the children’s actions
Pay attention to what the children are doing in your session and how they’re interacting with the activity and ideas. Then ask questions based on this and listen to their answers! It’s easy to be really focussed on that information you’re trying to get but it’s more likely to come out in the flow of a conversation where both parties are engaged and listening than an interrogation. Link their answers to what you are consulting about for further questioning. Always start at the simplest level and then go deeper/more complex as appropriate depending on the child.
It might look something like this;
You: Wow, I love all these animals! Is that a dog you’re drawing?
Child: Yeah, its my dog from home
You: Ahh, do you think people would like to see a picture of your dog?
Child: yes! Animals make people feel happy
It might stop there, or, depending on what your consulting on there might be an opportunity to take it further and investigate that child’s motivation or thought process. But I think you’re more likely to find those genuine bits of insight through this kind of questioning. Which leads nicely to point number six…
6.Prioritise authentic responses over amount of information.
This one is pretty straightforward but is maybe one of the hardest to do, our adult under-pressure instinct can be to push for as much information as possible but try and keep this in mind. You’re there for the children’s ideas and input whatever that is! Record everything as truly and thoroughly as you can but don’t focus on quantity at the expense of authenticity. I’ve also found that things that have maybe not seemed that directly ‘useful’ at the time later become an important part of a bigger picture. It’s also a part of respecting the children you are working with which leads nicely into my final point…
7. Be honest
Find an honest and clear way to explain what it is you plan to do with the information the children are giving you. This is important form an ethical perspective alone but also, if you’re looking for authentic responses from children then this needs to be an honest exchange both ways to work. This is also an opportunity to let the children know that you value their input and ideas.
I wanted to share these to hopefully help others working on consulting with children, but, equally, to open up a conversation. This is still a very new area to me, but it feels exciting and I’m keen to learn and explore more. I’d love to hear from anyone reading this about their thoughts and experiences. Comment below or drop me an email at email@example.com
This month I wanted to write something a little different.April is a month of ‘Autism Awareness’ campaigns; the good, the bad and theconfusingly misguided. I am fully behind those who call for this month to beabout acceptance not awareness. I hope celebration will follow, and then, oneday, maybe our society and culture will function in a way that doesn’t needsuch declared months because access and inclusivity will be an intuitive part of how we live. In the meantime however, I want to share with you a bit of my personal experience.
I’ve had various mental health and neurological diagnoses, official and unofficial, throughout my life. The one that makes most sense to me, has been the most helpful and has helped me understand myself in relation to the world around me is Autism Spectrum Disorder. This often surprises people, but it shouldn’t. If there was a better general understanding about what Autism actually is, it wouldn’t. Key to this is the fact that one thing autism is, is a diagnosis and by that definition; a list of criteria that a group of people meet. But this will never fully describe or explain those people in all their complexity and individuality. So today I want to share with you a different kind of list, this one is incomplete and messy; it’s not a list of positives or negatives, just truths about the way I experience the world with my flawed and fantastic autistic brain. They’re all things that I’ve noticed that I share with other autistic people and I’ve become aware of as ways I often differ from non-autistic folks in my life. I hope this will give you a little insight into what Autism can mean, at least, for me.
Content warning for brief mentions of self harm and attempted suicide.
Pattern feels like a sense to me. My brain is constantly finding links between things, figuring out how they fit together, figuring out if there is a different way they fit together. I can sort through a lot of information quickly and pick out what’s important. This means I tend to spot things other people don’t. This makes me good at analysing and problem solving. It also means I can really struggle to ‘let things go’ when it would probably be the healthier thing for me to do, because if something feels out of place, like it’s not connecting right, I need to find out why. I can also become overly preoccupied with the Big Ideas and forget about the real people making up the components. I’ve noticed recently that I can often spot the missing piece of information that is causing someone not understand something. I feel a wonderful sense of calm and contentment in moments where I feel I’ve solved something or helped someone in this way and I get a brief glimpse of the way everything is connected.
I rarely feel neutral about anything, ever. I have deep seated instincts and feelings about things most consider arbitrary; which bus seat should I sit in, what colour should something be, what the right order to unload a draining board is. I find it hard to wrap my head around the idea of feeling neutral about something. Perhaps a lot of this is related to that strong internal sense of pattern, I think it’s also just about being very present and aware in my environment and a need to find ways to manage all that sensory input. As well as those everyday ‘non-important’ things I have a lot of Big Emotions too. Overwhelmingly so. I never just feel ‘meh’ about a conversation I’ve had; insteadI might feel overflowing with joy and excitement, giddy, utterly baffled orinfuriated. When I meet someone I immediately like or dislike them and,especially with the latter, then have to work very hard to put my initial assessment on hold and get to know someone. It will often take me a long time to unpick the subtleties of what I’m feeling and understand it as I’m usually initially just overwhelmed by its Bigness. It’s kind of like looking at a map of the world and being able to see big shapes and bright colours but not being able to read any of the words of symbols.
Access to joy
This partially comes under the “Strong Feelings” but it deserves a mention on its own because I think this is one of the best things about being autistic. I can find joy anywhere and everywhere both internally and externally. I don’t really get “bored” in the same way lots of people seem to because I don’t need something to do. Just being and thinking and moving give me so much. Looking at pictures of things I love can immediately transport me; I have a collection of postcards which I can look through over and over again. I can watch through scenes of movies in my head, often just the equivalent of a 10 second clip (that bit in ET where Gertie and ET meet for the first time and there’s all that screaming is never too far from my mind and brings me so much joy). I play with words and phrases in my head and laugh to myself, I wonder about and spot accidental and maybe ugly-to-most compositions of concrete, metal, road markings and colour in my city environment and feel full of light and beauty. Whilst I have a lot of people in my life who I love to spend time and share with I don’t need someone else to feel all this, and it’s pretty much always in reach.
Food is a consistent ongoing stress for me. It combines sensory issues, organisation and recognising and responding to my body’s cues. Sometimes the idea of eating a certain food that is usually fine will suddenly feel ridiculous and impossible. Sometimes I get restricted to only eating certain foods (cereal for every meal anyone?). Sometimes I really enjoy food, which makes it all themore frustrating when I’m struggling to manage all this. I find it hard to knowhow much I need to eat so eat to much or not enough and I also struggle with gastro-health in a general non-descript way which is probably exacerbated by all this and a partial cause at the same time. Going out for dinner with people to a place I don’tknow or can’t look at the menu for online is really challenging. If someonereaches to take something off my plate in a communal food situation, I can’t handle it because I’m probably putting a lot of energy and thought into processingwhat I need to eat and then someone’s gone and thrown in a variable out of my control.To summarise, food is hard, and messy metaphorically. If its messy literally too that’s probably going to cause me a few more issues!
This is a tricky one and perhaps is a lot more to do depression but the way I experience it is definitely impacted by autism and it’s very common for autistic people to have mental health diagnoses such as depression and anxiety. I can get very low very quickly, over time I’ve come to learn these drops are closely linked to overwhelming sensory input or a knock-on effect of having to work really hard to be around people in ways that feel unnatural to me. I can suddenly go from things feeling mildly stressful but manageable to desperately trying to will myself out of existence. This can then manifest into self-harm thinking or general impulses towards self-destructive behaviour. I’m at a point in my life where I’m not in danger during these times, I know how to look after myself and understand that it will pass. In this sense I think it’s maybe different to ‘typical depression’. My depressive type episodes are a direct symptom of dealing with the world as an autistic person.
I’m pretty good to have around in a crisis. If something bad happens, something with a big emotional impact, I won’t break down, I won’tneed to ask why or need immediate answers instead I’ll be able to simply lookat ‘what needs to be done’. I think this is possibly one of those things that feeds the autistic lack of emotion idea, but that’s not what it is. I often geta delayed emotional reaction to things like loss and danger. Here’s an example;a couple of years ago a member of my family attempted suicide. For me, and most around this person it apparently came out of nowhere. I spent two weeks looking after this person, partly alone, dealing with supporting the person emotionally, physically and logistically. I was able to do this whilst other family members went into denial, became too emotionally overwhelmed to doanything or just panicked. I don’t for a second think badly of those people for their reactions, especially because my not having those reactions wasn’t difficult or something I had to consciously think about; it’s just not how I work. A few weeks later, when things were settled down a little and I was back home, I was hit by all of the feelings all at once. I found myself unable to move for sadness.
This poem I wrote explains this one best:
under your guidance
I breathe light
shoots out roots
I never feel more content then when I’m alone with nature. I feel safe and comforted by plants, trees, animals, waves and rocks. I’ve call trees my ‘optimism catalyst’. Most of the times I remember crying in the last few years have been when I’ve been stood with trees and feeling like we’re part of each other.
Knowledge as lovelanguage
I recently read an article about autism* which described knowledge as a love-language of autism and the idea resonated strongly with me.When I talk about meaningful interaction for autistic people in my work I describe how autistic people often connect with people through sharing their experienceof the world rather than their experience of each other. Sharing knowledge,whether that’s talking about things I love, showing someone one of my favourite films or pieces of art, or interacting with them through something I’ve created is my main way of showing love and connecting with people.
written about the importance of recognising and valuing different forms of
communication and the need for us to allow for expressive as well as functional
communication. In this piece I’m going to take a specific look at language as a
form of expressive communication and in particular what this can look like in
the play of autistic people.
For most people language as a form of expression is
something that is encouraged; writing poetry, prose and music is not only
valued and celebrated but considered an act that is essentially human. This is
often forgotten when it comes to autistic children where “non-functional” language
can get brushed aside by surrounding adults as not meaningful, worth listening
too or in some cases even seen as damaging to the child. But autistic people
should be allowed and encouraged to enjoy and play with language just as their
neuro-typical peers are. In trying to prevent this use of language we are
denying an individual a culturally and historically significant part of being
human. I would also argue that playing with language is one way in which it can
become meaningful to an individual. Therefore as people are most comfortable
and content when able to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them,
limiting this playing with language is only going to hinder their ability to
communicate and be heard.
Before I jump in, I want to define a few words I’m
going to be using in the rest of this essay, these are words commonly used by
autistic people, allies, parents and professionals alike. The basic meanings
people use don’t tend to vary that much but the way people approach or
understand each one does. These definitions won’t be exhaustive but will
hopefully give you an understanding or what I mean when I use these words.
This word comes from ‘stimulatory’ in
“self-stimulatory behaviour”. It’s not just autistic people who do this, but we
tend to do it particularly often and it can fulfil many different functions. We
also do it fantastically well. It can help regulate the senses, manage anxiety or
other difficult emotions, be a part of feeling excited or joyful or be done
simply because it feels good. Stimming usually takes the form of a repetitive
behaviour that engages one or more of the senses such as rocking, jumping, hand
flapping and humming.
This is a form of communication where someone repeats
phrases or words they’ve heard. It can be immediate; you might say to a child
“do you want to go on the swing” and they might say “swing” back to mean yes, where
another child, not using echolalia, might just say “yes”. Or it can be delayed,
with phrases or words repeated back moments, hours, days later. This could be
because they’ve been processing what was said during that delay, or they might
be using what was said before to convey meaning in that present moment. Either
way it might look like the child coming up to you an hour later and saying, “do
you want to go on the swing” and meaning “I want to go on the swing can you
There are two main kinds of scripting, echolalic scripting and social scripting, although they cross over. Social scripting is using learned or repeated phrases to navigate social situations. The kind I’m going to be talking about here is echolalic scripting which I would describe as where echolalia and stimming meet. People will use lines from films, tv shows, books, songs, conversations they’ve had or overheard to ‘script’ with. They may repeat long streams of dialogue or a short bit over and over. This can be for enjoyment, self-expression or as a way of engaging with someone. It’s common for people to draw on a bank of learned phrases or dialogue (‘scripts’) which they associate with a certain emotion or situation when they find themselves experiencing that emotion or situation.
Now let’s get into the serious play stuff.
Poop Jokes for
Of the 16 play types described by play theorist Bob Hughes, what
I’m talking about here fits best, although not quite snugly, into the category
of ‘Communication Play’. Hughes defines this as;
“play using words,
nuances or gestures for example, mime, jokes, play acting, mickey taking,
singing, debate, poetry”.
how some kids just love to talk about poop, sing about poop and call you a
poop? That’s a form of communication play. Ever had the pleasure of listening
in on a bunch of kids making up format-defying knock-knock jokes? Also
communication play. What about the kid in a corner talking to the puppet on his
own hand? Communication play! (also; me for the first year of secondary
school). When I talk about playing with language, I am referring to a kind of communication
play which, when seen through an autistic lens can fracture into multitudes of
shapes and forms.
In spite of their wonder and complexity these forms of playing with language often go unnoticed or dismissed; especially when the adult’s viewpoint is skewed by the “functional language only” bias discussed above. If a child who uses language isn’t using words to communicate in the acceptable or ‘correct’ way, then it can be presumed they are doing that out of ignorance. When actually, they may be using their words exactly as they intended, you just don’t have the tools to recognise or to interpret it.
To help with this, I’m going to take a look at
some of those shapes and forms of autistic wordplay that I’ve observed and experienced.
Talking as Stimming
Have you ever observed someone rolling a word around their
mouth like a gobstopper? Most recently a conversation I was having with a young
person came to a standstill as the word “booth” caught them. They elongated it,
dragging out the ooooh and shortened it, expelling it like a cough. They
altered the pitch wobbling it in the middle, smiled and giggled. This is where talking
can be a form of stimming; more about sensing than communicating. Try it now; take
a word and say it out loud, say it in your head whilst imagining saying it out
loud, mouth it, taste it, spit it out quickly, stick out your tongue with it
balanced right on the tip, almost falling… pull it back in, explore the entire surface,
look for hidden cracks and fractures, get inside and discover what it’s really
made off. Imagine doing all off this and not feeling silly or self-conscious,
imagine this being something that brings you immense joy and satisfaction and
then being made to feel silly or self-conscious.
As stimming can be used to fulfil a range of different needs
talking as stimming is not always going to be about play, but it can be,
particularly when the person stimming is relaxed and if they are happily responsive
to or engaged in someone else joining in. What may start as stimming as a
reaction to anxiety about being in a busy playground may become playful as it
enables the child to relax and then morph into a part of the child’s play as they
try out new words perhaps ones which relate to that which is happening around them.
A child may smile and squeal as another speeds past them on a scooter a little
closer than expected, and then beginning vocally stimming, saying ‘oh dear watch
out oh dear watch out oh dear watch out” over and over again. To an outsider,
based on the words and repetition alone, it may seem like the child is
distressed but actually it might be a humorous comfortable and playful reaction.
If the above scooter-scenario happened to
me right now I can guarantee my brain would shout ‘shocked and appalled,
shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled.’ Just typing this is making heart
is beating a little faster and a goofy smile appear on my face. It’s very
unlikely I would actually be shocked and appalled, but this phrase is something
my brain always goes too, likely because it amuses me. When I’m on a playground
most of the time I would resist saying this aloud but if it was a child I knew,
who also stim-talks I probably would, and it might become a playful exchange.
Anyone whose spent enough time around autistic people will
probably have had the same conversation over and over again. Or will at least
think they have. It might be exchanging the same few lines of dialogue from an
episode of Thomas the Tank or it might be lines that you’ve learnt from the
other person over time from an obscure sci-fi movie you’ve never actually seen.
Someone might have a set of questions they ask again and again to get the same
answers from you. Much like talking as stimming there is no one reason people
do this, but it can be a part of play or a way into play with another person. It
can also be a way to establish communication with someone to enable a different
kind of play, or an invitation to bring someone else into the script.
When at its most playful this kind of scripting becomes subtly
anarchic. You may find yourself in what you think is the same conversation but
if you pay close attention there are small changes being made, little
explorations and experiments. It may be the words themselves or the way they
are delivered. The more you get to know someone the more you might find you can
introduce a little anarchy yourself, you might change a word or mix in another
concept. If the other person isn’t ready for this, they may well ignore it,
that’s okay. A young person I know scripts with SpongeBob Square pants and a
lot of the time they will ignore if I try to introduce a deviation. But on occasion,
when they loudly sing “who lives in a pineapple under the sea” and I reply “Winnie
the Pooh” (to the SpongeBob tune) it stops them in their tracks. They’ll give
me a look that says; ‘challenge accepted’, and then we’re playing. We go back
to the beginning of the script, both curious about what’s going to happen next,
this time when I respond “SpongeBob square pants” it’s somehow funnier than the
deviant version. This can go on and on and build and build. Imagine phrases and
words as building blocks that are being stacked higher and higher in a tower; they
can be knocked down suddenly, pushed slowly, intentionally picked up and placed
upside down as an experiment to see if they will remain standing. The
anticipation of a fall and element of surprise is part of the fun, but so is the
different ways you can build, different colour and shape combinations. I’m not
quite sure how to cram humour into this metaphor. But that’s there too, some of
those blocks are real comedians.
For me this is the ultimate form of autistic word play. It can involve everything I’ve already written about here and so much more. It’s a perfect example of the idea of the sum being greater than the parts. The parts are those echolalic words and phrases, bits of scripting, intonation, pitch, speed, mutations, hums, shouts and whispers. The sum is a kind of audio-collage that contains all these parts but is heightened and expanded by the interactions between them. This can be solo play or collaborative. When it’s collaborative it’s neither monologue or dialogue but something else altogether. The player(s) will cut and paste concepts together, looping, repeating and rearranging. From the outside this might seem inscrutable or completely random, but it’s likely neither if you’re able to tune in; something that will take a lot of time, listening and detecting for most.
There are a few things that fuel this kind of play; sharing and exploring particular interests or ideas, making connections, playing with social conventions and expectations and humour. The interest is often what starts the play off; chat about trains, Dora the explorer, road signs. Things which may seem mundane to someone who doesn’t share that interest but are a source of joy and inspiration to the individual. The connections are made through that out of the box or unexpected thinking, referencing another interest in an unexpected way. Exploring and discovering connections between things is something that is pleasing to many autistic people. When it comes to social conventions, despite popular belief, it’s not always the case that autistic people don’t recognise social conventions, often they just don’t see the point of following them or doing so causes stress and discomfort. For a child who spends all day at school trying to follow other people’s rules that aren’t intuitive to them, coming up with different answers to the questions “how are you” and acting it out with someone over and over might be very enjoyable. Finally humour, perhaps the hardest thing to try and explain, because our personal sense of humour so intuitive. But there is definitely an anarchic, surreal and abstracted sense of humour that a lot of autistic people share and that can be a key part of this kind of play.
these are new ideas to you, well, that was probably a lot to take in. So I want
to leave you with a few simple things you can keep in mind to facilitate and enable
this kind of play and creativity.
A lot of people find repeated conversation, particularly questions
annoying. If you feel that way then that’s okay, you’re definitely not alone. What
is not okay is to treat the person who communicates and plays in this way as a
nuisance. If you can’t engage then find a way to be honest about that, it might
mean simply saying; “I’m sorry, I can’t do questions at the moment”. It may feel
blunt or insensitive but its more damaging to act as if the person has done
something wrong by ignoring them, talking over them or doing things like
rolling your eyes and tutting. Feeling like the way you instinctually communicate,
or play is wrong is extremely damaging to the individual. It’s also good to
remember that autistic people spend a lot of time adapting to the way non-autistic
people communicate and being expected to do so without question.
AAC & expressive
When someone uses a method of adaptive and augmentative communication (AAC), such as sign, sign assisted speech, pecs or a digital text to speech programme, the focus on making sure they use it correctly- where correctly means functionally- tends to be even heavier than with speech. Remember that they may use it for expressive communication too and they should be allowed to do this.
There’s a really easy way to engage and play with someone
who communicates using echolalia and scripting; learn what they are talking
about! It’s all already out there for you, often just a YouTube search away. Learn
who Patrick or Peppa or Dora or Oliver is. (pink talking starfish best pal of SpongeBob
SquarePants, Pig, Spanish speaking young girl with monkey friend, train friend
of Thomas). Seeing a kids face light up when they realise you understand
something about this world that they love and understand through is pure joy.
Language can be a tool of play as well as pure communication,
the term ‘word play’ is familiar to most of us, but the fact that it can mean
so much maybe isn’t. Next time you come across a chid stim-talking, scripting and
collaging… slow down, listen and see if you can tune in. If you’re lucky you
might even get an invitation to join.
“the ambiance of play is by nature unstable. At any moment ‘ordinary life’ may prevail once again. The geographical limitations of play is even more striking that its temporal limitation. Every game takes place within the boundaries of its own special domain”
Guy Debord from On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time
A little while ago I was doing a session as a visiting
artist for an outreach youth work programme, it consists of a couple of youth
workers and an artist going out each week and doing a half hour session in four
different outdoor locations around the local community. Each week children and
young people show up in anticipation of the team arriving or drift over slowly
from whatever other activities they’re engaged in if their interest is peaked.
I’ve worked with the team a few times now and each time I’ve done something a
little more abstract and been delighted in the ways the young people respond.
This time I wanted to take an area of art theory that interests me and see if I
could reinterpret it in a relevant and playful way.
Psychogeography is one, of many, areas of art theory that
make people despair, it’s overly wordy with its key practitioners seeming to
have spent more time writing about it than doing it and no one quite knows
exactly what it’s meant to be, it can be applied to literature, performance
art, politics, town planning and psychology… but, here is the definition which
most interests me;
‘whole toy box full of playful inventive strategies for exploring cities…just
about anything that takes pedestrians of their predictable paths and jolts them
into a new awareness of the urban landscape
Yes, of course, the definition that mentions play. Psychogeography
is about the link between our emotional experience and our environment. Not a
particular or special kind of environment; but any and every space in your
everyday. It’s also a tool to explore or interrogate that environment and your
relationship to it. Think of the writers who tell stories about and through
their cities, the parkour runners or skateboarders who turn unnoticed and
unremarkable aspects of an urban environment into part of their playground and whoever
it is that keeps putting traffic cones on top of statues that you maybe never even
looked at properly, that is, until they gained a bright orange hat. You were
probably a psychogeographer once too… think of the child who studies every
crack or feature of the pavement and turns navigating them into a game, the
child who sees every bench, wall or curb as part of a never-ending climbing
frame and the child whose imagination breathes life into inanimate structures
In simplest terms perhaps psychogeography could be described as the art of being in a creative relationship with the space around you. This is a two-way relationship; it’s both taking inspiration from your environment, noticing the effect it has on you and putting inspiration into it through your creativity. It’s quite a wonderful thing to find yourself having a greater level of control over how you experience the space around you especially perhaps when you don’t have much choice over the environments you find yourself in.
On this day the environment was a slightly chilly residential
area in Edinburgh and the tools were a pile of empty frames, three pineapples
and a bunch of children’s creativity. My first proposition was that we turn the
space into an art gallery. To do this they could take a frame and walk around
the space looking for art. Some took a literal approach using things found in
the environment to create art within a frame, tearing up grass and piling up
twigs to create landscapes. Others jumped on the concept and pushed it beyond
looking around their space in new ways; literally reframing aspects of their
everyday space as art. Frames were held high, placed on the ground, balanced
against fences, stacked on other frames. They were also climbed through and
held up to frame each other looking through frames, looking through frames… The
one thing every group had in common was that at some point someone would hold
up a frame in front of their face and declare themselves art. I liked their
The next proposition was that they give each other a tour of
this new art gallery. Here they were to walk around the newly imagined space
and tell each other about their work. I gave prompts where needed; “what do you
like about this”, “does the piece have a name?”. Children would listen to each
other briefly before continuing to experiment, stepping into each other’s frames,
directing each other and hanging frames from bodies.
The final proposition came with a request, for this part
they weren’t to talk. The proposition itself was non-verbal, and, as I looked
around with faux-sternness to check they weren’t chatting, I walked across to our
non-descript black bag and slowly, one by one, pulled three pineapples out. Placing them on the ground and I would step
away, giving a nod of ‘go on then’ to my mostly quiet spectators. For the
couple of groups who really followed the no-talking request the moment when I pulled
out the pineapples gained an extra level of absurdity. With eyes widening and
jaws dropping they looked to each other in confusion, amusement and excitement.
Not being able to communicate in their
usual way completely changed the atmosphere and possibilities of the space. Suddenly
a pineapple or two against the backdrop of the everyday was a fascinating concept.
The pineapples were absorbed into the narrative as they were moved, balanced, rolled,
stacked and of course, framed. Two ultimately met an unfortunate fate.
Here I was playing with the idea that by creating absurdity or
abstraction you create an opportunity for art and play, and, if this is all it
takes it follows that art can be created anywhere and everywhere. In this case, the abstraction was created by firstly
changing the the social rules of the space through taking away speech and then behaving
unexpectedly. They couldn’t ask questions or comment in their usual way which
could have quickly normalised the situation instead they were held in the
moment of absurdity and, able to consciously decide whether to go with it or
not. They very much did.