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!
“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.
It was a quiet chilly day at the playground and I’d been chatting with a fellow playworker about what to do with an underused and in-the-way wooden leaflet stand. I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired and was mostly coming up with overly complex ideas involving a box of wool I’d uncovered and been a bit desperate to use. Fortunately at this point a thirteen year old and master of too-cool-to-care conversation wondered in and I asked what he thought I should do with it. He looked at me with slight bafflement and, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, said “put leaflets on it.”
In hindsight I see that it was the most obvious thing in the world, just not to my overthinking adult brain. I’m also pretty sure he was trying to sass me but he still couldn’t hide his enjoyment of my enthusiastic response. I grabbed a bunch of coloured card and pens, wheeled the stand out into an open space and set about making leaflets.
I amused myself for a while creating ad’s for missing ‘cats’, lost tooth notices and ‘bassist wanted’ posters. This attracted some inquisitive browsing and questioning but it wasn’t until a kid decided to make a ‘wanted’ poster for their brother that things suddenly took off, suddenly everyone was having wanted portraits made and bizarre rewards attached.
Image shows a wooden leaflet stand with multiple layers. The leaflets are all hand drawn on different coloured paper. There are several ‘wanted posters’, a leaflet for a missing “cat” which has eyes on stalks, a leaflet for a missing tooth and a couple with abstracted drawings.
The thing about this is it was far from a popular activity in the playground. But things don’t always have to be popular to be valuable. The kids who enjoyed it really enjoyed it. It the kind of play that appeals to a certain kind of kid. A play that uses the familiar as a jump of point, it’s a subversive kind of play, a bit like certain kinds of comedy, where you mess around with a vernacular or set of rules that are not yours but you know well. It’s also a very autistic kind of play, and perhaps the kind of play that you might miss if you’re not so familiar with the appeal.
As a kid I think my playfulness was often mistaken for seriousness, or not knowing how to enjoy myself. I remember being in primary school, probably about 8 or 9 and wanting to spend break time writing weather reports which I would then deliver stoically standing in front of an empty whiteboard to no one in particular. From an outsider it might have looked like I was in need of guidance or support interacting with my peers, and perhaps to a certain extent I did, but also I was having the greatest time amusing myself, I was playing, just, not in a way people recognised. The kid who delights in making fake leaflets might be looked at with the same confusion by well-meaning adults who just want them to have fun. As play-workers we can create opportunities to draw this subversive hidden play out; these might just be some of your most joyful and surprising interactions. Examples of this might be making nonsensical road signs, reorganising or creating ‘adult’ spaces such as offices or waiting rooms, or re-enacting scenes from movies over and over with the slightest whimsical tweaks nearly invisible to the outside-eye.
Image shows a close up of a leaflet stand with colourful hand drawn leaflets. One is a blue wanted poster which says ‘oof’ underneath, one is yellow with a pencil drawing of a robot and one is gold with a large tooth drawn in the middle and the headline ‘missing tooth’
Image shows close up of two leaflets in a leaflet stand, one says ‘Cars 2’ and has a drawing of a red car and the second says Used cars, like new, £5000 with a drawing of a very old damaged looking car.
The leaflet stand is slowly becoming repopulated with ‘real’ leaflets and family magazines but they’re remain interspersed with “Missing Flamingos!’ and “Wanted” children. I feel that it sits somewhere between art installation and play activity. I enjoy seeing it change over time, contributing to the playful atmosphere of the hall from its overlooked corner, a quiet reminder that there is nothing in this world too mundane to find joy and silliness in.
Hand holds white sheet of paper with the heading ‘missing flamingo’ in purple ink with ‘belongs to the yard’ written in black underneath. There is an excellent abstracted drawing of a flamingo with four stick legs,round body and one very large featureless eye.
I look up and see three faces pushed up against the glass of the main doorway. The faces belong to three small, blond children waiting to be granted entry to the play hall whilst their adults do the admin bit. What makes me smile particularly is not that they’re very cute (which they are), or even that they look very excited (which, they don’t exactly, it’s more curious-anticipation meets threatening-boredom) but, that instead of just looking through the glass, seeing what’s going on, sizing up the other kids etc.; they have opted to squash their faces right up against it. They’re definitely going for maximum surface area contact, skin to glass, I assume at the expense of actually being able to see properly. One of them has glasses and as a glasses wearer myself I have to admire his effort, they can be a big obstacle between a face and full window immersion. Somehow though, this kid’s managing.
Unable to resist such a play opportunity I put my half-built egg box marionette to one side and walk over. Initially they scarper to hide behind the legs of their still busy adults but when I crouch down and peer through the window they creep back, one at a time. I tap the glass they duck, I drum my fingers they drum back, I place my hands in front of their eyes and they move back and forth until they escape long enough to see me pull a face. New game, showing teeth, sticking out tongues, hiding faces, reappearing. The smallest is crouched in the corner looking up and me as I continue to play with the biggest. The second I dart my eyes towards her she bursts out laughing and puts a hand on the glass, we tap fingers lightly and continue to laugh as I duck in and out of eye-line. The middle reappears for a second, sticks out a tongue and disappears again. The biggest suddenly bangs a palm loudly above my head, a little harder perhaps than he meant as he looks somehow surprised and worried. I smile and knock gently opposite where his palm had been and we’re back to the beginning.
As the group prepares to come in I move out of the way and step back into the hall. I’m forgotten by two but the biggest runs in and immediately spots me; without the glass between us he’s suddenly shy but he gives me a little wave before darting outside where more unexplored territories wait. The window is filthy.
I know a child who speaks in headlines and snippets from stories of mischief and chaos. He mixes characters, plot points and slapstick action with highlights from days in his life. Though it may sound like a random collage it’s never outside of a certain rationality; rules and facts of life drawn from the workings of traffic signals, YouTube videos of flash floods and the strange things adults say and do. When you talk to him in the Now, ask him to do things, give him choices, and enquire about his day he is on alert. The more you ask of him the more panic can start to creep into his voice. He’ll answer in questions or in seemingly off-shoot statements. When you talk to him in his vocabulary of stories he relaxes, he hops, flaps and smiles. When you speak his language well trust forms and slowly but joyfully you move from telling him his own stories too creating stories together. What may look to an outsider like something repetitive and rigid is actually a very niche kind of play. We’re playing with building blocks made of phrases, actions and noises. Sometimes we’re rearranging them and introducing new blocks and sometimes we’re bringing out reliable structures and colour combinations, just enjoying them for what they are.
A frequent ‘building block’ in our stories. Mr Bean sits waving from an armchair tied to the roof of an old green mini-cooper car driving alongside a green field.
I once created a story tent for a group of children in the corner of an open high ceilinged, drafty gym hall scattered with scooters, balls and rackets. For some children their playful spirit is like oxygen, a gas, it seamlessly grows and shrinks to fill and take over any space. For some it’s more like water, a liquid, in certain spaces it is still and unmotivated, stuck, but in the right environment it can flow effortlessly and spectacularly. Out in the hall these different kinds of children might not work together, some so much more naturally suited than others, but in this colourful cosy micro-environment different children could flourish together. Sharing and exploring this new space and its purpose created about ten magical minutes of joint play. They took turns as they told each other stories wrapped in blankets holding torches. Accompanying each other with drum rolls and scary faces. Three children sat up in a circle, one child lay at the back in the cosiest corner maybe listening and another sat to one side drawing zombies. But all experienced the space together or parallel to each other in their own way.
The Story Tent: A montage of four photographs of a parachute den play space. The first shows the den from a distance. You can see it is built from two colourful parachutes hung together creating a high sloping ceiling. A comfy blue mat pokes out from the den. The second shows the inside. There is a pile of story and fact books on the mat. Loose pieces of fabric a piled up and a small drum hangs from the ceiling. The third shows a upright board within the den which has been covered in paper for drawing. Assorted coloured pens lie on the floor and you can see there are lots of drawings that have been done including one which says “beware of zombies!”. The fourth is a close up of a drawing which says “yard” in a blue cloud with red hand drawn underneath
In many ways these are two completely different tales of play but they both use the idea and tool of the story. Perhaps the most human product. The need to hear, read, discover and share stories seems to be universal. In play, stories have many uses, but the way I use them most is too provide structure. The idea of structure might seem to go against the ideas of play, of freedom of movement and imagination. But not every child can access that freedom with ease, especially outside their private environment. Forgetting this prevents us from recognising and allowing space for certain children’s play. For a lot of children I work with the world is a chaotic and confusing place, especially the social world which is so important in play spaces. To be able to play they must first feel safe which requires feeling able to communicate with those around them and feeling able to understand their environment enough to focus on something else. The first child I talk about above is a great example of how finding a shared communication allows for play, it not only makes him feel understood but allows him to understand me and creates the opportunity for me to be interesting. The following group of children were able to engage in a different kind of play when within an environment that made sense to all. It was the structure provided by stories that allowed for this.
The structure I’m talking about here isn’t a very fixed or elaborate one. A story has to begin somewhere, it has to be headed somewhere and there needs to be some form of conflict or point of multiple possibility. It’s simply something the child can jump off from and come back to at any point should things become confusing or overwhelming. It’s a part of feeling safe. I think we all use some kind of structure even if it’s just as a starting point, a way to transition into play. A lot of children manage this for themselves, others may need a little help or time to learn the skill for themselves. In my work I’ll often jump into play at a point where children are becoming distressed and/or someone is likely to come to harm, or when an activity is becoming to unsafe and I need to provide guidance. My way in will be bringing the play back to the original spark or idea, encouraging progressing, asking what’s next? What happens if? So this time machine, are you going backwards or forwards? Have you meddled in the past too much? You must fix it! What I’m doing is reminding them of the story, bringing them back to the narrative to help resolve conflict or find a new way forward.
A time machine i often come across at work looks suspiciously like this supermarket trolley…
The act of telling a story is a way of providing a structure without boxing a child in. It provides a rhythm and familiarity that the child recognises allowing and giving permission for them to take control. This can work whether you are part of the story or simply providing the environment where it can happen. It’s a kind of ‘in-road’ to play when be able to play isn’t straightforward, for whatever reason that may be. Stories can take you anywhere.
Hello and welcome to another play diary This entry will be bit of a flashback to those couple of weeks in the summer where I got very into a bunch of cardboard tubes. Hope you enjoy!
[photo shows a bare gym hall which has been filled with a variety of structures, mats and balls. They are set up in a temporary way to allow anyone to come in a explore and play. There are two different cardboard tube structures, a blue net with small coloured balls under it, a beach ball, and colourful parachute]
[photo shows a collection of objects on the pavement next to a building. There is a large structure made of cardboard tubes. Several loose tubes of varying sizes and a bright yellow bag with a beach ball poking out of the top}
[photo shows a sculpture made up of large cardboard tubes. It’s held together by elastic running through the tubes. It’s a geometric structure with a lot of triangles making up its shape]
Back in the summer I got the opportunity to go into a local play scheme and run a play session for a bunch of kids/teens with varying needs and abilities. Not really knowing a lot about who I’d meet or what they’d want from me I decided to focus on creating a play environment rather than thinking up activities or games. I think about play spaces a lot and I find working in this way; creating the space for the play to happen, rather than initiating or leading the play myself, is always exciting and challenging.
Changing a space changes the way we move within it, we enter the space and it has new potential; when a familiar space becomes a little less familiar the rules and expectations for what we do in that space get fuzzy around the edges making new room for creation, mischief and discovery. We’d had a huge haul of cardboard tubes appear in the art room at the playground the week before and i’d been desperately excited to do something with them. This felt perfect; it was just a question of how many I could fit in a taxi with me.
On the day I arrived at a high ceiling-ed, kind of chilly, gym hall carrying several cardboard tubes, parachutes, plastic and inflatable balls, a large blue net, several ropes and a large structure I’d made using strong elastic and (more) tubes. I set about creating a temporary playground. I had balls hidden under a net, precariously balanced tubes, a bubble wrap bag filled with more coloured balls and a rope strung up from the top of a door to the bottom of a bench with movable parts attached. I was pretty happy with what I’d done and looking forward to seeing things play out.
My first visitor was instantly drawn to a pile of loose tubes and began to build. I was super impressed with his patience and ingenuity as he problem-solved his way to creating the structure he had in mind. He wasn’t very flexible about what he wanted to create but was plenty flexible about how he would get there. Ten minutes later he walked of grinning without a glance at anything else in the hall. His work clearly done.
My next group were a young excitable bunch who wanted everything, all at once. The newly built structure was quickly dismantled and investigated in every possible manner, balls were kicked, thrown and pushed through tubes and in the shortest time the space looked completely different again. One child was enjoying spinning between moments of close inspection of the elasticated cardboard structure. I picked it up and he got inside with me and we span the entire thing around and around. I created a loop with a piece of spare elastic that I could stand in with him and spin whilst experiencing the pressure from the band around our lower backs. Another would not rest until he had exhausted the sensory potential of every object. I love to see this level of focus and exploration. Some played for a few minutes, some played the whole session and all played uniquely.
Throughout the day I saw the space morph between a place to run and jump or rock and relax. And although I was a little sad to pack up and leave I did it contentedly, feeling justified in the slight-cardboard-tube-mania that had gripped me for the last week.
Welcome to my “Play Diaries” series. I do many, many things, but my favourite is being a playworker at The Yard Adventure centre in Edinburgh. The Yard is a fantastic and wonderful place; primarily it’s a play service for young disabled people and/or young people with additional needs. We also run a public opening session every Sunday which i’m involved in the planning and running of. Here expect to find many messy, surreal and playful tales from the Yard and beyond!
Welcome to the first in a series of “Play Diaries” I shall be writing and sharing on this site. I do many, many things, but my favourite is being a playworker at The Yard Adventure centre in Edinburgh. The Yard is a fantastic and wonderful place; primarily it’s a play service for young disabled people and/or young people with additional needs. We also run a public opening session every Sunday which i’m involved in the planning and running of. Here expect to find many messy, surreal and playful tales from the Yard and beyond!
Photo of silent-movie actor Buster Keaton dressed as “the cameraman”. He is dressed n a shabby suit, bow tie and cap and is clinging to the tripod of his camera, legs off the ground looking stone faced into the distance.
Photo of a Camera made from a cardboard box, some cardboard tubes and cardboard reels with “Kodak” written on them. Its held together with bright yellow duct tape. Its pretty damn cool
The life of a cardboard creation is difficult to predict. If something I make is still kicking about after a week or so and looking anything like how it started I’m not impressed. I’m not one for sentimentality or preciousness about the things I make, I want each cardboard, duct-taped, painted and glittered creation to go to hell and back again. Anything I add to the play environment is simply a starting point; a nudge for a kid with a paintbrush, an idea, a joke or a creative destructive streak, to pick up and run with. So i’m happy to say these cardboard cameras didn’t last the week.
On Sunday I wondered about an incredibly busy playground dressed in a long black coat, baseball cap and bow tie, a silent but purposeful Spielberg-Keaton mash-up (at least in my rather niche imagination.) I carried two cardboard cameras, one more modern attempt with a large tube to use as a handle and one 1920’s style box camera on a dodgy bamboo cane tripod. Several times I’d set up and start to ‘film’ scenes or action shots. Something really great about this tact was all the different ways kids could get involved. They could watch the scene from a distance, simply enjoying it for what is was, maybe it would spark an idea for their own play. They could step in front of the camera and become performers or they could come ask me what I was doing and become directors, idea makers and set creators. All these things started to happen as it became less my play and more theirs.
Photo of a hand holding out a cardboard film camera, it has a long cardboard tube “lens” sticking out of the side and two cardboard reels attached with yellow duct tape.
photo of a box shaped camera with a cardboard tube lens through the middle. It is held together with yellow duct tape.
photo take through the long cardboard lens of the camera. A small circle of light is visible.
computer painted image of a character wearing a bright pink shirt, black bow tie and coat, they have glasses, a wee smile and cap. The background is a colourful mix of yellows, greens and blues. “the cameraman” is scrawled across the bottom of the image.
Later in the week at an evening teen club they were strapped to trikes and bikes and zoomed around the playground, first as speed cameras and then as news cameras. A team assembled with a cameraman and presenter as interviews were conducted and vital footage shot. Watching this take place it was wonderful to see other kids drifting in and out of the play as it was carried forward by the core couple of kids/news team. Eventually this turned into a junk modelling session as everyone wanted to make their own cameras, and had ideas on how to improve on mine (moving parts of course!).
Its interesting to me that had I been walking around that Sunday with a real film camera the play may have looked very different. Not less or bad, just different. I feel that the temporary and imaginative nature of the cardboard cameras allowed for self-consciousness to dissipate and silliness to flourish. And what more could a play worker want?