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Playful Communication Part 3: Wordplay

Previously I’ve 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.

In troduction

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.

Some words

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.

Stimming

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.

Echolalia

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 push me.”

Scripting

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.

In Play

[colourful line drawing showing two children, one is half way through saying “knock knock” and the other has just shouted “batman!”]

Poop Jokes for President

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”.

 You know 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.

[colourful line drawing with three variations of the same face saying ‘booth’. One looks up to the sky and whistles it, another sticks their tongue out and another shouts it]

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.

Scripting Anarchy

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.

[line drawing featuring a person in the corner with a concentrated look holding out a small building block. next to them towers a stack of different coloured blocks with scrawls on them.]

Audio collaging

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.

[Colourful line drawing of a person happily flapping their hands as different squiggles and shapes fly out of their mouth like fireworks. There is even a little surfer riding a yellow wave]

In Practice

If 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.

Coping with repetition

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 communication

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.

SpongeBob Who-Pants?

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Play (and/or art?!) diary: Who framed the Pineapple

“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;

psychogeography is; ‘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 and buildings.

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 confidence.

Photograph looking down on a pile of empty frames stacked haphazardly on top of each other on the ground. There are eight frames in a range of blacks and browns.

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.

National Playwork Conference 2018 (I was there, lucky me!)

I recently had the fantastic experience of attending the 16th National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne. The conference is run by a non-profit play organisation called Meynell Games they deliver training, playwork services and sell playwork books. You can learn a bit more about the conference here http://www.playworkconferences.org.uk/ and, if you’re looking for books on playwork have a look at http://www.meynellgames.org/index.htm before amazon! That way you can support a non-profit doing great things in the play world and learn something new at the same time.


That said, I’d like to share a little bit about the sessions I attended.

  1. Live a Whittle.

This was the first session I went to promisingly titled; “How not to cut yourself whittling”. I can confirm I did not cut myself but I did get a blister. It was run by Tony Delahoy who is an adventure playground worker. One of the things I took away from this was the idea of using a potato peeler to cut soft/green wood like hazel. This is something I hope to bring back to the playground as it seems like a great accessible place to start with something like whittling. For those who might move on to using a knife it makes sense to use something that works in a similar way to build up motor skills and confidence. Also using peelers with larger rubber grips might work well for someone with lower dexterity and grip strength in their hands. I shall report back! It was also a really rich sensory experience; the smell of the wood as you strip the bark and the changes in its texture as you make more and different cuts and the bits of bark and wood that gather on the floor at your feet are aspects that I really enjoyed and appreciated.  I shall prize the stick that I whittled into a slightly fancier stick until I lose or break it!

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Image is a photo of an outstretched hand holding a whittled stick. The top half has the bark completely stripped with different smooth grooves. The bottom half has some bark remaining with long ovals cut away showing the pale wood underneath. It’s pretty cool.

  1. Nature Play in Amsterdam

This was one of the sessions that really jumped out at me when I was flicking through the programme. I’m always interested to see what playwork means in different countries and how play spaces are created and used. Martin Hup who was presenting does not call himself a playworker but a facilitator, the role of playworker does not exist in Holland the way it does in the UK. Of course, fortunately, play exists everywhere. Martin works at the ‘Woeste Westen’ nature playground a short bike ride from central Amsterdam. It consists of 3 hectares of public land, a collection of fields separated by water filled ditches, with makeshift bridges and rafts to get around. Martin discovered the land about 8 years ago, it was public but barely used as it was a little out of the way. He approached the city government about using the space for play and then took himself out there seven days a week with a coffee machine and cookies. Now there is a permanent hut and toilets but the majority of the space still remains simple and natural.  Now 57,000 people visit a year. Martin described how, after some initial adjustment, the kid’s transition into their wild, curious and playful selves. He identified an issue in this urban area of Holland of children not really experiencing nature in its pure form. Something that really struck with me was the way Martin described the changing seasons and weather becoming part of the play experience as well as the way he talked about our human connection to nature as being one of heart and mind.

Learn a bit more about Het Woeste Western nature playground here: https://www.woestewesten.nl/

The brilliant blog playgroundology also has an article on the playground worth reading: https://playgroundology.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/%E2%80%8Bamsterdams-wild-west-nature-play-at-woeste-westen/

 

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photo shows a bridge over a small water way. The bridge has 3 wooden H shaped frames, one on the land each side and one in the middle of the water, the frames are linked by a rope bridge. In the background there is a muddy hill, grass and a line of trees. photo credit: https://playgroundology.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/%E2%80%8Bamsterdams-wild-west-nature-play-at-woeste-westen/

  1. The GRAND UNIFYING PRINCIPLE

Here’s where things got a little abstract, which is always fine by me, with a presentation from Jacky Kilvington on her recently invented religion ‘Playtheism’. Jacky, via computer magic as she was not present in person, shared her ideas of playtheism; a religion where play is the vehicle of consciousness, an intervening force in the universe and the grand unifying principle of all things. We then spent time inventing as a group, customs, rules and symbols for this religion. Fuelled by a day filled with little, big, casual, intense and passionate discussions about play and play work there was a slightly wacky atmosphere. This was also enhanced by the fact we were huddled around a table in a basement ballroom. Personally everything in life always seems to come back to play, so I’m pretty down with it being the grand unifying principle.

When she’s not inventing religions Jacky is writing books about play, most recently released is the second edition of ‘Reflective Playwork’ co-written with Ali Wood. Find out more about that here: https://playworkfoundation.org/2018/01/29/second-edition-of-reflective-playwork-published/

 

  1. Gender and Play

This was a session led by Sarah Goldsmith who is currently doing a Phd about toys, children’s play and gender. The session explored the concept of gender equity and asked questions about how we situate gender within playwork. It was the kind of discussion that leaves you with just as many questions as you started (the best kind). Part of it involved discussion of the playwork principles which don’t make any explicit reference to gender or any factor which can be barriers to inclusion in play for children. We have playwork principle number 5 which says: “The role of the playworker is to support all children and young people in the creation of a space in which they can play” which implicitly supports inclusion in all forms, but do we need more than this? My instinct is to say ‘yes, absolutely’ but I don’t have any clear notion of what that would look like. Inequality exists in our play spaces because it exists in the wider world, how do we acknowledge and tackle the complex ways this effects children and adults alike whilst respecting the play process? Luckily I’m a strong believer in not shying away from complexity but frustratingly I have no answers. I look forward to engaging in more of these conversations and seeing us move forward as a profession.

Meanwhile I’m going to be reading “Gender, Sex and Children’s Play” by Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood.  http://www.bookseducation.co.uk/gender-childrens-play-p-1966.html

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Image shows the cover of a book called “Gender, Sex and Children’s Play” by Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood. Most of the cover is taken up by an image of bare childrens legs formt the knee down standing in a pair of much too big grey high heeled shoes. A string of yellow, red and green beads is visible at the top of the cover.

  1. Creating Inclusive Play Spaces

In exciting Play Radical news, I also ran a session! This was called “Creating Inclusive Play Spaces” and was based on my recent article of the same name. I had a great group of participants who bought experience, questions and a wonderful openness. It was great to see my finding-examining-adapting model in action as well as reassuring to see that it made sense outside of my head and writing. Inclusive play is truly the thing I feel most passionate about and I have every intention of taking this thing as far as I can. So, if you happen to feel the same or want to work together on this, or would be interested in getting me along to your workplace to run a session, please get in touch.


The best thing I took away from this experience is a renewed and expanded awareness of the scope of playwork. Sometimes it can feel like the work we do is just so niche but actually there are people everywhere with the same passion and value for play. I hope you took something away from this brief-ish report of my experience! I’ll definitely be there next year and maybe you will too.

This is Play Radical signing off,

See you on the playground.

Play Diary: Wanted kids and missing flamingos

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Creating inclusive play spaces: a place to start

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.

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A “messy and incomplete” pirate ship. Photo shows a collection of tires, wooden pallets, rope and traffic barriers arranged to be a pirate ship. A black flag flies from a bamboo cane sticking out from an upturned giant flower pot. There are leaves from a tree and a brick building with lots of windows in the background.

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.

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Paint mixer. A blue barrel with a black plastic tube running through it which stands on two stacks of large black car tires. The structure stands on a blue tarp on top of grass. There is a grass lawn and more tyres pictured in the background. There is a jug  filled with yellow paint, a tub of red paint in the foreground. Splashes of paint are visible around the edge of the barrel

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.

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Photo taken from above shows three red buckets each with a different mix of bark, leaves, sand and water inside. The buckets are sitting on top of a slatted wooden bench and there is grass and dirt visible in the background.

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.

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Photo shows two ghosts made from bubble wrap with blank silver cd’s as eyes hanging from a wooden structure. There is a brightly coloured parachute in the back ground and the ground is green astro turf.

To Summarise:

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.

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Image of a black pen and pencil drawing of a colourful tree. There is red text at the bottom of the images saying “Just Climbing a tree?”. There is a child in the tree partially obscured by leaves and branches. the child has light brown skin and dark brown long hair with streaks of purple. They are smiling with there arms in hanging to one side with one foot on a branch.  The image is covered in captions which say; hear the wind in the branches, be by yourself, see if you can reach the clouds, conspiring with nature, being up high, hide, smelling the leaves, looking down and feeling sick, feel the bark against your skin, explore colours and patterns, break the rules, surprise yourself or others, take a risk, be a monkey, feel scared, getting  a different point of view and feel you skin stretch and muscles strain.

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.

I’ll see you on the playground!

Play Diary: the Window

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.

Playful Communication #2: Permission

In play work we talk a lot about permission and in my role I definitely spend a lot of time giving it. Sometimes it’s something simple, just a “yes, you can use that” or “yes, you can climb that’. Sometimes it’s a more complicated “yes if” or maybe a “tell me more….” Sometimes children aren’t just seeking permission but guidance. Sometimes they come to the playground and just can’t stop asking permission because they’re not used to so much freedom. Sometimes someone might just want permission to talk and share something with you. A very common scenario, and a personal favourite, is when someone isn’t really asking permission at all; like when a child demands to know if they can triple back-flip of the roof of the shed or tip a bucket of water over your head. Usually this will be something they perceive as either risky or rule-breaking and often it’s a test of who you are and what kind of relationship they’re going to have with you. And, though it’s probably not going to be a straight up yes, with a bit of creativity it usually doesn’t have to be a hard no. Taking a child’s request seriously shows them you take them seriously and so respect and value their ideas. This creates a relationship where they’re more likely to share their ideas and play in a freer way. Of course the other side of giving permission is asking for it, and that’s what I want to explore a little more here.

Ask!

Imagine you’re observing a play session, you notice one, very determined child, chasing another holding a raggedy straw hat. The child being chased doesn’t look like they are having fun and they are starting to get angry. You walk over and figure out that the first child is trying to make the other wear the hat, the child doesn’t want to because it’s a super gross hat (you secretly agree; it’s always a super gross hat). You step in to explain to the first child that the other doesn’t have to wear the hat and it’s better to ask the other child and listen to their answer. Both children are upset but the hat-fiend apologises and you (forever a martyr) ask if they’ll put the hat on you. The first child feels confused though. Perhaps because yesterday, when they were upset because another child kept touching their hair, the grown-up said to ‘be nice and let them’ and when they go to grandma’s house they have to give her a cuddle before bed even though they don’t like how it feels.

Always ask. Adults often don’t ask children permission, and they should. Asking doesn’t have to be verbal, it might be using a symbol or a gesture or simply giving a clear opportunity to say no. Asking permission isn’t just important to your relationship with the child in the present moment, it is also part of a responsibility we have to model positive boundaries and good use of consent for that child as they continue to grow and navigate new situations and relationships.

Disabled children will likely have had regular contact with medical and healthcare professionals throughout their lives and so will be used to strange adults investigating their bodies and minds in a way that many non-disabled children won’t have. If they have personal care needs they will also be used to adults of varying degrees of familiarity attending these. This just makes it all the more important to be clear and conscientious about asking permission when physically engaging with a child. It is vital to respect the child’s person-hood and ownership of their body to enable them to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate kinds of touch.

There is a troubling behaviour I see over and over again where adults think that it’s okay to invade a child’s space or touch their body. When I worked in a school with profoundly and physically disabled children I would often notice that supply teachers or new staff wouldn’t hesitate to touch a child’s head or shoulder or lean on their chair within seconds of meeting them, not even giving the child time to process that the person was near them. This would infuriate me, it’s almost as if the more vulnerable an adult would perceive a child to be the less need they would have to ask permission. This could be down to an assumption that the child can’t give permission or an assumption that the adult doesn’t need permission. I think in part this behaviour is a result of people not knowing how to navigate relationships where communication is non-verbal. Not knowing how to communicate with someone can often lead to ignoring or disrespecting their person-hood. But with time and patience we can always find a way to ask.

yes no sign

Two rectangles side by side. The first is green, it has a line drawing of a closed fist with arrows indicating in moving up and down. It is titled ‘yes’. The second rectangle is red and has an image of a closed hand with index, middle and thumb touching and then opening. it is titled ‘no’.

Establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’

In any relationship establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is key. When meeting a child for the first time this is part of my role as a play worker, it’s something I always prioritise, particularly as a lot of the children I work with may not say yes or no in the expected or simple way. In a play environment there are plenty of opportunities to do this. I’ve broken these down into four categories, although I’m sure there are many more.

  1. “Can I…?”

This can be a part of introducing yourself to someone, asking ‘can I join you’ when a child is playing or sitting somewhere can tell you straight away how someone communicates consent. If they say no, or walk or turn away, then respect this. It doesn’t mean they won’t want to spend time with you at some other point and if you respect their response in that moment they are more likely to want to do so. You might also ask “can I show you this” or “can you tell me about that”.

  1. Offering choices.

For a child who is maybe shy or who you’re unsure about how to communicate with; offering them a clear choice of something to do can be a fairly low pressure way to engage with. Make sure you keep the choices you offer simple and low impact. Use options that are visual and concrete rather than abstract. For example “Do you want to use this parachute?” rather than “Do you want to play a game outside or go to the art room”

  1. Expressing approval or dislike

Watching a child to gauge how they interact with and respond to an environment can give you indicators of how they may communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’. This is perhaps a less direct method but for someone who communicates non-verbally you may need to think a bit wider about how to ask permission. Recognising how they express liking or disliking something can help with this. For example you may see a child wrinkle up their face and pull their head back when there is a loud bang. Later on when you approach them with a fluffy puppet they may wrinkle their face again, perhaps you could sit down within their eye line without the puppet and see how their body language changes.

  1. Asking someone who knows the child already

If you’re getting to know a child who has complex communication needs it can be helpful to chat to someone who knows them better. Just make sure you don’t take what they say as set in stone. Because every individual relationship is different. But finding out some basic information can help you avoid doing particular things that might trigger behaviours or make someone uncomfortable or scared.

Permission is an ongoing part of any relationship and works both ways. When asking permission you’re also giving permission to someone to say yes or no. You’re creating a space where they can have autonomy and feel comfortable to express themselves.

Permission in the Play Space

Permission and consent are key functions of communication and central to enabling free play. Permission allows a child to explore ideas and experiences, in the best kinds of play spaces children should feel that they already have permission to be themselves and should be encouraged to ask and seek consent from other children and adults in their joint play. As play workers, as carers and as adults it’s our responsibility to keep listening, observing and learning so we can create the best spaces and experience for children in our care.


My first piece in this series focused on shifting our understanding of communication as simply the imparting and receiving of information to communication as the way we share our worlds with each other. It has many different elements which include both ‘functional’ communication such as question asking or requesting things and also ‘expressive’ communication which we may use to share our emotional or sensory experience. I also highlighted the importance of de-prioritising speech as the main or most valuable way of communicating to better understand and recognise other kinds of communication and people who use them. If you like you can find that first piece here: https://playradical.blog/2016/12/09/playful-communication-the-joys-of-the-non-functioning/?preview_id=221&preview_nonce=6dd19bcf26

 

 

Diagrams and Laughter

laughter vd

. A drawing of a Venn diagram with three circles. The title is “Expression”. The circles are labelled “Emotional”, “vocal” and “physical”. The middle of the diagram where all the circles meet is labelled “laughter”.

I wanted to take a moment today to share this image. It’s a diagram I drew a couple of years ago and come back to it often when thinking about communication. It shows how laughter uses all our methods of expression at once, its emotional, physical and verbal.

I once worked with a kid who was extremely verbal but with little language use or understanding. Every day I saw her we’d sit down and i’d tell her the- always dramatic, very flamboyant- tale of how i’d got to work that day. The thing was, despite probably understanding little of the things I was saying, she always laughed in the right places. I loved these mornings and I love how humour has a way of transcending language and so many other potential barriers to communication.

I often think the most uninhibited people will be amongst strangers is when laughing. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it occupies all these means of expression at once and perhaps it’s also the way it brings down these communication barriers, makes us less self conscious or concerned and more open to that joy and connection.

For the love of Cardboard! ; Tips for junk modelling

At 24 years old the simple cardboard box has never lost its appeal for me. With my noble partner-in-creation duck tape and sometimes associates, gaffa, sello and duct (for the pedants), anything is possible. Fortunately most kids seem to feel the same way. So, here are some tips for anyone whose ever felt a little intimidated by the possibilities or pressures (“can we make a dinosaur submarine robot with fairy wings!?” etc.) of junk modelling!

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A man stands holding a large water pistol wearing a space helmet and shoulder suit made of cardboard, bubble wrap and tape

1.Break what you want to make down into key shapes. Then take the biggest of those and start there, this can almost always be a simple box shape! For example if you’re making a rocket you’ll maybe start with a tall box shape and then add fins, cones, fire etc.  It’s much easier to work this way and if you’re working with a group of kids you can then ask what they’d like to add. But always start big and work out to the smaller parts. You’ll end up with something sturdier and the composite parts will be made to purpose.

2. Work with the shapes already in the materials. In most piles of junk you will find cardboard with ready made corners and folds. Don’t cut these up to create new corners and folds, figure out how you can incorporate existing ones into your model. You’ll make something sturdier with less sweating and suppressing swearing.

3.Glue OR Tape. It’s time to make a choice folks. That is all I’ll say.

4.Paint/decorate after- always build the structure first- or risk compromising its integrity

5.Let go and let the kids ultimately lead the way. The joy of junk modelling is the short cycle of creation and destruction! Embrace it and have fun, you can always tidy up later.

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This is an alien giraffe. The kid who made it said it was an alien giraffe, so that’s what it is, and it’s perfect.

And for a bit of inspiration, check out this kid and his creations.

 

Play Diary: Telling Stories

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.