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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

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. 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.

 

Playful Communication: the joys of the ‘non-functioning’

“Communication is about our ability to share our lives with other people”            

Working in play, particularly in disability and additional needs settings, has blown open my understanding of what communication is. The quote above from therapist and author Phoebe Caldwell is, to me, is the best explanation of where I’ve landed. Most definitions of communication I see or hear focus on the imparting and receiving of information, they usually also mention speech and writing as how this can be done. I’m not suggesting these definitions are invalid or wrong, just that I feel they largely miss the point; sharing. Our communication is the reason we are able to exist alongside each other and the effectiveness of our communication is what determines how harmoniously we are able to do this. It’s not just the imparting and receiving of information that makes up communication, it’s that bit in the middle, the bit where you are existing in the same moment as another person and choosing to explore that together. That’s where the truth and joy of communication lies, not in the mechanics, in the sharing.

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Painting by Keith Haring

Speech is so often prioritised and seen as the ultimate way of communicating, and, that’s because for many, it is. Speech seems to come fairly naturally to most and from what I understand feels natural too, easy and satisfying. But not for everyone and if you take anything from this post I hope it’s this; speech is not the only way, the best way or the most ‘human’ way to communicate. When I’m able to communicate with someone without speaking I feel at my most content, connected and understood. People often mistake quietness or lack of conversation as a lack of things to express or desire to communicate. That’s not true, it’s perhaps just that talking, to them, is the most natural way to communicate and connect with people and therefore they assume, to everyone. I can speak, often very well, but talking often feels like a means to an end rather than an end itself, it’s for that ‘functional’ bit of communicating rather than that expressive, joyful sharing bit. Writing is different for me, when I’m writing in a way that feels natural it feels much closer to drawing than speaking.

De-prioritising speech is especially important in my line of work. A lot of the kids I work with don’t speak, can’t speak or perhaps speech just isn’t a form of communication that comes natural to them. That’s not to say speech isn’t important or useful, just that it is a way of communication that has no more or less value than any other kind; the way we jump or rock, the noises we make, images we create, the faces we pull, the way we move through and change our environment, the pauses we take to breathe and be, sharing touch and laughter and any other way you can think of that allows us to express ourselves. When kids face challenges in their ability to communicate we put a lot of emphasis on teaching and enabling them to communicate functionally, in doing this we also need to remember that a person’s inability to communicate is equally our inability to understand them. Whilst we create tools and put time into giving a child a way to ask for the toilet or a snack we also need to take the time to notice and respond to all those kinds of communications a person uses as they try to share their world. Ignoring these or dismissing these as less important than that ‘functional’ communication can cause us to isolate people in our attempt to understand them.

One of the many reasons I love working in play is that the play space is an environment where different forms of communication are already valued and recognised. It’s allows for, encourages and often even priorities those non-functional or non-verbal communications. In this way it creates a beauty and authenticity I think we could all benefit from if we took the time to explore it.


Phoebe Caldwell is an author and practitioner who works with people considered to have severe communication difficulties. She uses the technique ‘intensive interaction’ and has written extensively on the subject. Here’s her website where you can find more information including information in ‘easy-read’ formats; http://www.phoebecaldwell.co.uk/       

Play Diary: Tubes, Tubes and Temporary Playgrounds

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!

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.

 

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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! 

Check out my workplace The Yard and find out a bit more about what we do. It’s a fantastic organisation and place! Or find us on Facebook here!