“Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do.”
– National Museum of African-American History and Culture*
The Black Lives Matter movement has momentum right now. That momentum is built on decades of anti-racist activism and work by Black people.
Racism and specifically anti-Black racism is being talked about more widely than I can ever remember as a white 28-year-old living in Edinburgh, Scotland. This means a lot of, primarily White people, learning a lot very quickly, becoming more politicised and wanting to take action. What is going to hit home soon for people who’ve maybe been less involved in any kind of activism or work around dismantling the deeply embedded prejudices and structural inequalities around us… is that Activism is hard going. It is tiring and the work is never done and what’s more the energy this work takes can feel wildly disproportionate to the time you spend doing it. This only becomes magnified if you are directly affected by those issues at hand.
Everyone has their own limits and abilities and when that is recognised it becomes a strength of any movement. Looking at your own abilities, limits and strengths is key to figuring out how you’re going to make your activism sustainable. Because that’s what we need. When it comes to anti-racism the people who need to be doing the most work are white people which means we need to look at our day to day lives and figure out how we can make anti-racism a consistent part of it.
For me, my practice as Play Radical is a big part of my day to day life and will continue to be. It’s my work, my passion and takes up a large part of my time and energy. So how do I embed anti-racism into it in a long-term way? Here’s the plan I’ve put together:
Talk about race when I do training
I provide training on autism, autistic access and inclusive play. I currently mention race in all of these but, I need to be more informed and explicit. For example in autism training I will talk about how Black autistic people are commonly not diagnosed or often misdiagnosed and how this then affects whether they access the support they might need. But I don’t give enough space to acknowledge or talk this and the many other ways being a person of colour affects a person’s experience of being disabled and/or autistic. Being the ‘expert’ in this context as the person delivering training it’s easy to decide I don’t know enough to talk more explicitly or make more space for something. There is a two-part solution for this; 1. Learn more, 2. Practice what I preach- forget about experts, lean into any discomfort around the idea of being wrong or not doing something perfectly and make that space regardless.
2. Offer free training to Black-led grassroots and non-government funded organisations.
This ones pretty straightforward. I will be working on a way to formalise this as an offer and figuring out what my capacity is for providing this.
3. Challenge racism in my day to day practice
This applies to both the adults I come into contact with and the children and young people. As well as potentially supporting adults who work with those children. I think it’s worth mentioning that this is something I’ve had to do a lot in the five years I’ve been working with children and young people in Edinburgh and surrounding areas. It something I’ve done with varying degrees of effectiveness and need to continue to work on. At its most complicated in my work this means addressing racism when its displayed as part of behaviours linked to emotional distress; when a child in a state of meltdown uses racial slurs for example. I’ve worked with young white people in the past who’ve done this, where it forms part of a behaviour pattern linked to distress, anger and overload. It is essential to address this and work on it with the young person. It can’t be dismissed as just a given part of ‘challenging behaviour’. That’s not to say it’s not dealt with appropriately and sensitively- it needs to be part of a holistic approach to helping a child manage behaviour and emotions. But it can’t be ignored or dismissed. In my experience this is a long-term ongoing conversation with the young person.
4. Read/research/share work by Black practitioners
This means not assuming that work by Black practitioners, be that research, artwork, blogs etc are not there just because I don’t know about them. It means seeking out that work, paying for that work and using whatever platform I have to share it.
So that’s what I’m working with right now, it’s by no means a perfect plan and is something that I will need to consistently come back to, reflect upon and adjust. But I wanted to share it to encourage and support other people who want to do better, or more but aren’t sure how. Whatever roles you have in life, wherever you live, whatever work you might do there will be away to integrate active anti-racism into your life.
To my fellow playworkers, artists, community workers and educators what can you do to embed anti-racism in your practice? Are you feeling stumped? Confused? Helpless? Drop me an email and we can talk it through. I also very much welcome any feedback and suggestions you might have on what I’ve shared here.
“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”
– Ijeoma Oluo**
The image featured in this article is from Jen White Johnson who can be found here https://jenwhitejohnson.com/ and @jtknoxroxs on instagram and twitter.
Stackable re-usable paper or plastic cups are a favourite of mine to introduce into a space. They’re recognisable but novel; especially in large numbers or unexpected contexts. They’d be easy to dismiss but offer up endless possibilities. This play diary is made up of observations from various sessions where I’ve bought cups into the space. They vary from big groups on a school playground to small groups in a classroom to one to one sessions in all sorts of settings with all sorts of children and young people.
First there comes towers. Not always, but often. Build up knock down build up knock down.
For some that’s a perfect formula, they continue in one way until they’re done, alone or in groups, this might take two minutes it might take forty-five. For others the first tower is just launch point.
Build up knock down.
There are always more ways to build a tower. There are always more ways to knock it down. There’s every way you can get from one point to another and then there are ways that don’t care for those two points at all.
Sam keeps reminding herself to breathe and talking about how she can’t believe how much fun she’s having as she aims her tower for the ceiling.
Jamie doesn’t seek to build high, he builds wide; not towers but apartments and a public transport system.
Ethan doesn’t see a cup at all, he sees a new material to work with and fetches some scissors.
Jake is an all-powerful Crusher of Cups. We build a ‘crushing zone’ so his flavour of destruction can exist alongside his peers’ less permanent versions.
Zoe says she “knows what we’re meant to do!” but she soon forgets the “meants” of it all and lays on the ground looking at the sky through a cup telescope.
Cass is just not that interested at present.
Lou fills a cup with water, drops some bouncy balls in and spends the next ten minutes trying to seal it up. Eventually there is so much blue masking tape involved you can’t see the water or the balls. They’re pretty happy with their creation.
Finley creates a very complicated game, with very complicated rules which she explains excitedly at length.
For Rishi I’m his collaborator and competitor interchangeably; I hand him cups as he stands precariously on his tiptoes to build or I work to stack up cups quicker than he can knock them over.
Eagan holds up a stack and slowly s l o w l y lets one at a time fall through his hands onto the floor. He’s delighted by his level of control and the slow rhythmic drop.
How many cups can you balance on your body at once? What’s the sound of 100 cups falling in an empty hall? Did you know if you have enough cups in one stack you can wiggle them about like some kind of cup-worm?
To me cups are the perfect example of how, when it comes to creating opportunities for play, there is no such thing as ‘too simple’ or ‘not enough’. Also, in a push, they can actually be useful for drinking from!
A refreshingly short blog post today as i’m sharing some news! My illustrated Call to Play is now available online to view. One of the first posts on Play Radical was the first version of this piece of writing and I’m so excited to share this update, it also features a series of my drawings and all adds up to something I feel pretty happy about!
There will soon be printed copies of available for purchase (I’ll be keeping the cost as low as i can). If you’re interested in securing a copy ahead of time please feel free to drop me and email at email@example.com, otherwise keep an eye on my website/social media for updates!
written about the importance of recognising and valuing different forms of
communication and the need for us to allow for expressive as well as functional
communication. In this piece I’m going to take a specific look at language as a
form of expressive communication and in particular what this can look like in
the play of autistic people.
For most people language as a form of expression is
something that is encouraged; writing poetry, prose and music is not only
valued and celebrated but considered an act that is essentially human. This is
often forgotten when it comes to autistic children where “non-functional” language
can get brushed aside by surrounding adults as not meaningful, worth listening
too or in some cases even seen as damaging to the child. But autistic people
should be allowed and encouraged to enjoy and play with language just as their
neuro-typical peers are. In trying to prevent this use of language we are
denying an individual a culturally and historically significant part of being
human. I would also argue that playing with language is one way in which it can
become meaningful to an individual. Therefore as people are most comfortable
and content when able to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them,
limiting this playing with language is only going to hinder their ability to
communicate and be heard.
Before I jump in, I want to define a few words I’m
going to be using in the rest of this essay, these are words commonly used by
autistic people, allies, parents and professionals alike. The basic meanings
people use don’t tend to vary that much but the way people approach or
understand each one does. These definitions won’t be exhaustive but will
hopefully give you an understanding or what I mean when I use these words.
This word comes from ‘stimulatory’ in
“self-stimulatory behaviour”. It’s not just autistic people who do this, but we
tend to do it particularly often and it can fulfil many different functions. We
also do it fantastically well. It can help regulate the senses, manage anxiety or
other difficult emotions, be a part of feeling excited or joyful or be done
simply because it feels good. Stimming usually takes the form of a repetitive
behaviour that engages one or more of the senses such as rocking, jumping, hand
flapping and humming.
This is a form of communication where someone repeats
phrases or words they’ve heard. It can be immediate; you might say to a child
“do you want to go on the swing” and they might say “swing” back to mean yes, where
another child, not using echolalia, might just say “yes”. Or it can be delayed,
with phrases or words repeated back moments, hours, days later. This could be
because they’ve been processing what was said during that delay, or they might
be using what was said before to convey meaning in that present moment. Either
way it might look like the child coming up to you an hour later and saying, “do
you want to go on the swing” and meaning “I want to go on the swing can you
There are two main kinds of scripting, echolalic scripting and social scripting, although they cross over. Social scripting is using learned or repeated phrases to navigate social situations. The kind I’m going to be talking about here is echolalic scripting which I would describe as where echolalia and stimming meet. People will use lines from films, tv shows, books, songs, conversations they’ve had or overheard to ‘script’ with. They may repeat long streams of dialogue or a short bit over and over. This can be for enjoyment, self-expression or as a way of engaging with someone. It’s common for people to draw on a bank of learned phrases or dialogue (‘scripts’) which they associate with a certain emotion or situation when they find themselves experiencing that emotion or situation.
Now let’s get into the serious play stuff.
Poop Jokes for
Of the 16 play types described by play theorist Bob Hughes, what
I’m talking about here fits best, although not quite snugly, into the category
of ‘Communication Play’. Hughes defines this as;
“play using words,
nuances or gestures for example, mime, jokes, play acting, mickey taking,
singing, debate, poetry”.
how some kids just love to talk about poop, sing about poop and call you a
poop? That’s a form of communication play. Ever had the pleasure of listening
in on a bunch of kids making up format-defying knock-knock jokes? Also
communication play. What about the kid in a corner talking to the puppet on his
own hand? Communication play! (also; me for the first year of secondary
school). When I talk about playing with language, I am referring to a kind of communication
play which, when seen through an autistic lens can fracture into multitudes of
shapes and forms.
In spite of their wonder and complexity these forms of playing with language often go unnoticed or dismissed; especially when the adult’s viewpoint is skewed by the “functional language only” bias discussed above. If a child who uses language isn’t using words to communicate in the acceptable or ‘correct’ way, then it can be presumed they are doing that out of ignorance. When actually, they may be using their words exactly as they intended, you just don’t have the tools to recognise or to interpret it.
To help with this, I’m going to take a look at
some of those shapes and forms of autistic wordplay that I’ve observed and experienced.
Talking as Stimming
Have you ever observed someone rolling a word around their
mouth like a gobstopper? Most recently a conversation I was having with a young
person came to a standstill as the word “booth” caught them. They elongated it,
dragging out the ooooh and shortened it, expelling it like a cough. They
altered the pitch wobbling it in the middle, smiled and giggled. This is where talking
can be a form of stimming; more about sensing than communicating. Try it now; take
a word and say it out loud, say it in your head whilst imagining saying it out
loud, mouth it, taste it, spit it out quickly, stick out your tongue with it
balanced right on the tip, almost falling… pull it back in, explore the entire surface,
look for hidden cracks and fractures, get inside and discover what it’s really
made off. Imagine doing all off this and not feeling silly or self-conscious,
imagine this being something that brings you immense joy and satisfaction and
then being made to feel silly or self-conscious.
As stimming can be used to fulfil a range of different needs
talking as stimming is not always going to be about play, but it can be,
particularly when the person stimming is relaxed and if they are happily responsive
to or engaged in someone else joining in. What may start as stimming as a
reaction to anxiety about being in a busy playground may become playful as it
enables the child to relax and then morph into a part of the child’s play as they
try out new words perhaps ones which relate to that which is happening around them.
A child may smile and squeal as another speeds past them on a scooter a little
closer than expected, and then beginning vocally stimming, saying ‘oh dear watch
out oh dear watch out oh dear watch out” over and over again. To an outsider,
based on the words and repetition alone, it may seem like the child is
distressed but actually it might be a humorous comfortable and playful reaction.
If the above scooter-scenario happened to
me right now I can guarantee my brain would shout ‘shocked and appalled,
shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled.’ Just typing this is making heart
is beating a little faster and a goofy smile appear on my face. It’s very
unlikely I would actually be shocked and appalled, but this phrase is something
my brain always goes too, likely because it amuses me. When I’m on a playground
most of the time I would resist saying this aloud but if it was a child I knew,
who also stim-talks I probably would, and it might become a playful exchange.
Anyone whose spent enough time around autistic people will
probably have had the same conversation over and over again. Or will at least
think they have. It might be exchanging the same few lines of dialogue from an
episode of Thomas the Tank or it might be lines that you’ve learnt from the
other person over time from an obscure sci-fi movie you’ve never actually seen.
Someone might have a set of questions they ask again and again to get the same
answers from you. Much like talking as stimming there is no one reason people
do this, but it can be a part of play or a way into play with another person. It
can also be a way to establish communication with someone to enable a different
kind of play, or an invitation to bring someone else into the script.
When at its most playful this kind of scripting becomes subtly
anarchic. You may find yourself in what you think is the same conversation but
if you pay close attention there are small changes being made, little
explorations and experiments. It may be the words themselves or the way they
are delivered. The more you get to know someone the more you might find you can
introduce a little anarchy yourself, you might change a word or mix in another
concept. If the other person isn’t ready for this, they may well ignore it,
that’s okay. A young person I know scripts with SpongeBob Square pants and a
lot of the time they will ignore if I try to introduce a deviation. But on occasion,
when they loudly sing “who lives in a pineapple under the sea” and I reply “Winnie
the Pooh” (to the SpongeBob tune) it stops them in their tracks. They’ll give
me a look that says; ‘challenge accepted’, and then we’re playing. We go back
to the beginning of the script, both curious about what’s going to happen next,
this time when I respond “SpongeBob square pants” it’s somehow funnier than the
deviant version. This can go on and on and build and build. Imagine phrases and
words as building blocks that are being stacked higher and higher in a tower; they
can be knocked down suddenly, pushed slowly, intentionally picked up and placed
upside down as an experiment to see if they will remain standing. The
anticipation of a fall and element of surprise is part of the fun, but so is the
different ways you can build, different colour and shape combinations. I’m not
quite sure how to cram humour into this metaphor. But that’s there too, some of
those blocks are real comedians.
For me this is the ultimate form of autistic word play. It can involve everything I’ve already written about here and so much more. It’s a perfect example of the idea of the sum being greater than the parts. The parts are those echolalic words and phrases, bits of scripting, intonation, pitch, speed, mutations, hums, shouts and whispers. The sum is a kind of audio-collage that contains all these parts but is heightened and expanded by the interactions between them. This can be solo play or collaborative. When it’s collaborative it’s neither monologue or dialogue but something else altogether. The player(s) will cut and paste concepts together, looping, repeating and rearranging. From the outside this might seem inscrutable or completely random, but it’s likely neither if you’re able to tune in; something that will take a lot of time, listening and detecting for most.
There are a few things that fuel this kind of play; sharing and exploring particular interests or ideas, making connections, playing with social conventions and expectations and humour. The interest is often what starts the play off; chat about trains, Dora the explorer, road signs. Things which may seem mundane to someone who doesn’t share that interest but are a source of joy and inspiration to the individual. The connections are made through that out of the box or unexpected thinking, referencing another interest in an unexpected way. Exploring and discovering connections between things is something that is pleasing to many autistic people. When it comes to social conventions, despite popular belief, it’s not always the case that autistic people don’t recognise social conventions, often they just don’t see the point of following them or doing so causes stress and discomfort. For a child who spends all day at school trying to follow other people’s rules that aren’t intuitive to them, coming up with different answers to the questions “how are you” and acting it out with someone over and over might be very enjoyable. Finally humour, perhaps the hardest thing to try and explain, because our personal sense of humour so intuitive. But there is definitely an anarchic, surreal and abstracted sense of humour that a lot of autistic people share and that can be a key part of this kind of play.
these are new ideas to you, well, that was probably a lot to take in. So I want
to leave you with a few simple things you can keep in mind to facilitate and enable
this kind of play and creativity.
A lot of people find repeated conversation, particularly questions
annoying. If you feel that way then that’s okay, you’re definitely not alone. What
is not okay is to treat the person who communicates and plays in this way as a
nuisance. If you can’t engage then find a way to be honest about that, it might
mean simply saying; “I’m sorry, I can’t do questions at the moment”. It may feel
blunt or insensitive but its more damaging to act as if the person has done
something wrong by ignoring them, talking over them or doing things like
rolling your eyes and tutting. Feeling like the way you instinctually communicate,
or play is wrong is extremely damaging to the individual. It’s also good to
remember that autistic people spend a lot of time adapting to the way non-autistic
people communicate and being expected to do so without question.
AAC & expressive
When someone uses a method of adaptive and augmentative communication (AAC), such as sign, sign assisted speech, pecs or a digital text to speech programme, the focus on making sure they use it correctly- where correctly means functionally- tends to be even heavier than with speech. Remember that they may use it for expressive communication too and they should be allowed to do this.
There’s a really easy way to engage and play with someone
who communicates using echolalia and scripting; learn what they are talking
about! It’s all already out there for you, often just a YouTube search away. Learn
who Patrick or Peppa or Dora or Oliver is. (pink talking starfish best pal of SpongeBob
SquarePants, Pig, Spanish speaking young girl with monkey friend, train friend
of Thomas). Seeing a kids face light up when they realise you understand
something about this world that they love and understand through is pure joy.
Language can be a tool of play as well as pure communication,
the term ‘word play’ is familiar to most of us, but the fact that it can mean
so much maybe isn’t. Next time you come across a chid stim-talking, scripting and
collaging… slow down, listen and see if you can tune in. If you’re lucky you
might even get an invitation to join.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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”
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.
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
I know a child who speaks in headlines and snippets from stories of mischief and chaos. He mixes characters, plot points and slapstick action with highlights from days in his life. Though it may sound like a random collage it’s never outside of a certain rationality; rules and facts of life drawn from the workings of traffic signals, YouTube videos of flash floods and the strange things adults say and do. When you talk to him in the Now, ask him to do things, give him choices, and enquire about his day he is on alert. The more you ask of him the more panic can start to creep into his voice. He’ll answer in questions or in seemingly off-shoot statements. When you talk to him in his vocabulary of stories he relaxes, he hops, flaps and smiles. When you speak his language well trust forms and slowly but joyfully you move from telling him his own stories too creating stories together. What may look to an outsider like something repetitive and rigid is actually a very niche kind of play. We’re playing with building blocks made of phrases, actions and noises. Sometimes we’re rearranging them and introducing new blocks and sometimes we’re bringing out reliable structures and colour combinations, just enjoying them for what they are.
A frequent ‘building block’ in our stories. Mr Bean sits waving from an armchair tied to the roof of an old green mini-cooper car driving alongside a green field.
I once created a story tent for a group of children in the corner of an open high ceilinged, drafty gym hall scattered with scooters, balls and rackets. For some children their playful spirit is like oxygen, a gas, it seamlessly grows and shrinks to fill and take over any space. For some it’s more like water, a liquid, in certain spaces it is still and unmotivated, stuck, but in the right environment it can flow effortlessly and spectacularly. Out in the hall these different kinds of children might not work together, some so much more naturally suited than others, but in this colourful cosy micro-environment different children could flourish together. Sharing and exploring this new space and its purpose created about ten magical minutes of joint play. They took turns as they told each other stories wrapped in blankets holding torches. Accompanying each other with drum rolls and scary faces. Three children sat up in a circle, one child lay at the back in the cosiest corner maybe listening and another sat to one side drawing zombies. But all experienced the space together or parallel to each other in their own way.
The Story Tent: A montage of four photographs of a parachute den play space. The first shows the den from a distance. You can see it is built from two colourful parachutes hung together creating a high sloping ceiling. A comfy blue mat pokes out from the den. The second shows the inside. There is a pile of story and fact books on the mat. Loose pieces of fabric a piled up and a small drum hangs from the ceiling. The third shows a upright board within the den which has been covered in paper for drawing. Assorted coloured pens lie on the floor and you can see there are lots of drawings that have been done including one which says “beware of zombies!”. The fourth is a close up of a drawing which says “yard” in a blue cloud with red hand drawn underneath
In many ways these are two completely different tales of play but they both use the idea and tool of the story. Perhaps the most human product. The need to hear, read, discover and share stories seems to be universal. In play, stories have many uses, but the way I use them most is too provide structure. The idea of structure might seem to go against the ideas of play, of freedom of movement and imagination. But not every child can access that freedom with ease, especially outside their private environment. Forgetting this prevents us from recognising and allowing space for certain children’s play. For a lot of children I work with the world is a chaotic and confusing place, especially the social world which is so important in play spaces. To be able to play they must first feel safe which requires feeling able to communicate with those around them and feeling able to understand their environment enough to focus on something else. The first child I talk about above is a great example of how finding a shared communication allows for play, it not only makes him feel understood but allows him to understand me and creates the opportunity for me to be interesting. The following group of children were able to engage in a different kind of play when within an environment that made sense to all. It was the structure provided by stories that allowed for this.
The structure I’m talking about here isn’t a very fixed or elaborate one. A story has to begin somewhere, it has to be headed somewhere and there needs to be some form of conflict or point of multiple possibility. It’s simply something the child can jump off from and come back to at any point should things become confusing or overwhelming. It’s a part of feeling safe. I think we all use some kind of structure even if it’s just as a starting point, a way to transition into play. A lot of children manage this for themselves, others may need a little help or time to learn the skill for themselves. In my work I’ll often jump into play at a point where children are becoming distressed and/or someone is likely to come to harm, or when an activity is becoming to unsafe and I need to provide guidance. My way in will be bringing the play back to the original spark or idea, encouraging progressing, asking what’s next? What happens if? So this time machine, are you going backwards or forwards? Have you meddled in the past too much? You must fix it! What I’m doing is reminding them of the story, bringing them back to the narrative to help resolve conflict or find a new way forward.
A time machine i often come across at work looks suspiciously like this supermarket trolley…
The act of telling a story is a way of providing a structure without boxing a child in. It provides a rhythm and familiarity that the child recognises allowing and giving permission for them to take control. This can work whether you are part of the story or simply providing the environment where it can happen. It’s a kind of ‘in-road’ to play when be able to play isn’t straightforward, for whatever reason that may be. Stories can take you anywhere.
“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.
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/
Hello and welcome to another play diary This entry will be bit of a flashback to those couple of weeks in the summer where I got very into a bunch of cardboard tubes. Hope you enjoy!
[photo shows a bare gym hall which has been filled with a variety of structures, mats and balls. They are set up in a temporary way to allow anyone to come in a explore and play. There are two different cardboard tube structures, a blue net with small coloured balls under it, a beach ball, and colourful parachute]
[photo shows a collection of objects on the pavement next to a building. There is a large structure made of cardboard tubes. Several loose tubes of varying sizes and a bright yellow bag with a beach ball poking out of the top}
[photo shows a sculpture made up of large cardboard tubes. It’s held together by elastic running through the tubes. It’s a geometric structure with a lot of triangles making up its shape]
Back in the summer I got the opportunity to go into a local play scheme and run a play session for a bunch of kids/teens with varying needs and abilities. Not really knowing a lot about who I’d meet or what they’d want from me I decided to focus on creating a play environment rather than thinking up activities or games. I think about play spaces a lot and I find working in this way; creating the space for the play to happen, rather than initiating or leading the play myself, is always exciting and challenging.
Changing a space changes the way we move within it, we enter the space and it has new potential; when a familiar space becomes a little less familiar the rules and expectations for what we do in that space get fuzzy around the edges making new room for creation, mischief and discovery. We’d had a huge haul of cardboard tubes appear in the art room at the playground the week before and i’d been desperately excited to do something with them. This felt perfect; it was just a question of how many I could fit in a taxi with me.
On the day I arrived at a high ceiling-ed, kind of chilly, gym hall carrying several cardboard tubes, parachutes, plastic and inflatable balls, a large blue net, several ropes and a large structure I’d made using strong elastic and (more) tubes. I set about creating a temporary playground. I had balls hidden under a net, precariously balanced tubes, a bubble wrap bag filled with more coloured balls and a rope strung up from the top of a door to the bottom of a bench with movable parts attached. I was pretty happy with what I’d done and looking forward to seeing things play out.
My first visitor was instantly drawn to a pile of loose tubes and began to build. I was super impressed with his patience and ingenuity as he problem-solved his way to creating the structure he had in mind. He wasn’t very flexible about what he wanted to create but was plenty flexible about how he would get there. Ten minutes later he walked of grinning without a glance at anything else in the hall. His work clearly done.
My next group were a young excitable bunch who wanted everything, all at once. The newly built structure was quickly dismantled and investigated in every possible manner, balls were kicked, thrown and pushed through tubes and in the shortest time the space looked completely different again. One child was enjoying spinning between moments of close inspection of the elasticated cardboard structure. I picked it up and he got inside with me and we span the entire thing around and around. I created a loop with a piece of spare elastic that I could stand in with him and spin whilst experiencing the pressure from the band around our lower backs. Another would not rest until he had exhausted the sensory potential of every object. I love to see this level of focus and exploration. Some played for a few minutes, some played the whole session and all played uniquely.
Throughout the day I saw the space morph between a place to run and jump or rock and relax. And although I was a little sad to pack up and leave I did it contentedly, feeling justified in the slight-cardboard-tube-mania that had gripped me for the last week.
Welcome to my “Play Diaries” series. I do many, many things, but my favourite is being a playworker at The Yard Adventure centre in Edinburgh. The Yard is a fantastic and wonderful place; primarily it’s a play service for young disabled people and/or young people with additional needs. We also run a public opening session every Sunday which i’m involved in the planning and running of. Here expect to find many messy, surreal and playful tales from the Yard and beyond!