“Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.” One of the Playwork principles. One thing is to be told about this and quite another to see just how much this means in practice.
So here I am, working towards my NVQ level 3 in Playwork, as a member of staff in a play session. A new family walked in: Mum, Dad and two children, a boy and his slightly older sister. The boy’s huge smile and shiny eyes caught my attention straight away as he walked towards us. The sister was absorbing it all from a more reserved stance, half hidden behind Mum. The Dad strolled in, a short distance away. I welcomed them in and the young man, age 8, introduced me to all his family. After a bit of a chat, Mum and Dad were perfectly happy to leave their son to play with us. Sister decided to go with her parents – shyness overcoming the urge to grab that enticing rope hanging from a tree branch. The boy hardly waved the parents goodbye: he knew no one there – some twenty odd other children but his eyes shot around everywhere, as if wanting to take it all in in one go.
“Will you show me all of it?” he asked eagerly. Of course, I replied, which side would you like to go to first? “There!” he said, pointing to the storage area. Inside, he was taking it all in. Loose parts, wood, tools, pens, cardboard, tubes, pots and pans, nets… Another child was changing his trainers for a pair of wellies – we keep a few pairs for muddy feet! “I don’t have wellies, could I have a pair too?” he enquired, by then with half his body in the wooden trunk where the wellies are kept, adding “I am a size 8!” Size 8 the young man was not, more like a size 3, but we found a pair, slightly too big, which put an even big smile in his face, if that was at all possible. “I have lots of energy” he informed me. ”Am I allowed to go on the swings?”
The “Am I allowed”s carried on for a long while. He was introduced to some other children and spoke to all affably.
Having spotted the tree houses and some children in them he ran towards one of them. There were three older teenage children eating an ice-cream. One of them shouted he wasn’t allowed inside. When he asked why not, a few rather unkind retorts followed. The permanent smile in that 8 year old turned out not to be so permanent after all. Especially when one of the teenagers threw half his ice-cream down at him, narrowly missing the youngster. He stared at the ice-cream on the floor and meekly said “what a waste of a good thing to eat….” My throat was knotted. I wanted to tell the older child off and yet didn’t. The little one made his way in the opposite direction. I followed rather than stay and speak to the older one – though that was my intention, when he was on his own. This older child had been coming to the setting since day dot and this was always the way he treated “newcomers”: seeing them as potential threats to the grounds he felt he needed to protect.
Another playworker who had not witnessed what had happened asked the young child if he was enjoying himself, to which he replied “I was, until I got bullied”.
Some other children arrived and started building things with sticks and twigs. He approached them with caution this time, observing from a distance. Gradually his confidence seemed to come back, together with “that” smile. Until the same teenager who had been unkind to him approached, to help with the “building”. The younger one took a few steps back but kept observing. When they were all happy with what they had done, the child slowly walked up to ‘the’ older one and asked “Please may I have a go?” The teenager eyed him up and down. I held my breath. “If you want” was his brusque reply. A semi-smile reappeared: he waited his turn and had a go – or three.
He spent the rest of the time investigating the grounds, always asking “Am I allowed to….” before venturing anywhere. Big smile. Good lunch. Good play.
The session was coming to an end and his family came to get him as I was having a chat with the same older youngster. The younger one approached me and said “Thank you for all you have done”. And looking at the teenager who had given him some grief and who was standing right next to me, he stuck out his little hand and said “I hope to see you again next week”. I felt myself welling up. There was a frozen moment until the older one clumsily and briefly shook the little one’s hand. And the family left. Little one had that big smile back. I looked at the older child. He mumbled to me: “That’s actually a good kid”. And he walked away.
Child led play. Child led resolution of conflict.
My best playwork lesson yet.