A sense of community

For months I have been regularly thinking about how playworkers can help foster a sense of community amongst those regularly visiting the playground.

I thought about team games and collective art projects, challenges and trips.

Before we all knew it, it was the Christmas holidays and we were closed for two weeks. Our longest closure of the year.

When we reopened in January, we had no idea how many of the regulars would be back. On the first evening we were open nearly 40 children and young people came. They were all so pleased to see each other. Even people who may have had some disagreements before the break greeted each other warmly.

There is something about a sense of community that only comes with time. A basic acceptance of sharing a space with others. We can find ways to help people share positive experiences but I recognize now that the coming together of community needs time.

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Power Games

At our playground there is a 7 year old girl who fiercely defends her independence, even when she is really struggling with something.

She loves going to the very few places on the playground that children aren’t allowed to go; up stairs in the building which is currently used for storage and is out of bounds, round the back of the building and up the big wood pile.

When she is caught she refuses to move.

Sometimes she will wait until she has caught a playworkers eye before heading upstairs or to the wood pile.

She often does something that is likely to get a playworker’s attention, like tipping over the table, and then runs away and hides.

She also likes to linger longer than is practical in the spaces most controlled by playworkers, the office and the kitchen, which are locked when a playworker isn’t there. She refuses to leave, sparking negotiations.

She likes to help and when she helps she likes to be in charge. She often helps me to lock the shutters at the end of the day. She tells me what to do.

One afternoon we decided to work together to construct a set of camping shelves. I was not allowed to talk. If I wanted to give her a hand I would gesture, but I was not allowed to touch any of the pieces. If I made too many gestures intended to help she would send me to the top of a nearby structure where I was to go to bed without any dinner and only come down when she said I could. She decided she wanted to go on holiday and instructed me to pack her a bag, which I did, silently. She instructed me to answer ‘Yes Master’ when she gave me an instruction, which I did. I carried all the bags and sat in the trailer behind her horse as we traveled. When she announced we had reached our holiday destination, she told me to unpack and prepare her dinner. ‘Yes Master’. She then got distracted because she was offered a turn on a bike.

My keys are on a lanyard attached to my belt. I should really get a chain. Once she pulled my keys hard enough that they came off the lanyard and she was away. I tried to bargain for them back with offers of toast but she wasn’t interested. I tried to keep my cool and play the game, knowing that getting angry would just make the game longer. She had hidden them. She gave me clues and we played a version of ‘hotter’ ‘colder’ until I found them.

Another day when I found her upstairs, where she is not allowed to be, she insisted that the upstairs room was my bedroom and it was my bedtime. She shouted at me to tidy it, so I quickly put a few items away. She shouted at me to go to bed so I laid down across a chair and closed my eyes. She went down stairs. She came to check on me a couple of times and shouted at me to close my eyes. After a few more minutes she came and said she was now the child and I was the mum. I told her that there was a much nicer bed downstairs and she followed me. She asked if I could read her a book. I said of course. I took her to her bed which was much more comfortable. I went to find her a pillow and when I came back she had fallen out of bed, I helped her back up. I went to find her a blanket and when I came back she had fallen out again. I helped her up and tucked her in. I went to find a good bedtime story to read. And when I came back she had fallen out again. I helped her up and tucked her in then sat down and started to read. We read about the time Pepper Pig gave away her dads favorite chair to a charity sale. We laughed when he went to the sale and bought it thinking he now had a matching pair. She fell out of bed once during the story but by the end of it she had closed her eyes.

Playworkers have power in the playspace and children can play with it like they would a loose part. If I was the youngest child with 4 older siblings I think I would try to grab a little power and take some control where I could too. As the playworker though it is not easy to feel challenged and it is not easy to distinguish where ‘the line’ is.

Finding Playwork’s Recalcitrant Edge

The election has been and gone and maybe you, like me, felt a little bit sick last Friday morning. The next few years are not going to be easy for the playwork sector or the communities we live and work in. We are going to have a fight on our hands.

We need to keep getting better at arguing the importance of children’s play and the spaces and organisations who work to support play. We need to do this not because these arguments are going to sway a government ideologically focussed on cutting the public sector to the core. We need to make our case in our local communities and we need to lay the foundations for something more in the future. We need to build alliances with others so that we are best able to fight for our own and each other’s services when we need to. We need to start looking outward and forward urgently.

We need to say what we know about play and playwork as loud as we can.

We know that play organisations have value in three different but interconnected ways, thanks to work carried out by Beunderman (2010).

  • They have intrinsic value for the individuals who use them, who gain immeasurably in indescribable ways
  • They have instrumental value through the ways highlighted by Tim Gill (2014), including in health and development, families and communities and other social policy agendas
  • They have institutional value in their connections with their wider local communities and now is the time to focus on building these links.

Government policy agendas look for instrumental value with evidence of set outcomes. When adventure playgrounds appeared they received support from authorities because they were seen as a good response to ‘delinquency’ amongst working class boys (Cranwell, 2007). Throughout past Conservative Governments play services have been seen to hold value in preventing crime and disorder, supporting strong communities and as job creating organisations. Policies around out of school childcare from 1993 onwards had a massive impact on play and playwork by both initially expanding the sector and by keeping measurements of value tightly focused on the instrumental; helping parents get back to work, or supporting children’s development. Recently practitioners have found themselves arguing the benefits of play for health, as the latest policy agenda that playwork must relate to. But you can’t capture the value of play organisations by purely instrumental measurements. Even where we can and do make the argument for the play sector’s instrumental value, this is not going to keep us safe from funding cuts and it could see us compromise too far on our play focused ethos while we chase ever smaller pots of money attached to policy outcomes.

Those who work in the sector know the value. We feel it in our daily connections with those we work with and we are not going to be quietly overlooked. Our best way of demonstrating our value is to share the stories of those moments, those daily occurrences that form the basis of what we do. And make connections in our local communities where we can add to and share these stories. We need to look ahead too. The sadly short lived National Play Policy, which was part of the last Labour Government’s Children’s Plan, was years in the making (Voce 2014). We have got a lot of ground work to do and we need to keep up those conversations with our allies in the Labour Party.

There is an online community of practitioners sharing their stories and reflections alongside this blog, such as Playworkings and Playindagetto. There is a Playwork Bloggers Network group who do a fantastic job spreading these stories. We should share more stores like the Potatoe Ghost. More moments, like that day when that particular young person who we know is having a tough time at home, said, ‘If I didn’t come to this place I would have killed someone.’ The single mother with three children who relies on our service day in, day out. The budding first romance between two young people who would not have met if it weren’t for our playground. You can’t measure these things, but we can tell these stories.

We have already seen the closure of some services. Battersea Park and the other Wandsworth adventure playgrounds, Stonebridge and others. Some ran public campaigns but maybe it was too little too late. We need to act, as a sector and within our communities, before we find out our funding has gone.

It’s time to get in contact with the other play services you know. Find out how things are looking for those organisations in your networks. Get in contact with youth, arts or community organisations. Share stories. Find out if there are practical ways you can help. Yes, we are all over-stretched but now is the time.

Arthur Battram (2008) wrote about playwork being on the edge of recalcitrance; sometimes uncooperative towards authority. It has its roots in anti-authoritarian counter cultures. So let’s dig in. Let’s make sure we are better networked between ourselves. Let’s get out in our communities so that people know who we are and what we do. Let’s show ourselves to be friends and allies of other community and public sector projects. Let’s focus on laying the ground work for better things to come. Let’s get ready to make some noise. And let’s get ready to fight to save play services.

Reference List

Anonymous, (2015) ‘The Potatoe Ghost: An eye witness account’, Everyday Playwork. https://everydayplaywork.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-potatoe-ghost-an-eye-witness-account/ Accessed 09/05/15)

Battram, A. (2008) ‘The Edge of Recalcitrance: Playwork in the zone of complexity’, in Brown, F. and Taylor, C. (eds) Foundations of Playwork, Maidenhead: Open University Press

Buenderman, J. (2010) People Make Play: The impact of staffed play provision on children, families and communities, London: National Children’s Bureau. Available from http://www.playengland.org.uk/resources/people-make-play.aspx (accessed 09/05/15)

Cranwell, K. (2007) ‘Adventure Playgrounds and the Community in London (1948-70)’, in Russell, W., Handscomb, B. and Fitzpatrick, J. (eds) Playwork Voices: In celebration of Bob Hughes and Gordon Sturrock, London: London Centre for Playwork Education and Training.

Gill, T. (2014) The Play Return: The review of the wider impact of play initiatives, Children’s Play Policy Forum. Available from
https://timrgill.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/evidence-review-colour-low-res.pdf (accessed 09/05/15)

Voce, A. (2014) ‘Advocating for Play at the Crossroads (part 2)’, Policy for Play. Available from http://policyforplay.com/2015/05/06/advocating-for-play-at-the-crossroads-part-2/ (accessed 10/05/15)

The Potatoe Ghost: An eye witness account

It was Spring. It was the first after school session the playground had been open since the Easter Holidays. The potatoes went missing.

The potatoes had been found in a cupboard already sprouting roots and a keen gardener told us we should leave them in the sun for about a week and then plant them. They were laid out on a table in the sun in the middle of the playground during the holidays. They sat there for days undisturbed, which surprised all the staff considering how busy and full on the days had been.

But now the holidays were over and the potatoes were ready to plant. But they were gone. Not just tipped off the table. Not just thrown thoughtlessly. They were nowhere to be seen. The sheet of newspaper they had been on blew across the playground like tumble weed.

I was disappointed and curious.

Later that evening, as I walk into the play building to go to the kitchen Alice and Chris stopped talking and turned over the piece of paper they had been writing on as they saw me coming. I started to tip toe and looked the other way. I let them know that I might be coming in and out but that I am not looking. I tried to avoid cutting through but when I had to I tip-toed and looked the other way. Each time they went quiet and turned their page over.

Other children started coming into the room. Alice asked me to make a ‘Keep Out’ sign. Chris told me to write ‘Keep Out: Potato Ghost on the loose’. Potato Ghost! That might explain the missing potatoes, I thought. I made two signs without question and stuck one on each entrance to the building. But it was too late. Chris told me the Potato Ghost had already escaped and was outside. I was understandably concerned for the safety of everyone on site.

Alice and Chris found themselves weapons and bravely spent the rest of the evening trying to hunt the ghost. When I spoke to my colleague at the end of the day she said that it had come back inside the building a couple of times and the ghost hunters had requested the hall lights be turned off to try to see it.  They caught some glimpses (It looks like a white blur. You can only see it properly if it gets wet or in the dark) but they didn’t manage to catch it.

The next day hunter Alice was at the gate waiting for us to open to carry on the hunt. She recruited more hunters, including me. She said to be a hunter you need “courage, confidence and a costume”. After we had agreed to the terms and found ourselves costumes she swore us in in a special but brief ceremony which was a bit similar to the way the queen might knight someone. She showed us the document her and Chris had been working on in secret yesterday. It was a detailed plan of how to corner the ghost, kick it over and then chop it’s head off. We all familiarised ourselves with the plan and asked questions, “What does it look like?” “How will we find it?” “What happens when we kill it?”. Alice filled us in on everything she knew and off we went, picking up weapons on the way. We stalked around the playground inside and out, every now and then someone would hear something or see the white blur and we would all run. Being a hunter was scarier than I thought. I left them to it.

Later that evening, when more of the new recruits had decided they needed a break from ghost hunting, Alice informed me that the Potato Ghost was able to possess people.  She said you know when someone is being possessed because they breath in and make a weird noise. I was terrified!  Just a few minutes after telling me this poor Alice became possessed. The Potato Ghost spoke through her in an eerie deep voice. While possessed Alice did things she wouldn’t normally do; she threw things around, she chased after people saying “I’m going to get you!” in that freaky voice. But if you got hold of her and said her name a few times, she would come back, with no memory of what had just happened. This happened a few times. I was able to find out more from the Potato Ghost from speaking to it through Alice. It was angry because it used to live on the site of the playground in a big house. The house was knocked down to make the playground and he had died. He also told me that if we catch and kill him, another potato ghost would appear. What were we going to do!? I freed Alice from possession and filled her in on what had been said. She was confident we could still defeat it. It was now home time so the Ghost spent the night roaming the playground.

The next evening came. I did the site check before opening. While thoroughly checking the perimeter I found a potato. It was tucked away right in an overgrown corner. There was no way it could have got there by accident. There certainly were some strange goings on. The session began and it was busy. Alice came over and said she had seen it. She had seen the Potato Ghost’s head. I couldn’t believe it; our first proper sighting. She took me inside to where she had seen it and there it was! On the highest of our shelves, its dark eyes were empty like two holes and just stared menacingly at us. I screamed and ran out of the room. I let everyone near the door way know the Potato Ghost was in there. Some chose not to believe.

A short while late Alice came to get me saying she had found something. She led me inside. The Potato Ghost’s head was on the floor. There was a piece of paper on it. We tip toed closer to see what was on it. It said ‘Die’. We ran out screaming. A while later Alice said she had found another note. Although we were scared we went to look. The head had moved and a different note said the same thing. ‘Die’. We ran. Alice found a third note. This time the ghost head was in the cupboard. The note said that the Potato Ghost had already killed a lot of people and Alice would be next! I grabbed her hand and ran out. I panicked and she was remarkably calm. I became momentarily distracted and Alice was nowhere to be seen. And then…she came out of the building…her head had transformed into the Potato Ghost! At first I ran away…but then I ran back and knocked it off her head. Luckily she was ok. It had found another way to possess people. It then started possessing anyone it came in contact with. It’s head would end up on their head and they would start chasing people. It possessed me too a couple of times. It was mayhem! We found that you could knock it off their heads and they would be confused but ok.

Alice and some other keen hunters, some from yesterday, some new recruits and some skeptics vowed to kill it. Between possessions the head was jumped on, thrown and hit until it lay still on the floor looking tattered and broken like a beaten up cardboard box. It was the end of the evening and no one was sure if it was dead or if it’s promise that another Potato Ghost would come was true.

The next day all seemed quiet. The broken up ghost head had gone. We were all hopeful that the potato ghost had been defeated once and for all.

Alice pointed at a plastic storage box and asked what was in it. We looked together. There were giant wooden Scrabble letters. She said she wanted to spell out Potato Ghost. She found all the letters. She decided that although you usually spell potato ‘potato’ that the ghost was spelt ‘potatoe’. We debated where to put this, as a warning to people. We put it up on the top shelf where everyone who came inside could see.

I went about doing some other jobs.

Alice later came and found me and said another one had appeared. Another Potatoe Ghost, this time it was Sister Ghost. I followed Alice anxiously. There in the hall, was a pink glittery head with pale shallow eyes, like they had been drawn on. The legend was true. When you kill one, another comes. I started to worry that we might always be haunted by a Potatoe Ghost if another one always comes. Alice proved herself again to be far more calm and measured than me in the face of fear. She seemed sure that we could defeat it.

Sister Ghost was not the same as the Potatoe Ghost we had just collectively defeated. First, her notes were longer. The first one said that she was very angry that the playground got built on top of their house, leading them all to die. And she was angry that we had killed her brother again. She wrote that she was going to kill all of us. I ran. The thought of it was just too much for me.

A while later Alice came to me and said she had been talking to Sister Ghost and thinks she might be making friends with it. I was surprised but relieved. If we could make friends with the Potatoe Ghosts maybe we could live side by side at the playground. Alice asked me to come and visit Sister Potatoe.

When we entered the room, Alice went straight over and sat next to the Potatoe Ghost. She told me that the ghost wanted me to sit on the cold hard metal chair in the middle of the room. I felt like I was being interviewed…or maybe interrogated. Alice read out another note from the Ghost. It said the Ghost was now Alice’s friend but it still wanted to kill everyone else, starting with me! I ran, screaming, warning everyone around me. I calmed myself down but I still didn’t know what to do. Surely this was some kind of progress?

Alice came to get me again. She said she had managed to get Sister Ghost to change her mind. We went inside. Again Alice sat next to Sister Ghost and I sat on my lonely chair. I really hoped Alice had managed to change the ghost’s mind. Alice read out a note. It said that the ghost had just been joking and it was willing to be my friend and not kill everyone. I was relieved but felt a bit suspicious. Alice suggested that I shouldn’t spend too much time with the Ghost just yet as we were just getting to know it. I went outside.  I was glad to get out of there but I didn’t like leaving Alice behind. I tried to take my mind off it by carrying on with other things. Alice discovered the broken head of yesterday’s ghost and put it in the bin. At least we only had one to deal with.

But things started getting really confused, with this one ghost. There were another two notes. The first said that Sister Ghost had only been joking again and that she was going to kill us all. The second said she was only joking again and she was Alice’s friend. This Ghost was messing with our heads. Alice was getting frustrated with it. She tried to put it in the bin, but the bin wasn’t big enough. It was the end of the evening again. Another night with another ghost left to roam the playground.

The next day it was gone. No one knows what happened to it. Maybe it decided it could live alongside us? No one knows if it will be back, and no one knows if it is friendly or harmful.

Alice has for now moved on. She, Chris and others are back into training; hunting, catching and wrestling each other so that they will be ready if the Potatoe Ghost returns.