We’ve been thinking lately about small worlds in play. In our estates-based work, small worlds play offer different ways to think about play and space than our usual concerns of public and private places, of the permeability of the site and play frame, of observation and alteration. On a recent visit to one site, we brought bags of miniature trains, figurines, cars and animals and while the drawing materials, balloons and so on that we also brought proved popular enough, it was these little items that the children engaged with particularly. By the end they had nearly all disappeared into hot hands and pockets.
Small objects are potent. There is something compelling in the abrupt changes of scale that make a train fit in the palm of your hand, that render the player both enormous as a deity and small enough to peer into the windows of tiny houses. There is something intimate about them, something absorbing in their detail. The possibilities of small worlds are enormous within estates-based work, because they offer portable universes of play that can be hidden in a pocket. In playing with that scale, that intimacy, small worlds are located within the individual mind and can thus be everywhere, anywhere, at any time. They are places that are owned and managed by the child but can be shared, their rules expressed, discussed and evolved through argument. They are treasures, and treasured.
The classic example is the humble and nostalgic marble. Exquisitely beautiful, these are glass universes that joins others in games. In so doing they powerfully transform the public realm. Marbles turn pavement cracks into obstacles, holes into goals, other children into play partners,and the outside world into a place for children’s play.
I took some notes during Thursday’s session, with the intention of creating a sort of snapshot of play.
Here it is:
They are arriving now, eager and out of breath, in twos and threes and fours. They are climbing up brick walls to reach the green and sighing, throwing their shoulders in frustration if they can’t make the climb and are forced to walk around. Once there the older boys rig up a rope swing, stuffing the wet tire with bright wads of tissue paper, while two girls spread out the tarpaulin and begin making paper flowers. One small boy, seen for once without his older sister, flits between them and the swing. Smaller boys arrive, aged 5 or 6, and congregate from different corners around a small red ball.
The amazing thing for me is how few of them knew one another before we started coming.
We bring very little with us but by being there we change the dynamic of the place. On more than one occasion we have arrived to see little faces pressed up against kitchen windows, the children waiting for us to arrive before they are allowed out. The children we have met (and their friends whom we haven’t) are kept indoors for a variety of reasons – extra studies, fear of strangers, dogs or traffic, even something as common as the rain.
I’ve watched the children make subtle negotiations towards friendship, seen them unite in the common purpose of making a rope swing or playing football. Some children, of course, are bolder in this than others, more boisterous. A couple of weeks ago a girl of about 8 stood next to me and watched the others play a mad racing game of pretending to drown in the tarmac square, and of being eaten by sharks. She seemed a little old for this game, a little too self-conscious to go ahead and play it anyway. Furthermore, the others all had siblings there and she had come alone. She’d told me before that on the days we weren’t there she tended to read novels on the sofa. She seemed more comfortable at times with playworkers than with peers, and was almost always the last child to leave. Once Rainer and I had run with her, carrying the tarp between us as an enormous billowing flag, and she turned to me then and mentioned this, saying “maybe the other children would want to play that with us?”
Apart from the ideas we bring, the small pieces of equipment and the encouragement we offer, we are a handy excuse. For children whose parents don’t normally let them play out, and for children seeking to make introductions. We picked up the tarp and ran with it, the loud cracks of it snapping in the wind drawing the other children over to investigate. S. had made her introductions, shown them that she had ideas for play and engaged with them on her own terms. By the time we left they were all playing hide and seek together, big children looking after small across family lines.
It was a strong indication to us of how much children’s social links have dissolved over the years. If children don’t play out they don’t know one another – even if they were all born on a small estate, lived there all their lives and attend local schools. If a child has few friends nearby, they are even less likely to be allowed out to play, and less likely to want to. The thing is, their parents are in the same position. One boy said that his mother, who has lived on the estate for years, “doesn’t know anyone really.”
Part of the reason why children used to be allowed out to play is because adults lived their lives more out of doors than they do today, chatting over fences and all keeping an eye on children collectively, rather than individually. Just as a person with a number of friends is more likely to go out, more likely to make new social connections through old ones, so the reverse is true. Isolation breeds isolation, in children and adults. Parents who tell children not to talk to strangers find themselves stuck, now that everyone is a stranger. That is the cycle we mean to change, through working with children and adults to reinvigorate doorstep play, and to help adults recollect their experiences and perhaps form new connections.