February 2010


Due to the bitter cold today, we finished the Burdett session at 5pm instead of 6pm, and are going to use the missing hour to make a longer session next week during half term.

There’s been lots of people out and about at this site, and quite a few children and young people stopping to play for short bursts of time, but because it’s been so cold people rarely stay for long, and between 5pm and 6pm children are rarely passing by, so the session feels very quiet. We feel this really is just about the seasons and the weather, because when it’s cold it really is hard to be outside for long stretches of time, and the one day when the temperature was higher we did have a lot more children stopping for longer. It is great to have the Community Centre there, who are being supportive and friendly, and having a full team on board means we can take turns going inside to warm- up for short bursts, which helps.

A mother and her three young children who stopped very briefly today said that they see us from their window across the road and think we’re brave to be out in the cold. I said they should come out and play when it gets a little warmer and she said they definitely would. I think this is the case for a lot of families, because there are so many who smile or say hello but don’t stop yet, so we anticipate that these sessions will get busy in the warmer months.

As for the other two sites we visit on Saturdays (which we started as a way of combining what used to be the old Tuesday and Thursday afternoons sessions) these are very quiet at the moment. The one in the morning in particular, where the session is from 11am-1pm, is often completely empty of children, while the afternoon (2pm-4pm) one often sees a few brave players come out of the woodwork. It is hard to know whether these low numbers are because of the cold, because it’s a Saturday, or in the case of the AM session because it’s too early in the day. It’s not the case that people are out and about doing other things (shopping etc) and simply not interested in playing, more the case that people just aren’t going out on the streets at all from what we can see!

Sometimes when we wait for children to show up, we play hopscotch amongst ourselves to keep warm. This can be a captivating game, suprisingly difficult, and it is interesting to witness the different characteristics (the ego, competitiveness, pride and schadenfreude for example) that come out in us as players, rather than playworkers.

For now we soldier on and wait to see when the winter hibernation will crack open into spring.

Starting sessions at a new site can be a difficult process, especially when it’s still wintertime and curiosity is clipped by the cold air, and stopping to linger outside is far less appealing than getting home to a warm supper.

Our new site is next to a community centre and close to a school. It is a thoroughfare used by children through on their way home from school, or parents with toddlers coming from nursery in the community centre, or later on the children on their way to arabic lessons at the mosque.

It is a transient place, people are always on their way elsewhere, and so far the most enticing play offer has been the chalk, which has been an important tool for children claiming this space as their own by making their own marks: images and words, names, comical parodies and tags.

Children of all ages, youths and sometimes parents too, have all had a turn drawing on the big blank canvas of tarmac path and concrete pavers.

One session a group of Bengali boys, 14-17 year olds, took the chalk over into the parking lot and made a series of drawings, including a massive collaborative portrait the size of about three or four cars, of a man/boy complete with genitals and a bird on his shoulder, labelled “dick head”. The enthusiasm and humour they brought to the session, and the collective pride they shared over their images was obvious.


“We are your best customers!” they told us.

“No one stopped before we came here!” they said, enjoying the effect of their example, as groups of younger boys stopped to engage, clearly encouraged by the presence of this older group.

Here are some of the chalk creations that have happened so far….

One thing about playing outside, is that you are inevitably faced not only with the elements, but with the weather and the seasons. These shape hugely what ingredients go into the play environment; what’s on offer to children. This can be a humbling experience for playworkers, as on these outdoor projects we feel more sharply how little we can control the play environment, and how vulnerable we are to the weather and seasons.

On the one hand, winter brings with it a whole spectrum of potential play experiences which just aren’t available during the summer: cold temperatures, frosts, ice, endless possibilities of water play in the rain; puddles, streams and mud; the bright moldable tactile aerodynamic quality that snow brings, and, when it’s twilight or dark, the very different and exciting world of playing with various sources of light, including the mesmerizing primal element of fire.

On the other hand, while being wary of sounding like a wet blanket, we have been faced with the practical difficulties that such a change in season brings. Often children simply are not being let outside to play when it’s really cold or wet or dark (or sometimes they just don’t want to go out themselves!). While we do our best to show the small faces watching from windows that playing is something that happens in all seasons, there are times when there is only so much of our own playing, reflecting and planning that can be done before we admit that, despite our warm socks and gloves (and sometimes hot water bottles too) we are simply too cold to go on, especially in the absence of any children to keep our spirits high.

Without bumping up against the world of hard rain, wind, snow and bitter cold, how would humans have ever built shelters and lit fires? While the drive towards Recapitulative Play might exist latently inside all children, how many get the chance to engage in this kind of play because they are driven to it by the urgency of actually finding themselves in a cold rainy windy dark place? The ‘play zoned’ spaces we work in, small and often physically barren pockets in amongst large housing blocks, may not be the best environment for this kind of play, with few traces of nature and limited possibilities for loose parts. But how many of these young people have the opportunity to wander in a forest?

We saw the numbers of children coming out to play drop off since autumn moved into winter, with most sites still having a small handful of die-hard fans who’d come out rain or shine, albeit it twilight or under a night sky.

At one site smaller more delicate play started happening when it got really dark. Tea candles were lit and formed circles in little holes cut from the earth, with golden fabric spread around the outside, transforming the space into feeling almost ceremonial; reflecting the reverence with which the fire was treated, while the children huddled around, immersed in the flame while feeding it slowly with small shreds of paper.

At another site, sparklers proved a great success, and gave children the opportunity to learn how to light matches safely and with care. It is perhaps unsurprising that in our society where it is unusual to have direct experience of lighting fires for everyday heating or cooking needs, and at the same time there are many horror stories about children and burns, that many children have little understanding of how fire works, and need to strike and hold a match many times before figuring out that the flame burns upwards, and which angle to hold it at so it neither goes out nor burns their finger and thumb.

Into the heart of winter, as afternoons got darker and darker, we moved some sessions to Saturday daytimes instead of after school, as we found children were less likely to come out when it was already starting to get dark at the beginning of a session. We have found we need to be mindful of not offering children a misleading sense of protection after dark. We need to respect that they are the experts about their own estates, and work gently to encourage playing out whilst also trusting families judgement about when it is not safe to come out. We have to remember that we work within a complicated ecological system, where play is one of many needs, and that our work is a process of listening, reflecting, and providing a mentality and space in which children can confidently push forward to make their own change. This is a slow and ongoing process.

*quote by John Ruskin