Riding the wave of play

As mentioned in our last post, I’ve recently finished reading the most wonderful ebook by a lady who has pioneered and led the field of playworkers – a field that I think holds such value.  In her book The Playwork Primer (2010), Penny Wilson shares the delicate tiptoe between facilitating play on the playgrounds of London, and interfering in the developmental process that is the child’s work.

Today I would like to share her explanation of the critical balance in the child’s play process.  Many occupational therapists need to understand and use this concept for the beautiful art of therapy to be successful.

Below is an excerpt from the book.

Complexity theory is a way of understanding natural systems.  We look at a flock of birds or a school of fish moving in magnificent order and symmetry and wonder how they can do it.  Both are examples of complex adaptive systems.  In these natural systems, order is not the result of a pre-established plan that maps out, say, the flock’s flight path.  Instead, the overall order, the graceful flocking, emerges from a few very simple rules about finding direction, keeping a certain distance from other birds, and so on, that govern individual birds’ flying behaviours.

The theories of complexity provide some interesting metaphors for understanding playwork.  Arthur Battram describes an ideal state for a play setting by likening it to a wave.  Before the wave breaks, there is stasis, order.  After the wave breaks, there is turbulence and chaos.  At the curl of the breaking wave there is a delicate balance between order and chaos.

If we relate this to a play setting then the static, ordered state is a very controlled setting.  It is rule-bound, highly organised, and prescriptive; timed activities will take place.  There is no room in this play setting for the creative spontaneity of playing children.  If we look at a chaotic play setting, it is poorly organised.  The hours when it is open are irregular.  The toilets might not work.  The staff might display a wide variety of moods and temperaments, with unpredictable attitudes towards the children and their playing.

Look at the curl of the wave, which is where we surf because that is where the power is.  We see the meeting of order with spontaneous activity and unpredictability.  Thus, an underlying order can support freedom and unpredictable play.  It is a framework for creativity.  Battram offers us the image of surfing on the edge of chaos and order as a metaphor for how a play setting works.  It is our role as adults to understand this and create the solid foundations on which the children play.

Isn’t that just beautiful?

I must admit that I am person who likes order and it is hard for me as parent and homemaker to be playmaker too, to stand back and watch the beautiful chaos unfold.

What are your experiences of beautiful chaos?  Aren’t they some of your best memories?

Play-makers: the subtle art of not interfering

I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful ebook by a lady who has pioneered and led the field of playworkers – a field that I think holds such value.  In her book The Playwork Primer (2010), Penny Wilson shares the delicate tiptoe between facilitating play on the playgrounds of London, and interfering in the developmental process that is the child’s work.

Children need to organise and direct their own play, but the reality is that few of today’s children are allowed to play freely, as earlier generations were.  Some don’t know how to get started.  Others need some adult support.  Playworkers fill this space.  They:

  • create playful environments
  • support children’s own play
  • assess risk, and
  • help out when needed, without directing or controlling.

Above all, playworkers strive to be as invisible as possible.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

In 1946 a a quirk of fate led Lady Allen of Hurtwood to visit a junk playground in Copenhagen-Emdrup, designed by the architect C. Th. Sorenson in 1943.  He was commissioned by the authorities to create a place for children to play in response to increased levels of child delinquency during the German occupation.  So Sorenson went back to look at other playgrounds that he had designed.  He found them empty.  Where were the children?  They were playing in the wreckage of bombed-out buildings.  So this is what he created: A place with materials that children could manipulate, where they could spend hours rooting around unnoticed and lost in their own worlds.

Lady Allen said of her first visit to this playground, “I was completely swept off my feet by my first visit to the Emdrup playground.  In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities.”  She brought the concept back to London and gave it the name “adventure playground”.

At that time London children had little space to play except for bomb sites left after the Second World War.  Here they spent their time building, making fires, digging for treasure from the dead homes, and generally scrubbing around on their own.  Lady Allen had had a very playful rural childhood.  She thought that her own experiences had been ideal and recognized in the sites she created with local communities a “compensatory environment”.  By this she meant they were the nearest thing to her rural childhood that could be created for urban children.

Over the next few posts I’d like to explore more of the ideas shared in this book.  But for now, what is the closest thing we have to an adventure playground here in our cities?  We’d love to hear from you.

The not-so-fun fair

Holidays and high days.  Family time and high expectations for fun time together. Every now and again we’re confronted with scenes that dredge up not-so-great memories from our childhood.  Maybe it’s a social situation.  Sometimes it’s sensory.  I’m not particularly fond of swimming.  I was never a strong swimmer.  We didn’t have a pool at home and I ran across the width of the pool in my Grade 1 gala.  To this day, as much as I enjoy the view, the sound of the waves and the romanticism of the holiday, the beach, sand and wet costumes are not my favourite things.  But I put on my mom-face and my costume and head down to the sand twice a day when we’re there.

So everyone is supposed to like fun fairs right?  Water parks?  Adventure courses? Big slides, rollercoasters, rocking horses and fun fairs are scary. Some little kids struggle to enjoy outings because these typically fun childhood experiences cause them so much angst.  They avoid the swings and jungle gym at preschool which not only affects their gross motor development, but in turn their social development too.  They become isolated and lack self-confidence.

Movement is registered and processed by part of the brain called the vestibular system.  The sensory organs, located in the inner ear, have little hairs and crystals which respond to changes of the position of the head or the speed of movement of the head.  Nerve signals are fired and the brain is able to adjust muscle tone to bring the body upright again.  Some (most) kids love movement and spend the day seeking out movement opportunities – rolling, jumping, swinging, tumbling and sliding.  Movement also has a very close relationship to the limbic system, responsible for emotion. The joy of movement feeds the desire to be active, thereby developing muscle tone and gross motor skills.

For some kids though, those little receptors in the ear are oversensitive.  The rapid fire response of the nervous system to changes in head position results in a fight-or-flight response, rather than the joy we expect.  Not only does the child feel fearful and avoid movement, but they also have a negative emotional response.  These kids have delayed motor developed, poor balance and often low self-esteem to go with it.  This often presents as whiny behaviour on a family outing that was supposed to be fun, and can negatively affect family dynamics.

If this sounds like your child, you could perhaps benefit from consultation with an occupational therapist (OT).  OT’s work with children who have sensory integration difficulties. Some children need help learning how to process movement in a way that is less threatening.  They also need to learn coping mechanisms, and their families need to understand how to help them.  These children often struggle with car sickness. They might have had many ear infections in the past, resulting in thicker fluid in the ear which affects speech as well as movement and balance.

The vestibular system has a huge impact on behaviour – both the highs and lows of emotion.  Fun fairs tend to bring out the best or worst in our little people.  They are an ocean of sensory overwhelm. Noise, movement, hustling people.  Not always the fun day out you wanted for your family.  Here are some ideas to make the day more peaceful:

  1. Go early when there are less crowds
  2. Find a quiet corner to unwind between activities
  3. Take some calming snacks : chewy dried fruit, biltong, popcorn
  4. Drink a thick drink like a milkshake through a thin straw
  5. Consider ear plugs or headphones to reduce noise
  6. Know when enough is enough and time to go home.

Hope that helps!

Growing up in a bowling alley

We know that our play spaces are shrinking.  Winter is coming, and the little time that our children spend outdoors after school is cut short by the sinking sun.  In our family we eat quite early, which leaves some free play time before bath time.  On long summer evenings this is an ideal wind-down time – kicking a ball, cricket, trampoline time, watching the sun set.  But the cooler evenings are chasing us indoors, even if we’re not quite ready to bath.  The kids do quite a lot of fine motor play at school so we need to find a way to play and move indoors, without wrecking the house.

This is where the bowling alley comes in.  Every house should have one.  I grew up in an oldish house in the older suburbs – a big property and a long house with all the rooms coming off one central passage.  Not by design, my husband and I ended buying a similarly designed home.  Large garden for two busy boys, and very long, smooth, wooden floor passage running down the middle of the house.

The kids love playing here.  It’s the ideal space to skid along in bed socks, slide around in  the washing basket, and of course, throw/roll/kick balls.  Sometimes the doors to the rooms are open and add goals or traps to the game, other times the doors are all closed to create a darker bowling alley.

Here are some of the games the boys are enjoying at the moment:

  1.  Seated soccer: rolling the ball to each other and scoring a goal by getting it past the other’s legs
  2. Bath mat golf: rolling a golf ball down the passage and getting it to stop on a bath mat at the other end
  3. Bouncing ball mayhem:  throwing a handful of bouncy balls at once and enjoying the chaos

There are photos along the walls so we have some rules regarding the size and type of ball allowed for the various games.  To date, no casualties.

What are your children’s favourite play spaces in your home?