When art meets free play, who wins?

Decorated shop window at Sceaux GardensWhat happens when artists who are used to structured programmes work with children who expect to be able to play freely? This is the question I explore here, in an edited version of a chapter from the book The Cat Came As A Tomato, published by the South London Gallery in 2011.

The book tells the story of ‘Making Play’, a project run by the Gallery between 2008 and 2011. Making Play explored the relationship between art and children’s play, through a series of residencies based in the Sceaux Gardens housing estate immediately behind the Gallery, and at the nearby Charlie Chaplin Adventure Playground.

My story begins in the reclaimed shop in Sceaux Gardens that has become the base for the Making Play residencies. The artist Orly Orbach is leading a session. With her are about a dozen children from the estate, most of them regular participants. Her plan had been to wallpaper the columns outside the shop, so they could then be the focus for some writing and storytelling activities. The idea reflected Orbach’s interest in myths, magical thinking and the possible worlds that lie behind – or beyond – the everyday.

Model bird made during Orly Orbach's residencyThe problem is, the children do not want to follow her plan. The session, in Orbach’s words, “just didn’t pick up”. At one point the artist not only feels that the session is falling apart, but also finds herself questioning the very nature of her residency. An unexpected narrative emerges from the gap left by her failed plans, culminating in an impromptu performance of the West End percussion show Stomp.

This tension in Making Play between control and freedom – structure and chaos – will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with debates within playwork about the place of adults in children’s play. In a pure play project such as a staffed adventure playground, the role of the playworker is clear: to support children’s self-directed play impulses, inclinations and activity, wherever they may lead (within reason). By contrast, in a participatory art project, the role of the artist is to guide children through a more-or-less well-defined creative process, towards a more-or-less well-defined creative goal.

Orly Orbach in shop windowMaking Play falls between these two models. So what is the role of the adult? If battles are fought over the content or intent of the sessions, who wins, and what are the terms of this engagement?

My argument here is that Making Play residencies succeeded precisely to the extent that they accepted that a continual power struggle is underway. For the children, the terms of engagement include a kind of ‘rule of two feet’ – if it is not engaging me, I will go. For the artists, the belief that they have more than a supporting role impels them to steer, cajole, tempt and otherwise direct the children’s attention, intention and activity. And the most profound experiences take place at the heart of this contested territory.

Matt Shaw wrapped upThis power struggle was evident in all of the residencies at Sceaux Gardens and Charlie Chaplin Adventure Playground. Not surprisingly, at the playground the balance was more explicitly in favour of the children. As senior playworker Bev Salmon makes clear to staff and adult visitors alike, the first rule of Charlie Chaplin is that the children’s play comes first. “Here,” she says, “the adults have to leave their issues at the door.”

So when Lawrence Bradby arrives with the intention of weaving some wordplay into the fabric of the place, he has to take an approach that is intriguing, mysterious, and even a little seductive. One intervention starts with him installing four or five portable tape recorders around the outdoor space. There is no fanfare or firing gun, simply the process of installation and a suggestion that the equipment might be used to create an audio diary. But this subtle invitation is enough to persuade some children to give the technology a try.

Tape recorder at Charlie Chaplin adventure playgroundSoon, new sounds begin to emerge from the playground’s background hum: laughs, jokes, raps, songs, stories, distorted shouts, imagined news bulletins, along with some personal, even therapeutic material. Also in the mix – as revealed by later playback sessions – are more transgressive recordings: expletives, combative exchanges, and statements issued in parody minority ethnic accents. (I say more about transgression below.)

Bradby’s tape recording experiments are a textbook example of how play cues and play responses evolve as part of a play cycle or narrative. A feature or element in the child’s field of action prompts a play cue – an action from the child, driven by basic impulses of curiosity or creativity – that invites a reaction from the environment (used in its widest sense, to include objects, people, landscape – anything and everything that is within reach). If the child finds the reaction to be engaging, that fuels further action, and a play cycle is initiated.

When the normal power relations between children and adults are disrupted, and children are given a modicum of control – as in playwork settings, and to a degree in Making Play – the adults’ intentions and wishes can still gain purchase. But this outcome is in the gift of the children, not the adults.

At Charlie Chaplin Adventure Playground, Lawrence Bradby confessed that he had made some frustratingly unsuccessful attempts to hook the children in. On one occasion his use of an amplifier, microphone and digital delay failed to fly, even though the same equipment had proved successful a few weeks earlier. During a discussion with playworkers and other artists about the playground residencies, Bradby declared that he sometimes wondered how he could contribute to the playground: “it seemed a perfect place already.” He was also puzzled about the dynamics of play cycles. “What makes the play cohere, and what makes it end?” he wondered.

Sceaux Gardens columnOrly Orbach had a similar experience. “Ideas seeped in gradually,” she told me. “Initially I thought that if the children didn’t respond immediately or show interest, then the activity had failed. But some things just took longer, the children responded in their own time, and I realised that you can’t measure success straight away.”

Adults can find the prospect of children taking control profoundly challenging. As Lord of the Flies reminds us, we adults like to take the role of guardians of order, with children assigned the role of anarchic creatures with destructive impulses. Some play theorists see a germ of truth in this stereotype. Playwork thinker Arthur Battram has gone so far as to claim that play “exists only at the edge of chaos”.When children are playing freely, rules, conventions, structures, codes of behaviour are all up for grabs in the pursuit of novelty and stimulation. It is not that these processes are ignored, abandoned or destroyed – that would be true chaos. Rather, there needs to be a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability about their application in order for play to flourish. This state of flux is vividly present at an adventure playground in full flow – which is why some adults find them unsettling and disturbing.

The architectural practice Febrik, whose residency was the last one at Sceaux Gardens, freely admits that it spent some time on the edge of chaos. Febrik’s aim was to explore the children’s narratives about their everyday places (both behind and beyond their front doors), through activities linked to familiar objects that the children brought to the shop from their homes. Yet their plans were thwarted from the outset. The children just weren’t interested in the task of finding and collecting the objects. Reem Charif, one half of Febrik, recalls: “The first session was very difficult, and we panicked. Things became chaotic, and children wanted to invent their own games. We couldn’t keep their attention.” The artists improvised, securing objects from a local charity shop instead. These became loose materials for construction, destruction and reassembly, and provided an alternative vehicle for the explorations that Febrik wanted to pursue.

Wall inside shop - part of Febrik residencyThe concept of loose materials or loose parts is familiar to playworkers. It was first spelled out in the work of Simon Nicholson, the artist and landscape architect who in the late 1960s and early 1970s became disillusioned with what he saw as the limitations and elitism of the formal art world.The link between loose parts and control should be obvious. Anyone who has built a den in the woods can grasp the powerful feelings of agency that come from making one’s mark on the world – the elemental satisfaction that flows from the physical expression of the ability to create form and structure. Nicholson himself recognised this link. For him, creativity resided in everyone, and all had artistic potential, including, of course, children.

Those at the forefront of research into play argue that powerful feelings and emotional stimulation are not simply a consequence of playing, they are definitive and constitutive of the process. For the academic Brian Sutton Smith – whose taxonomic treatise The Ambiguity of Play is at the apex of modern play scholarship – all play ultimately revolves around “affect expression and regulation”. Playwork academics Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell make a parallel claim when they state that play is to do with “being in control of being out of control”. Like Sutton-Smith, they support their arguments by citing neurological studies that show how, when animals or humans play, the regions of the brain that become active are those most closely involved in the primary emotions and – crucially – in emotional regulation.The implication is that when children are playing, whatever the content and surface expression of their play, the underpinning medium – the substance whose essence is being manipulated and explored – is their own emotional life, which is simultaneously being experienced and transformed. Play fighting, rough-and-tumble play, horseplay, dizzy play, dare games and the sharing of ghost stories are some of the more obvious manifestations of this.

Hoarding outside Charlie Chaplin adventure playground

Hoarding by Daniel Lehan outside Charlie Chaplin adventure playground

This idea – that on some level all play involves the evocation of powerful emotions – throws a new light on the frequent appearance in children’s play repertoires of transgressive acts. Swearing, teasing, physical provocation, rudeness, mimicry and mockery crop up regularly in the behaviour of even the most angelic of children, while violent, destructive, even nihilistic impulses are hardly exceptional (as would be shown by an honest survey of our own childhood memories). To make this observation is not to condone such behaviour. But it does suggest that our adult responses to it may need careful thought. Good playworkers are skilled at responding flexibly to behaviour that challenges them, seeking ways forward that respect the narratives, meanings and meaning-making that may lie behind it.

Children themselves are rarely – if ever – conscious of the emotional underpinnings of play. Ask a child immersed in a play narrative, “Why are you doing that?” and they are hardly likely to say, “Because I am developing my systems of emotional regulation and expression.” They are much more likely to say: “Because it’s fun!” Such a reply is itself revealing, and anything but trivial. For children, the purpose of play is simple: to carry on playing, as Wendy Russell and Stuart Lester note.

For me, all the Making Play residencies were at their most fascinating when they probed this territory between order and anarchy, between structure and freedom, and between art practice and playwork practice. The artists themselves acknowledged this, sharing the view that their approach had to be completely different to their previous work with children in schools, galleries or similarly constrained contexts. They also agreed that this was ultimately liberating, even joyous.

All the artists involved in Making Play were in the business of putting their own perspectives and practice on the line – saying to a highly demanding audience, “I have something to offer that may interest you” or “I think you may want to pay attention to what’s going on here”. It seems to me that in the shop at Sceaux Gardens, and even more so in Charlie Chaplin Adventure Playground, it was when they confronted the nature of their power as adults – and in doing so created space and liberty for children to take control – that their interventions most fully realised their potential.

The Cat Came as a Tomato is may be available to order from the South London Gallery. While the original Making Play project has finished, other work has evolved at Sceaux Gardens. Find out what has been going on at the shop at this website: http://shopofpossibilities.blogspot.co.uk/

Note: I have left out full references here, to make the post more readable. Complete references are included in the chapter as published. One useful source for some of the playwork material included here is Fraser Brown and Chris Taylor (eds) Foundations of Playwork. All photos are copyright – contact me for permission enquiries.

21 responses to “When art meets free play, who wins?

  1. Though I am thrilled with the world’s interest in giving children a chance to play again, I remain wary – and curmudgeonly so. When adults involve themselves in subjects which are not of their purview, they have a tendency to homogenize them, to render them impotent by controlling rather than encouraging outcome. And this is often the case when adults interest themselves in play and art. . .

    More often than not, child play is to Masterpiece Theatre what adults playing is to country-fair slapstick. And in the realm of the arts, little ones need materials not adult manipulation. It isn’t until children are 10 or so that “their” creative efforts require instruction due to their interest in what is “real”. As for play overall, children are far better off with us not being anywhere near them.

    Play is the realm and prerogative of children. It is both an activity and an environment which at its purest eschews adult interference – whether benign or imposed. Children are the experts, the Masters of play. We, more often than not, are but the butt joke of it. And when we usurp this domain we give undisputed credence to what can be embarrassingly defined as childish rather than what is wondrously child-like.

    In our era of 30 year old teenagers we adults seem to both envy children their ability to play and their monopoly over it. But what gives us the notion that our participation in play can improve upon it? At its worst this interference is jealousy-based rather than the result of scientific inquiry. We adults have no idea what play is because our need to analyze, interfere, control, discipline, ameliorate, organize, research and dominate play overshadows the very essence of it. And that essence is simply the freedom to explore, the freedom to discover – whether that is in a collective or solo context. Why is it that we seem to need more than our adult responsibility which is : to provide the opportunity for children to play. Period.

    Play is learning at its highest calling. It makes use of imagination and thinking – right and left brain concepts at their most powerful. And because it is meant for those who are open to, rather than closed off from “awe”, play is alien to the physical, mental and emotional mold that shapes adults. This is so true that aggressive winning and losing are more often than not the greater combined elements of adult games and play. And possibly this is because adult physical proportions are foreign to the spontaneous actions and reactions required by their need to achieve, overpower and beat. Consequently, this lack forms visual anomalies that become risible to viewers rather than perceived expert moves. And historically, when embarrassment ensues in the adult realm, the more often than not “creative” adult solution tends to be lasting “loser” anger – a rather long term version of the short-lived upsets experienced by children in unsupervised play. So it isn’t surprising that there is a preponderance of institutionalized (read: acceptable) violence in contemporary adult and adolescent play which has never been a part of unsupervised child play.

    Now, if “artists” must participate in the study of play and art, they should be professional – i.e.: they should consider the following 2 things : 1)- note that neither play nor research can be considered play nor research when they are directed and tainted by researcher involvement and 2)- they should study Erikson’s “ethics of disguised observation”.

    Play cannot be redefined nor reconfigured to meet adult requirements – and still be considered play. That would be polluting clear waters based on erroneous preconceived adult assumptions. Adults, artists or otherwise, can learn much more by not interfering – by sitting back, musing, taking notes and sketching play at its purest than by being “one with the kids”. . . Such methods would also afford us the possibility of regaining what we, as grown-ups, have inadvertently lost over time – the capacity to be awed by superior beings – who are superior because they concentrate on doing best what they do best.

    Play, for whatever contrived esoteric reasoning, should not be usurped. It must be left in the hands of those who know it instinctively and intuitively. Like neurosurgery, it is best left in the hands of experts if the maximum level of benefits is to be achieved. If we respect it as one of the main components which instill creativity and individuation in children, we should recognize how out to sea we are in our need to interfere with it. Children are better off when we adults concentrate on being the best we can be – i.e.: adults worthy of being looked up to.

  2. I had a hunch this post would interest you Bernard, and I greatly appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of your response. So much to get stuck into here, I’m not sure where to start. I sympathise with what I take to be your basic view, which (to quote the Opies, and not for the first time) is that “Nothing extinguishes children’s self-organised play more effectively than those who aim to promote it.” I was particularly struck by your remark that “We, more often than not, are but the butt joke of it”. This is an insight that, in my view, should be presented at the beginning of every attempt at children’s participation or engagement.
    In response, and on behalf of the SLG (as it were) this project was never about pure play. Its approach and sensitivity to children’s culture were admirable, and it took seriously its goals and territory. The book is well worth reading, and captures the full breadth of the project far more richly than I could in my piece.

  3. Tim, this is an engaging read and, for me, serves to highlight the potential adult-child dynamics that might happen in places set up for the purposes of play, in theory, as well as in the art projects you describe. The imposition of ‘activity’ on children, in the manner of controlling the play, is a moot subject. I’m hopeful that learners on playwork courses read this blog post.

    – Joel

  4. I’ll get reading that book Tim asap. But NOT until I get these commissioned paintings done – which I should have been “playing with” when I got hooked on your email. . . . . .

  5. Joel – thanks for the comment. You are right that much of what I observed and wrote about is relevant to staffed play settings. In my experience some struggle to put into practice the ideas and principles of playwork. I would welcome reactions from playworkers – this chapter is probably the most sustained piece of writing I’ve completed on playwork.

  6. I think that the power struggle between children and artists is both in adult conceptions of play and their role in it and within art itself. The artist has a recuperated role in commodity culture which places “art” the product over “creativity” the process, which is a well worn discussion in playwork encompassing the need for loose parts, mess, “stuff” and the playworkers role as director of situations on the playground.

    This was also discussed by the Cobra group who located creativity in the internal dialectic between the player and materials, again ignoring the product which was subverted by detourned paintings and the critique of the gallery system. Ironicly, detourned paintings are now exhibited, collected and plaigarised by Banksy, exposing the impossibility of the playing professional.

    This impossibility was illustrated by the London Festival of Architecture which when focussing on playfulness, usurped article 31 of the United Nations declaration on the rights of the child, replacing the word “child” with the word “citizen” in order to promote the practice of participating architects – to get people to recognise and purchase the products of these individuals.

    So art and architecture must come out of professional ghettos to become useful to play. Throw out the blueprint and never sign anything. Throw out the professional and their product, which says “look at me” more often than it says “do you want a go?”

  7. Panegyric – with you on the LFA (I tried to get some kind of focus on children, with no success). As for your other points – well, I am not a card-carrying member of the consumerocracy, though I have bought the odd piece of original art, I’m not averse to visits to galleries, and I enjoy and admire beautiful buildings. But as far as *children’s* play is concerned, I am with you on your last para – and especially your last sentence.

  8. Love this debate Tim – the eternal question – can play and playwork ever really meet? Or are they more like gravity – exerting influences over great conceptual distances? Consider this observation on an adventure playground in a story I wrote for Bob Hughes’ Evolutionary Playwork:
    A boy aged about five was playing with a knobbly piece of wood and pieces of the crushed bark safety surface, chattering away to himself and his play objects. A playworker came by and asked: “What are you doing?” “Nothing” he said, shrugging his shoulders – end of conversation. She shrugged in reply and went about her business of putting up the swings. About five minutes later, another playworker asked him: “Who’s that?” This time he said: “This is my dog. She’s called Fred! And she’s very, very naughty. But she’s hungry too. Here Fred, have some cornflakes” as he fed bits of bark to Fred.
    I think most people would agree that there was something richer going on in the second encounter – at least in the child’s interaction with the adults if not in his internal play universe. But did either or both or none of the playworkers pollute or adulterate the child’s play? And I wonder what would have happened if the sequence of encounters had been reversed?
    On the question of the interface between art and play, for me now the nearest state to my remembered childhood play immersion is when I am drawing and painting. When it goes well I am in what many have described as the ‘flow state’ but also when nothing seems to be going right and I get frustrated and discard or destroy it there are for me many parallels with remembered play.

  9. Hi Mick – thanks for the positive feedback. “On the impossibility of playwork” – it’s fascinating territory. What I take from your anecdote is the way that apparently small differences in adult intervention – for instance, in words, tone of voice or body language – can make a big difference in children’s responses. I’m still unsure about the language of adulteration/pollution, but that’s a debate for another time.

    • Yes – small differences in intervention (and indeed response) can make a huge difference to the child’s response. For me Perry Else and Gordon Sturrock’s concept of play cues/responses within play frames is an important insight. Along with the Manchester Circles concept and the Playwork Principles, I think that gives us a good framework for playwork interventions (low) and responses (high) with the playing child at the centre.

  10. Just thought this to be appropriate to the discussion:

    The understanding of atomic physics is child’s play, compared with the understanding of child’s play. – David Kresh (1940-2006) American poet.

  11. Both the senses of Art and Play are redifined when children and young people explore. They are interchangeable concepts.

    We do non-directive sensory art workshops in West Sussex UK and the allowance of peer experience and learning which may be shared by adults as well is experienced as instictually right and meets the needs when the whole culture mitigates against children and young people being trustsed to inititiate for themselves.

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  13. Hello Tim,

    I happened on this old piece of yours by accident, only to find something most perplexing: my comments had vanished!

    You may recall that I took issue with your description of my use of the term ‘edge of chaos’. So frequently misunderstood, it has as much to do with order as it does with chaos. Recently I have taken to referring to the idea as ‘the-edge-of-chaos’, in a futile attempt to distinguish the concept from that of chaos.

    But I digress, what happened to my comments, which I hope were both positive and explanatory? Did the internet eat them?

    • Hi Arthur, I too am perplexed. I can find no trace of comments from you after this post (and must confess I have no memory of any). I searched all my comments for the word ‘chaos’ but also found it didn’t appear in any of your 50 or so comments (perhaps surprisingly). Maybe they’ve gone – though if so, I cannot explain why – I’ve not noticed any other approved comments disappear. Perhaps you made them on my Facebook page? Needless to say, feel free to add your thoughts [again] here.

      • OK. It’s a mystery.

        Well, briefly, I never said that play ONLY exists at the edge of chaos. That would be stupid. I’m also not one of these straw men: “Adults can find the prospect of children taking control profoundly challenging. As Lord of the Flies reminds us, we adults like to take the role of guardians of order, with children assigned the role of anarchic creatures with destructive impulses. Some play theorists see a germ of truth in this stereotype.”

        Just to be perfectly clear: not moi.

        “Playwork thinker Arthur Battram has gone so far as to claim that play “exists only at the edge of chaos”.

        No he hasn’t. Try substituting ‘zone of complexity’ in place of edge of chaos, it’s less misleading, and actually refers to the same thing. Less wrong, but still not an accurate representation of my ideas. Thing is, the edgeofchaos is a technical term, by no means the same as the edge of a thing called chaos. I explain a little here:


        FWIW, Czicksentmihaly (pretty certain I misspelt that) never said that creative activities only take place in a state of ‘flow ‘either.

        If you replace exists with thrives, and take out some of the journalistic hyperbole, you get: “Playwork thinker Arthur Battram has claimed that play thrives only at the edge of chaos”.

        That representation of my thinking I could live with.

        • Thanks Arthur. I am reading from your chapter in Foundations of Playwork. It starts: “Here I contend that: play exists only at the edge of chaos.” That was written published in 2008. It may be that your thinking has moved on since then. But here I contend that: my article was a fair summary of your contention in that chapter, which was what I was referring to when I wrote it (and what I referenced in the published version).

  14. Well obviously it has! I should read my own writing more often!

  15. Pingback: A rare glimpse into a messy oasis of adventure play | Rethinking Childhood

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