What 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.
The 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.
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.
This 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.
Soon, 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.
Orly 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.
The 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.
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 available to order from the South London Gallery website. 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.