puddles and profanities

“Out beyond the idea of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
– Rumi

It is the wettest midwinter I can remember in Manchester, and this city does rainfall like no other. I cycled swiftly across town from Gorton to Hulme, swerving around saturated potholes and grey-brown gulleys that glisten in the falling drizzle. Upon approaching the after school club I encountered very mixed feelings about what the evening ahead might bring. “Take the older kids over to the park next Tuesday Eddie,” Colleen, the club manager, suggested as we rounded last week’s planning meeting, “Whatever the weather. They need a break from here.” It seemed like an excellent suggestion at the time; I had been hankering for an excuse to break free from the church hall with the primary-age kids. If they are not complaining about being bored and frustrated, they are going out of their way to either break up the younger children’s games or looking to get a rise out of the other staff. But I was soaked and cold already. A cup of tea and a radiator wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Out to Play is I suppose quite typical of a play-care after school club. We pick the kids up from five schools either on foot or by minibus and take them to a multi-purpose centre annexed to the local church. Having come to this job after many years on adventure playgrounds, I sometimes struggle with the conditions the kids have for playing, and I have for playworking. My former adventure playground was at times less than ideal for the local children – though like a number of playwork professionals I doubt that ‘an ideal setting’ created by adults could ever actually exist. In comparison to my old addy, however, this space feels extremely reduced; a single-function room where the kids gather ’round ancient tables and must make do with what are in broad playwork terms very limited resources and affordances.

Being out of the building gives the children a chance to express themselves a bit more, but within the grounds there are precious few places to make dens, hang netting, get off the ground, disappear. It isn’t the fault of the management of Out to Play. The building that they are renting was conceived for the sort of functions you would ordinarily associate with the church – you know, coffee mornings for parishioners, Weight Watchers sessions, Choir practice. Most people’s idea of how children should play in such a place would arguably be a romanticised one. The kids here however, like kids everywhere, express a play repertoire that is often far from romantic.

Older children have excellent radar for a ludic sensibility in an adult, even when that adult thinks they are hiding it well. This was brought to my attention while working as a TA for a couple of years and performing as the dutiful mister Nuttall. Kids would still tie my shoelaces together in assembly, draw on my hands, or splash me with puddles in the playground. If you are working in a space where overt and permissive playfulness isn’t encouraged, this immediately places you in a position where you have to be deceiving of your fellow professionals, or disingenuous to the children who call for you to return the favour and offer a cue for their playing. It is perhaps one of the central dilemmas for a playwork professional: to play, or not to play?

In recent weeks some of the kids have begun to moan at me regarding the building and the restrictions associated with it. To that end they are testing other adults in the club, and on occasion getting the kind of ‘rise’ they were intent on provoking – mild annoyance, value judgments and statements – a ‘grumpy grown up’ response to play with and perhaps push further. Hence it was suggested that I take them up the road to Knottwood Park at least once a week to ‘relieve some of the tension’.

It was this suggestion that led to myself and the eight older kids negotiating the sodden pavements this Tuesday evening, with my younger friends in quite a buoyant mood, freed as they were from the strictures of the ASC environment. The first question they had for me, once we were out of earshot of the church and moving through the gates of Knottwood, I might have predicted.

“Eddie, can we swear now?” Carla, Tay and Sean asked almost in unison.

And there I was in that predicament gain. To play, or not to play. I decided to risk the slings and arrows. “Look – I will say the same thing as I used to to the older kids at the addy. I’m not in the least bit concerned with how you talk when you are playing with your mates. But if another adult drifts into earshot and you haven’t noticed them and toned it down, I will make a bloody good fist of telling you off. Do you get me?”

Green light. And off they span into the usual rhymes and lore of a sexual and scatological nature, punctuating it with heavy footfalls in the soily water all around them.

The next hour was a raucous affair. I kept a polite distance from the skate park where they played – sliding down the ramps to knock each other over, tying ropes around the railings and each other, shouting and cussing continuously. I felt edgy at times that I might be approached by another adult and asked ‘what on earth are you letting them behave like that for?’ but there was nobody else around – the rain was unremittant, and only the most hardy dog-walker could be seen to pass wearily in the distance. These trench-veterans didn’t seem too concerned with what was happening in the concrete tunnels across the field. And by now nether was I. There was the odd slip and crack of skull on metal, but nothing that required medical attention. They were the happiest I had seen them together in four months.

At five fifteen we squelched across Palestine Hill and up the cul-de-sac that led back to the ASC. The swearing continued mutedly right up to the door of the club, whereupon with a quick glance from me the kids stopped almost instantaneously. We shared a smile between us, and pushed the door open wide.


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