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SLG Local series of conference Part 1: Play-fight, exploring pro-social conflict





Essays The evolution of something Control and chaos

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This afternoon symposium explores the social uses of conflict through looking at ‘play-fighting’ in various different forms: the ‘rough and tumble’ of children’s play, the role of conflict in socially-engaged art practice, as well the organisational/community contexts through which the process of conflict and resolution take place. Play worker, writer and activist, Morgan Leichter-Saxby, frames the questions and debate, exploring the ways in which play can help us access aspects of ourselves we fight against knowing or accepting. She argues that, both in psychological and neighbourhood contexts, play can be a process by which the marginalized becomes incorporated to the whole. Artists Laura Eldret and Anthony Schrag talk about their recent work with children exploring play fighting, commissioned as part of SLG Local, along with contributions from young people and children themselves.







Matthew Poultney is a playworker and artist. While working as manager of Charlie Chaplin Adventure playground in 2008, he devised an event for children at the SLG called Something Out of Nothing. Here he argues for the the necessity of organising play-based events without pre-set outcomes. In 2008 the SLG took a leap of faith and played host to an untried and untested event for disabled children and playworkers. Something Out of Nothing incorporated collage, costume making, music, video and light in a day-long improvised performance that culminated in a catwalk parade. Each participant, and indeed everyone in the gallery that day, was invited to wear a simple white boiler suit that they could customise and decorate however they saw fit. The main gallery was stripped back to white walls and a purpose-built runway stretched almost the entire length of the floor. Activity areas and facilitators were dotted about the space, ready to help the creative processes evolve. By 11am everyone was in their boiler suits and the doors were about to open. We still had no idea what was going to happen. The gallery had taken on the event on the basis of it having no fixed outputs; something we felt confident we could deliver. 10

In a climate of outcome driven, statistically obsessed funding streams, this event felt like a valuable opportunity to experiment with open-ended participation. With the right resources, experience, (and careful planning), devising and delivering a creative event for disabled children isn’t difficult, provided that the emphasis is on imagination and play. SMART outcomes1 and strict definitions necessarily dictate the shape of a project from the outset. This can make flexibility and spontaneity difficult and, at worst, can stifle creativity. A group of children with a range of disabilities is likely to have diverse support needs as well as markedly different levels of engagement. What they are unlikely to lack is imagination. This is a resource that most children have in abundance, but it’s intangible and difficult to quantify. This issue becomes more problematic when applied to disabled children. How for example, do you meaningfully transfer the experiences of a non-verbal autistic child into a number on a monitoring spreadsheet? Working with disabled children often requires a great deal of careful observation and relationship-building over months or years in order to understand and appreciate specific moods and emotions. For non11

verbal children and those with PMLD2 a tiny gesture or sound can be a significant indicator. These are the true performance milestones for any activity, but they are fleeting and easy to lose in translation. The quality and success (or failure) of any event is most evident while it is taking place. This quality, by its very nature, is ephemeral and intangible, but is absolutely crucial to participants and facilitators in terms of what they experience and the memories they form of the event. At one point, the gallery technician3, testing the catwalk spotlight inadvertently instigated a game that involved children chasing the light beam as it bounced off a wall. It was beautiful and entirely unexpected. To my mind, this simple moment of spontaneity justified the entire event. As carefully planned as it was, Something Out of Nothing willingly took risks, both with its non-specific delivery outcomes and with our high expectations for participant engagement. In those contexts the event was a relative success; the blank canvas approach became a blue print.

The Hidden Value of Tiger Tales

The benefits of this open-ended approach were developed further in 2009 during an interactive drama session for disabled students at The Michael Tippett School in Lambeth. For this event a group of five performance artists worked with the participants to 12

create and tell the story of a young girl who is raised by animals. During the day the children created masks and costumes, played music and watched aspects of the narrative unfold inside and outside the school building. In order to create an experience for the participants that was clearly different from school, we had a large marquee in the outside area and offered unrestricted access to everywhere in and around it, allowing participants to choose what they wanted to get involved in and how much they wanted to engage. 13

Several of the facilitators at this event also worked with the participants during term time at the school and again, through them, we found significance in tiny, easy to miss observations. One facilitator from The Micheal Tippet School noticed one of the older participants with PMLD was keeping his head up and eyes open for several minutes at the start of the session. This was unusual and indicated his interest in and engagement with the activities on offer. Another participant who, during term time, refused to take part in any structured education at school, got involved in mask making and dressing up. This had never been witnessed before. It’s interesting that activities students might well be expected to do in class become much more appealing once they are put in the context of imagination, creativity and drama. Outcomes such as these cannot be predicted or specifically planned for; they occur spontaneously providing the right framework is in place. It’s this indefinable realm of imaginative engagement and the creative opportunities that it offers that is of most interest. These concepts took root with Something Out of Nothing and have been evolving ever since.

Touretteshero Needs You!

The most recent incarnation of the open-ended approach again took place at TMTS, in December 2011. During this event 90 children with Tourettes Syndrome were invited to a ‘secret base’ to devise and create their own superhero identities. Their mission 14

was to help Touretteshero free the world from The Bureaucrat and his deadly dull wave that was sweeping the planet. Prior to the event the participants had been able to watch an ‘emergency broadcast’ from Touretteshero that set the scene to ensure they were full of ideas on the day. We worked with drama facilitators, costume makers and a visual artist to bring each child’s new identity to life. The Touretteshero event combined the free-for-all approach developed for Something Out of Nothing with the dramatic narrative of Tiger Tales. Participants were told explicitly that they needed to use their imagination to help push back the dull wave. The Bureaucrat, dressed in a grey suit, shirt and tie and carrying a clipboard, made appearances throughout the day to disrupt the activities with health and safety spot checks and forms to fill out. Participants were told how he hated people smiling and a game of ‘pin the smile on The Bureaucrat’ emerged on the art wall. Paper smiles emerged on walls and doors throughout the building. Once again, none of this was planned. All we did was ensure that the right resources were in place to allow it to happen. The event culminated in a hero parade that moved though the building and led to The Bureaucrat who, successfully liberated from his pernickety ways, had been transformed into a brightly dressed, smiling and singing compadre.


After the event, one volunteer – a primary school teacher – expressed her surprise at the level of engagement and enthusiasm the participants had shown. It seemed strange to me that this volunteer was so surprised. With all the meticulous planning, this is the one element we leave entirely to the participants.

The Empty Road Ahead

What we are doing with these events may not be revolutionary or even new but neither are they based on specific theories or approaches to play, inclusion, or measureable outcomes. Instead they are based on an idea: that imagination is a resource children can access freely and in abundance given the right context and encouragement. This is an exercise in trust between facilitators and participants where all must be equal and willing to engage. Risk taking is a natural part of this approach and failure must be an acceptable, if undesirable, outcome. The purpose and joy of working this way is to encourage and observe the spontaneous, unpredictable and fleeting moments of beauty that children in their creative element can bring about. There is no end point to this method, no final version. It is an evolution. Operating successfully in the imaginative realm is a constant challenge. Devising and developing new ideas requires intuition and faith. Translating those ideas into funding applications, proposals and budgets is a subtle art. Bringing the idea to life for participants and facilitators presents 16

equal difficulty. Narratives bring complexity to creative events and these need to be rock solid and easy to understand. Most importantly, they need to be believable. While it’s happening, an open-ended event must bend the shape of reality to make imaginative possibilities real, and the outside world a concept. Complexity must be translated into simplicity and unpredictability must be embraced however it emerges. New concepts and new opportunities to bring them into reality are sure to emerge. On every occasion imaginative possibility will be at the centre of the event and it’s highly likely that the best bits won’t make it onto a spreadsheet. Children are the custodians of our collective imagination and sense of mischief. They keep our traditions and customs alive so that we can experience them through new eyes, as we get older. It is the responsibility of adults to remind them of this and ensure that collectively we all work hard to keep the dull wave at bay.

Footnotes 1. PMLD, Profound and Multiple Learning Disability 2. SMART outcomes, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound 3. The gallery technician was Jon Sack, who contributes his view later in the book as part of On Nightmares



Author and play consultant Tim Gill looks across all the artist residencies on Sceaux Gardens estate. He examines the role that adults adopt in relation to children’s play by way of play theory and psychology. How did artists intervene in children play? What role does chaos itself play in the creative process? The artist Orly Orbach is leading a session in the reclaimed shop in Sceaux Gardens that has become the estate’s base for the Making Play residencies. 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, which built on an earlier activity involving scouring the estate for intriguing objects using tweezers and jam jars as collecting tools, reflected Orbach’s interest in myths, magical thinking and the possible worlds that lie behind or beyond the everyday. The problem is, the children don’t want to follow her plan. They loved collecting the objects, but the second part of 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 18

unexpected narrative emerges from the gap left by her failed plans, culminating in an impromptu performance of the West End percussion show ‘Stomp’ led by Sarah, one of the more regular and enthusiastic attendees. This tension in Making Play between control and freedom – structure and chaos – will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with debates about the place of adults in children’s play. In a pure play project such as a staffed adventure playground, the role of the professional – 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 professional – the artist – is to guide children through a more-or-less well-defined creative process, towards a more-or-less well-defined creative goal. Making Play falls between these two models. So what is the role of the professional adult? If battle is joined 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 have succeeded precisely to the extent that they accept 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, off I will go. 19

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 in the heart of this contested territory. This power struggle was evident in all of the residencies, both at Sceaux Gardens and Charlie Chaplin Adventure Playground. Not surprisingly, at the playground the balance was more explicitly in favour of the children. For one thing, the place is so alive with playful possibility that any adults wanting to engage the children have to fight hard even to get their attention. More fundamentally, as senior playworker Bev 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 quite personal, even therapeutic material. Also in 20

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. For here, it is enough to note, as Bradby does, that “the straightforward activity of recording and playing back is very engaging.� One of the playworkers commented that he took pleasure from the fact that whereas he knew how to operate the machines, many of the children did not - a nice aside that points to the playful power struggles that feature in everyday life at the playground (and also a poignant reminder of how much the technology of childhood has changed). 21

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 the widest sense, to include objects, people, landscape - anything and everything within reach). If the child finds the reaction to be engaging, that fuels further action, and the play cycle is initiated. In much of children’s lives, their field of action is incredibly narrow when compared to that of an adult in the same situation. What is more, for generations children’s everyday autonomy has been in decline, a trend that constitutes a profound change in the nature of childhood (as I argue in my book No Fear). 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. Artist Matt Shaw found that sometimes, the gift of engagement was some time in coming. His residency aimed to expose children to some themes from contemporary art practice to see what they made of them (literally). A Christo-inspired ‘wrapping things up’ session, for example, took flight almost instantly, and before too long the shop was filled with objects (and participants) encased in rolls of lining paper. Yet 22

a ball-dropping theme (which took its inspiration from a Townley and Bradby intervention/installation entitled Mobile Sports Foundation) fell flat on its first outing – only to bounce into life some weeks later. Orly Orbach had the same experience. “Ideas seeped in gradually,” she told me. “Initially I thought that if the children don’t respond immediately or show interest then the activity failed. But some things just took longer, the children responded in their own time, and I realized that you can’t measure success straight away.” At Charlie Chaplin, 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 previously). During a discussion with playworkers and other artists about the playground residencies, Bradby declared that he sometimes wondered how he could even find a way to be in 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. Adults can find the prospect of children taking control profoundly challenging. As Lord of the Flies reminds us, our adult worldview is apt to place us in the role of guardians of order between the generations, 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 23

only at the edge of chaos’ (ref: Battram (2008) p.89). When children are playing freely rules, conventions, structures, codes of behaviour - all of these are up for grabs in the pursuit of novelty and stimulation. It is not that these processes are ignored, abandoned, destroyed or left without function. 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 admit that they 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 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 spelt out in the work of Simon Nicholson, the landscape architect (and son of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth) who back 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 power 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 (Taylor 2008 p.43). Those at the forefront of research on play argue that emotional stimulation is not simply a consequence of playing, it is 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’ (ref: Sutton-Smith 2008 p.141). 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 – 25

in emotional regulation (ref: Play for a Change). 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, roughand-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 and rudeness 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. One of the reasons why Lottie Child’s street training sessions (see Chapter X in this book) went down so well - with adults and children – was because her practice explicitly legitimises playfully transgressive acts, and in doing so gives permission for a temporary suspension of the usual power relationships between adults and children. 26

Orly Orbach in her residency had to find a path through some turbulent encounters with some of the older boys that had contact with the project. She drew on the expertise of artist/playworker Jess Thom, whose earlier residency meant she was familiar with the project’s ethos, and also with some of the protagonists. Together they rethought the approach to disruptive behaviour, and also some of the offers, and as a result the engaged more positively in the sessions. 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 the answer is hardly likely to be ‘I am developing my systems of emotional regulation and expression.’ A much more probable answer is: ‘because it’s fun!’ Such a reply is itself revealing, and anything but trivial. For 27

children, the purpose of play – the motivation behind an episode of playing - is simple: to carry on playing, as Wendy Russell and Stuart Lester note (ref: Play for a Change). This immersive, self-contained aspect of play intrigued the artist Daniel Lehan, who also spent half a term at Charlie Chaplin. Lehan tried to tackle head-on the question ‘what is play?’ by asking it of both children and adults. (One of his chosen tools was a black wall that he had created specifically for the purpose of chalking comments, questions and replies.) He saw parallels between the subjective state of playing and that of creating art, in that both appear to involve a loss of self-consciousness that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow’. There are indeed parallels between play and flow. Yet there are also differences. For Csikszentmihalyi, flow involves not the suspension or disruption of rules but rather, a high degree of commitment to their consistent application. He states “we have seen how people describe the common characteristics of optimal experience: a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing” [ref: Flow]. The subjective state of a playing child may well share something with that of a jazz musician, sculptor or mountaineer, say. Yet the difference is that one key feature of these highly goal-oriented pursuits is a dependence on precisely the kind of order and control that is up for grabs in play. 28

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 all agreed that this was ultimately liberating, even joyous. This chapter’s focus on power may seem quaintly radical. Yet the recent emergence in the UK of profound debates about the state of the nation’s children – with talk of the ‘death of childhood’ - is fuelled by concern about the degree to which children’s everyday lives are being colonised, even poisoned, by adult agendas. There are real political questions that need to be asked about children’s need for space and time in which the concerns of adults genuinely fade into the background. 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.


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SLG Local series of conferences  

Series of conferences