101: Let us play

Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to a four part podcast from the BBC World Service’s The Compass, called ‘Why We Play‘. Each part explored a different phase of life, from childhood through to old age, and the impact and potential benefits of play. It covers things like video games, which can help adolescents navigate issues around anxiety and depression; why we shouldn’t stop playing in old age; the importance of play in making sense of the world in the early years; and how play can increase productivity at work. I won’t go into too much detail here but it’s an interesting listen.

As part of a team developing a museum dedicated to young people, where play is one of the key themes, we bang on about play a lot. I even go off to colleges and universities occasionally and talk about how important it is, referencing people like Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori alongside toy designers like Patrick Rylands.

PlayPlax, 1968, Photograph: David Levene/Guardian

You may not recognise Rylands’ name but for people of my generation his toys will have been part of your childhood. He was the creator of Playplax, which – along with its direct descendant Super Octons – was still a staple part of nursery kit in the late 1990s. He talked about Playplax as something that was ‘just stuff’: there were no pre-determined outcomes, only what the child made of it.

“A toy that does everything by itself, does nothing for the child. The main purpose of a toy is to enable children to enter into a world of make-believe, as it is in this way that children relate to reality.”

Patrick Rylands

The power of these little perspex squares is amazing: when we were doing some training with a childcare setting in the summer on how to use the big blue blocks we took the Super Octons along and several of the adults latched onto them and spent ages with them. A teenage girl at Epping Forest College made a set of sunglasses in a session which she was very proud of. People love the simplicity of slotting the shapes together, of mixing the colours and building up and out. The blue blocks (and Lego, and any building kit!) have the same effect – they are an invitation to play, to build and create.

Where was I? Oh yes, banging on about play again. Going out and talking to teenagers can get a bit depressing at times as a) they don’t want to talk back to me, so getting them to answer questions is like squeezing money out of HMRC and b) they often tell me that you stop playing when you stop being a child. The definition we often use, both in the sociology and the play sessions, is that childhood lasts from birth to puberty, although we do discuss legal and social definitions as well. They talk about play – when I can get them to talk at all – as something they ‘used to do when they were young’ (thanks, 15 year olds!) or as something they do with younger siblings or cousins.

There are many definitions of play, especially when you start getting all academic about types of play and things (it’s Sunday, so I won’t) but the very simplest one, the one I use when talking into the teenage void, is that it’s something you choose to do for enjoyment and recreation, rather than for a serious purpose. If you ask them what they do for fun, they tell you that they go and hang out at Westfield (other shopping centres are available, apparently), play online games and so on. Some may play football or skateboard, some might have a hobby that they enjoy, and some – very occasionally – admit to enjoying the odd board game at Christmas or with family. They then often mention Monopoly, which to me is less a game and more a form of hideous torture, but there we are. I’m still not sure they agree that their non-game activities are ‘play’ but at least they are talking to me.

Before I joined the museum, the Importance of Play session finished with a chance for the students to play with various toys that they had seen in the galleries – a teddy bear’s picnic, dolls house, Playmobil sets, building blocks etc – and their task was to set them up as they might if they were inviting nursery children to join in and then we’d discuss what children might learn. This might be fine or gross motor skills, social skills, colour matching or maths. After several months of the teenage void I noticed that as we walked into the classroom the students were more interested in the activities than in the talk, so I flipped the session and invited them to play at the start of the session. It was a revolution, as far as I was concerned, and the sessions became much more open: they’d play, and then we’d ask them the same questions about what young children might learn. But now they’d answer me, and they’d talk about their own activities, and were more confident in sharing their prior knowledge.

The podcast (see, you knew there was a point) made me think about whether I was practising what I preached, to coin a phrase. Am I playful enough in my adult and work life? You all know what I enjoy doing – I make things, I hurl myself in lakes and so on – but do I play?

Sometimes, I admit, I forget: having to be a proper grown up and keep other people alive, negotiating peace settlements among children, being the grumpy one that makes them turn the Minecraft off and so on are not conducive to playfulness. But I sing and dance in the kitchen while I cook those dinners and spin passing children into a twirl, and sometimes have the urge to bake a cake and smother it with Smarties ‘just because’. When London sister and I went to Ireland for our niece’s First Communion there was a bouncy castle and we regressed entirely, spending a lot of the afternoon on it and ganging up to bounce our mum off the apron at the front; playing with the niece and nephew and being entirely silly. When we have our big family holidays the various children often accuse us of being childish, as we tend to get a bit giddy.

Things 2 and 3 do enjoy board games and both of them will help me if I get a jigsaw out at Christmas, and Thing 2 likes to play with beads and make things. Thing 1 enjoys playing with make up and will be doing a course at college next year which will teach her about special effect make up. Popular games here have been Tsuro, Mijnlieff and Horrible Histories’ Stupid Deaths games, as well as traditional fare like Pop-up Pirate, Hungry Hippos and Connect 4. My mum bought us Sorry!, in a vain attempt at revenge for the Christmas when she got so annoyed at being sorried once too often that she threw it across the room and we’ve never let her forget it. It failed – I just saved it till she came to stay and made her play it with them.

Last September I joined a Dungeons and Dragons campaign – I used to play when I was at uni, so when I was invited to join this set of characters that I’d already made voodoo dolls of at the Dungeon Master’s request, I jumped at the chance. So every Thursday night I wander off down the road with my dice and my tablet and for a couple of hours I’m a bardic gnome (or possibly a Gnomic Bard) with a magical dragon plushie I haven’t brought into play yet, a set of spells and a good excuse to make extremely silly puns on a regular basis. And I love it – I’m still finding my feet and sometimes my dice hate me and conspire to kill me, but it’s so much fun. Some weeks are tense and battle filled (I got grappled by a giant monstery thing!) and other weeks are completely daft and giggly (last week we ‘helped’ someone with the world’s most uncomfortable first date) but I love it. Some weeks, if we have people missing, we end up playing board games and that’s great too. One of my lovely colleagues also plays D&D, and we often sit over coffee and talk about our campaigns – neither of our partners play, so we can nerd out in safety!

A secondary school I visited a few months ago, which is for boys with social, emotional and behavioural needs, has a D&D room. These boys can go and work through different scenarios in a safe space, giving them a set of coping skills they can apply in real life. They might not run into owlbears or svartalves in the streets of East London but the skills they learn are very much real.

All our new learning sessions will have elements of play as well as imagination and design, so I’m learning to build it more into my work life. Enforced playfulness in work life can be excruciating, especially when confronted with ‘role play’ activities in training sessions, but being more playful in how I build activities is definitely more fun!

So, I might not be entirely playful – but I’m working on it….

With that, I’m off to do the ironing and then I’m going to play with some yarn. See you next week!

Kirsty x

The House at the End of Hope Street/The Dress Shop of Dreams/The Witches of Cambridge – Menna van Praag

The Memory Shop – Ella Griffin

The Innocent – Harlan Coben

Doctor Who: Tenth Doctor Novels vol 1 (Audible)

77: ‘I saw this on the movies’ – twenty years on

I’ve seen a lot of posts this morning on social media headed ‘twenty years ago…’. Twenty years ago I was a nursery teacher in Hackney, and on the afternoon of the 11th of September (or 9/11 as the Americans would have it) we opened the nursery door to let the parents in.

‘Have you seen?’

‘Did you hear?’

These were the days before smart phones, before computers in everyone’s pockets, so no – we hadn’t heard, but we went to the staffroom after sending the kids home and someone had set up the portable TV. Along with the rest of the world we sat in silence and we watched and we cried. Our year 4 teacher joined us: her brother worked in the second tower. The shock and fear in her face was terrible to see. The skies were silent over City and Stansted.

As the evening unfolded we drifted home and carried on watching: there was nothing else to do but to watch the news roll out.

The next day I went into school, because life goes on. Our year 4 teacher had had no news and was with her family. When she returned the following week she was like a ghost: her brother was still among the missing when I left the school the following spring.

Far from the usual chaos and noise generated by 30 four year olds, my nursery children were subdued and thoughtful: at four they were really too young to process what was happening, but knew something important was going on in the world.

J (a small East End boy who would usually spend the morning hoovering in the home corner dressed in a wedding dress, daring anyone to comment) sat on the carpet with M, another small boy with a tendency towards boisterous play. Over and over they built two towers from blocks, and ‘flew’ their hands into them. No sound effects today, just silent building and destruction all morning. I sat on the floor with them for a while, talking to them about what they were doing and how it made them feel.

Another child, B, watched the tiny TV we had set up on top of the cupboard and said ‘I saw this on the movies last night. It made my mummy cry and I was scared.’

Many of the children needed more reassurance that day, and most of them played out – as children do – their thought processes and feelings. It was a quiet, serious morning in what was usually a space filled with noise and colour.

I talk about this day a lot when I am teaching sociology, childcare or teacher training students about the importance of play in helping not just small children but older ones to process feelings and experiences. It was a moment when theory became reality and I watched children make sense of the world through the play environment around them: small people trying to understand something that was consuming their adults and that had impacted on their lives.

I don’t know whether those four year olds remember where they were on 9/11 but that day, and the one that followed, will stay with me for ever.

(Cover image credit: Photo by Carsten Schlipf from FreeImages)

68: Rage against….pretty much everything

Hot flushes, night sweats, the need to carry tweezers with you at all times, difficulty sleeping, problems with memory and concentration….just some of the symptoms of perimenopause that people tell you about. Apparently there are 34, but I’m trying not to treat this as some kind of hormonal bingo – I mean, what the hell do you shout when you’ve ticked them all off? And do you even get a prize?

One of the symptoms they don’t tell you about is the rage. The all-consuming, completely random rage. We are not talking a ladylike ‘tsk tsk’ here, this is fury incandescent enough to power whole countries.This week, for example, some of the things I have been furious at include:

  • people who stop in the middle of the pavement
  • old ladies walking up steps
  • sellotape
  • cat litter bags that don’t open properly
  • Oyster card readers
  • bra underwires
  • people who wake me up in the middle of the night
  • cinnamon jelly beans.

And that’s the little things. That doesn’t even cover the big stuff, like 40,000 screaming people at Wembley not wearing masks (had they all been double vaccinated? Were they all tested before entering the ground? Did they have to show their vaccine passports?) Or pretty much everything the bloviating buffoons in charge of the country say, particularly on the subjects of education or post-Covid recovery. Aggressive England fans shouting that football is coming home as if some silverware is going to solve England’s problems. (I will be supporting Gareth Southgate tonight, for those of you in any doubt: I think he’s a really nice bloke, who is down to earth, honest, well-dressed, intelligent, and if the team win people might just shut up about a penalty he missed 25 years ago, the poor sod. I couldn’t care less about England winning, but I would like Southgate to win.)

They call it ‘the change’, which sounds quite gentle, but this isn’t like WonderWoman spinning around and reappearing in sparkly pants. This is more like American Werewolf in London at full moon, complete with snarling and a really bad hair day. There are definitely moments when I’d be happy to bite people, and there are definitely moments when people need to realise that these bared teeth are not a smile and that backing away slowly is their best hope.

Back in the saddle

This week my colleagues and I have been back in a school, launching our Summer of Play programme in a Bethnal Green primary school. We saw nine classes over three days, and had enormous fun – I was only there for two days, as on day three I got as far as Whitechapel and then had to turn round and come back as Thing 3’s class had to go into self-isolation.

We had two activities running simultaneously: Fran, our creative facilitator, was working on barefoot coding and I was working on design challenges using the Imagination Playground kit above. With Key Stage One we were doing timed challenges and with Key Stage Two we were designing ways to cross a river: you can see me above in a boat built by a Year Six class. What we needed that day was probably an ark, as we were delivering sessions in between rain storms!

There were some surprises across the days: Year One worked brilliantly as a team, building together and sharing really well. Years Five and Six worked well when the teams were split boys against girls, but not so well when they were mixed. Some children worked really democratically, others not so much. Some teachers pitched in and got involved, others found it hard to let go and had to be gently persuaded to let us get on with it…but it was so good to be back doing what we do best, which is engaging with learners and talking to people.

The next lot of schools isn’t till September, but over the summer we’ll be out and about at festivals and play schemes with the kit, and I can’t wait.

Crafty!

On Friday I attended the launch event for Craft School – Yinka’s Challenge which is a nationwide challenge from the Crafts Council to get children and teachers engaged with craft thinking and making along three themes: play, storytelling and empowerment. I love these Crafts Council CPD sessions, as they are often designed as make-alongs. I had a free ticket, but people who paid £10 got sent a ‘material play pack’ including clay, so they could join in. The brilliant Rebecca Goozee, education manager, is very keen on embodied learning and plans sessions with great makers so you can learn along with them. I always find it easier to focus if my hands are busy, as regular readers will know, so these sessions are great for me. I fixed my pile of escaping bra wires and did some cross stitch as the sessions went on.

The final session, with a ceramicist, took the form of an informal conversation between the maker and Rebecca while they made pinch pots, rather than a tutorial (as the first two sessions had been) and it was wonderful – just listening to them talk about how working with the clay made them feel, and about their own experiences in the world of making, was incredibly soothing. If I was the Crafts Council I’d be thinking seriously about a podcast series in this format!

There was also a conversation between Yinka Ilori and his secondary school art teacher and mentor, who was clearly one of those teachers who stay with you for a lifetime. A lot of conversations that day – as the majority of the attendees were craft, art and design teachers – hinged on those teachers who supported us to become what we wanted to be and who gave us the space and the confidence to discover our passions and talents. And on those teachers who didn’t….

The three themes of the challenge sit well alongside my own museum’s new mission, so I hope we’ll be able to work with the Crafts Council in a more formal way moving forwards!

I can’t share the cross stitch I was working on, as it’s a gift, but here’s the Temperature Tree update for June and early July. As you can see, June wasn’t terribly warm either – a low of 13 and one day when we hit 27 ( a pale yellow at the very top). July’s not shaping up too well either.

So that was week 68 – we’re more than halfway through 2021 according to the tree, and coasting towards the end of term in ten days or so. Same time next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Guards Guards, Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett (these are the first five of the City Watch series: you can see a reading order here)

Week twenty-seven: in defence of craft

Here I am again, having survived my first trip to Tesco in two months. Survived is the right word – I haven’t seen it so busy since March, with people stocking up on goods in case the country goes tits-up (the technical term!) again. I’d just like to say I’m not hoarding anything except chocolate malted milk biscuits. Fat chance! The freezer is full, the cupboard is overflowing….and I bet I’ll still end up in the Co-op at least once this week. How does the Horde eat so much? Will their father eventually turn into a chocolate digestive? And…what did I forget?

On Friday I virtually attended an inspiring Zoom conference run by the Craft Council, entitled ‘The Future of Craft in Education‘, which was fascinating (catering was awful though…). I didn’t think staring at a screen for the best part of six hours at the end of the week would be possible, but it was over almost too soon. The organiser ensured talks were short, breakout groups were well-organised and I am in awe of the person who managed the tech as it was seamless.

What happens when you clear a space for your tablet and notebook.

Imagine my horror when the head of one of the big academy chains declared that in order to help children ‘catch up’ with their education they would be abandoning creative subjects in favour of maths, English and. Science. The head of my daughters’ academy (who is, tellingly, from a drama background) was keen to reassure us that they would be looking at how to build core subject knowledge into the rest of the curriculum so students didn’t miss out. Much as I rant about the National Curriculum, it does set out the need for a broad and balanced education. I could wish that the cross-curricular links made explicit in Design Technology were mentioned to other subject teachers, but that’s another conversation!

However, during the pandemic ‘craft’ has come into its own, both as a source of well-being and as a way to do all those little things around the house that people haven’t had time for before: upcycling and mending clothes, cooking and baking, DIY, as well as the things we would more commonly identify as ‘crafts’. In August, Hobbycraft reported a 200% boom in online sales since the start of the pandemic, and as a dedicated online craft shopper I know that demand was high across the sector. There’s been a lot of focus across the cultural sector on the benefits of arts on well-being, and a slew of articles (like this one and this one) have been written on why craft is good for you. Lockdown – particularly for those of us on furlough – has given us permission to craft, to take up new hobbies and to revisit old pleasures. Various friends have taken up embroidery, started sourdough baking, experimented with cyanotype printing, made furniture, followed Bob Ross tutorials. I have loved seeing all their beautiful work on social media and it would be sad if these activities stopped when the world goes back to ‘normal’. The Crafts Council launched their brilliant ‘Let’s Craft’ initiative during lockdown, providing packs for families in need, via food banks and community hubs. This was really important at a time when some families were struggling to put food on their tables and luxuries were – literally – not on the menu.

The last ten years or so have seen a huge drop off in the take up of creative subjects at GCSE and above, especially Design Technology: perhaps due to the government focus on EBacc achievement, perhaps due to a belief that a ‘creative career’ isn’t one you can make a living at, and that all your education should be focused on an end goal of a ‘good job’ rather than on the transferable skills like problem-solving and team working that creative subjects can foster in children. My own secondary school pushed two routes: academic and vocational. I really wish I’d taken some creative subjects at GCSE, as I have definitely found more use for those skills than I have for French and Computer Studies!

And while this recognition of the benefits of craft is long overdue, it’s also a further threat to craft in education. Craft is currently being touted as something that can help children’s recovery, with their wellbeing, but not as a proper subject. Back in the eighties when I was in school there was a subject called ‘CDT’ or ‘DCT’ – craft, design and technology (or design, craft and technology) so craft was right there in front of us. It was in woodwork, in metalwork, in textiles. You could get an O-level with the word ‘craft’ in it – it was a proper subject. You learned how to use machinery (and hopefully how not to cut your finger off like every CDT teacher ever), how to transform a flat drawing into a 3D object, and how to make an apron. Technically the word still exists in the subject ‘Art, Craft and Design’ – but more often this also becomes just ‘art’ or ‘art and design’.

Somewhere along the line that word ‘craft’ was dropped and with it the importance of making. Design became the whole of the thing, even though even Sir Terence Conran said that

…I have always been concerned with the practical aspects of design, and relate my work to the manufacturing process. I have never designed anything that I wouldn’t know how to make myself.

The word craft became associated with craft fairs, with the sort of crochet your gran does, with the WI or the Mothers’ Union….with women, in fact. It became marginalised. It’s not a coincidence that the take-up of DT is mainly by boys, and the reverse is seen in art take up.

Yet…

Craft is democratic. It’s the great leveller – anyone can do it, and the past six months shows that they have. You can have a degree in it if you want – but you don’t have to. There’s so many tutorials on YouTube, on Craftsy, in books and magazines, that you don’t need to go to school to learn it. I crochet, quilt, cross stitch, make clothes – and I have taught myself to do these things.

Craft is community. Manu Maunganidwe, one of the speakers on Friday, spoke of his first experience of craft in the Somali village where he grew up. People came together to build a new house – they brought time and skills and they made a house from the ground up, because you can’t build a house by yourself. He spoke passionately about the need for children to experience tools and making.

Craft is haptic. It connects you through the sense of touch, through the experience of materials: choosing the fabric for a dressmaking project by stroking and folding it to see how it creases, squeezing the yarn at a yarn show, the squish of mud when a child makes mud pies. It is sensual. The process of making is sensory – sanding wood to make it smooth, smooth clay, the pull of embroidery floss through fabric.

Craft is resilience. You make a mistake, you try again. Later, when you begin to design your own projects, you try something out, you tweak it, you try again. This is the same iterative process that designers go through.

Craft is cross-disciplinary: You apply knowledge to solving problems: maths is invaluable across all manner of crafts (to crochet a sphere you need your times tables!), yarn dyers use science, a crochet pattern is a simple code. Last year I made a crochet model to demonstrate hyperbolic planes (negative space) for a maths session, mimicking shapes in nature.

Craft is cultural. Children from all communities grow up surrounded by traditional crafts in their homes: fabrics, art, cooking, embroidery, hairstyling. This is not reflected in the current curriculum. A key part of the day was about how craft could help with anti-racism, and my resolution is to seek out diverse makers for the new schools programme to reflect our local area.

Craft is expression: emotional and artistic. I can’t draw but I can make. No, I can’t draw yet. I will draw.

Craft is co-ordination. Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, wrote that she had a thinking hand and a doing hand. You need hand-eye co-ordination to hit a nail with a hammer, to direct a needle to the right hole. I am a kinaesthetic learner and I learn by doing, through muscle memory. Crochet helps me focus. I can make a granny square while watching a Zoom conference without looking at my hands. If my hands are empty I find things to fidget with.

One sleeve completed during the craft conference

Craft is revolution. Not just in the William Morris Arts and Crafts Movement sense of revolution, but a quiet, beautiful revolution. Yarn bombing is a public, visual way to express an idea or an issue. After the terrorist attacks in Manchester and on London Bridge thousands of us knitted, crocheted or sewed hearts with a message of support and love for the residents of our cities as well as the victims of the atrocities. I sent some to Manchester and yarnbombed Canary Wharf and the Central line with messages of hope and love. Craftivism is a thing. This week on Radio 4’s Four Thought there was a fascinating programme on ‘gentle protest’ that you can find here.

In how many of these statements can you replace the word craft with the word art?

I know there are things I have missed here: please do share what craft is to you, and why you do it!

The last act for the conference was to make a pledge to craft education – something the Craft Council have been asking people to do for a while. Mine is to carry on pushing craft to anyone who’ll listen, and to be proud to be a ‘crafter’.

And while I’m on the subject…

Here’s the finished crochet puppy for the small girl who isn’t allowed a dog – at least she won’t have to pick up after this one! The cardigan is lacking one sleeve, but I have done the cuff so it won’t take long. We are watching the new series of Ghosts so I am staying awake long enough to finish things!

I also have a giant pile of fluffy quilted blocks – I had to make three more in the end, which still need to be quilted, but then I can start putting the bento box quilt together.

Wild wanders

I went out for an early walk this morning for the first time in a while. The weather has been a bit blustery for the last couple of days, and it really feels as if Autumn has arrived.

The clearance of scrub on the fields behind us is now finished and the brambles have been piled up in stacks all over the place, exposing the pylon anchors left when they put the power cables underground in the 90s. They reminded me this morning of standing stones – twentieth century monoliths. I am heartbroken at the damage to wildlife habitat – there were no deer to be seen this morning, though there was a prowling fox, several green woodpeckers, and lots of rabbits.

There have of course been a few swims – one late afternoon on Thursday. The light is so different at that time of day, with the sun low over the trees. The water is getting colder – around the 17 degrees mark, and I did feel it when I got out of the lake on Thursday. I am in charge of hot chocolate, which always reminds me of post-swim treats when I was young. Machine hot choc back then – I hope mine is better!

The temperature in the lake this morning was 13 degrees, the coldest we have swum and we very sensibly got out after half a lap (about 400m). I tested the DIY dry robe and I was positively toasty! However, this will be me for the rest of the day:

Teddy has autumn nailed

So that’s my week! It flew by. Next week I am going in to the office – how exciting! Is there still life west of Epping? It’s been a long time…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Breakdown/Heartbreak Hotel (Alex Delaware) – Jonathan Kellerman

A Body in the Bath House (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)