113: magic carpet ride, anyone?

This week was my first day out with the Imagination Playground big blue blocks since last summer – as is now traditional whenever I’m down for delivery, it rained, but fortunately not enough to put the children off their play! This booking came as a result of one of my teacher training sessions, where I used the tabletop version of the blocks as part of a DT session.

The school, Children’s House, is one I have visited before briefly: it has a very beautiful but sadly at risk mural by the artist and writer Eve Garnett whose One End Street books I loved as a child. It’s an interesting place – designed by architect Charles Cowles-Voysey based on Maria Montessori’s vision of an ideal learning environment for young children, opened by the author H.G. Wells in 1923 and visited by Gandhi when he stayed at Kingsley Hall as a guest of Muriel Lester. It’s a nursery school, so filled with tiny, curious little under fives who love to play.

Planned as an opportunity for parents to join their children for a play session, we kicked off with a small group of adults and children but it quickly grew as more kids decided to join in. We had our blue blocks, swathes of fabric in different textures and colours, marker cones and plastic play balls, and piles of shiny crinkly emergency foil blankets, and laminate floor underlay cut into strips and shapes. Kids adore these last two things for some reason!

Way back in the mists of time I trained as an early years teacher so am a big supporter of open-ended play and loose parts as part of child development. The big blue blocks were designed by Cas Holman for just this purpose. We have the largest version – just over 100 pieces, from long ‘pool noodles’ to chunky rectangles which were bigger than the children. We have added various other bits (see above) to the kit to bring more colour and what we have ended up with is a bright, pop-up experience that works for all ages.

I had a great day, and so did the children and adults: the headteacher was unable to resist appearing in the sessions to get down on the floor and play, which is always a good sign, and we’re going to visit their federated school in a few weeks as well. The channels in some of the blocks inspire creations like marble runs which work with the plastic balls, and the size of these runs mean a group of children can all join in. Once one child starts, the others join in, adding to structures and building on ideas to make them bigger and better. The sheer size of some of the blocks means co-operation is necessary to manoeuvre them into position. With the aid of adults, dens were created using fabric and the playground structures, allowing all sorts of imaginative play.

With the younger groups (the three year olds) there was a high level of additional need in the form of hearing impairments so the bright colours and textures of the kit became sensory experiences. The wonderful thing about open-ended play is that it’s impossible to get it wrong and the possibilities are endless.

The older children – four year olds – brought their story telling powers out to play with them. We built the tallest tower in the world so we could reach the teachers’ biscuits, and we built a boat to go on the sea with. At one point I got taken on a magic carpet ride to the seaside where we had ice creams and went for a paddle before going on a rollercoaster and then flying back home. All around me I could hear other adults discussing what was happening around them and making plans to buy fabrics and other things to add to their own blocks. I was quite sad to leave at the end of the day!

This week I am working with Key Stage one and two children as well, which is a less open-ended but just as creative session. Let’s just hope (for my team’s sake!) that the rain holds off.

Hope your week was as much fun as mine!

Kirsty x

I also…

What I’ve been reading:

Abbatoir Blues/When the Music’s Over/Sleeping in the Ground – Peter Robinson

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)

74: peekaboo, I see you

Afghanistan has been all over the news for the last couple of weeks, as the Taliban take over the country once more and the US and UK evacuate troops and civilians in an unplanned, chaotic dash – but not, in many cases, other people who have links to them and who will now be left vulnerable in their home country. Activists, for example, promoting women’s rights or democracy: according to some reports, the Taliban are going house to house seeking out people with links to foreigners and the government. Twelve people have died simply trying to reach the airport in Kabul to get out of the country this week, from stampedes or gunshots.

You may be reading this and wondering what this has to do with my usual ramblings, and may be inclined to point out that this is hundreds – possibly thousands, given my tenuous grasp of world geography – of miles away.

You may be reading this and wondering why I am venturing into the world of international politics, given that I am usually going on about crochet and dressmaking and lovely ‘hello clouds, hello sky’ walks, with only the occasional rant about free school meals and things.

Well, this week I had one of those moments when world politics ended up within a few feet of me, in the shape of a small girl and her dad, and a pile of those blue blocks my colleagues and I have been carting round east London since the beginning of July.

This week we were at a children’s centre in Whitechapel, at a family play day, meeting children and parents from the local area to do some building and playing. The majority of the children we encountered were pre-schoolers: very small when the pandemic started, who had missed out on many of the baby groups to which they would usually have had access. Language and social delays are common.

We set up the session with figurative structures, which they could either interact with as they were or rebuild to make something else. We had a rocket car, a tunnel, a den, and I had great fun building a castle. We built very tall things and knocked them down, we engaged in Godzilla games, we made a finish line and cheered when people came through it. We wondered where you could go in a rocket car and we pantomimed and clowned around.

After a while a dad and his daughter arrived. She was clutching a doll which she wouldn’t let go of and her dad was trying to get her to build something with him, which is quite hard to do one-handed. So I began to build a castle, big enough to get inside. One girl from another family decided it needed a door, so she added one and after going in and out a few times she wandered off.

The finished castle

The dad came and started helping me to build the castle taller, checking it was OK: of course it was, and we built it taller and taller and then added a fabric roof. His little girl crept into the castle and stood there with her doll, so I began to play ‘peepo’ with her through the gaps between the blocks and the holes in them. It took a while to get her to respond, although she watched me very seriously to see where I would pop up next. Eventually she smiled when I appeared in a different hole and even, at one point, giggled.

My castle needed something to make it less blue, so I started using the gold foil cutouts to link some of the holes and to make tubes. Marble runs had been very popular, so I found the small plastic balls and began to roll them through the tubes. At first, my new friend just pushed them out through the gaps between the blocks, but after a few minutes of watching me roll them through different tubes each time she started to join in, and to try and push the balls back to me before they could drop. I added a second ball and she put the doll down so she would have both hands free to play.

Her dad began to talk to me: he had very little English, and he told me that her name was Raya, and her English was better but she didn’t talk much. She knew the animals and colours, he said, and she talked at home. She didn’t know many people. This was the first time she had been able to play outside safely, he said. She’s three. I assumed this was because of Covid – isn’t everything, after all?

After a while Raya came out of her castle, leaving the doll behind, and came over to her dad for a cuddle. He picked her up, so I made another foil tube and used it as a telescope – dad joined in the game and moved her closer and further away from the end, and she giggled some more. It’s hard to resist a giggling child, so we carried on playing.

A pair of the bigger boys – Eastern European, again with very little English – asked me using gestures whether it was OK to knock the castle down. Of course, I said, and we cheered as they demolished it thoroughly.

‘That is what they are doing in my country, too,’ observed the dad. ‘In Afghanistan. They knock things down.’

As we were packing away the kit, one of the children’s centre managers came over for a chat and was telling us that they had been phoning a local hotel where a group of newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan were staying, to try and get them to come along, but she didn’t think any had. The penny dropped and we talked about Raya and her dad, and how it had taken a while to engage the little girl but we’d got there in the end.

A new country. A new language. Three years without being able to play safely outside. Three years.

Raya and her dad, and our play session, have stayed with me all week. This country isn’t perfect, heaven knows, but I can take my kids to the park and they can play outside. They haven’t been displaced from their home, although if you listened to them for the first couple of years I’d ruined their lives by making them change schools.

What else has remained with me is that play truly is the universal language: you don’t need words to play peekaboo, or peepo, or whatever its name is where you live. And that sometimes the world lands on your doorstep in the shape of a small girl and her dad.

Normal service will resume next week, I’m sure.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Moving Pictures /Small Gods – Terry Pratchett

The Sandman – Neil Gaiman (Audible)

Addlands – Tom Bullough (from the Shelf of Shame)

69: yes, but can you play on it?

This week I have mostly been in my house, having been ‘pinged’ by a (double vaccinated) friend I saw last weekend: I did leave the house on Friday as Thing 3 had to go back to school but by that point I’d done four lateral flow tests and a PCR and all of them came back negative. I find it quite unbelievable that so-called ‘Freedom Day’ is going ahead tomorrow, when cases are shooting up again and school bubbles are bursting on a daily basis. Herd immunity by vaccination isn’t working as you can clearly still catch the virus. Herd immunity like some kind of national chicken pox party seems to me a rather irresponsible idea. Passing responsibility from the government to the people to keep themselves safe seems pretty idiotic also, especially when some of these people being given that responsibility require bloody great posters on public transport explaining how to wear a mask properly.

 © TfL

One of the pluses of being at home has been the opportunity to attend – if only virtually – courses, conferences and seminars that would otherwise be out of reach: those in Australia and America, for example, but also those closer to home but at a tricky time e.g ones that happen while the Things are claiming they are about to actually die of starvation, Mum, die! Like this weeks Crafts magazine event on “Space for play: how can makers bring joy back to our cities?” (Disclaimer: I was given a free ticket for this, as a bonus of attending the CPD I wrote about last week). Thank you to Thing Two, who with assistance from Thing One made delicious gnocchi for the family dinner that night.

Featuring architects, artists and playworkers, this was a really interesting discussion around public art as play space and why it’s a good idea to commission these rather than anchoring a lot of off-the-shelf play equipment in a fenced-off square. Penny Smith of Assemble Play pointed out that playgrounds like these were invaluable when we needed to build a workforce of people with physical strength and co-ordination – but are less useful now, in the 21st century, when employers value creativity, collaboration and problem-solving skills over more traditional needs. Risa Puno, an American interactive installation/sculpture artist, spoke about the need to build spaces that connect people to each other. Hadrian Garrard of Create London, an organisation that commissions public art and architecture, explained why they brought in artists to build these spaces. Artists research a space, work with the local community to find out what they think a space needs, and explore materiality. Higham Hill Theatre, by vPPR, is great for this: a community amphitheatre which joins up the cafe and the play area. This was commissioned as part of Waltham Forest’s ‘Making Places’ scheme.

vPPR selected the site because it was a forgotten parcel of the park, used for anti-social behaviour. By re-activating the site, and creating links to the park amenities, the place is transformed into a site of creativity and play.

vPPR

As Risa Puno says, you never know how people will interact with a space or an installation, so you need to make something that people can explore on their own terms. The Diana Memorial Fountain, never envisaged as a play space, is a prime example of this: once it became clear that people were going to use it as a paddling play area, it had to be made safe to do so. Why not build in play from the start?

In the panel discussion at the end, the speakers were asked where they most enjoyed playing as children: outdoors was usually the answer. Several of the speakers had grown up in rural areas, and talked about fields and woods, which reminded me of my own play spaces.

When we moved to Raglan, I was just seven and only a few houses in our road had been finished: there was a building site opposite the house with no fencing (imagine!) and a meadow next door but one, and for a child whose outdoor boundaries had previously been a couple of lamp posts, this was magical. Piles of brick dust and sand (brick dust does not come out of socks), bulldozers, foundations and scaffolding: this was an adventure playground when the builders had left for the weekend. In the meadow, there was a cave of trees and a stream with very shallow banks and we played for hours in this space. There were tiny fish in the stream and water snails to be caught, archaeological discoveries to be made, wildlife like slow worms and grass snakes in the long grass, and all within metres of the front door. That’s not to mention the castle at the top of the hill and the fields around it, all of which were within ten minutes of home. There was a play park at the other end of the village, which was fun, but once you’ve been on the swings and that mad Wicksteed rocking horse, what else was there to do? So we exercised our imaginations and explored the world, and made discoveries and generally entertained ourselves.

I’m glad we are bringing up the Horde in a space where there are trees to climb and woods to explore, though they don’t have the freedom that I did as a child which is sad but a sign of the times. Walks – when we can convince them to leave the house! – can take hours, and that’s fine by me.

The sun has got his hat on

Summer is putting in one of its brief appearances at the moment, so I have had a couple of happy post-work hours in the garden during isolation. As well as the gnocchi, Thing Two is turning out an excellent G&T with fresh raspberries and strawberries, which was a perfect Friday afternoon treat.

A perfect post-work moment

I had a day off on Friday and spent it cutting out a pair of Morgan jeans, an Anna dress and a blouse hack from this month’s Love Sewing magazine free pattern. Yesterday morning I put the Anna dress together: it was supposed to be the maxi length but where I’d extended the arms on the bodice I didn’t have quite enough fabric so ended up with the midi. The fabric is from last summer – Pound a Metre, I think – and is a light polycotton. I made my first Anna dress last year and it’s become my go-to throw on this summer, so a new version was definitely in order. I managed to jam my overlocker in the process, so I think it’s going to need a trip to to the sewing machine doctor if I can’t work out what the problem is myself!

The Morgan jeans are also a remake of one from last summer, as they have become a wardrobe staple – boyfriend cut and cropped, they are so comfortable. I bought some black lightweight denim from Amazon with my birthday vouchers, so will hopefully get to those tomorrow at some point.

I’ve been crocheting with cotton this week – it’s too hot for anything else! One of my lovely birthday gifts from my colleagues was a gorgeous hand painted flower pot from DOMIcafe on Etsy – not having the greenest of fingers, as my hydrangeas would testify if I hadn’t killed them all, I decided I’d make a crochet cactus to go in it instead. I used Scheepjes Catona from the stash, and this pattern for a round barrel cactus by Zoe Bartley on Ravelry. It only took a couple of hours, and I love it.

I also whipped up a crochet jammie dodger, because why not? The top one is with a 3mm hook, the bottom is with 2.5mm and I think I prefer that one.

So that’s been my week: I’ll be released back into the wild on Wednesday, just in time for the summer holidays!

See you next week for week 70!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff, Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Listening: The Socially Distant Sports Bar. (Not to be listened to on public transport as you will become that person sniggering in a corner, in front of children, or in earshot of the easily shocked)

Week forty six: can you lick the end of your nose?

While scrolling through my Facebook memories this morning a post popped up from 2015 which just said ‘Terrible urge to learn to crochet’. I remember waking up that day and my fingers were actually twitching with the need to learn something new, to create something tangible and practical. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t making other things – I was dressmaking by then, and cross stitch was always in the background, but I am the very definition of a life-long learner. Combine this with creativity and curiosity and what you get is – well – me.

Luckily, I had yarn from my knitting phase and crochet hooks from the last time I’d tried to learn from my beloved’s mother, so with the help of YouTube and my crafty library I was able to get on with it. Over the next few days Facebook will show me my early progress: wonky granny squares, double crochet which gains and loses stitches at the end of every row, and – finally – a recognisable square. Friends were free with helpful advice – the craft community usually is, probably as we love to see other people getting joy from the same things we do – and I quickly became hooked (if you’ll pardon the pun). Generally I have crochet with me at all times: emergency yarn under my desk at work, a sock or an amigurumi in progress on the commute, and a large home project like a blanket. It’s very calming to be able to sit, to make repetitive actions, and the tactile nature of yarn makes it a sensory process too. If you’re happy using basic yarns it can be a relatively cheap hobby, too, but it never stops there.

I have an urge now to learn something new. I want to learn to draw. Once (in 1985) I got a B- from Mrs Allan the art teacher for my observational pencil drawing of my mum’s avocado plant, but that has always remained the pinnacle of my artistic achievement.

I don’t want to draw portraits, though I wouldn’t mind being able to draw a recognisable cat. I want to draw flowers and trees, houses and streets, and to be able to feel confident enough to do this whenever and wherever I want. I love seeing urban sketching on Instagram by people like the Shoreditch Sketcher and MaltzCreative, and two of my cousins are producing gorgeous work (Colour Confusions and ElliesPad – check them out!). I love Michael Powell‘s quirky paintings. I want to be able to see an interesting doorway or a window, and to be able to whip out a sketchbook and render it on the page.

So that’s my next mission: learn to draw. I have books (so many books!) and I signed up to Craftsy a while ago when they had an offer. There’s a number of ‘learn to’ videos on there, and it’s ridiculous to say I don’t have the patience – what I need to develop is the discipline to practise.

Play for mental health

Making and creating are play activities for me. I have attended a couple of really interesting webinars over Zoom this week about the importance of play for children’s mental health, particularly during the current pandemic, and the challenges of ensuring that children have access to play opportunities at a time when government focus is on ‘lost’ learning.

There is a lack of understanding in the current ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum that play is learning: it helps people (not just children!) to build relationships, to solve problems, to take risks, to have autonomy over their actions, to self-regulate their emotions, to make decisions, to make sense of the world around them. It doesn’t have to be structured play or play with a specific, adult-generated learning outcome. Playing with children enables us as adults to recall our playful selves, to find moments of joy in watching children make discoveries, to remember our own childhood. Sometimes its really hard to do this when you’re an adult.

One of the presenters, Sheba Gittens (an activist/artivist in Pittsburgh) talked about the need to forget that anyone might be watching you and give in to moments of joy – face pulling, laughing for the sheer joy of it, moving your body. She suggested that perhaps children’s ability to do all these things without self-consciousness is actually our default state of being, and we become so weighted down with other people’s expectations of ‘proper’ behaviour that we lose those abilities. I’ve certainly never been encouraged to try and lick the end of my own nose in a meeting before, or to pull a lot of funny faces. I’m usually trying to stop myself rolling my eyes…

When I teach a session called ‘The Importance of Play’ to GCSE/A-level and undergrads I ask them to define play, to tell me when children stop ‘playing’ and what activities they do themselves that they think are playful. It’s quite disheartening (for me and their teachers!) to hear the narrow definitions they have for play, and that they think children stop playing when they start school and ‘start learning’. Once I can get them to think of play as an activity that they do because they enjoy it, they open their thinking a bit more: I have found, also, that by starting the session with a play activity they are far more inclined to come out of the shadow of their hoodies and share their ideas. The best sessions are the ones where people talk to you, and ask questions, and think – the number of teachers who have apologised for their students interacting with me amazes me. I’d much rather they talked to me than looked at me in silence.

Reach for the stars

The lovely people at CPRE invited me to create a craft activity to support their annual star count, which this year takes place between 6 and 14 February (that’s now!). The focus of the count is the number of stars that can be seen within the constellation of Orion, which reminded me of the chapter in one of my favourite children’s books where a baby barn owl meets an astronomer. Here‘s what I came up with – why not have a go at the Star Count and making your own Orion? For those of you doing home learning, it supports fine motor skills (threading and sewing), science (light pollution), art, and English.

That’s it from me this week – I have a giant blanket hoodie to make and some mending to do, so I probably ought to get on with it. See you at the end of week 47.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Ring the Hill – Tom Cox

Close Encounters of the Purred Kind – Tom Cox

The Night Hawks (Ruth Galloway) – Elly Griffiths

Spoils of the Dead (Liam Campbell) – Dana Stabenow

Tate: Sketch Club Urban Drawing – Phil Dean