I need a segway to learn how to play for when I’m older

Getting on the train and a young man asked me ‘was that a he or a she? I couldn’t tell’. ‘A she’ I said, and I was surprised, and found his openness refreshing. The man, about 20, and a young woman had been standing on the train platform in South London, talking about her segway – a little two wheeled self balancing electric scooter. He asked her how much it cost, and she told him how much he should pay for one. I was near them, and the man and I started talking as we got on the train. I think he was Indian, just arrived in England. He had the vibe of being surprised by a new place. I got the impression that talking to me, to a woman, so freely, was new for him – he kept looking surprised by our conversation, and looking around to see if anyone was looking at us talking. The rest of the train carriage looked jaded and tired in comparison to him and his energy.

We talked about the segway, I asked him if he wanted one. ‘No’ he said, ‘I need one. Because it’s fun, and because I’m young now, and if I don’t learn to play now then I won’t be able to do it when I’m older, isn’t it?’. ‘Wow’ I thought. A young man saying that being able to play is important for when you are older. Where did he get this concept? Would we all be better off if we thought like this, and acted upon it? There is a playful aspect to India, or at least that is how I found it when I went there. Lots of adults had a very playful manner, and maybe mentality. I am not really able to pin it down and describe it properly, but playfulness seemed to be part of everyday communication and behaviour for a lot of adults in the places I went to.

Our conversation stopped. I was tired after putting all my energy into a play session. I wished there was a seat free. A seat became free and the man sat down. Another seat became free after a little while, opposite the man, in between two dozing labourers.  I sat down. When we got to Whitechapel, the train mostly emptied and the seats next to me became free. I started reading, an H.G Wells story about a scientist doing experiments to see if he can transport himself to another place using only mind power. The young Indian man walked across the carriage and sat down next to me. Without looking at me, he hunkered down, put his hood up and promptly went to sleep. I wondered why he came over to sit next to me, if there was some comfort or appeal in sitting next to me – people in London don’t generally do this on public transport.

Why did he think it’s important to be able to play when you are older? I wish I had not been so tired, and afterwards wished I was more comfortable to talk to a stranger in a crowded train, which I’m not, and had thought to ask him more about what he said. Maybe I was processing his statement, slowly, as I do. I think his words were wise. Maybe adults should make sure we talk to young people more, and listen to young people more, and all have a go at playing on a segway.


Health and safety – a child’s joyful shouting perspective

One thing most playworkers know is that children can make you laugh. A lot. Sometimes you won’t even understand why or how they can make you laugh so much. This is one of my funniest moments on an adventure playground.

I was supervising a large fire, on a busy, hot summer day on a London adventure playground. Some boys had put a sheet of plywood on top of the fire. As the underneath of the plywood slowly heated up, the flames slid around the edge, and up the sides of the wood. A ten year old boy, a regular to the playground, known there since he was small, jumped over the flames onto the middle of the board, and repeatedly jumped up and down, waving his arms wildly in the air, screaming ‘HEALTH AND SAFETY, HEALTH AND SAFETY!’ then started laughing loads, and shouting ‘AARGH’ with a joyful expression, and massive smile on his face.

I recorded this in writing because it was funny but I couldn’t comprehend why, my mind was being stretched in order to try and make sense of this moment, and because I knew that it was unusual for this particular boy to express himself in this way. I think that the boy had some kind of learning difficulties, I don’t know which one or ones in particular, as playworkers are often not given this information by parents, who don’t want their children to be pigeonholed as having something ‘wrong’ with them, don’t want to deal with the same conversations about their child in another setting as well as school, or sometimes don’t have a diagnosis for the condition for their child. I just know that he generally went a bit slower than everyone else, moved slowly, spoke slowly, observed and watched what was going on a lot, but didn’t comment on anything too much, and that the playworkers made sure to explain things to him in a really clear, simple way, gave him a bit more input, and watched out for him a bit more than we needed to for most of the other children. He rarely shouted, was hardly ever loud, and hardly ever made sudden or large locomotor movements.

This moment is an example of how little we know about what is going on in childrens minds most of the time. And how they have a perspective, and might want to make a commentary on the world around them. What the boy was commenting on, and why, I will never know. I only know it was so funny because he seemed to be taking joy in mocking, and playing with something that maybe seemed stupid, or restrictive to him. I don’t know what he thought about in this moment, or if he thought about it, all I know is that he was playing with fire, with his body, with his voice, with the people around him who he was looking at and communicating with in that moment, and that he was playing with a concept, this ‘health and safety’ thing that he had obviously absorbed from the world, and the adult world around him. And he looked happy, as happy as I’ve ever seen anyone look.

fire, circumcision, and the meaning of ‘rich’ to an East London child

I’m volunteering on a play session on an adventure playground in East London. It is a large playground, with a firepit in an open grassy area, about 20 feet away from the nearest wooden play structure. I work on after school and holiday play sessions about once a week. I’m standing near the fire, and boys and girls are coming and going from around the fire.

One boy stands around the fire for a while, one or two foot away from me. He is about eleven or twelve years old. We haven’t met many times, and don’t know each other very well. I am surprised when he starts a conversation with me about circumcision. At one point he says ‘my mate had it done and he got two thousand pounds and a ride in a limo’. I don’t say too much, just ‘hmm’, ‘oh’ and things like that, and I make eye contact with him and nod my head occasionally. Another boy arrives around the fire and joins in the conversation.

I find it unusual that they are so comfortable talking to me about this. I try not to show this and carry on joining in with the conversation, nodding and making small noises, but saying very little.

The boy and his friend start talking to me about how much money it would be worth getting circumcised for, how much it would hurt, and the downsides of getting it done. Then the boys conversation turns to money, and Christmas presents. One of the boys said he is going to get £500.00 for Christmas. I say something along the lines of ‘wow, that’s a lot of money’ and he said ‘yeah, but I live on ****** estate, I’m not rich’. The estate is a large one, close to the playground, and to give a simplified version of its history, I will just say that it has a long background of problems related to drug and gang related crime, and the estate management’s neglect to the buildings. The estate is and feels a bit safer now than it was a few years ago, and I’ve been told by people who live there now that it’s better living there than it was before, but there is still a tense atmosphere there, and parts of it don’t feel really safe to me when I go through it. I find this interesting, the boy’s perception that he is not rich because he lives on this estate, whilst he is talking about being given what a lot of people would consider to be a large amount money for a present for a child.

The boy’s comment about his estate stuck in my head for a while. Maybe it can tell us something about how children from certain areas perceive themselves in terms of being rich or poor, and what it means to them to be poor.

‘if they build a new park here we won’t be able to do parkour here any more’

Working in Lambeth in the school holidays, I’m heading towards the tube and walk past some teenage boys doing parkour on what looks like a kind of 70’s concrete brutalist structure, in a sort of crater in between a grassy area and a couple of blocks of flats. I don’t know how to describe it or what to call it. It’s mind boggling to think that this might have ever been built as a public leisure area. I wonder if it includes the foundations of a building, or used to be some kind of gardens… but it’s all concrete so it couldn’t have been gardens. Was it designed as a playsP1060316pace? There a quite a few boys in there, some running, jumping and climbing, some watching them.

One boy is standing on the grass, above and outside the concrete crater, filming using an ipad with a broken screen. The boy he is filming is trying to do a long runup to a wall, jump onto it, then jump onto a second wall. He keeps trying, and can’t make the second jump. I start talking to the boy who is filming ‘Hi, that looks great what you guys are doing’. ‘Yeah’ he says, nodding, looking friendly, but preoccupied with the filming. I think he doesn’t want to miss filming the run in case the boy who is trying to do it finally makes it.

I say something like ‘no offence, but this isn’t a great space, and it looks like you’re making really good use of it’. The boy says ‘Yeah, we do loads here, they want to build a new park here, but if they do then we won’t be able to do parkour here any more’. The clarity of his statement strikes me, and makes me think, for months afterwards. I know as a playworker that places that adults regard as looking ‘nice’ aren’t alwayP106032222s interesting for children, and know there is a massive difference between the aesthetic of a place and the possibilities for doing things in it, but it is rarely stated, or adults rarely get to hear it so clearly from children or teenagers. I guess I heard because I talked to him about it, and because I was interested enough to listen.

I go back a few months later to take photos of the concrete crater thing. This time there are three young men in there, they have come to train, set their things down, then stop and sit down, because it starts raining and they are saying it’s too wet to train. They look fit and limber. One of them jumps up and holds onto one of the tree branches, pulls himself up and turns over on himself, holding himself up for a long time, then flipping his legs between his arms in a loop and jumping back down onto the ground. I don’t talk to them, they see me, and I get the feeling not to start a conversation. I wonder who is going to build the park? Will it be a park? Is anyone going to ask all the people who currently use it what they want as part of any redevelopments?


Teenage boys on city hire bikes – Tower Hamlets

More boys on bikes – I’m seeing more and more teenage Asian boys on bikes in tower hamlets, east London, which is good, as lots of them are often only move around very small geographical, physical, and cultural areas, which I think can have negative consequences for them. This is what the city hire bikes should be used for, to expand London for these kids.

Why not the teenage girls? – I am not seeing teenage girls using the bikes though. Why not? They need to move around and see things too.

My response to the risk taking – The other day I saw a teenage boy on one  of the bikes, going the wrong way down a bus lane on a main road, he swerved in front of a bus and then kept riding the wrong way up the road in between the lanes of buses and cars, all of who were beeping and shouting at him. The grown up protective part of me thought ‘silly sod he’s gonna get hit’ and ‘oh my god poor bus driver’, then the playworker part of me immediately said ‘that’s deep play and that’s normal’. Why did I have two responses rather than one? How do they or can they fit together? When does your work practice with children permeate how you are out of it, and in public space and public life?

a north London train journey

highbury new park pic

To the train… I smell weed cycling to the station but can’t see who is smoking… jump jump down the steps, school pickup time, the train is pretty full, the man and the boy get on, the man sits next to me, the boy sits opposite him, and the man smells of weed and washing powder, I look at him out of the constant curiosity that I have on public transport, still a novelty for me after a lifetime of cycling, he has big bags under his eyes, London end of winter white skin and he’s clocked that I’ve clocked him, looks unimpressed.

highbury train pic

A world of smells… New smells from my other side as the woman in gym clothes and headphones gets her tupperware out and starts snacking, the cucumber smell overpowers the smell of the man… boys near the door talking about weed, talking about girls doing their nails, and what girls do at home. So many sounds and smells on one small journey. The weed is a part of the city it seems, just part of the city life. A new sensory world opened up to me on public transport now I have an injury and can’t ride my bike everywhere, some beauty and good has come out of damage and limitations. Everything is slowed down, I can pay attention to what surrounds me, not just to the road and traffic.

What about the skunk I wonder? Has a new batch suddenly been delivered to London? It smells like strong and chemical skunk. The teenagers from my local school smoke it in the street. I always wonder what damage it might be doing to them, smoking this strong stuff because its the only thing they can get hold of. If they are going to smoke, wouldn’t it be better if they could choose something weaker and milder that is far less likely to harm them?

bike lane kids lane whose lane?

Shadwell. School is out. Two 7 year old boys on pop scooters are scooting on the cycle superhighway on Cable Street, near the Limehouse end… Commuters on bikes are coming, see the boys, slow down and try and go around them. One boy jerks his scooter out in front of the bike and shouts ‘Raargh’ at the man, the bike wobbles around a bit and stops. The second boy shouts ‘Raargh’ and stays where he is, out of the cycle lane. All the other bikes coming have to slow down. Bold agitating for those so small. Another batch of commuters on bikes appear, the boys are on the other side of the street now and are still shouting, and waving their scooters. I wonder why? Are they pissed off? Bored? Just playing? Are they demanding, creating a connection with these people? Do they want to know who all these people are, whizzing through their area who weren’t there before? I walk 200 metres more and demolition of old flats is happening, I sit and watch the insides crumble, the paint from the walls that used to be people’s living rooms. There is something beautiful in watching the wrecking of a building, I’m not sure what but I could watch it all day. A favourite London sight. I wonder what’s going to go up in its place… More shaky overpriced housing???