As I sat in my room working today, I overheard the neighbours playing with their grandson next door. I've never seen this kid, nor had an opportunity to say hello because wherever this little boy goes, he is surrounded by an entourage of adults. It's all the more prominent when they're "playing" in the back garden. I put playing in inverted commas because I can't see over the fence to see what they're doing. All I know is that whenever the little boy is outside, there will be a group of adults with him, and every few seconds the whole group of adults clap and give an enthusiastic "Yaay" in response to, what I can only imagine is something the kid is doing while playing because they're certainly not doing anything else. I can see them. This only happens on sunny days but it's always lasts for a solid hour, and is hard to block out when you're trying to work.
Today, the mini-entertainer and his loyal audience were back again. Listening to the yaays of these adults got me thinking: Do I do that with children? Do I know how to draw the line between parenting and playworking? Can I strike a balance between my own adult agendas and the child's agenda?
It made me think about my adventures with Nina and Hannah the other day. I walked with them to the park nearby with a backpack full of stuff that the children might need and a heart full of joy. I praised when praise was due, and handed out water when it was requested. I felt needed somehow, but also sidelined. I felt like a parent and a playworker at the same time.
After playing for a while on the fixed playground, I pointed at some trees in the distance and suggested that they might be fun. So the girls ran over to the trees and started to inspect them. Nina is older and started climbing first. She climbed high and fast, and was very happy with her achievements. She shouted the word "can't" many times as she ascended into the trees, but I watched her body and the way she was feeling the tree and knew that the words "I can't" was a habitual phrase - she was totally capable. There were only a couple of times when her words rang true, and that's when she froze on the way down from the trees. Instead of just shouting the words "I can't" in glee as she was doing previously, she asked me in panic to get her out. I didn't question, I just responded, got her out of the tree, and she was off, to the next tree.
Hannah, however was nervous. Being a little younger, she was eager to try, but not quite as daring yet. She knew her own limits, but wanted to copy big sister, so she did. But Hannah was funny. Hannah knows her limits so well that when Nina dared us all to shimmy up the tree to take a photo, Hannah simply sat at the bottom on the branch, looked up to me and smiled and stayed there. No amount of cajoling or coaxing from big sister changed this. Hannah knew where she was comfortable, and though she said "I can't" aloud in echo of her sister, she always found her way of saying "I can", and that's where she stayed.
Thinking back on this I wonder - was I being a playworker that day, or was I playing the absent mother? How much of what I was doing was in the best interest of the child, and how much of it was me, trying to be the cool family friend? What were my motives for the day?
But then I think about Hannah. Little Hannah knew what she wanted. She asked me for water when she needed it, and told me to step away when I got too close. She requested assistance when she couldn't work out how she got stuck, and most importantly told me to make things stop when she wasn't comfortable with something any more. Children know what they need and in the park on Saturday, I met those needs, just as a playworker meets the needs of the child. I didn't need to worry what I wanted to be during these exchanges, is was more important that I was what Hannah needed me to be at any given moment. Sometimes I was the protector from the scary dogs. Sometimes I was the provider of tissues. I was a keen competitor in races as well as confidant in conversation. Nina mostly needed me to give her space, so I watched from a distance and provided space and time for exploration. I was even "Suzanna, The Rescuer" at one point which I was surprised at too! Whichever role I had, it was the most important that I was present when they needed me and absent when they didn't. A playworker is whatever role is necessary for the play to continue.
So while I have no idea what's happening with the entourage of adults next door, I really hope that they are meeting the needs of the child. The little boy may need to be applauded constantly - fine. A playworker does not judge. But I do hope that this child does occasionally get some space to explore the world around him, and actually get to discover and play. In a few years time, I hope that I hear him in the back garden on his own, doing whatever it is that he wants to do with minimal adult supervision. And maybe one day, if his adults step away for long enough, I'll even get to meet him. Who knows.