Melbourne, Echuca, Swan Hill… Next Stop, Tamworth!
We are 11 days and 6 sessions into our great Down Under Tour, arranged by the fabulous Malarkey and shepherded for this leg by Justine (of Malarkey/Journey into Play). I’m writing this by the side of a pool, baking gently in temperatures of 40°C/104°F, listening to the sounds of traffic and birds I cannot name. Last night’s lightning storm brought down local power lines and everything this side of the Murray river is in blackout. We wait, in equal parts longing and bafflement, for the cool and dark of nightfall.
Today was a day long workshop, and we started (as we often do) by eliciting play memories.
“We went into the Bush,” one said. Several nodded. Swan Hill is a rural city, and many had stories of staying out until dark, of taking matches and sausages with them for a riverside cook-out. One talked of an abandoned mine shaft she’d found, others of the cubbies (dens or forts, in other places) they’d made. Those raised in the city remembered vacant lots, ball games played in the street and paused by shouts of “car!” when one came through – so infrequently that they’d watch in slow unison as it passed.
We hear versions of these stories from older participants everywhere we go. If it’s not the Bush, it’s the woods, or building sites or quarries. But in most places, those memories stop for people in their 30s and are replaced by stories set in bedrooms, in cars en route to something else, in private back yards. Today we asked, “for the younger people here, were your childhoods free roaming too?”
And they nodded.
These opportunities have largely gone, it seems, from the lives of Australian children today. Parents in the audience admit they didn’t or don’t give their children the same freedoms they had, and are clearly heartbroken by that. Most of the participants are Early Childhood or Primary School teachers, and struggle with the regulations that prevent all sorts of play from happening in their settings, whether classroom or playground. These are the injustices that bring us together today, and which are felt by people in every country we know.
A key difference, however, is that nearly every adult participating today drew on a wealth of rich personal memories of risk and freedom. They knew those feelings, those joys, deep in their bones. The questions were not why to support children’s self-directed play, but how. How to engage more forcefully with adult agendas, how to work around the barriers faced. There isn’t a strong tradition of playwork in Australia (though Malarkey are working hard to change that) and people hurried to scribble down the useful terms we supplied. Play frame. Invitation. Adulteration.
They had questions about when to enter play and how to withdraw. They acknowledged their own internalized barriers, saying “I told them I bought these toys for the children, but can see how I didn’t really let them take ownership, after all”. They asked us, and themselves, those difficult and beautiful questions that form the heart of reflective practice.
In our own reflections, Suzanna and I have been struck by the dedication and clear instinctive value for play we’ve seen so far. This has meant that we can move beyond the introductory elements in our workshop and dig a little deeper than we would in communities where play deprivation runs two or even three generations deep.
This is only the start of our tour, in a country we have never visited before. It is a huge honor to be invited into communities, and we want to be careful not to extrapolate a handful of experiences across a large and diverse country – no doubt different battles are being fought, different lives lead, in every corner of Australia. But so far, with these workshops and in these communities, we have been astonished by intuitive playwork-ish steps already being taken by teachers, therapists, early intervention specialists and more.
We feel really encouraged, so far, by the people we’ve met and the places we’ve seen. And as we continue to on our latest adventure, we have a funny feeling that play advocates here will continue to inspire us, just as the Australian landscape has taken our breath away.
To follow our the Pop-Ups Tour Down Under, come and give us the thumbs up on our Facebook page. Also visit the Malarkey page where they are meticulously documenting our play experiences, both at the front of a crowd of people, and as we explore Australia.