Photo/Stories from the field: Can we play now?

Throughout the 18-months of fieldwork I often reflected on the strangeness of my job. I got to hang out with children with more or less no agenda; or a different, rather more open-ended agenda that was about getting to know the children and their everyday lives. This is something some children initially found surprising, but to my knowledge and experience mostly enjoyed.

I was not a parent, or a teacher, not a doctor, not a psychologist, social worker or youth worker. I was a ‘scientist’, as I was often described, but not of animals or plants. I was however someone who would spend quite a bit of time playing with children as well as asking them questions about what was important to them and what mattered to them. The strangeness of this rather liminal role often left me walking away from family homes feeling strange myself. It left some children unsure about the nature of our relationship. I was asked by one girl if her mother paid me to hang out with her, as she reached out for her dress up clutch bag in search of a 50p coin to give me. ‘I had a great time playing, I’m exhausted, and what did I learn?!’ or ‘I’m a terrible researcher, my methods aren’t working!’ were common refrains in my mind upon departure.

After 9 months of fieldwork we eventually realised that what was actually happening was that we were learning to play again; we were learning through play that play itself was important. Play was the methodology that children had brought to the study. I have three highly memorable experiences of playing during our 18-month of fieldwork. The first saw me transformed from a researcher into a seal dining at a high-end restaurant on mango and pea soup. The second I was playing castles and conquerors, alternating between a make shift fortress on a top bunk and a den on the floor that was barely large enough to hide my head while the rest of me was being pelted with foam darts. Finally, a couple of the children played Wii. Towards the end of the 18-months I became an apprentice of the Wii as I was coached through the process of which buttons to push when, for how long and in what direction. I’ve crashed a number of very expensive cars in the process and lost epic Olympic rowing races, and laughed about both. In all the play I’ve been involved I’m most struck by its embodied nature: the draping of a golden shawl on my seal shoulders and the combing of my hair, the foam darts against various parts of my body, the crouching and the hiding behind real pillows from imaginary enemies, and the vibrations of a speeding car felt at my fingertips through the Wii console. I’m most grateful that the bunkbed bore up against my adult weight and size. I often wonder how I would have explained a broken slat to Andrew’s mum…


2 responses to “Photo/Stories from the field: Can we play now?
  1. I experienced similar thoughts and moments doing research with very young children. As some of them were actually babies, this sometimes implied crawling or lying on the floor, or if they were a bit older lots of bending down and trying to fit through small ‘tunnels’ and corners. Working with babies and their mothers, however, this approach also meant having a liminal role as carer/helper, as many times I was left with a baby on my arms while her mum changed her toddler’s nappy or made some dinner. I have reflected a lot about these experiences – I recall one particular moment as an example, in which I was holding a baby on my arms and she took my hand. Her hand was very cold and I wrapped it with mine while thinking whether she needed some more clothes and warmth. I think these experiences are a very relevant part of research, but it’s difficult to articulate them because they don’t fit the spaces we usually have for communicating research ‘results’, so I really appreciate the space you are creating here for this kind of reflection!

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