This week, during an aside from the regular monotony of motels and cafes which makes up the uninteresting side of being on the road touring, brought up an unexpected example of forensic Playwork - the act of reading and interpreting the physical signs that playing leaves behind.
We visited a prison museum in country Victoria which was first built in the 1860s as a general prison it was quickly redesignated as a prison for the criminally insane - a role it continued to hold until as recently as the late 1980s.
To say it is a grim building would be a slight understatement as it has changed little from its original. It is cold, dark and harsh and still bears some of the physical signs of its long history. For example, there are numerous examples of graffiti scratched into the stone walls and buildings by long gone inmates, as well as the physical signs of extended use on everyday features such as obvious wear and tear marks on the most used parts of metal handrails and the heavily worn away steps on stone stairs.
Outside, the guide on our tour pointed out one particular small patch of the tall, dark stone prison walls. This, he explained, was the only part of the exercise yard to receive sunlight throughout the whole day, so not surprisingly it proved to be a popular spot for generations of inmates to gather to escape the chills of winter days. They called it ‘The Leaning Wall.’
This is where it happened.
While our guide was busy explaining this a girl in our party of about eight or nine years-old suddenly exclaimed, "Ooo look - the stone is all shiny here".
From about shoulder height on me down to hip height there were distinct patches of stonework on this part of wall which from a certain angle could clearly be seen to be shiny and in a stark contrast to the rest of the wall these patches were smooth to the touch.
I could imagine more than a hundred years’ worth of shoulders and backs creating these distinctive markings in this place and it reminded me greatly of not just the more recent signs of playing that forensic Playwork can reveal but also the more historical aspects.
Without any irony at all it made me think of those places on primary school playgrounds that are used in chase games as the jail/prison/cells which, with a little practice at reading the very distinct signs of wear and tear that this action leaves behind, can easily be identified.
I sometimes have an internal debate with myself about whether the act of reading such signs in a play context is a science or an art but either way the wear and tear of everyday life leaves behind subtle clues to the actions of people that are no longer present. What I also found deeply interesting in this example, of course, was that it took a nine-year-old to point it out.
Marc will be delivering a presentation on 'Forensic Playwork' at the International Play Association's World Conference in Canada this coming September. [http://canada2017.ipaworld.org/]
Attached photo: ‘The Dungeon’ used by children at an East Yorkshire primary school as their ‘jail’ during chase games.