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, an unexpected example of 'Forensic Playwork' - the act of reading and interpreting the physical signs that playing leaves behind - popped up.
We visited a prison museum in country Victoria which was first built in the 1860s as a general prison but 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 and it has changed little from its original days. It is cold, dark and harsh and still bears some of the physical signs of its long history. For example, there are numerous pieces of graffiti scratched into the stone walls and buildings by long gone inmates, as well as the more general physical signs of extended use on everyday features. There obvious wear and tear marks on the most used parts of things like metal handrails and the heavily worn away steps on stone stairs.
Outside, in the prison yard the guide on our tour pointed out one particular small patch of 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.’
While our guide was busy explaining all 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 were clearly shiny in a stark contrast to the rest of the wall. These patches were also smooth to the touch.
It is easy to imagine more than a hundred years’ worth of inmates 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 of play in the past.
Without any irony at all (prison yard vs schoolyard) it made me think of those places on primary school playgrounds that are used in chase games where peple caught are 'locked up' in a jail/prison/cells. With a little practice the technique of Forensic Playwork enables us to read the very distinct signs of wear and tear that this form playing leaves behind on physical features.
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, whether that everyday life is playing or being institutionalised, yesterday, last year or a decade ago.
What I also found deeply interesting in this example, of course, was that it took a nine-year-old to spot this and point it out.
Attached photo: ‘The Dungeon’ used by children at an East Yorkshire primary school as their ‘jail’ during chase games.