The power of big things

Earlier this week I was engaged in one of my normal evening activities, running a junior youth club in a Devon market town. While it’s categorically not a playwork setting and has an emphasis on informal education, when you get a bunch of 11-13 year olds together on a hot summer evening you know there’s going to be some play involved!

Den building was on the schedule for the evening (really solid learning outcomes – details on request), and since there were a couple of carpet showrooms locally I scrounged about 20 huge cardboard rolls, the kind they wrap carpets around. They were each about 5m long by about 20cm in diameter and I carried them on my shoulder back to the youth centre – paying due respect to Health and Safety of course!!

As it’s getting close to the end of the term and many of the young people are getting ready to move up to the next school, a lot of them are a bit too cool to play so I didn’t want to prescribe what should be done with the tubes or actually suggest den-building. I decided to cut down some of the tubes so as to provide a combination of lengths and leave them in a pile. When I was asked what they were for I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly and told them they could do whatever they wanted except hit each other with them –although they could hit ‘scrap on scrap’.

It did take a little while for the young people to explore and manipulate what they could do, and the sight of three boys trying to sword fight with huge tubes many times their height – in a restricted space – was hilarious. The tubes were just the right diameter for getting arms into, so we had a number of human/cardboard hybrids wandering around exploring what these assemblages afforded, offering great merriment to all.

Finally den building ensued, and two different structures emerged, held together with tape and draped with orange plastic safety netting. One was a traditional lean-to tepee affair, the other consisted of tubes jammed across an unused outside passageway in a criss-cross fashion – and also acting as a missile launcher.

The element I was most interested in in all of this was how young people engaged with the scale of the tubes and with their physical properties. Being able to manipulate things which were many times their height captured the young people’s imaginations and really engaged them – so often we provide things that are ‘child-size’ and challenging this can offer opportunities for some great play. The cardboard-ness of the tubes was also an interesting element. The tubes were hard but it didn’t take too much effort to break them and at the end of the session there was a bit of a frenzy of destruction which was equally rewarding – and the remnants cleared up easily and were headed straight for recycling. A few young people begged to take tubes home and they proudly walked off carrying some of the shorter lengths – I sure there were a few bemused parents that evening!

All in all a highly successful evening all around – and not a mobile phone in sight – most unusual but reinforcing one of my avenues of research about the power of different things! As a youth worker, (or technically Senior Youth Support Worker in Training) I felt I had offered some great informal learning, and as a playworker in disguise I felt I had subverted the system and facilitated some really great play opportunities.


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