I’ve known Marie for about two weeks before she asks me to tie her up.
She’s found a long piece of rope, about twenty feet that had been begged as donation from a local climbing club. It’s blue with yellow threads wrapped silkily around a flexible plastic core. She’s holding the rope in a large tangled bundle and looks up at me, hopeful and a little shy.
“Sure,” I say. “Where would you like to do it?” She looks around, taking in the tree where three boys are constructing a bucket and pulley system, and over towards a group running back and forth along the fence. They are splashing each other with hose water and laughing.
“There,” she says and points to a tall, old-fashioned lamp post overlooking them all.
She stands beside the post, facing the rest of the site, and folds her hands in front of her. She looks relaxed, pleased as she holds out her wrists to me. I think for a moment of woodcuts showing medieval saints, beatific in their sacrifice, but don’t say anything. Instead, I wrap the rope around her wrists a couple of times and walk the rope around the pole until I face her again.
“Down the legs?” I ask. She nods and leans her head back against the fluted metal pole. The sun is out, and metal probably warm against her back.
When I was about her age, I read a novel that mentioned someone being ‘hogtied’ and went to ask my Dad what that meant. He found some rope and showed me, binding my hands and feet behind my back. I rocked on my stomach, cushioned on my parents’ bed, and felt what it meant to be utterly incapacitated. He put a hand on my back and told me to be careful.
“If you want to come out, say. But if you struggle, you could hurt your shoulder.” Sometimes he would tickle or tease me unexpectedly, but I knew that wouldn’t happen now. Everything about him, his voice and touch, told me that this moment was about trust – trust, and my curiosity of experience. After a few moments, I asked him to untie me and he did. That is the end of that memory.
Pretty soon, I’ve wound down both of Marie’s legs and back up to strap her arms against her ribs. She’s looking relaxed and happy, and starts flicking her eyes across towards the water fight.
“Do you want to be let out, and join them?” I ask. She shakes her head. One child comes over, so thoroughly soaked that I can hear his feet move in his shoes. He’s holding a red plastic bowl of water and looks at it, looks at her, looks at me. As they make eye contact I take one pace backwards and watch.
“Can I…” he gestures his hand so that the water sloshes, a little wave traveling from one side to the other. She turns her head slightly, and he splashes her a little on the leg. They both laugh, and other children want to know what they’re laughing about. Pretty soon, everyone’s throwing water at everyone else, it seems, and two more children who want to be tied up on Marie’s left and right. Someone asks if there are good guys and bad guys, or if “we’re just getting tied up.” I go to the garage for another bundle of rope and drop it near the busy lamp post. A boy seizes it, declaring “I’m good at knots.” When I walk around the outside of their play, I can hear him asking those on the post if he’s “doing it too tight.” While he’s doing this, someone else splashes Marie again and her voice changes.
“Stop it now,” she says. “For real.” They back away and find someone else to chase.
A few nights later, I’m at my colleague’s house for dinner. We’re talking about the session, and laughing about something else that happened “while Marie was tied up.” His fiancee looks surprised that this was a part of our afternoon.
“It sounds so… you don’t think that’s a little sexual? Is that weird or am I being crazy?” Yoni and I look at each other.
“I played that way too,” he puts his thumb behind one tooth and says, “it is how I chipped this. I was tied up and someone pushed me over.”
We are both playworkers, meaning that we are students and practitioners of a very specific approach to supporting children’s self-directed play without judgment or unnecessary intervention. Our definition of play is much closer to freedom than fun, and we’ve seen children play in all sorts of ways. We have also developed a vocabulary to talk about their play. For example, a “play frame” is made up of the physical or conceptual rules that children agree upon in order to play. This is the hidden structure which those playing to be somewhere “else” for a time, to exist together in a fantasy rather than anywhere “real.”
Fantasy. Dressing up. Toys. Sometimes, talking about play can sound a lot like talking about sex. Or rather, our adult vocabulary for sex is suffused by the language of childhood pleasures. People who have a lot of sex might be called players, while those who want more sex read The Game.
A few years ago, a friend who was involved in the BDSM scene showed me a collection of photographs, laying them across her futon. Each one was large and glossy, black and white images of naked women suspended by elaborate knot work. I pushed through them feeling a little queasy, even though I’d quite happily read stories involving bondage erotica in the past. It was the women’s faces, I realized. Without context to tell me the women were enjoying themselves, these pictures looked too much like stills from a horror movie. I trust her that this was all consensual, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s having fun.
“When you’re really into a scene, though, sometimes it doesn’t look like that. You could be deep into subspace, or going through every kind of emotion. But you’re held in that experience.” I nod, thinking. She’s told me before about the conversations that need to happen before sex begins, the details discussed before people agree to play with one another. It reminded me of the long negotiations I’d heard between children, with one saying “I want to be a tiger too” and the other saying “You can be a tiger, but you have to be the baby.” These roles are part of the frame, outlining how children will agree, in this time and place, to be different from what they ordinarily are together. I think how all sorts of acts can be recast as sexual if they’re given that context of desire.
“We talk about some of that in playwork too,” I say. “Not everything that happens is fun or light or easy. Some of it is really intense. What matters is that you’re choosing it, that you want and need to be there.”
“Right,” she says. “For all that to happen safely, you need enormous trust.”
Playworkers also view children’s play as their own business, and do not get involved unless they invite us in or someone is in serious danger of harm. Our job is not to judge, so if something happens that makes our eyebrows raise we look first for two things: consent and communication. We look at children’s facial expressions and listen to the tone of their voices. Sometimes, the words children use can mislead us, but there is usually something that functions much like a safe word – usually some variation of the word “real”. Sometimes, children might not believe or remember that they have a choice to be there and can leave whenever they want. We can remind them of that, and offer a handy exit from the game anytime they want. We can serve them as witness and a refuge, a place they can come to when they need to rest.
As professionals, we are tasked with keeping children safe. But playworkers understand that play is complex business, and recognize that children need chances to take risks they choose on their own terms. These risks can be physical, social or therapeutic and children are, generally speaking, open-minded in their pursuit of both knowledge and pleasure. Since every child is different and knows their own needs best, we strive to create an environment where children are free to climb and balance, to connect and trust, agree and decline. It makes sense to me that they might also be curious to experience submission, power, display, control or release. We cannot make the playground (or world) entirely safe for children to be in, but we can reduce the likelihood of serious harm – in sex education terms, we can make it “safer.” For people of all ages, choosing to play together is a step towards vulnerability. Our focus narrows, and we could be more open to sudden attack or accident. We might put ourselves in positions with one another that we cannot easily leave, and must rely on trust in one another and in ourselves. We might experience unexpected, powerful emotions such as anger, joy, connection and loss. But we also might see what is at the end of this path, the one our desire placed us upon.
Those longings to explore, connect and express come from deep inside us, and can be ignored but never entirely suppressed. The instinct for play is so strong that it is the first thing a child will do, once they are no longer hungry or tired or scared. They will play. When everything had gone wrong for a child, when their ability to connect with someone else is damaged and they are filled with rage they cannot bear, they will still try to play. Staff will work carefully to establish a frame for these children, until they can learn to do that for themselves, and we have all seen children play their way to mental health. We have seen children emerging from their frames, from long afternoons of games that shifted and stretched, blinking as if they’ve just traveled very far, very fast. After playing, children are smiling and expansive, generous in their affection. They are also often hungry and tired because play, among all the other things it is, can also be hard work.
It must be, because it transformed us.
Morgan Leichter-Saxby is a playworker and writer. She blogs about professional practice at playeverything.wordpress.com, and is developing online courses for adults looking to bring more play into their own lives. You can find out more at morganleichtersaxby.com.