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Explorifying nunderpasses and other stories, games, lists, ideas and drawings.

Any publication with the word ‘play’ in the title that opens with an image of a reflective spherical object, followed by an image of children bearing yellow flags and a placard stating ‘child led tour’ easily pique my interest. The book opens with the following paragraph ‘This book is about play and outdoor spaces. It has pictures, stories, ideas and lists. You can follow the family through the book. Then you can use their ideas for your own games.’ How to Play with MK concludes Townley and Bradby’s Playing Out project (2016-2018). The project was commissioned by MK Gallery who invited Townley and Bradby as an ‘artist family’ to explore and create work at the intersection of art, play and the outdoor spaces in the city.

So what is an ‘artist family’? Townley and Bradby point to an understanding by MK Gallery of ‘the shared nature or what we made and how we worked’ as a ‘single unit, rather than as two adults with some children in tow’. They also clarify that for the purpose of the book the names have been changed and, importantly, the family unit has expanded to include people encountered as the project evolved, those who walked and played along in the different sites across the city.

How to Play with MK is a truly charming and inspiring compendium of lists, stories, drawings and ideas (including extracts from the Milton Keynes city plan) carefully crafted to engage readers of all ages and abilities. Lists are far from dry. What It Offers and How They Respond spread across the book’s seam line, colourfully illustrating matters: in this case, how each part of the city can be played. Play is an important character throughout the book, part of the family’s way of being, each member practicing it in different ways that form the prolific tapestry that the artists so eloquently create.

The stories are rich and varied. They include amongst others Grafton Grump: the family has difficulty in going outside – a short story that starts with the struggle of getting out of the house as different members wishes and interests contradict each other (so familiar to families everywhere). It quickly turns into a tale of frustration and anger needing to take their course: ‘The anger was so big it could feast on everything at once’ until eventually, several games and beautiful poetic lines later, ‘The anger blew, in long shivery breathes, round and round the four of them and then right through them’. Rather than viewing this story, or any of the others for that matter, as a recipe or ‘how to’ set of instructions, the book offers its contents as propositions, as a series of ‘what ifs’.

Drawings are scattered throughout the book. Some, such as Red Hands and City Sandwich, are linked to stories and activities recounted within it; others are just there asserting their presence and evoking activities. One of my favourites is Gathering: the family paints their dreams together, which is just beside The Bat: the family tells a story. When I interviewed the artists for this review they recounted how dreams are drawn and stories told together, explaining that, just like with games or new words being invented, the real challenge is to seize these moments and capture them.

While reading the book I find myself compiling my own mental list of what the children and the grown-ups do: the children move around a lot and act spontaneously, they sometimes get angry, they invent games, words and stories, they name their bouncy balls, they use the grown-ups’ expressions in new and playful ways, they get bored and do a fair amount of pretending and they sometimes go along with what the grown-ups suggest. But, unlike the grown-ups, they might not see, for example, the anger lifting and as it does so, the sky appearing and clouds showing through. So the grown-ups take note of that while the children carry on playing. For everyone in the ‘artist family’ play is part of the everyday, a disposition, a way of navigating the outdoor spaces we move around and inhabit.

Reviewing the book in this unprecedented period we are all experiencing, it is noticeable how intrinsically linked play and outdoor spaces are. Importantly, reading the book now also highlights how crucial this playful disposition is to forming a truly creative approach and building up resilience, which we will all need if recent events are anything to go by.

There is only one place I disagree with some of the authors. Autumn’s Beauty Will Stay With Us: the family uses plants from the community orchard recounts the story of an outdoor workshop inspired by the Japanese art of ‘hapazome’, in which natural pigments of leaves and flowers are transferred onto fabric . The activity, according to Wikipedia, ‘is incredibly relaxing and very simple, making it of interest to people of all ages and abilities’. In the story, towards the end of the day the family moves through the city’s indoor mall with their plant dye printed cloaks, and along with some teenaged passers-by, notice patches of colour appearing on the walls. The colour splashes will not be captured or photographed and a discussion ensues as to whether or not the family created the living colour transfer that is painting the walls. ‘It WAS us. WE did it.’ say some but others in the family respond ‘We don’t know, not really…We’d been the first to notice it, but we hadn’t …triggered it just by putting plant colour into a cloth garment.’ I disagree with the latter speaker: I think the artist family did trigger something; the booklet certainly does. Moments of magic such as these can happen if we agree to play along. The booklet is an invitation to follow in the family’s footsteps.

Throughout the book there are short and carefully selected extracts from the original Milton Keynes city plan (1970) that provide an interesting backdrop and at times counterpoint to the family’s interactions. These also recall the utopian vision that was so crucial to the city’s original conception.

This utopian vision for the city is combined with Townley and Bradby’s practice, which is decidedly open-ended and underpinned by a holistic and generous ethos that is reminiscent of Loris Malaguzzi’s Hundred Languages. Just like Malaguzzi’s resistance to the separation between work and play, often imposed on the child by misguided schooling, and his insistence that understanding can be accomplished with joy, the pages of the artist family’s booklet flow seamlessly between the stories, games, lists, ideas and drawings to expose the way play operates as a creative and quietly disruptive force – making us imagine new possibilities.

Townley and Bradby’s How to Play with MK: one family’s story of outdoor games in the city ventures far beyond documentation and/or a manual of instructional art. It is an inspired and charming piece of work that invites readers on a fascinating journey, sowing seeds for the readers to grow on their own.

The book is available from the MK Gallery shop at a price of £5.
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The book is also available as a free download from