How to Play Like a Child in George Square

This week's blog post has been written by Mindfulness Chaplain, Dr Kitty Wheater.

A black and white photograph of some of the buildings in George Square. There are old cars parked along the street.
Photograph courtesy of the Estates Department

A few months ago, the Estates department shared an old photo on Instagram. The sepia tone caught my attention: undated, it was clearly several decades old. ‘A few years ago we found lots of old images from across our campuses,’ they’d written. ‘Can anyone guess where this is?’ 

I couldn’t – I’ve only been in Edinburgh for a couple of years, most of that under pandemic – but a Why Don’t You Write Me bell went off in my head: we reproduce choice artwork for our members, on local and Scottish themes. Lots of old images? I thought. I wonder what they have… 

When I wrote to Estates to find out, their comms officer Kristin replied with a treasure trove of 300 digitalised images. I spent an hour or so scrolling through. Most were photos, though some were old architectural drawings. They were taken all around campus, mostly outdoors, some inside. I recognised choice spots – the Library, Bristo Square – but many were unknown to me. All were several decades old; I guessed seventies, eighties, or nineties, according to whether the cars looked like they were out of Fawlty Towers or Four Weddings and a Funeral. There were flares, and shaggy Beatles haircuts; the sun sparkled on old graduations and friends out for a wander in George Square; the camera flew over King’s Buildings. None of the photographers, or dates, were known.  

I picked out the best ones, and sent them round the Chaplaincy team in hopes of identification. Harriet, Geoffrey, and Ali had a combined thirty years of University campus knowledge, and the emails pinged back. Ali had an answer for my favourite photograph, smoky and blue, with a line of cars curving round terraced buildings: it was George Square. She had been a small child in the late fifties, living in Buccleugh Place, and used to play with the Chaplain’s children by the gardens. ‘I remember picking out the mud from between the cobbles,’ she wrote.  

This left only the date. With some help from my dad, we IDed the cars – Mini Minor, Triumph Herald, Ford Cortina – and honed in. It was 1962. In the span of sixty years, we’ve come to see George Square through Instagram and Snapchat, rather than through sepia; the children who played in the University’s squares, parks, and gardens, have become its staff.  

We don’t usually think of University space as a place to play. It tends to feel earnest, serious, even solemn. There are things to do, and rules to follow. Now, especially, our spaces are constrained with yellow signs, hand-sanitising protocols, reminders to mask up and keep your distance. Constraint, bureaucracy, and formality are inimical to play – and yet play is key to creative work. It’s only human that the more rules appear, the more sparks of secret untapped energy want to find form in us and escape out into the world.  

I think of play not simply as a thing that we do, but more like a place in ourselves that we can go. When administration proliferates, and COVID closes down our spaces, we must find ways to keep play alive in ourselves.  

Look out for signs of play on our campuses. There are the skateboarders in Bristo Square; the tightrope walkers in the Meadows; the graffiti in strange places. Play is in a guessing game on Instagram, or among a team; a song WhatsApped between colleagues; a joke at the end of a long day. It’s subject-specific puns, and a head tilted on one side, and many – if not all – things that follow the words ‘what if…’. 

Vintage aerial photograph of Kings Buildings
Photograph courtesy of Estates Department

Where reality fails, turn to your imagination. You may not see small children picking mud from the cobbles in George Square these days, but you can hear their voices across the decades. Watch squirrels leaping in the Labyrinth, idly, and picture what it would be like to be one of them. You may have no head for heights, but you can admire the graffiti, and wonder what colour paint you would use. Find the best corner of the Library, with the view over the Meadows, and install a wood-burning stove. Play parkour at King’s Buildings. Bake a cake in the Chaplaincy kitchen.  

And then maybe, when there’s a problem in your spreadsheet, your team, or your project, you already know how to play: how to jump and twist in an unexpected direction; how to scrabble and lunge for firmer ground; how to laugh, and how to scratch at the cobbles, in search of gold.