plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Pieces of learning

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.

Translation as attributed to Socrates
Recent conversation, reading and online contact have all piled up into what I’m about to write. Today I have been poking and prodding at playwork training material, trying to tease out of my writings the potential for others’ learning. Just how do I get across what playwork is to those who don’t yet know what playwork is? Some people, many people, have never heard of playwork at all. My contacts in the US tell me that playwork is a difficult concept there. My experience in the UK tells me that playwork is often misinterpreted here. So, this post is, as I sit and type, forming towards (a) this thing called playwork, and (b) the learning experience.

For the past month I’ve been writing on these pages. I usually get up and have a fair idea of what I’m going to write about. Today, it’s the other way around: I got up, focused on reading training material, writing, trying to tease out the potential for others’ learning. Now I need to write something here. Write about learning. It’s only just becoming clear to me how learning isn’t all about information. So, better late than never in coming to this realisation! Learning involves asking the right questions of oneself. That day I sat and talked with Bob Hughes (for those readers unfamiliar to this name, Bob is someone almost universally revered in playwork circles), I asked him what he thought of my particular playwork issue of the moment. He thought about it and said: ‘Well, perhaps you’re not asking the right questions.’

What are the right questions? Keep asking. It’s a process. It’s a journey. Find out. So, if learning involves asking the right questions, so too must teaching? Several years ago I taught, and the same subjects came round and round and came and went and I just got so bogged down in trying to pull the same answers out of different learners. It became like pulling teeth. It was painful for all concerned. Today, reading, thinking, the preparation for teaching became a search for asking the right questions.

What is playwork? I’ve been asked this. Those of us in the playwork field can unfold our ‘what is playwork?’ definitions as readily as we can quote various definitions of ‘what is play?’ (The irony, of course, is that no-one has ever created a catch-all definition to that last question, and maybe no-one ever will). Maybe playwork is the same. We workers in play; playworkers; those of us who prefer the developmental, the psychoanalytical, the evolutionary stances; those of an adventure playground persuasion; those brought up to work in after school clubs; play rangers, and all the others: we’re playworkers (despite the tribal bickerings from one camp to another sometimes, hidden under the surface – yes, I see this happening in the shadows), we playwork. Ultimately, we work in the service of play.

Now I’m being too didactic. What is playwork? Is this the right question? Start elsewhere: What do you think of play? How is play for you? Are your children as play-rich as they can be? Maybe there is no right question. Maybe there are only small epiphanies that come together from small questions. Maybe the whole of the small realisations, or the whole forming, becomes the answer to this thing called playwork.

Of course, there is much to be said for reading, research, observing, talking, listening: these are all part of the whole. We should also ‘do’ though. When I’m not practising, I’m itchy. I feel fraudulent, in a way. I need to go out there and practice what I preach, to apply what I know, or what I think I know, to test my reading against the real world. I need to go out there and make mistakes. I have made mistakes (the stories I could tell . . .!) My mistakes are part of me. Somewhere, I absorbed that the definition of an expert is ‘someone who has made mistakes.’ Going around calling yourself an expert would be a huge mistake in itself, I think, but the art of making cock-ups is something that makes me richer (despite how painful some of those mistakes have been).

So, this learning that we do, that my learners do: I’ve long been of the opinion that someone really has to want to learn something. It’s that or it’s just cranking on the handle of the human sausage machine. We can pump information into little tubes but keeping it in there is another game. When I was at school (umpteen years ago), I seem to have learnt just three things: how to write, how to read, and how to use a calculator. (I may have learnt some other random facts, but I forget right now). However, when I got to University, the whole year group always turned up, without fail, to our History of Art classes! We wanted that.

I was asked, today, in conversation: Who are your blog’s readers? Who do you write for? I replied straight away: For everyone. What I meant was that everyone has played, everyone can relate to the expertise of their own play, everyone could come to put the small realisations together. However, specifically I write for my known readers, made up of parents, the odd so-called ‘higher-brow’ thinker, other playworkers and playwork trainers. I would like all others to read.

Whoever does read though will need to piece things together, have their own small realisations, apply the reading to their own experiences, ask the right questions, make their own mistakes, have a desire to ask – in their own way and in their own words – what is this thing called playwork?


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