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

It’s becoming clear to me that this is a period of great change. When we meet new people, we often ask (as a means of fixing one another with some reference point, some template to colour in), what do you do? The best answer I’ve come across (and I forget the source) is, I do the best I can. Telling people you’re a playworker, I find, often results in puzzled looks, or replies like, ‘So, you teach children?’ or maybe, ‘So, you teach children how to play?’ or anything along the lines of keeping children in line or out of ‘mischief’.

More and more these days, I’m realising that interaction in- and for the play world is my ‘vocation’ (something that inspires me); my ‘work’, however, is in advocating (call it ‘preaching’, if you will) for play. Playwork Principle 4 (for those readers not of the playwork world) highlights the need to advocate for play. There has been some debate, in that playwork world, as to whether this advocation is indeed for play or for playwork, i.e. playworkers justifying why they’re needed in order to get paid. My ‘work’, I’m finding, is not paid.

I talk with the man in the pub, family, work colleagues of family, the man or the woman I meet in the street, the mechanic, fellow writers, neighbours, friends, etc, about how play is play because it’s play. I talk about how agendas for early education, informal teaching in parenting, outdoor learning and opportunities for understanding about the world are all understood and appreciated in their own contexts; however, what about play for its own sake?

A Moroccan contact recently sent me links to video clips made by a children’s TV channel out there. The clips, Youssef tells me, show traditional Moroccan play as a reaction to the perception of lots of computer play (so, much the same debate as we have here in the UK). I’m ignoring the adult education agenda here though because I wanted to highlight the second half of the second clip, which shows a group of children skipping. Watching this I was thinking that, when children skip, they skip just to skip. They practise how to skip just in order to be able to skip. They don’t go into their skipping thinking about the social skills they might learn, or about their gross motor skills and muscle development, or how this practising will help them later in life. No, they practise skipping in order just to skip. They play for the sake of play.

I find I do this advocating (or teaching, or preaching, call it what you will) sometimes despite my better judgement. I recently enquired about a playworker role I saw advertised. They were asking for a Level 3 qualified (so, experienced) playworker (or, as they wrote, ‘play worker’, which bugs me because that small gap between the words has always, somehow, suggested to me that ‘playworker’ is not what they understand or want). The advert suggested that a person with QTS (qualified teacher status) would also be good. After several communications in my line of enquiry, I was told that I was considered to be ‘over qualified’.

What does this mean? Can a doctor be over qualified to diagnose patients? Can a lawyer be over qualified to practice law? Can a teacher, a nurse, a carpenter, a social worker be over qualified? What this phrase means, I suspect, is more along the lines of, ‘We’ve seen your type before, and we don’t want you to rock the boat.’ In the greater scheme of things, being turned down doesn’t matter; it was a line of enquiry: though I am saddened by the implication I pick up — employers want people to work with children in their play environments in ways that might work better for those adults than for the children. I wrote to those concerned, courteously enough and without, I hope, arrogance — though it may well be perceived that way — and I passed on links as to what a Level 3 playworker is and does. I’ve not received a reply.

I’ve long been dispirited by the soft policing of children’s play. It’s something that I see taking place in many settings and out in public too. Perhaps it has a lot to do with my own childhood: we can only truly work from starting points of things we’ve experienced ourselves. My play was my play. I played with others and I played on my own. I played out and about, and I played indoors. I fell off things. I hurt myself. I worked things out. I was lucky. I try to think, sometimes, what I would have felt if adults were controlling my play, telling me not to play now, or here, or stop playing, or play like this, or do it like this so that you can learn this or that, or share, or say sorry, or sit quietly, or don’t shout, or walk don’t run, or just no.

Play is what it is. Play is what it needs to be. Playwork has a history: it’s not just some made-up new-fangled thing. It has experienced people at its heart: people who had, and still have, a vision for something beautiful to have the space to take place. If playwork is the noble cause of doing what needs to be done so that children can have the opportunity to play (in the ‘compensatory spaces’ of play settings, e.g. when children can’t play, for whatever reason, in ways and places that I’ve described in my own childhood above), there is still so much to do. Adults, in the UK and perhaps in the US too, generally speaking, find ‘play for play’s sake’ such a difficult concept.

There is still, also, so much to do out and about, ‘out there’: in the pub, on the street, at large. We don’t get paid for this work, but this is the work that, perhaps, needs doing. This is not a way of saying those who are playworkers are better than others. No. We can all learn from one another: parents, teachers, early years workers, all of us, can be positive lights in a child’s life. The work, for this playworker, just keeps happening because he just can’t keep his mouth shut!

So, the message is played two ways:

For the playworkers reading here, I’m preaching to the converted but keep on keeping on at others.

For the non-playworkers reading here, I’m preaching because it’s my unpaid, necessary ‘work’: play is play because it’s play — it is just what a child must do, and it belongs to them.


Comments on: "This playworker’s work (or, for better SEO spreading of the word, what is playwork?)" (10)

  1. playeverything said:

    Hey there – I’ve had some very similar experiences to the ones you list above, both the on-going casual-yet-vital conversations in pubs and at bus stops AND when it comes to regular employment. It seems that people like us (by which I mean the play-passionate, the dedicated, uncompromising and unafraid to argue) often have to make our own way.

    I’ll paraphrase Terry Pratchett’s comment on education, and say that play advocacy is like a communicable sexual disease – it makes you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you have the urge to pass it on.

    • Hi Morgan. Play advocacy as a disease! I like that. 🙂 I know there are people out there, like yourself, who think like me. Thank you for your faith! Onwards, making our own way, in cardboard armour and glitter-glued-on warpaint!

  2. Reblogged this on musings|scraplog and commented:
    More thoughtful excellence from Joel…

  3. Hello Joel and Morgan. Joel, this is a really nice, balanced piece that highlights something that I think we all feel strongly about as playwork practitioners.

    The zen ‘master’ Shunryu Suzuki once said “strictly speaking, there is no enlightenment, only enlightened activity.” His comment refered to Zen practice, and a clear distinction in what he saw as a disposition from that which is often done in the name of ‘enlightenment.’

    So it is with playwork (or play work – I agree with you; often means ‘a job telling kids what to do’). I have argued myself that I don’t think relating to playwork first and foremost as a profession is especially helpful – particularly when it comes to ‘advocating against adult agendas for play,’ because being a professional playworker is always gone be, in part, about adult agendas.

    For me the ‘activity’ of playworking is a disposition. The disposition to shake things up a bit, to give time to playing children and fight for their time and space to play without it being linked to this and that by adults, to not buy in to the latest round of bullshit in the marketplace. Whether playwork survives the current climate isn’t the point here.

    • Hi Eddie. Good to see you here. Thanks for your comments. This Zen in Playworking . . . there’s a book in that for somebody. 🙂 I’ve been at ease with the concept of linking Zen in to what I do for a while now (even before I met Arthur!), though I don’t always know what it is I’m linking. I’m still working things through. I’m coming round to the understanding that, just as you write about the playworking disposition, this way of being is the way that it is in me. It is, though, sometimes difficult to retain humility in the face of feeling like you’re fighting a cause. I am concerned a little, since writing this blog post, with the idea that the fight for children’s rights to play, in the play for play’s sake model, also has the hint of ‘a fight against the perceived injustices of the world’. That is, fight for children because it’s also a fight for us against the system. I don’t know. These are moments of looking.

  4. Ed’s right about disposition; the conversations he and I had about a year or so ago led us to some conclusions about playwork which I’m not going to quote here, simply because I’m not clear on which of the following statements would represent a consensus between us. Instead, I’ll state some of my conclusions, some or even all of which may be supported by Ed. Hopefully he will chip in and tell us.

    Or so I thought.

    What actually just happened is I wrote a long piece.


    I’m not posting it here because it’s too long and off-topic, and I’m not blogging it [yet] because it is too inflammatory.

    If it does appear it will be here:

    Digression: my favourite kind of Tory, the InflammaTory – other Tories are available, such as the SupposiTory, but you know what you can do with them…

    For the sake of balance I will say that there are some nice Tories. One such is Jesse Norman, MP, a genuine thinker with a strong morality and desire to improve things. I also kinda like Ken Clarke. and I am sorry to have disappoint my more youthful readers – that subset, (hopefully small) of you who might have your opinions decided for you by the Guardian-employed trendy-wendies – but I am refusing to get all ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ about Tories. I may have never met a good South African (©Spitting Image), but I often meet good Tories.

    End: digression.


    I’m emailing my inflammable material to Ed and Joel privately. Both have fireproof gloves.

    If anyone else would like a copy (steady now) you can email me at

    Thanks for thinking

    • Hi Arthur. It’s not easy to type whilst wearing fireproof gloves, but that I’m doing! I’ve read that private email and am digesting it (as it were). It shall take me a little time to process my thinking.

      Re: your comments above though – I think I’ve felt for a long time that this playworking way of being is what I am. This disposition, this way, this engagement in the world, call it what we will, is not easily discarded. That said, it’s not static: five years ago, I was in a different place; in five years’ time, I’ll be elsewhere again. I do find my invisible soapbox gets wheeled around with me wherever I go though. What is it that drives this disposition, this way? Is it absolute altruism in spreading the word about- and for children? I’m inclined to believe there’s no such thing as absolute altruism. We fight, though, because we fight. We believe because we believe. So, yes, there may be an element of needing a place in the world, a cause, but the cause itself won’t let go. It runs deeper than me – it runs to: Why doesn’t everybody get this? It’s the simplicity of ‘this is this moment of play’. Educationalists can be passionate about education, which I can appreciate; environmentalists are passionate about respecting the outside world, which I get; youth advocates might go to great lengths to support young people’s voices being heard, so OK . . . but, fellow adults, what about play because it’s play?

      Perhaps there are some good Tories out there, as you suggest, but the ‘three wise monkeys’ approach of the current Coalition government towards children’s play, as compared to the potential of the previous regime, is dispiriting. Sure, there’s an impact on playworkers – there’s no job for life – but, more than this (as I’m coming round to; it’s not about me, it’s not about me), the ‘see no play, hear no play, speak no play’ legacy of such strata imposing on us is damaging. Outcomes, product, outcomes, at all costs, can’t be healthy, and must impact on the fundamental well-being of the children and future adults of this country.

      Would a minister of parliament admit to him- or herself the last time they stood in the woods, in the quiet, and just listened, thinking, realising, ‘hey, that’s the planet that I’m on, I can hear; this is a moment of the Universe’??

      Maybe I was born too late! Was it so great being grown up and revolutionary in the Seventies? Who knows. What I do know though is that that moment, that being in the world, that now, that play, might well get conditioned out of us. That’s got to be worth the fight, right?

      I digress. My invisible soapbox is tucked back under the desk.

      • I agree, I like your thinking.

        BTW – The 70s ( I started playwork in 74) were different, not better, as of course you know.

      • The Seventies were different, absolutely! I was around in ’74, but I was of the grubby urchin persuasion – nylon shorts and muddy knees! I don’t miss the fabric. Man!

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