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.