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

Following on from the thinking in my previous post on the observation of children’s play, the playwork term ‘adulteration’ is up for further consideration here. It’s often seen as a rather odd idea by playwork learners! Despite its meaning of ‘making impure’ it is, after all, a word confused with other areas of some people’s lives in relation to being unfaithful to a spouse! This type of adulteration, in playwork, isn’t the same kind (although, thinking about it, it does contain a certain unfaithfulness: that is, not being faithful to children’s play).

Two strands of recent thinking and experience lead me along this reflection this week: a recent teaching session in which I attempted to differentiate between the playwork terms ‘annihilation’ and ‘adulteration’ (which I’ll come to shortly), and consideration of blog- and social media material I’ve read where the writers seem to get quite excited about play or being involved in play.

It is my experience that playwork learners often confuse the terms ‘annihilation’ and ‘adulteration’. Why do they have to be such stupid words? is a common sentiment I hear! To which I often reply: ‘I didn’t write this stuff; take it up with Sturrock and Else.’ So, here are a couple of ways of explaining the terms from those authors (anyone further interested should go to Ludemos, which is the best place to find out information on matters of psycholudics, play cycle, and such terms as I’m addressing in this post):

Play annihilation is the end of the play for the child at that time . . . when [the play] has no more meaning for the child, when the child has got whatever they were looking for from the play experience.

Adulteration (from the Colorado Paper, 1998, by Gordon Sturrock and Perry Else): There is a danger that the play aims and objects of the children become contaminated by either the wishes of the adult in an urge to ‘teach’ or ‘educate’, simply to dominate, or by the worker’s own unplayed out material.

In my previous post I touched on this idea of ‘unplayed out material’. That we, as adults, effectively haven’t finished playing the things we played as a child, or that we’re compensating now for play we didn’t do, might come as something of an eye opener to some of us. After all, adults don’t play, do they? Adults get on with life, and children play. No, of course not. Of course adults still play. We go to the pub, play sports, tell jokes, dance, pull faces, etc., etc. We play. I’m still wondering if this means we’ve all got unplayed out material in us. If that’s true, if we’re invited into children’s play, maybe we can’t help but adulterate that play with our own play drives.

I’ve been reading various blog- and social media material recently and I know that those writers are on the same general wavelength as me in my approach to children’s play (because I know a lot of those writers anyway); however, I do wonder sometimes if the observation of children’s play, the involvement of adults in the child’s play, isn’t verging more towards being about the buzz the adult gets out of it all. My fellow playworkers, don’t get me wrong here: you are appreciated, and I get a buzz from play too. This is it though: our own ‘unplayed out material’ can be appeased in these ways of involvement in the play of children.

Is that play-healthy for the children? I mean, sure they’ll often let us know in no uncertain terms if we’re not wanted or needed, but when we are accepted into the play, does the whole buzz of play swing our way? We’ve all been there, let’s be honest, when we’re in the play and we have an idea of how things can shift direction, and we say it (as in, ‘I know, what if we try this . . .?’), and the child accepts, and we get the stuff, and we play the play, and the child follows along, and we have another idea, and before long the child moves on to something else . . .

Sometimes, in these ways of playing, the child can get the buzz too. All seems fine. Yet this is what I mean when I ask if it’s play-healthy: it’s not so easy to differentiate if you’re taking over the play or not if the child is buzzing along with it too. It’s worth repeating again and again that children’s play is not about you. Your play is your play . . .

Children do often invite (cue) the adult into play though, right? Children do often seem to very much want the adult to be involved. This is a really moot point for some playwork writers out there: children should play with other children and not with adults. I have no problem with the idea that children playing with other children is what they need most; however, in play settings (where adults are necessarily there, and this is often considered to be an unnatural state of affairs), and more pertinently outside play settings, in family situations for example, children do often — though not always — have a very great desire to involve adults in the play. This is what does happen. When this does happen, and here’s the repeated thinking again, isn’t that ‘unplayed out material’ type of adulteration bound to occur? (I write this as someone who has read in and around the deeper gestalt levels of the Colorado Paper, the ‘analytic third’, and so on).

Sturrock and Else write, in the Colorado Paper (about the ‘reflective integrity’ of the role of a playworker when trying to preserve the meaning of the play for the playing child):

Obviously, this is a delicate and sensitive task and open to many kinds of adulteration, but it is one we see as being central to the judgement and skills of playwork practice.

They’re saying, as I read it, that it’s children’s play but we may be sensitively involved in that. However, I come back to the idea that ‘unplayed out material’ adulteration is bound to occur if the adult is invited into the children’s play. In other words, being PC (playwork correct) about it all: children have invited the adult into the play (see playwork appropriate intervention styles: wait to be invited to play) therefore — now being non-PC — from their perspectives, children are accepting that adults will play too. Perhaps, and also whisper this quietly in playwork circles, children are sometimes actively seeking adult play ideas by way of their involvement.

I know, playwork aficionados: saying that is tantamount to heresy! I don’t write this to justify any personal recent involvement in children’s play, I write it because I’m thinking it through.

Let’s get back to towing the party line (for a few lines here, at least). My disclaimer is that I do understand the theory and the practice involved in the sensitive preservation (‘holding’) of children’s own play ‘frames’ (that reflective integrity), and the potential for adulteration and what that means, i.e. that we might be involved but it’s about the child not the adult. The idea of adulteration is that the adult can, but shouldn’t, impact negatively on the playing intentions of the child. In my own thinking, this amounts to an ‘unfaithfulness’ to the play and, I suppose, to the playing child. It’s true to say that all true playworkers, the converted to whom I preach, get a buzz out of the observation and consideration of play; some may even get a buzz from involvement by invitation in children’s play. The buzz could soon become more about the playworker though. After all, don’t we all have unplayed out material in us? Get back to the PC: we need to know that children’s play is not about us. We need to be able to differentiate between their play and our play. Yet, shifting away from the PC again, children do often invite us into play, and maybe — maybe — they actually want our play ideas sometimes too. The heresy of it!

This can’t be right, can it? All my playwork nerves are starting to get very anxious at the suggestion of it. I have an urgent need to try to talk myself out of this. Children’s play content and intent is about them; it doesn’t have anything to do with what the adult suggests. How can children’s play that includes the adult’s ideas then be the children’s play? The play becomes a fused engagement: it is the product of the play of the child and the ‘unplayed out material’ of the adult.

That can’t be right, can it?
Medial intervention (Colorado Paper): Following the issued play cues of the child, the playworker becomes involved in the essential structures of the play. The immediate frame of the child’s play now includes the presence/ideas/wishes/knowledge/authority and status of a playing adult. The playworker is reading this frame, and their involvement, at the same time as being a playing participant.


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