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

For most of the summer I’ve been concerned with thoughts on playworking in terms of a ‘theory of the real’. It’s a work in progress, and I know I’m not alone in such ways of thinking. There was a time when I knew nothing of playwork and I happily trotted along in my work with children, ignorant of all the things that were happening in the sector around me; there was then a time when I called myself a playworker but really, honestly, I didn’t know what that meant (in terms of the playwork writing that had happened and was continuing to be written); then I read some books — plenty of books; now I call myself better read but, despite this, not always comfortable with it all.

Sure, the books have helped — there’s no escaping that fact — but the trouble is, as I’ve touched on before in other writings, we can blindly follow things we read or things we’re told and not question them. We can look out into the world we work in, or live in, or co-exist in (or all of these) and we can think: so-and-so wrote this and he says this about that, so that must be true (despite what our eyes and ears and feelings are telling us, in the moment). In some obscure inner workings of the mind, it’s the same sort of thinking with the use of papers such as policies and procedures and risk assessments and so on and so on: what is written in such documents might well work at one point in time (that exact time in space when they were written), but things have a habit of shifting along.

Thinking about a recent impromptu day out at the park with family children, having seen them climb up and over and all around various pieces of static equipment, I also wander back to my own childhood. Did the designers of such equipment expect me to spin around on the swings, helicopter fashion, tightening the chains so much that they began to constrict my movements till I let go, zipping around? Did they factor that into their swinging risk assessments? (I don’t even know if such things took place in 1960s and 70s designers’ offices, or ‘parks created by management committee’ rooms, or the like; though that’s another story).

Whilst working this week, I swapped stories with colleagues about swing play when we were all children. There were tales (possibly tall tales, personal mythologies and legendary anecdotes) of how someone managed to flip right over the bar on the swings once. I found it hard to believe. I think I may have tried it when I was a child too, though I could never get high enough or fast enough to achieve it. The experience of trying and failing must have planted a permanent ‘not possible’ category onto my play memory. I moved on to other play challenges. If it was possible for this other person to flip right over the bar, once a long time ago, I don’t know if the swing’s designers factored that possibility of endeavour into the equipment. Obviously they didn’t, otherwise the legend (which was apparently true) would never have taken place.

When truly observing play, when deeply engaged in the unfolding actions and in the possible formation of verbal legendary narratives, it becomes clearer to me that something other than dry ‘on paper’ play is taking place. Something ‘very other’ takes place, in fact. Policies and procedures and risk assessments are easy enough to take a swipe at in this ‘dry paper’ way, but sometimes I read some playwork books and I start to wander down similar avenues of thinking. Can it really be true that what was happening in playworking ways circa 1973, for example, is still relevant in the same ways in 2013? Is [insert highly regarded playwork writer’s name here]’s opinion on dealing with conflict in children’s play, for example, really going to work in the heat of the moment? What’s the deal with the dogma many seem to have blindly taken on as gospel truths? It’s not entirely fair to place this question squarely at the feet of the writers: I used to think Dylan sang ‘Don’t follow leaders, walking parking meters’, which would have been a much better line, and so I use it here . . .

This ‘theory of the real’ is fraught with difficulties: not least of these is the potential for those who ‘buy in’ to the idea of ‘doing it for real’ having a total disregard for all that’s been researched and written. There is the potential for some who work in the sector to disregard the literature purely out of laziness or to conceal their apathy at reading. They might say, ‘Why listen to people who write books, or who wrote about this stuff when they were working with children all those years ago? What would they do about five-year-old Johnny’s concerns about educational attainment?; or what about twelve-year-old Gary, who can’t butter his own bread because Mummy’s always been worried about him using sharp things without close supervision?’

These are just examples! I could equally have written, ‘What would happen if little Johnny came out of nowhere and told the playworker/writer how much they loved them? What if Gary had insisted and insisted that the playworker/writer had shown him how to work the hose?’ Did these things happen in 1973? I don’t know; I was barely out of my ‘why, why, why’ questions phase and nylon brown shorts back then! Maybe some of my other playwork colleagues can tell me . . .

This ‘theory of the real’ looks to me, at the moment, something like an amalgamation of several ways of working: as I’m prone to do in such cases, I often paraphrase thinking (attributed to Picasso or the Dalai Lama?) — that ‘rules’ can, of course, be broken, but to do this the ‘rules’ need to be known in the first place. Or, in other words, sure we can say let’s disregard this or that from the playwork literature, but only if we’ve read and understood it in the first place. Only if we can be sure(ish) that something from what we’ve read ‘doesn’t fit’, because we’ve observed and felt the contrary, can we say ‘no, this doesn’t work.’

This (particular) theory of the real is a work in progress. It includes the things I’ve read, the things I’ve observed, the things I thought I knew when I thought I was a playworker, and the things I just did before I knew anything at all. What I know very much includes what I’ve seen: this is how children (including me when I was younger) play and have played; this (communication, magic, love, call it what you might) is what these children here and now show. I don’t always read what I’ve observed in some of the literature . . . and policies, procedures, risk assessments and so on are too dry for such real world concerns.


Comments on: "A theory of the real (part one of some)" (4)

  1. Agree…obviously. I’m thinking, am I a ‘modern day’ playworker? Is it down to my generation of playworker (that doesn’t have memories of Nylon shorts!) I’m thinking also, is it down to us to rewrite the theories, adapting them to modern day? I’ve grown up in a paranoid society scared of white vans and seeing both sides to the whole technology debate. I’m a traditional thinking pw though, whereas I have colleagues that may be very recent in their thinking about what children do and how they play… Maybe its time to move on from trying to keep our nostalgia lingering over today’s kids and let them all have their new version of a childhood.

    • Hi Lily — I do get around to replying to comments (eventually!). That paranoid society you write of isn’t something I can directly relate to as a child, though I have of course seen what it can do from an adult perspective. We do definitely need to move with the times, in our understandings of what the ‘now’ is, I think. There’s a danger in rooting what we, as a sector, ‘know’ in the writing and experiences of other generations. Sure, I’ve learned a lot from those who came before me, but I see change, fluidity, other things too. Your perspectives, from the technology culture I suppose, and from that brave new world (or whatever we see of it) are really important too (by ‘your’ I mean you and those you grew up around). We all do need to keep talking, observing, experiencing, and above all being honest about it all: if children aren’t throwing themselves into bushes at top speed without brakes any more, or the like, why not, and is it our fault, and if not why are they playing the way they’re playing? We all need to get our hands dirty, so to speak, to keep finding out. I know I’m preaching to the converted here because I know you’re pro-play through and through: so I write it to keep reminding myself too, which I suppose is also one reason why this blog exists. (By the way, the nylon shorts were no great loss!!)

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly Joel. I think playwork knowledge includes a passion about it’s history, it’s theory (though theory in playwork terms has to be a protean thing) and the stories of how others have come to understand play through practice, but it is the experience in the playspace and those subsequent conversations of ‘what the hell do you make of that?’ where we find, as practitioners, the best attempt at ‘an appropriate response’ is found.

    I am always slightly wary of any theorist that is not matching their time spent in their heads or in literature with regular practice, whatever form that practice takes. To be qualified (continuously qualified) is to be involved in the world of the real, is it not? I know from my own perspective that I need to be at my playground to ground anything I am thinking about, or to have my thoughts destroyed by things I had not considered in my own little private reveries. Too much reflection is not good for the heart, and it certainly doesn’t help us connect with the world. This was something Brian Sutton-Smith alluded to at the Wales IPA – an extraordinary admission for a lifelong academic (see my blog on this:

    We as playworkers should pay heed, and remain playworkers whatever else we get up to.

    • Hi Eddie — my apologies here for the late reply. It’s really rewarding when something we write touches a chord in someone else who, as I know, also ‘gets it’. The fluidity of playwork thought that you allude to is something I’m keen to keep at the forefront of my life in the play-world (which, when I’m really focused, crosses into every world). I like that phrase you use about the playgrounding (I extend it here for myself): ‘I need to be at my playground to ground anything I am thinking about’. I’ve never really thought of it this way before but, yes, I feel grounded when I’m playworking. (It’s also interesting that you write ‘my playground’ . . .) Maybe there’s a case to be had for some part of a playworker’s motives for doing what they do as being a degree of self-comfort. We know play isn’t about us, but we appreciate that we thrive when we’re in a habitat that speaks deeply to us. That I can make honest mistakes in a true playwork environment and then reflect on them, or that I can learn something new because I’m truly open to it, is testament to the relationship between myself and that space and those who own it by association. What I learn in books can inspire me, but what I learn when playgrounded (be it in a dedicated space or ‘out there’ in the wild) is often the gap between the words which I find difficult to express.

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