Back in August 2013 I wrote a post and called it ‘A theory of the real (part one of some)’. Coming off the back of a summer of direct playwork practice, matters of ‘walking the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’ were very much at the forefront of my mind. I’ve just come out of another intense period of open access playwork over Easter and I find that the ‘theory of the real’ is again percolating through. This time, however, it seems that a slightly different angle is trying to nudge itself into my conscious thinking.
Eight months ago I wrote (with regards to what’s written down in playwork books, for example):
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.
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.
All of this still registers as ‘true’ to me (or ‘true’ from my particular perspective); however, my reflection on my own recent practice and my observations of my colleagues’ practice directs me towards looking at the work of the team rather than just any given individual — how a good, effective blend of skills/knowledge is essential. My reading of the playwork literature isn’t that the books suggest that every playworker must be whatever that book in question says they should be, though it could be read that way I suppose; it is, rather, that in the reality of the playground (rarefied space, magic fabric), that good team blendedness is difficult to grasp in between pages.
Something other than dry ‘on paper’ playwork takes place, in reality; though something of the book pages is also needed in the mix of the team and its work too. This isn’t a contradiction of what I wrote previously in part one of this occasional series; on the contrary, it compliments the sentiments of that second quoted paragraph, I feel — we must first understand the playwork pages in order to see if they crackle with dryness or with the flickerings of possibility. Total disregard of the literature, out of laziness or apathy, is a little like saying let’s make it all up as we go along because we can.
Once, I made it all up as I went along and I had a great time. That’s just it though: it was me to have a great time and I don’t know about anyone else. Why are we there, on the playground, if not for the children? (As an aside, as I was opening up one morning this week, one of the children on the other side of the gate started questioning me: ‘Do you get paid to work here? How much? Why do you work here? Do you like it?’ To which I answered, respectively: ‘Yes; I’m not telling you; because it’s what I do; absolutely’). Once, I made it all up as I went along, but then I started realising more about my affect on the children I worked with.
So this brings me round, via my affect on the children, to my affect on my colleagues, and my colleagues’ affects on me, and on our affect, as a team, on the children. I thought this week on what sort of playworkers we could be and what any given playworker could be described as. The phrase ‘technical playworker’ has been bouncing around for a while in my head. I’m thinking of it in terms of ‘technical footballer’ (whatever that is, but it’s a phrase I hear plenty of times in sports commentary). There seems to be a sort of praise going on for the technical footballer, by the commentator, an admiration, but also perhaps a suggestion wrapped up in this that is ‘well, the technical footballer (read ‘playworker’) may have the skills-knowledge and general application but lacks in a certain something’. He knows how to ping a seventy yard cross-field pass, inch perfect with the outside of his boot, but can he judge a type of tackle from his repertoire of one when he’s employed as a ‘creative midfielder’? (Apologies to those not up to speed with my footballing analogy!) To bring it back to the playwork:
Perhaps the technical playworker knows what’s what from the books, can observe minutely and at length, can tell their play types apart and why, but has a one-knot repertoire which they use on temporary tarpaulin rain shelters, or when fixing rope swings to branches, much to the vexation of their ‘more than one knot’ repertoired colleagues!
I’m a one-knot playworker, I admit! The technical playworker aspect of me isn’t so cut and dried though. I also know that ‘relating’ is essential on the playground. Those children who want to relate to this adult in their space will find someone who knows that the child with the smiling eyes bouncing up and down at the start of the day is smiling because she really is happy to see him today, and he’ll respond to this because it’s needed; or, the child who offers this playworker just something that they’ve made (a concoction of felt and glue and glitter and feathers), in lieu of perfect English, because the playworker has made time for them for their play to happen, perhaps, should be thanked and have their offering taken seriously. The offering was made that way after all. I haven’t come across such things in the playwork literature yet.
When I see such relating taking place between my colleagues and children, I find myself just stopping to see from a distance. I watched for several minutes, one day this week, stood in the middle of the playground with it all flowing around me as, in the middle distance, up on the hill, I could see a small group of children gathered around a colleague who seemed to be engaged in some sort of play involving self-defence! One of the children, a spiky, funny character by and large, did all the moves (and I couldn’t hear any of the words) and she finished it off with a flourish at my colleague, along the lines of — in the interpretation — ‘Yeah, OK, whatever, girlfriend.’ You know? She seemed to be totally focused on my colleague’s relating to her.
So we have the technical and the relating playworker (the theory of the real thinking hasn’t suggested a better title for the latter yet), but these two personas can come wrapped in the same person. The blend is in the individual but also in the collection of individuals in the team. What I lack in my knots repertoire or in my ability to knock up anything quickly with a few lengths of wood and a power drill, I fill with other skills. Every playwork team, perhaps, needs creatives and builders, relaters and observers, the go-to soft policer, the scavenger or blagger, the overseer, the consultees or sounding boards for ideas, the makers of decisions, those who mix paint, and those who instinctively know a hundred and three variations of messy play that could happen, and so on.
Also, importantly, every team needs a good blend of men and women. What happens when too many men get together in one play place without female balancing is the potential for gorilla (not ‘guerrilla’) action; what happens when too many women get together in one play place without male balancing is the potential for mumsiness. (Both are stereotypes, but both I’ve seen happening in various places).
So, this theory of the real in playwork, as it stands, is a blended affair: read but don’t be a robot to it all; question the books and theories, but only when those books and theories are understood; be as many things as one person can be, but know that being all things is probably impossible; accepting our own strengths and limitations also, perhaps, feeds into seeing the strengths in colleagues; we can compliment our colleagues and vice versa; this team needs many skills to function . . .
Within it, there is the appreciation of what a happy bundle of smiling eyes is, and there is a useful knowledge of a range of different knots; there is the ability to defuse an argument between pre-pubescent teenagers, enraged at unfair pool table etiquette, and there is the ability to mix the exact right shades of paint that will inspire for that day; there is the calming influence of the overseeing observer, and there is the artful scavenger with another car full of things nobody else can see the play value in.
Playwork is many-faceted in the theory of the real, and it would be a static affair if we were all the same, robotically reproducing the same actions, reactions, interactions.