There isn’t so much of an elephant in playwork’s room, it’s more of a whale. If play for play’s sake can be seen to have been somewhat subsumed by all manner of adult agendas, the natural and subsequent enquiry for a playworker might well then be: so what has become of playwork? There are two aspects to consider in this: (i) what is this thing called playwork, as understood by this playworker?; (ii) what is playwork perceived to be by others? In respect of the first aspect, in all honesty, I seem to waver between states of upholding the cause of playworker as specialist in the field of working with children and then, when I realise this could be a bit holier than thou or isolationist, I come back to the notion of ‘playworking’: by which I mean, in essence, an approach that can be applied to the wide smear of all of us who work in a particular way (or just simply ‘are’) in that multi-disciplined field.
In respect of the second aspect, however (the perception of what playwork is, to any given other in the analogy of that diverse field), the current concern is that playwork is greatly misunderstood. If adult agendas can be seen to have largely swamped children’s play for play’s sake, then the approach that is ‘playwork’ or the being that is ‘playworker’, might well similarly have been usurped. The suspicion is not a new one: it’s been bouncing around in the thinking for a while now. Just because adults work with children in contexts that potentially bring them close to the possibility of their play, it doesn’t necessarily make them playworkers. Worse yet, ‘play [space] worker’ [sic] should not be synonymous with ‘anyone who works with children in any capacity’. So we waver back to the isolationist stance of playworker as specialist.
Perhaps we can think about the two ideas at once (and not in a mutually exclusive way): the playworker (without the space between the two elements of the compound word) is a specialist at what he or she does; those who operate in any given manner within their work for and with children can, conceivably, approach this work in a ‘playworking’ way. This is a think-piece for a possible other time though.
Back to the assumption and the concern at hand: are the words ‘playwork’ and ‘playworker’ now at a point of having been taken over, subsumed into the agenda-driven homogeneity of the perspectives of all others in the field?
My direction of thinking and research was influenced in part by research undertaken in my previous post: the flotsam and jetsam of social media feeds throw up all manner of possible leads to follow, and I was starting to see various perceptions of playwork via childcare training organisations, early years practitioners, forest schools and other outdoor learning provisions and advocates, as well as from academics and other writers and people I already knew as ‘playworkers’. What, I thought, might a snapshot of ‘playwork’ look like? It seemed a fair place to start by spending a couple of hours in the research of job adverts for playwork positions.
This research is not, of course, comprehensive. I found a relatively useful search site that does the trawling of other sites for you (this one’s called Adzuna, though that’s no endorsement, and other sites are no doubt available). I don’t know if the site picked up all possible matches from all possible other sites regarding the search term ‘playworker’ but the final retrieval was 37 separate results. This figure came about after weeding out the duplicate adverts, counting as just one the same cut-and-paste adverts by organisations looking for positions to be filled in multiple sites, and only analysing positions that had ‘playworker’, or ‘play [space] worker’ [sic], or even ‘play-worker’ [sic] in the title, i.e. ignoring search results where ‘playwork’ is embedded in the advert text for a different job title. The search returned results for current positions UK-wide and was conducted on Friday, September 7, 2018. There was a wide range of types of advertising organisations: county and borough councils, childcare, Montessori and other early years organisations, sports-based organisations, schools, out of school clubs, prison-based organisations, recruitment agencies representing childcarers, and adventure playgrounds, to name a fair spread. Before conducting the search, I decided I’d match each advert with a simple ‘yes/no’ check with regards to a small set of criteria (in an effort to try to ascertain if each organisation claiming to want to employ a playworker could be seen to know or not know what a playworker actually was).
Knowing what a playworker is (or, defining the term, might well encompass a much larger set of criteria, and herein might well lie one of our basic problems, but that’s an aside). For the purposes of this simple research though, I decided to check against six main criteria (plus an additional one for curiosity). These criteria were as follows.
The case for playwork understanding:
(i) Is there mention of ‘play’ in the advert (other than adjoined in some fashion to the word or the idea of adult-structured activities/planning?);
(ii) Is there mention of the Playwork Principles?;
(ii) Can an understanding of play for play’s sake be extrapolated from the wording?
The case against playwork understanding:
(iv) Are there stated (or implicit) learning, development and social agendas built into the job role?;
(v) Is there a focus on activity planning of children’s time?;
(vi) Is there an ‘ensuring children’s safety at all times’ focus?
These criteria are, of course, open to critique, but I chose the first three because they seemed to me to be a fair reflection of what an advert for a playworker should include, and the second three because experience has shown me that these thinking processes are more or less what seem to come up time and again in a non-play for play’s sake approach. The bonus curiosity criterion was (astute readers might by now have fathomed): Is the word ‘playwork’ or ‘playworker’ written with a space or a hyphen in between? (Always a good indicator, in my experience, that finer nuances have been missed).
So, to the results.
(i) Mention of play: 14% (5 out of 37 adverts)
(ii) Mention of Playwork Principles: 3% (1 out of 37 adverts)
(iii) Understanding of play for play’s sake: 3% (1 out of 37 adverts)
(iv) Learning, development, social agendas: 65% (24 out of 37 adverts)
(v) Focus on activity planning of children’s time: 65% (24 out of 37 adverts)
(vi) Ensuring children’s safety at all times focus: 43% (16 out 37 adverts)
(vii) Play [space] work: 30% (11 out of 37 adverts)
Addenda to the above results are that: the one advert to mention the Playwork Principles regarding a playworker position didn’t actually understand what the Principles were, based on the rest of the advert (so, in effect then, mention of the Playwork Principles in terms of understanding them can be counted as 0%); the one advert that gave the impression that those who placed it understood the idea of play for play’s sake was an adventure playground; one other advert did mention the Playwork Principles but this was in regards to a managerial position, so not within the scope of the above data. That said, I note it because the words caught my eye in the scanning and perusal of the advert contributed to a list of questionable material (see below).
What can we make of the results then? Perhaps this simple research can be said to be tainted by some researcher bias (though the effort was made to counter this in the choice of criteria and the stage it was devised at). Perhaps I was really looking to ‘prove’ what I knew all along. That said, this isn’t a PhD but rather a back of the envelope scribbling. You be the judge here.
For me, it’s lamentable statistics insofar as the mention of play (in terms of how a playworker might know play to be) is concerned: just 5 out of 37 adverts see it as important to make note of. That only one of the 37 even mentions the Playwork Principles (and none of them, I suggest, understand them) is not surprising but it is worrying. That only one (not surprisingly an adventure playground, though other types of provisions of good quality are available) can be readily seen to understand the idea of play for play’s sake is, well, sobering. Compare these figures with the much higher (adult in-) control and development agendas that return 65%, 65% and 43% and we can see which way the wind seems to have blown. The small surprise is that there weren’t more of the ‘play [space] work’ [sic] adverts out there. It’s a personal irritation that the words are routinely split, and words mean things after all. That said, the opposite spin on this is that what does this all say for the appropriation of the compound word ‘playworker’?
Notes were made on some wordings within the adverts (wordings that troubled somewhat). Below are a selection of critiqued offerings from the adverts, without attribution because they could easily be mixed and matched anyway, because the data isn’t identifiable in my notes and, even if that were the case, I’m also not minded to enter into those finger-pointing waters as yet (suffice is to say that the prevalence of, for example, [enter brand name here] Childcare/Sports and Fitness Multi-Franchise Operators with their photocopied policy files, staff uniforms and one size fits all fits-allness leaves me cold):
Enforce and implement all Club [sic] policies and procedures, the implementation of playwork principles [sic] and general childcare requirements
[My emphasis in italics: is the implementation of the Playwork Principles also by enforcement?]
To lead and develop quality play and activity opportunities ensuring engagement of all children specific to their individual needs
[My emphasis in italics: I’m not sure I know how to ensure all children’s engagement]
The role of Playworker [sic] involves supervising the children, ensuring their safety at all times, engaging with them in aspects of play and conversation, setting up activities for children to optionally take part in . . .
[Or, perhaps, getting in the way of children and taking over, not letting them do anything remotely disconcerting, getting in their way more, controlling their play, oh, but only if they want to take part]
Knowledge of a range of principals [sic] underpinning play work [sic]/childcare/youth support provision
[I refer m’learned colleague to the above contention that words mean things after all]
Supporting events and activities which deliver objectives and targets identified by the Play Service
[It does make me wonder what these objectives and targets are]
Taking control of a group of children ensuring their welfare, safety and enjoyment at all times.
[My emphasis in italics: taking control, no less, whilst also ensuring enjoyment, at all times]
Has ‘playworker’, and so ‘playwork’, or its perception at least, become irreversibly appropriated, swallowed up by the proponents of other agendas? There is, perhaps, a whale in playwork’s room.