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

Archive for September, 2018

Call me playworker

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.
 
 

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Poor play: the onslaught of instrumental rot

Poor play: this magical, ineffable, sublime and often highly personal affair has been infested by an instrumentalist rot. Once such a thing’s set in, it’s prone to acceleration. The message is clear from this writer and playworker: play is for play’s sake; however, this essential message about play is weighed by all manner of adult agendas swilling around at the periphery, and some individuals and organisations of nominally playwork flavour may have forgotten what play is. That is an aside. The purpose of this writing is to shine a light on the general swill out there: a swill that sees play in ways often very different to the way that children (and playworkers) do.

First the lament (or, as Arthur Battram puts it in the comments below, the ‘play wails’) and then down to the nitty-gritty of the research:

Play has its benefits. This much is accepted. However, if you were to ask a child (hypothetically, because the actuality of such an endeavour could be seen as unethical) what the benefits of their play were, I’m confident that (supposing they weren’t playing the whole ‘just tell the adult what they want to hear’ game) what they’d say would be markedly different to what an agenda-driven adult would say. Benefits, to the majority of (albeit sometimes well-meaning) adults, can turn into aims and targets. Play becomes a tool, an instrument, towards reaching a certain aim. It is this instrumental rot, this mindset (‘set’ being entirely appropriate here), that I rally against.

Not everyone who interacts with children, or who has a vested consideration for them, is a playworker. This I appreciate. However, the adult agendas wrapped up in such areas as education, politics, health (and even brand awareness), to name just a few, with regards to the consideration and treatment of play, begin to weigh heavily: they’re making me nauseous. Poor play: I’m sick of the agendas.

The Playwork Principles (PPSG, 2005) aren’t perfect by any means, and they’ve been subjected to critique by various authors over the years, but one of the eight statements therein does strike a chord here: ‘For playworkers,’ declares Playwork Principle 4, ‘the play process takes precedence and playworkers act as advocates for play when engaging with adult led agendas.’ This is a rallying call to those out there reading this who know full well what this means. These are difficult times in terms of funding for play provisions and for playwork: this is readily understood. The coalition government couldn’t sweep away the previous Labour Party Play Strategy quickly enough in 2010. Austerity has bitten hard, the bottom line of Tory policy is money; more potently, however, austerity, the Tories, the neo-liberal machine are all wrapped up with an inability to comprehend the idea and the actuality of play. If play doesn’t ‘produce’ anything, then play is seen as pointless. Enter the instrumentalist agenda: if play is purposeful, it can be funded.

It shouldn’t be this way. Regular readers of these pages will know my disdain for the current (money- not people- obsessed) obesity agenda linked to children and their day to days. To this I can add an uneasiness at the usurping of play by education, future fixers, and in some ways therapists too. All ‘use’ play for instrumentalist ends. Some wrap up their (sometimes well-meaning) concern for the children in their scope of consideration with an inability to perceive what play is, for those children. Play is what play is in the moment; its benefits are what benefits the child or children at that time (yes, I am also aware of the deferred benefits argument); the instrumentalist rot of adult agendas should not be allowed to set in.

Herein ends the preamble. The meat of this post is concerned with research undertaken in order to substantiate my previous claims. This research is, of course, not exhaustive. However, of the recent national and international articles posted to various publications (and a couple of older ones for good measure too), I can as yet find no out-and-out example of promotion of play for play’s sake. One comes close, but still there are issues: in Which is the only country to protect in law the child’s right to play? (The Guardian), Aditya Chakrabortty reports on the Welsh government’s positive regard towards children’s play but the reporter still adds that ‘Yet play teaches children to resolve differences.’

Why does play have to be ‘for’ something other than itself in the writing and thinking offered up by others? (By ‘others’ I mean ‘not those of a playworking persuasion’). Play, if it has to be ‘for’ something, is ‘for’ its own ends.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has just had her office publish a report titled Playing Out: a Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity. Whilst play has been thrown into the spotlight by this report, it is unfortunately chock-full of instrumentalism, often blurred through the lens of ‘benefit’. Yes, children’s play is important (because of an implicit respect for children and their ways of being, their rights, them, perhaps?), but here in this offering we have a litany of skills development, concerns on obesity, future fixing, social engineering, and so on. Some quotes:

By playing, children try out new things, test themselves and learn new skills. Play is also a way of developing social and emotional skills: by playing with others children learn to share, take turns, negotiate and make friends.

Far from being an inconsequential time filler, it is clear that play helps children grow into the rounded, sociable and skilled people we all want them to be.

There is so much to be gained by enabling children to play and be active. It’s time for a joined-up approach to supporting children’s health and wellbeing and a recognition that only by working together will we deliver the changes necessary to protect the health of future generations.

Play teaches children to use language effectively and solve problems . . . Through play and physical activity, children learn how to negotiate, cooperate and see things from other people’s points of view.

Children’s social skills are also honed through play. Equipping children with the skills to negotiate and draw boundaries, e.g. through role play, may help prevent unhelpful peer relationships from forming, such as those in gangs.

Recommendations to help children become more active: Increasing children’s play and physical activity would have a range of physical and emotional benefits . . . Put out of school activity at the heart of the plan to reduce obesity.

Where, in all this, is a recognition of play in non-instrumental terms? Play is a political football, kicked around: goals are scored. The real players, in this analogy, are sat on the bench, watching on.

The instrumentalists are in the ascendancy. Poor play. A selection of other findings follows.

In Why playtime is an essential part of childhood development (Child in the City), Jenny Silverstone writes:

When they play, they learn . . . When they play, a child is working on their neurological development . . .

(Sorry, they’re doing what?)

. . . solo playtime is important to help a child explore their imagination. Playtime with other [children] is equally important too as it helps with socialization [sic] and conflict resolution . . . [sensory play] builds up language skills and it is a way for them to learn how to problem solve.

Professor Karen Hutchison of Rowan University says: ‘Play is actually the work of a child in which they are preparing themselves for adult roles and society at large.’

No. No, it’s really not. Play is the focus of the now.

Perri Klass writes in Taking playtime seriously (New York Times):

Play is a universal, cross-cultural and necessary attribute of childhood, essential for development and essential for learning.

In addition to teaching children content, we should look to strengthen their human skills, [Dr. Hirsh-Pasek] said, helping them learn to think up new ideas and explore them, and to navigate the social worlds of play and, later, of work.

‘Play is not a specific activity, it’s an approach to learning, an engaged, fun, curious way of discovering your world,’ Dr. Tamis-LeMonda said.

Play is an approach to learning, to work, to development, the future of ‘betterness’. What about being?

In Time Health, Siobhan O’Connor writes about The secret power of play:

. . . scientists have learned that free play isn’t just something children like to do — it’s something they need to do. Play keeps [children] physically active, all the more important at a time when some 20% of American children are obese — more than triple the percentage from the more play-friendly 1970s . . . It also exercises their minds and their creativity. More than anything else, play teaches children how to work together and, at the same time, how to be alone. It teaches them how to be human.

Play for play’s sake doesn’t get a look in.

Reporting on National Playday in 2014, Katherine Sellgren writes in Play ‘boosts children’s development and happiness’ (BBC, archived under an education URL):

Play helps boost children’s language development, problem solving, risk management and independent learning skills, a study reaffirms.

The report, for the Children’s Play Policy Forum, found play improved children’s physical and mental health, as well as their emotional well-being.

It also found playtime in the school playground could enhance academic skills and attitudes and behaviour . . .

The study also said play and youth facilities in public spaces had led to reductions in levels of anti-social behaviour and vandalism.

[Playgrounds were] linked to a range of improvements in academic skills, attitudes and behaviour, and to improved social skills, improved social relations between different ethnic groups, and better adjustment to school life.

Yes, yes, but what about how play is?

Very acute and current affairs in the US have been viewed recently through the lens of play. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write in How to play our way to a better democracy (New York Times), and despite quoting the ‘free play’ definition offered by Peter Gray (‘activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself’), that:

Outdoor free play, in mixed-age groups, is the most effective way for children to learn . . . essential life skills, Professor Gray says.

How to future-fix a post-Trumpian society.

Returning to the recent publication by the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, Michael Savage writes in The Observer under the title of Call for action to end children’s ‘battery-hen existence’ in summer holidays, that

[Re: the idea of ‘play on prescription’] Research has also indicated that half of British seven-year-olds do not meet the chief medical officer’s minimum physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes activity every day.

‘If children are there [at adventure playgrounds], they will be less anxious, out and about and improving.’ (Anne Longfield)

Improving, no less. Play for attainment of CMO activity guidelines. Savage goes on to write that:

Sarah Wollaston, the Tory chair of the health select committee, backed the calls. ‘Physical activity and play are enormously important to children’s physical and mental health,’ she said. ‘Providing these facilities may save money down the line. It is fantastic value in avoiding the costs later on of poor mental and physical health.’

Is it all about the money? What about poor play? Would any Tory know what ‘play for play’s sake’ means?

The final word here goes to the Lego Corporation. Perhaps whilst trying to entice a few readers into engaging with a few more products in the pipeline, under the title of Families that [sic] play more are happier, but even children say they are too busy for fun and games, the Lego reporter writes that:

The power of play to help children learn is indisputable for parents. Almost all (95%) believe play is essential for children’s wellbeing and a vital educational tool. Four in five (82%) think that children who play more will be more successful in future studies and work.

At the bottom of the page it’s stated that:

The Lego Group’s mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow through the power of play.

What though about the play of today?
 
 
References:

Chakrabortty, A. (2018), Which is the only country to protect in law the child’s right to play? The Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/22/child-right-to-play-wales-law-budget-cuts (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Children’s Commissioner for England (2018), Playing out: a Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity [online]. Available from: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Play-final-report.pdf (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Haidt, J. and Lukianoff, G. (2018), How to play our way to a better democracy. New York Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/01/opinion/sunday/democracy-play-mccain.html (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Klass, P. (2018), Taking playtime seriously. New York Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/well/family/taking-playtime-seriously.html (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

O’Connor, S. (2017), The secret power of play. Time Health [online]. Available from: http://time.com/4928925/secret-power-play/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

PPSG (2005), The playwork principles. Cardiff: Playwork Principles Steering Group.

Savage, M. (2018), Call for action to end children’s ‘battery-hen existence’ in summer holidays. The Observer [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/25/end-battery-hen-existence-in-summer-holidays-childrens-commissioner (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Sellgren, K. (2014), Play ‘boosts children’s development and happiness’. BBC [online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28658441 (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Silverstone, J. (2018), Why playtime is an essential part of childhood development. Child in the City [online]. Available from: https://www.childinthecity.org/2018/08/29/why-playtime-is-an-essential-part-of-childhood-development/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).

Trangbæk, R. R. (2018), Families that play more are happier, but even children say they are too busy for fun and games. Lego Group [online]. Available from: https://www.lego.com/en-gb/aboutus/news-room/2018/august/play-well-report/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
 
 
Addendum:
Sometimes reporters of articles get to speak to playworkers, advocates for play for play’s sake who do their level best to explain their experience and understanding of play, to inform those articles; sometimes, it’s acknowledged here, those reporters misrepresent or mangle those playworkers’ words.
 
 

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