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

Archive for the ‘academica’ Category

On approaches to play

Having recently completed some study on a psychotherapist’s perspective on- and engagement with- play, and having written a piece for a journal on what I discovered, my production editor contacted me to ask me to firm up one of my references. I’d fallen into the trap of quoting a well-worn offering, familiar to many play and playwork readers, and I’d not pinpointed the page of the original text, needing to flesh out my secondary reference. These oversights, because of the often-used quote, led me on a bit of an academic hunt which, in the fullness of time, has led me to the impetus to write today (ultimately — we’ll get there soon enough) on ‘play and learning’.

The page number I was asked to provide, and which I needed to trace, was for our old friend, the psychologist Mr. Jerome S. Bruner. It’s for the quote that goes:

‘Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity.’

— Bruner (1977: v)

It was the (v), or page five, of Bruner’s writing in the introduction of Tizard and Harvey’s (1977) The biology of play that I was looking for. Not being able to lay my hands on a copy of the Tizard and Harvey book, I had to source a copy of Janet R. Moyles’ (1989) Just playing?. This book, the author of which is an educationalist, is the one that’s referenced, regarding the Bruner quote, in the National Playing Fields Association’s (2000) Best play. There’s a trail that needed following here, and the secondary reference was the closest I could get. There though, in Moyles, was the all-important page number. (Here it is above, for anyone who may also be looking for it).

Linking to all of this, I’d just come back from a gathering of play, playwork and playworking (that is, as I define it, relating to the ‘attitude’) types in Bristol: playworkers and non-playworkers alike. One of the messages that seemed to strike a chord with a fair few people, from the conversations that took place, was a need for us (playwork people) to connect with our ‘allies’ who aren’t necessarily in the playwork field. I don’t take this as a call to battle, but as a call to realise that there are or may be crossovers in the great Venn diagram of common causes of those who work with, for, in support of, for the needs of, etc., children.

So, having just delved deeply into the writing of a psychotherapist in her perspectives on play, I thought it high time I actually read Moyles’ book: Moyles being described in the biographical notes as a Professor of Education. I think it’s fair to say that, if we (playworkers) stand back for a few moments, really stand back, we might just see ourselves as a group of relatively right-on lefties, eschewing everything that’s deemed ‘normal’ in society because the recalcitrance of play is the ‘real normal’ which no-one else but us and children can see. We pride ourselves on occupying a special place, and some espouse the thinking that our goal should be to work to a point that we’re no longer needed, to do ourselves out of work (I never fully bought into that, but I can appreciate the sentiment). If we stand back for a few moments, really stand back, who are we trying to kid? Do we need to climb out of our bubbles?

In Bristol, when talking about young men disaffected and disillusioned by unemployment in the Midlands, Simon Rix said a few words in particular that have just stuck with me: ‘What am I for?’ This can be taken, as I write, in the context of those young disillusioned men in their community, in the context of the playworker in reflection on themselves, and in the context of sewing up the threads of this post so far (Bruner’s play as an approach to action, the suggestion of connecting with non-playwork allies on thinking about play, reading on play in terms of psychotherapy and education) . . . ‘What is play for?’

Here I am in my thinking. When we read a work of fiction, we have to try to disconnect from our view of the world as we know it (that whole suspension of disbelief mechanism that must prevail if we’re to fully immerse ourselves in that fiction). To a certain extent, I suppose, we also have to do this when reading academic texts which, on the face of it, don’t tally neatly with our own worldviews. There can come a point, however, when that whole fragile suspension starts to fracture. For me, this came about around page 56 or so of Moyles’ Just playing?.

She’s writing from a specific perspective, the educationalist, it must be kept in mind, and she seems to have a genuine desire for the educational well-being of the children she writes about, but . . . poor play in this book: it’s nothing but a means to an end. I haven’t ever seen ‘play as process’ as meaning something akin to ‘steps in order to achieve a goal’ before, as is apparently proper to the dictionary definitions, as this book seems to define it (despite Moyles’ championing of ‘free play’ — whatever that is, because I do wonder if play is only play when it’s ‘free’, as opposed to Moyles’ teacher-conceptualised ‘directed play’, which surely can’t be seen as ‘play’, really, can it? Those right-on leftie playworkers are getting all purist again!). Poor play is a means to an end here and my suspension of the playworker worldview kind of fractured at or about the following point, in which Moyles writes (in relation to children solving problems through play):

‘Vandenberg (1986) sees children’s play as a potentially valuable natural resource that can be used to develop creative individuals who will be the source of technological innovation so necessary for our economic survival, suggesting the use of children’s play as the foundation for meeting society’s future demands . . .’

— Moyles (1989: 56)

I read on, nevertheless, though I was troubled and, twenty pages or so later, my faith in allies was wavering more with the following (in relation to children and creativity):

‘Pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have is essential if learning within the school context is to be appropriately tailored to children’s development and needs.’

— Moyles (1989: 77)

My discomfort lies in the feel of soft and hard control, depending on the circumstances, perceived as inherent in the act of teaching, as described. Yes, there are some damn fine teachers out there, I’m sure — standard caveat — teachers who care and are good at what they do and who are loved by the children they teach; however, this writing is rather geared towards the ‘use of play’, the idea, than the individual who attempts to slot it into their metaphorical toolkit.

I’m not sure how much people believe me, or hear me, when I repeat my thinking that learning has a habit of coming from play, sure, but that children, by and large, don’t go into their play specifically to learn. Children might go into their play ‘just to play’, to ‘muck about’, to ‘cock about’, to ‘be daft’, to ‘get away from stuff’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘go mad’, or any number of reasons, including to ‘find out’. There is, however, a qualitative difference, I suggest, between ‘finding out’ and ‘learning’, in the context of everything above: one is self-initiated, self-motivated; the other is imposed, albeit potentially or actually with good intentions. Children might find out stuff via their play, but they do it on their own terms. The idea of ‘using play’ in ‘pre-planning of the experiences adults wish children to have’ is a little troublesome.

Notwithstanding anything else that Bruner may or may not have thought and written, and taking his often-quoted line initially at face value: play is an approach to action, not a form of activity. What is play for? Play is for now — Kilvington and Wood (2010) read Bruner’s line as ‘it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that makes it play’, and it is to this interpretation rather than Moyles’ presumed connection of ‘approach’ with process towards a goal/product — ‘play must be viewed as a process’ (Moyles, 1989: 11) — that I gravitate.

When I teach (adults) in the on-going pursuit of ways of seeing play, I don’t now go out to deny that learning can come of that play. I’m comfortable with the idea that here are resources, here is ‘play stuff’, and what comes of it is what the children make of it, and what comes of it may be something they didn’t know before. Children’s ‘needs’ aren’t, however, necessarily always those that adults think they are. Children may well not go into their play with the thinking that adults suppose they should have (‘caring and sharing’, for example), and they don’t necessarily have the will to be impressed upon by what adults consider important learning opportunities.

At home recently, Princess K. and Viking Boy have had sudden urges to work out how to make and shoot longbows from flexing stripped-off branches and lengths of elastic, with thin garden cane as arrows; they’ve wanted to talk about tsunamis and earthquakes, and make ‘how to’ lists of their own devising for paper maché and squeezing orange juice. This playworking me has only provided the spark, unintentionally, for some pieces of this, pre-planning none of these experiences, trying to read the unfolding situation, staying in or stepping out of the way, as needed (sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding): working with play, not perceiving it as ‘using play’.

I am mindful here of the isolationist, holier-than-thou stance that a group of playworkers, or a playworker, or those of a playworking disposition can be see to operate with (though I also read the same in Moyles’ treatment of the perceived-as necessariness of an educationalist). There may well be ‘allies’ in other related fields, but we shall have to agree to meet more in the middle (or, at least, get as far as possible into individual examples of one another’s respective literature bases first, before the suspension of disbelief fractures). Is the literature of playworkers wide enough? Likewise, is there enough breadth in the literature of the educationists, the psychotherapists . . .? How much crossover is, or should there, be?

(The study and discussion on) play is an (on-going) approach to action.

Bruner, J. S. (1977), Introduction, in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Spastics International Medical Publications. Cited in Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 11). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork: for all who work with children (p. 18). London: Continuum.

Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

National Playing Fields Association (NPFA) (2000), Best play: what play provision should do for children (p. 6). London: NPFA.

Vandenberg, B. (1986), Mere child’s play, in Blanchard, K. (Ed.), The many faces of play. The Association of the Anthropological Study of Play, Vol. 9. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics. Cited in: Moyles, J. R. (1989), Just playing? The role and status of play in early childhood education (p. 56). Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Play and (un)certainty

‘Children create situations of unbalance in an attempt to regain equilibrium (Spinka et al, 2001).’

— Lester and Russell (2008, p.62)

More or less, this line above is something I’ve been thinking about or gearing towards for a few weeks now. I knew of it, though not in any precision of word order, and when I looked it up and typed it down, it sat there and waited patiently as I sat there and looked rather ponderously at it for a few minutes. Taking it at face value, it doesn’t wholly fit. The quote comes from Play for a Change and relates to a section of writing on stress response systems and risk in play. ‘Risk’ is often seen predominately in terms of the ‘physical risk’ but the emotional and psychological aspects of risk also come into play. So, what if, for some children (or maybe even for all children), it’s certainty that they’re looking for in the risks of their play, rather than uncertainty in order to regain their equilibriums?

I write it like this because I don’t see the process of regaining balance (physically or emotionally/psychologically) as being the same thing as the seeking of certainty in play. Besides this, I know plenty of children who seek more and more ‘unbalancing’, as if this in itself is a form of certainty. The Play for a Change authors cite Caillois (1961) and Kailliala (2006) in referring to ‘dizzy play’, or vertigo, and some children I know often like to spin fast, and faster, on the roundabout — just for the spin of it, I suspect (not for the regaining of the stability of terra firma, and not for that particular sort of receding nausea that some of us also remember from our own childhoods). This dizzy play is for the sensory nature of being in it. Going fast is never fast enough.

However, this post is not particularly focused on such spin. It is the potential seeking of certainty in children’s play that draws the attention. A repeated play frame — an instance of play, or ‘a material or non-material boundary that keeps the play intact’ (Sturrock and Else, 1998), for those who’ve forgotten playwork terminology — repeated play frames such as those I’ve described in engagement with children’s play in recent posts, are a seeking for certainty in this context. This is how I’m reading the play. However, despite the possible best intentions of the players to faithfully reproduce the play of a previous time, conditions surrounding the new play aren’t going to be exactly the same as the previous instances: so, there will be differences in the play, new formations and directions; the players must be after the best fit of how the play felt. It does, perhaps, suffice to say that if ‘this, that and the other’ is replicated, as best as can be arranged, then ‘this, that and this’ is how the play is expected to feel or be.

I see this seeking of certainty, as I read it, time and again: if it’s not a near-as-damn-it replication of a previous play frame, then it’s a recreation and re-ordering of elements of that play frame; or it sometimes involves the repetitions of stories or it might be the re-positioning of new ‘actors’ into an old scene. It doesn’t always involve repetitions and recreations of previous play: the seeking of certainty, in this line of thinking, extends to the child who won’t jump from the jumping platform for fear of landing awkwardly, too hard, too far out, or for fear of hurting themselves in other ways, for example. Some adults throw themselves out of aeroplanes after they’ve thrown their parachutes out first, for the buzz of it (and good luck to them!); some children jump from swings or walls or platforms without seeming to look and without ever having jumped from that particular swing or wall or platform before. Isn’t there something just a little pathologically disturbed, however, about someone who doesn’t have even the slightest degree of confidence that they’re more ‘certain’ than ‘not certain’ to make that jump? (OK, so I’ve never jumped out of a plane: what do I know? Would you do it though if you thought you had no chance of landing in fewer than two whole pieces?!)

Our lives are uncertain, but this is all the more reason to seek some degree of reassurance that we won’t face death at every corner, or emotional torment or psychological ridicule every way we turn. Uncertainty does permeate through play, in its way, but it’s one thing saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my play; isn’t it exciting?’ and another thing saying ‘Everything I do in my play is a physical, emotional, or psychological rollercoaster that scares the living shit out of me’. One of Garvey’s (1977) prerequisites for play was that it be valued, or fun. Can play be play when it’s a constant engagement with things you can’t be even a little certain of?

I’m certain, in as far as I can be (yes, here’s a stick: hit me over the head with it!), that I’ll finish this post and write something else pretty soon (unless there’s a sudden meteor strike, or unless I suffer a stupendously unlucky imminent physical catastrophe, or the like); I’m pretty certain that if I don’t surpass my ‘optimum limit’ minus one for beer consumption, I won’t suffer for it in the morning; I’m certain that if I’m suddenly reacquainted with Walking in Memphis whilst driving, I’ll be singing loud like no-one can see me! This is all my play, and give or take a negligible percentage of conditions dictating that things won’t work out the way I think they will, things will work out the way I think they will.

What I’m not seeking is not to finish my writing or start any more writing ever again, to exceed my optimum beer consumption limit, or for Walking in Memphis to finish so I can drive like a grown-up again! I’m not supposing for a minute that children necessarily go into their play reflecting on the degree of certainty that will result from replicated play frames, or suchlike; however, I do suppose, here and now, that some (maybe all) children play with some internal nod towards certain possibilities.

Caillois, R. (1961, 2001), Man, play and games. Translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Garvey, C. (1977), Play: the developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books.

Kailliala, M. (2006), Play culture in a changing world. Berkshire: Open University Press. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. and Bekoff, M. (2001), Mammalian play: training for the unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 76(2): 141-168. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change. London: National Children’s Bureau/Play England.

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing (the Colorado paper). Leigh-on-Sea: Ludemos Press.

On play and psychogeographical praxis

When we walk around our neighbourhoods, or around areas unfamiliar to us, what do we feel? What does the area we’re in press on us? Which emotions, desires, or ‘pulls’ do we feel on us? What has this to do with play? Bear with me in this post, because this is, in itself, an exploration: a laying down of a foundation I may come back to sometime.

I have recently become interested in ‘psychogeography’, which is defined by Debord in his 1955 essay, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in part, as the study of the ‘specific effects of the geographical environment . . . on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In truth, and without really knowing it, I have been undertaking an uninformed and unformed background study of this for many years, as it seems. That is to say, I can now add to my act of walking my conscious awareness of the study of my emotions as I walk. Before I come on to play, a little more information on a certain means of movement: linked to the psychogeographic concept is the idea of the ‘dérive’, or drift, the definition for which I take from Wiki, so I trust it holds, though things seems to be fairly consistent across reading material:

‘In a dérive one or more [people], during a certain period, drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there . . .’

— Knabb, 1995, citing Debord

The added aspect to this is that this is not so aimless a drift; rather, it’s a conscious awareness of what pulls the drifter along. It is a way of experiencing (in this case, urban) areas in non-functional ways: where function and the playful have a fusion. Knabb (1995) also writes: ‘Cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes [sic] which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’. (This I shall return to, because there is a reflection to be had on this as linked with play).

There is one final piece of background information to add in: Debord (1955) also writes about ‘the sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few metres; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground)’.

So, within the psychogeographic study of how the urban area ‘pulls’ on the walker, the drifter, or he who is in his dérive, what emotions and behaviours are produced by the ever changing ‘ambiance’ of each segment of a street (sometimes just yards apart)? The only way to find out is to find out. Hence, psychogeographic ‘praxis’ (the actual doing, rather than just a thinking theory) is important. I will come to play. First, and next, some walked recent affects on this experimenter, edited out of the context of the whole (a sort of textual collaging in itself, rather than a ‘map’ of the whole):

This exercise of considered dérive is not as simple as one might think. First we have to come to be in a state of some flow, and then we must retain this whilst also maintaining a watchful eye on the shifting states of the self. Record every sensory impact, or as many as possible, and walk slowly. Remember to look up and around.

Certain streets exercised what I termed, in the moment, as a ‘pull’ (and I retain the phrase throughout because it seems to fit). Each pull needed accepting or rejecting. Each decision needed in-the-moment analysis of why it was accepted or rejected (for this ‘dériver’, at least!). I don’t know how much I was consciously aware of Knabb’s writing on a city’s ‘currents and vortices’ (in truth, probably not a great deal, in the moment), but they could be felt. Entrances and exits to pulling streets, defensible (invisibly boundaried) space, the affects of T-junctions or assumed cul-de-sacs, and so on, tended towards rejections rather than acceptances of drift. There is also, as is assumed, such potential psychogeographical impact on the ranging child, if the child has this opportunity to roam.

There was a dominant desire not to double back for this dériver, and later, on the inward stretch of the circuit as it became, back home, a desire not to accept the pulls of streets or ways that led me farther out. Accepting the feelings and reasons for these, as you go, as an honest approach, was a useful mode of being.

Along the way, pulls were not just streets but also a gathering accumulation or awareness of sensory impact: the smells of flowers I could and couldn’t name, perfumes of passers-by; vistas and aspects, slices between houses or whole views; the shift in the overcast sky, its brightening or the affect of drizzle; temperature changes; the sounds of planes and hard and soft traffic, the sound of the almost ubiquitous (assumed to be) wood pigeons, unseen; light shifts under, and out from under, trees; colour recognitions and juxtapositions; states of vertiginous positions (at the bottoms and tops of steep slopes) . . . all these pulls had an affect on the emotional and behavioural (directional movement, observational stance, internal desires to interact or refrain). This last point leads me to where I’m heading (this writing, as could be conceived, being a textual psychogeography in itself, if that’s not stretching it too far!): simply, certain pulls provoked the possibility of play in this dériver.

On the inward sweep of the large circuit, finding myself at a green hill, the level paths pulled me most: these paths that led roughly towards home with the least energy to be expended. A dirt track up a steep hill pulled unexpectedly, and it was accepted. It was, on the face of it, a futile climb: it was difficult to climb with only a few roots to hold on to, and it led to a short track which took me back to the track I was on before. I climbed it anyway, because it was there, feeling at the top of the hill something akin to what I remember feeling as a child: this hill has been climbed; let’s move on.

The climb affected the dynamics of the rest of the dérive. Steeply stepped pulls uphill were no longer rejected. The affects of the wind in the trees was noticed, as was the movement of every single tree on the top of the hill. A small movement and moment of play can produce a tumble of further shifts along the way. The functional aspects of the city (or one small area of it) can be — to use Neil Gaiman’s (2006) term, out of context — ‘upsettled’. The function and the play (or ‘the ludic’) can come closer together and fuse. Where does function and play start and end? This dirt slope was a track of sorts, functionally, but playfully it was a climb. Or, functionally, it was a climb, and playfully it was a track. Onwards in the dérive, the hill top is a magic circle of trees but it functions as the clearing at the top, a place of gathering. Or playfully it’s a clearing of moving trees, and functionally it’s a magic circle to be seen and engaged with.

In the psychogeographic consideration of my recent days, I’m wondering how the ‘ambiance’ of certain areas of cities can be affected to break down the rigidity of their functional selves, and to open up awarenesses of the playfulness that can fold in. Maybe we should all go on our own local dérive: a walkabout, perhaps — an awakening to what the urban ‘pulls’ cause in us, of what play folds out from us because of this.

Debord, G. (1955), Introduction to a critique of urban geography [Online]. Available from: (Accessed July 13, 2015).

Gaiman, N. (2006), The hidden chamber in Fragile things. London: Headline Review.

Knabb, K. (Ed.) (1995), Situationist International anthology. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets. Cited in Wiki: Psychogeography [Online]. Available from: (Accessed July 13, 2015).

The long dark tea-time of the search term (or, backstage at the playwork blog gig)

There’s much to entertain the WordPress blogger backstage of his or her own blog. A few days ago, I found myself leafing through the long list of search engine terms that unknown people had plugged in to their screens, landing eventually on this blog. Really, I recommend the exercise: it’s quite cathartic in its own way! As I read I thought: there’s plenty here for me to write about, albeit something that might end up somewhat lengthy.

So, there follows a selection from backstage. I’ve copied and pasted them word for word — save for a few spelling, punctuation and grammar corrections here and there, because it’s my blog and I have a need to do that! I’ve also reserved the right to re-write ‘children’ where people have written ‘kids’ because children aren’t baby goats, and I’ve long been of the opinion that using this term is somewhat patronising. Likewise you’ll never, ever read or hear me use the words ‘zany’ or ‘whacky’ (at all, except here!) and especially not linked to anything to do with children. I digress.

When reading this backstage list, it struck me that I could pretty much roughly sort things into general categories. So, here goes. We have:

• the top repeated searches;
• the (perceived as) sensible play and playwork questions, in the spirit of reflective thinking;
• the category I’m calling, for now, WTF?;
• the esoteric, that is, the somewhat obscure;
• the dodgy study skills of some playwork learners list (I also teach it, so I know some of the things that are asked of them).

If you’re a regular reader/play and playwork search engine user, and if you’ve entered any of these phrases, I don’t know who you are: so, rest assured (though you know who you are!) It’s not my intention to alienate; I write later in the spirit of playful poke!
The top searches list

A lot of playwork people are looking for one of the following, judging by the search engine terms here on this site: psycholudics and/or the play cycle; the Playwork Principles; Bob Hughes and the Play Types (I deliberately write it like that because it sounds like some sort of Bluegrass quartet to me!); UK age discrimination; that cartoon from Calvin and Hobbes (you know the one, my favourite, Calvin whacking nails into a coffee table!)

I’m not going to write all sections of this post in this way, but this first one gets this treatment for those who are truly looking for the above and who find their way here.

For all things Psycholudics/Play Cycle go to Ludemos to read what Perry Else and Gordon Sturrock say about their own writings.

The Playwork Principles can be found via Play Wales (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, 2005), amongst other places.

Bob Hughes and his infamous play types can be found in various books (though always check anything you find against the source material (i.e. the Taxonomy, listed below, second edition of the 1996 original) because some sources make mistakes in describing some of the play types. The following I know are all good:

A playworker’s taxonomy of play types, 2nd edition: Bob Hughes (2002) — try this connection to Playlink.

The first claim: a framework for playwork quality assessment: Bob Hughes (2001)

Play types: speculations and possibilities: Bob Hughes (2006)

Reflective playwork: Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood (2010)

Or go here re: PlayEducation, a site I’ve just found — though I do know of PlayEd — where Bob’s keeping his head down, judging by the site address! (To paraphrase Bob in a personal communication, about play types, once engaged in with him: ‘I wish I hadn’t written the bloody things’ — or words to that effect!)

As a side note, judging by the search engine terms in this long list backstage, it almost seems as if playwork, as a thing in itself, has been reduced down solely to a rough amalgam of ‘play types, the play cycle (or psycholudics for those who are feeling brave), and a smattering of the Playwork Principles’. There’s more to it than just that. Or, as I’ve often been told when I try to explain what I do to the man in the pub, who stares at me before breaking into a smile of almost comprehension: so, you play with children then?/so you teach children how to play? Right, OK.

As a second side note, I always find it a little disturbing when casting my eye over job adverts for playworkers or playwork managers. They nearly always state that they’re looking for someone to provide for ‘safe, stimulating planned activities for children’, or words like this, then follow that up with a reference to the Playwork Principles. It shows me that the setting in question doesn’t get it.

Of the other two items on the top searches, here’s my take on UK age discrimination, and that cartoon for your amusement and viewing pleasure (and mine) is here.

OK, so with the useful mains now done, we move on. I may come back to the next block sometime for a post of its own, I think; though I’ll make brief comment here for now:
The sensible questions list

Q: Playwork Level 3: you overhear a 7 year old say to another child, go away.
A: So? We’re not here to tell Child A or Child B how to be.

Q: Early years vs playwork debate.
A: There’s a whole blog or three in this one. I’ve worked in both fields. If there are focuses in early years for giving children a good grounding for upcoming years, there are focuses in playwork for the now. It’s much wider than this though.

Q: What it means to be a children’s playworker.
A: The way this is worded suggests to me that I, playworker, belong to the children. It allows me to offer up a favourite quote: ‘I’m here to serve you, but I’m not your servant.’

Q: Children’s effect on adults.
A: You mean ‘affect’? It links to Playwork Principle number 7 and how children really can affect our feelings. ‘Effect’ refers to a result, a change. (Or, maybe, inadvertently, ‘effect’ does come into play, after all).

Q: What is [it] like as a playworker[?]
A: Only you know this if you work with children (see also immediately above).

Q: Role of the adult recapitulative play.
A: Here’s Bob and his Infamous Play Types again! To answer a sort of question with a question in return: What’s the role of an adult in any play?

Q: Physical contact and rough and tumble play towards male playwork practitioners.
A: This is something we all need to talk about more. Children, in my experience and observation, can often interact with male and female playworkers in different ways. Is it OK? Is that the question? Or, is the question more along the lines of: What should we do about it?/How do we avoid it?

Q: Bargaining with a two year old.
A: Yep, good luck! Here’s my take: Negotiating with two year olds, or how to get unstuck from recurring Escher loops.

Q: Playworker teaching children right from wrong.
A: This playworker is not a teacher (of children). I try (though I sometimes fail) not to let my own morals concern the children I work with.

Q: What don’t playworkers do[?]
A: Teach, moralise, control children, plan endless activities, socialise children, etc. Jacky Kilvington and Ali Wood have a useful list (p.7 of their book, see above).

Q: What can cause a negative effect on the playworker when planning activities[?]
A: Affect or effect? What can cause a negative affect on the playworker when planning activities? Planning activities.

Q: Adult play places.
A: This rock we all live on . . .

Q: What would you do as a[n] LSA when a child is being aggressive and you felt other children were in danger?
A: I’m not a learning support assistant, but I know some people who are. I’ll find out what they say. In general though, I’d say: do what needs to be done; be dynamic, be playful; don’t be a jobsworth . . . and some other things.

Q: When should a playworker pay extra attention to one child[?]
A: Do you observe the child, the playing child, the playing children, the play in the space, any or none of the above?

Q: Ways in which playworkers plan and prepare spaces for play.
A: With consideration of moments . . .
The WTF? list

Q: Jumping over objects in the sandpit for pre-schoolers.
A: Yes, and the point is? Sandpits also function as playable spaces when used in different spatial/imaginative realms by children.

Q: [Well-known playwork person, name with-held here] master playworker.
A: I’m reminded of Arthur’s blog piece, The craft of playwork #3: mastery of playwork or masters in playwork? (revised). He highlights Malcolm Gladwell who, it appears, builds from the work of Anders Ericsson and the 10,000 hours rule (being that which is needed, apparently, to practice the mastery of something). I’m currently of the opinion that there are plenty out there who might like to see themselves as masters of playwork, but really, do any of us ever reach that perfect point of playwork enlightenment?

Master playworker? No. We all keep cocking up (though we should understand that we do, and how, and why, and so on). The first to say he or she has entered the realm of Playwork Nirvana, or claims mastery of the form, is probably trying to sell you something. Let the children on the playground decide.

Q: I got a job as a playworker . . . but now I want to change my profession; when can I do that[?]
A: I want to be pithy and snide here, but I’ve thought about this more: being a playworker isn’t for everyone. Truly being a playworker takes someone who’s accepting of a lot of emergent play material that manifests around them. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable; often it’s momentous.

Q: Teaching kindergarteners [the] concept of wisdom.
A: Again, good luck! Seriously though, really I don’t get this. It’s contradictory.

Q: I just found a small snake on the pavement in the UK what is it[?]
A: Umm, a small snake, perhaps? Really (think also ‘dodgy study skills list’). This might seem random but this person landed on this blog because of this post.

Q: A playworker is more than a gentlemand oh his knees [sic].
A: I leave this one exactly as I found it because I really don’t know how to edit it! Suffice is to say that, yes, I agree about the ‘playworker and his knees’ conundrum.

Q: Is it dangerous for [children] to play in leaves[?]
A: No. Next question. Or, ask yourself the following additional questions: Is there an adder in the leaves? Are the leaves concealing an open man-hole cover? Do you keep leaf-dwelling crocodiles in your playground? Generally speaking, autumn happens, and children + wind + leaves = play. Observe.

Q: Is the play cycle the same as play cycle[?]
A: Umm, yes. (Think also ‘dodgy study skills list’). Really. Again.

Q: Where did Gordon Sturrock and Perry Else meet[?]
A: Good question. Gordon? Perry? Anyone? Or, why do you need to know?

Q: The psycholudics.
A: Does the definite article (that’s the ‘the’) suggest that this search term is about that as-yet-unsigned punk-rock trio The Psycholudics? (Bob and his Infamous Play Types don’t have much to trouble their market share there).

Q: Can you get bugs from children as a playworker[?]
A: This is the funniest thing I’ve read all week. Really. My answer is: maybe (though I have a theory that some of us have natural immunity due to having been around children for long enough!) My additional question though is: Why? Are you planning a health and safety sting on your employer or something?
The esoteric list

Q: Three guys sitting around drinking coffee.
A: Yes, sometimes coffee happens in playwork. It helps the observation skills, I find (whilst Mars Bars and Lucozade — other stimulants are available — tend to help in lieu of proper food on the playground).

Q: Playworker magic.
A: It is, a kind of, if you get it right.

Q: Adult play with cack.
A: I take ‘cack’ here as referring to the vernacular that is ‘junk, stuff, things left lying around, etc.’ So, yes, why not? Hands up all those who’ve been students and who did the student thing with the traffic cones late at night . . . you know the one . . .

Q: Mystical words to make things happen.
A: Abracadabra? Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy? Meeska Mooska Mickey Mouse? How about: let’s play?

Q: We used to have fart competitions.
A: I salute you, sir or madam. I do!
The dodgy study skills list

Q: What would I do if a child is new to a setting, knows no other children, and sticks to the playworker like glue[?]
A: Methinks this playwork learner has taken the bulk of something they’ve been asked to do and planted it straight into the search engine box because I recognise that glue part from somewhere! The key here is ‘what would I do . . .?’ I don’t know, what would you do? I know what I would do and have done.

Q: Observation at play, which include[s] play types, returns, cue and playworker interaction.
A: Now don’t be so lazy here. Write your own observation of play that you’ve seen. It works better that way.

Q: I’m a playworker: I have to write about a boy in my settings [sic] like what he does there.
A: Go on then, crack on. Don’t expect me to do it for you. If you don’t observe, you won’t see, and if you don’t see you won’t start to feel or understand.

Q: How to write about snow playing.
A: To misquote Morpheus, he of the Matrix: stop trying to write about snow play and write about snow play. Observe. See things.

Q: Own memories of play to use in playwork.
A: Umm . . . no, I’m not even going there.

Advice for playwork glossary writers

‘I wish to register a complaint,’ (as Monty Python had it!) ‘We’re closing for lunch. Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.’ [End quote]. The parrot in this analogy is the glossary of playwork terms as can be found at, for example, the CACHE website. They’re dead; that is, they’re wrong. Well, some of them are at least. Here’s my complaint: as a playwork trainer, how can my learners be expected to learn certain things if the qualification awarding body hasn’t got it right?

You’re forewarned: this post could get a little technical and lengthy. I realise that it could end up being a very niche one, i.e. only for those in the UK for whom playwork qualifications are a concern. So, I intend to widen the scope a little in what I’m about to write; this being: (i) Details of my complaint for that niche readership; (ii) Focus on one particular area of concern (namely, that which playworkers know as ‘the play cycle’, within something known as ‘psycholudics’), which will also serve as an introduction to those not familiar with the concepts; (iii) Brief analysis of aspects related to the play cycle within psycholudics, for playworkers and non-playworkers alike.

So, onto my complaint. The glossary linked to, at the time of writing, on the CACHE site (other awarding bodies are available) states that ‘the [play] cycle includes the metalude, the cue, the return, the frame, adulteration, annihilation and display [sic].’ Where do I start here? I’ve wanted to write a little something on psycholudics for a while now because it crops up regularly in search engine results, as listed on my WordPress dashboard. So, if this is you looking for psycholudics and/or the play cycle, let me just start by saying that the CACHE glossary isn’t accurate.

The best place to go for information on psycholudics will be the source, i.e. the Ludemos site. There you’ll find the Colorado Paper (1998), written by Gordon Sturrock and Perry Else. It’s a heavy read, I won’t lie, but it’s an important read. The trouble is, because it can be a bit heavy-going in places, it’s been watered down somewhat in the sector. I’m afraid I shall need to do the same here for the sake of brevity in this post, though I recommend that you also read the real deal (go to Ludemos).

Psycholudics, ‘the study of the mind and psyche at play’, is drawn from the psychoanalytic work of those such as D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971). The play cycle, or the ‘play process’, being part of the paper above, is written in the Ludemos glossary as consisting of:

‘the full exchange of play from the child’s first play cue, the establishment of the play frame, the perceived return from the outside world, the child’s response to the return, and the further development of play to the point where the play is complete and so ended or annihilated.’

So, to my complaint: this authoritative source has morphed into, for example, the CACHE glossary’s version, which I shall repeat again here: ‘the [play] cycle includes the metalude, the cue, the return, the frame, adulteration, annihilation and display [sic].’

The latter is wrong. Playwork learners are being misinformed.

The watering down process, in playwork training, has amounted to the play cycle coming to be known as (and I’ll briefly explain each shortly): metalude, cue, return, frame, flow, annihilation.

Whilst Sturrock and Else themselves haven’t included ‘metalude’ in their own glossary definition of the play cycle, for greater clarity I suspect, they can be forgiven because they wrote it! However, something I’ve just noticed is that on their overview page, they write that ‘play drive’ and ‘metalude’ (see below) amount to the same thing. I wondered where my learners had got this from!

Let’s go back a step. From the Colorado Paper, Sturrock and Else write that the play drive, or ludido (I told you it can be heavy-going in places!), ‘could be precisely seen as the active agency of an evolving consciousness’. OK, so this play drive/ludido then is one of the things that makes us tick: a drive or an urge to play.

Regarding metalude, they say: ‘a part of the play drive or ludido is sustained in a deeply internalised form of fantasy play . . . the source point and beginning of the function of internalised gestalt formation [‘shape’ of play] within the play process.’ It’s the daydreaming before the visible signs of play can be seen, in other words.

Non-playworkers and those new to playwork can, no doubt, already see the difficulties of getting across the complexities of ideas within the Colorado Paper in an accessible and not ‘dumbed-down’ way. I hate dumbing-down. Please don’t take the following in such a way if you’re new to psycholudics:

We generally see the play cycle in terms of: the daydreaming/thinking of the child (metalude); the cue (‘invitation’ to play) from the child in question to other children, or aspects of the environment, or even to adults (so, verbally, sticking out of the tongue, pushing a drawing into someone’s face, etc.); the return of that cue that signifies ‘yes, I’ll play’; the frame, being the psychological and/or physical boundary to the play (this doesn’t relate to ‘boundary’ as in ‘positive/negative behaviour’); the flow of the play, where children are immersed and the play develops in form; annihilation (which I’ve always thought of as a daft technical word, but it must come from somewhere, and so I must ask Perry about that the next time I see him), which means that the child has got what they need from that particular instance of play, and they move on.

When we know these basics, playworkers and non-playworkers alike can observe children’s play in a new light. So, the child who’s sticking out their tongue at you, or throwing scrap materials all around the room, or banging their plate on the table, can be seen to be issuing play cues instead of being ‘naughty’, ‘rude’, ‘disrespectful’, or any other adult-biased phrase we can think of.

Returning to the CACHE summary: ‘the [play] cycle includes the metalude, the cue, the return, the frame, adulteration, annihilation and display [sic].’

How can every play cycle, every instance of play, include adulteration? What’s this? Let’s go back to source (Ludemos glossary): ‘This occurs when the adult dominates or takes over a child’s play for their own purposes, whether those purposes are conscious (working to, say, educational or safety standards) or unconscious (fear, embarrassment, domination).’

Do children only play when adults are around? That’s like the old favourite: if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one to hear it, does it really fall at all? Or something like that. No, of course children don’t just play when adults are around. So how can every incidence of a play cycle include adulteration (adult domination), as the CACHE glossary suggests?

Does every play cycle, every instance of play, include ‘display’ [sic]? I write ‘sic’ because ‘sic erat scriptum’ means ‘thus it was written’: an error. I type it out exactly as written because it’s an error. ‘Display’ is something you see in a shop window, perhaps; ‘dysplay’ (as in the Colorado Paper), from the Ludemos glossary is:

‘When the play cues are laden with anxiety. The urgent, frantic play cues offered by children who are unable to complete the play cycle effectively. Children denied choice will be inhibited in their play, the cycle will be incomplete. The play drive will try to compensate with cues that are more urgent or aberrant, perhaps causing conflict with the environment around the child (these anxious cues are called dysplay).’

‘Display’ and ‘dysplay’ are not the same things: one is a pretty art board full of flowers and dinosaurs with missing fingers, say; the other is a complex concern caused by environmental factors including the direct and indirect affect of adults and their attitudes within the play space.

The CACHE glossary could just include a typo, of course, but I suspect the problem doesn’t lie here. There are other glaring errors, of the ‘copy and paste’ variety, where someone has copied and pasted information, including the spelling error, and this suggests to me that they weren’t really checking or knowing what they were doing. The devil is in the details, after all, and ‘dysplay’ is a detail that needs looking at. (So too is the issue of two play types — fantasy play and imaginative play — routinely being mixed up in the guidance literature because someone, somewhere, copied and pasted the wrong examples from the source material). This annoys me no end.

I digress.  Let’s review. Did I meet my aims?

(i) Details of my complaint for that niche [playwork] readership;

(ii) Focus on one particular area of concern (namely, that which playworkers know as ‘the play cycle’, within something known as ‘psycholudics’, which will also serve as an introduction to those not familiar with the concepts;

(iii) Brief analysis of aspects related to the play cycle, for playworkers and non-playworkers alike.

In summary, if complex material such as this needs to be taught (and it does, because the psycholudic understanding offers many new insights into children at play), then the awarding bodies who offer the qualifications (which trainers are expected to make use of/assess by) need to get their information correct.

That means those who do the typing up should ideally know what they’re typing up (kind of like a reflective practice model of ‘plan, do, review’, i.e. ‘copy, paste, review’). Failing that, they should get people in who do know a thing or two about playwork. Those who also have some authority at the tables where these standards are created and reviewed should also spare a thought for the poor learner new to playwork.

I have registered my complaint.

I’m quite willing to accept if anything I’ve written above turns out to be a little off the mark. Just tell me if it is and I’ll amend. I’m pretty confident you’ll find my research to be ‘good enough’ (now, Winnicott might be pleased at the oblique reference!)

CACHE (2011), Playwork glossary [online]. Available from: (Accessed Jan 25, 2013)

Ludemos (1998-2013), Psycholudics: introduction [online]. Available from: (Accessed Jan 25, 2013)

OrangeCow (undated), Dead parrot, as featured in the Flying Circus TV Show Episode 8 [online]. Available from: (Accessed Jan 25, 2013)

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing – the Colorado Paper. IPA/USA: Triennial National Conference

Ways of seeing: love

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love. And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course. Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1926)
Inspired by my continuing open dialogue with Arthur (or diablogue, as is my learned colleague’s phrase), I’m thinking first and foremost here about love. Arthur noted that I’d cautiously buried the ‘l’-word deep down in the middle of my previous blog; to which I return with a ‘beat you round the head with love’ approach here and now! It is the love given by the child that I’m offering due thought to.

So that I don’t go over old ground, your reading of my previous blog immediately before this one will help: in reality, children love; love is beautiful, as I believe, and should be accepted.

The space between that last blog and this one is served, in part, by Arthur’s thinking on the ‘theory of mind’. This leads me to think on how we can ‘know’ another by knowing ourselves. That a child can ‘know’ me, or vice versa, when I’ve only just met them has been a source of several years’ worth of trying to understand. Arthur writes, in My eyes are thinking about what is behind your eyes: ways of seeing and theory of mind:

I now realise that ‘the theory behind the gaze’ is what distinguishes this intense seeing from the glance of an unthinking reactive playworker who tidies up my piece of cardboard while it is catching the light.

Children love. Why? My head has been buried in philosophy books, looking around linked and, as yet, unlinked ideas. I surface and hope my words come out in ways that are readable!
Love’s aim

According to Professor Owen Flanagan (of Duke University, North Carolina), Franz Brentano (Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, 1874) brought back the thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas when he discussed the idea of ‘intentionality’. Our conscious mind must be mindful of something. It has an intention, an object it aims towards. Mental states are aimed towards ‘objects’, which can be anything. Love is a mental state and I think of myself as the object, the intention, of a child’s love. In other words, the child’s mind has to be conscious of something, has to aim at something: I am the object of fascination, deemed worthy (when I am); I am loved.
Love as more

Dr Paul Gilbert, University of Hull, writes that ‘Plato viewed love as a desire for beauty, which should transcend the physical and even the personal, culminating in philosophy — the love of wisdom itself’.

In the light of most of this thinking I can view children in such ways. That is, because my mind understands something of a notion of beauty (albeit a personal one), I consider that others can do the same too, especially children. My belief is in tune with love as much more than merely physical and personal. Perhaps others have their own words for similar thoughts. What I can’t know, however, is what those thoughts of the children are: (a) because language isn’t necessarily good enough, in general, for such ideas to pass between two people (even here I’m struggling with words); (b) specifically, between myself and the child, word-language is unformed and perhaps inappropriate (it disrupts the bubble of the moment).

When we analyse (or over-analyse), we risk destroying the very thing that we’re looking at. I type that full stop and realise what I’m currently doing.
Archetypes and the mythic realm

If love transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and the personal, what does it amount to? Here I shall recycle some recent comments to Arthur, from memory. Here we’re into the realms of Carl Jung’s archetypes. It is, what I call (and perhaps others have done so too — I must have got it from somewhere) a mythic realm. That is, this is a dimension, a space, a place (but not a solid place) populated by characters we can all associate with: mother figure (not ‘mother’), joker/trickster, shadow figure. The child mind, or the mental state of love, is aimed towards (wants to ‘see’, connect with) these archetypes of this mythic realm. A child, more so than an adult, can more readily see what they might know as (if they had the words) The Wise One, The Knower, Seer, Understander. A child is not yet fully pressed into what the adults call the ‘real world’: the mythic realm is still a living space to the child.

When I am ‘seen’, am I seen because I’m in that mythic realm at that moment?
Inalienable love, or giving and receiving

I thought that love was not inalienable (that which cannot be transferred). In other words, I thought that love could be transferred, given out. Of course it can be given, but it doesn’t transfer to another person lock stock and barrel. It’s odd and cheesy to say it (it sounds like a cheesy old song), but the more you give it away the more it grows in you.

Why else might we, and children, give love? Do we give to receive love? Or is it the only true altruism, the only act of selflessness? I’m not so sure there is any such thing as altruism: no matter how noble or kind our act, we might always receive something in return (even if it’s ‘just’ the glow of knowing you have loved).

Perhaps we give love because, deep down, very deep down beyond the words and thoughts we understand, we are scared. We’re scared of aloneness (I use this word deliberately): life as a search for shared connection, connection to the archetypes we all associate with and understand at some level, a kind of ‘cure’ for solipsist thinking (that is, that my mind is the only mind I can truly know as true; therefore I can’t be sure of others; therefore this is my aloneness). Of course, by using the possessive that is ‘my’, this suggests that ‘I’ consider there also to be an ‘other’ or ‘others’ (‘you’, ‘them’), and my aloneness is not real at all. The only other way to think is to use ‘it’ instead of ‘I’: it is not at all certain about love.
Love as irrational

When we analyse (or over analyse), we do it in a very rational, logical way. However, much of what we do as humans is irrational — superstition and belief, for example. We are, as are human children, irrational creatures. I shouldn’t differentiate at all here between adults and children: we are all irrational creatures.

Love is irrational. It’s that concept again of how it grows bigger in you the more it gets depleted (given away). When children love, they don’t do so in rational analytical ways (in this model, and so I assume because I don’t know their minds for sure). Children love because you are there, because you have crossed over into the mythic realm (which they can see), because it is just necessary to do so.
Love and gravity

Sometimes love just can’t be helped.

Professor Adam Morton, University of Bristol, writes: ‘Your mind is like your weight’. Run with this with me . . . Your mind, that which you are. So, by extension, your mind is like your mass? Your gravity?

Love has a mass.* Its affect can be felt. I think of love as dark matter, holding the universe together, exerting gravity and being affected by the gravity of objects too. Sometimes love just can’t help but aim towards the gravity of others.

*Yes, I am aware that mass and weight are different things!
Occam’s razor

Back to Earth. There’s a philosophical principle called Occam’s razor, which suggests — in essence — that the simplest answer is the one to go with. Children love — why?

Love is imbued in us from an early age: a reaction to being loved; the more we receive, perhaps, the more we give back.

I can’t just leave it there though. Occam’s razor might suppose that the fewest amount of assumptions creates the most elegant solution, but I have to add in assumptions because that’s the nature of this enquiry!

Love is imbued in us from an early age: a reaction to being loved; the more we receive, perhaps, the more we give back, until/if we reach a point where society, culture, others’ fears suppress what we give out. Many children love because it is just what they do, in various ways, until they’re imposed upon differently.
Beyond Occam’s razor: into the light

In my rummaging in philosophy pages, I found something that I see as quite beautiful. I want to use it as a final idea here, but a pause in the overall and ongoing thinking on love.

Professor Hossein Ziai, University of California, writes about the Islamic Philosophy of Illumination, according to the 12th century Persian thinker Shihāb al-Dīn Yahyā Sohravardī: ‘Objects, depicted as lights, are inherently knowable because they include essential light that may be ‘seen’ by subjects who, recovering their own essential lightness, become self-cognisant and capable of ‘seeing’ the object’s manifest light-essence’.

Adult as light, and seen by the child.
* Main reference material: Honderich, T. (Ed) (1995), Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Epigenetics and play

I recently delivered a presentation/workshop at the Beauty of Play (BoP) conference in Stone, Staffordshire. As I said at the time, in my pre-session taster, Perry* had asked me a couple of months ago to present something at BoP, and I had chosen the most challenging of the two suggestions! My subject matter for research, presentation and discussion was how the field of epigenetics can be seen in terms of children’s play. I’ve been thinking all week on how to write this presentation up in an easier to manage fashion. Here is that thinking.

What we are, in essence

Most of us have heard about ‘our genes’ and how we inherit these from our parents. We’ve heard about DNA and maybe even chromosomes. However, do we know what they actually are? When we have this understanding, we can start to look at what epigenetics is all about.

Our DNA is our basic ‘building blocks’ of life. That phrase has been around for a while. DNA is a collection of acids. We are, as I said in my presentation, essentially just a swill of chemicals floating around in sacks of skin! (The theme of BoP was ‘the essence of play’, and this phrase seemed to work quite well).

Our genes are sequences of DNA. Genes are instruction manuals for cell development and are contained in our chromosomes (which we have in every cell in our bodies). We have 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in total, which is – by the way – two fewer than the average potato!) Each chromosome has several hundred, sometimes several thousand, genes in them. All our genes are collectively called the genome, and we have around 25,000 genes in our genome.

So, our genes are instruction manuals that provide us with brown or blue eyes, height, weight, etc. What we inherit from both our parents combines to make us, us. What we also have, it’s been discovered, is the epigenome. This is additional cellular material that ‘sits above’ (‘epi’) the genome. I gather, once referred to as ‘junk DNA’ because it wasn’t clear what its function was, it’s now known that the epigenetic material acts as a switch, turning certain genes on or off. That is, the genes themselves don’t change, they’re just switched – or expressed – and that expression of on/off has huge implications.

Epigenetic marks

What does all of this have to do with children’s play? Well, for the moment, I shall just say that children are at a perfect point in life for the epigenetic on/off switch process to start taking place. I shall come back to this.

When chemical changes take place in the body, ‘epigenetic marks’ are left on the genes. These marks are then inherited. So, in a nutshell, the child – in formation – then passes on those epigenetic marks, as well as their genes, to their own children. It doesn’t stop there: those epigenetic marks are then passed on to their children’s children. The epigenetic marks are caused by what’s known as ‘environmental stressors’ (e.g. stress, starvation). So, in effect, what’s happening in the environment around the child will affect that child’s own grandchildren, even though those grandchildren aren’t subjected to the original environmental stressor themselves.

This is pretty profound to me. It makes me think of the huge responsibility we adults carry in affecting the children around us.

Research (Swedish harvests study)

The thinking on this environmental affect is bound up in plenty of research: in retrospective studies on human genetics (because artificial laboratory experiments on humans is unethical) and on laboratory animal studies (which others would say are just as unethical, but have been undertaken nonetheless).

A main study was one carried out by Swedish researcher, Lars Olov Bygren, and later added to by Marcus Pembrey, Professor of Clinical Genetics at the Institute of Child Health in London. The Swedish study of Överkalix parish’s records showed that the grandchildren of 19th century children – who were subjected to periods of famine and over-eating – were epigenetically affected: genes for life expectancy were affected so that, by and large, the grandchildren died some thirty years earlier than they would have done otherwise. In other words, their grandparents’ diets (as a result of their environment) affected the grandchildren, even though those grandchildren weren’t directly affected themselves.

Professor Pembrey’s 2006 study added to this thinking. He highlighted fathers who said they’d started smoking before the age of 11. This is a critical time for boys because, just before puberty, the boys’ sperm is in formation. This is an ideal time for epigenetic marks to be imprinted on the genes. Professor Pembrey’s study leads to the understanding that the sons of fathers who smoked in prepuberty are at higher risk of obesity and shorter life spans. It is the genetic switching process in action here.

Keep in mind how the adult environment affects children’s play. I will come back to this, but before I do . . .

Research (stress and pregnant women)

Pregnant women have long been advised about the dangers of smoking, drugs and alcohol on unborn children, and how stress can also affect the baby. However, when we think about epigenetic marks on the genes, we can start to realise that not only the baby, but that child’s own children can be affected. Take the Twin Towers attack in 2001 as an example of how pregnant women’s stress levels can dramatically alter. Studies by Rachel Yehuda, psychologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, suggest that children of women caught up in the Twin Towers attacks are more prone to stress. Their cortisol hormone levels are lower, making them more susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder. This gene switch may well pass down a further generation, even though the children of the children of the women at the Twin Towers weren’t there themselves.

Research (brain plasticity, mother-infant interactions)

It’s been known for a while in neuroscience how the environment affects what’s called the ‘plasticity of the brain’. Simply put, studies on rats in ‘rich environments’ shows that these environments are far better for the rats’ brains than ‘impoverished’ or boring environments. The brain grows by making use of itself. Play makes this happen. Adding an epigenetic twist to this thinking, studies in different mother-infant care quality in rats has shown an affect in the off-spring, and the off-spring’s offspring could be seen to be epigenetically affected too (here, in the case of poorer relationships).

Research (environmental toxins)

Now we get to an even more disturbing experiment on rats. Gestating rats were systematically exposed to various toxins (fungicide, pesticide, a plastic mixture, dioxin, and a hydrocarbon mixture). It was found, by a process of epigenetic marking or switching on/off of genes, that at least four generations of off-spring developed ovarian disease because of the toxins, even though those later generations weren’t directly exposed to the toxins themselves.

Research (affect on many generations)

Fruitfly and roundworm experiments showed that some 13 and 40 generations, respectively, were epigenetically affected by exposure to drugs in the original generation. Just to reiterate here, the DNA and genes weren’t changed; it was the genes that were switched on/off.

Does that mean that the environmental stressors are permanent on all future generations? Well, no. When the stressors (like starvation, diet, stress) aren’t there any more, the affect fades. Fading is a process though, and we can conclude from this that – even though there’s a fade out – the affects are still there to some degree.

Research (rich environments)

It’s not all doom and gloom. Experiments with some mice have shown that those mice exposed to rich environments showed better memory potential and this trait was epigenetically passed on to future generations, even though they themselves weren’t exposed to that rich (i.e. highly playable in) environment.

What this all means

So, we come back to children and their play and the environments around them. The huge responsibility we carry around with us, when we affect children, because we do do this, can be seen in physiological, psychological and sociological contexts:

Toxicants (outdoors and indoors) can affect the susceptibility to disease;

Children’s diets affect future generations’ life expectancies;

‘Modest stressors’, e.g. variations of natural light, extremes of temperature, etc, are beginning to be conditioned out in modern lifestyles. This results in an increased inability to cope with acute stress (there is an underactivation of the prefrontal cortex);

The adult care/interaction environment with children has the potential to affect children and their children:  

Hugely stressful environments for children can, potentially, alter their ability to regulate stress; excessively imposed restrictions/psychological restraint could result in biochemical changes, e.g. stress hormone, or reduction in brain plasticity;

A decreased neuronal plasticity (brain growth) due to impoverished mother-infant interactions and play environments;

‘Prolonged emotional stress in infancy may deactivate areas of the brain responsible for processing social information, impacting on emotion regulation’;

‘Attachment pathologies (breakdown or absence of secure attachments), leading to empathy disorders and a limited ability to read the emotions of others.’

‘Where [environmental] stress is prolonged . . . behaviours are likely to become more stereotypical, limited and limiting.’

Drugs use (e.g. Ritalin) causes dopamine changes in the brain (causing the more rational prefrontal cortex to over-ride the emotional limbic system – the emotional aspect being, as some might see it, the more natural state of the child); the effect being that doped-up children are easier to manage and to fit in with the ‘social construct’ of adults, making them more easily ‘educateable’, mouldable. When we think what the epigenetic affect could be, it’s scary. One research source claims that, in 2003, some 13 million US children were prescribed Ritalin! You should draw your own conclusions on the potential epigenetic affect here . . .

The environments we create, epigenetics, and the affect on generations

For the most part, this list above suggests a direct affect on the child. However, if we think of the epigenetic marking, the switching on/off of genes as a result of chemical changes, of how the children of the children exposed to the environments listed above are also affected – even though they weren’t directly exposed to those environments themselves – we can start to see the magnitude of all of this:

The environment we create, in which our children play and manoeuvre, will not only affect those children, but their children and their children’s children.

That, I think, is a huge responsibility for us to bear in mind.**
*For those readers not familiar with playwork circles, Perry Else is – according to his recent book (The Value of Play, 2009) – the course leader for BA Hons Children and Playwork at Sheffield Hallam University, and co-author of the Colorado Paper (1998) on psycholudics.

**As this is not an academic paper in itself, research material references have been left out. However, if any readers are interested, all references can be provided on request.

The speculative effect of playful adults on children’s culture

What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? I’ve been reading a research article on PlosOne, When the Transmission of Culture Is Child’s Play (2012). The question that this research asks is: How does culture get transmitted between children? The answer is obvious to playworkers: it’s through play, of course. The paper’s author, Mark Nielsen (of the School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane), defines culture by writing:

. . . in order for any behaviour to be considered ‘cultural’ it must propagate in a social group.

In other words, a spread of habits and traditions in that group. It’s no great surprise to me, reading the research, that children’s playing will develop those children’s culture: the culture of stories and habits, traditions and obsessions, will ripen and grow in the unfolding playing of the children. Nielsen himself writes:

[Children] entering into playful games with peers is much more about engaging with others than it is about acquiring object-related skills.

So, it’s more interesting when reading this paper, I think, to ask the question: What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? I ask this because Nielsen’s research is based on a simple task demonstrated by an adult. He and his colleagues conducted experiments with two groups of pre-schoolers: one group in Australia and one in Sri Lanka. They got an adult to demonstrate to one child how to open a box. The Australian and Sri Lankan children were split into different groups and then, individually, shown how to open the box by the adult in two different ways: for children in the first group, Nielsen calls the method ‘Functional’; the second way is called ‘Playful’. In the Functional way, the adult makes use of a key or a stick to show how to open the box. In the Playful way, the adult uses a toy car or a toy cow. In both the Functional and Playful ways, the demonstrating adult deliberately uses the object (key, stick, car, or cow) with some actions that are irrelevant to how the box can be opened. So, for example, the object is scraped along the box’s lid or round and round the ground next to the box. The box can only be opened by either pushing or sliding the opening mechanism. In the Functional way, the key or stick actions are reinforced with functional words. In the Playful way, the car or cow actions are reinforced with sounds like ‘vroom, vroom’ or ‘moo, moo’. The final piece of the experiment here is the ‘control’ children: these individuals aren’t shown how to open the box by the adult and are given the opportunity to poke around with the box and find out for themselves.

So, that’s the set-up of the science bit. What the researchers were looking at was, when the first child in each of the Functional, Playful and Control groups was then asked to show a second child what they could do with the box (i.e. open it) – and then the second child did the same for a third child, and so on down a chain – how many of the irrelevant actions, like scraping the object along the top of the box, demonstrated by the adult would be copied and kept going by the children down the chain.

The researchers found that the children down the Playful chain (i.e. the ones who started off with the adult using ‘moo, moo’ or ‘vroom, vroom’ sounds with cow/car) kept a lot more of the irrelevant actions going (even though ‘child three’ in the chain was copying from ‘child two’ and not from the initial adult).

In the Functional chain (basically where the adult was teaching in a rational ‘this is how to do it’ adult sort of way), the children quickly lost a lot of the irrelevant actions, i.e. the actions that didn’t help them open the box, like scraping a stick in the dirt around the outside of the box.

Not surprisingly perhaps, to the playworker, the Control children chain (who had no initial demonstration by the adult and were given the opportunity to work it out themselves), didn’t really copy the irrelevant actions of the other children. The adult was still present and encouraging the child though.

Nielsen writes:

We reasoned that the . . . lack of children’s over-imitation of other children might be attributable to the nature of the initial adult demonstration. That is, when an adult seeds the target action in the first child it is typically done in a serious, pedagogical manner. This might facilitate adult-child transmission but not subsequent child-child transmission; especially if children have little or no reason to view their peer model as an expert.

So, in other words, this research is saying that an adult who playfully shows a child how to do something, will be faithfully copied (over-imitation) by the children more than the adult who functionally teaches a child how to do something. The play in the action is the attractor. The functionally taught child will work out how to perform the action from the adult, but won’t pass on all the adults’ irrelevant actions to other children.

Nielsen goes on: 

In contrast, when playing, children will unhesitatingly adopt the non-functional, arbitrary actions and behaviours of their playmates.

So, playing children tend to copy other children’s irrelevant actions and arbitrary ‘make it up as you go along’-ness. This, then, is the children’s culture.

. . . in contrast to adult-child transmission, the reproduction of redundant actions [should] diminish or disappear in child-child transmission. This is precisely what happens.

In other words, because the child doesn’t see another child as an expert in what they’re doing, unlike the way they might see a functional adult, Nielsen reasons, redundant and irrelevant actions passed from functional adult to child, tend not to then be passed from child to child. However, children’s culture is such that that redundancy of action is passed on when no adult initiates things. This is how I understand this research.

Where does this leave us with my initial question? What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? Could it be that the playful adult is acting in the same cultural landscape as the adult-less child-child culture? That is, despite received wisdom in some of the playwork literature (that is, in effect, the adult must not pollute the children’s play by their actions), the playful adult may become ‘absorbed’, by the playing child, into their cultural landscape: aiding and abetting that culture’s formation and evolution – its ripening. The playful adult, according to this research, is more faithfully imitated (believed?), than the functional adult.

This may come as no surprise to some playworkers; it may be heresy to others.

Is UK age discrimination against children legal?

During the course of my continuous professional development reading today, I’ve been looking through content related to the UK’s Equality Act 2010. As a very quick overview here, the Act brings together and replaces previous legislation on race relations, disability discrimination and sex discrimination. In theory, it’s intended that this will make the law in these areas simpler.

The Equality Act 2010 outlines nine ‘protected characteristics’ (or groups, of which we all belong to at least one). These characteristics are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. As I was reading various information documents I began to think more on the characteristic of ‘age’.

It seems I’m not the only one to have thought about the question of age discrimination against children . . .

The Children’s Rights Alliance of England (CRAE) offer a very useful guide for children and young people (Making the most of the Equality Act 2010: a guide for children and young people in England). In this document, the CRAE state that the Equality Act 2010:

. . . only gives adults (over 18s) full legal protection from unlawful age discrimination. Children and young people are excluded from this new protection. However, you can still bring claims based on other characteristics such as disability, race, sex, etc. CRAE has been campaigning for many years to get under 18s protection from age discrimination.

At least CRAE are on the case. In 2009, before the Act received Royal Assent, CRAE produced a lobbying document called: Making the case: why children should be protected from age discrimination and how it can be done – proposals for the Equality Bill

My critique of this document is that, whilst it pays due attention to teenagers, babies and young children, there’s not enough regard to the societal needs of children in the 4-11 age bracket. That said, it does make for interesting reading. As an overview here, it investigates age discrimination of children and young people in terms of access to goods, facilities and services. It states, regarding the then upcoming Equality Act (p.4):

The UK Government proposes to extend age discrimination protection beyond the workplace, to cover the provision of goods, facilities and services.

The document looks at children and young people’s access to healthcare, child protection, justice, public leisure services, shops and restaurants, and public transport.

As I read I began making links with my recent observations of adults’ attitudes to children in Sweden, in places such as public transport.

On their main website, CRAE highlight:

April 2010 – Equality Act receives Royal Assent but excludes under-18s from age discrimination protection.

The Equality Act 2010 received Royal Assent on 8 April 2010. The Act, which brings together all existing discrimination legislation and extends protection from unfair treatment, explicitly excludes children and young people from legal protection from unfair discrimination on the grounds of age.

Why do we, in the UK, continue to treat our children with such disregard? Here are some interesting quotes from the Making the Case document:

‘The provisions will not cover people under 18. It is right to treat children and young people differently, for example through age limits on alcohol consumption, and there is little evidence of harmful age discrimination against young people.’

Harriet Harman, [then] Minister for Women and Equality, statement in the House of Commons, 26 June 2008.

Really, former Minister for Women and Equality?

The Australian Age Discrimination Act 2004 outlaws age discrimination in a range of areas beyond employment, including education, housing, goods, facilities and services. Children are explicitly included in this protection.

Australian Age Discrimination Act 2004, Section 33.

‘My local council have just made an allotment rule that requires children under the age of 16 to be accompanied by an adult at all times. There are tenants who’s [sic] children go to the allotment on their own to collect eggs and even to cultivate the plot. These children will now be prohibited from doing this. Are the council able to discriminate against children in this manner?’

Adult e-mail to CRAE advice line (18 December 2008).

‘If the Prime Minister lived my life for a week, he would find that he is constantly victimised just for being a young person . . . He would find that instead of being able to go where he wants, when he wants, that he is restricted by signs saying ‘no more than one child at any time’. At this point he’d think to himself, if that sign said ‘no more than one gay at any time’ or ‘no more than one old person at any time’, that it would be against the law.’

17 year old, Children’s Rights Alliance for England (2007). Online survey, Get Ready for Change

On their website, CRAE’s timeline of action posting for February 2010 (in the last throes of the former Labour Government) states:

The Government has said that it is ‘firmly committed to eradicating age discrimination wherever it arises. No-one should be treated badly just because of their age.’ Yet, in a recent speech, Harriet Harman, the Minister for Equality and Women claimed that ‘. . . older people are the last remaining group that society deems it acceptable to discriminate against.’ Young Equals [co-ordinated by CRAE] believes that such a statement undermines the legitimacy of children and young people’s experiences and reinforces the idea that they do not experience age discrimination. This is not the case and we call on the Government to amend the Equality Bill in order to extend legal protection from unfair discrimination on the grounds of age to children and young people.

This blog posting of mine is not an indication of my political persuasion. The current Coalition Government must take responsibility. I have no further comment on the question posed in the title of this blog piece: I think the CRAE have made a good case and I’d just like to bring it to your attentions, my fellow play and playwork colleagues.

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