In 2010 I delivered a two-day basic playwork block of training, and what I remember most of those sessions will always be the comments made by one attendee towards the end of the second day. He was extremely angry and struggled to keep it in check as he told me, in no uncertain terms, how he saw what I was teaching to be some maladjusted misinformed ‘1970s liberalism’. His vehement opinion really knocked me back. I defended myself at the time by saying that I didn’t write the stuff I was teaching (despite believing in it), that it was developed from those respected playwork writers who’d already put their observations, reflections and theories down on paper, but it was to little avail. The ‘liberal accusation’ is an on-going accusation, I find.
That is to say, the more I learn about my observations of children at play, my re-readings of older texts and readings of new texts, my conversations and correspondences with other playwork-minded people, and how all of this allows for more nuanced understandings of my own and others’ practices, offering other lenses to see through, the more I recognise the ‘liberal accusation’. Towards one end of the ignorance spectrum (ignorance is bliss, perhaps?) is the only slightly annoying but still somewhat pervading commentary that is, ‘So, you play with children; how hard can it be?’ Towards the other end of the spectrum are comments such as, ‘You can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: there will be anarchy’, and ‘Children need discipline, order, direction’, or comments from people who say they’re playworkers, and the like, along the lines of getting the whole playwork thing but that, now then, back in the real world . . . (add in any given adult construct of whatever the opposite of ‘just playing around’ can be seen as).
We’re not just playing around in playwork. This is serious stuff. Children play, and their play is also serious stuff. Sure, play can be funny, ridiculous, cute and fluffy, but play also includes the urgent need to destroy, the fervent need to win, the desperate need to be included, the subtle need to just be near this adult in this ‘just right now’ for just a few moments, the sometimes almost imperceptible need to be heard and taken seriously: all of this and an infinite arrangement of other needs too. When I hear the ‘liberal accusation’ come my way, in light of all of the above and everything else I’ve not got the space to write out here, I can’t help the virtual soapbox from coming up out of the ground beneath me and, before I’ve had enough time to think the situation through, there I am, quietly indignant and letting others know it.
The attendee at the 2010 training sessions who shot his ‘1970s liberalism’ accusation at me, if I remember correctly, also went on to extend his thinking (which had, no doubt, been brewing for most of the two days in that room with me and his learner colleagues): his view was along the lines of how you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want because there’ll be ‘anarchy’. ‘Anarchy’ has got a bad press in the minds of ‘liberal accusers’. The word is often used as a general catch-all that represents the comprehensive meltdown of society as we know it, and the meltdown of the micro-societies of children’s adult-led ‘play settings’ (or, as one girl of about ten, who I used to know, once told me of the after school club she attended, and where I then worked, ‘I don’t want to go the children’s farm today’).
There’s plenty to be diverted by in that last paragraph, plenty to be ‘unpacked’: perhaps there’s material for future writing here but, for now, suffice is to say that I’m starting to understand some playwork colleagues’ indifference for the term ‘play setting’. It does rather conjure up the image of something somewhat lifeless, sterile, in the process of fossilising, setting . . . I’m more interested in the idea of ‘place’. Sure, we do have these things we call ‘compensatory spaces for play’, i.e. the bits inside the fence where play is given the opportunity to be; we may work in these as playworkers, but the place is greater than the space because, amongst other things, there is the playwork mindset at work.
Back to my anarchy-fearing anti-liberalist, and his kindred spirits, and his view that you can’t just let children do whatever they want, whenever they want: the simple response is often just ‘Why?’ Of course, this will be a red flag to a bull, more often than not, and can be used with mischievous intent. However, the question is valid, I think. That is, why can’t children make decisions about what they want to do, and how they do it, and why they want to do it the way that they choose? Is it valid to say that you, an adult, should not be allowed to make decisions about whether to go to the café or the pub or stay at home, whether to go by bus or cycle, or to decide that you need to go to a gig because you’re feeling a certain way? You’re not stupid: you can make your own choices. Children aren’t stupid either: adults tend to treat them as if they are though.
Now, it is fair to say that sometimes children may not perceive the hazards inherent in a situation (but let’s face it, there are plenty of adults who don’t see hazards either: I’m currently of the opinion that if I’m walking down a street and a fellow adult is engaged in phone-zombie mode, eyes on the screen in their hand, head down, ears blocked up with whatever their musical thing is that’s pouring through their earphones, then I’ll just walk-aim for them; call it mischievous intent, call it play!) Back to the children and their occasional inability to see the hazard because (just like the phone-zombie) they’re so into their play: I have been known to point out the hazard if the child hasn’t seen it, or to ask children to remove themselves from an area. Is this adult control? Last week, when a girl was just so hyped up around the fire pit, not noticing that (in my opinion) her play was a potential hazard to the other children around her as well as to herself, I asked her to leave for a while. The children will put plenty of cardboard on the fire because it’s instant gratification, which wood alone can’t give, and because they actively seek out the ‘biggest fire ever’, but they don’t sometimes see the way the fire comes close to their trousers as they jostle for ‘king or queen of the fire’ status. I continue to reflect, a few days on, about whether I did the right thing by her (she refused to leave the fire pit area because, I suspect, she was embarrassed, put out, angry at me, I’d disrupted her play). We settled into a compromise.
This is not a ‘liberal, anarchic, anything goes and hang the idea of danger, let them get on with it’ approach. Apparently, as was told to myself and a colleague by another colleague, a passer-by outside the playground took offence at the fire pit as was seen by peering through the fence: the inference being, as I read it, that children and fire do not, should not, mix and that it’s all very, very wrong. It’s all far too slack and liberal. Children should be given discipline, order, direction, not left to their own devices in obviously unsafe, anything goes havens of anarchic meltdown . . .
In places of play, where play can actually happen, skilled playworkers know when to stay out of things, when to keep a careful eye on the constantly shifting play, when to observe closely from afar or almost imperceptibly from close by; they know that they’re repeating cycles of dynamic risk assessments in their heads, they can sometimes anticipate the play before it’s happened because they know this play frame from other occurrences, they know these children on this playground, they’ve seen the affects of this weather, this play resource, this dynamic of children, or they can make a near-as-makes-no-odds assessment of combined factors of experience in new situations; they can read the stories unfolding, they can hold up their hands if they get it wrong (because that’s what happens in the continual cycle of learning and understanding: we misinterpret sometimes, we realise that we could have been ten seconds sharper, we see that one thing we said or did led to other things that might not have happened otherwise) . . . all of this and more.
I often say to playwork learners that if, by the end of a session, you’re not mentally worn out (and sometimes physically exhausted too), then maybe you’re not doing it right. Being a playworker doesn’t mean that this ‘1970s liberalism’, anything goes slack culture, as I read the accusation, is the norm — being a playworker doesn’t mean that we don’t take children’s physical safety, or safeguarding of welfare, or stances on bullying and the like lightly; the ‘liberal accusation’ cannot, or will not, see the nuances of all that is observed, felt, intuited, there and then considered, in-the-moment referenced from the playwork literature, experienced, reflected upon, that the on-going deliberation and action that the practice of playwork is. Just as children’s play is serious, so is playwork.