With the advent of the annual playworkers’ conference this week, and with so many people who go by the title ‘playworker’ (or who have links to playwork) there, I’m wondering what this playwork thing looks like to the people at the centre of it all: that is, the children. We in the field of playwork have, and continue to have, debates about what it is we do, why we do it, what its worth is, whether we’re needed at all, and so on, but how much do we know of what the children say? We do, after all, profess to putting them first.
I’ve read a fair few books on playwork practice, and these include theories for ways of working, stories of play observed, ideas on what play is good for, what it helps or does, and so on, but I’m not so sure the sum total of writing on ‘playwork from the child’s perspective’ is any great percentage of that whole. What do the children care about developmental, evolutionary, or therapeutic angles on adults working with them? What they care about, I’m prepared to stick my neck out here, is that adults who they happen to have to share their places of play with should be: people who they can get along with; who are fun to be around (though not in any overtly ‘wacky, zany’ sort of way); who listen when they should listen; who tell stories when they should tell stories; who know when not to say something to someone else, and who know which stories of the children’s they should keep quiet about; who will be honest with them; who will help and protect them if they want that; who won’t jump down their throats if they choose to swear, stick up their middle finger, or fling a paint brush loaded with paint up into the air or against the wall just because they feel like it . . .
Whilst there are aspects of the playwork books that certainly point towards such tolerance, they don’t all frame it in terms of relating. In my experience, this relating is essential to the children. They tell it in the stories and play they present, in the looks in their eyes, in the way that some may take an adult’s hand or rest their elbow on their shoulder when that adult’s knelt down. The children tell it in the things they don’t say directly about the playworker in question too: I’ve often had children tell me of their ‘teacher’s bad day, every day’, or the like, or how certain other adults in their lives just annoy them. Maybe I annoy them too, some days, but that day that I’m not part of the story in question, when being told the story in question, this I take as the children saying to me, ‘You’ll do’.
Plenty of the playwork literature links to thinking on standing back from the play, being invisible, retreating into the background, servicing and resourcing and making the environment good for play, whatever that play may be: this all happens, and can take great skill and self-discipline on the part of the playworker, but the children don’t always want just this. Sure, some days they want nothing more than for the adults to just butt out, stay back, get out of the way, turn a blind eye, and generally kindly do as they’re told! However, they’ll also often have half an eye on the adult (in staffed provisions) just being around, just in case, for dealing with emergencies, for sorting out being ganged up on if they can’t eventually resolve it themselves, or if the gang pressure outweighs the risk of social ridicule by them then not being able to sort out their own problems. ‘Resilience’ is too simplistic a word here: children often cope, to a point, and then there are finer social nuances to have to contend with.
In terms of play, I’m pretty confident from my experiences of observing it, of being invited into it, and of listening to the stories of it, that children — by and large — don’t go into their play for outcome attainment (developmental milestones, cognitive and motor skills enhancement, the roping in of obesity, with awareness of their health, with concern for their future citizenship in terms of their good consumer unit potential, or with an eye on reduction of the national health service’s cost savings per capita!) I am being somewhat facetious, but the point is that children will go into their play because it is play. They’ll call it play if they’re not told to do it (‘doing homework’ isn’t play, as the children I’ve related to say it, even if the child likes the subject, because someone is still imposing on that child’s time to play).
In my experience, children have quite a sophisticated view of when their play is: it is that quality time that isn’t imposed upon by others, though it can also be the moments of possibility within that imposition (homework can morph out of being homework and into spontaneous play away from it). Often, unimposed time is squeezed in between other things (‘work’, ‘structured dedicated times for sport’, and so on) and children have the ability to view time in between times, as well as time within imposed upon time, as time that’s playable. Plenty of adults don’t see this. The children, meanwhile, often express the need to be around others who appreciate their in between time, as well as that time that is given over entirely for play: these others will be other children, but it will also be those adults who ‘just get it’.
Whether those adults call themselves playworkers or not, children will often directly express a preference for their company (whether the old-schoolers of playwork literature like this or not), or children will indirectly express who the adults who ‘get them’, and their play, are. By ‘company’ I’m not talking about ‘best mates’, though I’ve certainly known children who’ve chosen to call me ‘friend’: by ‘company’ I’m referring to anything from just keeping an eye on the fact that the adult is there or thereabouts, to actively pursuing play cues and returns with that adult, deeply engaging them in the fantasies and flows, narratives and confidences of the play. It isn’t about a replacement of another playing child, in its most sophisticated form: it is, as I register it, an acknowledgement of relating, of shared histories of space and place, of a development of mutual knowing.
Children will play without adults being directly around, but the fact is that adults are indirectly around them in the urban and the rural landscapes of society as we know it, even if those adults don’t directly witness that play itself. Playworking embraces tolerances. Playworking also embraces interactions. It is this, in my experience, in my observation, in my listening, and in my relating, that I suggest as a way of seeing how playwork looks from children’s perspectives.