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

Posts tagged ‘structure’

Call me playworker

There isn’t so much of an elephant in playwork’s room, it’s more of a whale. If play for play’s sake can be seen to have been somewhat subsumed by all manner of adult agendas, the natural and subsequent enquiry for a playworker might well then be: so what has become of playwork? There are two aspects to consider in this: (i) what is this thing called playwork, as understood by this playworker?; (ii) what is playwork perceived to be by others? In respect of the first aspect, in all honesty, I seem to waver between states of upholding the cause of playworker as specialist in the field of working with children and then, when I realise this could be a bit holier than thou or isolationist, I come back to the notion of ‘playworking’: by which I mean, in essence, an approach that can be applied to the wide smear of all of us who work in a particular way (or just simply ‘are’) in that multi-disciplined field.

In respect of the second aspect, however (the perception of what playwork is, to any given other in the analogy of that diverse field), the current concern is that playwork is greatly misunderstood. If adult agendas can be seen to have largely swamped children’s play for play’s sake, then the approach that is ‘playwork’ or the being that is ‘playworker’, might well similarly have been usurped. The suspicion is not a new one: it’s been bouncing around in the thinking for a while now. Just because adults work with children in contexts that potentially bring them close to the possibility of their play, it doesn’t necessarily make them playworkers. Worse yet, ‘play [space] worker’ [sic] should not be synonymous with ‘anyone who works with children in any capacity’. So we waver back to the isolationist stance of playworker as specialist.

Perhaps we can think about the two ideas at once (and not in a mutually exclusive way): the playworker (without the space between the two elements of the compound word) is a specialist at what he or she does; those who operate in any given manner within their work for and with children can, conceivably, approach this work in a ‘playworking’ way. This is a think-piece for a possible other time though.

Back to the assumption and the concern at hand: are the words ‘playwork’ and ‘playworker’ now at a point of having been taken over, subsumed into the agenda-driven homogeneity of the perspectives of all others in the field?

My direction of thinking and research was influenced in part by research undertaken in my previous post: the flotsam and jetsam of social media feeds throw up all manner of possible leads to follow, and I was starting to see various perceptions of playwork via childcare training organisations, early years practitioners, forest schools and other outdoor learning provisions and advocates, as well as from academics and other writers and people I already knew as ‘playworkers’. What, I thought, might a snapshot of ‘playwork’ look like? It seemed a fair place to start by spending a couple of hours in the research of job adverts for playwork positions.

This research is not, of course, comprehensive. I found a relatively useful search site that does the trawling of other sites for you (this one’s called Adzuna, though that’s no endorsement, and other sites are no doubt available). I don’t know if the site picked up all possible matches from all possible other sites regarding the search term ‘playworker’ but the final retrieval was 37 separate results. This figure came about after weeding out the duplicate adverts, counting as just one the same cut-and-paste adverts by organisations looking for positions to be filled in multiple sites, and only analysing positions that had ‘playworker’, or ‘play [space] worker’ [sic], or even ‘play-worker’ [sic] in the title, i.e. ignoring search results where ‘playwork’ is embedded in the advert text for a different job title. The search returned results for current positions UK-wide and was conducted on Friday, September 7, 2018. There was a wide range of types of advertising organisations: county and borough councils, childcare, Montessori and other early years organisations, sports-based organisations, schools, out of school clubs, prison-based organisations, recruitment agencies representing childcarers, and adventure playgrounds, to name a fair spread. Before conducting the search, I decided I’d match each advert with a simple ‘yes/no’ check with regards to a small set of criteria (in an effort to try to ascertain if each organisation claiming to want to employ a playworker could be seen to know or not know what a playworker actually was).

Knowing what a playworker is (or, defining the term, might well encompass a much larger set of criteria, and herein might well lie one of our basic problems, but that’s an aside). For the purposes of this simple research though, I decided to check against six main criteria (plus an additional one for curiosity). These criteria were as follows.

The case for playwork understanding:

(i) Is there mention of ‘play’ in the advert (other than adjoined in some fashion to the word or the idea of adult-structured activities/planning?);
(ii) Is there mention of the Playwork Principles?;
(ii) Can an understanding of play for play’s sake be extrapolated from the wording?

The case against playwork understanding:

(iv) Are there stated (or implicit) learning, development and social agendas built into the job role?;
(v) Is there a focus on activity planning of children’s time?;
(vi) Is there an ‘ensuring children’s safety at all times’ focus?

These criteria are, of course, open to critique, but I chose the first three because they seemed to me to be a fair reflection of what an advert for a playworker should include, and the second three because experience has shown me that these thinking processes are more or less what seem to come up time and again in a non-play for play’s sake approach. The bonus curiosity criterion was (astute readers might by now have fathomed): Is the word ‘playwork’ or ‘playworker’ written with a space or a hyphen in between? (Always a good indicator, in my experience, that finer nuances have been missed).

So, to the results.

(i) Mention of play: 14% (5 out of 37 adverts)
(ii) Mention of Playwork Principles: 3% (1 out of 37 adverts)
(iii) Understanding of play for play’s sake: 3% (1 out of 37 adverts)

(iv) Learning, development, social agendas: 65% (24 out of 37 adverts)
(v) Focus on activity planning of children’s time: 65% (24 out of 37 adverts)
(vi) Ensuring children’s safety at all times focus: 43% (16 out 37 adverts)

(vii) Play [space] work: 30% (11 out of 37 adverts)

Addenda to the above results are that: the one advert to mention the Playwork Principles regarding a playworker position didn’t actually understand what the Principles were, based on the rest of the advert (so, in effect then, mention of the Playwork Principles in terms of understanding them can be counted as 0%); the one advert that gave the impression that those who placed it understood the idea of play for play’s sake was an adventure playground; one other advert did mention the Playwork Principles but this was in regards to a managerial position, so not within the scope of the above data. That said, I note it because the words caught my eye in the scanning and perusal of the advert contributed to a list of questionable material (see below).

What can we make of the results then? Perhaps this simple research can be said to be tainted by some researcher bias (though the effort was made to counter this in the choice of criteria and the stage it was devised at). Perhaps I was really looking to ‘prove’ what I knew all along. That said, this isn’t a PhD but rather a back of the envelope scribbling. You be the judge here.

For me, it’s lamentable statistics insofar as the mention of play (in terms of how a playworker might know play to be) is concerned: just 5 out of 37 adverts see it as important to make note of. That only one of the 37 even mentions the Playwork Principles (and none of them, I suggest, understand them) is not surprising but it is worrying. That only one (not surprisingly an adventure playground, though other types of provisions of good quality are available) can be readily seen to understand the idea of play for play’s sake is, well, sobering. Compare these figures with the much higher (adult in-) control and development agendas that return 65%, 65% and 43% and we can see which way the wind seems to have blown. The small surprise is that there weren’t more of the ‘play [space] work’ [sic] adverts out there. It’s a personal irritation that the words are routinely split, and words mean things after all. That said, the opposite spin on this is that what does this all say for the appropriation of the compound word ‘playworker’?

Notes were made on some wordings within the adverts (wordings that troubled somewhat). Below are a selection of critiqued offerings from the adverts, without attribution because they could easily be mixed and matched anyway, because the data isn’t identifiable in my notes and, even if that were the case, I’m also not minded to enter into those finger-pointing waters as yet (suffice is to say that the prevalence of, for example, [enter brand name here] Childcare/Sports and Fitness Multi-Franchise Operators with their photocopied policy files, staff uniforms and one size fits all fits-allness leaves me cold):

Enforce and implement all Club [sic] policies and procedures, the implementation of playwork principles [sic] and general childcare requirements

[My emphasis in italics: is the implementation of the Playwork Principles also by enforcement?]

To lead and develop quality play and activity opportunities ensuring engagement of all children specific to their individual needs

[My emphasis in italics: I’m not sure I know how to ensure all children’s engagement]

The role of Playworker [sic] involves supervising the children, ensuring their safety at all times, engaging with them in aspects of play and conversation, setting up activities for children to optionally take part in . . .

[Or, perhaps, getting in the way of children and taking over, not letting them do anything remotely disconcerting, getting in their way more, controlling their play, oh, but only if they want to take part]

Knowledge of a range of principals [sic] underpinning play work [sic]/childcare/youth support provision

[I refer m’learned colleague to the above contention that words mean things after all]

Supporting events and activities which deliver objectives and targets identified by the Play Service

[It does make me wonder what these objectives and targets are]

Taking control of a group of children ensuring their welfare, safety and enjoyment at all times.

[My emphasis in italics: taking control, no less, whilst also ensuring enjoyment, at all times]

Has ‘playworker’, and so ‘playwork’, or its perception at least, become irreversibly appropriated, swallowed up by the proponents of other agendas? There is, perhaps, a whale in playwork’s room.
 
 

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Play and time and the art of sitting around

It has been conference week in the playwork ‘world’ (as you who were also there are aware!) Conferences are often odd affairs: they never seem to last long enough, or you never get to participate in everything you like the look of, or they leave you tired and playing catch up for the rest of the week; yet, you will bring away something. This year I brought away fragments I’m now piecing together after sitting around at conference.

I mean that literally. The past few years, when I’ve attended, I’ve facilitated workshops, or I’ve built and manned adult play rooms, or I’ve run around in the background with set-ups and helping to keep it going, or I’ve snatched times here and there to listen to someone speak. My position has changed. This year there is time. This is a post about time.

Others who attended this week have already posted up, or will no doubt post up, their experiences and learnings (I’ve just read Vicky Edwards’ reflections on her experience of conference — good stuff, Vicky, by the way). I have been thinking for a couple of days. It’s been background thinking because the drive was long; because the experience of being surrounded by hundreds of others of similar mindsets can overwhelm (in a positive way); because the beer buzz affects the molecules! I have been thinking of time.

I did facilitate again, with Arthur, and the space was a different space to those I’m used to: it was a space, as I reflect on it, of depths and uncertainties. The subject was love, or thereabouts. When we talk about love in accepting spaces, strange things can happen: love begets love, love causes love. There were moments of being on the cusp of something, or so I perceived, and moments where I saw eyes glisten. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas though; the first rule of Fight Club is that we don’t talk about Fight Club, etc . . . So, what happened were small weightnesses of time.

This is what I’ve been thinking about, and it’s only now that I type it that I think I know what it is: moments happen. I had every intention to go listen to others in their presentations and facilitations and machinations of ideas; yet other forces had other ways of influencing me. The structure of the conference timetable just fell away. I saw and talked with my playwork friends when it was just time enough for that to happen. This is all about time.

I sat down at a table in the main conference hall (one of those large round tables) waiting for the coffee to kick in and for the ability to make a decision likewise. There comes a point though that neither really happens, and so we just give in to the flow of things. I sat with Rich and Arthur and Lily and others, and then when some had gone, Eddie joined us, and Lisa came, so did Morgan, and others came and went. There were lazy discussions on nothing much, and lazy discussions on nothing more, and discussions on playwork thinking and reflections of childhood, and minor rants, and silly playground humour (the best kind of humour!), and plenty of otherness. Two or three or four hours in I said; ‘Eddie, I’ve just had a moment, an epiphany! This is all an ebb and flow, a tide: people come and go, and it all comes to us’. Or words to that effect. I sat at that table for the very best part of four or five hours, watching, talking, learning, eating, drinking coffee, floating along. This is all about time, you see.

It strikes me, thinking and writing here, and thinking in my background way in the last few days, that there’s a correlation here with this and with the play of children. Take time — I mean this in several senses: take time to see the time taken by children; take time, have time, as children, to play in the lazy flowing, sometimes intense, sometimes over-tired silliness, sometimes ranting, sometimes love-friendly way that play can manifest as; take time . . . take time, take it away, out of the equation — see that ‘structure this, structure that, organise here, activity there’ can just squeeze all the possibility of play from the children before it can even take root. Play happens in its own time.

In my play at conference I took time from it. I took time and found that there are other ways of lovingworkingplaying (thanks Arthur); that others have deeper respect than I ever appreciated (thanks Lily); that there are common experiences, hopes and thinking, which were kind of known but not known (thanks Eddie, Morgan); that other appreciations also remain, after years (thanks Vicky, Neil, Rikki, Polly . . . and others).

I have been thinking of time: its ebb and flow, its depths and weightnesses, its way — if you’ll let it — of just taking you along. I let it play through me.
 
 

An adult affect in play settings

‘Human beings are predisposed to satisfy certain archetypal needs . . . if the environment does not fulfil those needs, then psychopathology will result.’

Bob Hughes (2012), Evolutionary Playwork, p.50, referring to Stevens and Price (1996), Evolutionary Psychiatry.
 
 
Play environments. Environments where play can happen. Playable spaces and places. Play might be everywhere, or can happen in many places. Being able to stand back and separate the woods from the trees is a luxury in some respects: I’m thinking here and now about all the play settings I’ve visited over the years. Of course, I can’t remember every one of them, but the investigation process of ‘things that are common’ started a long time ago.

I have to be careful with what I’m about to say. We adults can be a little touchy when it comes to certain statements: sometimes we think someone is attacking us personally. Here’s the statement: some play settings can have quite repressive feels.

OK, so some play settings are staffed by certain adults who very consciously and deliberately go out of their way to have it all their way. Statements I’ve heard such as ‘I’m a control freak; I need order; I want children to play in a certain way’, spring to mind. Elsewhere, there are more subtle repressions in place. In other play settings, there’s an unintended hampering of the children’s play.

What does this do to the children? There’s a whole thesis to be written by someone, somewhere on this. I have a limited space here. In the limited space of a repressive play setting (the adult-imposed limitations as well as the physical limitations, i.e. the human affect is important too), what happens to the children? Total unthinking obedience? Fear? Timidity? Reliance on the adults?

Looking at Hughes’ writing again in a little more detail:

Human beings are predisposed to satisfy certain archetypal needs [simply speaking, not being able to engage, in this case, in certain forms of play that are common to everyone].

If the environment does not fulfil those needs, then psychopathology will result [psychopathology being variously described as: abnormal, maladaptive behaviour; the manifestation of a mental or behavioural disorder].

Repressive environments go some way towards creating mental and behavioural disorders?

What happens when that repressive culture is lifted? Perhaps there’s a lingering after-effect that takes place. What I infer from Hughes’ writing is that, if I haven’t got the post-repressive environment right in a setting I’m working in, then psychopathologised behaviours will also be exhibited. It is a journey of recovery that must be taken.

Once, in a play setting, I observed as children – who had been chaotically engaged in post-repressive play – became absorbed in what I thought of as ‘primitive’ bow-and-arrow play. The play happened by accident. One child found a stick and took it indoors. He wanted something, ‘just something’, to make it into a bow. He found elastic. He created a bow and arrow and other children did the same. It wasn’t adult-led or structured play. The children seemed calm that day. This recapitulative play was intriguing in its calming effect.

Just to throw a spanner in the works of this progression from repression and psychopathology to recapitulation and calmness/coming back from chaos, an area of thought I’ve been interested in for a while springs to mind:

In his book, No Fear (2007), p.78, Tim Gill refers to the Institute of Psychiatry’s claim of a doubling of emotional/behavioural conduct problems amongst children and young people in the UK between 1974 and 1999. However, he goes on to write that behaviours once seen as the norm (e.g. quarrels, tantrums, introspection, playfighting) have now been pathologised as psychological problems.

In other words, children’s play is seen differently as time goes by (despite children doing the things other generations did, or even that our earlier ancestors did). Could it be that, the more that repressive play settings become the norm, the more the resultant children’s behaviours of unthinking obedience, fear, timidity, or reliance on the adults are seen to be ‘the norm’?

Sterilised play; sterilised childhood.
 
 

Structure and frameworks of freedom

Where do you start on a new blog? In the middle. Jump right in, I guess. So, to get things kick-started, there follows a version of a posting I made recently on the Playwork Bloggers Network forum. Morgan Leichter-Saxby asked: Do adult-structured activities have a place in playwork?

This throws up the question of children’s freely chosen play.

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking on ‘freely chosen’ over the last couple of days. Sure, ‘freely chosen’ is the pink and fluffy ideal, but last time I looked we don’t live in Utopia. We do live in reality. There’s an argument to say that we can always strive for the best situation/deal/quality in anything though (as opposed to the Homer Simpson school of thinking: trying is the first step towards failure!)

Recently [in the PBN forum], I wrote: The question asked must depend on what this thing called ‘structure’ is.

Vicky Edwards wrote: Would you agree it’s more of a case of the children not knowing how to play how the adult wants/thinks they should play?

Suzanna Law wrote: Sometimes it’s not all that simple. And ‘structured play’ might fall into this category.

Morgan wrote about: Adults having an ideal form of play that they expect to see, and then viewing children’s other choices as somehow deficient.

I’m reminded of Gordon [Sturrock] and Perry [Else]’s writing in the Colorado Paper (1998), where they make reference to Heidegger’s thinking on freedom not being limitless but contained. Now, this is easily misinterpretable. As I understand it, in the context of what’s written in that paper, by developing our own frameworks, containers, boundaries, ‘structures’, call it what you will, we can engage in freedom within the boundedness of our play ideas. It is the play idea of the player. It is not an imposed structure. The child at play creates the play frame and the playworker can help to preserve the meaning of this frame. The child has choices and freedom to manoeuvre in that engagement. Perhaps the playworker’s containment is a form of ‘structure’ in itself, but it’s a holding of the frame created by the child. It’s not imposed, the child’s frame ‘shape’ is negotiable by way of play.

Digging it out: ‘Containment,’ write Sturrock and Else, ‘. . . has been taken to an extreme in playcare with content and programme provided by the adult.’

So, this makes sense to me. ‘Structure’ isn’t a simple concept. Sometimes children will want, and do often enjoy, adult-devised things to do (activities). That said, there’s also an argument to say that children operate only in the realms of what they already know or are accustomed to. ‘Consult’ with children about what food/activities they’d like and, often, they’ll tell you about what they’ve had/done that day, or last week, rather than what’s outside their experience base. So, if children are only offered ‘structured’ or imposed activities, they’re not going to know what creating their own frameworks of freedom feels like.

And sure, children will sometimes engage in play in return for some extrinsically motivated reward (call it bribery!) Done too often though and a negative Pavlovian stimulus-response loop gets set up. That said, we should give consideration to the concept of ‘free will’ (not in the theological sense, but philosophically).

OK, distilling all of this down, where I’m going with all this is that children ought really to be deciding their play, of course, and if they want to use the clay to make pots and dragons and nests and stuff, fair enough; however, adult structured ‘now today we’re doing clay or football or drawing, that’s it, choose’ is about the adults’ needs for structure for the sake of it, order, control, dominance, a quiet time, outcomes, the playcare brand, etc etc.

I should write my own blog!

[Here it is!]
 
 

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