Play is a basic human drive, like hunger, thirst, the impulses to run and to consider, the urges for companionship and solitude. The need for play is urgent and vital, and its deprivation has short- and long-term consequences on a child’s physical, emotional, social, cognitive and creative development.
Play is vital at all ages for expression and development of the self. Children play instinctively, with an infinite variety of curiosity and expression, and with a creative engagement with all aspects of their world. As adults the challenge is to resist the easy interpretations of nostalgia, and to support rather than dominate children’s experiences in a way that demonstrates our trust in them to know what they need for and from their play.
Play can be usefully understood as a process rather than an activity, through which a child might imaginatively transform their surroundings in material, aesthetic and social ways, reinventing the familiar into the strange, the mundane into the magical. A child can imagine a cup into an ocean, a table into a fort, themselves into anything at all. Play can be creative, loud, quiet, physically demanding; its internal structure can be obvious to an observer or very subtle. Play can be many things, and it is always changing.
My favorite definition of play comes from a 10 year old girl named Meera, quoted in Play England documents:
“Play is what I do when everyone else stops telling me what to do.”
Playwork is the facilitation of free play with children and young people. This means a number of things, but it does not mean: leading games in which every child must take part, teaching skills such as representative painting or standing guard over equipment ensuring that “everyone gets their turn”. It often means explaining what we do and why to other adults, to people who are afraid that a little risk will invite a big lawsuit, who feel that clothes need to be kept clean at all times or that “No Ball Games” signs belong on the walls of public space. Primarily, playwork is the responsibility for creating and sustaining an environment which supports a range of children’s freely chosen, self-directed play.
A typical play session will start with a risk assessment of the site, checking for broken glass and anything else which might create a hazard to children. Then some pieces might be brought out, such as dressing up clothes, lengths of cardboard tubes, pavement chalks or rope to make a swing from trees. Scrap materials, such as cardboard boxes and old tires, are tremendous for play because they are open for children to use, adapt and destroy as they please.
During the session playworkers will wait to be invited to play, making it clear that they’re open and responses to children’s cues but do not expect or privilege any particular kinds of play. A playworker may conceive of themselves as, among other things, a loose part. If a child is undertaking a form of risky play, such as climbing a high tree, the playworker might casually stand close by to keep an eye on things. One thing the playworker will not do is shout at the child to get down.
Sometimes a child will, due to urgent behavioural concerns or because of complex needs, be placed on a one-to-one. Their playworker will determine what level of involvement in their play is necessary and useful on an individual basis throughout the session, but in general playworkers aim to encourage children to play together, without being reliant upon the adults onsite. Instead, we position ourselves as a resource and refuge, as someone the children can approach should they want a witness or assistant, more materials or if they feel things are getting “out of hand”.
At the end of the session the site will be checked again for any necessary maintenance or alteration, and all the playworkers will sit down for a lengthy reflective practice meeting during which any issues which came up during the day are discussed openly. Some details of the children’s play might be recorded in the interest of understanding their personalities and styles of play better. While playworkers are interested in how individual children grow and change as people, there is no sense of “progress” in play and no ultimate goals. Children’s interests and abilities in play develop at their own pace and on their own terms, and we’re just there to help them along the way.