Education of the Playworker

Playwork can be humbling.

At my longest-running session, keyworking children with special needs in a public park, one of oldest girls led me around the site she’s been coming to for years. In so doing she reminded me of two things: how much I love playwork, and how much better children are at this than adults.

I have previously been wary of working with her. She is taller and stronger than me, prone to running at full tilt across the site and grabbing food from people outside the café. She eats everything – everything! – including paint, sand, small plastic toys and, on one memorable day, an AA battery followed by a whole rubber glove. She is a true force of nature and even though her play is dynamic, exploratory, rebellious, even though it is in short everything I believe play ought to be, sometimes I confess to feeling tired. We worked together recently and she showed me how enormously I had been missing the point.

First we sat by the rack of books. She likes to pull them out one by one and drop them onto the floor, the pages flying open like swooping birds. She first selected a story book, dense with writing on Tigger’s most recent adventures. I read it out and she was interested at first. I varied my tone and made up voices. She smiled and settled down on her heels, but after a few minutes became bored. I kept reading anyway, enjoying the story and waiting for a cue of what she would like to do next, but she just watched me as I read, putting her face closer and closer to mine. She finally lifted the book out of my hands and, with an implacable expression, put one finger horizontally to her lips and made a loud burbling sound at me. Well, I thought, so much for reading.

She decided to give me another chance, lifting out a picture book and putting it into my hands. She pointed to a series of images, and I responded with the words, speaking loud and clearly. She is limited in her words, but never seems to have too much trouble getting her point across.

“Boat,” I said. Then “cat”, “duck”, “bucket” and “seaside” as she pointed repeatedly at different spots on the page, getting increasingly exasperated with my performance. She just shook her head from side to side, looking so disappointed in me. She replied loudly and slowly.

“Book,” she said.

Then she took me to stand directly in front of the café service hatch until they gave her some chips to go away. She was kind enough, though, to share them with half and half with me.

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