Second in the series on play memories – now from Ithaca!

Greetings from Ithaca!

I’ve gone to visit Rusty Keeler and the Anarchy Zone that he and a range of wonderful people have begun.  Details and photographs to follow!

In the meantime, here is the second part of the series of posts on play exercise memories.

As always, let me know what you think – especially if you disagree.

With love,


I’ve often thought that playwork should be one of those professions (like therapy) where professionals are obligated to seek those services for themselves.

We’re all drawn to this work for complex, shifting reasons – because it feeds some hunger we have for self-healing, for joy, for time spent outdoors, for inspiration, for hope. There is an old Jewish idea of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and sometimes it’s suggested that we choose tasks of repair that mend for others breakages that we suffered ourselves. We can end painful cycles, spare others and triumph over our old wounds.

For me, playwork appealed to my anger at the breakages I saw in the world, the systematic silencing of people in the basis of age, ability, orientation, strangeness. Coming at this from an eco-feminist, anarcho sensibility, playwork offered tangible, practical and joyful possibilities to help disregarded and disempowered young people make immediate changes in their worlds, and to do this with humor and compassion.

We are all imperfect, troubled and flawed. We all nurture secret hopes. We have all been hurt and all have an instinct for self-healing. We each have our reasons for doing this work (and those reasons are clearly not money, fame or popular respect) but how do we separate our reasons from the work itself?

Last week I shared some stories about these exercises, and others shared their own in the comments, so let’s delve into the processes of these exercises so that we can better understand how to observe, reflect and respond to what is happening.  Instead of focusing on groups which we have led, let’s try this for ourselves.  Take some time now to cast your own mind back, to sit in the sensory recollections, and let them fill you.

What do you feel when you recall your own childhood?

What do you remember?

For me, ‘play’ and ‘not-play’ memories are all jumbled up, and they don’t come running when called. I remember burning the soles of my feet on the summer-hot concrete of San Diego docks, skipping shade-to-shade all the way home. I remember being small for my age and hating it when adults thought I was younger than I was, or called me cute. Playing Barbie and Ken with a neighbor girl, how she took all of their clothes off, and the plastic clinks they made when she smacked them together.  Day-dreaming in my room, and the glow-in-the-dark stars I stuck above my bed. I remember loving my cuddly toys for far longer than I thought appropriate, and the fear that this love was childish and somehow weak.

The immediacy, the potency of childhood memories is still striking and for a moment I am caught, a taste in my mouth of the sticks we’d chew and call “Indian gum” but the mouth itself thirty years old and in another country. The skin on my arms and the back of my neck rises in bumps.

Putting these memories into words is a thinning process; I flatten them to push through a letterbox of communication. A memory told changes character, becoming something that takes place publicly outside of the remembering body – just as Stuart Lester says that asking a child to explain their play is “disembodying”, so is explaining a memory. The trade is the possibility for connection, for airing and releasing something which was carried within for so long.

We rarely give enough time to these exercises.  We make assumptions as to their effect.  Some adults are reconnected to a forgotten joy that spills over easily into advocacy – but not necessarily. Play memories relocate us within our childhood selves (or reawake the children within us), and these children are hungry, curious, selfish and strong. The process from this to advocacy is one of translation, of projecting your own needs (met) onto those of children today (unmet) and then recognizing what you can do to make a difference.  For advocates, we need adults who can step aside from their own remembered needs and understand how to support children’s play as an adult.

For the play deprived adult, however, the experience can be rather different. It is easy to slip into jealousy, suspicion, anger or withdrawal – all the emotions we see in play-deprived children every day. Alice Miller wrote on our need to process childhood oppression, developing sympathetic understanding for ourselves and for the adults who couldn’t do any better. If not, we simply pass these on to children in our care, looking to them to meet our needs in explicit and subtle ways, and in doing so continue the cycle of abuse and mistreatment.  This can be true for parents and caregivers, teachers and playworkers.

From The New Yorker, June 28th, 2012

Miller, a former psychotherapist, had grown disillusioned with the notion of the ‘talking cure’ and argued of the danger of creating or continuing a ‘false self’ – one that says and does the right things, one which performs but cannot truly experience, reflect or grow.  This false self masks the true one and old traumas, these scabbed-over wounds that itch and trouble us and yet remain unexamined.

We recognize the impact of our own childhoods upon us, and of ourselves upon the play space. And yet we are often terribly British about these potential conflicts, with the professional message often seeming to be that “you must handle your problems, just not here”. And indeed, how are we to address these problems? If simply talking about them isn’t enough, and we are wary of revealing so much to the people we work with, how are we to proceed, as individuals and as a profession?  And how are we to effect the widest possible change in children’s lives?

In the next and last post in this series I’ll discuss another method which can be used in parallel with or replacing play memory exercises to help adults learn to recognize and meet their own play needs, draw up childhood experiences in a supported environment, reconcile past traumas, and connect with others.

What’s more, we’ll do it using the skills we already have.

7 thoughts on “Second in the series on play memories – now from Ithaca!

  1. Interesting stuff.

    Have a look at what Gordon Sturrock says about people coming to playwork choosing “… tasks of repair that mend for others breakages that we suffered ourselves.” He calls it unplayedout material. We all have it, and anyone who tells you they haven’t is either fibbing or very un-self-aware.

    “…help disregarded and disempowered young people make immediate changes in their worlds” A noble aim. However playwork is about providing play opportunities. I’ve done lots of [for shorthand] ‘notplaywork’ in my time, which has included helping kids, but that should not be confused with playwork. I just think we have to be clear about when it is and when it isn’t playwork. Plenty of good playworkers have moved out of playwork into play therapy for example. A lot of the approaches are similar in play therapy, but it isn’t playwork.

  2. Thank you!

    I completely agree with Gordon’s line about unplayed out material – and that we all have it. How we handle it is what’s important.

    I also see your point on being clear about playwork being “about providing play opportunities”, and agree with it. Perhaps I was being less than clear, because for me “making immediate changes” is absolutely part of play. By “changes” I meant whatever physical, social or conceptual alterations they need to make themselves in the “creation of a space in which they can play” (Principle 5).

    1. Hi Morgan.

      I would perhaps go one further on in the area of the adult world. To a certain sensibility, playwork is a doddle, one could argue; you create a rich environment, you observe it as unobtrusively as you can to check that it is providing for the richest possibilities, you reflect on what is happening (usually with others), you return to the playspace together and individually. Though reflection is integral, the focus is very immanent (the two sides of the reflective coin being witnessing and actuasl moment-to-moment experience). Because children are hardwired to play, once the setting is set up you can take your lead from them; the immanent side of playwork is response oriented.

      But the fourth Playwork Principle, the one about adult agendas, is extraordinary complex. We have talked about this at length so I know that you concur here. We have ‘three adults’ to tun our attention to. Ourselves, other adults ‘involved’ with ‘the play space’ (colleagues, managers, funders, policy makers), and other adults NOT involved (educators, parents, the media – and in it’s broadest, McLuhanesque sense, and so forth). This is where our capacities of reflection get really tested, because everyone wants a piece of the play space, and their reasons for doing so often don’t fit in with our models for so called ‘freely chosen’ playful behaviour.

      Being aware of our own motivation in a consistent and authentic way might be the hardest part however. I love this quote from Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Ghandi:

      “I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian People, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Ghandi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

      1. I love that quote so much. Thank you, Eddie.

        I think there might be even MORE adults, because each one of us is a collection of different people/impulses/memories/interpretations that vary and conflict in different ways. That might be another great reason for reflection, because it helps us sift through these selves consciously and carefully, AND because it helps get us into an appropriate headspace for the good work at hand.

        There’s also the tricky issue that not all playworkers love this “deep and hidden meaning” junk that we do! (And of course, I’m calling it that in the most frivolous of teases). For some people, that immanent meaning is as deep as they’re going to go.

        So, I guess that this question of unplayed out material continues forever – both as we continue to unpack our own childhoods and as we process the task of living and working in this complex, play-phobic, media-saturated, glorious, mixed-up world.

  3. Hi Morgan

    This dubious art or alchemy of playwork as a therapeutic means for the playworker. How subversive this thought here is in the context of, as I understand it, playwork’s traditionally noble aim of providing for the children. Of course, how can there be a thing such as absolute altruism? There will always be something for the giver in the giving. This altruistic notion has always troubled me. I just dug down deep enough to find it!

    Now, Arthur writes about how ‘playwork is about providing play opportunities’ and that ‘notplaywork’ shouldn’t be confused. Maybe playwork’s next step is the further consideration of momentary play, in the context of therapy and ‘notaltruism’. So, as it’s fresh in my mind, over at PBN I wrote tonight (and in the spirit of Capote on Kerouac ‘that’s not writing, it’s typing’!) along the lines of: maybe playwork, in the form of noun, should be thought of in terms of ‘playworking’, ‘to playwork’, the verb.

    That is, in my quiet interactions in the world, I often connect with children on levels I have no true comparative understanding of; moments in/of making, opportunities of play/connection, formations; bubbles that float away. It is, conceivably, in its moment of magic, ‘a therapy’ in this huge, gaping world (melodrama entirely intended!) both for the child, perhaps, and this adult. It is a knowing. You know?

    I don’t know: this is a life-long distillation.

    1. Haha – yes!

      I think that there has to be an element of altruism there (as I said, we’re not in it for the cash or the glory!) and perhaps being honest about that, about why we love this work for our own reasons, is part of acknowledging our own unplayed out stuff and so addressing it. There are worse motivations than a hunger for joy, y’know?

      And I think that understanding this process for us is also part of remembering that our experiences within the ‘magical’ frame are our own, as are all missed cues, free associations, nostalgias and bafflements.

      Which is the fun part, no?

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