Third and final post in series on play memories

It feels slightly ridiculous, having a long and suspenseful lead-in to this final posting on play memories – especially because the suggestion I’m making here is so obvious.  It also feels hypocritical, because it’s a suggestion for everyone to do something that I don’t do nearly enough of myself.


Duh, isn’t that always the answer?

In all seriousness, I’ve outlined some of the issues that come up when trying to help people connect with their younger aspects through play memory exercises. I still think that those exercises can be astonishingly effective, and can take people on journeys through their own selves – I just don’t think they’re the whole answer.

We also need to create opportunities for adults to play, for the adults in the communities where we work as well as the adults we send to work in them. The need to play does not disappear from us as we age, and while some remain playful their whole lives I have seen many playworkers who forget to take care of their own needs outside of the session. For some (and I put my own hand up here too) it is easier to advocate for the needs of the most vulnerable than it is to meet our own.

There’s a reason why we’re advised on airplanes to put our own oxygen masks on before we put on those of children traveling with us. We’re more use to them when we’re looking after ourselves – and the same goes for playwork.

When I was in the shop, I’d often have parents who came in with a tidily dressed, docile child who was quickly settled at the arts table.

“Draw Nanny a boat,” the Mum might say. If she was ignored, the mother might start jabbing at the paper, repeating herself or forcing crayons into the child’s hand. I started putting paper and crayons next to the parents, and sometimes didn’t have to say a thing. They’d start drawing, and the child would shrug and get back to business.

In larger settings, such as Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, we’d often see adults creating these large “Parent Projects”. It was one way parents and carers had of engaging, at least at first. And I think that for adults to be enthusiastic about play can only be a good thing – what we were looking for, as playworkers, was for those parents and caregivers to feel secure enough in the environment and in their children to let go of control.

“I used to fight with my brothers all the time,” one Dad might say while watching his children go at it with sticks.

“Yeah?” I’d say, leaving a long pause for him to fill if he wanted to. And often, if it felt right, I’d pick up a couple of sticks and hand him one, tap his with mine in invitation.

When adults play, memories and associations rise up from the depths of our experiences. Just as children do, adults who have been deprived of play can be aggressive or withdrawn, suspicious or jealous when they see children get what they have been denied. Just as children do, adults benefit from a physical and social space staffed by sympathetic professionals, people who will hold the play frames when they cannot.

When adults play, they are able to recognize and meet their own needs – needs which may have festered for a long time. Feelings that cannot be voiced may arise, as the person finds themselves once again in their own bodies, trusting their own instincts, communicating with strangers as well as loved ones through the looks and postures that make up the language of play.

When adults play, they learn again the absorbing joy of it. They reconnect to the world, to themselves, to one another – and they find that the things that had seemed ordinary (a cup, a sheet of paper, a walk to the park on an overcast day) are made suddenly magical by their own actions.

No matter what the particular challenges of the communities you’re working with, helping the adults to play will make your case more effectively than talking about it ever could. When they are fully absorbed in a play setting they feel its importance on a level that words cannot reach – and, what’s more, your role within the setting becomes far more clear to them.

All-ages provision will also help embed the lessons of playwork beyond the site, beyond the session. Parents and caregivers who are ready to follow their children’s lead are often amazed at the competency their children display. They begin to hear how often they say ‘no’, to realize how frequently and reflexively they intervene.

“I never realized how much I shouted at (my child) until I was somewhere I didn’t have to,” one Mum said to me.

I’ve learned a huge amount from doing playwork – lessons that have had wide impact throughout my life, the most important of which was to have faith in the process itself. But the lessons from play are sometimes harder, more daunting, to accept. There is a vulnerability to play that runs alongside the joy, and we do not encourage adults to make themselves vulnerable. Our society is dense with fears of looking ridiculous, of being wrong, of losing control that was only ever an illusion anyway. When adults hang on to these fears they transmit them to children, whether they are parents, caregivers, teachers, or playworkers adulterating the space.

When adults release themselves from these fears, when they meet their own needs in bravery and joy, they create an air of permission that children respond to. They demonstrate that it is possible for play to effect change, for children’s play to be a touchstone for social revolutions big and small. Most importantly, adults who play are able to recognize children as the experts.

And when we do that, when we, as playworkers, make sure that our own needs are met before we land onsite? When we invite adults in the community to play sometimes? Then something amazing happens to our play memories.

We make new ones.

9 thoughts on “Third and final post in series on play memories

  1. tis is one of the best, most brilliant pieces of writing from your gloriously eclectic mind for some time! [That, by the way, is a really big compliment!]
    This links to a recent article in iP-D!P about intergenerational play. Someone else has also recently commented on the fact that therapists [of various types] have therapy to help them and that playworkers need to remember to play!

    1. Oh goodness – thank you!

      I think it’s absolutely true that playworkers need to remember to play, and that we need to support one another in that somehow. It will only become more important given time I think, as we all live in and reflect wider societal changes. It’ll help make us better playworkers/advocates/human beings.

  2. Yes yes yes! When I get adult play time (usually in acro class but sometimes randomly, which is even better) I’m a calmer, more sane, more fun and relaxed person for days. Some of that’s surely the exercise in general, but I think the idea of an interaction without a set outcome is so liberating–it’s not a conversation with my boss, not a trip to the store, not work, not even a chat with a friend–it’s totally unpredictable and important.

    1. Yes yes! You’re such a great cheerleader for play time – and totally inspiring, my dear! X

  3. Okay I have another thought. I’ve been off working on my own lately and thinking about the need and ability of adults to self-regulate–how much should I eat versus how much do I want to eat, etc., and how hard it can be at times to get needs/desires in sync. I think that part of a parents’ job is to notice where their children fall on being good at self-regulation (like, i was good at knowing when I needed to sleep but then I’d forget to eat) and then both intervene in extreme situations and also encourage their children to notice their own needs and respond accordingly. But then adults seem to be so bad at knowing our own needs–obviously we all know to a greater or lesser extent when we’re tired/hungry/etc., perhaps better than children tend to. But I don’t think most of us could identify an “oh, I need to play” feeling–we may know when we need to go to the gym or for a run, but the idea that what we really need is some unstructured creative time is alien (at least to me). Unstructured time! Let’s play on the internet! (Happy unplugging).

  4. In the pre-school environment, concerns about how parents can end up dictating play to children can actually stop some settings for inviting parents into the sessions.

    I tend to suggest, based upon my own experience, that asking parents who are not used to being in pre-schools and playing with children to come in in pairs and I usually ask them to make a den outside for the children, to spend the time doing it well and to let any children who want to join in… but essentially it’s about letting adults play. Afterwards, we can discuss which children came and helped, what worked, what would be even better, etc. I find this a gentle approach which gets parents warmed up and into the ethos of a nursery.

    1. I really like that – by telling them what to do, but leaving it open-ended, you’re really giving them the permission to play. I love the idea of parents saying to themselves, or each other, “well, the teacher said we HAD to!” when they want to, but may not know how.

      Plus, you never really understand something until you’ve had a go yourself. 😉

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