Playwork Activism and Volunteering

Arthur asked me in the comments of my last post whether I was talking about “activism for children’s play, or for playworkers?”.  That seemed like an excellent question for here, and for us to keep asking ourselves along the way.

When I say “playwork” I mean a set of principles, approaches and practices dedicated to making children’s right to play a reality, both in immediate and long-term ways.  Simple, right?  Maybe, but no one said that simple would be easy.

As a professional approach, playwork asks a lot of us as individuals.  It asks us to reflect, to stretch past our comfort, to imagine our way into the experiences of others – and to accept that we’ll never really, entirely, understand the things that we spend all day supporting, observing and fighting for.  Fundamentally, it asks that we get over ourselves.

We may feel conflicted sometimes and uncertain what is best.   Doing playwork demands that we put aside our own needs to focus on those of children – but we inevitably look to the work we do professionally to meet needs of our own.  That’s where reflective practice comes in, so we can recognize when our own needs (to get paid, to feel respected) are getting in the way of the work we are actually setting out to do.  We have every right to be proud of our jobs, and to demand higher than minimum wage for them.  But action for the playwork profession is not playwork itself.

People can be activists for play whether they’re currently employed as playworkers or not.  They can be playworkers whether they’re currently employed as playworkers or not.  It’s up to each of us to engage creatively with the resources and limitations of our situation – whether that’s stretching funding farther, or making the most of our own free time.  It is up to each of us to recognize that professional playwork is not the only way to help children’s play (even if it is a really, really good one) and to be humble in engaging beyond our sector.  We can share what we know, and we can learn from the people we meet.  This, too, is playwork.

When we are funded, as face-to-face workers or doing behind-the-scenes development, it is our job to break out of the boxes we are placed in and use the opportunity of that funding and position to reach as wide an audience as possible, as effectively as we can.  This might be by welcoming children beyond the ages we’re funded for or helping to promote the site we’re paid to stay within, or answering questions from curious passersby who ask “what…  what is this?”.  If we talk with parents and grandparents, shopkeepers and groundskeepers, with everyone who seems interested, then we can effect real and sustainable change.  Good providers do this already, and you can see the positive consequences extending far past the actual playworker sessions.

The distinction between acting for play and acting for playwork can be subtle because effective playworkers (we hope?) do wonders for children’s play opportunities.

So here’s a question – does it matter to the children if those playworkers are being paid to be there?

I got into an argument once at a conference, when I was sharing results from an open access project I’d staffed with a team of volunteers.

“This devalues playwork,” an audience member said.  “We need to be focusing on recognition and getting funding to to hire qualified playworkers.”

Now, the volunteers I had were phenomenal – enthusiastic and eager to learn, they created an environment as supportive as any I’d seen.  Their gift of time and enthusiasm made that incredibly beautiful, shoestring project possible.  If I’d waited for funding, it simply wouldn’t have happened.  As it was we reached over 1,400 children and adults,  provided 441 hours of open play provision, and developed relationships with families and local community groups that I honestly believe had lasting impact on children’s lives.

“I agree that we need to value what we know and what we do,” I said.  “But our focus has to be on improving children’s chances for play.  Otherwise we’re not playworkers at all.”

That’s why I will train anyone and everyone who wants to learn more about children’s play, why it’s important and what they can do to help.  Getting paid, at least for some of the work that I do, is what I need so that I can keep doing it – but then, that’s the choice I’ve made.  It doesn’t have to be everyone’s.  The volunteers on that project gave their time for a variety of reasons – because they were students and wanted work experience, because they were trainee teachers and already suspected that might not be all they’d hoped, because they were bored or hopeful or wanted to feel of use.  Same as anyone, those volunteers became playworkers because of a complex combination of their own needs and those they saw in children.

For me, training them and chatting with parents over tea were both part of advocacy; it was all about creating a play environment that worked well in the moment and demonstrated to adults the importance of children’s right to play.  It’s one of those seeming-contradictions of play – that focusing absolutely on children’s play in the here-and-now can have such beautiful ripples into the distant-and-unknowable, the home environment, the lives beyond.

The volunteers on that project came from education, childcare, fine art, and the unemployment line – and four of the five ended up wanting to be playworkers.  But I hope that, whatever fields they (or any of us) might migrate into, the playwork instinct will always remain on some level, even if it’s just when sitting next to a child on a bus.  Children play wherever they are, whenever they can – so that’s where how should be working.  If we playworkers keep disseminating these wonderful things we’ve learned, having those conversations, we’ll eventually help create a world of play-literate primary school teachers and urban planners, waitresses and carpenters, shop assistants and bicycle couriers.

And what a wonderful world that will be.


2 thoughts on “Playwork Activism and Volunteering

  1. Hi M

    you covered a lot there in a scattergun way.

    Raised more questions than answers.

    Good stuff.

    Bear in mind that some of us have been here before, twice, or even three times.

    Keep thinking out loud, it’s good.

    Best wishes

  2. Thank-you for some interesting thoughts (some have which have shared with my staff).

    In my view it doesn’t matter one jot to the children if the playworkers are being paid to be there, what does matter is the quality of the interactions and freeplay opportunities offered.
    Playwork is a profession of value, but play happens across the spectrum, affecting professionals from all walks of life. We all need to communicate the meaning and value of play to each and every child’s development, individuality and inner growth & being.
    Play is currently at the bottom of many governments agendas, when is should be a universal element of each and every part.


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