When I was in Belgium a couple of months ago, I ran a training workshop with a bunch of people from different professional backgrounds – games people, sports people, youth work people. I wanted to make it clear that there were some similarities we all shared, and some important differences as well. Because the training preparation for a large school visit, I focused our conversations around the doing of playwork, rather than its theoretical basis.
In groups, they brainstormed all the different roles that it was possible to take in a games/sport/play setting, and wrote them up on big pieces of paper.
Teacher. Confidant. Big brother, big sister. Mentor. Advocate. Friend. All were pinned to the wall.
Then we went through and considered whether and if each would apply to a playworked environment – discussing how, yes, sometimes a child might ask explicitly to be taught something but that this didn’t happen all that often. More frequently, a child might want a tape-holder, toast-maker, co-player, or cleaner-upper. Looking at the list, there were only two roles that I could think of playworkers taking that weren’t listed on the giant flip chart paper, that these games and sports and youth workers hadn’t come up with.
I called them Witness* and Elf.
How many times have you heard “watch me do THIS!” ringing out across a play area? How many times have you seen a child emerge from a deep absorption in play to make eye contact with you, grin, and then return to their frame?
This concept came up a couple of days ago, in conversation with Bernie deKoven (recorded as video here). He is writing a book on “having fun as a spiritual activity; playing as a spiritual activity” and linked this idea to the notion of “bearing witness”. He said “it’s easy to belief that play is a divine commandment.”
Elves in fairy tales have what I can most politely call a mixed reputation, so to be clear I’m talking here about the shoemaker’s elves, the Keebler elves, those small and useful invisible people who make everything work. With Beatrix Potter fans, it might be better to talk about helpful mice. Whatever their name, these are the characters who don’t ask for praise but actually prefer to go unnoticed, and who make magical leaps of bravery and achievement possible for those who need it badly.
This was a useful way of teasing apart some of the different stances which might be encompassed within a playwork approach, and helping people develop a portfolio of responses to rapidly changing situations. Of course, whatever a person is doing in support of children’s play they are playworking, first and last.
What roles have you taken on to support children’s play, and what would you add to the list?
UPDATE: Since posting this, Arthur Battram commented below that I am not the first person to talk about playworkers “witnessing” children’s play. This is absolutely 100% true, and I would like to apologize if in recounting this workshop exercise I gave that impression.
We all draw upon the work of others, and I’ve been particularly privileged to have that process enriched by lots of conversations with enormously clever people. Sometimes it’s also possible to think that you’ve invented or reframed something, only to find that someone else had that same realization decades ago, then explained it far more eloquently. Playwork is still a small field and that makes it even more important to keep referencing and referring readers to one another and to give credit where its due. I haven’t read everything I ought to have, and my attempts to reference ideas here (both the ones I think are mine and the ones I know are not) will always be incomplete. I am still learning, still catching up on my reading, so please everyone do what Arthur has done, and draw my attention to the gaps.
Also worth looking up is plexity himself, Mr. Arthur Battram.