The Witness and the Elf

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.

The people that plexity lists in his comment are Gordon Sturrock, Bob Hughes and Eddie Nuttall – follow those links and get your mind expanded right now!

Also worth looking up is plexity himself, Mr. Arthur Battram.


4 thoughts on “The Witness and the Elf

    1. Thank you for highlighting this omission – I’m updating the blog itself right now. For the sake of readers beyond the UK, are there any resources you could suggest that talk more about this, and are available online?

  1. I think it is great that you have highlighted this overly neglected aspect of the playwork role Morgan. It is testament to how it is hidden in plain sight that you came to it independently of what is written already, and much remains unsaid, because it is such an elusive mode of being. This in one sense is a good thing, but in another it is sad because we are not training playworkers to recognise it.
    As Arthur points out, I picked up on Gordon’s and Bob’s work in particular, and found a germ in the writings of German philosopher Jean Gebser’s masterful The Ever Present Origin (translation). In a rough-shod nutshell, it follows the idea that all modes of being experienced in childhood can be held by the adult – having played through them in their own early life, if not now experienced fully, given that we have transcended them. On this pheonomenon, Kegan (Robert, not Kevin) uses the phrase ‘differentiated and integrated’ to highlight that when we moved into a broader mode of consciousness, we didn’t leave the former state behind, but rather built the foundations of the next mode upon it. To put it another way, the former subjective experience become the object witnessed at the next bend in the river. In Gebser’s astonishingly deeply referenced work (he was of that high minded European ilk of the first half of the C19th, knocking around with Picasso and the like, and used Picasso’s Cubist style to highlight a series of plains of perspective, culturally and psychologically) he turns this process to a horizontal view of humanity (phylos as well as ontos) as a holarchy of increasing complexity. But the origin – that vitality that drives children’s play – is always present. So it isn’t a hierarchy, but a flow of everything. Gebser also called the witnessing mode ‘integral-aperspectival.’ it is the root of the satori of Zen, The Tao of The Te Ching.
    Anyone still there? right. As a playworker, one has the privilege of moving into a mode (once all the Elvish work is done) where we can experience (or ‘hold’) all the these perspectives when we are alongside kids. Wendy gave us the word ‘paraludic,’ but that doesn’t really do it for me, and Arthur would agree I imagine. We are closer to the experience than that suggests, but neither are we ‘playing’. Martin Buber’s I-Thou is another way of looking at it. For me, there is something humbling and almost sacred about it all.
    I am writing an essay (that will feature in some form in Ip-Dip) at the moment that will tackle this stuff at the end. It’s kind of a history of the qualities and spirit of adventure play from the ’40s to the present day, and it will wind up at this point (that was there all along, of course).
    If anyone wants further reading, there is some stuff on my blog, and I would be happy to give more if folk contact me.
    Better get back to work.

    Love, Ed

    1. Thank you Ed, for this warm and informative piece (I have saved it to my desktop and keep going back to it). I can’t wait to read the essay in Ip-Dip!

      We’ll hang out more at Eastbourne, yes? Yes, yes? 🙂

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