I had coffee with a student on our course this week. It’s fascinating to be a tutor and hear the individuals’ stories as they move through each topic, as they recollect and apply, reflect and try again. Themes emerge and this student’s was one of risk. Risks considered, risks taken. She talked about the clear-eyed evaluation that she remembers making as a child and which she continues to make now when faced with adult choices. In her exercises she recognizes not only the risks and benefits, but also the joy that runs beneath the process itself, her own pleasure at discovering fresh each time that her bravery is larger than her fear.
I thought about how useful that facility will be when managing a site, talking with parents and most importantly her ability to stand by a child taking risks and genuinely feel at ease. It started to seem like nothing short of a playworker superpower, and realized that all the great playworkers I know have superpowers – particular gifts of their personalities and experiences that manifest unconsciously in their playwork style.
One was always stealthy, arriving like a warm breeze. I would catch her work in the corner of my eye as she dropped tape or reset the pieces of a game that had been abandoned into a new and attractive formation. She could spirit away an object whose troubles had begun to outweigh its uses, and replace it with something exciting so quickly that you never noticed the swap.
Another brought with him a physical atmosphere. Trained as a professional dancer, he moved quiet and sure, with a tiger’s grace. Children in difficulties would sometimes come and stand near him, touch him lightly on the arm and breathe deeply. A third scattered fairy dust, taking any role she was given in directions that seemed logical to her but which threw some children into giggle fits. She could drape a piece of fabric over a fence as she passed and within seconds it would be on the far side of the field, transformed into a cape or the wings of a bird.
Each of them offered something particular which the children were free to engage with or not, but which altered the character of the space. Each of these people work to improve their playwork daily but I think that style of practice is (like accent) something it’s hard to perceive in yourself. That’s because it’s so essential. Delicacy, physical calm, fairy tale charm – each of these were characteristics central to their personalities, but somehow clarified in their playwork practice.
The balance between adulteration and authenticity can be hard to strike, and it’s something that new playworkers often ask me about. How can you be yourself, without adulterating? How can you be ‘invisible’, but not anonymous? They ask these questions because they are trying to see how much of themselves to bring with them to work.
All of you, I tell them now. Leave your daily drama at home but bring all of yourself with you to work. The children and play will dig through your psyche anyway, so its best to make peace with that ahead of time. Do your readings, your reflections, because the radical honesty and constant surprise will make you say things you never thought would come out of your mouth. Bring all of yourself to playwork, but accept that (like anything else you bring) it will be changed by the process.