I have heard a few stories lately of long-established, respected playworkers dismissing the careful work of others out of hand, saying that their projects do not deserve the names they have claimed, saying that they are not “right”. Given that we are supposedly all on the same side, and given that we recognize the importance of working in site-specific ways, why does this keep happening? I have felt the impulse towards this myself, been protective of terminology and wary of approaches that seem watered down. Such egotism!
There are people doing wonderful work in support of children’s play, often being alienated from other spheres (early childhood, education, etc) in the process. They are engaging with adult agendas as best they can, and making compromises that seem in the best interests of children’s play. When we are asked for our opinions, we need to look carefully and ask lots of questions before responding because they know their setting better than we do.
Playwork, as a field, has the benefit of years spent observing, practicing and reflecting, but playworkers did not invent the notion of valuing children’s play. The first playworkers struggled with limited information and poor networks to share what they had learned, so practice was cobbled together as best anyone could from secondhand reading and firsthand experience – which is how many people are finding playwork today. We are right to be proud of what we have learned, but we need to be careful not to let that pride be our undoing.
Now, I have seen some terrible places that called themselves adventure playgrounds. Sites with TVs in the common room and rules prohibiting use of the equipment in the rain. Sites where all the building had been done by adults, by consultants brought in from outside who were never seen again. These places deserve our concern, and these playworkers who have allowed themselves to stagnate are ones we need to reach.
But instead, it seems that ire is reserved for people doing new things, or trying to do old things in new places. This I do not understand.
Are we so convinced that we have all the answers, to all possible situations?
Are we so personally invested in these ideas that we are afraid to see them change, even if it’s an improvement?
Perhaps it’s a lingering territorialism, or belief in a platonic ideal adventure playground now glimpsed only in nostalgic recollection. Perhaps people are forgetting that each site is an expression of specific needs, felt in a particular time and place by the children who attend. So long as playworkers are authentically engaged, isn’t the variability of projects a sign of their being done right?
A friend suggested that these playwork naysayers are simply feeling threatened, that they have a zero sum vision of the universe in which another’s success means their failure. Well, I don’t want to get anyone too excited, but we are not drawing on a limited client pool here. There is plenty of play deprivation to go around.
We should be learning from each other, academics and practitioners, experienced playworkers and brand new recruits. We should be listening first, and asking questions (always, always questions) because the real danger to the field is not innovation but complacency.
The process of good playwork remains the same. Meet children where they are. Engage with adult agendas. Be there for the children, keep your mind open and your kit bag full. Try, talk and learn and reflect, then try again better tomorrow. And if we do all that, who knows what we might achieve together?