Most people would agree, I think, that reflection is essential to good playwork practice.
Whether we reflect alone, in conversation with individual friends or within our teams, it’s the best way I know of staying true to our ideals and motivated in our work. But it’s also often one of first things lost, slowly eroded by all those mundane questions of swapping shifts and who forgot to buy biscuits.
Whether you’re establishing a reflective practice from scratch, or trying to steer existing sessions back into the ‘real deal’, it can be scary. People may be afraid of opening up, making themselves vulnerable to colleagues. They may be afraid that their practice isn’t as good as they’d hoped, that they’ll be told they’re doing a terrible job. They may be afraid that reflective practice itself is something they’ll get wrong – offering a new kind of failure, but this time chock full of feelings.
For people who are afraid of reflective practice, the name itself suggests them staring at themselves in a mirror and cataloging flaws. Perhaps its central metaphor is particularly charged, given we’re in a field of mostly women? We have been trained to see our flaws, and standing in front of a mirror isn’t usually a woman’s most comfortable location.
Yes, good reflective practice needs to address our most difficult moments. We need to see the gaps in our practice clearly so that we can grow. As has been widely discussed elsewhere, playwork has a way of getting to the heart of things, touching soft places we didn’t even know we had. Ultimately, we want to be able to question one another’s practice and learn from it, unpick the details of each day. We need to be able to sit in that discomfort, and be there for one another.
But that isn’t the place to start.
It takes time to build a community of truth, support and recognition. It takes time to build trust, in ourselves and one another, and in the reflective process itself. It takes time to maintain that trust, every single time we gather. That’s why the first ten minutes of every reflective practice session usually begin with those little questions of finding biscuits, asking after weekend plans. All those performances of small talk are a way of asking: “are we still friends?” Smiling in response, sharing jokes, agreeing that the weather lately has been awful – these are all ways of replying: “yes”. This is all a great way to begin a meeting, but a terrible place to end.
We can dig a little deeper by celebrating one another’s successes. If you don’t currently do reflective practice as a team, imagine how wonderful it would be to hear a colleague say: “I saw you interact with a child in this way, and it was beautiful.” Reflective practice sessions offer a great opportunity to say that to someone else. Once people feel seen in a positive way, it’s so much easier for them to open up their hearts and hands to say, “this thing happened today, and I don’t know what to do about it”.
At this point, we’ll often find that they’re sharing an experience that we’ve had as well. We can say, “that happened to me yesterday, and I didn’t know what to do about it either”. We can say, “a friend told me about a similar situation, and here’s what she thought…” We can say, “what makes you uncomfortable about this?” We can talk, and ask, and listen.
Reflection doesn’t only happen when we’re staring at ourselves in the mirror. It happens when we listen to each other, and reflect back the emotions of our colleagues. When they’re in real emotional difficulty, we can gently maintain a listening frame to hold them in. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in reflective practice haven’t lead to a ‘solution’ – they’ve been moments when we’ve agreed that a situation is difficult and we may not know how to proceed, but at least we’re not individually scared and failing, alone.
In talking and asking and thinking and listening, we weren’t instantly better playworkers – but we were, suddenly, a team.