Playwork and education

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Ithaca Children’s Garden’s annual Play Symposium.  It’s a site I love, and a town full of people I adore – not too shabby really, for a conference.

I got to see Fraser who, in spite of being my PhD supervisor, I don’t spend nearly enough time with.  There were several independent organizers of pop-up adventure playgrounds, and students from the Playworker Development Course, and people I hadn’t seen in exactly a year.  As always with a room full of talented, passionate people there was much to catch up on and learn.

Fraser showed footage from his work in Romania that I had never seen.  Teacher Tom shared stories from his cooperative preschool, about the breadth and depth and beauty of play in early years   Erin Davis showed some new footage taken at ICG during my summer there, including a couple moments of quite deep playwork practice.  Reilly Wilson (of play:ground) did some myth-busting on issues of liability on adventure playgrounds, and showed my favorite slide of all (and she’s said I can ask her some questions about it to share here very soon).  I talked too, showing some video and stories from five months with Jill Wood at the Parish School in Houston, TX.

The night before I presented, I stayed up to swap out images and tinker with content.  It would be easier to have one talk that I give over and over, but there are always new thoughts to include and every audience is different.  Sometimes conversations with other participants over lunch will remind me to be explicit and not to assume previous knowledge.  I made a new slide and wedged it in towards the end.  The only text was:

playwork ≠ education

The person at the front of the room doesn’t always have a best sense of how a piece of information is received, but I definitely felt some surprise.  There might have been a gasp or two.  I looked out and saw a lot of early years people, people who had spent two days looking at pictures of children playing in mud or balancing containers with water in, poking holes in cardboard boxes, and thought “this looks familiar”.  They watched videos of children building with hammers and nails, stirring scrap wood in a fire, and perhaps thought “this looks great!”

But other than hearing the term ‘playwork’ and learning that there’s great info out there on risk, I don’t think many understood this to be an approach – professional, specific, holistic, unique.  The second hand raised in Q&A was to ask me to expand upon this (and the first was about the Campference, so).

I think I said something about playwork and education having different histories, assumptions and priorities.  I may have said something about our trying to keep a light touch, or injecting moments of surreality to help hold a moment as playful.  It’s a little fuzzy because my brain was suddenly locked in a traffic jam – I hadn’t needed to explain this before, a fact of difference that seems so obvious to those who know and unnoticed by those who don’t.  For days after, I counted off all that I should have said.  In case this is a conversation you ever need to have, here’s what I came up with.  Send me your notes as well – we’ll improve together.

In the meantime, if I could do it again, I would tell people:

  • Read Fraser Brown’s Fundamentals of Playwork
  • Understand that playwork has a theoretical and practical background totally distinct from even the most progressive forms of education, and that sometimes these approaches are in conflict
  • Watch trained and experienced playworkers out in the field, ask them questions and listen to the answers
  • If you’re trying to incorporate aspects into another practice, start by trying to talk less and listen more.  Notice your own prejudices and preconceptions, so that you can start suspending them
  • Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable

Playwork and education are as different from one another as magpies and pomegranates.  Lots of educators are getting interested in adventure playgrounds, which is fantastic!  But we need to be clear, when sharing images and stories we love, that these aren’t truly adventure playgrounds unless there are trained playworkers on site – people who have studied this practice specifically, are supported in their development by a board who understands what makes these sites different, and part of a community of professionals.


2 thoughts on “Playwork and education

  1. I think part of the complexity of this issue is that “education” is nearly as difficult to define as “play”. It is a challenge to compare two concepts which by themselves are almost impossible to describe clearly in a way that would be widely accepted.

    1. I think that learning and play are absolutely both amorphous and shifting concepts. But education and playwork have different first priorities – children’s learning and children’s play respectively. And that’s cool! I always feel relieved that other people are responsible for other stuff, and I get to focus on play. 🙂

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