Playwork as a third path

It often feels like playwork training is at least 65% untraining – identifying and rooting out deeply held misconceptions about adulthood, childhood, relationships and play.  It’s so easy for adults to be constantly trying to teach children, leading and hurrying them along, or to have secret goals for how they spend their time.  It’s so easy for ‘no’ to be the most common word we say to them, or our first resort when we’re feeling doubtful, conflicted, irritated or afraid.

New students of playwork have often suspected that there’s an alternative to this, and when they get that suspicion confirmed many veer towards the opposite extreme of doing nothing.

“He started putting ropes between the trees to make a slack line,” one teacher told me in a workshop.  “I didn’t want to tell him no, and I felt too uncomfortable watching him, so I walked away.  About ten minutes later, someone got hurt.”

It’s true that playworkers need to notice and catch ourselves before an automatic ‘no’.  But we also need to attend to that fear as valuable information, and compare it to all the other information available before deciding how to respond.  It’s this third option that playwork training articulates – so that in addition to saying no or nothing, we also have all the options of saying ‘yes, if’.

Redirection and accommodation allow children to go ahead with the play they have created, in a way that minimizes real danger.  That might mean volunteering to partner for rough and tumble, casually removing rocks beneath someone climbing high, or swapping out PVC pipes for pool noodles when we don’t know the children well.  It might mean a thousand things, each one of them chosen for that specific moment and human relationship.

This third path can be hard to spot sometimes, when we’re standing in shadowy woods.  It can be difficult to explain, as we draw upon all our knowledge and intuition.  This is why we keep using and developing the vocabulary of playwork theory to inform our playwork practice.  This is why we keep talking, so that the next time we are faced with a situation that has us baffled, we can use the lights our colleagues have already found and handed us.


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