On playwork and radical humility

I spend a lot of time explaining that playwork is ‘a real thing’.  “You can get a degree in it and everything!” I say, and that’s true.  But most of my official playwork training happened in pubs.  There were reflective practice sessions that swerved beer-wards between the ranging site and tube station.  There were long evenings after conferences, when I looked around and wondered which person mentioned in my bibliography might get thrown out of Wetherspoon’s first.  All that passionate debate and story-telling was great for rewarding my early interest, but terrible for providing citations.

Someone said to me once that ‘playwork is an exercise in radical humility’, and I have absolutely no idea who it was.  That’s a shame, because it’s a phrase I’ve held onto ever since and found enormously useful.

The funny thing is, when I asked around on Facebook no one else seemed to know who said it either.  There was some discussion over what it might mean, while others felt (like with so much of playwork) that it named a phenomenon they already knew.  Many felt the concept of ‘radical humility’ was a little self-helpy.  Wayne Dyer, who is generally credited with the phrase, urged us all to:

“Practice radical humility. Take no credit for your talents, intellectual abilities, aptitudes, or proficiencies. Be in a state of awe and bewilderment.”

That sounds like a cousin of negative capability to me.  But when I connect the terms ‘radical humility’ and playwork, I think of a girl who came to sessions at the first play ranging site I worked on.  She was all elbows and fury, an absolute human tornado who wanted only to wrestle with us every single day.  One time I let her pin me and her face rose over mine, blocking out the sunlight and looking triumphant.  She leaned town close to me and said ‘huh.  I never noticed, but you’ve got spots and well as wrinkles.”  Then she straightened up.  “No wonder you’re still not married,” she said.

I was stunned but also deeply impressed.  What a compact and thorough take-down!  Her victory of me complete, she grinned and strode off.

The actual doing of playwork, the lifting and cleaning and watching and wrestling and reflecting, all of this can certainly inspire humility.  We choose to face our fears, attend deliberately to our discomforts.  In the process we may learn unexpected truths about ourselves.  That may feel rewarding, but is never the point.  In playwork, we are never the point.  Instead, our goal is to be available if wanted, to work invisibly if we can and to respond with as much presence and levity as we can muster. Supporting children’s play reminds us daily to take our work seriously but ourselves not seriously at all.

More than anything, it is in the constant pursuit of a more generous heart that playwork can turn spiritual practice.  Sometimes it feels brutal, on those days when this work sinks a crowbar into our chest and levers it right open.  It is certainly exercise, because we go through this cycle again and again.  Each time we put ourselves in the service of children’s play, we are reminded that we are no more or less than a fragment of something wild and miraculous.


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