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.

Our neighbors

There’s the usual mountain of notes for posts on all sorts of topics piling up around me, but sidestepping this election seemed bizarre.  I was born in California and now live in Vermont (a scarcely populated state that is always the first on the map to turn blue).  My family is in the US, and most of my friends are here.  It probably won’t surprise any readers of this to hear that nearly all those people are currently stupefied by horror and despair.

It’s easy to feel apocalyptic about Trump, if you didn’t pick him.  I’ve felt apocalyptic too, but then I’ve also spent the last two days in a cancer center in NH – a state I can see from my desk, but which I felt nervous driving into yesterday for the first time ever.  I wondered if I’d see celebrations there that would break my fragile heart.  But I’d forgotten that, in a cancer center, celebrations and tragedy are marked differently.  Regardless of whether they voted or how, everyone there was dealing with their own worst fears made flesh, their own private apocalypse.  And they were reaching out to one another, with cups of ice and celebrity gossip magazines, with flyers for scarf-tying classes.  Looking around, I had no idea who these people had cheered for and for the first time, I didn’t care.  I loved anyone who was kind to my mother, who could make eye contact with her as the IV dripped poison into her veins and smile gently.

In a strange way, it made me feel more optimistic than anything I’d seen on TV or FB.  Whatever its source or target, we have all felt fear.  We all know what it is, to pilot these soft and vulnerable bodies through the world.  We don’t all know what it is like to live in fear of the police or our neighbors, but we can all reach out to someone who needs it.

(She’s doing great, by the way, and the prognosis is absurdly positive.  This post also isn’t intended to diminish any of the very real dangers to vulnerable people that this election foreshadows or the systems of racism and oppression that made his rise possible.)

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.