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Is playwork ready to come of age? A tale from two cities

11 Jul

Two contrasting events in neigbouring Yorkshire cities have highlighted both how far UK playwork has come, and how far it still has to go. Adrian Voce was at each of them and wonders whether, in spite of the huge challenges it faces, now might be the time for the profession to take a big step forward.

It has often been said that play is a crosscutting issue; that the scope and extent of the places and spaces (social as well as physical) in which the child may need to play is broad and diverse.  Reflecting this, play champions around the world tend to come from a variety of fields. Urban geography, landscape architecture, town-planning and conservationism are just some of the professions that have given us strong and influential play advocates.

Many different roles within the public realm can impact for good or ill on the child’s opportunity to play there, and the movement represented by such as the European Network for Child Friendly Cities, for example, allies these diverse disciplines to effect change by lobbying local authorities and other public bodies to adopt holistic policies and strategies for more playable built environments as part of a broader Children’s Rights agenda[1].

“the playworker is uniquely and unambiguously dedicated to children’s play”

In the UK, we have playwork. And, while each of these other professions and perspectives can offer the play movement something important, other nations admire, even envy this. For the playworker is uniquely and unambiguously dedicated to children’s play, unencumbered by other agendas.

Although it has begun to influence it, playwork sits outside the movement to reshape the public realm. Originating in empathetic adults responding to children playing in the neglected spaces of their often fractured neighbourhoods, it concerned itself not with repairing the cracks but in protecting and developing these places; forming relationships of trust and co-operation with the children there so as to sustain and enhance them. Far from aiming to transform the public realm for children, playworkers went to where children were playing discretely from it, and lent themselves solely to that. The aim was always to give children otherwise deprived of it, some wild space in which to invent and explore the magical worlds of their play.

Playwork has always been defiantly outside the ‘education continuum’ too. The construct of childhood, beloved of politicians, that sees every intervention, every service, indeed every point of engagement with children as being a ‘learning opportunity’ is anathema to the playworker, whose sole purpose is to support them in playing.

It is the playworker’s intimacy with play, playing and the play space – and the insights and understandings that this has allowed – which is so envied and respected by the wider play movement, not just because children in many towns and cities around the world would similarly benefit from having space provided by skilled playworkers, but because it has much to tell us about precisely how the public realm – with or without the cracks – might better respond to and support children.

Over the years, of course, since the first playworkers started lending kids their hammers to build stronger dens, and keeping an eye out to ensure the bonfires didn’t get out of hand, playwork has grown and developed into what is now, by some measures at least, a recognised profession, with its own knowledge base, theoretical framework, vocational qualifications and academic courses.

Professor Fraser Brown

Professor Fraser Brown. Photo: Leeds Metropolitan University

At Leeds Metropolitan University last month, something of a milestone was celebrated in this uniquely British part of the play movement. Our first Professor of Playwork (and almost certainly the first anywhere), Fraser Brown gave his inaugural lecture.

“stories that illustrated the power and beauty of play and the priceless role of the sensitive playworker”

In his unassuming way, Fraser marked the occasion by simply retelling stories that illustrated the power and beauty of play, the priceless role of the playworker and the influence of playwork on our concepts of childhood.

It was a warm and familial occasion, not simply because Fraser’s wife, children and grandchildren were in the audience, but because the playwork community was out in force to honour one of its own; to celebrate and share in his achievement. With the Vice Chancellor of the University leading the proceedings in front of a room full of playworkers, young and old, it really did feel like our fledgling profession was coming of age.

“Staffed play provision is under attack, provision is being closed, playworkers are losing their jobs and grants are being cut”.

Less than two weeks later, and a short drive down the M1, Sheffield Hallam University, in partnership with Bob Hughes’ Play Education, hosted a very different and less upbeat event. Although our MC for the occasion was none other than our second Professor of Playwork, Perry Else, the mood was less celebratory. The purpose of the two-day event was “to address and react to what is fast becoming an emergency. Staffed play provision is under attack, provision is being closed, playworkers are losing their jobs and grants are being cut”.

Playworker's jobs are being lost

Playworker’s jobs are being lost

This was a call to action and many attending were up for the fight. If this occasionally threatened to manifest as a punch-up between us rather than with the powers that be, that was perhaps understandable: cuts in play services have been much deeper and more widespread in England than in the other home countries, whose devolved governments seem to have spared the sector the worst impacts of the Chancellor’s austerity programme. These different contexts occasionally created tensions (as did the seemingly insatiable appetite to begin every discussion with an argument about definitions), but these were gracefully resolved and the meeting committed to work together and with the wider sector to strengthen the argument for playwork (however we define it) in these difficult times.

One such agreement, albeit not a unanimous one, was to explore how we might create an independent professional practitioner body for playwork. In some ways, the formation of such an institution seems alien to this sector, which tends to kick against structure, hierarchy and formality. Yet – in England certainly – we are not in good shape, and whilst we would do well to remind ourselves that the financial crash, and unprecedented contraction of the public sector that has been the Coalition’s response to it, are contextual events rather than a downturn in our own trajectory per se, it doesn’t change the reality of job losses, service closures and courses facing cancellation.

“imbued with the passion of those who know there is a far better way to work with children than making them the objects of our designs for them”

A somewhat downbeat event came alive for many of those attending when the idea was floated of a body that would represent them, give strength to their voice, credence and clarity to their cause. Creating such a body will not be easy, least of all in the current climate. Although Skillsactive, the former Sector Skills Council, has progressed its plans for a register of playwork professionals, with funding from the Commission for Employment and Skills, previous attempts to create an independent practitioner body have either foundered or led simply to greater unionisation.

But playwork is a resilient movement, imbued with the passion of those who know there is a far better way to work with children than making them the objects of our designs for them; who believe that providing children with the time, space and permission to play – in the best possible environments – is a profound responsibility that we share, and which society must embrace.

And we’re a contrary lot too. This innate tendency to recalcitrance can be part of our strength. It may be that, in spite of the extreme scarcity of resources, the trend away from infrastructure bodies and the decimation of many of our services, now might just be the perfect time for playwork to really come of age.

Adrian Voce

[1] This movement influenced the longer-term aims of the Play Strategy, with Play England’s sadly short-lived Playshaper programme a key mechanism to progressing an agenda for public space to take greater account of the child’s need and right to play.
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