Learning from playwork

The following is a guest post from Ali Wood on our recent Youth Work Week dialogue event in Birmingham and her workshop on play and adventure playgrounds. Thanks Ali, it was a stimulating discussion, and great to have this report.

winter round fire
Photo credit: Meridian Adventure Playground

I recently attended an ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ event in Birmingham – my first – and on looking beforehand at the agenda which among other things featured discussions on youth work in different settings and situations, asked if ‘youth work in adventure playgrounds’ could be added, and this was agreed.  So this is a kind of write-up of that workshop and my reasons for suggesting it.

I qualified as a youth and community worker in 1985 and worked in a whole range of centres and clubs in Birmingham for a number of years.  Things were changing though –both in the local authority and across the country and it wasn’t hard to see the writing on the wall.  Funding for community work was dwindling fast and youth work as it had been was changing and becoming more issue-based, but somehow in that process we ended up losing numbers of young people – partly due to focussing more on discussion work than recreational activities and young people’s choices.  I ‘defected’ to playwork – which had begun with the introduction of adventure playgrounds in London in the 70’s and over the ensuing decades built up it’s own theory base, research evidence for play and qualifications for playworkers and have been there ever since.

So for those of you who don’t know and have never been to one – what’s an adventure playground?  There aren’t that many left around since all the recent local authority cuts, so you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t come across one.¹  Basically an adventure playground is a community-rooted self-built site for both children and young people, where kids can come and be themselves and do their thing – which often includes the stuff that they can’t do elsewhere like lighting fires, using tools and building, making food, digging, climbing, swinging, jumping off high platforms, managing risk for themselves, playing with water and mud.  But it’s also a space where they know they’ll feel heard and valued and where spontaneous conversations will likely yield support or information they need.

So what’s the difference between playwork and youthwork – or doing youth work on such a site?  In some ways – when you get youthworkers who have a real sense of vocation – not a lot necessarily in practice.  But there are givens here that may not be automatically understood or recognised.

Firstly there is the understanding of the fundamental importance of play in children and young people’s lives.  And by play, we mean that as it is expressed in the first two Playwork Principles² – which provide a professional and  ethical framework for playwork.

  1. All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well being of individuals and communities.
  2. Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. That is, children and young people determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons.

If you recall some of your own memories of playing (and do this now before you read on!), I can pretty much guarantee that these will consist of being outside, taking risks and being away from adults – and the older you are, the more that will be the case.  Am I right?  And why do those three things feature so widely in people’s memories? Because children naturally long for freedom and independence as they grow and if adults are around, those adults are likely to try and control, supervise, guide, direct, organise, stop or take over from whatever kids are doing.  Start watching yourself and how much you do this when you’re with kids!  So children seek out time and space away from adult eyes in order to play..

Over the last few decades, kids have had less and less free time away from adults when they can make their own mistakes, be daft, work stuff out and try things out for themselves, be responsible for themselves and each other….  And yet it is play as described above, that is the natural medium for these things to happen and yet opportunities to play have been squeezed, banned, or diluted – often with the best of adult intentions, because we have forgotten how vital free play is and we are bewitched by the spirit of the age of over-protection and structured education of our children and young people.  In playwork, we call this play deprivation³ and it is a concept that other professions are also recognising as really damaging.

So youth work really really needs to understand what play is, why kids crave it and how to support it and respect it without getting in the way (and that honestly isn’t easy and takes a lot of reflective practice!) instead of planning a load of other stuff that we think is more important and riding rough-shod over young people in the process.  More than ever – because of being more play deprived in their own childhoods – young people need to play⁴.

Secondly, in playwork there is a different understanding about risk, it’s necessity in young lives and how we can manage it.  We use an approach that has been recognised and is promoted by the Health and Safety Executive⁵ for anyone working with children and young people and yet somehow youth work has not taken this on.  It is the process of constant risk:benefit assessment⁶, whereby instead of automatically intervening to ‘make something safe’, playworkers observe children and young people in whatever they are doing and dynamically assess the risks of this, but also the benefits –ie. what kids will gain from doing whatever it is, and also to think through ways of minimising the risks if this is necessary, without taking over and ‘doing it for them’.  It takes courage and practice, but it works.  Young people don’t have a death wish, they have an inbuilt sense of self-protection and survival that too often we have crushed by not allowing them to use it.  When they know they are responsible for themselves, they really take that on and their skills and confidence flourish.  On the adventure playground where I work and where we have unaccompanied children from 7-18 years on site,  we’ve had about half a dozen accidents that have entailed a visit to A & E in ten years, and yet our kids regularly use axes and mallets, hammers and saws, throw themselves off platforms and cook on the open fire.  Youth work really needs to better understand risk:benefit assessment in practice.

So the main differences when doing youth work on an adventure playground (and we have youth only sessions at our playground as well as open sessions for all ages), entail youth workers:-

  1. developing a deep understanding of play in all its forms and how to support it;
  2. a profound respect for children and young people that recognises their capabilities and competencies first;
  3. a richer kind of reflective practice⁷ that puts us adults – with all our feelings and motives – under the microscope to examine how our interventions are too often colonial and patronising; and
  4. a commitment to risk:benefit assessment observation and recording.

This takes passion and courage, lots of supportive teamwork and the willingness to regularly go the extra mile.  But in many ways – although I have called myself a playworker for the last twenty years – it is much more akin to the youth work I first felt so drawn to in the 80’s…..

Postscript – If anyone wants to support the playground you can buy a lovely calendar featuring photos from the playground together with some statements about the importance of play and why we do what we do – only a fiver with a bit extra for postage – email aliwood@meridenadventureplayground.com with an address and the choice of paying by cheque or bank transfer….

(2) Cover B
Image: Meridian Adventure Playground’s calendar

Notes and references:

  1. http://www.playengland.org.uk/resources-list/adventure-playgrounds/
  2. http://issuu.com/playwales/docs/the_playwork_principles_-_an_overvi?e=5305098/11658290
  3. http://www.playwales.org.uk/login/uploaded/documents/INFORMATION%20SHEETS/play%20deprivation%20impact%20consequences%20and%20potential%20of%20playwork.pdf
  4. http://issuu.com/playwales/docs/building_resilience_?e=5305098/31468341
  5. http://www.hse.gov.uk/entertainment/childrens-play-july-2012.pdf
  6. http://issuu.com/playwales/docs/play_and_risk?mode=window
  7. https://issuu.com/playwales/docs/reflective_practice?e=5305098/62475902


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