Back to the (possible) Futures of Playwork

In 2007-8 there was an ambitious project to engage the playwork field in a dialogue about its possible future, and the structures it might need to get there. Here, Adrian Voce, who, as Play England’s director, initiated the project, and Dr. Pete King, who has researched it, introduce Dr. King’s 2015 paper about the initiative, which we are making available free of charge for the first time today[1].

The idea of a practitioner body for playwork is not a new one. After its origins in the adventure playground movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s, playwork during the 1990s and especially the 2000s saw some significant developments towards what might be called professionalisation.

The growth of out-of-school childcare in the 90s had led to increased numbers entering the field, and increasing interest from government. The establishment of national occupational standards, training and qualifications frameworks and workforce development strategies – all underpinned by specific definitions, assumptions and values (now articulated in the Playwork Principles) – were a response in part to a government challenge, famously laid down by culture secretary Chris Smith; but they were also indicative of the growing need for playwork to adopt the kind of structures that would enable it to become a recognised profession. How to manage this growth – in numbers and recognition – whilst protecting the integrity of the field and its practice within a world dominated by measurable (primarily educational) outcomes, was the big question.

‘How to manage growth, whilst protecting the integrity of the field and its practice within a world dominated by measurable (primarily educational) outcomes, was the big question’.

Aiming for the voice of the playworker to be central to these developments, the Association of Playworkers (England), formed in the early 00s, was short-lived. With terms and conditions for a perennially undervalued workforce proving to be the top priority, the association closed around 2004, recommending that its members join the Community and Youth Workers Union[2].

Without its own practitioner organisation, the role of advocating for and representing playwork beyond union activity fell largely[3] to organisations with broader agendas. Thus, in England, the Children’s Play Council, and then (after 2006) Play England, was a champion for playwork services, but only as part of its wider remit to campaign for children’s right to play in general. Even this was subject to the constraints of being dependent upon a larger ‘umbrella’ charity, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), with its primary interest in the more established children’s services. Similarly, the sector skills council, SkillsActive’s remit was for a much wider sector than playwork, representing employers from the outdoor sports and leisure industries.

‘The idea was to provide a number of platforms for the field to explore questions of its own identity, purpose, values and aspirations; providing a framework … for the field to conceive its own model for a professional body’.

Perceiving professionalisation in general, and the question of a potential independent practitioner body in particular, to be crucial issues for the field at a time when public investment in it was on the rise, Play England, with the support of SkillsActive and the JNCTP (Joint National Council for Training in Playwork) initiated the ‘The Possible Futures for Playwork’ project and asked the late Professor Perry Else to lead it for us. The idea was to provide a number of platforms, beginning with a large ‘world café’ event, for the field to explore questions of its own identity, purpose, values and aspirations; providing a framework, or so we thought, for the field to conceive its own model for a professional body.

Pete King takes up the story….

In 2007, like many others, I was combining play and playwork practice with my own academic interests. At that time I was developing play both operationally and strategically in a West Wales Local Authority and, having finished a Research Masters in Play and Playwork, was developing a PhD proposal. So when Perry Else sent out a call for some ‘ideas papers’ to contribute to the ‘The Possible Futures for Playwork’ project, it seemed like a good opportunity. A total of 23 papers were submitted and made available to a dedicated on-line discussion forum. My own paper (no. 2) did contribute to my PhD, but, as with most research studies, by the time my thesis was completed in 2013, my interests had developed into new areas.

The original Possible Future project had included plans for at least one more World Café event but for a number of reasons (Voce, 2015) this did not take place. I had always wondered what happened to the 23 ‘ideas papers’ and had a niggling sense of incompletion about the project, which had seemed to finish without closure. As I started to re-read them, along with the work that Perry had done to introduce the project, I wondered whether or not the kinds of futures we imagined for playwork in 2007 and 2008 would still be relevant. As I read them, It dawned on me that I was engaged in research. Although they were only 8 years old, I decided to treat the papers as historical texts, representing contemporary perspectives of playwork at that time. I began to undertake a thematic analysis of the papers, considering the contextual factors pertaining when they were written.

The result was a paper published in the Journal of Playwork Practice in November 2015. The Possible Futures for Playwork project: a thematic analysis, concluded with some provocations aimed at stimulating a new discussion about playwork’s future.

A free version of the paper is available here. The discussion is over to you.

Adrian Voce and Dr. Pete King

With thanks to Eddie Nuttall, for keeping the idea alive and showing us where the original papers were to be found, and to Shelly Newstead, for agreeing to make Pete King’s paper available here.

[1] With thanks to the Journal of Playwork Practice, who first published the paper.

[2] There were exceptions, such as the Joint National Council for Training in Playwork and Bob Hughes’ Play Education, for example, who each in their different way had important roles in advancing the playwork approach.

[3] This move led to playwork becoming a distinct part of the union’s membership, with its own convenor. CYPW, as it became known, is now part of Unite, the Union.


Voce, A (2015) Policy for play: responding to children’s forgotten right, Bristol: Policy Press.

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