An organisation that reflects who we are


When Penny Wilson was asked to speak at the recent Playwork Foundation launch event, she took her brief seriously; consulting with colleagues and deeply reflecting, both on her practice and on the chequered history of playwork representation. The result was this impassioned entreaty for an organisation that can do justice to the extraordinary work that playworkers do, and live up to the principles by which they stand.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say today, I did two things.

I talked to fellow playworkers who had been at the recent Felix Road Adventure Playground conference in Bristol and asked what they would like to take from that extraordinary event to share with you. The conversations at Felix Road were some of the best I have ever heard about Playwork and deserve to be repeated here. It was reflective analytic practice at its best. We learned a lot from each other.

The second thing I did was to spend time on the adventure playground where I work, Glamis, just watching the playing of the children and thinking about what I was absorbing as I watched. What I saw there reminded me of the life changing moment when I first met adventure play – what Lady Allen refers to as ‘a flash of understanding’ of the essence of why we do what we do, how we should conduct ourselves … and what we need from the Playwork Foundation.

What follows is a collection of thoughts and quotations drawn from these two experiences.


We have watched many clips, shared by academics and on Facebook, showing other species at play. We have seen baby fishes playing with an air bubble and through that playing, expanding its experience to discover how this fish body can become a fish being – finding it’s fish world.

We see infant gorillas playing and through the course of that playing reaching a state of complete gorilla-ness. A human child has to play because through the process of playing we become human.

What we do as playworkers is really important.

We are the only people whose work is to pay attention to children’s freely chosen play. And it is magnificent. It is more amazing than anything the adult world has achieved by a billion miles. It is the process by which the universe of the child becomes self aware.

We are the only people with responsibility to hold in trust this unbelievable spectacle – this awesome phenomenon.

We are witnesses to something extraordinary.

A professional child-minder helped me out with this at Glamis yesterday. She said:

‘you would think that I spend all day in play with children, but I can’t. The professional demands put upon me are such that I have to photograph, to evidence everything the child does. Children now automatically stop and pose for a photo to be taken every time they do anything. We are building self-surveillance into them. They live in a panopticon of their own minds. Poor policies are directly harming children.’

What we try for is the lightest of light touches in whichever way we need to intervene in the play of the child. Like a snail recoils and retreats at the salty heat of touch from our fingertips, so can play clench up if we get our approach wrong.

We can’t adulterate, misappropriate, hijack or sell play. We will not use it to teach, to interpret, or to make children fit.

Play is the opposite of sport, which demands a competition to decide the elevation of the fittest, the elimination of the weakest and a strict unquestioning obedience to The Rules (unless of course you are the governing body).

We cannot improve upon it, but playhoods are short and we do have to advocate for it to happen, to improve the microclimate for play, wherever possible. Children cannot do this advocacy for themselves because they don’t know what they have never had and because they are considered to be less than adults, so they remain unheard. To do this we have to be rooted in the community of children. Play is social glue. It is a common heritage.

So we need to be humble, delicate and robust in the service of play – and as bold as Ripley fighting an alien in the advocacy, campaigning and defending of it. 

People have a passion for stargazing, exploring space, watching amazing documentaries about animal life on our planet, hearing about the 100 objects that changed the world. They visit galleries, cathedrals and museums to be in the presence of incredible creations or spine-tingling antiquities, yet nobody, nobody but us sees, everyday, things “more amazing than those by a billion miles.”

We create the time and space in which “children create their own universes in play”.

We are curators of play.

We have seen organisations come and go, ebb and flow. Some thrived and were beautiful and then withered. Some changed, from nurturing parents to cuckoos inhabiting a space which had once supported playworkers, then throwing them out of the nest in order to promote their own agendas.

Some have used play as a commodity to be bought and sold. Others have watered their play provision down to homeopathic levels of dilution. Some have treated playworkers like a glove-puppet, with their hands stuck up our arses, manipulating our mouths so we appear to be saying the words they are speaking.

Some have underpaid us, undermined us, undervalued us. Some have been used by parasite career opportunists for their own advancement. Some have bitched, some have fought duels, some are haters.

Some have just been bullshitters, dickwibbling, asset-stripping cockwombles.

We have become weary and wary. 

We have become Groucho Marxists, not wanting to be a member of any club that would have us as a member. We do not want to be identified under a ‘One Ring To Rule Them All’ set of qualifications which misrepresents play, lobotomises our thinking, neuters our practice, and castrates our passion for our work.

We don’t want play treated like an infantilised mediocrity, reduced to a pulp through the sieve of child development.

We do not want to be identified by a qualification that has no sense of the child as an equal being to an adult (yet capable of far greater creations).

We do not want to be identified by an organisation that deliberately creates a play dependency, when we know deep in our hearts that we are longing for a time when we are no longer necessary because children will be able to play freely without our intervention.

We want …

… an organisation that is tailor-made, as playwork is – a bespoke design, with enough strength in its warp and weft to be responsive and resilient; to be able to meet and greet the unpredicted.

… an organisation that is play-literate and which promotes play-literacy.

Playwork practice can be adapted to almost any situation. A good play organisation – a play foundation – must therefore have play at its core, be founded upon continual Reflective Analytic Practice, be flexible and nimble enough to respond to the unexpected.

It must be rooted in the Playwork Principles.

It must have integrity and honesty.

It must include us all and not lord it over us.

It must be a place where playworkers who are also artists, poets, engineers, scientists, dancers and Grouchos are all at home. ‘We are all different and that is fantastic.’ We are bigger than the sum of our parts.

It should speak our language, our brain language.

It should be a wily, quirky and tenacious advocate for play, sharing our words and images in most excellent ways. It must find fellow organisations with common ground, with similar purpose and nurture a community of like-minders. At a time of new barriers, it should forge new links.

It should be an identity that we are all proud to share.

It should be both a place to find current information, and a safe home for our history.

It should let us question and challenge – and be robust enough to withstand this and treat us the same way. It must be courteous and honourable.

We must trust it.

Its touchstone must be play.

It should support the fiercely proud and determinedly humble curators of play.

It should be our mirror.

It should reflect who we are.

Penny Wilson
Speech to the Playwork Foundation launch event on 8 November 2017.

With thanks to Eddie Nuttall, Ben Tawill, Simon Rix, Amica Dall, Arthur Battram, Sarah the child-minder, and the children of Glamis adventure playground.



2 thoughts on “An organisation that reflects who we are

  1. Donne Buck says:

    Penny. you never said a truer word. Watching the playworkers at New Ark Eco Centre I see this surveillance process and its dire effects on free play in action every day. Yet without their Outstanding rating by Ofsted, who demand these methods of working, it would be difficult to attract sufficient children to keep the whole Adventure Playground and City Farm viable. If this is the price of free childcare I wonder at times if it is really worth it!

  2. plexity says:

    What a superb speech, Pen. You are our Ludic Laureate.

    Nice to see this said again, I’ve heard it somewhere before…

    ” …through the process of playing we become human.”

    And you mentioned Ripley! “The government said that play was safe with them but it wasn’t,”‘ said Newt, “Monsters came.”

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