Fraser Brown’s ‘unique characteristics of playwork’ – a response from Gordon Sturrock


Gordon Sturrock here responds to Professor Fraser Brown’s paper, ‘What is unique about playwork?’, which was based on the latter’s presentation to the launch of the Playwork Foundation in November 2017.

These unique characteristics for our work require some considerable evaluation. For the sake of brevity, I’ll take the final proposition and use it as a focal point for all the statements.

To recap: the final characteristic identified in Brown’s commentary states that playwork requires ‘a continuous commitment to deep personal reflection that manages the internal relationship of the playworker’s present and child-self and the effects of that relationship on their current practice.’

To approach my interpretation I will use, not ‘unconditional positive regard’ (UPR) – a proposed method in Brown’s original piece – but ‘conditional, unconditional positive regard’.

Here lies the difference: the primary usage of UPR is drawn from a context of counselling. It is a therapeutic method from within a broader application and practice. This ensures that the 45-minute, one-to-one encounter of therapist and client can invoke UPR stances, due to the fact that it is set into a supportive framework of reflection, and significant supervisory containment. This operational capacity to reflect is not conditional to practice but obligatory. None of this background has congruence with the demands of our work.

To dislocate the UPR idea by its wholesale adoption as a practice application requires major rethinking of the playwork task. Elsewhere in his piece Brown advances the notion of the ‘selfless’ playworker. This requirement is a behavioural absurdity. Our work should be peopled, and the practice enshrined in the complete immersion of the growth and self-development of the playworker in the interactions with the children in the playspace.

“The absolute uniqueness of our work rests in our reflection”

Throughout these statements there appears to be recourse to reflection as being a concomitant but adjacent responsibility of the playwork task. The absolute uniqueness of our work rests in our reflection, seen as not simply a post-session meditation, but the essential source of our working method. Our reflection is directly active in our encounters with the playing child. Our work is in our consequential but passive interrogation of responses and reactions.

The best motivation for ‘continuous commitment’ in playwork is to ensure that self-development, through insights into the meaning of the children’s play – their interpretive derivations – are seen as allowing similar excursions into the psyches and well-being of the playworker. Without departing into an adjacent argument this is an essentially hermeneutic operational modality.

I find it difficult to accept the need to separate the overall construct of ‘being and becoming’. How do we, in practice, approach this distinction? Wilber insists that ‘the past and future exfoliate out of the present’. What psychic surgery is required to arrive at the offered accommodation?

“we can only approach our encounters with play and playing through our interpretations of meaning”

There is a positional, scopic perspective here, which underlies the statements. This deserves some comments. In some ways it might be most useful to look at it by means of a reversal of the lens. Playwork is entirely participatory. There is immersion in incalculable complexities of operation. This material is abundantly in advance of the therapies more generally. Absent neurological analysis, we can only approach our encounters with play and playing through our interpretations of meaning. It is from the scrutiny of that meaning, its sourcing and our derived translations – the precise overlapping of the self-development of the child and the playworker – that our unique method arises.

As an exercise, were we able to describe our affective analysis of the field’s present state, and apply the same exercise to the plight of the children we are dealing with, we would find considerable consistency and congruence.

There is a further context requiring explication. I believe we have a political obligation that arises from and should be included in our uniqueness of practice. Playwork and its benefits are most actively needed in what we might usefully acknowledge as the precariat.

“we may be the first precariat profession…and should be proud of it”

We work predominantly in precariat environments and habitats. We may be the first precariat profession – irrespective of the major rethinking necessary to a stepping out of traditional career structures and status considerations – and should be proud of it. It is perfectly possible to locate and propagate self-development agendas for the child and playworker as a statement of post-work, political intent.

I believe that the great debate lying at the heart of our practice and its continuance may require us to transcend current interpretations of the task. There is a narrative that could move the field in entirely new directions and dimensions of practice. This may demand of us crucial and farsighted meditations of a deeply personal nature. We have created praxis norms that centre on ‘what does the child get out of playing.’ That coda should now include ‘what do we get’ out of that contact.

Gordon Sturrock

Gordon Sturrock is a playwork theorist and writer. He is co-author, with the late Perry Else, of The Play Cycle: An Introduction to Psycholudics and The Therapeutic Playwork Reader.

Fraser Brown’s paper What is Unique about Playwork? can be read here



10 thoughts on “Fraser Brown’s ‘unique characteristics of playwork’ – a response from Gordon Sturrock

  1. mickplay says:

    Oh dear. I’ll take just one sentence: “Without departing into an adjacent argument this is an essentially hermeneutic operational modality.”
    What is that supposed to mean, even in the context of Gordon’s long-held context of playwork being therapeutically beneficial to the playworker?
    Gordon has given us great insights, not least the play cycle work with Perry Else.
    But sometimes I wish he’d just take all the big words out of his mouth and say what he means.

  2. Mike wragg says:

    Gordon, if your axe to grind is with Fraser, this isn’t the way to go about grinding it. Few of the ideas you take exception to are his. I find this both amusing and insulting. If you’ll let me come to Bob’s conference why not grind your axe with me. I’m not sure if you care who I am, but when I ran an adventure playground you seemed to.

  3. plexity says:

    2 points:

    I’ll avoid any more sixth-former trolling of one of ‘the 5 top thinkers in playwork ever’,
    and I’ll just say: intellectually-threatened much, guys?, if one, I’m meaning Fraser, raise your head above the parapet, the rock-throwers are allowed a reply. That’s idea- type rocks, not the troll-type rocks.

    Less respect of the ‘leader’ please, and more respect for the ideas. you get me? We are doomed if we live in snowflake safespace when we are trying to survive intellectually.

    Sod the writers, I’m interested in the ideas, are you? Really?)


    And may I just observe that that is one of my fave pix of Professor Herr von Sturrock that we have.

    It portrays him as someone:
    with a ludic thought struggling to get out,
    in a ludicrous shirt,
    who is trying to hold in a laudable fart in the general direction of an academic “whose mother was a hamster and smells of elderberries”


    sigh, yes, I make joke, yes?

    Hello Adrian, yes, {tongue in cheek}

    *(vernacular, attrib. M.Python, retrieved from Sunday, January 28, 2018 )

  4. Eddie Nuttall says:

    Not withstanding Gordon’s characteristic linguistic affectations, there are some important arguments for reflective practice constructs made here, and made robustly ( I did not detect any personal detraction of Fraser Brown in Gordon’s comments, so I am not sure where Mike’s anger is coming from).

    As a practicing playworker, I feel closer to Gordon’s arguments on the nature of reflection and development than I do to how Fraser has framed reflection in his paper. Gordon’s arguments are drawn from and backed up by the depth psychologies he has spent a lifetime immersed in. He is arguing for playwork as a lived experience of developing and inter-being here, which as a proposed schema stretches way beyond most constructs we have within the playwork educational discourse as it stands. What a wonderful and bold assertion to suggest this kind of reflection-as-lived-action could be applied to our working discipline.

    As for criticism, I am with Arthur; surely this is the basis for evolving ideas? As The Hitch used to say, from heat comes light. Fraser is robust enough to defend his garrison, or indeed extend it’s ramparts.

  5. adrianvoce says:

    This kind of debate is one of the things I hoped that creating such a platform would enable and encourage, and if anyone has earned the right to proffer robust and particular views on the therapeutic (or quasi therapeutic) dimensions of playwork, it is surely these two.

    On the question of language, as someone who had to retake the first module of my play masters degree because the amount of time referring to a dictionary (and then searching for terms on-line because the dictionary often did not help) made me miss every deadline, I have a lot of sympathy – but let’s not shoot the messenger.

    If we aspire to a distinct professional status for playwork we must welcome academic discourse that allows us to define what we do in language that clearly marks out those distinctions and why they are valid. In every area of study at a post-grad level there are many terms not in common usage, describing concepts – and the relationships and nuances between them – that are either particular to the subject matter and its granular study, or to the professional practice that emerges from it. Let’s embrace a language for playwork that does this.

    This doesn’t mean we should obfuscate, or tolerate obfuscation; in communicating to a wider audience let us not resort to jargon. But this was one heavyweight playwork scholar responding – a little provocatively perhaps, but certainly not personally, or offensively – to another.

    I celebrate that our field has such a discourse. I want to try and understand the ideas being exchanged and trust that any sparks generated are all part of the dynamic. The ideas, both in Fraser’s paper and Gordon’s response to it, seem vital and rich to me. They make my (admittedly, relatively unschooled) mind want to engage.

    More please!

  6. Jacky Kilvington says:

    Hi guys
    I came across this discussion by chance when I rather self absorbedly was looking for comment on our 2nd edition of Reflective Playwork! Lots of interesting thoughts but spare another thought for those of us with more fragile egos who put our heads above the parapet, in one way or another, but are quite scared of making comment for fear of being patronised, ridiculed or criticised. I like the cut and thrust of debate but don’t want to engage unless it feels in the spirit of professional camaraderie, where all our opinions (and let’s face it – everything is only opinion)are given due regard. We’ve all got important things to say.

  7. plexity says:

    Just to pick up on ‘Few of the ideas you take exception to are his’ …

    you see this is the problem.

    (And to be fair, I used to have that thing about ‘but that’s MY idea!’ as if ownership or originality where even an actual thing in the world of ideas, LOL.)

    IT’S NOT ABOUT WHO SAID IT, it’s not about credit.

    Maybe it it hasn’t been said clearly enough, though lawd knows its been said in enough conference break-out areas and coffee queues, over the years: it’s not about whose idea it is, it’s not even about credit (my idea, MINE, preciousss) it’s about the REPRESENTATION, the CHARACTERISATION of those ideas in a range of contexts*.

    Playwork theory and teaching really needs to get more probing and interrogating. We don’t need more tablets of stone, we need bigger chisels.

    *The problem for our noble teaching universities is that you can’t teach RP, at least not on the budgets you poor buggers get from the institution and the government via the REF or the RIP or whatever it’s called, which attempts to turn degree mills into paper mills. (That was the extent of my sympathy to our academo-bredren and sistren, BTW).

    The key to RP is senior practitioners who will fight to maintain living RP, who practice it and facilitate it with their staff. Tricky when you don’t have enough staff and the senior worker is on a 4 day week in terms of money, but a 7 day week in terms of hours. RP in ‘settings’ [hate that word] flew out the window after the global theft of 2008, if not long before… Gaah.

  8. Panegyric says:

    The key sentence here for me is ” It is perfectly possible to locate and propagate self-development agendas for the child and playworker as a statement of post-work, political intent.”

    This is moving the whole thing away from personal, individualised reflection; away from the idea of ‘selflessness’ (the critique of which I locate in Jack London’s essay ‘The selfish worker’, a selfishness that can only be realised in solidarity); and into an assessment of playwork’s relationship with the world on it’s own terms.

    The politics we have been forced to follow is a politics of a relationship with the world as it is. Many of the critiques of play(work) as instrumental are critiques in fact of playworks recuperation into the world as it is, and critiques of the loss of a sense of playwork’s position in the totality; playwork only seems to have a position in other agendas, and ones it has not chosen. You don’t need to look far to find evidence of that.

    If, as supposed by the suggestion that playwork may be fading into myth, we are at last gasp, then there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by reimagining our political intent. Going underground, call it what you will. It will neither be a selfless nor lucrative thing to do.

  9. alipwood says:

    Many years ago Brian Sutton-Smith spoke at one of the early National Playwork Conferences held in Birmingham and I was lucky enough to drive him back to his hotel where we proceeded to spend a couple of hours in the bar talking. He told me that as this was his first time presenting to the UK playwork sector, he had not slept much the night before because he was going over and over his presentation and honing it, as he expected to receive a lot of academic criticism – that would have been the norm for him back home. He told me he was surprised to receive none and also concerned as he could only think this was due to a lack of critical thinking in the sector at the time (which I think was true – we were still a young sector with a few gurus) and also a lack of academic rigour amongst those who were starting up degree courses and/or those who were theorising. We talked for a while and it made a deep impression on me…
    So I think it’s great having this debate and there is a lot to debate if playwork is going to survive. Personally I’d like to make three points.
    I love Fraser’s piece and I love his stories that illustrate his points so well and make it understandable for everyone.
    I think Gordon has some interesting points (although echo the other comments re accessible language) and I do agree that we cannot be selfless in our practice and we are all likely to be playing out all kinds of stuff that we are often unaware of – and that more attention to both individual and group reflection and yes maybe reflection with an ‘appropriate supervisor’ (not a good term, but it will have to do for now) would be good, although probably a nightmare to make happen in practice. I also know that children are enormously forgiving when we get it wrong and we are genuine about that and there’s something rather wonderful for both child and playworker in those times. I also agree that we should be talking about what he terms ‘political intent’ although that all needs unpicking – I know what I mean by those words but I’m not sure if it’s the same as Gordon as he hasn’t given much away on that. What I will say is that I think playwork can only survive if we are rooted in local communities and operating as community developers and co-operatives that have given up on capitalism and have children and young people at their heart.
    Finally, I also agree with Jacky. We haven’t properly developed a culture in playwork where we treat each other with unconditional positive regard whilst still saying our piece, and the reality is that a lot of people don’t speak up for fear of the consequences. And that’s not good – we would all do well to properly address that so that the wider discussion arena belongs to all of us and not a few.
    Ali Wood

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