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 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