Turning the playwork story into a narrative for change.
In this new collaboration, Adrian Voce and Gordon Sturrock cast their collective eye over the recent history of playwork in the UK to draw out some lessons for the field on how it might regroup and take a leading role in making the case for a comprehensive national play policy: one consistent with its distinct ethos and approach.
Playwork is a distinct approach to working with children, and a particular set of perspectives on the nature of children’s play in a broader context. We concur with others (e.g. Brown, 2017) that its theory and practice – on play and development, constructs of childhood, the role of adults with children, the allocation and use of space, and children’s rights – are unique among the children’s professions.
This paper attempts to describe some of these perspectives, the practice tenets that arise from them, and the distinct ethos we suggest they comprise. We then propose a broad rationale for playwork advocacy, congruent with this ethos and its political dimension.
We also attempt to set out a long-term vision for the place of playwork practice within a renewed, reimagined public realm; and we suggest some specific shorter-term, more tangible objectives, towards the aim of formulating a sustained government policy framework that recognises and supports playwork without compromising it: achievable milestones on a roadmap to the longer-term vision.
Through a critical appraisal of the field’s recent history, the paper considers how organisational structures for playwork advocacy and professional development have, until now, with the odd exception, been ultimately run not by practitioners but by various branches of government, its agents, employer bodies or established children’s charities – generally more aligned with the current hegemony than with anything approximating to the playwork ethos. We argue that, in the absence of a cohesive and authoritative playwork representative body, this has led to near fatal compromises in the development and dissemination of the playwork approach.
The paper addresses the perennial conundrum of a community of practice that profoundly challenges the status quo; yet which, nevertheless, needs to find sufficient leverage in the mainstream policy discourse to secure the resources it needs to sustain its work. As the professional playwork fraternity attempts to regroup after eight years of austerity and UK government policy reversals, we suggest there is an urgent need for the field to coalesce around a binding narrative – accommodating the plurality of perspectives and approaches that have evolved – to explicitly articulate its ethos in a way that can both speak to a wide public audience and impact on the policymaking process.
The paper concludes that the framework for this narrative should be children’s rights, refracted through the prism of the playwork ethos, which is a bulwark against instrumentalist agendas. We suggest that the playwork field, though greatly incapacitated by the dismantling of its infrastructure and the closure of many of its services and courses, has a legitimate claim to be the practice community best qualified to interpret General Comment 17 of the UNCRC (CRC, 2013) for the UK context. We propose that fully engaging with the rights discourse is the logical strategy for playwork advocates; aligning our ethos to an authoritative, coherent policy case that also resonates with a wider political narrative of social and spatial justice, universal human rights and full citizenship for all.
Adrian Voce and Gordon Sturrock
Download the full paper here
Adrian Voce is a founding trustee of the Playwork Foundation. His contribution to this paper is in his personal capacity and does not represent the collective view of the charity.
Photo: Adrian Voce (Tiverton adventure playground, Devon).