Penny Wilson offers a personal view of the struggles of playwork in a world that undervalues play, and of how the Playwork Foundation represents an opportunity for developing our common cause, building mutual support and working together for the growing recognition we deserve.
Sometimes, being a playworker feels isolated. We struggle – with local authorities, housing associations, funders, government, the media and the public – to communicate what we are doing and why. The play illiterate look down on us; often either patronising or simply dismissing us and our work.
We have a strong body of knowledge, dating back some 70 years showing the urgent need for free play to be accessible to children, showing how best to support that play and design and provide for it. We have developed play theory, and there is a mountain of research showing how play –unstructured, child-led play – is of overwhelming benefit to children.
We have a language to explain the mechanics of the craft of playwork. Yet still we find resistance in almost every sphere of influence to our work. We can prove and prove and prove the efficacy of playwork in the lives of children over and over and over again. We state and restate our case and our perspectives. We write and rewrite the simple things we need to be understood.
The world seems to be play-blind.
Yet, we are continually thwarted in our work. People cannot see or hear play. They show endless resentment towards play and those who advocate for it. We all have hundreds of examples of the insults and semi-truths that have been conjured up to discredit and infantilise play and playworkers. It is frustrating and belittling. The world seems to be play-blind. We feel as powerless as the child trying to play. The odds are against us. We have no voice.
In our teams, we can band together, talk and use humour to counteract the frustrations. We can think laterally, advocating for play in creative, imaginative and positive ways. We can start social media discussion groups to broaden our thinking and engender mutual support. We can do this locally and internationally.
We can sometimes afford to go to conferences and, whenever that is possible, it is great for us. But our wages are low and our projects mostly insufficiently funded; we cannot often find the funds to attend, and they cannot always cover our absence when we do.
Some of us decide that higher education in play is the route to becoming more respected and better informed; to be heard. This is also great, but it is only a partial solution. We are asked for our base-level qualifications to gain employment, but even that level of qualification, enfeebled as it often is, is now almost impossible to gain.
the craft and knowledge and voice of the playworkers, advocating for the right of (every) child to play, is undermined
The play equipment industry has a loud voice. It has products to sell, an easy solution to a tick box requirement of landlords and landholders to provide some play space. Buy it and … Snap! The problem is solved. Quick and simple. The relationship between society and children’s play is resolved with one easy gift; give the kid a sweetie to stop it crying. Once again, the craft and knowledge and voice of the playworkers, advocating for the right of (every) child to play, is undermined by a passive-aggressive sop to short term gratification.
Even the organisations established to promote play are frequently unsupportive and undermining of playworkers, choosing to promote their own structural interests by renaming our work so that they can appear to have invented something new themselves or look to volunteers to replace us. Our unions are happy to accept our dues, but there is seldom a reasonable return for those dues. We are unrepresented. No one hears us. No one speaks up for us We are beset with difficulties. We always have been. We feel sorry for ourselves and undervalued.
A place to take pride in ourselves …
It is unsurprising therefore that we turn on each other, choosing to try to scramble to the top of the heap and squash our peers down to raise ourselves up. We are frequently vicious in our infighting. We prefer to squabble with each other than to seek common ground in the acceptance and respect of our differences.
We need a shared identity. We need to feel proud of ourselves and of each other. We need to be able to stand tall and advocate for play with pride. Playworkers need to have a metaphorical bonfire to sit around, a place to understand what we share and why we are so prepared to remain so dedicated to our work in the face of such overwhelming adversity. A place to find ourselves reflected in the faces or our peers. A place to take pride in ourselves.
The Playwork Foundation is an attempt to provide recognition, support and a voice for those of us who practise the craft of playwork. It can be the mirror we need to show us who we are so that we can look with pride on our image.
With no staff and negligible funding, the Foundation is nevertheless struggling on all our behalf with some of the thorny problems associated with the current turmoil around accredited training; and working with others to advocate for the policy changes the sector needs. But it can be a great deal more. It can share writing from those of us who like to write. It can hold images and papers and anything else we decide we need: memes on social media; information; ideas; resources.
The Foundation can be whatever we need it to be. Let’s make it our shared campfire. To do this it needs us to support it, to chip in, to use our voice and our enterprise. It is true that there is a cost element, which is a challenge to those of us living hand-to-mouth on playworker wages, but here is an opportunity, a chance to strengthen our voice and to find common ground; to turn away from the frustrations and infighting that shames and holds back our profession; to stand tall and move on.
Photo: Meriden Adventure Playground