6th February 1948 – 16th June 2019
Gordon Sturrock, who has died, aged 71, was a giant of playwork: a voracious scholar and a fierce, original thinker, with a radical vision of the importance of play in the lives of children and society.
Although critical of how the practice was adapted by public policy in this area – driven, as he saw it, by a childcare and education agenda, rather than a true recognition of children’s right to play – Gordon was one of the very small number of playwork theorists whose ideas became part of the vocational training curriculum for the mainstream children’s workforce.
Gordon spent his first six years in India, where his nursemaid, or ayah, imbued him with a spiritual sense that never left him. He was returned to Scotland to be educated, a wrench from his parents that eventually resulted in his conviction that life traumas could be healed through therapy, play, and playwork. As he often said, ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.’
After boarding school in Scotland, he trained in Jungian psychology and later referred to himself, with typical self-deprecation, as a ‘failed analyst’. His psychotherapy training introduced him to the work of DW Winnicott, and thus to a fascination with scientific and theoretical perspectives on children’s play, which would become his life’s work.
Knowing that an understanding of play from the literature would only take him so far, Gordon found work on the burgeoning adventure playground scene in London in the 1970s and 80s, eventually becoming the play officer for the London Borough of Camden. Here, he began to involve himself in the emerging moves to professionalise playwork, and its embryonic institutions, joining the board of the Joint National Council for Training in Playwork.
Around this time, he became a founder director of Interplay, a company that designed children’s fixed playground equipment; he also worked hard to establish Children’s Village, an ambitious project involving many activities and services for children, all under one umbrella. Unfortunately, the recession spelt the end for both enterprises.
He then gravitated towards teaching, taking a lecturing position at Thurrock, University of East London, and increasingly collaborating on a variety of papers expounding his ideas. The most influential of these, written with the late Perry Else, and widely known in playwork circles simply as ‘the Colorado paper’ (1998), describes the ludic ecology, the play cycle, and the subjective role of the practitioner in responding to play cues. Sturrock and Else called this practice therapeutic playwork, and suggested it was rich in creative and healing potential.
In 2003-04, Gordon developed, for the University of Gloucestershire, two undergraduate modules in therapeutic playwork, which remained a fixture for the duration of that programme. His and Else’s ideas, along with those of his friend and professional confidante, Bob Hughes, became the bedrocks for the development of recognised training and qualifications in playwork; part of the ongoing professionalisation of the field that had its short-lived apotheosis in the £235m national play strategy for England (2008), later abandoned to austerity.
Although subsequently operating outside academia, and not being widely published, Gordon remained one of the field’s leading thinkers right up to his death, sustaining a rich dialogue with many collaborators and colleagues, often in more mainstream positions than he; stimulating and provoking each, with the breadth of his own studies, the erudition of his ideas and interpretations, and the political and ethical positions he urged us to either embrace or challenge.
Gordon was an inspiring teacher and mentor, and a compelling speaker. He had a sharp but playful sense of humour: it was he who coined the collective noun for play workers as ‘a lateness’. His writing, however, was not to everyone’s taste; it was not an easy read, with its characteristic sprinkling of academic vocabulary and numerous neologisms. But to those who persevered, he brought insights and interpretations to bear on a vocation that most of us understood only instinctively. His firm belief that play was at the very root of human experience led him to devour new ideas on everything from neuroscience and evolutionary biology, to the future of democracy and the commons movement. That he was able to make each of these perspectives highly relevant to understanding the space in which children play – and our responsibilities in entering it – was his great gift.
In his later years, his illness and its finality seemed to reinvigorate Gordon’s appetite for work. In 2018, already seriously unwell, he co-organised, with Bob Hughes, a Play Education conference in Cambridge, hoping to breathe new life into a field that seemed in the doldrums after eight years of austerity. The event revealed him to be as passionately motivated as ever to articulate a grand narrative of the playwork ethos and its practice. He also sought out new collaborators and embarked on a prolific writing spree that produced a book, co-authored with Dr. Pete King of the University of Swansea, and a series of original pamphlets, each to be now, sadly, published as posthumous works.
Gordon is survived by his wife, Sue.