Questions to a playworker…


Adele Cleaver trained as a playworker in Birmingham back in 2010. She calls herself “a nomadic Brummie” who after dabbling in playful adventures and community work in Leeds, London and Birmingham and Ghana, Portugal, Brazil, Uganda and Kenya now resides in Bournemouth on the south coast of England with her 4-year-old daughter and husband. 

In November 2019 she started writing her first book which she describes as a part-memoir, part-manifesto on living a life full of play.  She writes “accidentally stumbling into playwork was going to be the best voyage I was ever going to embark on”.  We asked her a few questions about her playwork journey.

How did you become a playworker?

I think I was born a playworker. It just took me a long time to realise my way of being could also be a profession. My home was like a free play environment; a laidback pair of almost hippies for parents with 4 children, over 12-year age gap each with their respective friends over to play, and a multicultural backdrop beyond our doorstep. My mom was a teacher though openly criticised “the system” and longed for the 6 weeks holidays and my dad worked in Social Inclusion for the NHS so I was brought up to live inclusively, be weary of hierarchy and play freely. I went to the University of Leeds to study International Development because when I was 18 I naively thought I could save the world. I moved back to Birmingham and worked at a local youth project as a Youth Worker where I bumped into Laura Watts one of the radical women who founded Dens of Equality. She worked in the building next door,  and took me under her wing because the youth project just wasn’t rebellious enough for me. After a few months of bid-writing and setting up family-led play projects around Birmingham, Laura sent me off to play with Ali Wood and Sue Smith and they turned me into a proper playworker with a capital P and a certificate to prove it.

Are you working on a play project in Bournemouth?

Yes, currently myself; I am my own play priority! The first few years of motherhood and juggling the chaos that a tiny new life brings reminded me that I needed to play more. Playful parents breed playful children so I’ve been prioritising us at home.

But even before motherhood, I took a rest from play when we moved out of London in 2014; not intentionally but because playworker jobs didn’t seem to exist down here. I needed work, couldn’t afford to be fussy so without giving it much thought ditched the play.  I was an Autism Support Worker for a few years before I had my daughter and always tried to work more playfully, but there was no real understanding of play in the organisations I worked for. I felt I had become very institutionalised so I contacted The Prince’s Trust and set up a greetings card business with their support to learn new skills and feed my own creativity.

When I was pregnant we very almost moved to Bristol because I knew we could live more playfully there as a new family but I had fallen in love swimming in sea at the end of our road. So we stayed put and have started rooting here. I often described Dorset as a “play desert”. Apart from Fernheath Play as the little oasis, there isn’t much opportunity for playwork here. After I had my daughter I did Admin at a creative youth project locally in Bournemouth. I could see the glaringly obvious gap in the service provision; these young people weren’t accessing community play as children so they were being referred to us through CAMHS because there are no early intervention projects. I couldn’t handle office work so I left and decided to focus on building up Play here.

So now I am setting up, very slowly, a Community Interest Company called Real Playful. I am running a series of Family Nature Play sessions in collaboration with a local community garden this winter. I am super excited that so many families local to Boscombe are interested; all the workshops were fully booked within days.  Then my next big job is to source playful people and train them up as playworkers so I am currently completing a very tedious application for employability funding. I’m really just relying on my book to become an international bestseller (any agents reading, please call me!!), I’ll be made a millionaire overnight and voila! I can fund all sorts of magical community play projects here, there and everywhere.

Where is your favourite place to play?

Hmmm, it varies. This year I have really genuinely loved being at home, playing in my PJs, all day with my daughter. Lockdown was good for us in that sense because I am a sociable being, and I like to be out and about, but the unstructured, timeless play got priority over my need to be with people. I thoroughly enjoyed being locked away in our own little adventure playground; it was necessary escapism! But if you’d asked me last year I would have said outdoors in the community. Big outdoor community play, mixed ages, multigenerational, loads of loose parts, street closures of festivals of play, neighbours laughing together,  cups of tea being brought out onto the doorstep.  I love the big colourful pop up play sessions I used to create with Parks 4 Play in Birmingham. It was physically demanding work, lugging tonnes of resources around Kings Heath park but it was so magical. That’s the sort of play I want to bring to Boscombe.

Where do you play outdoors?

Well we don’t have much of a garden except a little front hedge area which is big enough for a mud kitchen and my bicycle.  I am not complaining, we live opposite a small charismatic Victorian park and 800m from the beach! 9 miles of glorious sand and a view over to the Purbeck Hills. I’ve always lived in cities and this is the closest I have ever lived to nature; life is good here even though I can only experience vibrant community play in my imagination…. I must remind myself that good things come to those who experience vibrant community play in their imagination!

I still really love going back to Brum and playing in my parent’s overgrown garden when I played as a child. I’m a proper city kid through and through, in terms of my exposure to diversity, multiculturalism and the arts, but I played and played and played in that garden and have a lot of happy memories. For as long as I remember my parents have fixed everything, and kept things ‘just in case they will be useful to fix other things….’ so their garden has always been full of loose parts. It is great, but also kind of a strange time-warp-come-parallel-universe to see my daughter explore freely with all the random stuff I did thirty years earlier.

If you could live in any era, when would you choose?

When people could play and cycle out on the roads without it being dangerous. I joined the Playing Out Activator group at the start of the year, just before lockdown and was so excited to hear of all these communities regularly playing out. And then through lockdown I was campaigning for “Quiet Streets” to be our “legacy of lockdown” in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP Council) but Highways wouldn’t give us permission. It is so frustrating; without much publicity over 30 residents had expressed an interest, around 10 streets had self-organised stewards, signs and safety kits, but the powers-at-be just wouldn’t give the green light. It is so obvious to me that community playfulness is good for everyone; my council don’t use the same glasses  I do.

What is your favourite word?

I am a linguist so I have 3! In English “Chaos”. Quelquefois (French for “sometimes”) and Bochechas (“cheeks” in Portuguese).

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Ohhh good question! An author, an artist and an architect. I think I’m almost there. I have just finished my first book, just need to get it published to make me a “real author”. Everyone is an artist, and those with confidence capitalise the A to make them official Artists and I build splendid dens so I guess that makes me an Architect. If I could go back to university I would definitely study urban design, architecture or planning; something to build more community play spaces in cities. Maybe I will go back to university…. Who knows?!

Finally, tell us a little bit about your book.

It is a part-memoir, part-manifesto about prioritising playtime for new parents and gifting our children unstructured family time.  I write from my heart about inclusion, playful encounters in playwork settings, my own childhood play, playful parenting in Cuba and Montreal, miscarriage and multiculturalism.

Connect with Adele

Facebook – Real Playful – Pop Up Community Play

Instagram the_real_playful_mama

Twitter @Adeleplayworker

And if you have any connections to the literary world please help her to circulate her proposal!

One thought on “Questions to a playworker…

  1. donnebuck says:

    I much enjoyed your report Adele, thanks. I began playwork running a summer holiday adventure play project in East London in 1957 and have been a playworker until this year when Covid 19 struck. If you want more, do ask.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.