Reflecting on reflective practice: “A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

“A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

Photo from:

This is a blog about reflective practice, which like Western civilisation, I think would be a very good thing.

I’m quoting Gandhi, who was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, as he stepped off the boat at Southampton wrapped in a sheet, having been a lawyer in South Africa. He replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

I’m suggesting that a lot of what passes for reflective practice is nothing of the sort, and yet it so easily could be.

Playworkers make notes in diaries, they keep records. They take photos, to attempt to present their work to others.  Some keep journals, some turn their journals into whole books, like m’esteemed colleague Eduardo Nuttall. Some write whole books, based on the work of a lifetime, or at least a significant chunk of it,  stuffed with observation and reflection – I’m thinking of  luminaries like Perry Else and Saint Bob himself (no offence). Some blog, like moi, and Joel, and Lily and many others. Some don’t do any of that, but they do think, and ponder, and talk about stuff down the pub or over a grotty cup of bad teabag tea in a hut.

But those honourable exceptions aside, often what passes for ‘reflective practice’ is nothing more than a few scrappy notes in an ‘incident book’ or an ‘office diary’, grudgingly scribbled as you rush to go home. Why do we need to write stuff up, we mutter. What’s the point?

Easy for me to criticise, but what am I doing about it?

Good and fair question. I’m currently developing  what I hope will be a new and improved approach to playwork reflective practice. I have started by distinguishing three aspects of the thing I’m pointing at –  avoiding using the term ‘reflective’ or ‘practice’ to avoid association with existing approaches, recognising that this may result in the usage of clumsy neologism, for which I apologise.

These three aspects are:

documentation – the recording of numbers and names and other details, as required by Caesar. “Render unto Caesar that which is Ceasar’s” said a Jewish prophet, and in our context that means: keep the records that your employer requires, for the good reasons that they require it. Chief among those reasons is, most likely, the keeping of funders happy.

promotion - the gathering of photos, and stories, etcetera, for reasons often confused with the above, to wit: to be able – at AGM or conference, or on telly or radio, or in print, be it press, or exhibition – to tell people what you do and why you do it and why it is deserving of their support, financing or involvement, be that as volunteer, worker or committee member or officer.

journaling - the writing of a personal and private journal of your personal reflective practice.  By which I mean recording some of what you observed and thinking about it, and writing down some of your thoughts, and relating them to your work, presumably with the intention of improvement – the making something better. I’m referring to a thing my erstwhile chums in management consultancy call ‘change management’.

(I’m not interested in ‘change management’, I’m interested in ‘improvement management’, which is, admittedly, a subset of change management, but is much harder. Given that change is happening all the time, the real trick is to detect and amplify the beneficial things, while avoiding the bad things and hoping they’ll go away. I say this because if we focus on the bad things, everybody gets upset and the good things get neglected – better to focus on making the already good a little bit better, which is nice and not too challenging for any of us, is it not?)

Anyway, a personal and private journal. Can’t be done in the office dairy because you can’t be yourself in the glare of your office spotlight. What will they think if I write that? I can’t write that, so I don’t, and so I don’t think about it either, which means that I’m self-censoring.  Not a good start. How can I reflect on the unthought and unwritten? Reflection is personal – what do I think about what happened? Not what do the Playwork Principles tell us to think (our very own PCness), nor what my boss wants me to think or do, nor what my mates or colleagues think, or want me to think. And, if it is personal it must be private, initially at least. I can always edit juicy bits for public consumption as part of our promotion or as an extension documentation later.

Hope all that helps. I’ll be piloting this approach soon, and I’ll let you know how it goes, if you’re interested.

This particular peak

Onwards and upwards to the top of this particular peak, which is the consideration of these words:

“A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

We don’t know who said this, the only reference we have is ‘Zen saying’.

M’esteemed colleague, Mr Joel Seath, has written about being truly present as a playworker. Bearing witness to the play of children, as our great play theorist* Gordon Sturrock, has it.  He doesn’t blog, so you can’t read him online. Joel does blog, here:

What do we mean by being present, by witnessing?
Ben Tawil has a wonderful story about not interfering in play:

A teenaged boy is contemplating a leap from a high tower on an adventure playground. Ben, from a distance, is contemplating the situation. If the boy makes the jump, he will massively injure himself, that much is certain.

You’ll have to ask Ben if you need to know what happened. If you have ever been present, witnessing, you’ll know why you don’t need to know what happened. Of course you want to know what happened, as did I. I’ll ask him, and he might give me his version of the tale, which I can share here.

I know I’m being annoying and obscure: I can’t help it. I don’t have the time or patience to write a longer explanation or a shorter one for that matter•. In any case, this Zen stuff is not about Western-style explanation, it is about Eastern-style contemplation.

And contemplation is another word for reflection.

When I hear the word, I reach for my gun

Now pay attention, dear reader••, as I pick up my Zen gun and shoot myself in my metaphorical foot, by essaying that very Western sin – explaining the unexplainable. I may amuse.

So when we say: “A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.” I think we are saying that reflection is impossible if you have not been present, meaning that if you have not been present in the moment, living it, being there, witnessing everything that is going on, around you and inside you, outside of you and inside your head and your heart. Me, I don’t do that often, and I don’t do it often enough, not by a long chalk. I’m just saying that if you weren’t there, you cannot speak of it, can you?

So I offer you this: the key to reflective practice – key in the sense of opening the door –  is being truly present.

And once the door has been opened, you may or may not choose to step through, of course – that’s up to you.  And if you step through, you may fail to wander very far in the garden of reflection, but it’s a start. I’m exploring that garden myself, so I might bump into you there.


Think on, as my dad used to say.

(Which is, of course, just another way of saying do some reflection.)



Footling footnotes at the foot of the present mountain:

*we have but a few truly great theorists of play: Bob Hughes, Bashō, Gordon Sturrock, Marc Bekoff, to name but a few (boys).**

** oh, and one  token girl: Judith Rich Harris.***

*** oh, alright then, one more girl: Penny Wilson

• A wise man apologised like this for going on at length –  well, I won’t take more time to explain, I’ll just refer you here:

•• reader? I hope for plural.

What do we learn from the CQC cover-up?

Continue reading

A challenge for playwork: The scary world of 12 year olds


One of the many things I find curious about the playwork field here in UK is the extent to which it ignores the world of parenting. I’m not sure why, although I have some ideas (which I won’t share now for fear of annoying my playwork chums).

I wonder how we can blithely talk about providing play opportunities and the importance of risky play and all that, when we take no notice of the family life of twelve year olds like this one? Some women playwork writers have talked about a marginalised female perspective within playwork, and I agree largely, but my point is this – are we aware enough of these phenomena? And if we are, are we doing enough to offer a safe place for girls within our play provision?

I guess my comments are aimed more at the rufty-tufty adventure end of the provision – after-school childcare schemes might provide more girl-friendly spaces. Perhaps. And it’s not just about girls: boys have similar pressures, though they tend to act out in different ways, perhaps.

I’m not saying this to be contentious, I’m just saying that consideration of these questions might lead to us modifying some of our ‘offerings’, as the jargon has it.

Originally posted on Parenting And Stuff:

alicia and grace

It was an evening last week when I learned that my 12 years old daughter, a very sensitive and empathic girl, is chatting with a friend who is, at the same time over the phone with another friend escorting the local police searching for another (fourth) friend suspected of trying to commit suicide, per her Facebook page. So, this is the situation:

My kid is sitting on her bed trembling and crying, while I am staring at her I-pad unbelievably, chat lines running extremely fast saying:  “Diane is not at the living room… wait, looking for her at the kitchen…not there! Perhaps she already did it! Wait, the police is entering the bathroom… Here she is! She is alive! She tried to kill herself!” Etc.

Well, after making sure that Diane (which my daughter is not familiar with) is ok, and that her parents are aware of what’s happening in…

View original 290 more words

Arising in the playspace: what is the role of the playworker?

Thank you to Morgan for sharing this quote:

“I am of course employed as a leader, but on an adventure playground this is hardly the same as the accepted idea of a leader and organizer who works, as it were, from the outside. Rather, mine is a function which arises within the actual framework of the playground where I am in a position to give the children every opportunity of putting their plans into practice. This initiative must come from the children themselves and when the necessary materials are to be had these give the children the inspiration for play. I cannot, and indeed will not, teach the children anything. I am able to give them my support in their creative play and work, and thus help them in developing those talents and abilities which are often suppressed at home and at school. I consider it most important that the leader not appear too clever but that he remain at the same experimental stage as the children. In this way the initiative is left, to a great extent, with the children themselves and it is thus far easier to avoid serious intrusion into their fantasy world.”

from John Bertelsen’s “Early Experience from Emdrup” in Adventure Playgrounds,p.20-1.

Now, note the word: ‘arises’.

Something that arises is something that is emergent.

He is not saying his role is mandated by his employer, nor is it subservient to, or defined by, his ‘customers’. Rather, it is, from my complexity perspective - an emergent phenomenon within the playspace.

Which brings me right back to my presentation in 1997 at PlayEd: ”Designing PossibilitySpaces – the key task for playwork“. It is this emergent quality of the playspace, which is not a simple linear result of the staff and the physical environment, that determines and creates the playspace. Yes, it is circular. And yes, it is emergent from many interactions between many humans – mainly the children with each other, but also with adults.

(Author’s note: I’ve added single quotes around the phrase ‘the child’, just like that. I did this just now: Thursday, April 18, 2013 14:27.  The reason being that I wanted to clarify that I am focussing on the concept we point to when we use the phrase, and I am indebted to Morgan for pointing up what I was doing. I was taking for granted that my audience would know what I meant, which is always dangerous. Like Morgan, I wince when ever I encounter the idealised child in print.)


Yet we continue to talk about children in the singular. Playwork is not about ‘the child’. As I have said before, and been mightily  misunderstood and majorly castigated for: playwork is not about helping children. Playwork is about providing playspaces (a term that needs to be defined, but not now, but see below*)  for children – PLURAL, not helping ‘the child’. SINGULAR.

Playwork is not about ‘the child’. Leave that bogus concern to social services, who have discarded all they knew about families as interactive systems in favour of a tabloid-driven heroic rescue mentality.

Playwork is about children en masse. Groups of children. Large numbers of children.

If we focus on individual children and we neglect to focus on the playspace*, – the culture being continuously recreated autopoietically, the resulting emergent behaviour of the denizens en masse – then we stop doing playwork and become rescuers.


The role of the playworker

is an emergent responsiveness

to the playspace.



Thanks again Morgan, for sharing that Bertelsenic nugget. More please.

Even the sports guys think there is not enough play and too much testing



“I told a friend today that it’s time to take a stand. Here is that stand.

“I have been an advocate for, and more importantly a community worker in Active Play for quite a few years now, and have worked in a number of capacities.  Because of that, I have had the opportunity to watch our advocacy develop in the context of physical education, sports performance, the so called “obesity crisis”, and the push for academic “excellence”.”

Above and Beyond


“During this time, there have been herculean efforts made to justify ”moderate to vigorous physical activity” for kids and teens in terms of things like “productivity”, “test scores”, and “health”.  All you have to do is look at the terminology.  It is clinical and measurable.  That’s what I keep having to justify play against – clinical and measurable.  I will submit to you during this article that play can’t compete with measurable on it’s turf, but measurable is no match for LIVING.”



Go read it!







Ooh, there is snow.


Snow picture borrowed from my chum: A snow day means a play day!

Some schools announced this morning, that they will be closed tomorrow – how do they know? Other schools are open. Apparently Five thousand schools were closed today. Ooh… Interesting…

The weather is different in different parts of the country. Some schools within a mile of each other are differently open: one is closed, while another is open. Some heads insist on opening, making a special effort. Others close if they think significant numbers of children won’t be there, perhaps because it affects their absence records, which in turn affects their league table position. It’s complicated. Questions are being asked.

An ambulance man said, on the telly, that there had been a number of sledge-related incidents, and advised people to wrap up warm, despite not being a weatherman or weather woman. Seems that stating the sodding obvious in a serious way is within the purview of all who appear on the gogglebox.

Snow threat receding, we are told – how on earth do the Scandinavians cope?

Given that lots of schools are shut, and a lot of children are sledging, we might expect a few incidents.

No broken bones, because, if there had been, we would have been told about the ‘snow shock near-death horror’ by a meejah desperate for something more than:

“School shut, kids have fun in snow.”

COBRA discusses growing AlbertKyder threat
COBRA discusses growing AlbertKyder threat


Some schools are open, some schools are closed. Maybe some questions should be asked.

School shut, kids have fun in snow.



Ffs: just go chuck some.

A calm defence of adventure playgrounds in the midst of extremism…


… the extremists being the short, sighted politicians on Wandsworth council: telling lies and treating peaceful protest as if it were a bomb scare…



Kiburn AP  deceased 2012

Kiburn AP deceased 2012

(That’s a picture of another AP, closed last year. You never see children in these pictures, because play projects have been bullied into believing that it is illegal to take pictures of children without the consent of all parents. It is not against the law to take pictures of children, although if you do you may be assaulted by stupid people who think you are a bad person, and even detained by a plastic policeman who doesn’t know the law. As a result, even nice people, like a photographer working for the play project itself, with the consent of management and parents, are put off.  So the consequence is that no-one knows what a joyous place an AP in full flow looks like, they just think it is some sort of deserted half-baked unused play sculpture.)


Please read this considered and considerate perspective on the closure of the Battersea Park adventure playground by Wandsworth council.

Despite what the media tell you, these Occupy people are sensible and grown-up. This is how the item opens, I love the deference of the opening words:


“If I may I would like to start with a quote from my mother who worked with children and parents at one of the first adventure playgrounds in London at Notting hill.

Notting Hill AP: A screen grab from the1960s  film

Notting Hill AP: A screen grab from the film

“The adventure playgrounds from the beginning and relevant now were where children were able go out of school hours to try out challenging play opportunities in a safe environment using and developing their own imagination and practical skilled designs for the new playgrounds in their areas. Parents were able to be proactive in becoming involved and so gain an understanding of the adventure playground concept – in several cases they became champions and worked tirelessly on the adventure playground model in their local communities after having spoken to local residents and neighbours on their vision and explaining children wanted somewhere to play where they could have an adventure and take a few risks not just a playground with swings and slides. The community did not want them in the streets.”
Mary Cousins.

”The community still does not want them in the streets and why would they? Nor do children want to be on the streets. What Wandsworth council are doing by removing the adventure playground at Battersea park is directly removing a safe environment for those children where they can be free after school, hang out with their friends and give younger children further opportunity outside school to learn through play, something which is still part of our schools national curriculum and has been for many years.“

Read it all at:

DEAR OTHER PARENTS AT THE PARK: Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you’ve just heard me tell them I wasn’t going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves

”I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.“

WOW. The only thing that stopped me just quoting the whole thing is blogettiquette – you MUST read every word of this!

About a year ago I chided another playwork blogger for entertaining, or at least implying, that helping children is part of what we do as playwork people. This far better expresses my perspective than my querulous commenty bloggage of last year.

So I must reluctantly confine myself to a few choice quotes, those perhaps most pertinent to people who work with other people’s children:

”It is not my job to keep them from falling. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that falling is possible but worth the risk, and that they can, in fact, get up again.“

”I want my girls to know the exhilaration of overcoming fear and doubt and achieving a hard-won success.“

”I want them to believe in their own abilities and be confident and determined in their actions. “

”I want them to accept their limitations until they can figure out a way past them on their own significant power.“

”I want them to feel capable of making their own decisions, developing their own skills, taking their own risks, and coping with their own feelings.“

”I want them to climb that ladder without any help, however well-intentioned, from you.“

Read the whole thing -  maybe even memorise it and quote it next time somebody asks you “why?” – read it here:

CRESS OR YEW? Absolutist Visionary Fatwas & the Temporality Of Doom

If a blog isn’t an opportunity for the odd wee self-indulgence then what is?

I just said this—the thing I’m going to say in a bit, down below—in a comment on an interesting blog about play and playwork, and being pleased with myself I decided to showcase my aperçu here.

This, happenstancially, took place shortly after reading another—let’s call it a ‘corporate charitable blog’—which I find either slightly irritating or quite irritating, which seemed to cross another line into ego-bloggery.Of course my bloggery is also ego-bloggery — I have two weapons of excuse: self-awareness and irony being my main weapons, and deprecation, I have three main weapons…

google < Python Spanish Inquisition> 

So, anyway: the context is ‘activism’, the domain of effort is ‘children’s play’.

And I continue to be dismayed by the socialmedia-fication of campaigning – clicktivism, some call it. I continue to be worried by the incursions of Persil, Ribena and the like into the area – it’s a drip-drip change that is so incrementally slight that it is easy to be seen as a Cassandra by those immersed in the excited now of their activities on behalf of whatever. I liked it on Facebook, why hasn’t  the world changed?

We don’t have a long-term view.

If Beth Chatto didn’t have her staggeringly effective patient, humble, steady, incrementally slight and multitudinously fiddly approach, then the only plants she would be able to cultivate would be cress on the windowsill.

use the ‘search’ field top right and search for  < Chatto > to find other mentions)

Now, and I mean now, and for the foreseeable future (as I have said before: “that which is loved, persists”), I can take you now to see a yew tree that is older than Christianity. It stands by the River Wye near Matlock -  it was a shady place to rest long before the nearby settlements arrived, long before a church was erected alongside it, long before it took pride of place in its own protective enclosure in the churchyard.

There’s a continuum: cress at one end, yew at the other: where will you stand? Where should you stand? What is the appropriate time-frame, the term-time, the ambit, the purview? It’s up to you…

cress or yew
cress or yew

Here’s that aperçu:

“It is too easy to issue what I’m going to call ‘absolutist visionary fatwas’ that float disconnectedly, like sakura blossom on a gentle spring breeze: their fate is to be swept away with a flick of the gardener’s bezom.”

Source: me. about an hour ago, Wednesday, January 16, 2013  

We are striving…

We remain committed…

Unless we are all committed…

We should all take responsibility, argues a new report*

Something should be done.

If it saves just one child’s life…

*Like the washing up in a student flat?

Good luck with that.


Absolutist visionary fatwas – you can call them AVFs if you like, Absolutist visionary fatwas, floating like cherry blossom on the soft breeze of a spring morning.

They float, and amaze, and in seven days they are gone; you can take a photo of them if you wish like this sarariman with his mobile phone.

a sarariman takes a photo of the cherry blossom

a sarariman takes a photo of the sakura 

We should take photos, to document them, before they are gone! We must, we should we must we should we must…

Absolutist visionary fatwas. 

Cress or yew? 

It’s up to you.



1. One reason I like footnotes is that they led to one of my writings being rejected by a little e-mag – that provided the nudge I needed to start a proper blog. I don’t write for that little e-mag anymore.

2. What is an aperçu? I wasn’t sure, though I love the word, so I looked it up:

A`per`cu´    (å`pâr`s) n.

1. A first view or glance, or the perception or estimation so obtained; an immediate apprehension or insight, appreciative rather than analytic.

The main object being to develop the several aperçus or insights which furnish the method of such psychology.

- W. T. Harris.

A series of partial and more or less disparate aperçus or outlooks; each for itself a center of experience.

- James Ward.

2. Hence, a brief or detached view; conspectus; sketch.

From the Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co. A more up-to-date, and lesser definition is here:çu

3. that yew:

New rules for fragile, vicious children

Attention, people who work with children, these are the truths you should teach your customers:

  • You can do what you like, steal or hurt others, it doesn’t matter, so long as nobody sees you, or your mate will lie for you – because guilt is dependent on proof and not conscience
  • Deny everything and call them liars. demand proof
  • Don’t apologise! It isn’t in your own interest
  • Accuse people –  it feels good and makes you powerful
  • Zero tolerance is great – they’ll assume they did it!
  • Children shouldn’t choose who they play with

What’s that? You don’t agree? Why not? You are against bullying, aren’t you? You don’t agree with bullying, do you? You support AntiBullying Week, don’t you? How dare you disagree, you bully!

Well, if you support anti-bullying, you must support those statements, because all those ‘truths’ are the consequence of anti-bullying policies. Which leads me to this article denouncing anti-bullying policies, which contains the most cogent argument I have ever read on the issue. Read these quotes, then follow the link below:

“Whether we like it or not, arguing, teasing and fighting are normal parts of childhood. Learning to tell the difference between a spat and systematic bullying should be a basic parenting skill, but our much vaunted zero-tolerance policies on bullying make it impossible. They also make it very difficult for children to reform their behaviour.

”…[W]hen every incident is treated like a potential crime, teachers’ roles change dramatically.

“She cannot simply say: stop it! Nor can she simply scold the perpetrator or propose such age-old solutions as ‘shake hands and make up’. Her job is no longer to educate, but to investigate. Once a report is being made, the accused child’s parents immediately – and quite naturally – become Jack’s defence advocates. They tell their child to deny everything and challenge every accusation by demanding irrefutable proof. …

“The process demeans the teacher’s authority, eliminates arbitration and belittles personal responsibility, as it teaches children that guilt is dependent on proof and not conscience, and that sincere apologising is not honorable but contrary to self-interest.

And children do learn. They soon learn that making accusations gives power, and zero tolerance means the presumption of guilt. Our current interpretation of bullying is entirely subjective, thus bullying occurs whenever someone feels he or she has been bullied. We have already had a case of bullying where Jack told Jill she has a nice hat. Jack thought he was complementing her, but Jill interpreted it as a sarcastic remark.

“In another case, boys who didn’t allow a girl into their game were considered bullies by way of exclusion. So children no longer have the luxury of choosing who they play with. It was not systematic shunning; but a single incident was enough.

”For those of us who still believe that children are neither as vicious nor as fragile as we are now led to believe, it’s time to realise that the over-officious anti-bullying campaigns are a part of the problem.”


Penny Wilson’s thoughts on Social Behaviour and its Anti

Has there been a rise in ASB, or has there been a rise in people complaining about children playing, which is then dealt with under the label ‘ASB’?

As Penny Wilson says:

“Do we see a group of children chalking on the pavement as a traditional and harmless play activity?
- or-
Do we see it as ‘Encouraging older children to feel that graffiti is permissible?’

”Sitting in a housing office I hear an officer describing a young man in shockingly negative ways. Looking out of the window during this monologue, I see the same young man helping an elder along the street with her heavy shopping.“

Some wisdom from the Wilson: go read it.

click here – Catch ‘em doing Something Right!

David Snowden is a natural born playworker!

I’m very pleased, and slightly amazed, to have been invited to attend two, yes two, Cognitive Edge training courses next week, which I will blog about. I’m a big David Snowden fan, and readers who have seen me present ‘MIPS’ at PlayWales’ Spirit conference in 2010 will know that I approvingly quote his ‘how to organise a party for teens’ piece.

Cognitive Edge does very clever things, which I will not attempt to describe here until I have been through the training, but you can read a little here: David Snowden

As homework for the course, we are asked to re-read several of DS’s writings, and I came across this, which I had read years ago. It is delicious and wicked:

“In another case, a group of West Point graduates were asked to manage the playtime of a kindergarten as a final year assignment. The cruel thing is that they were given time to prepare.

“They planned; they rationally identified objectives; they determined backup and response plans. They then tried to “order” children’s play based on rational design principles, and, in consequence, achieved chaos. They then observed what teachers do.

”Experienced teachers allow a degree of freedom at the start of the session, then intervene to stabilize desirable patterns and destabilize undesirable ones; and, when they are very clever, they seed the space so that the patterns they want are more likely to emerge.”

Experienced playworkers, of course, also do do that, don’t they?

I keep threatening to write up my ‘Edge of Recalcitrance’ presentation, not least because it is becoming more widely misunderstood. Yes, taught widely, and widely misunderstood.

I first presented the ideas at the PlayEd conference in 1997 – with one Wendy Russell in the audience – and a broad range of experience of playwork in the room. I reckon the majority of those present ‘just got it’, because what I was describing chimed with their lived experience of their playwork. That was my main intention – to offer the field a language for describing what playworkers do, so that we could begin to get that across to others. Not easy without words. But that was fifteen years ago (which is a whole generation if you are a member of one of Eric Pickles’ ‘troubled and troublesome families’) and I fear that the lived experience of playwork has changed. Because of elfansafety and all that, don’t you know.

Playwork trainers and speakers in the know know that the ‘Where did you play as a child?’ exercise, (which many use, and almost as many claim to have invented), has stopped working with younger playwork audiences. It used to be a superb way of quickly tapping into the essence of the experience of play, because it reliably elicited responses about, freedom, reverie, lack of adult supervision, danger, excitement and all that. Now we are getting blank looks – many of these young playwork entrants seem to have suffered play deprivation themselves – they simply don’t report the life experiences of a childhood spent away from grown-ups, crossing roads, being out all day, lighting fires, being chased off, doing stupid ‘dangerous’ stuff and suchlike. ‘Hire for attitude’ some wise guroo* once said, ‘everything else can be learned on the job’. Very true, which is why playwork might struggle: if the workers you hire don’t have the playwork attitude, moulded by experience, then jamming it in there over a few days of training in a nice classroom is going to be tricky.

And, explaining my ‘Edge of Recalcitrance’ and why order and rationality don’t work, is I suggest very very tricky indeed. As  DS said: “They then tried to “order” children’s play based on rational design principles, and, in consequence, achieved chaos”.

A lot of people don’t get it. I saw this, in a paper about theories in playwork available to download from a Play Council’s website recently:

“Children’s play is naturally slightly chaotic.”

No it isn’t.

Children’s play is complex!

(What does that word ‘ naturally’ mean in this context? I’m assuming they mean, when not interfered with by grown-ups).

Children’s play can also be ordered (that is – appears ordered, not can be ordered about!), and yes, it can be occasionally chaotic, but if ‘left alone’ (easier said than done)  it tends to migrate to the ’edge of chaos’. Which is why I say that the ‘Duty of Care’  for people working with other people’s kids, has to be countervailed (if that is a word, not, as I used to say ‘balanced’ because it is not a simple static balance it is more a dynamic tension) with the ‘Duty of Recalcitrance’.

If that doesn’t make much sense, it’s because I am compressing an hour’s lecture and thousands of words and two or three diagrams into a short paragraph.


I must write it up soon.


I’ll be back with more Snowdenia after next week. If he ever wants a job as a playworker or playwork trainer, I’ll let you know. He is a natural.


*Guroo = Small marsupial, likes to make its nest from your strategies and policies, becoming a pest in some areas

Low prices are not fair prices: for fair wages we need fair prices

Excellent summary of why this anti-trust case will lead to Amazon destroying publishers, bookshops and another huge chunk of civilisation…

~• posted from the annoyingly buggy but still quite handy WordPress for Android; so please excuse any ‘smart’ phone typos •~

Craft and playwork (“Science tells you that your opinion is worthless”)

Worth reading despite the presence of the sweetly-grinning fey keyboard-bothering popster, Mr. Cox.

here’s my edited highlights of the piece, designed to give you my choice of the most relevant points, while not quoting too much of the article and infringing the NS’ copyright:

—–my precis starts——-

”BC: That’s the point of exploration: you don’t know what you’re going to find.

“What do you make of neutrinos apparently being measured moving faster than the speed of light – which would overturn Einstein?
”BC: Science should be really honest – the experimenters don’t believe the result, I don’t think, because it does require a big revision of our understanding of physics. But they check it, they can’t find anything wrong, so the correct thing to do is publish.
JF: The false alarms get weeded out.
BC: You can think of areas where that’s problematic: medical research, for example, where the behaviour of people depends on the research – I’m thinking of disasters like the MMR scare. But in general science should be really naive; there shouldn’t be PR spin or politics.

“What motivates climate sceptics and the rest?
”BC: Carl Sagan pointed out that “Science challenges”. And the natural human response from people who are educated, who have a title or position, is to assume their opinion is worth something. And science tells you that your opinion is worthless when confronted with the evidence. That’s a difficult thing to learn.
“JF: As a theoretical physicist, most of my time is spent doing calculations that are wrong. It’s a humbling exercise, a massive dose of humility.

”How can we teach that process?
BC: Quantum mechanics is interesting, because it’s a theory that is absolutely shocking in its implications and yet not technically difficult. I think it should be taught in schools for that reason. Measurements of the world suggested something very odd – that particles can be in multiple places at once – so we developed a theory and it works. It’s that process of saying: “Your preconceptions about reality are not right, because the evidence says so.”

“One of the book’s messages is not to trust your intuition. So how do you distinguish between a bonkers idea – and a bonkers idea that’s right?
BC: Experiment! Make predictions.

”Are we all doomed?
BC: On the human timescale, the adoption of the scientific method – making rational decisions based on evidence – that’s the important thing. Look at public policy, health policy, economics: there’s a reluctance to be humble.

—–my precis ends——-

I’m referring to the bit in my title: how do you feel when I say that  most of what we think we know about children and play is, well, let’s just say ‘unscientific’?

I’ll unpack this a bit, then link it to my assertion that playwork is a craft, a bit (because I’m lazy).

Science is based on disproof. That’s why it’s Einstein’s or Darwin’s  theory, not because we don’t accept them,  but because they might be wrong. Lots of people in white coats are plotting to do them down by disproving them with the full approval of their biggest fans in the ‘scientific community’, as we have to call it.

I suppose at some point they might make the leap and become laws, like Newton’s, but notice this: Newton’s laws HAVE been supplanted by Einstein’s, but that doesn’t mean that Newton’s laws don’t apply 99% if the time. (They called them laws back then; science is less confident these days.) You don’t need to worry about time dilation until your Ford Focus is capable of near-light speed, but if you are sending a probe to Mars, Einstein can really ruin your day.

The lovely Dr Jack Cohen is fond of these phrases:

‘false to fact’


‘that turns out not to be the case’

Just two of the ways that scientists try to politely say – ‘you are wrong, what you said is not true’.

Now, (as I’m fond of saying):

Are we putting enough energy into disproving the cherished theories of playwork?

Can were even call them theories? Theories have to be disprovable.

And… does playwork even need ‘theory’ (as we call it) ?

Personally, I’ve tried to be careful not to claim theory status for my ideas.

Those ideas including, but by no means restricted to (let’s attempt a comprehensive description) ‘on the application of the edge of chaos concept to various aspects of the play of children’.

I have become increasingly concerned about the application, by others, of my thinking to the range of playworker responses; an application which can easily slide into prescription.

If all art aspires to the condition of music, then all science aspires to the condition of mathematics; and if all all science aspires to the form of mathematics, then Bach’s fugues are the highest form of mathematics. Bethe’s formulas for stellar formation, when encoded, give us ‘Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star’ when played on a Fourier synth (ask me).

If playwork is aspiring to be scientific, it needs to abandon it’s flirtings with post-modern theory.

And equally if science has no place in playwork practice, then attempting to delouse playwork of it’s pseudo-science fleas by asserting a post-modern perspective on science is a pretty roundabout way to go about it.


which I want to get round to writing about sometime,



A craft is not a profession, nor is it merely an occupation, or a mere hobby. A craft CAN be a hobby or an occupation, and can exist within an occupation.

Last year we had double glazing (I know – finally!) to the remaining single (undouble?) windows in our lovely but 130 year old end-terraced house. The main guy that did the work was a craftsman. His attention to detail, his pleasure in the job well done was almost immediately apparent. I say almost, I had to get over the mess (minimal as it happened) , the noise and the disruption first. I finally gave in, did a bit of daytime telly, caught up on last weekends dead tree news and basically became their butler for the day, applying my theory that the best quality tea and coffee, and good biscuits are the best way to get good work out of yer stout British yeoman. That and honest appreciation. That last part was easy, as I say, this guy was class, he was skill, to use two archaiac working-class men’s expressions of appreciation.)

His story is interesting, though typical: now working for a double glazing firm, he was once a proper craftsman – carpenter or joiner, I forget which, sorry. Might have been cabinet maker - I think he trained as that, then went on .the building’. You can’t  really say he was ‘proud’ of his skills, because that word, along with ‘passionate’ has been hugely debased by the meejah to the extent that we are encouraged to be ‘proud’ if we bake a cake on Masterbake or get a yodelling audition on X-factor. I blame Heather Smalls - we were brought up to believe that pride was a sin.

So here we have this guy, and all he’s doing is bashing out our old windyframes and slotting in the new ones – made in some factory, cut to size on a computerised controlled CNC cutting machine, designed by some bloke on a CAD system sat in front of a big monitor, assembled by some lads in overalls- that he picked up from the depot this morning; nothing to it just slot ‘em in. Think of all the money that little window-making companies used to waste employing craftsmen to make window frames by hand; think of all the employment created for painters repainting the bloody things every 5 years, now that money goes instead into the pockets of the IT guys and the factory owners, and the craftsman have to scrape a living basically installing Lego.


But if you’ve ever watched proper old fashioned physical work being done, you’ll know that there is a suprising amount of craft knowledge in use, no matter how routine and menial the task is. A good example is watching those 2 bonkers cleaning women on the telly, I forget their names: loads of intelligence, skill, knowledge and know-how being casually imparted to the nation’s slovens. (Is ‘sloven’ a real word? I was trying to avoid slattern or slut because of their sexist and sexual overtones. The gene for keeping a filthy house is not sex-linked. hope you didn’t think I meant Slovenians.)

Yes, Craft.

You might also notice that the technocrats of double-glazing have exported the risk (Ulrich Beck) of problems with fitting to the installer. The lowest paid worker is now shouldering the risk. We could suggest that while the task of making double-glazing has simplified, the task of installing it has complexified. The sleight of hand of the market. I wave my hand and the profit has left the warehouse and flown via the regional factory to the owners.


And the only playworkers I respect, and there are many, are those who stubbornly practice their craft, despite the best efforts of their managerialist bosses, the technocratic frameworks of monitoring, the viccissitudes of funding, the indifference of local authorities, the increasing stupidity of parents (I blame society) the vast ‘professional’ timidity and arse-covering of other agencies and the actions of the kids themselves.

Recalcitrants* all, stubbornly doing the best that they can.


So let me finish by saying this:




*Note to fans of my ‘Edge of Recalcitrance’  - the above is my best shot at why I call playworkers recalcitrant.

Further reading:

Richard Sennett : ‘The Craftsman’, ‘Together’, ‘Bowling Alone.

Matthew Crawford: ‘The case for working with your hands’.