THE REDISCOVERY OF FIRE: playwork, training and the ‘problem’ of fire



This is some writing on playwork. 

I realise, on re-reading it, that it is somewhat opaque by virtue of being condensed to fit into two pages of a magazine. I am happy to expand and expound on any of the ideas.

What’s odd about this piece is that it was rejected because it had too many footnotes,

or was it simply because it had footnotes?  

I forget. So I took my bat home.

I thought it should see the light of day,

I thought that it should gambol free in the shallow-angled pasty light of midwinter, seeking its listeners.

I like this piece. It’s 18 months old, and I had forgottten it almost completely, so when I read it, it was as if I was not the author, so when I say I liked it, it’s not showing off, it’s just fact. (Fact in the sense that my opinion is factually reported by me, I mean). When I say I like it, it’s more that I appreciate it, despite its flaws. It should be longer: that means work that I’m reluctant to commit to without guidance – tell me, what of it to write more of, dear reader/s (too many prepositions, up with which one cannot put).

I will say this: it is absolutely about leadership and management. Absolutely, even though it contains no Tuckman, no norming, norman-ing, no storming norman-ing.

(‘Storming Norman’ was a Gulf War general. Sheena was a punkrocker).

It is absolutely about leadership and management.





© Arthur Battram, PleXity 2011


He said “Something on Management and Leadership“, which, as Picasso knew, just makes it more difficult, having to choose from EVERYTHING, which is why the Spanish philanderer chose the restrictions of the junkyard and its ‘objets trouveé’. That’s loose parts to you, play boy.


Management as we understand it,  developed in the huge multinational corporations of America, the UK and Europe in the middle years of the last century. These huge structures found it increasingly difficult to act in new ways and even to communicate, which lead to wave after wave of management fads, like TQM, BPR and the ‘Learning Organisation’. Evil management consultants, expert at exploiting the last drop of profit, moved on to the next chic fad, whilst marketing the already discredited fad to the gullible public sector and the larger national charities as ‘Best Practice’. Thus it was inevitable that ‘the Quality movement’ would pose the latest threat to tiny little play projects pottering along minding their own business – of course TQM is inappropriate, but you can get funding to do ‘Investors in People’, oh yes, funding to waste hundreds of hours (which aren’t funded) getting a framed piece of paper alongside such luminaries as McDonalds and Northern Rock.  The little fleas have littler fleas and thus the voluntary sector has PQASSO, its very own quality scheme. On the theory that ‘we should do it to ourselves before they do it to us’ we have the noble ‘Quality in Play’ – which unfortunately finds itself not to be the ‘preferred approach’ of many a Children’s Services Childcare Development Team (last year Play England failed to run a programme of training for assessors in the North basically because they were asking play people to pay commercial rates and nobody has the money).


I hear tales of woe about ‘childcare settings’ which, when not forced to operate some Gradgrindian ‘homework club’§§, are busy implementing some imagined ‘Prevention of Fun Act’ requiring them to ban most stuff because the school won’t like it, or the caretaker complained or the parents don’t like the kids getting messy or the head doesn’t approve or… Where does this stuff come from? Where are these Funeaters, these cold-water-pouring Blue Meanies, these banners of the sacred ‘Fire Play’?  Let’s go see – come with me now, dear reader, to another part of our world, a corner of our green and pleasant, a land of powder-blue Saabs and ‘themes’…


Last year I found myself teaching a group of childcare people the joys of playwork and our lovely principles of play. I met Tehanu* who—responding to the ‘demand characteristics’ of an enthusiastic and proselytising tutor (me)—told me about George****, a small boy who didn’t get involved in stuff, and just sat about, until one week in which the owner of the club, driver of a powder-blue Saab convertible†, friend of the Head, and decreer of ‘themes’, had decreed that this week the theme would be ‘Boxes’ and thus George was unexpectedly to be found making, playing, inhabiting ‘being free’ while being boxed in, like Picasso . And thus was George fulfilled: he had found his ‘signature play mode’.§ Until Powder Blue poppedin saw that this had continued into the following week, and was not happy and she spake unto Tehanu most crossly and ordered her to see to it, and Tehanu did not, for she valued George and his play and was prepared to suffer some wrath from the PB, who in any case was never there and probably wouldn’t remember, like a busy parent, which is how most managers of small businesses behave, for better or worse.


Cut to the chase – with this group I found myself going back to my roots as a playwork trainer, focussing on the installation of bullshit detectors***. I explained that their job, in order to be true to the creed of Playwork in its mighty Principles, was to be subversive in their Stalinist ‘settings’:  that they must develop ‘the bushido of the revolutionary’**, they must be cunning and practice tradecraft and proceed to cross the Great River using the ‘stepping stones of possible’, making innocent queries, attributing small intentions to the Gods of CACHE and NVQ, such as the display of the Charter, and the Principles, moving doggedly forward from one ‘adjacent possible’ to another, keeping their eye on their goal, which in this case was this: to offer many more, if not all, of the 16 Play Types of Bob. Of great help to me in this task is the unfairly neglected “Making Sense – Playwork In Practice”, the free to download CPC/Playlink publication,  I commend it to you because it illuminates very educational-sounding outcomes using lovely anecdotes of proper play.)


And blow me down but the next month they did , and it wasn’t the ones I thought it would be, so there’s me shown. ‘We’re doing fire play’ they chorused. Wow, I said tell me about it, and it transpired that they’d got the principles on the wall, and they’d circulated Making Sense, and talked to the Deputy Head who’d talked to the boyfriend of one of the other teachers who was an Outward Bounds Expert (I know what you’re thinking and I don’t care because they did it, so what if it needed some Goretexted herbert with a map on a string round his neck, needs must) and they prepared the Pit of Fire and they did Fire Play, or to put it another way, all this fuss and malarkey,  but yes ‘they had a bit of a fire’ as we used to call it, THEY HAD A BIT OF A FIRE.


And, and, they probably imported another bloody American ‘tradition’ – marshmallow toasting, and maybe they even did spuds. (We did spuds on my playground; thinking back, some of those kids must’ve lived off them – here’s the recipe: steal spud from Mum, bring to playground, wrap in foil (we always had some knocking around because of ‘chasing the dragon’)†† throw in fire, root about with stick until you think you have found it again in there, argue with other kid as to whose it is, which passes the 10 minutes or so until, not being able to wait any longer, you rake it out and grab it, and hop around like Rumpelstiltskin going ‘Ow ow ow ow ow’ juggling it as you peel back the foil and chew through the layer of grey hot ashes to reach the hot steamy fluffy mashy bit, which you gnaw away at until you are basically ricing raw spud.  Rewrap and repeat.  True story. I am Nigel Slater.)


But isn’t it a shame that we have to make such a bloody fuss about it? And isn’t it good when it works, though? Space will not allow me to more closely explicate my tale as the lesson in Strategic Playwork‡‡that it is, nor to explain the key difference between Leadership in a management context (as recently inflicted by the CWDC’s PLM programmes) and Professional Leadership, nor to reveal the identity of the Funeaters, although the clues are there to be found. Perhaps another article?


For those of you thinking I’m exaggerating the problems, I found this job ad:

“PLAYWORKER: Nursery School“


”Blue Peter style presenter needed for after school and holiday club, provides fun childcare during term time and school holidays for children between the ages of 4 and 11 years“.

Chilling, isn’t t? That’s chilling as in spine-chilling, not chilling as in ‘chillax’. I was going to put (sic) after ‘Blue Peter style presenter’, I’m choosing not to because I do have a little bit of pretend confusion: do they mean ‘style presenter’, a presenter of style, like on a ‘lifestyle show’ whatever that is, or do they mean ‘Blue Peter-style presenter’ ? I’m not sure where the illiteracy originated: was it with the employer or the advertiser? Whatever, someone should’ve spotted it. It’s easy for me: there’s just me writing this, so if there are errors they are mine, all mine. Mmmm, precious errors, demonstrating my humanity (in theory). Some may say that I’m being an old fusspot, that it is obvious what they meant to say. To which I say this: please meet me in a cafe. I will have a small piece of scrap timber, a big nail and a hammer. I will ask you to read out what it says on a piece of paper as I stand holding the hammer. The piece of paper will say this: “See that nail? When I nod my head, hit it”


Arthur Battram divides his time . He collects fountain pens and enjoys kerning more than a grown man should . He created Playstock with Eddie Nuttall, a free alternative conference coincidentally next door to IPA2011. He says read this: It’s a review of a story which inspired half of the title – the other half is from the US Ambassador to China in the 1930s, Paul Linebarger, who wrote a collection of linked stories ‘The Rediscovery of Man’.

~~~~~~~~~~actual end of article~~


(They didn’t like footnotes, so I renamed them so as not to cause offence.)

§§ is that ‘club’ as in free association around leisure interests, or ‘club’ as in baby seal?

  • an obvious and poetic pseudonym (google Tehanu).

† a poetic invention, justified by this maxim of the Klingon ambassador, who proclaimed that you simply cannot truly understand Shakespeare, dear boy, until you have read him in the original Klingon. Kurosawa would approve.

‡ which is why I mentioned him at the beginning, I realise: ah, the unconscious mind at play.

§ ‘Signature play mode’, as in ‘signature strength’. It’s the type of play (not necessarily ‘play type’) which invigorates you, the one that just feels right –  a lovely notion which I have invented, so you have to quote me, for it is mine, mine, precious, lifted from another field as one does, my precious, mine; ask nicely and I may tell.

#   Pop. The verb ‘to pop’ is a signifier of power in managerial relationships. Not sure? Then try this: next time you’re in the care of a health professional, query their use of an utterance they make, like this one: “Now, if you’d like to just pop up onto the table for me and we’ll have a little look…” Ooh, they do so hate having to, um, actually issue an order whilst loving that YOU DO WHAT THEY SAY!  I prefer the more blunt schtick of the security personnel “I’m going to have to ask you to…” Makes me sullen just writing about it – if I ever arrange to meet you at the British Library, make sure it isn’t in the courtyard café – because if it is you’ll be going through security with me which, trust me, you won’t enjoy.

** no, I didn’t actually say that.

††  Of course I’m joking, sheesh.

‡‡ Strategic Playwork: my term for an expanded playwork conception with elements of grass-roots community work, activism and resource-seeking. Email me for  my PDF from PlayEd’07.

*** google this : ‘Postman bullshit detector’. Neil Postman, iconoclastic educator.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~end of footy stuff~~


9 thoughts on “THE REDISCOVERY OF FIRE: playwork, training and the ‘problem’ of fire

  1. Pingback: Longer post index | musings|scraplog

  2. Browsing your scraplog is fun!
    I’d love you to email me your PDF on Strategic Playwork if you would, thanks:

    I like the footnotes, the phrase “the bushido of the revolutionary,” and the hammer joke.

    Though it’s annoying to scroll down and up again for the fns. Could the notes be presented as marginalia (or ‘sidenotes’ one might say)?

    ‘Bullshit detection’ makes me think of Howard Rheingold (search on youtube), but I can imagine it started with Postman. I never thought of him as an iconoclast … might find out more one day.

    The point about the power-load of the verb ‘to just pop’ is well-made. Once you notice it, you can’t stop wincing at it.

    I suspect the most important bit of the article is the bit about Tehanu standing up to the Saabite.
    But it has its power because of the flow of the whole thing – it’s beautifully structured.
    I like the hot potato anecdote, of course, but if you have to cut something then maybe that could shrink? HTH

      • Proper reply part 1:

        ‘GRATUITOUS FIERY ANECDOTE’ is the title of the paragraph (‘hot potato anecdote’)that you suggest cutting. Well dear boy, that’s why I called it gratuitous, or that’s one reason. I don’t actually think I is gratuitous, quite the opposite, I think that ‘hot potato anecdotes’ are what playwork education is all about or rather should be. We know about the power of story, from reading the likes of Lakoff and Postman, and Isaacs, and others. We know, us management consultants, and management theorists, that the key to organisational learning and development, and change management, and all that shite that I used to believe and teach is to ‘harness the power of narrative’. It’s like a drug, management faddy theory. Crack co-creation.

        So what am I saying? Well thank you Francis, TBC I’m saying that this piece needs expanding, not cutting, with more story to improve it. TBC


        To Be Continued…

      • [apologies for not seeing this sooner]
        Ah, I see, it’s funny what we can imagine we read. For some reason I thought you were asking for ideas of what to trim. Fully agreed on the ‘power of story’ and the way in which your anecdote might be powerful in the context of training or advocacy or …

        More stories then, yes indeed.

  3. I like the bit about George….
    Is that what you wanted to hear?
    I didn’t get any heat or smoke though, and I will defend the right of any child to burn their little lips on molten sugar coloured pink or white…
    But I’d rather be cooking, or boiling a kettle, or telling stories.
    And while I’ve never worn a map case with a bit of string round my neck…. no I’m not going to rise and I can’t be arsed to attempt a rebuttal of the outdoorsy stereotype.
    Q did Voltaire have an Aunt Sally?

    • finally I find your comments. As others have noted, I’m good at lots of computer stuff, but blogging and social networking do my head in. not all the time, but often. This is another ‘doh!’ moment – a moment when I realise that the reason I haven’t seen your comment is that I hasn’t approvified it yet. Doh!

      Re the outdoorsy type – no need to butt or rebutt or kick butt. As you are implying stereotypes are useful, and my point is obvious I hope – that the school needed the professional seal of approval before initating a combustion-based external recreational activity. I’m totally envious of those blokes that dress like Bill Oddie and get paid out of our taxes to drive around the Peak Park in a feck-off 4 by 4 telling townies to stick to the path and not drop litter. I did enquire about getting a job, at their head office in Bakewell. (I used to live just down the road near Matlock). I said: gizza job, I can do dat, go on gizz it, I can drive round in a 4×4 telling townies off, go on, gizzit.

      I got no reply.

      On your third point: are you asking me to call you Sally?

      Finally, re George – no, you git. well, ok, sort of. I like what you did say, and I would’ve preferred you to home in on the worst aspect of the article and give it to me both barrels, but you are too much the gent.

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