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


One thought on “David Snowden is a natural born playworker!

  1. Sounds exciting, Arthur – can’t wait to hear more. And I would particularly like to see Edge of Recalcitrance written up – as you say, long overdue and may perhaps help towards the wide misunderstandings. As for guroos, I recently came across a metal one, sitting there in its armour-plated chair. She’ll be wild, you know

I love comments, all comments…

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s