THE CRAFT OF PLAYWORK #3: MASTERY OF PLAYWORK or Masters In Playwork? (revised)

Occasionally I find myself writing something as a comment on another persons blog, and sometimes that piece gets a bit out of hand, like this is one, which arose from commenting on Lily’s blog about her last day of her playwork course. She was musing about doing the Masters in Playwork, and wisely, IMHO, decided against. You can find her blogging here: then search for: the-last-day-of-the-playwork-heroes

I started by saying: “Masters IN Playwork? Pah. But Mastery OF Playwork? You are on your way.” Then I found mice elf writing more… What do we mean by mastery? well, I’m not going there just now, so I’ll just say ‘being really really expert in something’ and, probably, ‘recognised as such by your peers’. The issue I’m looking at isn’t so much the ‘what question’ – ‘what is mastery? (like the dreary ‘what is play?’) but rather a ‘how question’: how do we get to be really good at playwork?

How do we achieve mastery?
In his book ‘Outliers’, which I confess I have not read, Malcolm Gladwell, who is both annoyingly glib and rather good at selling us contrarian messages, talks about the 10,000 hours required to properly master something. Wikipedia says:
“A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the “10,000-Hour Rule”, based on a study by Anders Ericsson. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles’ musical talents and Gates’ computer savvy as examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, and quotes Beatles’ biographer Philip Norman as saying, “So by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.'”Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.

By the way, I suspect that kids might be able to leapfrog this, but only in special circumstances, like the supportive environment of Summerhill school. Pushy parents think they can help their kids excel, but they get it completely wrong by hijacking kid’s childhood to meet their own unmet needs. Kids need parents to support them doing the KID’s thing, not the mom’s thing. But I digress…


And – wouldn’t be doing my job – if I didn’t quote this commentator who, like me, has a problem with Gladwell’s ‘success equals money’ bias:

But let’s stay with the idea that mastery – becoming expert in something – is about lots of practice. Which has an implication implicit within it: that themethods of education which don’t involve a lot of practice, such as university courses or classroom-taught NVQs for example, won’t produce mastery or expertise.
It is a truism for oldskool playwork types, like me, that the best method for producing brilliant playworkers would be a ‘teaching playground’. The holy grail is an adventure playground – like a teaching hospital, where students learn on the job, getting those many many hours of practice in ‘the real world’ but with integral mentoring, coaching, supervision and education.
Steve Boller, a trainer of salespeople, talks about the implications of the ten-thousand hour rule for his work:
“This rule states that people don’t become “masters” at complex things (programming, music, painting, free throws) until they have accrued 10,000-hours of practice. And…he does a great job of illustrating that people who are commonly regarded as “masters” are really just people who hit the 10,000 hour mark very early in their lifetimes. (Examples: Mozart and the Beatles in music; Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak in programming). The research he cites to prove his point is compelling. It does support this 10,000 hour threshold and crosses all types of areas from computer programming through to hockey. Who cares, you ask?”


Boller says he does, and so should you. He goes on to say:


“No one gets good at anything without practice – and lots of it. The more we practice, the better we get. We need to think through learning design very carefully if we really want learners to get better at what we’re trying to teach them. Companies don’t have 5 years to train the new sales guy, so we have to come up with a design that allows as much practice as possible in as short a period of time as possible. When our designs are all “tell,” and no “do,” then we are setting learners up to be absolutely no better at doing something AFTER training than they were before training – even if we provided lots of great information or “reference” material. And when we pretend we can make people good at selling, managing, troubleshooting, etc. by creating and delivering a 60-minute e-course or 1/2-day classroom session for them to take, then we’re just plain silly.”

Now dear reader, I’m going to go even further and say this:
If we teach something at people, then not only do we run the risk of it making no difference to their performance*, but we could actually be making things worse.

*performance meaning their behaviour, their ‘what they actually do’, as opposed to our ‘what we say they can do’ because certificated them, or their ‘yes we know all about play cues because we did them on our level 3′.

Which is against the ethical code of the carer – ‘do no harm’, do not make it worse. Yes folks, training (education, teaching, wotever) could be making things worse. Now, hold on, hold on.

Calm down, calm down.

The ‘we’ isn’t so much you or me, the person stood next to the flipchart, doing their best, nor is your own lovely tutor, who was brilliant – rather it is the thing we call ‘the education system’, meaning the whole politicised, mucked-about, target-ridden, over-inspected over-burdened machine. The whole wobbly edifice of training, qualifications, regulators, standards, assessors – all that. The pedagogical structures in which we work, if you want to be posh.

(Please folks, don’t just see this as an attack on trainers doing their best. It isn’t!)

The trial of teaching begins
First witness for the prosecution: call Mrs Jean Piaget, now living in sheltered ‘accommodation’ in Geneva (yes, that was a epistemological Piaget joke – I’m here all week).
Piaget said (I paraphrase): ‘If you show the child the wonder of a butterfly you steal the possibility of their own discovery of a butterfly’.
That, in a nutshell, is why I am increasingly concerned about the teaching of play cues and play types and the mantra of freely chosen being dinned into folk by well-meaning teachers, harried by Ofsted and frustrated by made-up and timid elfansafety, deranged targets and absurd budgets. As we know from playwork, and Zen, sometimes the right action is no action; maybe the right action now is to stop teaching this stuff at people. And its all good stuff, don’t get me wrong., but maybe we are treating them like geese fattened for foie gras – maybe we are force-feeding them in order to get the paté of qualification. What I’m saying is that, in the system that prevails, run by the powers that be, it is becoming more and more difficult to actually make a difference.

So bring on our  second witness for the prosecution: John Taylor Gatto, who realised this a while ago:

“Gatto worked as a writer and held several odd jobs before borrowing his roommate’s license to investigate teaching. [years later] He was named New York City Teacher of the Year, in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991.”
Impressive – did he win again the next year? Er, no, actually what happened was […“] he wrote a letter announcing his retirement, titled ”I Quit, I Think“, to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Here is an extract:
”[In 1991], during my thirtieth year as a school teacher in Community School District 3, after teaching in all five secondary schools in the district, crossing swords with one professional administration after another as they strove to rid themselves of me, after having my license suspended twice for insubordination and terminated covertly once while I was on medical leave of absence, after the City University of New York borrowed me for a five-year stint as a lecturer in the Education Department … I quit.“

He said that he no longer wished to

“hurt kids to make a living. ”

Wow. Go read those links. Now, as trainers, educators, helpers and supporters, coaches, mentors, teachers, managers, ‘people who help people do things better’, as I like to say, we should always be concerned about and focussed on, performance – which I’m going to define as: ‘what people actually do’.

Sorry to sound a bit lympic there with the ‘p’ word, but I’m sick of hearing the word performance with the ‘O’ word in front of it and ‘teem geebee’ makes me throw up a little in my mouth. I promise I won’t mention lympics again, and please, LOCOG, don’t set your ‘Brand Nazis’ on me – I said lympics and not your O word. Nyer nyer.

And just to note this – if you don’t see changes in behaviour – and specifically those positive changes in behaviour that we call ‘improvements‘, then I have to tell you – they didn’t learn anything. Because learning is about changes in behaviour. Not the same as ‘Oh, yeah we know about play types because we did them in year 2, or was it year 1? Anyway, we did them, deep play, mastery play, yep, done that.’
And, for reasons of space I’m going to skip any discussion of how people learn best. But hey, as playworkers you already know the answer – children learn a thing the best through play (with or without support. Depends, no time to get into that here). By doing the thing. That’s what Gladwell is on about. The point is, maybe TEACHING this stuff is beginning to make things worse.

Let’s get positive
But what about you? What do you do that you’re really good at? How did you learn to do it, and ask yourself this – how many hours did it take you to get really good at it?

Old joke : Man asking directions in the street, stops a musician carrying an instrument case: ‘Scuse me buddy, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ Musician says: “Practice, man, practice.”

I’ve said it before, playwork is a craft. Can’t call yourself a practitioner if you don’t practice. “Practice, man, practice.” and, of course, “Practice, woman, practice.” And for the Geordies: “Practice, man, woman, man, practice.”

So if you, dear readers, want to be both masters in playwork and masters of playwork, then simply spend X hours a week doing/thinking/being playwork. Gladwell equates his 10k hours to 20 hours a week for 50 weeks for 10 years. And I don’t mean 10 hours admin, 4 hours packing craft boxes, I mean all of those X hours doing/thinking/being/ playwork. You know what I mean.

Ten thousand hours. But, not a hundred thousand words, just ten thousand hours. That’s the route to mastery and expertise – ten thousand hours. Like, bummer, dude. But be not downhearted, grasshopper! For ‘the mastery of a thousand hours begins with a single hour’, as Lao Tsu might have said. Let’s be positive – you are already well on the way – I’ll leave it to you to work out how many hours you have already banked – you are on the way…

Go on then, what are you waiting for?

revised 9 days ago, uploaded Thursday, August 2, 2012


4 thoughts on “THE CRAFT OF PLAYWORK #3: MASTERY OF PLAYWORK or Masters In Playwork? (revised)

  1. Arthur, I was loitering in a book shop today and wafted past a copy of Gladwell’s Outliers, remembering as I did so that you wrote about 10,000 hours somewhere and somewhen along the line. Interesting to read this post again from this new perspective in time and experience(s). I was wondering how the 10,000 hour rule sits with you these days? I reckon I passed the landmark a fair while back, but don’t know if I’ve achieved Master of the Universe level-up yet! (Maybe it all depends on the conducive or otherwise (human) environment, i.e. of others’ perceptions and readiness to embrace things, that someone of the 10,000 club finds themselves in?).

  2. Pingback: The long dark tea-time of the search term (or, backstage at the playwork blog gig) | playworkings

  3. An excellent post Arthur, that raises a issues that should be startlingly obvious to the playwork field if we had’nt, to some extent, got lost in the language of professionalism.

    My own playwork experience has taught me that mastery comes from having the space, tools and lack of intrusion to immerse onself in the ‘art’ one is naturally drawn toward (and lets not get all Blue Peter here; if it is stealing cars or even venture capitalism practiced it can still be ‘an art’ or perhaps more accurately ‘artful’) In our little pond, we know that both being a very capable playworker and a very successful child requires time, space, and a rich ecology to play with. In terms of children, Piaget understood that deeply. Why? Coz he was a genius who had had his own time to flourish in “the playround’. Many playwork theorists jump down the throat of anyone who mentions the great Swiss fella, largely because educationalists picked up and ran with his developmental constructs, and in so doing threw the accommodating baby out with the bathwater.

    I hear what you say about the sucess-management-performance meme in Gladwell’s stuff. I smell it in Pat Kane’s treatment of the ludic also (see “The Play Ethic” – the very title being a messy conflation of the ludic impulse with productivity). This approach may well shift units and expose people to thought that they might otherwise not consider, but for me it s a turd in a punchbowl. Gladwell’s citing of Mozart is an interesting one – a genius who also had enormous output from childhood up to his (early) death, and great sucess in the public realm both while he was alive and posthumously.

    To balance the picture here James Hillman’s The Souls Code is a good book to read – a take on the genius from the perspective of Jungian depth psychology, and composed and compiled with the flair of the artist.

    The message that runs through all of this musing I guess is that mastery and genius is something that can only be arrived at on one’s own terms, and that as a society we probably do a pretty good job, in many if not most cases, of steering children away from discovering their own genius.

    • Thanks Ed, nice to know someone ‘get’s me.

      2 quick points:

      Aiee, the phrases that grind our gears! In my case:”I hear what you say“.

      Our useless HR bloke at LGMB used to say ‘I hear what you say’ when he meant ‘I’m afraid of the head of HR and can’t/won’t do anything for you’. That’s why the phrase makes me cringe. Now, your usage feels like it’s also derived from therapy/counselling, but when you use it I can hear its authentic meaning (once I get over the cringe) Now, if you don’t mind me cringing… or… you could use another phrase, I’ll cheekily suggest one – which may, equally, press your yuck button – it is: ‘I recognise what you’re saying’.

      ”I smell it in Pat Kane’s treatment of the ludic also (see “The Play Ethic” – the very title being a messy conflation of the ludic impulse with productivity)“

      Well spotted- I hadn’t rumbled that nuance, but all his (4) clients will have.

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