A new and very occasional series entitled
‘Things that make it harder to do good playwork’:

Back in 2008, Coert Visser, in an important article entitled ‘What’s the deal with self esteem?’, said:
”Many people in education have long believed that, in order to improve performance of pupils at school, you have to first make them feel good about themselves. The idea behind this was: it is easier to function well, if you feel good about yourself. Many educators, psychologists and parents have tried this.“

Coert could’ve gone further and said that this idea – the idea that ‘focussing on getting kids to feel good about themselves is a good thing’ has become received wisdom in the UK and USA. It is part of the dreaded ‘common sense’ that everybody knows is true, unchallenged by anybody apart from a few extremist politicians and weirdos. Everybody knows. all mums, know, all politicians (well all except 3), all teachers know, OFSTED knows, even dads and your postman and even next door’s cat knows that it’s true. Coz it stands to reason, dunnit?

Coert then asked:

”But does it work?

Excellent question, sir, and he quoted from a very interesting article by Albert Mohler:

“Since the 1969 publication of ‘The Psychology of Self-Esteem’, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise. In 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature.

“His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science.“
(read on by following the link)

I hope I have wetted your appetite; please READ ON, then follow the links to the rest of the articles.


This deeply flawed concept of self-esteem has had particularly pernicious effects on old-school playwork.

Back in the day, when teachers were like the PE teacher in ‘Kes’ bullying the weedy kid with the kestrel, or more recently when they were like Billy Eliot’s dad not wantin’ ‘im to do ‘owt puffy like dancin’, back when schools were grim and serious and hard work and fun-free, something odd happened on old abandoned bits of land in the inner-cities of the UK: a bunch of old hippies (well, actually, back then in the early 70s they were young hippies, obviously) invented a new fun thing for kids to do after school, called going to the adventure playground, also known as ‘goin’ up the Venture’ or ‘goin’ down the Addy’

Now then, playleaders, as they was called back then, dear reader – before they changed the name because we don’t lead and we don’t play, but we do do work and our work is children’s play, specifically its facilitation, so we called us selves ‘play-workers’, back then it wasn’t about self-esteem, it was about free play outside of school and the home.

Nobody knew anything about this fancy psykerlogical stuff, they just knew that kids needed somewhere to play, and they knew it was true because those nice posh folk like Lady Penny Wilson and the ex RAF chaps at the NPFA jolly well said so. So all the local mums and dads and the vicar and one or two teachers who didn’t think flicking wet towels at weedy kids was educational (I’m guessing the art teacher), went down the council and told them not to evict the hippies with their junk playground and instead told the council they should pay them to run the playground for their kids!

So soon all sorts of young idealistic folk sought employment on ‘adventure playgrounds’. Bob Hughes got a job running one, so did Perry Else ( I think) and even me, Arthur Battram, and Chris Taylor (a girl!) and Mo Palmer(another girl!) and Jess Milne(not a girl, despite having a girls name), and even Adrian Vole, OBE!

Let’s cut a long story short, because I’m already compressing a book of history into a few paragraphs.

Let’s just say that schools saw that kids like play, and because they were also being told to boost self-esteem, the schools grabbed the idea of play, as they fled from competition, as they embraced circle time and stickers and feeling good.

And then they sort of forgot to educate.

Everybody is playing now
Suddenly, by roughly the mid- 90s, everybody is doing play. Schools do play, maths teachers and evil PE teachers do play, all kids called Billy have to dance in backstreets to a song by The Jam because it is now part of the National Curriculum. Then later, these kids, these played-out, played to death kids, who have never actually done anything difficult at school, because it was all made easy in case it upset the little angels (hence ‘dumbing-down’), leaving us with these oddly unhappy kids turning up at ‘Ewni’ expecting to be entertained by the ‘Ewni’ lecturers and threatening to sue for non-delivery of learning and/or ‘hurt to my self-esteem’ if they weren’t entertained.

What a bloody shambles.

Now, this left playworkers with a bit of a problem, to wit: if everybody is doing play, what are playworkers for, exactly?

I think the consensus is now, in the aftermath of the Global Theft of 2007 (aka the Credit Crunch, the Recession), as a field, we are a bit confused.

What is playwork for, we asked at conferences, and as funding withered, we asked wither playwork? and we agonised, and we started to say anything that came into our heads if we thought it might make the men in suits give us some feckin’ money.

What was playwork? Well, it was once the groovy alternative.

In the 70s, it was cool and hip and groovy, even before it was called ‘alternative’. It was part of a movement, it was part of ‘the counter-culture’, alongside feminism and ecology (aka ‘the environment’) and organic food and ‘free schools’ (the original ones, like White Lion, not Michael Gove’s ones), and ‘progressive rock’ and dropping out and going to India, and living in the woods.

Playwork back then had an ethos which was, broadly and oversimplistically, : to be an alternative for children. That’s why they called it ‘the counter culture’.

And I also think there are some good signs: one young playwork blogger is talking about ‘the death of playwork’. Well if we can’t see what’s gone, we can hardly see what needs to be done to replace it, can we?

And know this – playwork is not about self-esteem, to paraphrase that footy bloke, it was Brian Clough I think, ‘its much more important than that, it’s about supporting the development of children. (No time or space to explain why I inisist on saying ‘children’ not ‘the child’, but it is to do with not being doctors or social workers, not being people who see kids as clients or patients to be fixed by nice men, like Chris Martin fixing Gwyneth. (No, not that Chris Martin, the other one.)


A lot more to say, I will come back to this another time.



click this link to read all of what Coert said:

and click on the link inside Coert’s article to read all of Albert’s article.

©© Arthur Battram Saturday, September 15, 2012


This is more of a second draft than a finished piece. Of course it is biased and opinionated, represents only one point of view (or 3 at best) and can be torn to pieces by any thinking person. Feel free. But the truth is still there, grinning like your reflection in the pond as you throw bricks in: playwork has lost its way.

©© Arthur Battram

This note added Tuesday, September 18, 2012




    • I love your sharp clear compassion for the Macc.

      Smell that sharp and young, clear and unforgiving Paul as he grins at John and twocks the chorus like it was yesterday*.

      Ah well,

      Step on the gas and wipe that fear** away…

      * Yes, that was a deliberate ‘Yesterday’ reference.

      *Yes, i know the line has ‘tear’ not ‘fear’, i was being creative.

      Commenting is great – it’s like mucking about at the back of the class…

  1. I agree, as you know, on much of what you say here Arthur.

    The essence of playwork (or whatever we want to call it) is to be found in the ancient Zen maxim of Yun Men, when he was asked by a novice monk “what are the teachings of a lifetime?” – To which he replied “An appropriate response.”

    An appropriate response to what? Well, I would say that broadly speaking it is a response to any adult agenda that doesn’t afford for children to be or become fully who they are and who they might be. This as you know is complex, vast and contentious territory. Not least because, to glibly skip over 3,000 years of philosopy both East and West, it challenges our assumptions of who WE are as persons and as a society. Are we clowns, are we rationalists, are we essentialists, reductionists, Jungians, Dadaists, Hedonists, Romantics? Whatever we are, it is influencing the play space.

    And vice versa of course. But that is a slightly different debate.

    And so we turn to the adult world, and ask some searching questions. That is the challenge for playwork as it always was. I don’t think the questions we are currently asking are nearly searching enough. The pioneering, recalcitrant days of the 1970s and 1980s have long gone. My own generation are not Boomers or ‘X’ ers. To quote Sturrock, we need to repunk to be useful and relevant, not to set up stalls at conferences or in the dog-kennels of Whitehall, with the aim of filling the emptying coffers of our generals.

    My feeling is that wherever the next pertinent response comes from it will begin (or be beginning) far beyond the conventional playgrounds of adults and children.

I love comments, all comments…

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