About this blog item: it has a peculiar status. It is a sort of semi-public, semi-private thing. It came about in response to a friends blog, so what you are about to read is a half-finished item with some rough edges. I’m posting it now because I’m not sure that I will get round to finishing it for months, by which time the debate will have moved on. 

It was written in response to:   Children’s play is not about you 

and partly stimulated the writing of  

 Ways of seeing: interpretation (first draft thinking)   

both of which are a rattling good read.




 which is identical with


in reply to

Joel’s comments about my comments about:

 tigers and gardening and the edge 

( ‘edge of chaos/the ‘edge of order’/’zone of complexity’)

I have spoken about ‘management as horticulture’ in various places over the years. I’ve seen other management writers use the metaphor also, yet, without wanting to sound arrogant, they don’t quite get it.

The model for me is Beth Chatto. She has an incomparable skill in working out how to nurture a garden in any conditions: an example being a cold wet, dank corner of her own garden, starved of nutrients by, and shaded by huge trees. Years of patient experiment based on years of observation is her secret. Feel free to copy it, telly gardeners, you bangers-in of decking and shrubs over a weekend.

To quote myself:

“…the key thinking tool is this: try to understand organisations as if they are living systems [which of course they are], and try to manage them the way that Beth Chatto manages the damp and shady end of her garden, that is:  be gentle, constantly attentive, patient and present-in the garden almost every day, pottering.”

“[we should see]…organisations as living systems in which relationships and communication are much more important than procedures and structures…”

Playwork is easier in some ways, because it doesn’t take years. ”Children are faster than umpires and less slow“, (me, just now – © Arthur Battram 2012). You can get results from your ‘gardening’ much sooner.

But, or rather AND (as in my dictum ‘and-not-but’) you can also screw up much sooner. So in some ways playwork is harder.


The key to a Chattoist approach is your eye. This eye is a special eye – it is the eye of a Hockney. It’s a Zen eye, a beginner’s eye, developed by an expert, who has spent years developing it, so that it is almost exactly the same as, and as good as, a child’s eye.

You should read ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger – the Chattoist eye is the painter’s eye and should be the playworkers eye.

Imagine that you are standing next to a child. The child is gazing at the flickering patterns made by the shadows of the leaves of the trees above falling on a torn, tatty piece of rotting cardboard lying on the soil in front of them…

Picasso strides up and, following the child’s gaze, pauses. Picasso stands quietly beside him. The two of them stand side by side, immersed in the flickering patterns made by the shadows of the leaves of the trees above falling on a torn, tatty piece of rotting cardboard lying on the soil in front of them.

Until a passing playworker, following their gaze, tuts and snatches up the piece of rubbish that had been missed on an earlier tidy-up sweep of the playground.

I like my version, and the idea is not original. I thought I had read the original in the marvellous ‘Making Sense: playwork in practice’: it’s a marvellous publication,  full of marvels – it so perfectly captures the essence of play and playwork. I checked, and the anecdote I’m thinking of isn’t in there. It’s not in ‘Best Play‘ either. Maybe I read it somewhere else, or maybe I was told it- whatever. I’m not that concerned about what some might call ‘objective truth’: poets tell the truth when professors and politicians don’t. Here’s an original, as retold recently by its author, Mick Conway—currently working at PlayEngland after a long and distinguished career in playwork and play associations.Recently (in a comment on Tim Gill’s blog), Mick Conway shared the story he wrote for Bob Hughes’ ‘Evolutionary Playwork’’:

”A boy aged about five was playing with a knobbly piece of wood and pieces of the crushed bark safety surface, chattering away to himself and his play objects. A playworker came by and asked: “What are you doing?” “Nothing” he said, shrugging his shoulders – end of conversation. She shrugged in reply and went about her business of putting up the swings. 

“About five minutes later, another playworker asked him: “Who’s that?” This time he said: “This is my dog. She’s called Fred! And she’s very, very naughty. But she’s hungry too. Here Fred, have some cornflakes” as he fed bits of bark to Fred.”

written: Friday, October 26, 2012 1:23 PM

 revised: Monday, November 5, 2012 9:07 AM

 More soon I hope…

PS: WordPress can be pretty smart about finding useful links, but sometimes it  goofs – witness the link to ‘Best Play’ not the CPC/PlayEngland document, and, not that Tim Gill, or that Bob Hughes, unless there’s something he isn’t telling us.


  1. I meant to mention that James Cameron, might have read that Le Guin and other SF as he was writing Avatar. The movie also features ‘primitive’ aliens, thinking trees and invading humans. Frank Herbert wrote a trilogy of novels about an alien planet being subdued by humans, home to intelligent kelp – a vast underwater thinking forest; that planet was also called Pandora. Le Guin also wrote several novels about a boy wizard who went to a wizardy school, while Ms Rowling was still at school herself…

    Hello trees, hello sky….

  2. Having just re-read this piece, I realise that my comment: ”Children are faster than umpires and less slow“ is more than usually obscure, because I forgot to quote the original line in the poem that it derives from, that being Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (i think, haven’t checked) and the line is: “Vaster than empires and more slow”.

    I dimly recall a science fiction story, I think by Roger Zelazny, about a vegetable intelligence on a distant planet, there is also the famous angry fable “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula LeGuin which explores a similar idea (Le Guin herself has problems with the story, she feels that her angry anti-Vietnam war sentiments somewhat overpower her ecological and spiritual concerns). Jim Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis also has echoes of this planetary consciousness notion, as does Stanislas Lem’s Solaris (twice made into a movie – see the Tarkovsky, avoid the Soderberg remake).

    I think us humans are a bit in awe of trees: I have never visited that oldest tree on earth, which is a Redwood in Northern California, I believe, but I have stood in the churchyard at Darley Dale in Derbyshire, which is home to an ancient yew. and for once there is no hyperbole – it is more than two thousand years old, older than Christ. It was there, not far from the river, even before humans settled nearby, possibly attracted by the shelter it offered. The yew is sacred for Druids, and if they worshipped a grove of yews more than two thousand years ago, then that is perhaps why when Christianity arrived maybe a hundred years later from Rome, this spot was chosen for a church or Christian shrine. The present church is several hundred years old, and the grove of yews, supplemented by some Victorian conifers, is still present, hard up against the church.

    This ancient tree is hidden in amongst other taller younger trees, it has a protective metal railing around it with a sign explaining its age. The sign itself might be a hundred years old, and one can imagine Victorian visitors making the short walk from the gardens of Whitworth Park by the main road to gaze upon this ancient plant. You will perhaps be disappointed if you visit it – it is less than half the height of the other yews but it is broad: you would need a group of maybe ten adults holding hands to encircle it. The trunk is hollow, there is space inside for a children’s picnic, yet the tree is still vibrant and healthy, in full leaf with new grass-green needles unfurling. But look at the bark! It is gnarled and knotted, twisted and curled. They didn’t have television back then, so the evening’s entertainment would have been storytelling around a campfire, listening to tales of demons and monsters while gazing into the flames and seeing the monsters therein. Gazing into this ancient bark it is impossible not to imagine tortured souls twisting in pain, wailing like the denizen’s of a Blake etching. Why is the yew sacred to the Druids? There must be three reasons: their vast lifespan; the fact that they are evergreens and never drop their crown; and that tortured bark

    I think I have established that I like old trees – vaster than empires and more slow- thus my comment: ”Children are faster than umpires and less slow“ can be seen as witty yet profound wordplay, or alternatively as a crass and flippant remark. I’m trying to talk about perspectives: the perspective of an old tree, thinking its slow vegetable thoughts, the activity of humans seeming like the blurry buzzing of mosquitoes on a summer afternoon, and the perspective of children, fast-moving consumers of the goods of their experiences in an endless summer of freedom from school. Might not children look upon us in the same way that we look upon these ancient trees? Here’s looking at yew, kid…

  3. I just wanted to note – in great haste unfortunately – that these ideas are very much ones I have been considering for a little while now, and I have started some writings on “ways of seeing” and playwork, so I’m really pleased to see others thinking along related lines and as and when I can write up more of my ideas I will try to link them in to the conversation here between you, Arthur and Joel.

    • hi F, that’s good to hear. Any chance of you sharing some of that thinking soon? I mean privately rather than on your blog or other public places – I know how scary it can be to publish ideas in a blog, but sharing them privately with a sympathetic ear can be helpful. i’m just v. curious!

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