Arising in the playspace: what is the role of the playworker?

Thank you to Morgan for sharing this quote:

“I am of course employed as a leader, but on an adventure playground this is hardly the same as the accepted idea of a leader and organizer who works, as it were, from the outside. Rather, mine is a function which arises within the actual framework of the playground where I am in a position to give the children every opportunity of putting their plans into practice. This initiative must come from the children themselves and when the necessary materials are to be had these give the children the inspiration for play. I cannot, and indeed will not, teach the children anything. I am able to give them my support in their creative play and work, and thus help them in developing those talents and abilities which are often suppressed at home and at school. I consider it most important that the leader not appear too clever but that he remain at the same experimental stage as the children. In this way the initiative is left, to a great extent, with the children themselves and it is thus far easier to avoid serious intrusion into their fantasy world.”

from John Bertelsen’s “Early Experience from Emdrup” in Adventure Playgrounds,p.20-1.

Now, note the word: ‘arises’.

Something that arises is something that is emergent.

He is not saying his role is mandated by his employer, nor is it subservient to, or defined by, his ‘customers’. Rather, it is, from my complexity perspective – an emergent phenomenon within the playspace.

Which brings me right back to my presentation in 1997 at PlayEd: ”Designing PossibilitySpaces – the key task for playwork“. It is this emergent quality of the playspace, which is not a simple linear result of the staff and the physical environment, that determines and creates the playspace. Yes, it is circular. And yes, it is emergent from many interactions between many humans – mainly the children with each other, but also with adults.

(Author’s note: I’ve added single quotes around the phrase ‘the child’, just like that. I did this just now: Thursday, April 18, 2013 14:27.  The reason being that I wanted to clarify that I am focussing on the concept we point to when we use the phrase, and I am indebted to Morgan for pointing up what I was doing. I was taking for granted that my audience would know what I meant, which is always dangerous. Like Morgan, I wince when ever I encounter the idealised child in print.)


Yet we continue to talk about children in the singular. Playwork is not about ‘the child’. As I have said before, and been mightily  misunderstood and majorly castigated for: playwork is not about helping children. Playwork is about providing playspaces (a term that needs to be defined, but not now, but see below*)  for children – PLURAL, not helping ‘the child’. SINGULAR.

Playwork is not about ‘the child’. Leave that bogus concern to social services, who have discarded all they knew about families as interactive systems in favour of a tabloid-driven heroic rescue mentality.

Playwork is about children en masse. Groups of children. Large numbers of children.

If we focus on individual children and we neglect to focus on the playspace*, – the culture being continuously recreated autopoietically, the resulting emergent behaviour of the denizens en masse – then we stop doing playwork and become rescuers.


The role of the playworker

is an emergent responsiveness

to the playspace.



Thanks again Morgan, for sharing that Bertelsenic nugget. More please.


10 thoughts on “Arising in the playspace: what is the role of the playworker?

  1. I think there’s also a point here that “the child” is an abstract adult construct, whereas “children” are real people who exist all around us. “The child” is by its nature idealized, simplified, reduced to an idea that cannot answer back – not our focus at all! That’s why it grates on me, when I come across it in playwork literature.

    • Yes, to ‘the child’ being abstract concept, yes to ‘children’ being real people, but further still . . . ‘this child’: this child, for example, is Kaleb who (at the moment of this story) was 4, as I remember, and with whom I shared an awesome 20 minutes or so just laughing at the cracks in the pavement. I love the memory of that story, and the telling of that story itself.

    • Well said, I agree.

      Biologists are well aware of this, being reminded every time they go out on a field trip and observe undocumented behaviour in the species they are studying.

      I’m currently providing fat balls for two robins, several blue tits, at least one blackbird and a long-tailed tit. Apparently you never see more than one robin (male) because they are “fiercely territorial”. Tell that to this pair, who are either two gay males in an avian civil partnership (which as a liberal, I of course applaud) or one is the son of the other, forced to live in the family home after graduating, due to the unaffordable nature of nesting in the UK.

  2. Returning by day (as anti-Vampire!), more thoughts on your thoughts:

    I do get the thinking on the effective playspace (EFS), and don’t think it to be such a simple thing. So, maybe I should have written it thus: ‘sure . . .’

    I’ve been around not as long as some, longer than others: what I’ve always felt is that within the EPS (as termed here) are the atomic constituents. OK, I haven’t always felt that in that exact way, I just made that up, but the point is that I’ve always felt the relationships between the nodal points to be significant.

    Focus on the system but not at the expense of the parts. That way lies potential danger.

    Last year I did a gig on amalgamated play types where I spouted on ‘the whole space’. It wasn’t an ‘either/or’ thing re: the system/child or children. It was out of context, I suppose, but on reflection, it maybe excluded the individual children. I can’t remember.

    Anyway, sure (. . .) the individual child getting lost (‘chance would be a fine thing’), this society is obsessed with its projection of what the individual child ‘should’ be. That’s different to seeing the individual child, isn’t it?

    I’ve got many stories of children connecting with adults (you have too, we talked about them recently): a lot of playwork literature doesn’t necessarily acknowledge this. Where there’s dogged determination to follow ideology, dogma, scripture, etc., there’s the potential to miss what’s really happening. Humans connect.

    I understand the point that ‘playwork is not about helping children’. I’m not contesting that. It’s this: the beauty of the connections could be lost if the beauty of the system is what’s being looked at. (That flock looks like a great huge wave; what about the connections between each of the 47,000 starlings?)

    Communism, in retrospect, wasn’t my greatest analogy. Since we’re here though (and not wishing this aspect to take over the debate): I was going down the lines of ‘for the good of the cause’, farmers giving up private property, etc., which of course didn’t all meet anticipated outcomes. Command and control will inevitably fail, on the large scale, because the proletariat – or is it now the precariat?! – is comprised of individuals too. Empires and dictatorships hit the elastic limit in time.

    The non-predictability, in certain conditions of certain systems, is something I can appreciate re: the EPS. In the simple analogy of collectivism though, the ‘delusional leader’ (Dear Leader??) can’t or won’t see the very parts that keep things ticking over.

    Enthusiastic advocacy of your own viewpoints always appreciated. 🙂

    • Cool. I didn’t think you were wanting to say what your words were seeming to say! This is difficult and thrilling for me because it is at the very edge of my own thinking. Once I was a downhill mountain biker at the edge of chaos, now I surf the crests of my own waves of unknowing.

      Re flocks – you have to experience them for real, don’t you? Can’t just watch them on Youtube. It’s the din, the vibrating engine-like humming clatter of their wings, the blur, the shimmering dazzle-ship predator-baffling, can’t get a lock on a target yet there are millions of them frustration, it’s the speed, the co-ordination, the mass. Then moments later, the stillness.

      If you’re blessed a starling may alight nearby and potter about for a bit, giving you a chance to experience his febrile vitality, his beady dinosaur eye and sharp beak, his gleaming iridescent coat, that bent tail feather he really ought to groom, and his tiny fast-beating chest rising and falling as he moves, always moving, quick, alert, wick.

      The flock and the starling. The node and the connection. The massive connectivity: the connections to all the other nodes and connections in a Kauffman NK network of a living system: the and-not-but of that flock and this starling. How to help the starling, scratching for energy on the cold pavement? Shall we feed him? Take him home and nurture him? What about his mates, all four thousand, seven hundred and thirty-one of them? Is there room in your shed?

      We must be naturalists: this is must be a natural science. Goethe might have said a ‘Science of Qualities’ – Brian Goodwin did, citing the wrong turn that science took, lost in its physics envy, 200 years ago.

      We must perceive both the flock and the starling: a bifocal, varifocal even, vision. If we don’t, we are not playwork: we are become the ”Dear Leader who can’t, or won’t, see the very parts that keep [‘his system’] things ticking over“.

      We must be naturalists.

      • If there are 4732 starlings in the flock (you see them each, and you see them all, sir!), then there are 4732 ways and my shed is a Tardis!

        Is natural science about finding the rules? In dynamic systems, are there ‘rules’?

        And finally (as the news reports might have it), a message from Dear Leader:

        The playwork doctrine is not being rigidly adhered to. Merciless annihilation (or is that adulteration?!) of dissenters. Bring me sunshine [insert any other end song of my blessing]. End missive.

      • My other shed is a Tardis.

        ”Is natural science about finding the rules? In dynamic systems, are there ‘rules’?“

        Second question first:
        Er, yes, kinda. Well no, not really. Sort of, a bit. Flocks behave AS IF there were 3 rules operating (‘As if’ is a key complexity concept in my book*. We can demonstrate this (which may or may not be acceptable as proof (Not now, Popper, and you can get on with your work as well, Kuhn!) to a physics hard-on, but it is good enough for millions of movie-goers who wondered how they trained all those penguins in the Batman movie (It was CGI, running Langton flocking algorithms, btw).

        So we accept flocking, and we accept its ‘rules’. Until biology pulls another funny.

        Read the preface to Jurassic Park (or is it the sequel?). Crichton was a gifted populariser of leading-edge science and a gadfly on the butt of the techno-Borg. He has his character Ian Malcolm, of the real-world Santa Fe Institute, warning against complacent, hubristic science. The JP boffins use frog eggs to host the dinosaur DNA. It’s ‘ok’ because they only bring females to term. Lesbian Velociraptors. Scary. Which frog species, he idly inquires. Wouldn’t be that South American treefrog would it? It would. These clowns are geneticists, never been to South America, never met a frog outside of a dissecting table. It transpires that they used a quaint species of SA tree frog, because it has been found to be an excellent experimental animal in many research labs across the planet. I say quaint, because this particular species has a curious behaviour: in the prolonged absence of boy frogs, it is able to reproduce hermaphroditically. Greenfly pull the same stunt. They can breed. The raptors can breed we are all doomed! Cue screams, explosions, crashes, chomping, more screams. Told you.

        ”Is natural science about finding the rules?”

        Yes, partly.

        It’s 90% observation and 10% rule-devising (but see above, and to quote Kevin Kelly:”All living systems make a living by hacking the rules“. Example – lesbian velociraptors. Sisters are doing it for themselves.

        Jack Cohen is good on all this. Read the Stewart and Cohen books. Ian (Stewart) is offended by the way biology breaks his lovely mathematical rules. Rules are true in biology except when they aren’t. Jack loves it. Go Mother Nature!

        If we bring back Natural Science (by hosting its DNA inside an egg of complexity science?) then observing nature’s rules is part of it. Goethe would be proud. Please let’s do that. Paging Mr Goath, er, Go-earth? But it’s also about patterns, and chemistry and initial conditions and energy flows and stuff. Goodwin’s ‘Leopard’ book is good on this.

        Bet you wish you hadn’t asked, now.

        remind me to blog this and to recount “The case of the naked mole rat”.

        *literally, or literaturly?

  3. I come back in with the brief intention of correcting my tenuous ‘Lenin era’ analogy to ‘post-Lenin’ (you know me well enough to know my need to attend to niggles of the ‘attention to detail’ kind!) to find my raking has stimulated a response. Excellent (though I’m well past my sell by date tonight so will come back again to read and see what’s what). 🙂

  4. Raking? Careful with that rake, Eugene, you got me goat!

    “OK, sure”?

    Hmm, if you think that what I said there is simple or accepted, then (he says arrogantly) I’m not sure you got me, probably due to me being obscure. I’m trying to argue that an effective playspace (EPS) is our first task, and that that EPS will not emerge if we don’t focus on the system. Of course it is a chicken and egg thang. The alternative is tender- hearted and soft-headed playwork. We need tough-minded and tender-hearted, as Dr King taught us.

    When I worked on an adventure playground there were kids who never interacted with us AT ALL. Years later, I bumped into one of them who thanked me profusely and proudly showed off his partner and their new baby. Children don’t need us. They need the spaces we create.

    “I’m a little troubled by the possibility that the individual child is lost in it all ”
    Chance would be a fine thing, Joel. This society is obsessed with the individual child. Zero tolerance of opportunities for children to learn from the rough and smooth of their daily interactions with others. Oops, I meant to type “Zero tolerance of bullying”. I don’t need to tell you how much I am against bullying, Joel, but not everyone reading this will know that, so I had better say that of course I am against bullying, having been a victim of it myself as a child, AND(not but) I am also against stupid, strident, prideful, ego-driven and most important of all completely , counter-productive campaigns sponsored by people who should know better.

    I’m advocating for the underdog (a stance I consistently take, not sure why, maybe it is a Northern thing). The underdog in this case is the view that playwork is NOT about helping individual kids.

    When I ran a children’s playcentre in the North East the dominant paradigm in the culture was competitive sport, so I offered a sort of chldren’s arts centre as a counterbalance.

    So again I’m being the countervailing voice – be as troubled as you like about the possibility ” that the individual child is lost in it all”. It’s not going to happen. (But if it does, you’ll find me advocating for the individual child.)

    Communism? They called Mother Teresa a saint when she gave to the poor, and a communist when she asked why they were poor. Communist, moi? OK, that’s cool. I ask why a lot. If I had more money I’d give to the poor as well.

    Dear boy, the perspective I’m offering on the playspace is pretty much the OPPOSITE of the state control practiced in the USSR. I’m too ignorant about the fine print of the Russian Revolution, but the idea that anyone can command and control anything is a delusion I don’t share. My perspective is that (under certain conditions) certain systems exhibit emergent properties which cannot be predicted or controlled by those who think they control. You can’t control a flock or a herd. You know all this. Collectivism simply substitutes a group for an individual in the delusion of power.

    You can influence, you can nudge (but I don’t support so-called ‘nudge theory’, because the leader delusion crept back in to it.) but you can’t control.

    How do we influence? Observation mainly. Influence is 90% observation and 10% experimentation. Hmmm, what would happen if…?

    Thank you for evoking this from me. you know me well enough to know that my forthrightness here is simply enthusiastic advocacy of a viewpoint. I’m not married to my views: I’m developing them, or rather I’m watching them emerge in this dialogue.

  5. ‘The role of the playworker is an emergent responsiveness to the playspace.’ / Children, plural rather than singular . . . all within the thinking of complexity . . .

    OK, sure. However, I’m a little troubled by the possibility that the individual child is lost in it all (not ‘social work’ thinking here, but human connection). There’s a (maybe tenuous) analogy in Lenin’s way of things (collectivism, etc), and we know how that all turned out.

    I’m not calling you a Communist, Arthur! I’m raking ground for discussion. 🙂

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