Playwork is jazz

Playwork is Jazz.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

The edge of any system is where it learns and changes, just like a tree is only living in the few layers of cells under the bark, surrounding the enormous dead woody centre. Life evolved on beaches, in rock pools, in the zone between cold sea and hot sand and rock. Organisations can’t learn in the centre (!) where senior management are all-knowing and isolated; change only happens in odd quirky pockets, close to the field, close to the customer, close to the new. (Read my book for much more on the complexity of systems and the edge of change: ‘Navigating Complexity’).

Similarly, in popular culture, pop music for example, the new always happens at the edge: because why on earth would fat and happy record companies take risks? It wasn’t coked-up record company execs who gave us rock and roll (or God, even though she loves it) and electric folk, progressive rock, punk, hip-hop, rap and all the new stuff that I don’t understand; it was edgy outsiders bursting to…

And so to jazz. Here’s a screenshot of the wikipedia page:


The many species of jazz according to Wikipedia

Look at all those waves! There is always a new wave. There is always an edge.

Some aficionados of jazz claim that it is a separate musical form, with its own disciplines and body of knowledge, as equally worthy of serious study as the pantheon of dead white males who make up the mighty European classical tradition. John Lewis founder of the MJQ, was the vanguard of the ultimately futile demand for jazz to have professional parity as ‘black classical music’.

And some playwork people insist that salvation lies in being just as serious as John Lewis.

‘Why isn’t playwork recognised, why isn’t playwork seen as just as important as education or social work? (They used to mention youth work, but, as we have since learned, being a profession doesn’t automatically insulate you from the cuts.)

Back to jazz. Miles wasn’t keen being welcomed into the hallowed halls. Miles was all about the music. When asked why he covered Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, by a perplexed and disdainful music critic, he pointed out that in the 1950s his records were in the top twenty, and on the jukebox in every bar in New York. People would put a nickel in the record machine and dance to ‘Kind of Blue’. Far from being a dusty unlistenable noise made by beards in an empty concert hall, jazz is the throbbing vibrant living cutting edge of popular music. Jazz is dead when it forgets its roots, said Miles, this is popular music, if you can’t dance to it, it ain’t jazz and it ain’t worth a plugged nickel (also the name of a revered jazz club, BTW). Who remembers John Lewis? Never knowingly over-played… Miles insisted on tagging his later recordings as ‘New directions in music’ because he felt that jazz had become an over-intellectualised irrelevant hobby, out of fashion and out of time. This ain’t jazz, it’s new and cooler, don’t call me jazz.

So if we accept this characterisation, and who dares to disagree with the artist who remade jazz so many times, then we have to see jazz, in its heyday, as the shifting evolving, strange symbiotic edge of popular music. You can’t define what jazz is, you can only look back and say ‘what was that?’, as the edge of the wave moves on.

Which is, say I, finally getting to the point, precisely what playwork is.


It isn’t a fixed body of work, even though it is showing signs of maturing as a discipline, rather it is the EDGE of what we are told to call ‘the children’s workforce’. Playwork is the unnoticed little rockpool making the strange new noises.

Has playwork failed? Sadly I really think that it has. Certainly the heyday has been and gone. For me, playwork is failing because it persists in wasting its time and energy trying to be all growedy-up, when it should just get on with it.

Playwork should stick to what it is, what it does best. Bollocks to the hallowed halls of academe. Don’t try to get a proper job, there aren’t any anyway. Don’t complain about being ignored, just get on with innovating. Life on the edge. Never boring, mostly scary, infinitely rewarding. Alive.

Just play, maaan.



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