An homage for Lou Spartz, unsung hero of ‘stuff’

Lou Spartz, who passed away recently was an adventure playground pioneer, who introduced Simon  Nicholson to the idea of kids doing stuff with old stuff that was lying around. Simon , being an architecture student, coined a confusing and intellectually reified terminology , based on his good friend’s own moniker. This slight playful moment, has now, courtesy of an academic journal, become a rod (a stick, louspart1, in the jargon) with which to beat children who put garden canes in the fabric tray. Aieee! Back in the day, we just called it stuff. Stuff. Stuff lying around.

LostWorkshops1: why lying to children is a parental dutyand lying to consultancy clients is a crime

This workshop, drawing on the work of Lakoff and Johnson, Postman and Weingartner, Dunbar, Tsoukas, Miyami, Minkoff, Vespuigi, Cohen and Stewart, Maturana and Hegel explores the complex relationship between truth, solidarity, tribal bonding, decision-making, leadership and socialisation, and the limitations of consultation and evaluation.

In today’s complex world of true lies and false facts, where the internet is blah blah.

To book this workshop contact Plexity. For more information, please reread.

Scarfolk Books have asked me to point out that they are not sponsoring this workshop and apologise for the misleading flyers.

Local authorities dwelling sightless in Plato’s cave

ADSS get really grumpy…

“Councils are unwittingly acting as “recruiting sergeants” for drug gangs by sending vulnerable children to care homes miles away from where they live, a parliamentary inquiry has found.

“Thousands of young people who are sent to children’s homes up to 100 miles (161km) from their homes are becoming magnets for paedophiles and gangs who use children to traffic drugs from inner-city areas to provincial towns, according to evidence sent to the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults.

“More than 70% of the 41 police forces that responded to the inquiry said placing children out of area increased their risk of exploitation, often resulting in them being coerced into going missing.”

ADSS spokesdroid grumpily hinted at ‘having words with’…

Rachel Dickinson, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “The suggestion in this report that local authorities are acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’ is wholly inappropriate and we are in dialogue with the report authors directly.”

Social workers would be struck dumb if they couldn’t use ‘inappwopwiate’ and ‘dialogue’ going forward…

If the ADSS had any understanding of networks, predator- prey interactions and autopoiesis, and

If they had any youth workers, and

If they listened to their youth workers

They could easily have seen this coming…

If you contract out your service delivery, you contract out your sensory apparatus.

You might think that monitoring is your sensory apparatus, but it don’ work like dat. Blakemore’s infamous experiments on blinded kittens (I know, don’t tell me, tell him) demonstrate that the visual system remains unformed if it isn’t able to autopoietically and cybernetically interact with the locomotor system. You can’t separate learning from doing as I said in 1995 in my Manifesto for Learning.

Play does not “build children”. This is awful drivel. Here’s a better slogan for you: THROUGH PLAY WE BECOME HUMAN.

“The Children’s Play Policy Forum believes that play is a powerful builder of happy, healthy, capable children. The benefits of play extend to families, communities and society.”

Believing it doesn’t make it true. This fatuous statement from people who have set themselves up as experts in the field flies in the face of established science. Yes, I know you’ll tell me it’s not aimed at scientists, it’s aimed at parents… well you must have a very low opinion of them, in that case. Simple is not the same as dumbed-down.

Play does not build children. This statement is:
…. Grossly misleading
… Smacks of the worst sort of deterministic instrumentalism.

Play doesn’t do things to kids. Kids do things through play. Play is not something under external control, it is a process, a medium, if you must.

Children are not built like Lego or outside toilets.

Children become.

They are living, complex, emergent organisms.

That’s why I coined the phrase:


There are a number of implications within this simple-seeming sentence.

People seem to struggle with it. I’ve seen it mis-recalled as “play makes us human” which takes us back to the original misrepresentation of building not becoming.

Play is not an external thing acting on children from outside, it is an inner urge, a propensity, a medium if you must, a process. So THROUGH PLAY.

Children are not alone (except when they are isolated, which is damaging. Humans are social primate mammals. They don’t develop as they should if they are deprived of company). They become who they are through interactions with other humans and with other becoming-humans. What emerges is shaped by a complex web of interactions and consequences (aspects of this are described by some as ‘socialisation’ and hey presto, with that single polysyllable we are back to the idea of things being done to them. Wrong.) Organisms are autopoietic, (googlit) they are self-creating, they emerge from interactions. It’s not predictable, it’s not controllable; at best it’s vaguely nudgeable, sometimes, a bit. Thus WE BECOME.

Implying that some do not become human. Stuart Brown has studied psychopaths and murderers. They have one thing in common: play deprivation in childhood.


A kid hits another kid…obvious, yes?

Kevin Johnson, a friend of mine, a parent and ex-playworker in the UK’s West Midlands, asked a deceptively SIMPLE question which turned out to be more COMPLICATED than at first sight. A lot of playwork is like that. It appears CHAOTIC, you wish there was more ORDER and you’ll fail if you can’t get your thinking gear around the nature of COMPLEXITY, so have a read of this stuff, that might:
  1. help
  2. do your head in.
Kevin asked:

“Let’s say you witnessed a kid hitting another kid or something to that effect deliberately. Would you make the kid apologise?”

Depends, depends, context, etcetera.  Wouldn’t it be great if there was a simple way to decide what to do? Well, there isn’t. But there is a complicated, if not actually complex, ‘sense-making’ model that can help.

Complex is not just a posh way of saying complicated – you need to grasp that firmly. Have a read-up…

These items seem reasonably helpful and not too misleading…

Anyway, that model. It’s the Cynefin framework from David Snowden, who, like the mountain, is Welsh. It’s pronounced Kunevin, roughly. Here are two diagrams which give you a hint of what it’s about. It’s a business model, developed to support leaders and strategists making decisions in complexificatified situations, so it’s a bit of a stretch to apply it to playwork, yet that’s what I do. The keyword in all of this is SENSE-MAKING.

A lot of the time the sense we make is nonsense or worse. ‘Common sense’ hmmm, as my gran woodov said, it’s ‘common’  as in there’s a lot of it about and it’s not very good.

Wrap your visual acquisition system round these, and note that, to confuse the English, he changes the labels now and then. The one on the left is the latest labelling, the content, like the song, remains mainly the same…

cynefin diagrams

These links might help you think it through…—————————/

Oh, and please, don’t complain about the military/battle/war/death/killing/not nice aspects of these applications of his model. It’s a tool, like that hammer you just used to repair that dangerous platform on your playground. Hammers can kill or mend. “Tools don’t kill people, people kill people” to misquote that git, Charlton Heston. If the war stuff winds you up you’ll love this:

Leader's_Framework_for_Policing_Protest.gifBy Maxgeron – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

So, back to Kevin’s question, let’s try to make some sense of it. Is his situation… complex, complicated, chaotic or obvious?

Clue – it’s not obvious, sorry.

About the only thing in playwork that is obvious is locking the office when there’s nobody in it and turning off the lights when you go home.

Have fun, and if you get stuck, my easy-to-read cult classic,  ‘Navigating Complexity: the essential guide to complexity theory in business and management’ is still available secondhand. Go to, not Amazon.

I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone if they find any of this stuff useful…




“I think that’s what kids ultimately want: They just want someone to feel like someone cares about them. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
“The I Promise School is an example of what can happen when people are willing to communally take a handful of extra steps and a few shared sacrifices. Roberts has taught in Akron Public Schools for 32 years. “When I came here,” she says, “people would tell me: ‘It’s not going to work over there. When you go over there, you’ve got those bottom kids. There’s no way that you’re going to be able to maintain what you’ve done all these years and still keep it going.’

“Well, guess what? Yes, it does. These kids know how to respect. They know how to be loving. They know how to give love in return. So, don’t tell me that it’s not possible with what we poured into the school. Look at all of this.””

“”But from a high-level perspective, the whole point is that we’re never going to stop,” she continues. “When LeBron started this program, we had this conversation about if we start this, this never ends. … We need to build something that will live beyond all of us.”

And with that, we walk back out onto the sidewalk. The chalk has settled into the pavement. The drawings are all varied—one towering figure holding a basketball, a few animals. I lift my own foot, and there is a drawing of a small person holding hands with two larger people, all smiling. Surrounded by a circle of hearts.”

Very lovely writing, very lovely place

Who shall we blame for the way you turned out, hmm…?

“And we are products of years of programming by our parents, by our revisionist history public and private schooling, and by the media, so it stands to reason that some embarrassingly stupid shit is going to come out of our mouth on occasion.”


If that’s true, it means you are f*cked.

But it isn’t.

That isn’t how socialisation works.

It’s both worse and better and more complex than that.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally support what the writer is trying to achieve.

But the biggest single influence on how we turn out might be none of the above: it might be your peers.

Read some Judith Rich Harris.

Superb work, I have one caveat, My take is that she needs to broaden the term ‘peers’, to include anyone that influences them in their daily life. It’s not just other children, it’s other significant people, grandparents obviously, but also the nice man in the corner shop, the grumpy lady at the post office, the crabby bloke who sits at you for playing near his car.

But mainly, OTHER CHILDREN, not media, not school, other kids.

Now think through the implications of that…