THE OPPOSITE OF X IS NOT Y, IT IS Q. (Thinktool #17)

Ben Taylor said, elsewhere on this blog: ” I like your Johann Hari connection (I had tweeted this article from other sources with the pull quote

“the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s human connection.”

(You can find the Hari item, and Ben’s comment by entering ‘Hari’ in the search box over there on the top right. There should be only two results, unless I have mentione JH before and forgotten)

There’s a famous quote from Brian Sutton-Smith:

“the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression”

I riffed on that, earlier this year, like this:

“the opposite of quirk isn’t cool, it’s oppression”.

(The concept of quirk in playwork comes from Bob Hughes and Penny Wilson.)

It seems to me that this construction is enormously valuable (when it works!).


Let’s call it the ‘opposite isn’t’ thing. Its fun to do. and bloody difficult.

It seems to me that it depends on a genuine, hard-won insight. It functions like a parable, a zen teaching story, a Mullah Nazrudin story, an Irish joke, a Jewish joke or one of my dad’s stupid stories about a bloke training a monkey. Or a haiku. The thing about haiku is that there are two kinds: the haiku* and the desk haiku. The desk haiku is the haiku you get when, like a columnist with copy to file and a deadline, you sit down and go “Hmm, what shall I write a haiku about”, whereas the haiku* is the kind you get when you witness something fleeting in the world, like a kingfisher, or a fox, or a baby flipping from a cry to a laugh, or a rainbow, or four big lads after closing time crossing the road with great intent shouting “Oi mate, mate, you dropped your wallet.”

This ‘opposite-isn’t’ is a fun thing to play with. Have a go. Here’s mine: “The opposite of employment isn’t unemployment, it’s purposelessness.” Hmm. I’ll gove that 4/10. (I didn’t mean to type Gove, the previous Tory minister of Education, and yet…) It is clearly a desk ‘opposite-isn’t’, not a ‘genuine, hard-won insight’, so only four Marx out of ten.

Over to you, readers.

FOOTNOTE: Haiku*. The temptation is to say ‘original haiku’ or ‘real haiku’ or ‘authentic haiku’. Twas always thus. A distinction emerges, and it changes. It undergoes memetic warping. If we are comfortable with that we might say ‘old-school’. If we aren’t we might say ‘New Labour’ or ‘so-called New Wave’. Stuff happens. you can’t fight it. What you can do is make the distinction, when a distinction is called for.

SECOND FOOTNOTE: just heard this one on Radio 4: “The opposite of truth isn’t lies, it’s euphemism”

Reflecting on reflective practice: “A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

“A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

Photo from:

This is a blog about reflective practice, which like Western civilisation, I think would be a very good thing.

I’m quoting Gandhi, who was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, as he stepped off the boat at Southampton wrapped in a sheet, having been a lawyer in South Africa. He replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

I’m suggesting that a lot of what passes for reflective practice is nothing of the sort, and yet it so easily could be.

Playworkers make notes in diaries, they keep records. They take photos, to attempt to present their work to others.  Some keep journals, some turn their journals into whole books, like m’esteemed colleague Eduardo Nuttall. Some write whole books, based on the work of a lifetime, or at least a significant chunk of it,  stuffed with observation and reflection – I’m thinking of  luminaries like Perry Else and Saint Bob himself (no offence). Some blog, like moi, and Joel, and Lily and many others. Some don’t do any of that, but they do think, and ponder, and talk about stuff down the pub or over a grotty cup of bad teabag tea in a hut.

But those honourable exceptions aside, often what passes for ‘reflective practice’ is nothing more than a few scrappy notes in an ‘incident book’ or an ‘office diary’, grudgingly scribbled as you rush to go home. Why do we need to write stuff up, we mutter. What’s the point?

Easy for me to criticise, but what am I doing about it?

Good and fair question. I’m currently developing  what I hope will be a new and improved approach to playwork reflective practice. I have started by distinguishing three aspects of the thing I’m pointing at –  avoiding using the term ‘reflective’ or ‘practice’ to avoid association with existing approaches, recognising that this may result in the usage of clumsy neologism, for which I apologise.

These three aspects are:

documentation – the recording of numbers and names and other details, as required by Caesar. “Render unto Caesar that which is Ceasar’s” said a Jewish prophet, and in our context that means: keep the records that your employer requires, for the good reasons that they require it. Chief among those reasons is, most likely, the keeping of funders happy.

promotion – the gathering of photos, and stories, etcetera, for reasons often confused with the above, to wit: to be able – at AGM or conference, or on telly or radio, or in print, be it press, or exhibition – to tell people what you do and why you do it and why it is deserving of their support, financing or involvement, be that as volunteer, worker or committee member or officer.

journaling – the writing of a personal and private journal of your personal reflective practice.  By which I mean recording some of what you observed and thinking about it, and writing down some of your thoughts, and relating them to your work, presumably with the intention of improvement – the making something better. I’m referring to a thing my erstwhile chums in management consultancy call ‘change management’.

(I’m not interested in ‘change management’, I’m interested in ‘improvement management’, which is, admittedly, a subset of change management, but is much harder. Given that change is happening all the time, the real trick is to detect and amplify the beneficial things, while avoiding the bad things and hoping they’ll go away. I say this because if we focus on the bad things, everybody gets upset and the good things get neglected – better to focus on making the already good a little bit better, which is nice and not too challenging for any of us, is it not?)

Anyway, a personal and private journal. Can’t be done in the office dairy because you can’t be yourself in the glare of your office spotlight. What will they think if I write that? I can’t write that, so I don’t, and so I don’t think about it either, which means that I’m self-censoring.  Not a good start. How can I reflect on the unthought and unwritten? Reflection is personal – what do I think about what happened? Not what do the Playwork Principles tell us to think (our very own PCness), nor what my boss wants me to think or do, nor what my mates or colleagues think, or want me to think. And, if it is personal it must be private, initially at least. I can always edit juicy bits for public consumption as part of our promotion or as an extension documentation later.

Hope all that helps. I’ll be piloting this approach soon, and I’ll let you know how it goes, if you’re interested.

This particular peak

Onwards and upwards to the top of this particular peak, which is the consideration of these words:

“A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

We don’t know who said this, the only reference we have is ‘Zen saying’.

M’esteemed colleague, Mr Joel Seath, has written about being truly present as a playworker. Bearing witness to the play of children, as our great play theorist* Gordon Sturrock, has it.  He doesn’t blog, so you can’t read him online. Joel does blog, here:

What do we mean by being present, by witnessing?
Ben Tawil has a wonderful story about not interfering in play:

A teenaged boy is contemplating a leap from a high tower on an adventure playground. Ben, from a distance, is contemplating the situation. If the boy makes the jump, he will massively injure himself, that much is certain.

You’ll have to ask Ben if you need to know what happened. If you have ever been present, witnessing, you’ll know why you don’t need to know what happened. Of course you want to know what happened, as did I. I’ll ask him, and he might give me his version of the tale, which I can share here.

I know I’m being annoying and obscure: I can’t help it. I don’t have the time or patience to write a longer explanation or a shorter one for that matter•. In any case, this Zen stuff is not about Western-style explanation, it is about Eastern-style contemplation.

And contemplation is another word for reflection.

When I hear the word, I reach for my gun

Now pay attention, dear reader••, as I pick up my Zen gun and shoot myself in my metaphorical foot, by essaying that very Western sin – explaining the unexplainable. I may amuse.

So when we say: “A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.” I think we are saying that reflection is impossible if you have not been present, meaning that if you have not been present in the moment, living it, being there, witnessing everything that is going on, around you and inside you, outside of you and inside your head and your heart. Me, I don’t do that often, and I don’t do it often enough, not by a long chalk. I’m just saying that if you weren’t there, you cannot speak of it, can you?

So I offer you this: the key to reflective practice – key in the sense of opening the door –  is being truly present.

And once the door has been opened, you may or may not choose to step through, of course – that’s up to you.  And if you step through, you may fail to wander very far in the garden of reflection, but it’s a start. I’m exploring that garden myself, so I might bump into you there.


Think on, as my dad used to say.

(Which is, of course, just another way of saying do some reflection.)



Footling footnotes at the foot of the present mountain:

*we have but a few truly great theorists of play: Bob Hughes, Bashō, Gordon Sturrock, Marc Bekoff, to name but a few (boys).**

** oh, and one  token girl: Judith Rich Harris.***

*** oh, alright then, one more girl: Penny Wilson

• A wise man apologised like this for going on at length –  well, I won’t take more time to explain, I’ll just refer you here:

•• reader? I hope for plural.


This, dear reader, yes all 8 of you, may be worth a listen, especially as both  Adrian Voce and Bob Hughes are on  it:

 “Feral Kids and Feckless Parents”

the first in a series on Broken Childhood featuring an expert-led discussion on the contemporary issues, such as knife-crime and gun-crime and crime-crime and other feckless issues facing parents in our contemporary society

RADIO 4 today, Wednesday, at 8pm.

Do have a listen then we can discuss it online. Such fun!

I speak like this because the increasingly London-centric posh media types at the Beeb, seem to think everyone lives like this, cue vicious parody:

just after you have had a simple family supper of jugged hare in an aubergine and Marsala jus, and just before the ‘man of the house’ has to ‘pop’ upstairs to read Jemima and Jasper their organically-grown, fairly-traded recycled children’s story by Kate Winslet, entitled “ The day that Satsuma forgot about global warming”, you can huddle round the Pure DAB set and listen to (or record for later – such fun) this lovely programme:


From the actual BBC:

“Programme 1: Feral Kids and Feckless Parents

”The August riots in parts of England showed youngsters out of control on the streets, and put huge focus onto parenting skills.

“MPs and council leaders warned parents that they should know where their children were at night and keep them indoors and out of trouble.

”But parents themselves were saying they were unable to discipline their kids, either because they feared repercussions by the authorities, or because their children were simply physically too strong.

“In the first of the new series of “Bringing Up Britain”, Mariella Frostrup is joined by a panel of experts to discuss parental discipline right across British society.”

{uncontrollable interjection: RIGHT across? As in all classes? Somehow I doubt it}

”How easy is it for us to control our children, especially after they stop being biddable toddlers and begin to assert their own personalities?

“Have we given children too many rights and ignored those of parents?

”Can you really stop a large teenage child going out, and what restraining measures can you legally use?

“And, if your child is going off the rails, how do you break the cycle and get them back into good habits?”


Back to the totally made-up vicious parody:

Joining a woman in early middle-age who has a sexy voice because she is foreign, are 4 people who are already known to BBC researchers (who these days are all unpaid interns called Rebecca or Piers), because their names are already in the producer’s filofax (remember them). Joining poshtotty to explore these issues will be:

• Adrian Voce, OBE, freelance policy consultant and ex-Director of PlayEngland,

• Bob Hughes of PlayEducation, the UK’s leading thinker on children’s play and playwork

• some bloke who used to be a teacher who went to school with George Osborne

• the wife of George Osborne (is he married? I thought he was gay, must check) who has set up a charity for badgers distressed by quad bikes

•an ethnic minority person who was booked by mistake but the BBC has an equalities policy so they aren’t being told because it might upset them and they might call us racist

• Professor Martina Rousseau-Clarkson, the  founding director of the Luton University Centre  for the Study of the Causes of Research into the Parenting Strategies deployed in early adolescence by Developmentally Challenged Agricultural Workers in South America and Children

• Peter Rabid, the foreign policy editor of the Economist and best-selling author of ‘Shoot The Bloody Lotl!’

Only joking all of those people are made-up. The two that are real people are the ones least likely to be actually, and disappointingly, on the programme. Follow the link to find out who the real panel is. Gosh, with luminaries like that, we’re assured of a jolly debate. I’m going to be glued to my set: if you miss it, and if I hear anything sensible or interesting or hopeful, and if I write it down, you might see it on here, later.

Shame by Pam Noles – an essay on colour in fantasy fiction

More evidence of the profound coolness that is the very wise Ursula Le Guin.

(and more evidence of my lack of HTML talent- still can’t work out to make links like the one below here, ‘live’)

The essay opens with this quote:

Ursula K. Le Guin said this:
“I have received letters that broke my heart, from adolescents of color in this country and in England, telling me that when they realized that Ged and the other Archipelagans in the Earthsea books are not white people, they felt included in the world of literary and movie fantasy for the first time.”
— Speech to the Book Expo America children’s literature breakfast, June, 4, 2004.

I’m mildly amazed, as a UK whitey who has been attempting to be ‘down with the race thang’* since the mid-80s, that this marvellous essay attracted a lot of flak from aggravated US white fantasy fans.

In another essay in reply

She quotes an aggrieved white commentator:

“But you have a tag called Die Whitey on the blog!” (Yeah…I hear it coming. People follow patterns.) “That’s racist! That’s exclusionary! That’s putting up a wall between you and me!!”

“No, dears. That’s FUNNY. There is a great and grand tradition of using the sheath of humor to make you comfortable before removing it to reveal the sharp edge designed to Wake You The Fuck Up.”

*down with the race thang, is also a joke.

Anyway go read it.

The edge of chaos in childcare: why ‘the child’s best interests’ aren’t ‘good-enough’

Amazingly they published the letter, almost in full, with just deft edits for length that didn’t damage my flow.

extracts from Children Now magazine, full article at:

“Back Page: Social Claire – Let’s try to foster some stability
14 June 2006

“…I have been working with a young man who
has had 25 moves over five years…

…He has been labelled “unfosterable”…

…He is settled in school, has friends…no one is
listening to him…

“He’s got a bad reputation now, we’re lucky if we can find
anyone to take him,” said the head of fostering. “He’s brought this on

Whatever happened to a child-centred approach?…”

(Quoted here under the ‘fair use’ terms of copyright, correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll remove the extracts, please don’t sue me, Haymarket)

To which I reply:

Dear Editor

to: letters page re: ‘ Claire is fuming over services that ignore a child-centred approach.’

To which I say: When both sides are ‘true’ what should WE do?

Reading of Claire’s frustration allowed me to say the following, by way of explanation of my hopefully controversial view that a child-centred approach can be misguided, confusing, unhelpful and counterproductive in many contexts, just as much as a defensive institution focussed one.

InClaire’s example, unless both sides listen a bit more and interact a lot more they won’t find the wealth of possible solutions which are waiting for them in the middle. ‘More than one thing can be true at once’ as I say to my students, when they think that are taking opposing sides. This isn’t just a plea to ‘play nicely’, by the way. I think its a bit more complex than that, although that would be a start.

Allow me to explain. In 2002 I was doing a joint piece of work with Wendy Russell, another play theorist, in which we trying to refocus the unhelpful debate on safety v. freedom in playwork into a more useful space. So we created a continuum/taxonomy ( based on my earlier management work on the applications of complexity thinking) which went from ‘ordered playwork’ which is too safety-focussed, so it doesn’t meet children’s developmental needs, through to ‘chaotic playwork’ which is too freedom-focussed so it doesn’t meet children’s developmental needs either. Inspired as we both were, by Gordon Sturrock’s Psycholudics approach, I coined the term ‘ludocentric’ as a descriptor of the middle zone that we should be aiming to inhabit, steering a course between the Scylla of over-regimented childcare and the Charybdis of out-of-control kids charging about so ‘freely’ that they hurt themselves and others. (I’m not going to say ‘as in bad Adventure playgrounds in the 70s’ because I refuse to pander to that overblown stereotypical media myth.) Somewhere in the middle lives ‘ludocentric playwork’ where the focus is on enabling ‘the playful child’, doing the balancing act between too much control and too much risk. This notion has achieved some degree of success in influencing the thinking of playworkers, and crucially in supporting their professional confidence in the appropriateness of their finely judged, reflective and nuanced approach to work with children in the face of the Elfansafety clipboard carriers, who sometimes fail to grasp the subtleties of good playwork.

So, to the point: I think we can map Claire’s issue, which is one horn of a dilemma, onto an amended version this continuum quite easily. The endpoints could be labelled ‘organisational needs’ v. ‘children’s needs’. In Claire’s context, I suspect Roger Morgan is attempting to redress the balance somewhat in favour of the child, as is Claire herself. Very laudable. It’s what I did, back when I was a face-worker. And – not but, AND, it doesn’t necessarily produce a better outcome for the child. Notice I say ‘better’ not ‘best’. Voltaire said ‘The best is the enemy of the good’ which I use to mean that an obsession with the best can block us achieving Winnicott’s ‘good enough’.

A final point: this isn’t just about a middle way. It’s about an interactional approach that focusses on what emerges INBETWEEN. The ‘good enough’ solution will emerge when the 2 perspectives and their proponents interact with each other in open dialogue rather than position-defending debate.

When both sides are ‘true’ what should WE do?

Best wishes
Arthur Battram
Management consultant and Play theorist

PleXity is the name of my consultancy

I chose it about 8 years ago, but failed to grab the domain which was then owned by a hi-tech firm in the US. I chose the name deliberately, semi-ironically, and, I reckon that this comment from another blog shows that my instinct was correct:

“A belated comment: Plexity sounds like one of those invented names for corporations that sound like they should be words, but aren’t, like Agilent, Accenture, Viant and Scient (all real). “Plexity — we help you make chaos out of order.” By the way, is for sale for $2,200.”

The irony being that it is a real [but very obscure] word, and I am a lowly freelance consultant not a giant faceless corporation.

you can read the rest of an excellent discussion of the word here:

I’m consciously including all of those meanings in my use of the word, especially the interwoven connections, network relationships and the Delany ‘simplex/complex/multiplex’ perspective. Thanks to Jack Cohen for reminding me that I must’ve picked it up from ‘Empire Star’ in the early 70s. Because – “More than one thing can be true at once” from the sayings of me.

Mind you “Is it simply a nonce abbreviation for complexity, or something more… significant?” as the languagehat blog says.