Sunday, 5 August 2012

Every Level Playworkers: Reflections from a Play Day

I came across Vicky Edward's post yesterday on "The Death of Playwork". She laments a little on how the playworking focus of those promoted to higher ranks in the playwork world have been lost due to adult agendas.

This got me thinking.

Having had a marvelous day at Wyke Community and Children's Centre Play Day yesterday, I could not help but find myself disagreeing to Vicky. Yes there are play-based managers out there who have forgotten to advocate for play, but there are also a whole bunch of playful managerial staff who have excelled at it, and more.

I will illustrate this using a few examples.

A few years back when I was a playranger for Children's Links, my line manager's line manager, and 1 of 4 of the senior management team, was Karen Wilkinson. I remember very clearly the first time I met her. I was in the middle of a boggy field, turning a huge tug-of-war rope for children to skip. Out of nowhere, a very well dressed lady with a huge smile comes over to me and said "Hello, give us a go" and then took the rope off me. I had no idea who it was a few seconds, but then I realised we were expecting a visit from senior management that day and it clicked. This was my boss' boss. Stood in the middle of a muddy field, skipping with kids using a rope that was comically big for her stature and getting gradually speckled with mud. And then one of the kids asked her to join in: she absolutely did. It was amazing. What's more amazing is that this same lady was the one who would mentor me for three years of playranging trouble. Parents, teachers and community adults alike were often unable to see playful activities in the same light as us ranging play-advocates, and I had many complaints. Never once did Karen tell me I was doing a bad job. Never once did Karen tell me to stop playing. She was always the one that coached me and taught me the next steps on dealing with the adult agendas that I had to face, and she was always there to make sure that the children's play was first and foremost in all situations I was confronted with. And when she had a chance to get away from the administrative, meeting-filled, adult-led environment of management, she would come and play. It's only now that I'm beginning to realise just how blessed I was. Especially knowing that it was Karen who pushed me to go to the States.

This is me back when I was a playranger, riding a didicar :)

A little closer to now, I have to say that I am very blessed to have just graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University with a degree in playwork. What was the most special part of the degree? Being able to learn from the best playworkers I have ever met. Now, I'd like to point out right here that throughout the 2 years I was studying in Leeds, I haven't actually never seen the my lecturers work with children. A bit odd really eh? But their eyes completely light up when they are talking about them. You can tell they work closely with them. You can feel their emotions when they reflect on a play story. They are fantastic. But what has this got to do with management? Well, I have to say, I have never seen playworkers manage people as well as the lecturers at Leeds Met. Especially our Professor Fraser Brown and Head of Department, Sue Palmer. They are down to earth, get your feet stuck in mud playworkers, like Karen Wilkinson, but for them it's a little more metaphorical. Fraser and Sue get down to the level of the student and genuinely find out what makes them tick, and how best to mentor. They take each student as an individual and provide them the tools that they need to be excellent playworkers themselves. Now that takes skill. And the most awesome part of it? I don't think most students realise that they are being playworked. But we were playworked, and as a result, we have done better than we ever thought we could. All thanks to our lecturers.

In the middle there are Sue, Maggie and Fraser, three of my four lecturers.

And to the example that has inspired me to write today: my friend, fellow graduate, and soon-to-be colleague, Andy Hinchcliffe. He's awesome you know, but I may have already mentioned this. He's a wonderful example of being a fantastic playworker and manager. He is able engage wonderfully with the rambunctious moments of rough and tumble, but also careful enough to negotiate moments of child-like reflection. Not only that, he has learnt over the years what it means to deal with the adult-led agendas that all playworkers should be able to do according to the playwork principles:

"For playworkers, the play process takes precedence and playworkers act as advocates for play when engaging with adult led agendas." - Playwork Principle number 4

But what does it all mean? To me it means that you are able to promote the need for children's play to adults. It also means you are able to negotiate those tricky situations where adults just start ranting about how their children are all dirty because of the playtype-filled mud fight that happened moments before. It means that you take the care to go through the endless risk assessments which enable the free-play sites to continue to be free to play in. It sometimes means you have to give away responsibilities to those who you are confident can do the job, but may not be confident in themselves and are able to learn from the experience. It may mean that you are that person that everyone pesters, mithers, and bothers because you are approachable, reliable, and are able to put minds at ease. It also means that you can bring the community together to engage in moments of pure joy that generate landmark memories that last a lifetime. Andy has managed to do that and much much more. And to me, that is a badge that playworkers should be able to wear and be proud of. And Andy should be proud of that too.

Andy and Me :)

I suppose what I want to say is that there are many bad examples of playworkers out there who are in the limelight because of their management positions, which sometimes makes me pretty sad when I think about it.  Similarly there are bad examples of playworkers who are at the bottom of the food chain, but noone seems to mind about them. But, and this is a GIGANTIC BUT, there are also fantastic playworkers out there who aren't getting the credit and the recognition they deserve whether it's high up in management, or those who are literally, in the field.

It's easy to see mistakes that people make, and it's not so easy to give props to those who have done a good job. So right here, right now, I'm celebrating the awesomeness of  a few particular playworkers who have been a delight to work with/study with/be mentored by, and am on the look out for even more of them. Playworkers don't get celebrated enough, and in this scenario, people should be told they are doing well because it's hard work! Every playworker will eventually learn to manage people because every playworker comes into contact with people from all walks of life. And because every playworker has the ability to change the lives of the people that they manage. :)


  1. Well said, Suzanna.

    “But their eyes completely light up when they are talking about them. You can tell they work closely with them. You can feel their emotions when they reflect on a play story.”

    Shame that the folk who measure quality don't use your metric.

    Nice to hear about quality mentoring and support - there's no substitute for face to face inspiration and dedication coupled with mentoring skill.

  2. Thank you for your lovely comments :) I genuinely feel privileged to have been mentored by so many awesome people. I may have stumbled into it by accident, but they're part of my support network from now on! :) Hoorah! :)


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