Who are ‘playworkers’?

Cath Prisk
Thursday, February 26, 2015

Have you heard of the term ‘playwork’? What about adventure playgrounds? Not Alton Towers, and not just the big climbing frame in the park. Think Byker Grove. Okay, we’ve got a frame of reference.

Yes, there are still adventure playgrounds, though Newcastle closed down all of theirs in 2012. But London still has some, and so does Torbay, Dudley and quite a few other places. Maybe half as many as before 2010, but they are still magic, especially for the kids who live nearby who often have no gardens, no waste ground or woods or streets where they are allowed to hang out. If you are still scratching your head, take a look at the trailer for the forthcoming documentary ‘The Land’, based on an adventure playground in Wales. And check out the fires and homemade rope swings.

Anyway, think about the professionals who work in those open access playgrounds, and also those unsung heroes that run play schemes after school and in the holidays. The play schemes for six- to 16-year-olds, sometimes eight- to 13-year-olds. Not the “sports camps” or drama weeks, but those where kids who now like to be called “young people” might cook marshmallows over fires, build dens, keep bees, learn circus skills. Just hang out and make friends. Where play is the priority.

Okay you might not have any such staffed provision left – CYP Now’s investigation of play service cuts in 2014 showed at least a quarter (including Newcastle) had closed their adventure playgrounds, and nearly a 40 per cent drop in revenue funding across England. But wherever you are, you probably still have some voluntary sector-run holiday play schemes? Maybe some after-school clubs? Adult-run but just maybe child-led activities in children’s free time. These will still be staffed by playworkers, people with some sort of playwork qualification or training, quite possibly even a PhD. Or at least they should be.

You can be forgiven for not knowing this. I just searched the CYP Now website and the word “playworker” turned up just 8 times since 2010. Search “teacher”, “childminder” or “youth worker” and it’s a very different story. Also since 2008 I’ve asked that question of every group of children’s services professionals I’ve met, whether local authority, voluntary sector, in government or working in another children’s charity and I’d estimate around two-thirds hadn’t heard of playwork or if they had were confused as to what it is.

Which is a huge shame as playwork has such a lot to share in terms of professional practice.

You want to reduce bullying? Turn around seriously “at-risk” young people? Learn to love integrating children with ADHD? Increase community cohesion? Reduce sedentary behaviour? Increase retention rates? If so, a playwork setting will have a case study for you.

In fact it’s so completely run of the mill they hardly ever shout about it beyond the sector. Or if they do it just isn’t heard.

Of course none of those are the point of playwork – the point of playwork is generally agreed to be creating great environments where children can play – but nevertheless these are regularly seen incidental outcomes.

In 2010 there were a number of lead bodies with a national remit that had at least some stake in advocating for the profession that is Playwork. But none of them were dedicated to promoting the profession in the way that maybe the National Youth Agency or the Training and Development Agency for Schools were dedicated to promoting their various professional spheres. And as local play services were cut hard and haemorrhaged staff, so too were the national organisations, especially in England.

Which is one of the reasons a group of the leading advocates for the playwork profession – academics, thinkers, bloggers, frontline workers – came together to start discussing what an organisation dedicated to promoting, developing and supporting playwork and playworkers might look like.

This is a move welcomed by most – if maybe not all – of the past, current and emerging leaders of the different parts of the playwork sector across the UK. And it’s a move wholeheartedly supported by several of my friends that are proud to call themselves playworkers.

What exactly this loose organisation will be is very much in flux, and I’ll happily report developments as they occur over the next few weeks and months. As there is no funding for such an organisation, and certainly no political will to invest in one, then it will certainly be a precarious start.

But from such grass roots beginnings came the Ramblers Association that protected our rights of way and the Save Our Woods campaign that saw off the privatisation of the forests.

The fact is there was one major lesson from both of those movements. Communities small and large only protect what they really love, and they only really love what they know. There is a lot to love about playwork, but far more beyond the sector need to know it exists and the special magic it creates before they’ll join with their colleagues in playwork to protect these special frontline children’s services.

I’m supporting the son of a friend of mine who volunteers on my market stall to start on his first steps towards becoming a playworker right now. I just sent him the forms to apply for a funded Level 2 playwork course and hopefully get a volunteer position at a local playground. He’s brilliant with kids in a way that would be a disaster in schools, in youth work or in childminding. He loves mayhem; he loves the kids who are a bit crazy. And they love playing wherever he is.

I really, really hope there continues to be a profession for him to develop in to over the next few years, which is one of the many reasons I hope this group of dedicated volunteers are successful in getting this loose organisation off the ground. Further to that in an era where almost all the news is about cuts and closures across the play world, it’s great to hear about something new.

You can read more about the genesis of this proposed organisation here, and if you have a view on the setup of this organisation then please contribute to the online survey, or think about attending the upcoming playwork conference where it will be a hotly debated topic.

If not, maybe just make the time to go and check out an adventure playground or local outreach play sessions. And let us know if you can see the magic.

Cath Prisk runs her own social enterprise Outdoor People, and is a trustee for The Wild Network. She was formerly director of Play England?

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