"Play is a very personal experience. For some it is dolls and fights, for others it is climbing and skipping. It is what children do when adults are not there or what the children do when the adults that are there are perceived as honorary children."
Bob Hughes, Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice, 2001, p. 11
Many of you know that I spent time in 2013 and 2014 creating a project called Play Lab. The goal of the project was so show my community what high-quality, play-based education can look like. I brought open-ended materials to spaces like the Farmer's Market, the library, a local art gallery, and neighborhood art walks.
A few weeks ago, my wonderful colleague Alison Coombs and I presented at the National Art Educator Association's Annual conference on The Materiality of Playwork. Before standing and presenting with Alison, I do not think I realized that Play Lab was playwork. But reflecting on the time that I have spent facilitating children's play, I see that my role was not a curator or director or teacher, but rather, a playworker.
I have always wanted to be an "honorary child", as Bob Hughes puts it, in the eyes of the children I work with. Not a fly on the wall, not a playmate, but someone children can trust. Friends of mine who have children never fail to marvel at their 18-month-old's chattiness in their room when they wake up in the morning or from a nap. Young children truly play for themselves, as a way to understand the world. As they grow older and play with others, their real, true play is unfiltered. When adults are not present, children can try on different behaviors, maybe even dangerous ones. The wonderful thing about playwork, and playworkers, is the power that they give to children to explore, to somehow get to that place where they are not the powerful, all-knowing adult, but rather a supportive, interesting person in the environment: an honorary child.
Playwork is probably most often connected with adventure playgrounds, something that is far from common in the United States. In the UK, adventure playgrounds have been around for decades. In the short documentary film The Land, filmmaker Erin Davis explores both playwork and adventure playgrounds, focusing on Plas Madoc, an adventure playground in Wales.
In an interview with NPR, Davis made a powerful statement about the difference between play in the past and play in the present:
"[Kids] climb things, they hide in things, they create dens and places to hide in, create hierarchies and worlds of their own. They're drawn to fire, they're super-imaginative. What's different [today] is the degree to which they have an opportunity to express and pursue these interests. So it's surprising to us — but really it shouldn't be — that kids thrive in these environments when they can do really whatever they want. They have the play drive. It's up to us to kind of provide the kinds of opportunities for them to really follow through on it."The issue that arises over and over again, it seems, is not about children's desire to play, but rather the adult reaction to idea of risk. As adults, we are averse to idea of children being in harm's way. One does not need to be a parent or a teacher to have a desire for children to be safe. But if we prevent failure by cushioning everything we can, how do children learn? How can adults shift their perception of risk and danger to make space for it in our culture? Adventure playgrounds were created, and stick around, because they are places for children to experience danger. Playworkers make that possible.
The question must be asked: how can we, as educators, advocate for play? How can we become honorary children? We can start by celebrating the move towards adventure play and open-ended exploration over pre-scripted lessons and blanket ideas that are meant to apply to everyone.
I hope you'll help me create a map of Adventure Playgrounds around the world. I have started with a few in the United States, and I hope we will be able to create a rich resource for anyone interested in advocating for open ended play in supportive spaces.
Please share your thoughts, comments, and questions on playwork and adventure play in the comments.