This picture captures one of the on-going goings-on at the Glamis adventure playground. It’s messy. It’s designed by kids. It’s supervised by trained Playworkers who understand the difference between facilitating play and directing, teaching, organizing, or policing play.

In Penny Wilson’s introduction to her insightfully delightful (as well as delightfully insightful) Playwork Primer (PDF), she sets the stage with great pith in the form of a quote from Prof. Stuart Lester

We aim to provide a play environment in which children will laugh and cry; where they can explore and experiment; where they can create and destroy; where they can achieve; where they can feel excited and elated; where they may sometimes be bored and frustrated, and may sometimes hurt themselves; where they can get help, support, and encouragement from others when they require it; where they can grow to be independent and self-reliant; where they can learn—in the widest possible sense—about themselves, about others, and about the world.

Let me give you another example, from the Primer, so that you can get a better feel for the Primer, the author, of what a Playworker does, and of what a brilliantly informed and childhood-sensitive movement this whole Playwork thing embodies:

Cloak of invisibility

This item is another essential ingredient in the tool kit of the playworker. (See Adulteration.) Go back to your most vivid childhood memories of play. Chances are you were playing outside with no adults present. Part of the oxymoronic nature of playwork is that we need to be present and not present at the same time. For those of you with a cloak of invisibility this is easy. For the rest of us, we have to learn skilful modes of intervention that allow us to support the play process without adulterating it with our own agendas.

As part of our reflective practice we have to be ever aware that not only do our presence and our reactions have a direct impact on the children, but the playing of the children has a direct impact upon us. (See Playwork Principles.) The cloak of invisibility also protects us from transference/projection, which is described below. The very awareness of transference mitigates its effects in our practice. With a cloak of invisibility, playwork is easy. Without it, we have to find ways to manage, and this means knowing the theories of play and best practices of supporting play and then applying these theories and practices.

One day in London’s Mile End Park I watched as Joe, a playworker, worked with a group of children at the Festival of Earth. He set up the clay and water table with a perimeter wall of clay and then idly played with it himself, seeming to explore not only its potential but to validate the messiness of it. Then the children came, and he seemed to disappear. This happened time and time again. A child would be stuck, perhaps needing something like a small world toy. Rather than have the child surface from her immersion in the play, Joe would become briefly visible, the item or support that was needed would quietly appear near enough for the child to discover it for herself, and then Joe would fade away again. Yet he never left the space that the children were in.

I watched him doing this and still could not work out quite how he managed to be so effective and so invisible at the same time.

We all have a great deal to learn from these Playwork people. In the mean time, here’s Penny, herself. Prepare to be inspired:

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