Riding the wave of play

As mentioned in our last post, I’ve recently finished reading the most wonderful ebook by a lady who has pioneered and led the field of playworkers – a field that I think holds such value.  In her book The Playwork Primer (2010), Penny Wilson shares the delicate tiptoe between facilitating play on the playgrounds of London, and interfering in the developmental process that is the child’s work.

Today I would like to share her explanation of the critical balance in the child’s play process.  Many occupational therapists need to understand and use this concept for the beautiful art of therapy to be successful.

Below is an excerpt from the book.

Complexity theory is a way of understanding natural systems.  We look at a flock of birds or a school of fish moving in magnificent order and symmetry and wonder how they can do it.  Both are examples of complex adaptive systems.  In these natural systems, order is not the result of a pre-established plan that maps out, say, the flock’s flight path.  Instead, the overall order, the graceful flocking, emerges from a few very simple rules about finding direction, keeping a certain distance from other birds, and so on, that govern individual birds’ flying behaviours.

The theories of complexity provide some interesting metaphors for understanding playwork.  Arthur Battram describes an ideal state for a play setting by likening it to a wave.  Before the wave breaks, there is stasis, order.  After the wave breaks, there is turbulence and chaos.  At the curl of the breaking wave there is a delicate balance between order and chaos.

If we relate this to a play setting then the static, ordered state is a very controlled setting.  It is rule-bound, highly organised, and prescriptive; timed activities will take place.  There is no room in this play setting for the creative spontaneity of playing children.  If we look at a chaotic play setting, it is poorly organised.  The hours when it is open are irregular.  The toilets might not work.  The staff might display a wide variety of moods and temperaments, with unpredictable attitudes towards the children and their playing.

Look at the curl of the wave, which is where we surf because that is where the power is.  We see the meeting of order with spontaneous activity and unpredictability.  Thus, an underlying order can support freedom and unpredictable play.  It is a framework for creativity.  Battram offers us the image of surfing on the edge of chaos and order as a metaphor for how a play setting works.  It is our role as adults to understand this and create the solid foundations on which the children play.

Isn’t that just beautiful?

I must admit that I am person who likes order and it is hard for me as parent and homemaker to be playmaker too, to stand back and watch the beautiful chaos unfold.

What are your experiences of beautiful chaos?  Aren’t they some of your best memories?

Play-makers: the subtle art of not interfering

I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful ebook by a lady who has pioneered and led the field of playworkers – a field that I think holds such value.  In her book The Playwork Primer (2010), Penny Wilson shares the delicate tiptoe between facilitating play on the playgrounds of London, and interfering in the developmental process that is the child’s work.

Children need to organise and direct their own play, but the reality is that few of today’s children are allowed to play freely, as earlier generations were.  Some don’t know how to get started.  Others need some adult support.  Playworkers fill this space.  They:

  • create playful environments
  • support children’s own play
  • assess risk, and
  • help out when needed, without directing or controlling.

Above all, playworkers strive to be as invisible as possible.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

In 1946 a a quirk of fate led Lady Allen of Hurtwood to visit a junk playground in Copenhagen-Emdrup, designed by the architect C. Th. Sorenson in 1943.  He was commissioned by the authorities to create a place for children to play in response to increased levels of child delinquency during the German occupation.  So Sorenson went back to look at other playgrounds that he had designed.  He found them empty.  Where were the children?  They were playing in the wreckage of bombed-out buildings.  So this is what he created: A place with materials that children could manipulate, where they could spend hours rooting around unnoticed and lost in their own worlds.

Lady Allen said of her first visit to this playground, “I was completely swept off my feet by my first visit to the Emdrup playground.  In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities.”  She brought the concept back to London and gave it the name “adventure playground”.

At that time London children had little space to play except for bomb sites left after the Second World War.  Here they spent their time building, making fires, digging for treasure from the dead homes, and generally scrubbing around on their own.  Lady Allen had had a very playful rural childhood.  She thought that her own experiences had been ideal and recognized in the sites she created with local communities a “compensatory environment”.  By this she meant they were the nearest thing to her rural childhood that could be created for urban children.

Over the next few posts I’d like to explore more of the ideas shared in this book.  But for now, what is the closest thing we have to an adventure playground here in our cities?  We’d love to hear from you.