by Julia Steiny
Marc Armitage, “playwork” expert, has the affect of an over-sized mischievous boy who’s got a Totally Great Idea. Home-based in Britain, he’s one of the world’s premier experts in the arts and sciences of play.
Perhaps you’re wondering why wasting time needs a science at all.
Armitage spoke recently at the Providence Children’s Museum, a whistle stop on his lecture-training tour in the U.S. to help us ex-Puritan Americans embrace play. His deliciously sonorous Welsh accent — think Richard Burton, if you’re old enough — is especially fun as he announces the title of his talk: “Keep calm and play on.”
He pitches a mock snit because the Museum’s asked him to explain the theory of play and playwork — cue theatrical yawn. He’d much rather train people to play and do playwork. Much more hands-on. Much more adult giggling.
He tells a fascinating, crazy-quilt history of academia’s interest in the study of play. The motley collection of scientists and thinkers on the subject range from zoologists to urban planners. European colleges and universities offer degrees for professional playworkers.
But first, Armitage asks us to think back to our own favorite places to play. My imagination took me on a lovely tour through my childhood haunts — certain tidepools, two enchanting garages, and the huge abandoned house that the City eventually tore down and turned into a useless park.
He makes two big points about our collection of fun-filled spots. First, that most places were outdoors — rivers, woods, water, or trees with rooms made from droopy branches. Indoor spots were tucked away in attics, basements, and forgotten nooks. No one fondly remembers institutional settings like daycares, schools, or even public parks.
Secondly, he notes that our favorite spots were off somewhere, out of sight of the adults. Hmmm.
Armitage explains, ” Play goes on underneath our noses and we don’t even know about it. And there’s an evolutionary reason for this: If we knew what our kids were doing, we would stop them. Because dodgy stuff is what children do. Evolution wants them to play.” Meaning, get out there and encounter reality for good and ill.
But wait. If play is especially robust with no adults around, what’s a playworker?
Play is the work of childhood — according to Piaget, Montessori and others — so playworkers support that work. They don’t interfere, organize or direct. But they don’t abandon the kids either, providing adult supervision at a mutually-comfortable distance.
Armitage says, “Playwork is about allowing children to do what they know they need to do, but making sure the conditions are right for them to do it. Playworkers observe what children want to do, and teach them how, when necessary. For example, how to put out a fire. The reason why teenagers burn buildings down is because they’ve always wanted to play with fire, but don’t know how to control it because they’ve never had any experience with it.”
With great theatrics, Armitage shows us the difference a conventional teacher and a playworker. As the teacher, he sets down an imaginary box of jump ropes for a group of children. He explains that there are short ones for individual jumping, and longer ones to be held by two children. There’s double-Dutch. Perhaps he instructs them about the songs and games that go with jump-rope games.
By contrast, a playworker puts the box in the midst of the kids, backs off, and shuts up. He watches to see what they do. They might tie the ropes onto something for dragging, swinging or something else. If they want help, the playworker works with them figuring out what they can do to make it work. No enabling.
And if they get into a snag with each other, hopefully the playworker has what Armitage charmingly calls “pastoral” skills to help them reconcile on their own terms.
“Our (adult) heads work in a very different way than children’s do. The word ‘safe’ does not get mentioned when they are playing. They also never use ‘stimulating’ or ‘creative’ or ‘educational’ or ‘heathy.’ What children mean by play is not what adults mean. Playing is what children do. They don’t need a reason to do it. They don’t have an end result in mind.
“We have to have an agenda because,” he notes wryly, “that’s where the funding comes from.”
Armitage trains a variety of people how to work with kids and youth in a playworking style. But in Europe, cities and towns hire professional playworkers to support parks, school playgrounds, wherever kids gather. These adults make play places safe and fun. And they could become a high-functioning grown-up pal for those kids who have too few adult relationships in their lives.
Can you imagine American cities and towns investing in kids like that?
American kids’ joy is at least as important as their silly test scores. Playworkers deployed to recess, parks and youth haunts would keep everyone far safer, and maybe happier than we are now. The kids could fulfill their evolutionary mandate. The adults could keep calm and play on. Good message.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.