In our respective day jobs Mike Barclay, from Wrexham’s Play Development team and Ludicology, and I with Communities First, first met in November 2015 when we began liaising over research into the social benefits of playwork in Wrexham.
We finalised the research brief and in so doing I gained a much clearer understanding of playwork (as distinct from play). But more than that it prompted me to consider community development in a different light.
In the research brief Mike referred to community development in a way that caught my eye. Here is a precis of the interview with Mike in which he expands on this idea.
The full interview is available in this podcast:
Russell: What do people need to know about you Mike?
Mike: I have three main roles in relation to children’s play and playwork. One I’m a dad, so working in some support, or not, of children’s play on a daily basis. But then I run an organisation called Ludicology with Ben Tawil. And Ludicology means a study of playfulness, so that’s what that organisation is really about and we provide advice, research and training around children’s play and that’s really about supporting anybody that’s working with or on behalf of children to better understand children’s playfulness and therefore how we work with them. But I’m also the Play Sufficiency Lead for Wrexham Council. So I manage Wrexham Council’s Play Development Team, I support and manage a lot of playwork provision and I’ve only ever been a playworker. I’ve managed to make a career out of being a playworker and there’s not a lot of people who can say that because there’s not many playworkers. So playwork is a real passion of mine. I think the playwork profession has a lot of value that isn’t widely recognised.
Russell: What’s brought us to this situation of sitting around the table now, was that with my work hat on in the Communities First programme in Wales and you with your Wrexham Council hat on, we’re working on a piece of work around trying to better capture, better articulate some of the social benefits of playwork. I’m not going to talk about that now. But as part of the brief there was a sentence that made me stop in my tracks as I was reading, and that was that:
“Playwork might best be understood as play centred community development”
Mike: It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and I think for a lot of people who are in the UK who have been in playwork for a long time, this is really the way, within playwork, a lot of those people would have thought about it. But I suppose to make sense of it we should start talking about what playwork is about and in terms of what playworkers do, they are first and foremost concerned with supporting children’s right to play. So the outcome of playwork ideally is more playing. A playworker is concerned with the child agenda of playing which is pretty unique really. If you look at most adults who work with children they usually, and this isn’t to diminish their roles at all, come with some form of adult desired outcome. They are working with children towards some future developmental outcome. And playwork isn’t. Playwork is concerned about whether children are able to play as an everyday part of their lives.
“And so primarily, in simple terms, playwork is primarily about enabling and supporting children’s play.”
But then when you think about how do you go about supporting children’s play and think about the realities of children’s play, most people through their own childhoods or through having children, would recognise that children play in all kinds of places. Children don’t just play in these designated times and spaces where playworkers might be: adventure playgrounds or play schemes. Those places are great for playing, but they’re not all of children’s play lives by any means. And actually if we wanted to really support children’s play it would be about making sure that children could easily find time and space for playing wherever they find themselves. In those communities where children rate a very high satisfaction with playing, you find examples of them playing all over the place and that leads you to think it’s more about developing the conditions for playing rather than only about that specific provision. How do we cultivate more favourable conditions so that children can find time and space for playing? And that’s where I think we start to look at this community development role because playworkers, when they’re at their best, are looking at how do you cultivate a culture of playing throughout a whole community.
Certainly some of the best playwork that I’ve seen and I’m really proud to say that I’ve seen it in Wrexham, is those places where playworkers are right in amongst their communities. They might have a designated place, a junk playground which offers certain things, but they’re also right in the middle of their communities, they’re involved in community celebrations, they’re playing hide and seek on estates, they’re cleaning up patches of grass, creating that kind of sense that children’s play is welcome in this community.
“I think in that way, playworkers are doing community development work; they’re trying to develop communities that are supportive of play.”
Russell: You describe it like that and, well, why had that not really occurred to me previously? And I think it’s because maybe it’s that interpretation or conception of play as a certain thing that happens; and defining it in a certain way. It looks like maybe play schemes or council playgrounds and parks, and I think I feel almost a tinge of guilt that I’d overly simplified it. When we first started working together, I picked up quite early on from you – what’s the polite way of saying this? – that you were quite determined to make the distinction between playwork, play and playing. I didn’t want to say the word obsessive! But playwork is a particular thing that is distinct from other things. And that was something I found myself having to coach myself not to annoy you with.
The principles behind doing this podcast is that you see reference to community development quite a lot and you go, well it’s immersed in the community, it’s well intended, it might one day become community development, but it’s not at the moment. And I sense a sort of parallel between how you are describing playwork.
Mike: I’m now very wary of maybe me using community development in the wrong way! But children are driven to relentlessly try and find opportunities for playing. And what we’ve seen over recent decades, I think, is adults almost trying to take ownership of the word play. There always has to be a why children play. So children play because it’s about learning; or children play because it improves physical activity. That’s not why children play. Children play because they are driven to do it and they’re motivated because of the pleasure they gain from doing it. It is that simple. We don’t really treat children often as people. But playworkers do and we say those kinds of people are very playful, that’s what they do and therefore we should support that because they have a right as a person to do that stuff in their communities. And so for playwork, play is about stuff that kids do for whatever reason they do it. But in saying that, we recognise that all kinds of benefits are coming from them doing it. The irony is that when adults try and take ownership of that play and try and make it purposeful to get to the developmental outcome they desire, we see adults getting involved and making play less playful.
Russell: It’s quite powerful I suppose to say children do it for its sheer, intrinsic value and the pleasure they drive from it.
Mike: That’s what the Welsh Government says.
“The definition in the Play Policy says that it’s freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. It’s more or less child led. It’s highly variable, it contains all of these kinds of elements of uncertainty and it is done for its own sake.”
And when adults try and support it for some other external goal it isn’t really playing, and children know it. And where they get enough playing they have a better attachment to the places because they can recognise people and instiutions who are supportive of play, and they can recognise communities that are supportive of play. It’s about recognising that children aren’t quite as simple as you might think.
Russell: So playworkers get that
Russell: And when I say playworkers, in the same way that there’s a particular definition in your mind and the sector’s mind of what is and what isn’t playwork, does that follow the same for what is and isn’t a playworker? The reason I ask that is because in the community development sector there has been for the last few years this drive to professionalise it, and I always use that term advisedly because there is a certain pejorative connotation that that throws up. But to develop, articulate and form that consensus around values and principles and to develop occupational standards. So a community development worker is somebody that does these things, informed by these values and abides by these principles. Is there the same parallel with people who are playworkers?
Mike: Yes, I think so and I think the really important point is like you say there, that I think there has been a danger in the past that it’s seen that playworkers are the ones that work with play, therefore other people don’t. And that’s certainly not the case. And in terms of the things we do with Ludicology and in Wrexham, we’re saying that anybody who works with and on behalf of children and their families would be best placed to do so where they have a good understanding of children’s play and how to work with it. Many of the problems we come across is where we work against children’s innate playfulness. So everybody would be better off understanding children’s play. But I do think playwork has a distinct role in terms of being focused on play as the outcome, not coming at it from other adult prescribed outcomes, and being primarily concerned with cultivating these more favourable conditions and relating to children by supporting their play.
I think there is real value in that profession being appropriately recognised and that’s what playwork has been trying to do. Playwork came out of the junk playgrounds, the concept of which was brought to the UK from Denmark. But it was through that emergence of playwork over probably 60 years that we then worked towards what we call the Playwork Principles which is a kind of ethical framework that guides playwork practice. Only eight principles. But that stuff was only introduced around 2000 onwards. But those values and ideas had been developing for 40 years before that and I think within playwork there is certainly a shared appreciation of what playwork is. I don’t think that playwork’s always been very good at articulating what it is and that’s maybe why it’s not as well-known as it should be.
Russell: People tend to have conversations with each other, within that very, sort of, closed shop. Community development is the same. Communities First as a programme is the same. We talk to each other about things, we learn from each other, we don’t necessarily tell other people or stakeholders and certainly not those people who don’t get it or don’t want it, for whatever reason. I can certainly see a parallel there.
MIke: Yes and I think part of it comes down to going back to play as an outcome. It’s all about how we construct childhood and play in the UK and the fact that play isn’t really currently seen as a legitimate outcome in its own right. Play is not as important as learning or sport or these other things in our society we value more than playing; although the irony is that for children playing is probably the most important one. But if play was really valued, and people really understood what happens when you work in support of play, then I think that position might change.
Russell: So is part of the role of playworker about persuading others – funders, the powers that be, political leaders, community leaders – of its intrinsic value, that it as an outcome is enough in itself? And something else you wrote in that initial brief was about the extent to which playworkers support the development of positive attitudes towards children and that corrected me where you think, ‘Ok, they’re just supervising kids playing’.
Mike: Yes. Advocacy is one of the Playwork Principles and I think it’s advocacy at many levels. As a playworker I hardly do any work with kids now. I still count myself as a playworker but I spend most of my time advocating to strategic decision makers, funders, elected members and parents and other professionals. But we’ve got playworkers out today and they’ll be advocating maybe in a very subtle way to parents and people wandering past. So I think there’s all kinds of little bits of advocacy but really maybe ‘conversations’ is a better word. I think there’s all kinds of conversations to be had about children and their position within communities. And that stuff has to happen on a day by day basis. Also sometimes I think it is taking a stand and I’ve seen playworkers do that, who won’t allow children’s rights to be railroaded. I think there’s a real justice issue around children in communities, particularly around spatial justice and this idea that it’s very easy to overlook children’s rights because they have less power.
“And so often adult decisions and preferences get prioritised, sometimes at the expense of children. And it’s not about saying we should prioritise children’s rights over adults’; it’s about a more equal distribution. So I think often playworkers are mediating between child and adult agendas and giving children more of a voice.”
Russell: In the first place, identifying and drawing attention to those power imbalances or inequalities, doing something to address, maybe even them out a little bit more is I suppose bread and butter to somebody calling themselves a community development worker. The community with whom you are doing that, whether it’s children and young people; whether it’s with communities of interest, based around ethnicity or other characteristics; whether it’s to do with what’s been primarily my background, areas of deprivation and disadvantage, you’re having to redress those power imbalances. And sometimes some of the most deeply rooted ones are not between the haves and the have nots, so to speak, but within the have nots where you’ve got people or some sort of very prominent community role “representing”, in inverted commas, the community. And although that’s important – a traditional representative form of democracy is a staple of our society – you can do it in a participative way and the power imbalances or power struggles that have come about where your traditional councillor has found his or her role a little bit undermined, have been absolutely fascinating to see up close.
Mike: Yes and I think playwork is political and it has certainly been at the centre of many political issues within communities. There was a community recently and they were doing a consultation around the redevelopment of some of the housing; maybe adult priorities are given greater emphasis. But then the playworkers take the children into the consultation and it’s not always an easy situation for adults to be in, but it does start to change those processes and maybe it does enable something that is a little bit more democratic or at least something that’s a bit more just. But as a consequence playwork is always going to be tied to political issues.
Russell: Absolutely. You sometimes hear this within Communities First: “We’ve got to be apolitical, non-political”. The reality is what we’re talking about is the distribution of wealth and resources and power. If that’s not politics then I don’t know what is. That’s been the case for thousands of years.
Mike: Yes and maybe it’s politics at a local level, with a small p.
Russell: But I think it should be embraced and if we’re talking about trying to create more rounded, more fully engaged citizens, we know there’s a big democratic deficit in a lot of disadvantaged communities. Then surely showing young people or people at whatever formative age that there’s merit in getting involved, in putting their view forward. That can only be a good thing. It comes back to this thing about well why do we have to justify this? There’s clearly an intrinsic value in it; they’re the community leaders of tomorrow, they’re the informed parents of tomorrow.
Mike: And they’re the children of today. That’s a big part of it for me, is about how often do children meet an adult who is pretty much on equal terms with them? I think that playwork spaces are pretty democratic spaces. They should be places where if children go, “Actually we want to pull that down now”, they can pull it down. It’s pretty empowering for kids really. More so now than ever, I think children spend time in environments that are supervised and run by adults and those adults can, I think, overextend their authority.
We were looking at different levels of satisfaction with opportunities for play in communities and a couple of the places where children didn’t just say it was good but the majority of kids in that community said it was great, were the places where they had sustained playwork. I was talking to the kids, and these were in some of what would be seen as more economically deprived areas, and we asked this group of kids, what’s the thing that helps the most? And they were saying, without a doubt the adventure playground. Which perhaps was no surprise but what was really interesting was they then went on to talk more about what the adventure playground did for them when they weren’t at the adventure playground than what happens inside the adventure playground. And they were telling real stories of things that had happened to them. They got chased by a dog, they could go and find the playworker. They forgot their coat and they were cold, they went and found a playworker. There was some scary bloke chasing them, the playworker walked them home and when it got dark they rang mum to say, kid’s on the way. These might seem like really little things but to kids they’re really big things and they build up.
What you get from that is a really trusting relationship, that there are these adults out there who are keeping an eye, who are making the community feel a bit safer, helping them get along with stuff, and as a consequence what you see where you have sustained playwork is this culture of playing.
Russell: Which is why I’m interested in this, it’s about how that can help make, in that instance, slightly more cohesive communities, which might sound big and grand, because it might be what you’re talking about is a little cul de sac of 20 houses, but then a lot of people talk about how they don’t know their neighbours anymore. So we can overlook the significance of that at our peril.
Mike: I think play is just a really important part of the human condition. And when we talk about community development, like you were saying, redistributing power and stuff like that, often the ways in which we do that are through a form of playing or another, whether it’s bringing people together to have a bit of a picnic or a water fight. It isn’t done for some external reward, it’s just something everyone can do. And I think there is something very powerful about adults being around children playing. I think that’s some kind of evolutionary thing where we benefit from seeing kids having a good time.
Russell: I think that’s absolutely right. That’s fascinating. I could probably talk for another couple of hours. Do you want to give another little plug for yourself and Ludicology?
Mike: Yes, so people can visit the website www.ludicology.com where we also do a podcast, so there’s more on there really about playwork and the concept of play sufficiency as an organising principle for communities. If people are interested in this stuff they can find out more there. And in terms of the work in Wrexham they can visit www.wrexham.gov.uk/play and find out more about what we’re doing in and around Wrexham.
And if anybody ever wants to come and visit stuff we’re always open. We have visitors from all over the world coming to Wrexham. It would be nice if we made more of it in Wales and particularly in Wrexham ourselves. But there are still many other places where good playwork happens in the UK. Unfortunately in Wales we have seen a significant reduction in it as a consequence of reductions in public funding.
Russell: Which is an ongoing challenge for a lot of us in this sort of work. Mike, diolch yn fawr, and it would be nice to do this again some time.
Mike: It was a pleasure, thanks for having me on.