Play can be effective in times of oppression and strife; bringing people together, generating fun, and encouraging creation of im/possible spaces and futures. Playwork can also be a powerful agent for change, advocating and organising opportunities where play can focus, germinate and multiply. Gathering playworkers together in a dedicated place-for-play accentuates this. It supports ideas, dreams and practice to meet around the campfire and in chance encounters. Through talk, shared experiences and excitement, elusive ‘what-ifs’ become more substantial and plans formed.
I love exploring play and playwork around the world, and in February I flew to California to speak at a Playwork ‘Campference’ and to give a presentation at San Diego’s New Children’s Museum. The campference, run by Pop-Up Adventure Play and Santa Clarita Valley Adventure Play, was (you guessed it) a camping conference located on a not-yet-finished adventure playground. Delegates from all over the US and Canada as well as other nations (including the UK) braved freak gale force winds and rain to attend, learn, and play.
They invited me to talk both about the role of Unite the Union supporting UK playwork, and also on my PhD research investigating the interaction between children and mobile digital technology in outdoor play. Delegates were surprised – and impressed – that the largest union in the UK engaged in supporting playwork. I explained this was due to hard work by playworkers, support from youth and community workers, and backing from Union officials and local branches.
I gave my talk (fortunately not outside) on digital technology during the biggest storm in recent California history. We had to dismantle the campsite /conference venue and move to a local school which we decorated with drying sleeping bags and random soggy possessions. Fuelled with strong coffee we continued, and I gave my talk in bare-feet as my only footwear was too wet to wear! Amongst noteworthy talks from a wide variety of projects across North America, the UK contingent was well represented. Professor Fraser Brown (Leeds Beckett Uni) gave the keynote, Simon Rix (Meriden Adventure Playground) offered alternate paradigms, and Luke Sutton (The Land AP) and (Honourary Brit) Erin Davis showed the film ‘The Land’ to great acclaim.
When the storm subsided we returned to the site and rebuilt in true playwork fashion, continuing on in the sunshine. In the spirit of adventure play, the site possessed a real sense of magic and wonder, with tall trees and loose parts. The event felt like the best bits of a conference and festival combined; the fire pit, tasty food (and donated beer) encouraged great conversations and meetings of minds. Another element of added playfulness was the children of delegates who revelled in the freedom of the site and on-tap playworkers.
After the event I travelled to San Diego and was hosted by the New Children’s Museum. I spent time with their playworkers, who have set up an area full of loose parts which is incredibly popular. This was amongst a collection of avant-garde artist-designed spaces, and it was all exciting and filled with energised children, doing, making and playing. I gave a presentation to Museum Playworkers which was also attended by senior management, so had to adapt on the fly – but I think I pulled it off.
The enthusiasm of all those I met was inspiring. In the UK we have been reeling from cuts to much of what we hold important, and playwork has been particularly affected. In North America, recent political events notwithstanding, they are growing playwork as a profession and experimenting with different ways of facilitating play. These include not only a few long-standing adventure playgrounds, but pop-up events and imaginative community driven models. I was impressed by delegates’ desire to learn and the respect that UK playwork has, and this has made me realise that we in the UK have a lot to give – and learn – and that we should be proud of what we have accomplished. I’m hoping to get back to North America sooner rather than later, for the energy, good coffee, and generosity of spirit.