Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

What exactly am I supposed to be doing?

What exactly am I supposed to be doing?

a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece

It seems like a simple enough question to ask: ‘While there are children playing all around me, what am I, the adult in this space, supposed to be doing?’ And yet, when we try to embed a more play-based style of working into our settings this proves to be a question that comes up often and clearly reflects confusion. Thing is, it’s the wrong question to be asking.

This confusion is particularly true when people are first introduced to a playwork style of working and after professional development sessions with non-playworkers this is possibly the most frequent question I am asked, followed closely by questions as fundamental as where should I stand and, should I even be standing in the first place?

These are questions that should not be dismissed as trivial. They get down to the real nitty gritty about a play-based approach versus a more didactic approach; they are also fundamental to the way that playwork operates. To be honest, it’s not until we can successfully answer these question that we can get anywhere to explaining the difference between a playwork approach and other styles of working, so this is an important one to tackle.

Take this often-misunderstood quotation, by Jonas Bertelsen, for example that appears in Arvid Bengtsson’s 1972 book, Adventure Playgrounds. Acknowledged as being the world’s first adventure playground-based playworker at the 1943 founded Skrammellegepladsen (junk playground) in Emdrup, Denmark, Bertelsen writes “… I cannot, and indeed will not, teach the children anything.” (:20)

On face value you can see why someone employed in a learning capacity might have problems with this idea – ‘cannot and will not’? What does that mean? After all, are we not employed specifically to enable learning to occur and yet Bertelsen’s quotation seems to call this very idea into question?

There are clues to what he is saying when we go deeper. He continues by saying, “I am able to give them [children] my support in their creative play and work, and thus help them in developing those talents and abilities which are often suppressed at home and at school.”

Do you see the potentially uncomfortable idea there?

In fact, it gets worse because he goes further suggesting that the ideal playworker should also appear to be ‘not too clever’, in other words make it plain that they don’t know everything. In many respects he is advocating an approach similar to that of Vygotsky (whose influence was beginning to be felt in the Scandinavian countries around the same time). This is effectively Vygotsky’s idea of the MKO – the more knowledgeable other.

It is at this point that many educators will be tempted to say, ‘ah yes, we take this approach too – we step back’. But there is more because, ‘stepping back’ and recognising the importance of someone who knows more than you might be an obvious one, yet in the sense of what Bertelsen and Vygotsky are saying there is an issue with who that person is.

Try doing a web search for images relating to the MKO online and you will see that it throws up a whole raft of diagrams and photos in which the more capable person is almost exclusively a parent or educator. Yet in the context of both Vygotsky and Bertelsen, this individual was not only possibly a peer but was more likely to be so than not. The adult in this context is not one that just stays very much in the background – they are also one who allows other children to take on the more knowledgeable role at the expense of the adult. That’s hard to do.

In a playwork context the idea that the adult was not the main source of innovation very quickly took hold. For example, despite Bertelsen being referred to as the ‘playleader’ in the 1940s it did not take long for the alternative form of ‘playworker’ to appear and eventually become the norm (a point I think Bertelsen would have approved of). Bob Hughes, for example, elder statesman of modern playwork, says “At its most fundamental level, the play space dynamic is the property of the children, it is nothing to do with the playworker.” (:163)

A clue

And this maybe gives a clue to where some of our confusion arises because in a modern learning context this idea is not only still relatively new but it also goes much further than many educators are used to or feel comfortable with.

We have had many positive developments in an early learning and forest school context in how adults see their role in recent decades. What was the ‘teacher’ has, in many respects become the ‘educator’, for example, and that has clearly been a considered move; and yet ‘educator’ still implies ‘educate’ – I have to be engaged directly because I am the more knowledgeable other.

On top of that, we may also be facing a backlash against this approach too in part because of an assumption that if children are busy playing and are totally in control of what they are doing then there really is no role for the adult – they might as well not be there. Non-playworkers who see playworkers in action for the first time often remark on this, assuming that the playworkers are ‘doing nothing’ because they are seemingly not doing ‘anything’ – no direct engagement, no extending, no scaffolding.

And yet, this is not what is happening in playwork because the point that is often being missed is who is the more knowledgeable other and therefore who is doing the engagement that potentially leads to scaffolding?

Answer that question first and then it becomes possible to answer the more fundamental question of what we, the adult, should be doing around those who are actively playing.

Marc Armitage


Photo: this is my prized copy of the Arvid Bengtsson book that the Bertelsen quote above comes from. Slightly water damaged and yet this book is a rare as hens teeth. So, before you ask … no.


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Bridget Handscomb says:
You have done it again, Marc. Addressed a complex & often misunderstood theory in a simple, clear, nuanced & referenced manner! This is the stuff of our team conversations & daily bread. Linked to using reflection and research approaches (steered by Stuart & Wendy's work) our understandings continue to deepen. This really resonates - Thanks!