The profession of playwork
One way to support children’s urge to play—and liberate it when necessary—is through the use of adults who know about play and how to support it. In the United Kingdom, there are thousands of such people working in adventure playgrounds and other settings. Once called "play wardens," they now prefer the title "playworker" and delight in its being an oxymoron. They are also called play associates or play rangers, but dislike being called play leaders, for they say it is the child's job to lead the play, not theirs.
This profession is gradually taking hold in the U.S. A recent example is on Mercer Island near Seattle, where an adventure playground opened for summer use in 2010. Ann Grabler, who works with the playground, remarked that "when most youth first arrive they are unsure of what to do—where to begin; they do not know how to play. It has been so rewarding watching the same youth come back day after day and see them start to use their imagination and really get into just playing." (9)
Playwork began shortly after World War II when it was seen that children loved playing in the rubble of bombed-out buildings. A number of adventure playgrounds were opened and equipped with loose parts, objects that can be used in multiple ways. (10) A staff person was present to open and close the shed and these play wardens, as they were known, soon began meeting one another to discuss the play they were observing.
Today, there are thousands of trained playworkers in the U.K. and there are many professional development programs that range from certificate programs to graduate degrees. Playwork is relatively new in the U.S., but a growing number of parks, zoos, and children’s museums are hiring staff to support child-initiated play. A next step is to develop professional development programs in this country.
Playworkers know when to intervene and help children with their play, but they also have the wisdom to "don their cloaks of invisibility" so that they do not needlessly interfere with the children’s play. The children are encouraged to become strong and independent players. Playwork is beautifully described in a booklet called "The Playwork Primer" by Penny Wilson, who is also featured in a 10-minute video produced by the Alliance for Childhood and KaBoom. (11)
It is sometimes argued that in the best of all worlds, there should be no need for playworkers. Most children are fully able to organize and manage their own games and imaginative play sessions, and parents should feel confident in letting their school-age children out alone to do so. However, in some neighborhoods, it is genuinely dangerous for children to be out alone. In others that are quite safe, it is nonetheless difficult for parents to relax and let their children out without adult supervision. Today, there is a need for playworkers to provide a watchful presence in parks and other public settings where children play. They can also help children re-enter the world of play if they are unskilled in play, and they can set the tone for inclusive play.