“I am a playworker”: Introducing the world of playwork
Many years ago, I was attending a corporate function. Seated between someone from Chanel 4 TV and an executive from a tech company, I turned to the lady on my left and politely introduced myself. She responded, not by sharing her name, but by asking me what my job was.
“I am a playworker,” I replied.
“Oh,” she paused. “So, you don’t have a proper job? You just play with children. It’s not as if they’re learning anything then.”
With her preconceived opinion lingering in the air, she promptly turned her chair 45 degrees to the left, leaving me to look at the back of her suit for the entire meal. That incident has stayed with me throughout my 25 years of playwork.
The critical role of the playworker
If we think about the people who work with children, we know that they have knowledge and understanding around the child’s right to play, their need to play and the importance of play for their social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.
People working with children in a variety of different settings understand how play can enrich children’s lives, support resilience and develop healthy attitudes to assessing risk. They will also have a deep appreciation of the Playwork Principles, a professional and ethical framework which underpins the foundation of playwork.
Coupled with that, there’s a growing awareness that playwork doesn’t just happen in the school dining room before and after school hours. We know that playworkers work in holiday clubs, adventure playgrounds, on play buses, in the parks with the play rangers and on the beaches, as well as working in inner cities, prisons, hospitals and women’s refuges. They also work in the community with street play projects and as a part of projects in areas of local deprivation.
The power of playwork during crisis
However, if we delve a bit deeper, we’ll see how during times of crisis, play and playworkers have a significant role to fulfil.
The reality is, that when faced with something serious or frightening, sometimes play is one of the best things for us. It can help children to relax, cope with difficult feelings such as fear or confusion, make sense of their changing world, and recover a sense of normality – even if for just a short period of time. Children can draw on the power of play to become more emotionally resilient and engaging in play can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemical.
Playing helps children let their feelings out instead of holding them in and a skilled playworker will support children’s play by providing the time, the space and the opportunities for children to translate their experiences into a form they can understand and possibly process. The recent toolkit by the International Play Association, titled “Access to Pay for Children in Situations of Crisis”, goes into further detail on this topic.
Playwork and mental health
Recently, experts have been championing the benefits of childhood play amid the current child and adolescent mental health crisis which had been growing even before being exacerbated by the global pandemic, isolation, family loss and by the displacement of families and children.
Plus, parents and caregivers are often under increasing stress and experience poor mental health themselves, needing support to access meaningful play opportunities for their children. But we often find that adults not engaged in work with children may not appreciate the benefit of play in childhood, and instead view play and learning as two separate aspects of childhood – something I experienced during my encounter years ago.
UNICEF state that: “Research has also shown that making time for play even protects children from the negative impacts of prolonged exposure to stress. Long periods of stressful situations can affect a child’s physical and mental health. Play and positive, supportive relationships with adults can help buffer these effects.”
Our refreshed playwork qualification suite
So when we think about the important role of the playworker, we should remember that playworkers don’t just simply “play with children”. As we’ve explored above, it’s so much more than that.
Becoming a playworker is taking on an oath to ensure children retain and enjoy their right to relax and play (Article 31 of the UN Convention), helping to break down barriers that prevent children’s play and supporting all children to explore their own play, in their own way and for their own reasons. It can be a challenging, but incredibly rewarding career – one that is achieved through consistent hard work and dedication to the wellbeing of children.
In line with this, we’ve recently redeveloped our playwork suite of qualifications after listening to feedback from the sector and collaborating with organisations, vocational experts and training providers. We’ve ensured all content is current, up to date and streamlined, developed new optional units to fully reflect the diverse role of a playworker, and ensured qualifications are reflective of current national occupational standards.
You can learn more about our exciting new suite of playwork qualifications by watching our short webinar.