By Simon Rix
Having been at the Playwork Campference 2017 in California, the highlight of which was not the 100 year rain storm, but the enthusiasm, solidarity and thirst for knowledge and technique that flowed from the other attendees, the flexibility of Morgan and Suzanna’s organisational skills and the willingness of facilitators to respond to appearing needs and the excellent setting of Santa Clara Valley Adventure Play…
I was very excited to see that there was to be another Campference, this time in the dry weather! Playwork in the UK is currently in the doldrums… The stupidity of our government, firstly in implementing ideological austerity on the public sector; ostensibly to ‘pay for’ the banking crisis of 2008, but in reality a simple attack on public services by neo-liberal ideologues, secondly in the deliberate disruption of Brexit – both in fact measures designed to increase profit by disposing of public services, has meant a severe shrinking of the sector.
The response from UK playwork has not been one of solidarity, rather one of fratricide and the abandonment of values. In my case, that has meant redundancy from my job as a senior playworker and, despite the fact that I saved the service, which continues, no secure employment since. I looked at the flight costs… there was no way I could afford the fare. So, when Pop Up Adventure Play asked if I would be attending this one, I said that I couldn’t.
I had no idea that there could be such a thing in the Pop-Up organisation as a Playworker Travelling Fund, so I was moved to tears when I got an email offering that I could benefit from this, and so contribute to the conference!
Emails immediately flowed on what my contribution to the Campference could be, pretty soon centering on play structure building, partly as Jill at The Parish School had attended a course I ran on that in the UK several years ago. Originally, the ideas were around swings, perhaps a Tango Swing – I could bring the parts… but, even with the extraordinary support that The Parish School gives Jill and her team, children whirling seemed to be a step too far. We left the design issue fairly open…
Arriving at the Campference, what immediately struck me was the play environment that Jill and her team have been stewarding. I have worked on a number of adventure playgrounds in the UK, as a playworker, play development worker, structure builder and health and safety inspector, so I have a wide experience of sites and their ‘feel’, even when there are no children present. There are some sites where you can assess the dynamism of the children's participation and ownership and some sites where you can assess that there is none. The Parish School site speaks volumes of the former, everywhere you look there is something that somebody has made – sure, you don’t always know what it is, but that’s play - process over product. Play that is facilitated by sensitive and responsive playwork. This impression was confirmed when children came out onto the site later on.
My assessment of the Adventure Play at The Parish School site was that firstly, the team need no help at all and, secondly, that I’d like to take it home with me to show some of the stagnated adventure playgrounds here in the UK what an adventure playground actually IS.
As facilitating delegates began to arrive, and we entered the Pre-Campference discussions, I was again struck with the enthusiasm displayed. Adventure Play is about community, from the community of the adventure playground itself, through the engagement that play services have with the wider community to the community of practice we establish among ourselves. People had traveled in some cases a long way to be part of this community gathering at Campference and between them all brought a sensation of a community mobilised, at the emergent stage of a veritable movement, with all to play for – and nothing to lose.
That’s a very exciting place to be in, and a foil to the dotage expressed by a lot of playwork in my own country. It is also a testament to the work of Pop-Up Adventure Play, the thousands of miles traveled in hired cars, and the genuine contacts that have been made and nurtured on these journeys. People seemed to be enthused by and committed to the work in hand and to its reinvention on their own terms. Unlike the UK, cowed by neo-liberalism, delegates at Campference seemed well aware of the politics of the work, the politics necessary for it to grow and thrive and the responsibility on them to drive and ensure that politics is appropriate to the situation that they find themselves. Vaneigem said “let ten people meet who are resolved… rather than the long agony of survival; from this moment, despair ends and tactics begin.” This was such a meeting.
From there, my role at Campference was to be outside building a structure. Which I did gladly. I’m never happier than on the tools in the sunshine, with a free hand… The design brief was no more than the word ‘Tall’… in some ways, I was disappointed not to have been able to participate in some of the dynamic discussions happening indoors, many of which made their way outside with people who joined in the structure building.
Here's Simon, working away with Campference delegate Chenine.
The beginnings of the structure that Simon helped to construct. The children have now called "The House of Dreaming".
It’s always great to bring people into the creation, some of whom have had little experience of tool use or building, and to see them accomplish or understand maybe for the first time. I think that these skills, among others, are the authority of the playworker; if we regard authority horizontally arranged to be preferable to a hierarchical arrangement. This authority is based in the old-school use of the word, that if you want to know about such a thing, you see so-and-so, because they are an authority on it. As playworkers, it is the skills we can gather, put to work on the play site and pass on to others which is our horizontal authority stance.
It’s also a great place to mull over concepts and worries, while we complete the task in hand. True whether it’s playworkers or children… many useful discussions were had, misconceptions addressed and smiles exchanged. There was also the bits when something heavy had to be lifted, and the group came together to make it happen, with cheers and congratulations when it was successfully done. That’s playwork.
I can’t congratulate Morgan and Suzanna enough. I can’t admire Jill and her team enough. I can’t other than respect all the attendees and facilitators who made this event buzz. I so appreciated being able to attend, which was made possible by the Playworker Travelling Fund.
Playwork Campference 2019 was held on 15th-18th February on Adventure Play at The Parish School in Houston, TX - we have blogposts about it here and here too! If you want to find out more about this or want to be part of the next, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out our facebook / twitter / instagram for more from us!