Playwork Campference Reflections

by Alex Coté

When I first learned about playwork,  it crystallized everything I’d been feeling about working with kids and the discomfort I felt about what I was being taught in other settings. My questions disappeared (“Why can’t I let kids climb up the slide? Why shouldn’t they jump off the bench? What’s so bad about playing in the rain?”) and were replaced by all new questions (“Is this possible in the US?” “What if kids are being mean to each other?” “When do I step in?” “Does it really work to just let them play?”). Once again, the more I learned about playwork and the philosophy at the core, the more those questions began to be answered too. It all comes down to prioritizing play and the nuance of how best to do that in different scenarios. At Campference I got to meet people at all stages of that journey and even got to scaffold some realizations so similar to the ones I have stumbled into along the way. It’s such a privilege to experience seeing something you say about play reach someone in your audience – the way their face pauses and turns inward before refocussing out again. We all got to witness those moments that weekend. One of the attendees said it felt like summer camp. In so many ways it did – the fire and friends, but also the way it feels like we all went through something together and came out different than we went in. Partly, I think it was because it was so powerful to have those of us who do really good playwork practice together since so often we are the lone voice in a room full of people who have adult agendas for children other than pure play. It can be a struggle to have the importance of one’s work constantly under-appreciated. At Campference, people came from around the world because they value play. It felt momentous.

And then there were the smaller magical moments that stood out to me too: walking with the world’s only professor of playwork past Muscle Beach, watching the kids tell each other scary stories around the campfire as the sky grew dark and their eyes wide, playing with glowsticks with other grownups who weren’t afraid to play (as many glowsticks as you wanted! Who hasn’t dreamed of this day?), watching the kids catch concrete “fish” in the river of rainwater flowing down the little street as the playworkers grew more and more wet and cold but also grateful to be right there in wet socks and making play possible. Last, of course, I loved talking playwork in every spare moment with new and old mentors. The first night after everyone had arrived and we had our first fire and first dinner and the forecast looked apocalyptic and we’d made an emergency plan a few of us sat around the last embers of fire and shared a beer in the dark. We talked about play and the storm, how much we loved our work and how our shoes might melt if we stuck them too close to the coals. As much as we could make it, Campference was playwork embodied: people coming together and making play possible.

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