JPP Editorial: Why Playwork is about much more than ‘space’

Today’s blog post is an editorial written by Shelly Newstead which featured in the latest issue of Journal of Playwork Practice. If you enjoy this and would like more information about the Journal of Playwork Practice or to take part in a free institutional trial please click here.

ShellyAt the time of this issue going to print, the backbone of the playwork profession in the UK, the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Playwork, is under review.

Primarily created to qualify the burgeoning out of school childcare workforce the first NOS for Playwork were developed in the early 1990s by a group of playwork experts and the Sector Skills Council for Playwork, now known as SkillsActive (Bonel and Lindon 1996).

NOS for Playwork

The existence of a separate set of NOS for Playwork is crucial to distinguish playwork from other approaches to working with children within what Hughes (2012) called the ‘primeval learning soup‘ of the wider children’s workforce. However the original playwork NOS and subsequent revisions have been criticised by some playwork authors for being too functional and for not describing playwork as a unique profession within its own right (see Davy, 2007; Wilson 2008). The current review has raised some interesting debates, not only about the development of the NOS for Playwork but also about the nature and purpose of playwork itself.

“The current review has raised some interesting debates….about the nature and purpose of playwork itself”

One of the key issues raised has been the conceptualisation of ‘playwork’ that is currently in use in the playwork field. Traditionally key elements of playwork infrastructure, such as qualifications  and quality assurance systems, have been constructed on a conceptualisation of ‘playwork as space’. This concept of playwork as a particular space in which something called ‘playwork’ takes place has its origins in the very first playwork spaces: adventure playgrounds, which were very much defined by their fences as separate spaces for children within the adult realm.

Playwork as space

However this concept of playwork as space was superseded even before the word ‘playwork’ became widely used to describe the work that went on in these spaces. In the 1960s and 1970s the early adventure playground workers exported their unorthodox approach to working with children beyond the adventure playground fence into schools, playschemes and hospitals (JNCTP, 1979), and playwork has continued to expand into a myriad of differently purposed spaces ever since (see Brown and Taylor, 2008).

“ has defined – and redefined – playwork over the last forty years”

Despite the early exodus of playwork into the everyday spaces in which children find themselves, the systems and structures which attempt to define, describe and evaluate what it means to do playwork have cleaved to the notion of the work taking place within a dedicated ‘playwork space’. As a result, descriptions of what it means to do playwork have been created and interpreted within the context of any and every space in which playworkers have found themselves.

Thus space has defined – and redefined – playwork over the last forty years. The current NOS for Playwork provide several examples of this; constructing playwork in prisons as different to, and separate from, playwork in leisure facilities. Furthermore, the concept of playwork as space has meant that playwork has become ‘all things to all people‘ (Hughes, 2006).

In the absence of a consistent articulation of what it means ‘to do’ playwork (as opposed to what it means to run a playwork space), space determines not only what is done in the name of playwork, but also what becomes understood as ‘playwork’. Thus what is described as ‘playwork’ in one space is different from what is described as playwork in another (Cole et al, 2006), and constructs based on the shifting concept of playwork as space render each new articulation as valid as the next. Debates about what Else (1997) referred to as ‘true playwork‘ become redundant when the dominant concept actively promotes playwork as a generic form of provision for children, the nature and purpose of which can be redefined and reinvented according to the spaces in which it takes place.

A unique identity

Over the last forty years playwork authors have called for the development of a unique identity for playwork as a profession and as a discrete area of work (Abernethy, 1975; King, 1988; Gladwin, 2008). This much longed-for recognition of playwork in its own right will remain unattainable as long as the playwork field continues to segment playwork into silos of separate settings.

The absence of what has been termed the ‘essence‘ of playwork has often been lamented (see PlayEducation, 1983; PLAYLINK, 1997, p.2), but it could be achieved by means of a paradigm shift from ‘space’ to ‘practice’. Broadly defined as ‘the things which are done in the name of playwork which are uniquely playwork’, a shift to playwork as practice would be the first step in establishing playwork as a unique approach to working with children with its own core values, purpose and methods.

“Playwork as practice transcends space…”

Playwork as practice transcends space; it can be done without having to make special preparations in special places; it is something that can be done at any time and in any place; it is an approach that any adult can adopt within their existing relationships with children. Conceptualised and constructed as practice, playwork would become a consistent approach to working with children, enabling playwork practitioners to apply playwork to any given space or situation. Liberated from the shackles of what has to be done in order to operate a specific setting, playwork practice is – or could be – ubiquitous and universal.


Journal of Playwork Practice continues to explore this paradigm of playwork as practice by drawing on the practical knowledge of those involved in the playwork field and the relevant research of non-playwork academics.

In this issue, playwork and non- playwork authors alike provide much food for thought on the future development of playwork as practice. The importance of learning from history is illustrated in several contributions, from Pete King’s (pp 143–56) innovative analysis of important but neglected playwork writing, to Ross Podyma’s (pp 183–9) fascinating account of the historical development of a local playwork project and Ute Navidi’s (pp 205–10) delightful portrayal of Janet Dalglish searching out mementos with which to illustrate her personal playwork history.

Rebecca Jenkin and her colleagues (pp 157–72) off an alternative approach to an age-old playwork problem: how to find out what children think about services and interventions, while the research by Brendon Hyndman and Barbara Chancellor (pp 117–41) challenges some of the playwork assumptions about play. Tilean Clarke (201–4) and Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay(pp 191–9) raise some interesting questions about the role of playwork practitioners as researchers, a new and emerging area of work which may in itself become a focus of further study. As the playwork field prepares to qualify its next generation, this is a crucial time to build on learning from the past and to ask new questions about the future development of playwork.

Journal of Playwork Practice continues to provide a forum for these critical discussions and debates, and we welcome your contributions at

For more information about the Journal of Playwork Practice as well as link to free institutional trials please click here

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.


Abernethy, WD, 1975, Training of workers for adventure play, Paper presented at the Adventure Playground in Theory and Practice conference, 31 August–6 September. Adventure playgrounds and children’s creativity: Report of the sixth international conference, Milan, Italy: University Bucconi
Bonel, P, and Lindon, J, 1996, Good practice in playwork, Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd
Cole, B, Maegusuku-Hewett, T, Trew, R, and Cole, D, 2006, Do playworkers’ childhood play experiences affect their playwork practice? Cardiff: Cardiff Council Children’s Play Services
Brown, F, and Taylor, C, eds, 2008, Foundations of playwork, Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill
Davy, A, 2007, Playwork: art, science, political movement or religion?, in W Russell, B, Handscomb and J, Fitzpatrick, eds, Playwork voices: In celebration of Bob Hughes and Gordon Sturrock, 41–46, London: London Centre for Playwork Education and Training
Else, P, 1997a, Managing personal behaviour – a view of reflective playwork, in P Else and G Sturrock, eds, Therapeutic Playwork Reader One 1995–2000, 39–46, Eastleigh: Common Threads Publications Ltd
Gladwin, M, 2008, Let’s get off our ice floe and into the swim: A provocation, Ideas Paper 9, London: Play England
Hughes, B, 2006, Play types, speculations and possibilities, London: London Centre for Playwork Education and Training
Hughes, B, 2012, Evolutionary playwork, 2nd edn, London: Routledge
JNCTP (Joint National Committee on Training for Playleadership) 1979, Recommendations on training [also known as the Black Book], Saltney, Chester: Grosvenor Printing Co Ltd
King, F, 1988, Playwork – The Challenge Pt 2, Paper presented at the PlayEd 1987–1988 Part I conference
PlayEducation, 1983, PlayEd 1983 – Play and playwork: Developments and definitions, Bolton: PlayEducation
PLAYLINK, 1997, From values to practice: Rethinking playwork training, London: PLAYLINK
PPSG (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group) 2005, The Playwork Principles [Online],
Wilson, P, 2008, Passion, recalcitrance, sound management and confident applications of the craft, Ideas Paper 15a, London: Play England

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