Play makes the World the World makes Play


‘I’m seven and a half exactly.’

‘You needn’t say “exactually,” the Queen remarked, ‘I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’

‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.

‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said, ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

(Carroll 2010, p.148) Through the looking glass was first published in 1872

This dialogue between Alice and the Queen provides a metaphor for both the subject and the frame of this inquiry. The subject of the PhD is the possibility of played-with-ness in experiences with things; that is, the possibility that when things are played with, and spaces are played in, they become permeated by play, and such played-with-ness is thereafter experienceable. Might it be, as the Queen’s words seem to suggest, that impossible or not yet actual qualities of things manifest into our experiential reality, through our believing in these qualities during play? The investigative framework, which has evolved in response to the subject, is founded on an ethic, contextualized by my field of practice, and through being moved by realities of play. As will become evident throughout the following work, such an approach can seek no recourse in “exactually”, and that is both the integrity and the challenge of this endeavour.

Believing in, and being moved to new comprehensions of experience by the realities perceptible in children’s play, was enabled from my practice as a playworker. I came to the possibility of played-with-ness by observing and listening to playing children, not with a view to dissection by theoretical perspectives, but in a state of unknowing openness. My resonance with the truth of what children seemed to be experiencing in their play was part of me. However this sense takes its relevance, in the subject and as the frame for a PhD inquiry, through its fit with the ethic of playwork. As will be explored in the literature review, the reflective self of the playworker is critical in the conceptual framework of playwork. The playwork approach to the playing child is facilitated by, and acknowledged as responsive rather than directive, and this stance is understood and actualized through the experience of being a playworker. Prior to starting this PhD my awareness of the interplay between the playworker’s self and the conceptual framework of playwork resided in my own sense, derived from praxis and conversations with others. However through the review of playwork literature with a concern for the sector’s conception of its identity in relation to the playing child, I came to see the integrity of this sensed awareness to how playwork depicts itself. The literature review enabled the validity and value of this inquiry to be more clearly visible and describable, as an example both in subject and approach of the possibility of being altered by the realities of play. The research frame was refined into two questions, which reflect the quality of non-presumption in the sector’s approach to play.

1.     Might there be a perceptible experience of the played-with-ness of things, and if so what might that be?

2.     How does my practice as a playworker interact with the perception, method and communication of my research?

The first interaction of playwork with the perception, method and communication of my research can thereby be seen in the wording of the research questions. These reflect openness to the possibility of what might or might not be, and an unknown in the form of what that might take, rather than a testing against an existing theoretical perspective. The forming of these questions instigated the second interaction between my practice and the form of the PhD, namely in the criteria for a way to research. The first methodology chapter traces the reflective search for a fitting epistemological frame. This evaluative engagement with different perspectives was critical in finding a way of knowing with the capacity to actualize the possibility of what was not known previously. The chapter culminates with the arrival at the best fit of phenomenology, in its ratification of experienced reality.

The second methodology chapter explores various ways of researching available within the frame of phenomenological inquiry and evaluates those in relation to the practice of playwork. The chapter’s arrival at a method of inquiry encompasses critical engagement with the non-adulterating ethic of playwork in juxtaposition with perspectives of ethical research within the qualitative field.

The research was undertaken through observation of children playing in an after school and holiday setting, with inside and outside spaces, managed and staffed by playworkers. The observations were of children between the ages of 4 and 13, from varied walks of life. Data was gathered over the space of a year, usually twice a week for periods of about two hours, flexibly in relation to the ever-changing dynamics of the setting.

Through what was observed, and the process of observation, a way of presenting and analysing the data evolved. The techniques for this were not pre-decided but rather came about responsively. This is reflected in the structure of the chapter concerning data presentation and analysis, which while unusual, was necessary to the integrity of the inquiry. Though the frame of data presentation and analysis itself, is not predicated by playwork or phenomenology, a responsive closeness of technique to the subject is indicated by both frames.

The methods of data presentation and analysis happened in, through and from the creation of a fine translucent reversible silk quilt. The data was represented on the quilt in stitches, words, colours, fabrics and found things. When handling the data on the quilt, there was no pre-meditation of placement or form that the instances of the data should take. However everything came to be in its right place, a place, which could not have been pre-known or known otherwise. This quilt which actualizes the qualitative research metaphor of quilt-making (Denzin and Lincoln 2005), began in a conjunction of inspirations and grew, via the data, to a size of 2m x 2m. In working with the data in this way, more was presentable and comprehensible than could have been achieved by words on a page. However, the structure for textual display and analysis of the data, which accompanies photographs of parts of the quilt in the submitted PhD, grew from this creative work.

Data analysis began through the juxtaposition of instances of play in the data. The aspects of played-with-ness, and apparent meanings therein, were then applied to concurring phenomenological descriptions by other authors. In this way, meanings were applied from the data rather than to the data. The concentric ripples of this approach enable the meanings given by the data to reverberate into a phenomenological understanding of lived reality. The repercussions of this analysis are drawn together in the concluding chapter’s evaluative revisiting of the research questions. The closing of this inquiry, therefrom, suggests that ‘might’ as a possibility of played-with-ness in the first research question, is itself fundamental as an answer. In its ambiguous meaning as both power and possibility the word might is suggested to express the potential of play’s affect. The power of ‘might’ as possibility seems implicated in the play filled enlivening of matter in our co-creation of reality.