Play makes the World the World makes Play


A climbing frame for a researching playworker

Over the past 15yrs as a playworker reflecting on my practice, I have spent much time considering play, and the ways available to us by which to consider play. It is in my nature to seek out the philosophies within which sit the theoretical perspectives that we consciously choose and also less consciously use to frame our practice. Such exploration, while born of curiosity in me is recognised as critical to the process of developing research strategy (Crotty 1998; Creswell 2003). My search for a framework to echo playwork’s attitude of honouring the child’s play in its present moment experience (SkillsActive 2002; Brown 2003a; Russell 2007; Else 2008), is not a new quest in my work. Furthermore I am not alone in that search (Sturrock and Else 1998; Brown 2003a; Sturrock 2003a; Hughes 2006; Lester 2007; Palmer et al. 2007; Shenstone 2007). The impetus in such exploration can be understood as that of extending recognition for this playwork attitude, thus enabling playwork to be explained and reflected using an integral epistemology rather than one borrowed like somebody else’s coat (Conway 2003; Davy 2007; Hanscomb and Virdi 2007; Lester 2007). My searching is at the foundation of this PhD research and has been considerably expanded through the design of the research methodology. In the process of researching the possibility of experiencing the played-with-ness of things, this study takes an attitude of recognising the truths in the content of play as these avail themselves to the perception of the researcher.

The conjunction of my reflective practice with this research initially suggests the study’s seating within a practitioner researcher model. Reflective practice is knitted into the practitioner research model, as it is into associated methodologies within the action research family (Campbell 2007; Reason and Bradbury 2008). The practitioner researcher model recognises the creation of theory from practice, from the inside out, something which is reflected in the playworkers’ attempts at ideas responsive to the children’s play. The dichotomy between making space within oneself for practice to create theory (Wicks et al. 2008; McIntosh 2010) and the need for recognising the frame of thought which we bring to our practice (Crotty 1998; Creswell 2003; Denzin and Lincoln 2005; Wicks et al. 2008), is a challenge which this study aims to negotiate; in order to arrive at a place of negative capability (Keats and Forman 2004), as described by Fisher (2008) and also notable in the stance of Cobb (1993).

While existing under the action research umbrella, (Campbell 2007) practitioner research seems to hold the possibility to place greater emphasis on internal movements within the practitioner (McIntosh and Webb 2006). Action research tends towards external change and review within the environment of the research as part of the research (Denzin and Lincoln 2005); a methodology described by Reason and Bradbury as demonstrating “an inquiry-in-action” (2008, p.3). Action research is rooted in social action, with an urge to bring about valuable change in the communities where the research is taking place. This impetus reflects the work of Lewin who widely is accredited with the birth of the term in his 1946 article ‘Action Research and Minority Problems(Lewin 1946). The differential establishment of practitioner research seems to originate in the oft cited work of Stenhouse (1975). It is possible to see how this methodological framework grew from the inside out, out of the reflective practice of teachers, (Goodfellow 2005; Orland-Barak 2009). Johnston’s (1994) critique of the application of the action research model with teachers both documents the use of action research within the teaching profession and illustrates the movement towards refinement of approach to one, described as ‘practitioner inquiry’, that is seen to be more in tune with the natural way of working of teachers.

It is worth noting however that the terms ‘Action Research’ and ‘Practitioner Research’ seem open to transposition. In their description of creating a module ‘Reflexivity in Professional Practice’ McIntosh and Webb describe the purpose of the module as to “engage participants in becoming ‘practitioner researchers’” (2006, p.6). However, while the tone of McIntosh’s approach seems continued from this work regarding ‘practitioner research’ his (2010) book is called ‘Action Research and Reflective Practice’. The affiliation of research to a name within this family of approaches is one that is much explored by its researchers and theorists. For instance, Reasons and Bradbury (2008), Orland-Barak (2009) and Wicks et al. (2008) all explore the juxtaposition of tensions on the one hand and professional collaboration on the other, brought about by the refinement and particularising of descriptions under this umbrella. These authors similarly highlight the way in which this ever splitting and redefining of terms occurs in response to methodological application and gives a sense of placement to the practitioner. However, the way of viewing ones research is also shown to be individual and this arguably opens the field up to confusion as much as to further development through sub division, merging and repositioning. Additionally the question of semantic preference is raised for me in relation to Averweg’s interpretation of practitioner research (Averweg 2009). Averweg describes action research as methodology alongside case study and mixed methods within his description of practitioner research that he understands as a tool for “improving what is happening in the selected environment” (Averweg 2009, p.3). This phrasing, however, seems more suggestive of an overall framing by the intent of action research rather of practitioner research.

This study recognises the joint ontological root of action research and practitioner research, indeed that root can later be seen explored in relation to the philosophical, theoretical and methodological framework of this study. However it is also important to make use of the clarity provided by refinement and development of ideas. Therefore for the purpose of this study the general differentiation of practitioner research as drawing the focus into the self reflection and internal change of the practitioner, from the broader social action of action research, is used illustratively to reflect the nature of the playworkers way of being with children. As will be discussed in the ethics section of the second methodology chapter, externally identified goals are arguably hard to avoid even in the deliberate attempts of consultative work with children. The question of how playwork differs from other professions that interact with children, with regard to goal orientated change, is explored in the literature review. Therefore as the action researcher, practitioner researcher juxtaposition is not the greatest question to be addressed by this methodology chapter I have chosen to use its occurrence to add emphasis to my perspective as a playworker researcher in terms of this study, without the depth of critique that the two models could warrant within a different study.

The recognition of this research as bearing qualities of practitioner research should in this case be understood in terms of process, not in terms of necessary alliance with the professional practice within which practitioner research first arose. Practitioner research requires the closeness of the research to the frame of practice; it does not of itself describe a philosophy or a theory. Yet its origins out of the teacher’s practice cannot be ignored in relation to its ontological grounding as juxtaposed with the approach of playwork.

As will be discussed, while in methodological framework this study may initially seem to fall within the scope of practitioner research, further exploration in relation to philosophical epistemologies seems to cause the inquiry to outgrow such classification.

Contents – how this chapter will run

The search for a fitting epistemology - This chapter will firstly discuss certain philosophical tenets that I have explored as part of my reflective practice and search for a fitting epistemological frame for my playwork position towards play. However discussion here will not be inclusive of all that has been previously explored, neither will its focus be retrospective. The focus will be on those ways of thinking which have been evaluated in relation to creating a methodological frame for this study.

This section will recount one of the occurrences that inspired the study. Using the example of that occurrence as a spring-board, this section will describe the search for a way of approaching the resulting research question by means in tune with my playwork practice.

Critical engagement with different epistemologies is understood as usual in the task of arriving at an appropriate research frame. (Crotty 1998; Creswell 2003; Denzin and Lincoln 2005). Such considerations might conventionally come second in the structure of a methodology chapter, or as a reflected part of questions as to the appropriateness of quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods and related issues such as triangulation, generalisation and validity.

However when initially the research topic was considered in terms of the quantitative and qualitative approaches and the methods of data collection and analysis that could be used, the question that kept arising was, “how does this approach fit with my way of being towards the playing child as a playworker?”

It is logical that the structure of the chapter communicates the study’s process, and therefore, in this instance, reflects this search for an epistemological best fit. It is within this context that traditional discussions present in methodology chapters will be couched.

The best fit in phenomenology - The next section of the chapter will explore why Phenomenology was arrived at as the best fitting epistemology and methodological frame for this study. It will discuss the visibility of phenomenology in various epistemological strands. It will show how its recognition of the truth in experience is at one with the playworker’s position towards the playing child.

To this end, examples of my own and others playwork practice will be retold and discussed.

This section will highlight the relevance of phenomenologist existence as epistemology, approach and method to a study in which process of research must echo the sphere of research; i.e. the playworker and the researching playworker must be play-full (sensitive to the possibilities of the play) towards the playing children, who in their play seem to be sensitised to the possibilities of their environment.

This section will critique varied perspectives about phenomenology and the differing interpretations of this way of working.

Evaluation and selection of research methods - Having explored different epistemological frames and situated this inquiry within a phenomenological approach, available research methods will be evaluated, selected and created in the subsequent chapter: ‘METHODOLOGY 2 – Selecting and creating appropriate methods of inquiry within a phenomenological approach’.

As part of that process of developing research methods from philosophical position, the ethics of this inquiry will also be refined from the situation as an underlying stance, (of this chapter), to one of integration within the detail of the research process.


The hide and seek of a fitting epistemology

Those who divide epistemologies in order to discuss the impact on the creation of research frames do not do so in a uniform way. Within the broad delineation of objectivism and subjectivism categorisation seems to be affected by theorists’ affinity and their ensuing use of the epistemological paradigms. Creswell (2003) divides according to the resulting quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods approach, thereby categorising post-positivism, constructivism and pragmatism, it is worth noting that pragmatism shares fundamental thinkers with post-post positivism. Crotty refutes the tendency to ascribe objectivism to quantitative research and subjectivism to qualitative stating “Most methodologies known today as forms of ‘qualitative research’ have in the past been carried out in an utterly empiricist, positivist manner... On the other hand, quantification is by no means ruled out within non-positivist research” (Crotty 1998, p.15). His detailed discussion of epistemological strands places pragmatism as a juxtaposed derivative of constructivism.

The overlaps and divisions that Crotty makes are subtlety different again from those of Denzin and Lincoln (2005) who trace epistemologies historically, binding discussion very much to practice and to their position as researchers within the qualitative field. This variance in approach suggests licence to categorise, include and emphasise in relation to the purpose of the epistemological exploration. This enables discussion of epistemologies within this study to be framed by the search that originates in my noticing of children’s play, and my reflective playwork practice.

This study will thereby select and divide epistemologies by the three ways of understanding that presented themselves as questions in relation to the original occurrences that inspired this study, one of which is given below.

Becoming real

My 8 year old daughter’s precious cat that I made her when she was 1½ is lost, she cries as if a “real” pet is dead, there is no replacement available, her cat has been there reflecting her love back to her through so many life events. We talk about what might have happened to it, she is not young enough or stupid enough not to contemplate the possibility of it being in a bin somewhere swept up by the road sweepers. My heart hurts for the lonely scared cat, we settle on the hopeful scenario of a new home with a kind little girl who has rescued it, we find a suitable story about a lost kitten, she tells me that she knows her cat will survive because it is full up of her love. (Guilbaud 2008).

When talking to another playworker about such occurrences they suggest I read The Velveteen Rabbit

“What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."”(Williams and Nicholson 2004, p.12, first published 1922)

My senses resonate with a truth and I am reminded of similar things. Together these spur the question ‘could this be true’ could it be that things store and transmit their played-with-ness in more ways than the obvious wear and tear.

Could this be true?  Objectivism, Positivisms and Post-Positivism my first standard of truth

The same standard of truth that would perhaps cause objections in those who first encounter this study is that which I instinctively reached for. Growing up and living in a western society means that it is a reflex to view truth as separate to me, as objective.

Falling within the objective position, the positivist perspective understands truths to be out there, available to our discovery by means of replicable investigations. Positivism today has a “supreme confidence in science (which) stems from a conviction that scientific knowledge is both accurate and certain. In this respect scientific knowledge contrasts sharply with opinions, belief, feelings, and assumptions that we gain in non-scientific ways” (Crotty 1998, p.27).

The cross over from positivism to the more currently (post second world war) held scientific position of post-positivism is contained in the view that nothing can ever be categorically proved only held to be correct until it is disproved (Guba and Lincoln 2005). While on the one-hand post-positivism can be seen as a reframing of the positivist perspective, it is also a term that seems to be applied to a reaction against that absoluteness of positivisms objectivity. As such it seems sometimes to be applied more in the sense of after positivism in a movement towards a somewhat more subjective stance (Biersteker 1989; Clark 1998), a position which can be seen as somewhat implicit in the dependence of reality on our capacity to understand (Kuhn 1996). In the field of science the work of Bohr and Heisenberg seems to be particularly illustrative of this intersection between self and world (Bohr et al. 1962). Within the realm of scientific discovery the satisfaction and optimism of post-positivism’s fallibilistic perspective is illustrated by the Nobel prize winning scientist Richard Feynman when he says “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I'm not absolutely sure of anything and then many things I don't know anything about” (Feynman and Williams 2008)

It was this urge to discover new things that initially took hold of my search for a research frame. I remember having a particular discussion with my supervisor about how a position does not have to be proved only not disproved. There was a seduction to the idea of bringing scientific validity to an aspect of the content of children’s play. There was a pull towards the ideology and status of rigorous research being achieved through objective means (Denzin and Lincoln 2005; Guba and Lincoln 2005), with results that could be generalised, a criteria fundamental to objective research (Crotty 1998). The dualistic Cartesian philosophy initially seemed at one with the idea that objects might be able to store and transmit the way that they had been played with. My initial investigations took me to towards the possibility of measuring changes to energy fields and molecular structure of objects that had been played with.

Could the affect of play on the molecular structure of matter be measured?

Initial exploration centred around the possibility seemingly offered by quantum physics. If the observer’s question as to the position of an electron effects that position (Capra 1982; Berendt 1987; Hawking 1988; Greene 2004) could it be possible that play may actually alter the molecular state of objects. Jung’s noting of symbolic reactions of inanimate objects to their owner’s death and emotional states (Jung et al. 1964), may well have been an avenue leading to a methodology for measuring the affect of play on matter. Emoto’s research regarding the photographable affect of intent on the molecular structure of water would have relevance to such an approach (Emoto and Thayne 2005). As would Dr Ronald Bryan’s (2009) suggestion of an experiment to ascertain whether a person’s intention alone can impact on the magnetic field of an electron.

However fascinating as such possibilities may be, implicit in the methodological challenges that such an approach would present, working within this epistemological frame was recognised as inappropriate for two fundamental reasons.

1.     It requires the absolute definition of play and its separation from supposed non-play.

My literature review around the nature of play led me to an epistemological misfit with objectivism. Play cannot as yet be objectively identified; there are not criteria that can be used to say this is play outside of the observer’s recognition of play. This situation is highlighted best in studies where objective criteria for play definition have been attempted as discussed in the literature review and illustrated with the following quotes.

“We therefore propose to proceed on the basis of an intuitive understanding of play, guided to some extent by Bekoff & Byers’ attempt to define it, but without the view that this or any other currently available definition strictly includes or excludes any specific behaviors from the category of play.” (Bekoff and Allen 1998, p.100)

“Although the five play criteria aid in removing the intuitive anthropomorphic labelling of behavior as play, reliance on these criteria also means that such intuitive labelling is not available for us when we study animals that are rarely considered playful.” (Burghardt 2005, p.185)

 “For children, virtually all of their non-survival activities are play.” (Brown 1998, pp.244-245)

In order to frame this study in an objective epistemology objective identification of what play is would have been necessary. Without such definition of play it would not be possible to isolate whether the activities done with and around objects were play or not play as a precursor to attempting to differentiate the effect of play.

2.     It was not related in its approach to playwork practice and thereby was limited in terms of benefit to the field.

Creswell (2003) and Crotty (1998) advise that the researcher must have an affinity and ability with the proposed epistemology and resulting methodology. Furthermore it is understood that there must be value to undertaking research beyond the aggrandisement of the researcher (Alderson 1995; Graue and Walsh 1998; Hill 2005). As a practicing playworker my affinity and expertise is not in scientific experimentation. As discussed above this study is framed within a personal and communal search for a way of knowing in tune with the way of working of a playworker, as such an epistemological and methodological frame so far removed from practice would affect the value and validity of the study.

Aspects taken forward from this exploration

While objectivism was an epistemological misfit, my review of literature around the structure and nature of matter yielded some interesting and possibly highly relevant material. For illustrative purposes two particularly pertinent scientific situations can be presented here. Firstly Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that it is impossible to measure the speed and the position of an electron at the same time. When we decide to measure the electron’s position precisely it does not have a defined velocity, when we decide to measure the velocity it does not have a defined position. It is not that we cannot measure the two measurements; it is that when we measure one the other is not clearly there. Secondly is Bohr’s suggestion “that our knowledge of a cell being alive may be complementary to the complete knowledge of molecular structure” (Heisenberg 2000, p.62).

Both these ideas can be seen as fundamental to the post-positivist movement Crotty (1988) describes. These concepts give grounding to the possibility that play with an object could affect its way of being and at the same time conjoin with the lack of objectivity in play identification, to suggest that our isolation of that affect from the researcher would be impossible. However, in this circumstance, which renders this research within the positivist or post-positivist epistemology untenable, there may be something to be carried forward and reframed in terms of the momentary truth of the playing child’s experience as perceived by the playworker.

Is it just play? – evolutionism, and theories of development

While holding many of the hallmarks of objectivism, notably the literal embodiment of the urge towards generalisation and reliability, evolutionism is explored separately here, due to two factors: Firstly the rapprochement of self and environment in the centrality of their interplay to this perspective. Secondly the inescapable impact which theories of child development have on the practice of all those who work with children, have children, lived as a child, and exist within our society having a concept of childhood.

The discovery of the evolutionism as a school of thought came about through my search to discover the root of our view of play as a developmental tool (Pellegrini and Smith 2005; Fromberg and Bergen 2006; Pellegrini 2009; Hughes 2010b; Lee and Vagle 2010). Though authors refer to themselves as having an evolutionist perspectives (Young 1969; Mayr 1988) this way of thinking features across several of the epistemological strands discussed in research texts (Pellegrini 1996; Guba and Lincoln 2005). Evolutionism concerns itself with movement towards, becoming, development, and improvement. In the theories that derive from this epistemology one sees a straddling of objectivism (as noted above) and the processes of meaning making explored in a different light within the constructivist, interpretive, hermeneutic frame (as discussed below). It encompasses Darwin’s work but also includes the arenas of cultural and social evolution, thereby Marxist ways of understanding. The way in which societies, science and ideas occur and change can be understood in relation to the same principles of development (Toulmin 1977; Toulmin 1982; Hahlweg and Hooker 1989). This epistemological frame can be seen inextricably interwoven with the ideology of the developed world. Evolution is taken as a given reference point of science and thereby encompassed in our cultural epistemological frame. By the same token developmentalism (Berberoglu 1992), a term which specifically refers to working to develop under developed countries, is an echo of an approach which pervades all arenas of our life.

While it seems unarguable that children change and grow, what is pertinent to the search for an appropriate epistemological frame for this inquiry is the intersection of our perception of this growth and change with concepts of what humanity is (Lee and Vagle 2010). For that intersection is the place where the data of this research would be given a meaning within this epistemological frame. Many of the ideas of what play is, in the reviewed literature can be recognised as situated within the disciplines of biology, psychology and sociology; these disciplines being arguably underpinned and serving an evolutionary epistemology (Pellegrini 2009). This way of knowing allows these puzzle pieces to contribute to our understanding of what we are and where we came from - such a commonly held understanding being an arguably necessary infrastructure of cohesive existence (Trigger 1998; Europe 2005). Furthermore the very urge towards a construct of understanding can be seen as intrinsic to what is noticed and how what is noticed is understood. The following two examples illustrate this interplay in a way that is relevant to and offers opportunity for the critique of this epistemological frame in relation to the needs of this inquiry.

This first example illustrates the development of congruence between how child development is seen and how models of what we know of humanity evolve - the interaction of understanding between the micro and the macro. In the translator’s introduction to Piaget’s Principles of Genetic Epistemology’ Mays comments “One of the surprising things about Piaget’s work is that although it has had an enormous influence on psychological and educational thought in Anglo Saxon countries, it has not had a comparable effect on philosophical thinking” (Piaget 1998, p.1). Yet the congruence of Piaget’s perspective on child development with his perspective on genetic epistemology seems clear. His ideas regarding schematic development in the child, are visibly echoed in his epistemological view regarding the development of concept in relation to problem, and the superseding and discarding of redundant thoughts and thought patterns. The pragmatic view that solutions/ideas are created in response to problems as they present themselves seems to be understood by Piaget in the same terms as the way in which a child understands through action. Piaget’s proposition of the way in which societies’ ideas are assimilated could be seen to reflect what Crotty (1998) partitions as constructionism within the subjectivist epistemologies (see below) . However Piaget’s orientation of theory to “the facts of observable child behaviour, rather than adult introspections” (ibid p.2) suggests an alliance with positivism, which would be a contradiction in terms within the interpretive, constructivist view. The perspective that the facts of the observable child behaviour can be separated from adult introspection ignores the very subjectivity of epistemology.

This second example is composed of several studies that together illustrate a process. This process can be seen to build on that of the first example in that it documents the way in which developmental theory develops and then affects what is known about development. Further the last study (Kalverboer 1977) brings to light what is not necessarily noticeable in first studies, namely how difficult it is to step outside this construct. This difficulty can also be seen in Piaget’s (1998) proposed differentiation of the facts of observable child behaviour from adult introspective. In Kalverboer’s work we then see the problems which this epistemological frame can cause a researcher working with play, which seems to rely on subtle contextual interpretation that resists quantification and perhaps even generalised qualitative understanding.

In a Greek study of kindergarten teachers’ intervention styles in and around children’s symbolic play, Michalopoulou (2001) uses descriptors which are appropriated from Einarsdottir’s (1998) study “The Role of Adults in Children’s Dramatic Play in Icelandic Preschools”. Einarsdottir considered a whole number of studies as the background to her observation categories and specifically adapted Christie’s (1982) classification of teacher’s intervention. The benefits of such classification, the crossing of continents in the building of a picture of children’s play and teachers impact on that, is clear to see. However this process is by and large a continuation of a line of understanding, and by whatever framework pre-description takes place questions must be asked about what is noticed, focused on, and what is missed. Furthermore as stated by Michalopoulou in reference to Bruner et al (1983) . “Play contains no instrumental activity peculiar to itself. It draws its behavioural configurations from other affective/behavioural systems” (Michalopoulou 2001, p.60) . This superficially causes no obstructions to studies where the focus is on the actions in play; e.g. shouting, running, building, putting together, and sequencing. However, Kalverboer’s (1977) consideration of the ‘Measurement of play’ for ‘clinical applications’ points out the challenges, which the situation as noted by Bruner presents, to the use of play actions as generalizeable developmental indicators.

Kalverboer chronologically references studies which have presented ‘quantitative‘ play data (his inverted commas), and states “Nowadays, inexact definitions of play and impressionistic use of categories are still barriers for the application of play observation as a tool in developmental studies and clinical assessment.” (Kalverboer 1977, p.101). His study then employs very detailed categorisation as well as validation through multiple observers to show the reflection of children’s neurological development in their play at different described levels, this confirming the validly of using categories of play as a means of measuring in this area. However as well as questions such as whether such correlation between the observers would have happened had they not had in mind their participation in a reliability study (ibid p.114), the difficulty raised repeatedly is the way in which behaviour depends on the particular context of the play.

Kalverboer’s conclusion reflects Michalopoulou’s reference to Bruner et al above. “Because play is a highly organised activity with great intra- and inter-individual differences, there is an inevitable tension between this necessity for selection and the need to keep sight of the behavioural organisation” (Kalverboer 1977, p.121). This last sentence correlates with Burghardt’s identification as cited previously. “Although the five play criteria aid in removing the intuitive anthropomorphic labelling of behavior as play, reliance on these criteria also means that such intuitive labelling is not available for us when we study animals that are rarely considered playful.” (2005, p.185). This recognition of Burghardt’s is used above to articulate the misfit of the positivist / post positivist epistemological frame for this inquiry on the grounds of the unavailability, perhaps even unattainability, of an exhaustive definition of play. Here Burghardt’s words together with Kalverboer’s can be used to summarise the limits which an evolutionary epistemology (from which Burghardt’s work is sprung) may, by its very urge towards general understanding, impose on the perception of new aspects of play.

Evolutionism and playwork

As with all epistemological roots evolutionary epistemology manifests in many different ways contextualising the areas of concern of varied professional fields. In its valuing of play for its own sake (SkillsActive 2002; Brown 2003a; Russell 2007; Else 2008) the playwork profession resists the harnessing of play to the societal view confronted by James and Prout (1997) Lee and Vagle (2010) and others, of children as potential adults. While the infiltration of play for specific developmental outcomes is eschewed, playwork still works within the evolutionary framework of play’s essential functionality for our well being and even to our existence (Hughes 2001; Webb and Brown 2003; Hughes 2006; Brown and Webb 2008).

The evolutionism in playwork can be seen as a step backwards from the theories of play and development into a perspective of trust in the fundamentals of evolution itself, the interaction between self and environment. Today one of the most applied theoretical perspectives for the field is the identification of play types (Hughes 2006). These are descriptors of forms of play, for example fantasy play, deep play, mastery play, which together are seen as essential to the holistic health and well being of the child and thereby to the health and well being of society. This theoretical frame is used as a tool in training, reflective practice and the evaluation of play provision.

Playwork’s relationship to the epistemological frame can be seen to be composed not only of its own theoretical framework but also of its relationship to the theoretical frames of other neighbouring professions who have interest in children’s play. As stated above playwork stands slightly apart from educational, sociological and therapeutic fields in valuing play for its own sake in the moments of the child’s experience rather than as a potential tool contributing to the child’s future. Though the developmental benefits of play are recognised play is not directed towards these. This attitude shows itself in the low adult intervention and the focus on the environment from which the child can play.

The subtlety in the identification of this difference can be seen to create a tension of identity in the meeting place between the internal practice derived meaning making of the playworker and that of the external societal context within which the profession sits. This plays out in the overlapping arenas of language, professional discourse and personal practice. This situation can be seen to manifest in a perceptible searching for a frame of reference more comfortable to the playwork ethic - as discussed in the introduction to this chapter. In the relationship of this inquiry to my playwork practice such professional concern is an unavoidable component to the search for a fitting epistemological frame.

As a playworker researcher I might have employed an evolutionist epistemology to offer inquiry into the subject matter of this PhD in a number of ways, for example:

·The occurrences noted in the beginning of this section, ‘becoming real’ together with other examples could have been identified and explored as a further play type (Hughes 2006)

·The exploration of the way in which certain aspects of environment afford or even pull forth certain behaviours and actions, as proposed by Kyttä (2004) is explored in a playwork context by Russell (Lester and Russell 2010). These ideas which can be seen further expanded by Leichter-Saxby (2009), could have been used to contextualise the data of this study.

However the obstacles presented here were similar to those discussed in relation to objectivism.

·The proposition that play understanding can be generalised.

·The way in which when by asking the why of play, its functionality, we explain away its content, the content becomes not the meaning filled focus, but the example of a form of play.

Contained within and further to these obstacles, undertaking this inquiry within an evolutionary epistemology would have limited potential to address the perceived need for an epistemology that could offer an easier meeting place between playwork practice and its surrounding frame of reference. This inquiry undertaken within an evolutionary epistemology would necessarily be confined to manoeuvring within and perhaps ameliorating current status-quo.

Aspects taken forward from this exploration

The evolutionary perspective is however not redundant to this study. The processes of literature review and critique related to evolutionism took this inquiry a step further towards its eventual research frame. It provided the recognition that there is an experience and a concept of the interaction of play between self and environment. The relevance of the researching playworker’s approach, to their understanding was highlighted and through a trail of texts this became merged with questions regarding:

·the playing child in environments

·experience of played-with-ness of objects

·ways of communicating meaning.

Initial directive reflections of this synthesis were found in:

·Cobb’s (1993, pp.45-47) exploration of the similarity between the mapping processes in the child’s ontology through their interplay with their environment and that of the observer/researcher, almost as another inextricable layer, developing understanding and a theory about that interplay.

·a playworker’s telling me of a child’s statement about the experience of tree climbing “the tree tells me where to put my feet”.

Further following of textual connections within the literature led to discovery and critique in the next constructivist, interpretive hermeneutic epistemological frame discussed below.

Experience and reality - Constructivism, Interpretivism and Hermeneutics.

The fundamental of these epistemological strands is of internal rather than external truth, of subjectivity, to greater and lesser degrees, as opposed to objectivity. This common foundation allows for these ways of thinking to be considered together here, despite their subtle differences, which will be discussed. Constructivism and Interpretivism go hand in hand, and are sometimes discussed as one (Denzin and Lincoln 2005) and sometimes separated for discussion while maintaining their relation (Crotty 1998). Hermeneutics is the interpretive model that has been most explored in relation to this study, due to its relevance, and as such will be discussed both for itself and as illustration of the interpretive paradigm in which it is housed.


“The constructivist paradigm assumes a relativist ontology (there are multiple realities)” (Denzin and Lincoln 2005, p.24). Constructivism is the perspective that our world is created in partnership between ourselves in our meaning making and the substance that calls forth our meaning making (Heidegger 1962; Merleau-Ponty et al. 1968; Merleau-Ponty 2002). Consciousness is always consciousness of something and nothing has meaning or relevance without that which we ascribe to it. In constructivism “no object can be adequately described in isolation from the conscious being experiencing it, nor can any experience be adequately described in isolation from its object.” (Crotty 1998, p.45).

This paradigm puts the reality of the cat being filled up with love on an equal footing with the reality of the sea from a ferryman’s perspective. Reality is made up of all our intertwining realities, none more or less real than any other, with no all-encompassing greater reality separately out there somewhere.

This is not an epistemology of complete subjectivism, for constructivism holds that our very consciousness towards ratifies there being a something towards which. Certainly with regard to the subject matter of this study more extreme subjectivity that Crotty (1998, p.43) identifies in the epistemologies of structuralism, post-structuralism and postmodernism and Derrida (1978) weaves and unravels in ‘structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences’ would remove the frame from relating to the experience of played-with-ness of matter. Such further subjectivity seems to dwell in the proposition of ideas, having a feel in epistemological construction almost similar in its separateness from experience to that of objectivism. When I explored literature around quantum physics I considered the scope of such a subjectivity. It is possible to suggest our complete constant creation of everything might allow us to own the merging of mind and matter visible in concepts of quantum particles discussed by Heisenberg (2000), Capra (1982) and Berendt (1987). Such a frame would as a philosophical proposition automatically confirm the affect of play on matter, the two being conjoined in their instant. However such a frame takes the data, the play, into the realm of theory about or reasoning for, thereby removing it from that of experience, for our experience is, of, consciousness of. While any subjectivist frame provides theoretical perspective on Bohr’s suggestion (in his 1932 lecture ‘light and life’ (Bohr 1958)) made within the post-positivist frame, that the key to our understanding of molecular structure might be entwined with our recognition of cellular life - the constructivist focus would be on the experience of that aliveness.

As noted above, division of epistemological strands is not universal. The distinction proposed by Crotty (1998) between the creating experience of the individual mind (for which he reserves the term constructivism) and the inheritance of meaning which then describes experience (for which he suggests the term constructionism) is worth noting in relation to this study. This dichotomy explored by Derrida (1978) allows for the discussion of the experience of creation, shared creation and assimilation of meaning. Using Crotty’s distinction, constructivism however holds more relevance to the subject of play, constructionism seeming easily to slip into the evolutionary, developmental frame. Though Derrida (ibid) is discussing structure his use of the term ‘freeplay’ creates a metaphor for the closer allegiance of playing to Crotty’s constructivism than constructionism.

In relation to this study the constructionism / constructivism tension would allow for the exploration of the resistance to viewing the content of children’s play as equally true to that in the general understanding of non-play life. Constructionism would uphold the greater weight of cultural truths over individual truths and thereby require a critical focus on meaning of play content in relation to our existing theoretical frameworks. Though valuable to sociological exploration such emphasis limits the potential for equal standing of new meaning.

While maintaining its orientation towards, constructivism not only holds a subjectivism in its ontology but must by its very construct be available to different interpretations, or understandings or applications of itself. It cannot exist as something fixed, it cannot spur methods of a right way. Yet this flexibility is not sloppiness, it is exacting in its requirement of awareness, of consciousness, for there is nothing separate to fall back on. This process of self- searching is discussed at length by Guba and Lincoln (2005), within the context of validity. Their exploration can be seen as an illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s presentation of philosophy as an active process in ‘Interrogation and Intuition’ (Merleau-Ponty et al. 1968, p.123) and further as a vital process of vigilance allowing those  working within the social field to be constantly reminded of our tasks (Merleau-Ponty 1964, p.110).


With interpretivism we return to the dichotomy presented by experience and the meaning of experience, the self created and the co-created / assimilated reality. Interpretivism concerns itself with our understanding of the expression of experience and therein the forming of experience itself. In the analysis of the constructs by which we understand, interpretivism forms constructs for understanding. It can be seen essentially as an epistemology which has the quality of translucent layers. While every epistemology is an interpretation, a way of knowing (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 p22) the recognition of such raises questions as to how such epistemologies become and of what they are constituted, (see again Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p.123). This itself creates ways of understanding that are at once more specific and broader in scope.

Hermeneutics is one way of studying interpretation. It is one which has been found to have much relevance to this study and as such will be discussed here for the dual purpose of its description and of illustrating the overarching proposition of interpretivism in which it is housed, or which it perhaps houses.

The way in which hermeneutics concerns itself with interpretation is perhaps best illustrated by one of its oldest forms: the interpretation of scriptures. The scriptures can be seen as an expression of religious truth, their interpretation being the process of relating and bringing those truths into meaning. However while the interpretation of religious texts may draw on myriad aspects from inherited ritual to intuitive self (Ricoeur and Sweeney 2004) the requirement for the Kabalic scribe to embody the full sacredness of each letter he writes can be seen as a refractive hermeneutic act. The Kabalic scribe both reaches towards the essential meaning and through his experience of that (which is unavoidably interpretive) leaves a mark on a paper that not only forms a word of meaning, but communicates the process of its creation, which informs its interpretation. In similar vein Coelho (2008, pp.96-101), expresses the way in which when calligraphy is mastered it becomes irrelevant, for it is the way of being that its exactitude engenders which is important, yet such disappearance of relevance is evident in the visible letter and the action of writing (Jullien 1995).

As well as being a tool for exploring spoken and written word, hermeneutics allows for exploration of the intersecting layers of meaning and communication in other mediums. Hermeneutics would offer a framework for exploring such questions as Catherine Bateson’s “Can I, for instance, change my understanding of something by dancing it? . . . Or can I change my understanding of something by thinking of dancing it?” (Bateson and Bateson 1987, p.195, original emphasis). Here we see the way in which the hermeneutic frame has the scope to interact with the child’s expressions in play and the adult’s experience of that.

Viewed within this frame Cobb’s (1993, pp.46-47) discussion of the reflection of the child’s interactions with nature in the adult’s understanding of those, becomes ever more pertinent to the subject of this study. This identification of transference by Cobb is echoed in Silvers’ exploration of how an adult researcher “may speak and write in a manner which expresses the full spectrum of what we have discovered and interpreted in our understanding of children, and how these new understandings may become a part of adult consciousness” (Silvers 1986). Silvers’ work within his created phenomenological hermeneutic research frame will be explored further later on in this and subsequent chapters, due to its resonance with the intent of this inquiry.

In terms of the methodological structure for this study the interpretive context held in hermeneutics has potential to deal with the interplay between the undefined yet experienced and created nature of play, the communication of play experience and the representation in usable data, and the question of language within the playwork sector and its interface with other languages around children and children’s play. In terms of the research process and handling of data, hermeneutics would allow me to say that in each retelling, that which is retold becomes both clearer and more obscure, both bigger and more and less of itself, both truer and less true, it lives anew in each encounter, but my interpretative perception and then yours add a new meaning - and that this may also be a process of playwork.

Aspects taken forward from this exploration

The relevance and the criticism for the constructivist / interpretive epistemological frame come as one. By this epistemology no one can say my experience of play is not play, and no one can say my experience is not real and thereby true. Yet no one can feel certain, and no one can create a grand theory of everything from uncertainty or infinite possibility; unless one takes that to be a fundamental of such a theory, which by its very quality it might not be, and so we enter the dance of Husserl (1980), Derrida (1978) and many others. If reality is relative then I and perhaps we affect it. As a researcher thinking about play, to work from such epistemological ground would require me to synthesis such impressions as those made by Huizinga’s (1955) noting the advent of a naming word for play coinciding with a society’s conceptual separation of play from non play; and Lévi--Strauss’ (1983) exploration of what comes first, the experience or the concept, the sense or the intellectualisation.

How would the shifting sands of such a frame render me as a researcher? On the one hand vulnerable to the suggestion of untruth, but at once within the juxtaposition of the concept of playing versus reality and the quality of negative capability (Silvers 1986; Cobb 1993; Keats and Forman 2004; Fisher 2008)sought for this study. A relative ontology places the child’s play created reality on equal footing to any adult’s perspective of reality. While finding a misfit with the hierarchy of constructed meaning proposed by constructionism (Crotty 1998) I cannot escape the experience that other perspectives of the truth of the cat being filled up with love exist. The constructivist interpretive frame requires and contextualises recognition of the affect of the truths that I hold and others hold on the potential experience of the playing child. This epistemological strand ratifies the researcher in the research, providing means of exploring the playworking researcher’s experience of the playing child’s experiences. This paradigm of knowing comes closest to the subject matter of this study; in its possibility and freedom perhaps even itself offering a reflection or metaphor of the experience of matter within a play frame (Sturrock and Else 1998). In juxtaposition, perhaps as the playworker stands towards play, this frame levels a serious responsibility to the creation of a research methodology.


For each of the epistemological strands considered above that which was identified as useful to the study in the section ‘what can be taken forward’ concerned the aspect of self towards objects, and self towards others. While this is of no surprise bearing in mind the concerns of epistemology and the subject of this study, the quality which contextualized the usefulness was clearly ‘experience of’.

This requirement for enabling discovery from the starting point of experience as opposed to classifying experience by pre-emptive knowledge was present at the outset of the search for a fitting epistemological frame in which to house the inquiry. The underlying attitude of this requirement is evident in the very suggestion of the reality that the cat will be ok because it is filled up with love. An attitude that is perceptible in the non-directive stance (SkillsActive 2002; Else and Sturrock 2006; Brown 2008) describable as that of negative capability (Fisher 2008), of the playworker in relation to children’s play. The requirement was present at the outset of this chapter. However the process of researching and critiquing epistemologies repeatedly brought to attention the position of experience, as the crucial evaluating factor. Further, by this evaluative process, the subtleties of the position of experience made possible within each considered epistemological frame became apparent. Reviewing and critiquing the literature refined awareness both of the need for and the possibility of a methodological grounding that not only allows for, but insists on, the meshing of experience with reality and thereby the potential of experience to create reality.

In the literature of epistemology, ontology and research paradigms, there is a consistent presence of the term phenomenology, and the names of phenomenology’s fundamental philosophers. Phenomenology is understandable from its own philosophical texts ( for example Heidegger 1962; Merleau-Ponty 1964; Merleau-Ponty et al. 1968; Husserl and Koestenbaum 1975; Husserl 1980; Merleau-Ponty 2002; Sartre 2003) and understood by commentators ( such as Spurling 1977; Spinelli 1989; Dreyfus 1992; Gadamer et al. 2004; Moran and Embree 2004), as a philosophy and practice that encircles the perspective of intentionality, namely experience towards. It concerns itself with phenomena at once philosophically and practically, by the medium of experience, and thereby in terms of research methodology provides at once an ontological housing and a way of researching. As will be discussed below this situation of merging of our fundamental being and knowing with our practice, became understood as highly pertinent to the position of the researcher/playworker concerned with an aspect of children’s play experience.

Critical to this pertinence is that phenomenology, in its understanding seems to handle phenomena as things that can only be added to, without negating that which is before. Fundamental to that adding to, is the experience of, which in the oneness of philosophy with practice, seems to construct understanding from the place of awe within phenomenological encounters. Stewart and Mickunas (1990) pinpoint a foundation of phenomenological standing in Husserl’s statement “Phenomenological philosophy is but developing the mainsprings of old Greek philosophy” (Hursserl Encyclopaedia Britannica 1927, inStewart and Mickunas 1990, p.5). They then quote Plato ‘Philosophy begins in wonder’ (ibid) in their explanation of phenomenology as embodying the very spirit of philosophy. The  understanding and practice of philosophy in phenomenology as the way that we know and investigate as well as affect and create reality, can be understood as appropriate to the subject of this PhD’s enquiry and to the field of playwork.

This section will discuss the discovered relevance of phenomenology to the study’s subject and to my playwork practice. This will be undertaken in three ways. Firstly three vignettes taken from my playwork practice will be presented with the aim of illustrating different facets of the interplay of knowing and unknowing in playwork situations. Secondly the resonance in phenomenology’s way of knowing to that illustrated in the playwork vignettes will be explored. This exploration will include the challenges which phenomenology can present to researchers. Thirdly there will be a description of particular areas phenomenologist’s thoughts, from which the philosophical bases of the methodological application of phenomenological research for this inquiry was inspired. The emphasis in this section will be towards the application of phenomenological philosophy to research, while the critique of methods will be undertaken in the subsequent chapter.

Due to the apparent overlap of much of what is called constructivist/interpretive epistemology and phenomenology, certain areas of discussion in this section will echo discussion within that previous section. I am not unaware of the tensions between phenomenology and epistemology centred on the subject and the external (Salanskis 2010). However I choose to take the naïve position of noting the meshing of phenomenology’s tenets with epistemological strands rather than becoming submerged in the philosophical discussion of the subject and the external. Mine is not a PhD concerned with investigating the truths and dredging the meanings of phenomenological philosophy. My reading does not formally follow the approach of historical, genealogical, archaeological or hermeneutic investigations (Frangeskou 2010; Thompson 2010), which layer and juxtapose texts through different lenses of understanding so as to better understand the fundamental questions of our existence. Mine is to exploit the situation that within the very construct of phenomenology nothing can be denied, at least in so much as every something has the potential to tell us more about the phenomena towards which it is intended via our experience. What my reading and understanding lacks in terms of a life of absorption within a philosophical school, it makes up for in freshness. I come to the texts with the advantage of finding my own way with them in relation to the experiences related to this study, unencumbered by the structures of ‘the way things are done’ inherent in every established field.

Exploration of knowing and unknowing as a playworker – 3 Vignettes

Vignette 1a – playwork identity

We sit round a table at a conference exploring questions and assumptions in playwork, that have arisen out of the facilitators’ recent publication Play for a change (Russell and Lester 2008). Each question that is tabled shines a torch on our pet white elephant aka ‘what is play?’ hiding beneath. How can we know about playwork when we can’t define play? How can we know about living if we can’t answer the ‘big question’? There is a discussion of playwork’s need to reflect the nature of play; this includes the description of playwork as ‘definite uncertainty’. There is a questioning of whether we need a cerebral understanding of play or whether we can trust our sense of it. There is an exploration of whether we should ask children about play. There is a description of playwork not as doing or being but as a relational. There is a return to the question of the ideal societal situation in which there would be no need for playworkers and the way that this ideal juxtaposes with the perceived need to raise the status of play. The conversations express a sense that we can know through our experience and that our explanation of our experience sheds ever more light on the facets of play, or perhaps creates ever more possibilities of what play can be.

This example of the professional dialog that occurs at conferences and meetings of national and local playwork organisations illustrates the field’s recognition of the enigma at the centre of their professional concern. These discussions tend to turn around themselves in their recognition that playworkers seek to work in relation to play, an entity that we wish to understand while recognising and cherishing its indefinable quality. Furthermore there is a sense of responsibility for the impact of our understanding of play, both on the children through our face-to-face practice and on society and children therein through the expression or lack thereof of our playwork perspectives. My own sense of this responsibility can be expressed as a question ‘does play’s slippery malleability, its way of being in every aspect of life in which we find it (Huizinga 1955; Sutton-Smith 1997), make it vulnerable to the constructs that we create or do not create for it?’

Vignette 2a – playwork practice, invisible meanings, intuitive knowing.

The following two separate examples illustrate my way of being as I research as a playworker.

Walking up to the setting I’m met by two girls one in a wheelchair one pushing. They want my help in navigating their way into the building, either through the doors that have been barricaded shut as part of a game in the little through room or through the main doors which are being guarded by a boy with a wardrobe that has no back on it with the door acting like a gate. The girls want to go and get something from the kitchen but it is important to them not to have to get out of or leave their wheelchair both in terms of the game they are playing and in case someone steals it. Eventually we negotiate passage through the wardrobe doors. Then I am involved by the boy with the wardrobe in moving it to different positions all over the room.

He looks at me ‘you’ve cut your hair’ ‘why?’ ‘it looks silly’.
Me ‘Yeah my girls didn’t like it, the little one cried’
Him ‘I’m going to cry’
He turns himself round and round in the wheelchair that he has claimed over time as his. He is out of my view.
When he stops his face has hidden something ‘No I’m not, I’m going to laugh. Later that day he comes to me with tennis rackets and ball. I tell him my skills are hopeless due to my squiffy eye. We play tennis; we laugh; he throws up his arms in exasperation and asks me ‘what’s that?’ The ball goes haphazardly back and forth.

In both of these examples my responses to situations had to exist within the contexts of the children’s play. In the first example this context was two different playings, which overlapped in physical space and, for the time of playful negotiation of passage, merged together. I cannot express the way in which I know what to do, say or not say, and how to be, it is a process of allowing myself to be informed by my intuitive listening within the substance of their play. As long as I do not try and be the expert or the director, I am able on most occasions to follow the knowledge that comes, responsively, moment to moment, not striven for and with a different quality to that of analytical thought.

Vignette 3a – how a playworker researcher should not find out about play

The following is an extract from my research diary:

She was holding an oval of clay between her hands, patting it from one hand to the other, flattening it as she did so. She comes to me and tells me ‘this is a pebblely and then the pebblely will come off on things and get less and less and then can be thrown away’. She is interested in the residue in her hands, the way this is increasing and the pebblely lessening. I am filled with a wanting to understand better. I ask her to repeat what she is saying, ‘please tell me again’. We get stuck on the word pebblely, she laughs at me as she says it slowly, then just bits of it in imitation of me ‘pebble’ ‘pebb’. My focus, my wanting to know more has inhibited. A lesson in how not to find out.

This example shows the way in which my attempt to find out more, interrupted her play experience, which had included telling me about the pebblely. Her telling was part of her play, my asking brought the quality of ‘about something’ rather than ‘as part of’ play. This seemed to move her consciousness from the experience of playing, even though she tried to incorporate my asking into the feel of her playing, this yielding not answers of the type I was looking for but a dispersing of the parts of my asking in the same way as the clay. In the end however my intent brought her play to an end.

3 Vignettes - Reflective comments

Together these three vignettes illustrate a quality of knowing through identification with rather than identification of. The first example shows the playwork profession’s acceptance of the difficulty in identifying exactly what play is and our reliance of our faculty of identifying with when knowing play. Furthermore this example suggests that the juxtaposition between the availability of play understanding to us empathetically and its unavailability to our intellectualised investigation is an aspect that we attribute to its nature and that we respect. The second Vignette shows how in my playwork practice I rely of this intuitive knowing, letting myself be moved by my sense of what the children are doing, in order to respond appropriately. The third example shows what can happen when a desire for identification of encroaches on my usual way of being as a playworker, seemingly moving myself and the girl from the experience of playing to the experience of thinking analytically about the content of the play, thereby making knowledge less accessible.

Playwork and Phenomenology – congruent  ways of knowing

Having highlighted this way of knowing that seems by these vignettes, and also by the reviewed literature,to be inherent to the playwork way of being, the subsequent part of this chapter section will consider the congruence between what can be called a ‘playwork way of knowing’ and a ‘phenomenological way of knowing’. This will be undertaken through a critical review of the researcher’s self positioning within a phenomenological philosophical frame. The choice of cited studies serves first to draw attention to the way of knowing which phenomenology permits and requires and which seems concurrent with that of playwork. Secondly these studies were chosen as illustrative of some of the struggles which housing research in a phenomenological frame can present, and the way these relate to those challenges faced by playwork.

“Phenomenology insists that phenomena be investigated as they present themselves to consciousness” (Stewart and Mickunas 1990, p.91). Within this statement sit the differing perspectives of phenomenology’s philosophers. Fundamental in these differences are those of transcendental phenomenology (Husserl 1980) and existential phenomenology (Heidegger 1962). The former being visible as a true positivism (Salanskis 2010) in the necessity to transcend the self to ascertain what is and the later being satisfied with the inescapability of the self in all that is known and experienced. The positioning of a study within a phenomenological approach accepts, by the feature of the self within this approach, the researcher’s choice of framework (van Manen 1990; Titon 2008). While there are studies that follow one approach exclusively, there are also many that merge, from different philosophers, that which the researcher has an affiliation with. The recognition of the person within the researcher makes a creation of framework in either way equally valid. Within a phenomenological approach one cannot take the theoretical framework as given. Bateson, not writing within a stated phenomenological text, discusses epistemology in a way that is nevertheless related to the position of phenomena and at one with the phenomenological perspective. His definition of epistemology is “how knowing is done” (Bateson and Bateson 1987, p.20) and he cites of Warren McCulloch “the man who claimed to have direct knowledge – i.e. no epistemology- had a bad one” (ibid p.21). This view point is echoed by Spinelli in his discussion of phenomenological psychology. He identifies that working within any psychological approach necessarily has significant impact on what is noticed and how it is interpreted, yet this very framework is often accepted as an unexplored truth (Spinelli 1989, p.23). By the fact that phenomenology rests on experience as its source of knowledge, researcher affiliation to particular tenets of any of phenomenology’s philosophers must be a process at once light in its visible humanity and scrupulous in its reflective awareness. In this situation one can see a correlation with the playwork profession’s recognition of the impact the frame of reference (both that to which they relate and that which they create) on what they can know, how they can practice, and how they can communicate knowledge.

With the following two phenomenological inquiries different aspects of this correlation can be further illuminated. Titon states his intent to draw from the phenomenological tradition without attempting to “represent any single version of phenomenology” (Titon 2008, p.93), for he is not wholly satisfied with any one version. His description in phenomenological terms of his paradigm of “musical being-in-the-world” (ibid p.93) is detailed and extensive in its self reflection. “I feel the music enter me and move me. And now the music grows louder, larger until everything else is impossible, shut out. My self disappears. No analysis; no longer any self-awareness” (ibid p.93-94). However while Titon understands this in relation to Husserl’s epoché, in my first reading of this passage I recognised Merleau-Ponty’s (2002) perspective, a recognition perhaps in part created and/or confirmed by Titon’s use of the word “embodied” (p. 93). This recognition in me may well also be due to comfort with Merleau-Ponty’s work, as explored below. These two understandings are not at odds with each other and neither is their philosophical spring. Furthermore the occurrence and convergence of differing perspectives reflects phenomenology’s precept. Titon’s identification with Husserl and my identification of Titon’s words with the work of Merleau-Ponty add depth to each contributing aspect. This can be seen to reflect the way play is known about by playworkers; we come at play from the point of who we are, but our understandings overlap and reflect play in their possibility to do so.

This example illuminates phenomenology’s valuing of experience even when that experience negates our logical way of making sense. We can recognise the experience of the absorption described by Titon (2008) in relation to his musical-being-in-the world. Our recognition occurs either because his description fits closely to our own experience of music and/or because the experience of ‘becoming one with’ resonates with our own experience of such a way of being in other situations. This way of knowing through the overlapping of experiences by resonance, encircles a centre which is arguably highly pertinent to playwork, that is of the valuing ofepoché as a sought after position from which to know. Epoché is understood as a state of knowing unencumbered by accumulated belief or perspectives (Husserl and Koestenbaum 1975; Heidegger 1996; Titon 2008). This valuing is apparent whether the position of insight achieved by epoché is attained by the structural methods developed by Husserl, in which reflective distance from the experience plays a fundamental part; or by the spontaneous absorption visible in Titon and also for example in Merleau-Ponty’s expression of how the sonata plays the musician (Merleau-Ponty et al. 1968, p.151). The possibility for understanding removed from ordinary structures of knowing seems highly relevant to the playwork search for a frame of reference that reflects the nature of play.

The way of knowing through the experience of becoming open rather than seeking with predetermined ideas is expressed in the following example in a way that echoes the playwork intent even more directly. Silvers, working within a framework of phenomenological hermeneutics, which his study must extend and refine, explores how an adult researcher “may speak and write in a manner which expresses the full spectrum of what we have discovered and interpreted in our understanding of children, and how these new understandings may become a part of adult consciousness”. As a medium for this he lays out his process of encountering children’s art. “Noah's painting is called ‘A Poem,’ but I do not find it as such. It is for me a dream, a casting of images which float: These images are present beyond my wide-awake world of what I see. If I look at the painting, if I try to see it, apprehend it within my vision, the painting escapes me. If I try to discover what is there that takes hold of my feeling, then my wilfulness goes around it, stays outside of it. I must relax my gaze to receive the painting. I must suspend my desire in order to become a part of it” (Silvers 1986). When I read this I feel joyous, for Silvers’ description echoes what do in order to apprehend children’s play. This receiving, this suspending of the desire for cognition enables my practice to be guided by the children’s play, as described in the second vignette above. Equally failure in this suspension of deliberate seeking can be seen in the situation with the pebblely described in vignette three. Silvers’ approach seems to confirm the potential of phenomenology to provide a playwork appropriate housing for this inquiry.

While opening up possibility to the researcher, the necessary involvement of the self within the design and actualisation of a phenomenological framework can also be found to become a stumbling block. If the phenomenological approach is understood as pre-dictated it can be related to in the same way as methodological frameworks that strive towards objectivity. Sandelowski (2000) seems to do just this when separating ‘descriptive research’ from other research paradigms including phenomenology. However Sandelowski’s recognition of the toning and texturing (Sandelowski 2000, p.337) of descriptive research by phenomenology, could be seen as a contradiction of such separation, or a lack of perception of a very essence of phenomenology, that of presentation of phenomena to consciousness. Would it not be true in phenomenological terms that descriptive research could be reduced to a phenomenological framework? In which case Sandelowski might be doing something similar to Titon (2008), but with a focus of absorption in the data. Lester references Husserl in his statement “Pure phenomenological research seeks essentially to describe rather than explain” (Lester 1999, p.1). He goes on to suggest the modern recognition of the impossibility of starting without any position or bias and the necessity of the researcher being visible in their research frame. This reflects Spinelli (1989) cited above . By this perspective Sandelowski’s separation of descriptive research from phenomenology illustrates a misapprehension of phenomenology’s possibility.

Conversely if the phenomenology’s openness is interpreted as lack of rigor the potential of this approach can also be seen to become lost. Campbell (2007) discusses her struggles undertaking phenomenological research within the constraints of university paradigms of “rigorous research”. Lincoln (2005) also discusses these issues, pertinently to Campbell, in relation to the teacher researcher dynamic and further in terms of what constitutes valid evidence in the chapter ‘Institutional review boards and methodological conservatism’. Lincoln concerns herself with ‘the challenge to and from phenomenological paradigms’, notably in relation to Sandelowski including many emergent qualitative perspectives under this umbrella. Campbell self questioning of the sufficiency of her subjective interpretations highlights at once the self questioning which is part of phenomenological research and also the way in which objectivity is part of any western researchers’ ideological reference point, as such holding the potential to create a contradiction. Groenewald (2004) can also be seen to illustrate this dichotomy. He accepts the resistance within the phenomenological research paradigm to prescribe methodological steps (p.6) for fear of compromising the very integrity of the approach. His quotation of van Manen’s (1997, p. 41) translation of Vandenberg brings to my mind Silvers’ work above.

“(Phenomena) have something to say to us — this is common knowledge among poets and painters. Therefore, poets and painters are born phenomenologists. Or rather, we are all born phenomenologists; the poets and painters among us, however, understand very well their task of sharing, by means of word and image, their insights with others — an artfulness that is also laboriously practised by the professional phenomenologist.” (van Manen 1997, In Groenewald 2004, p.5)

However, while perhaps due to the focus of Groenewald’s article on the provision of guidance for the novice phenomenological researcher, the at-arm’s-length handling of self and description creates a sense of rigidity. Though the content indicates otherwise, Groenewald’s style gives a sense of the phenomenological frame that would perhaps enable Sandelwoski’s interpretation.

Through exploration of phenomenological inquiries that exploit the potential of this approach, and those which seem to struggle with that very potentiality, the congruence between a phenomenological way of knowing and a playwork way of knowing can be seen. A phenomenological framework demands integrity, to the self and to the subject as one, for that is phenomenology. A feature of that integrity must be a struggle with the difficulties of solipsism—we can only know what we know yet in this situation overlap with others knowing (Merleau-Ponty 2002, pp.416-420). Both in phenomenology and playwork, working with an awareness of the dichotomies of this situation allows us to strive to express stories that are authentic and true (Silvers 1986; Davy 2007; Lester 2007). This very awareness of knowing with unknowing seems to engender an openness which can contribute to our empathy and tact, cumulatively, as researching practitioners (van Manen 1990). Perhaps consciousness of this situation is implicit in the proposed definition of playwork as ‘definite uncertainty’ as described in the first vignette above.

A process of adopting a phenomenological approach

With the intent of communicating the fit of a phenomenological frame to the ethic of professional practice in which this inquiry sits the perceived congruencies between a phenomenological way of knowing and a playwork way of knowing have been delineated. It is now appropriate to trace the specific process by which phenomenology was adopted for this inquiry. Furthermore within a field as vast as phenomenology, wherein different philosophers concern themselves with different forms of phenomena, and different practitioners blend their frame of reference from these, to best fit their tasks; it is important to describe the particular frame of this inquiry and the process of its formation.

My own creation of a phenomenological framework began with a search for something that would allow my research not to contravene the framework of my playwork practice. The texts at the beginning of my journey were concerned with the way in which a phenomenological approach impacts on pedagogic practice through the increase of empathy. Van Manen concerns himself with the increase of “pedagogical- thoughtfulness” and “pedagogical-tact” (van Manen 1990, p.154), through our phenomenological encountering within the pedagogical field. His texts and the texts of those who reference him (Danaher and Briod 2005; Rodriguez and King 2009; Svendler Nielsen 2009), show a seeking by the researcher to be moved by their encounters with the experiences of children, and a striving to understand ourselves as adult perceivers of those experiences. The next step in my exploration concerned the application of a phenomenological approach in relation to psychology (Spinelli 1989; Gadamer et al. 2004), and sociological (Spurling 1977; Luckmann 1978) constructs. This exploration availed me of the faculty to see the thread of phenomenological epistemology, interwoven, though inexplicit, within other qualitative frameworks - part of a ‘natural attitude’ of qualitative research (Lincoln 2005). Finally I needed to come face to face with the written works of some of the recognised philosophers of phenomenology. While returning to original texts is a requirement of literature review, for me it was also important to form my own relationship with these tomes. While recognising that translation removes me already once, the language and concept construction and my response to these from the German Husserl and Heidegger, or the French Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, offered a certain reassurance that the essential of the experience had not been completely removed by translation. Having read the summaries and interpretations of others I now allowed myself the privilege of having my own interactions with these ideas in relation to myself and my work. In creating the theoretical resting ground for my research I drew on those aspects that resonated with me.

The following examples of phenomenological ideas encountered in my first forays into the writings of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are provided together with descriptions of the way I related to and understood these. In this way, it is my hope to communicate a sense of the beginnings of my relationship to the philosophy of phenomenology. This relationship can be seen both, in those initial aspects that struck a chord and in the way that I experienced them in relation to this inquiry. Furthermore these details can be seen to have set the tone or laid the foundations of this inquiry’s phenomenological frame. The interaction with phenomenological writings illustrated here can be seen to expand in encounters with other authors and ideas and in the subsequent chapters. It is important to explain that these initial forays were not directed by a search for phenomenological writing about play, but were rather my exploratory initiation into the phenomenological approach as a means of inquiry.


Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology looks for the essence, which transcends the particular while being available to our intuition through the individual experience. A phenomenon is linked in the moment and in situation to our experience, yet it could “in respect of its own essence” be otherwise (Husserl 1980, p.7). Thinking in this way, in this process of ‘reduction’, feels to me like moving backwards up a staircase of steps of lived experiences, which have as I previously descended them impacted on my feet and my way of walking. There are several aspects of Husserl’s phenomenology that are of particular relevance to the methodology of this study.

Husserl proposes that an essence is just as reachable through fantasy as through more solid seeming experience (Husserl and Koestenbaum 1975; Husserl 1980). Though Husserl reaches this proposition by processes of disciplined consciousness it made me wonder if perhaps the dreamy removal from specifics of shape and form and situation may also make the essence less encumbered. The state of mind that thinking about this creates in me reminds me of the awareness I have to have when noticing the playing of the children I am observing. The understanding of the as-real-ness or even most-realness of ideas converges with the state of play itself. “In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream and invests chosen external phenomena with dream meaning and feeling” (Winnicott 2005, p.69). Though it could be suggested that such invested meanings and feelings are simply coatings to the essence of the phenomena in question, it can also be suggested that by play’s removal of constraints of meaning the essence of phenomena may be more accessible. This perspective raises within me a question as to the potential experience for those who have descended fewer stairs of life and whose way of walking is less formed. A while after this thinking I stumble across these words of Goethe’s: “One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste” (Exley 2005). These words merge with my thinking about walking backwards, giving me the question, ‘Might the very approach integral to transcendental phenomenology recognise children’s experiential knowledge as clearer than adults?’

Husserl identifies that anything can be apprehended one sidedly or many sidedly but never all sidedly (1980, p.9) that “each physical property draws us into infinities of experience: that every experiential multiplicity, no matter how extensive, still leaves open more precise and novel determinations of the physical thing and it does so in infinitum.” (ibid p.9). This is a situation also explained to expand beyond physical properties. To me this perspective is illustrated in the ever-becoming uncapped possibilities that seem to layer up in and by play. Brown’s (2003a) theory of compound flexibility, in which play is seen both to be impacted on and to impact on flexibility in every aspect of the child’s environment, is implicated in this infinitude. The recognition that we cannot experience things all sidedly offers, in Husserl’s exploration and in my own reflections, an insight to experience and to our relationship to phenomena and so between the two. The quality of incomplete perception, which theoretically might cause a sense of distance in experience, seems to provide an empathetic resonance. By this precept every phenomena has in our experience of it, space for what might be. That seems to be a principle very suited to an inquiry relating to play.


Heidegger concerns himself with existence, with ourselves in the world; our experience of the world being interwoven with our experience of ourselves. For Heidegger (1962) being is time, we are chronological, we have a history and we have an end, we are transient. We are the sum or our chronological experience and we are in the world and the world is to us as a part of that. This openness to the world extends to other people in the world. The following are areas of particular pertinence to this study.

Heidegger suggest that our understanding of the world is governed by our use of it, a table is not an abstract piece of wood; it is something that we write on, play board games on, eat on. Our experience of it is affected by our intention for it and this intention is formed of our past. This understanding of what constitutes the things, the phenomena of the world, can be seen to fit comfortably with the subject matter of this inquiry, namely the possible played-with-ness of things. Furthermore, the merging of process and subject, which can be found repeatedly in this inquiry, can be ratified by Heidegger’s perspective.

As part of this interplay between self and world, Heidegger explores what today may be recognised as a fundamental for any qualitative researcher and any practitioner in the social field (Crotty 1998; Creswell 2003; Denzin and Lincoln 2005). Namely that, who I am affects what I perceive and how, through understanding, I affect my way of being in the world. This interplay can be seen manifest in many different layers of the subject matter and process of this inquiry. However though I recognised these manifestations within this inquiry, and the integration of the principle in qualitative research paradigms, the impression that this area of Heidegger’s writing had on me was more experientially immediate. After reading these ideas in Heidegger I walked past my bookcase and the cover of my copy of Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (2005) drew my attention. The illustration on the cover is of two hands making a shape that I know would cast a shadow of a rabbit together with a small picture of a black rabbit as it would be formed as that shadow. In relation to what I had just been reading I put myself in the position of making the shadow. I would have a relationship to my hands as creators, and also to the rabbit; this would draw on my experience of rabbits and of making shadows. The rabbit would be part of me. How would the shadow rabbit be experienced by someone who could not see my hands, who didn’t have past experience of projecting shadows, who didn’t know about rabbits? How would my hands be experienced in that shape without the shadow being there? This exploration in relation to the who of me interacted with Heidegger’s view of our understanding of the world being formed by our use of it. My encounter with this book cover created a metaphoric experience of the velveteen rabbit’s (Williams and Nicholson 2004) coming to life; a shadow of a created rabbit showing itself as more of itself than the original shape of hands, more than the original rabbit. In the immediacy of this experience of Heidegger’s proposition, the interaction of the interplay between self and world in this study is illustrated in a very direct way as a converging of past, of experience, of intention, of matter and of projection.


Merleau-Ponty (1968; 2002) brings our experience and understanding of phenomena into our sensory body. I find Merleau-Ponty most accessible perhaps because I grew up partly in France and even when translated into English his concepts are intertwined with the French construction of sentence and cognition, although that cannot be the only bases of resonance for Sartre (2003) did not affect me in the same way.

Merleau-Ponty concerns himself with embodied existence and experience, the meeting place between skin and touch, ear and sound, foot and ground. For me in relation to this study such meeting place is the point of interaction between the child who needs something for what they are playing and always seems to find it among the loose parts of their environment; a dreamy sensory searching for what presents itself to them that they did not know they needed but was perfect. The following expression by Cobb seems to reflect my experience of this aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in this form of play between children and things. “Play can be observed to be a sort of “fingering over” of the environment in sensory terms, a questioning of the power of materials as a preliminary to the creation of higher organization of meaning.” (Cobb 1993, p.48). This interactional meeting encompasses and is encompassed by my inquiry as to the played-with-ness of things. Furthermore in my attempt as a researcher to remain faithful to the essence of my data this meeting place of the playing child and the environment became echoed in my reflective technique and in my presentation of the research data to the reader as will be discussed in the subsequent chapters.

In this meeting place between self and phenomena Merleau-Ponty explores reversibility. I quote at length, because in this Merleau-Ponty can be seen to conjoin the self with the universal.

“This means that while each monocular vision, each touching with one sole hand has its own visible, its tactile, each is bound to every other vision, to every other touch, it is bound in such a way as to make up with them the experience of one sole body before one sole world, through a possibility for reversion, reconversion of its language into theirs, transfer and reversal, according to which the little private world of each is not juxtaposed to the world of all the others, but surrounded by it, levied off from it and all together are a Sentient in general before a Sensible in general. Now why would this generality, which constitutes the unity of my body, not open it to other bodies? ... Why would not the synergy exist among different organisms, if it is possible within each?” (Merleau-Ponty 2002, p.142)

This seems to bring a tangible facet to the empathetic knowing of more than our self, through our very selves, which, as discussed, Husserl’s proposition of sidedness previously stimulated.

In his comprehension of phenomena, “Merleau-Ponty conceives of intentionality as a two-way process, in which both consciousness and the world are patterned through their intercourse. Thus, although it might appear surprising Merleau-Ponty ascribes intentionality to phenomena in the world” (Spurling 1977, p.18). This intentionality can be understood as the way in which a phenomena reaches out of itself and pulls forth a reaction from us. The intentionality of different tones is evidenced in the affect of different music on plant growth (Berendt 1987, pp.78-81). The sounds have their intentions and their composition into patterns reflects both the way the sounds speak to us of themselves and the way we pattern them further with our intention in the way we combine them. This joint intention then carries on to pull forth experience from others when they hear a composition. The suggestion of the intentionality of phenomena and the way that this situation lets us know ourselves by the experience of other and know other by the experience of self can also be found in Goethe’s theory of colour. “The eye may be said to owe its existence to light, which calls forth, as it were, a sense that is akin to itself; the eye, in short, is formed with reference to light, to be fit for the action of light; the light it contains corresponding with the light without. We are here reminded of a significant adage in constant use with the ancient Ionian school – ‘Like is only known by Like’” (Goethe and Eastlake 1840, p.xxxix). By the condition of reversibility and intentionality self and phenomena can be seen to become merged, pertinently to this inquiry the separation of animate as the doer and inanimate as the done to, seems falsified.

Unexplored pathways

There are other philosophers in the field of phenomenology. In to addition Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, I have touched on the work of Sartre and Goethe. However I have not, for example, explored the work of Shultz, Foucault or in any depth, Derrida, who seem to share a phenomenological concern with society and meaning making therein. It is difficult to be categorical as to who are those who are the foundational thinkers, the overlooking of whom could throw question as to the proper grounding of a research within a phenomenological framework. Some take the approach of working exclusively from interpretation of a particular philosopher of phenomenology: as confirmed by associations such The Husserl Circle (2011), The Heidegger Circle (2011), and The North American Sartre Society (2011). However when a phenomenological framework is employed in research, by, for instance, van Manen (1990; 1996) or Dreyfus (1992; 2005), it seems like the very essence of the philosophy of phenomenology can be drawn out to be dwelt in. This suggests the essence of phenomenological thinking has been carried and explicated by its philosophers, but validates a reference to those of personal resonance, in that the essential internal attitude is shared and equally reflected. The essence of our relationship to, can be seen to sit so very much at our core as to provide an attitudinal essence to which all phenomenological philosophy might be reduced and out of awareness of which all philosophy of phenomenology could be seen to have sprung – this quality only being further illuminated by our attempts at objectivity. The wellspring of this quality might be found stretching forth from any question about our existence and is applied today as a valid form of knowing at the fulcrum of myriad methods for finding out – our qualitative research frameworks.

At the start of this chapter I set out to find a frame for my research. The metaphor that I used was of a climbing frame for a researching playworker, this seeming to be playfully representative. However as my search unfurled, the frame that presented itself step by step was more akin to the tree that told the child where to put her feet, in the story retold to me by a playworker in response to my research interests . The steps of my search took me not only through the branches of qualitative research but also into the roots below the paradigms. The organic manner in which the philosophical grounding for this inquiry’s research methodology was found seems itself to be appropriately representative of the playworker attitude, and the play process. In Phenomenology’s presence both at the roots and in the branches of qualitative research there can be seen a manifestation of the spaces and possibilities inherent to its way of knowing; its freedom, like playwork from prescribed method, or prefabricate frame. As such the frame it can provide for this inquiry seems to hold the necessary possibilities for the tailoring of an appropriate methodology.