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What is a Playworker?

Introduction to Playworkers

Playworkers are sometimes also known as play assistants, play carers or play rangers. They are trained staff who plan, organise and deliver play activities and provide enriching, stimulating and safe play environments for children in various formal and informal settings.

Some playworkers can work with children of all ages; others may specialise in specific age groups, such as early years. They can also support children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or work with those in children’s homes, refuges and prisons.

The role of the playworker is not to direct or lead children in play. It is to care for, support and supervise them while they themselves identify, control and adapt how they want to play. It allows children to follow their own ideas, discover their own interests, build relationships and make sense of the world around them. PlayScotland sums this up perfectly:

“Children’s play experiences are enriched by skilled Playworkers who can turn physical spaces into places of opportunity, imagination and belonging.”

Playwork is a growing profession in the UK, and the practice is growing internationally (King, P. & Newstead, S. (2022)), probably because there is a growing body of evidence supporting the view that playwork is pivotal in fostering children’s learning, growth, and well-being.

Not only is play natural and fun for children, but it also improves their quality of life, helps them learn essential skills and is vital for their physical, social, cognitive, and emotional development. Therefore, playworkers can positively impact children’s lives by creating and facilitating play opportunities in a fun and fair environment.

In this blog post, you will look in further detail at a playworker’s role and their significance, responsibilities, skills, and impact in various settings.

What is a Playworker?

The Significance of Play

According to Unicef, children learn best through play. It is one of the most important ways children gain essential knowledge and skills. The importance of play is in the first playwork principle, which states:

“Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well-being of individuals and communities.”

Play enhances children’s cognitive, social, physical and emotional well-being and has wide-ranging benefits in these areas, such as:

Cognitive benefits – play is beneficial for children’s brains and can promote cognitive development, i.e. it helps them learn, think and reason. Play also:

  • Develops language, reasoning and problem-solving skills.
  • Reinforces memory.
  • Improves concentration.
  • Helps to gain perspective.
  • Boosts creativity.
  • Helps to conquer their fears.

Social benefits – playing with others can help children develop their social skills to:

  • Interact with others.
  • Create and maintain friendships.
  • Understand societal expectations and rules.
  • Listen and pay attention.
  • Share thoughts and ideas.
  • Express themselves.
  • Develop self-discipline.
  • Compromise.
  • Collaborate with others
  • Explore their feelings.
  • Share things with others and take turns.
  • Resolve conflicts.

Physical benefits – play can encourage children to be active and is vital for their physical development. It can also improve their:

  • Overall physical fitness and health.
  • Gross motor skills, e.g. crawling and walking.
  • Fine motor skills, e.g. picking objects up.
  • Balance.
  • Dexterity.
  • Agility.
  • Stamina.
  • Coordination.
  • Flexibility.
  • Body awareness.

Physical play may include:

  • Running.
  • Jumping.
  • Dancing.
  • Skipping.
  • Riding bikes.
  • Swimming.
  • Using adventure playgrounds.
  • Throwing balls.
  • Cycling.

Emotional benefits – play has a crucial role in a child’s emotional development and can help them to:

  • Understand and process their emotions.
  • Consider their own feelings and the feelings of others.
  • Build self-confidence.
  • Control fear, frustration, anger and aggression.
  • Be more emotionally resilient.
  • Express and regulate their feelings.
  • Cope with challenging situations and stress.
  • Be empathetic and understanding to others.

When children have an opportunity to determine and control their play without being directed by adults, it encourages them to explore and try things out. It also allows them to follow their own instincts, use their imagination and creativity, and pursue their interests.

Play is crucial for children’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. It helps them develop fundamental skills, such as creativity, resilience and problem-solving, which will prepare them for the future so they become successful and happy adults.

What is a Playworker?

Playworker Responsibilities

A playworker’s main aim is to support and facilitate the play process, but their day-to-day responsibilities will depend on their role and the setting in which they work. Some examples of general responsibilities may include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Understanding a child’s needs, behaviours and interests.
  • Creating a safe, secure and inclusive play environment where children can explore.
  • Planning, organising and delivering play activities to meet children’s needs and interests, including excursions. Some examples may include cooking, drama, imaginative play, music, sports, outdoor activities, den building, etc.
  • Providing necessary equipment and resources and setting it up and putting it away.
  • Playing with children and joining in with fun activities.
  • Talking to children about any worries or concerns they may have.
  • Supervising children to ensure fun and fair play and intervening only when necessary.
  • Helping children to navigate tricky social situations.
  • Following the playwork principles that provide a professional and ethical framework for playwork.
  • Providing refreshments while meeting hygiene and health and safety standards.
  • Responding to any emergencies, dealing with any injuries and providing first aid.
  • Liaising with parents, caregivers and other professionals and working closely with them.
  • Keeping records of activities and participants.

Playworkers may be responsible for providing various play opportunities and an enriching and flexible play environment, but their role is to facilitate play and not direct or interfere. Their involvement in play should be limited, as it is the time children explore, find themselves and make sense of the world.

Rather than leading children’s activities, playworkers will subtly observe and supervise them. It does not mean they leave children to it and do nothing. There may be times when minor interventions are needed. For example, if a child cannot find anything to do, the playworker may leave a specific toy or activity close for them to find themselves.

When observing children, it is also essential for playworkers to allow them to take risks while ensuring safety procedures are followed. For example, instead of stopping children from playing climbing games, they could provide crash mats or help children find their own ways of making the game safe.

Playworkers must only intervene when necessary and not take away from a child’s own experiences. They should know when and how to intervene, which comes with experience and careful observation of the children they are caring for and supporting.

What is a Playworker?

Playworker Settings

Playworkers can work in the public, private or voluntary sector and for various employers, such as:

  • Local councils and government.
  • Charities and community-based organisations.
  • Private companies offering after-school/breakfast/holiday clubs.
  • Private daycare nurseries.
  • Hospitals and health services.
  • Play and children’s centres.

They can work in various indoor and outdoor settings, such as:

  • Schools.
  • Youth clubs.
  • Adventure playgrounds.
  • Mobile, e.g. playbuses.
  • Parks and open spaces.
  • Doorstep and neighbourhood projects, e.g. play streets.
  • Church halls.
  • Leisure and community centres.
  • Office buildings.
  • Crèches or childcare facilities.

They can also work in specialised settings, such as:

  • Hospitals.
  • Prisons.
  • Women’s refuges.
  • Children’s homes.
  • Extended school provision.
  • Sports and leisure centres.

There are many playworker roles, and their work settings will depend on the children they work with and their age group. For example:

  • Early-years playworker – provides play opportunities for early-years children and often works in nurseries, schools and crèches. They can also work from home, e.g. childminders, and other settings.
  • After-school club playworker – plans, organises and delivers play for children attending after-school clubs. These clubs can be in various settings, such as schools, youth clubs, open spaces, etc. It can also involve dropping children home afterwards.
  • Breakfast club playworker – supports and oversees children during breakfast. They will facilitate various activities, usually in schools, before the day starts. It can also involve picking children up to take them to the breakfast club.
  • Holiday club/play scheme playworker – responsible for facilitating play during the school holidays. They can work in various indoor and outdoor environments and often take children on excursions.
  • Play ranger – facilitates free play opportunities in local parks and other outdoor spaces. They typically work in public community settings.
  • SEND playworker – works with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in various settings. They will usually need experience working with children with learning difficulties/disabilities.
  • Health playworker – working with children visiting the hospital/undergoing treatment. They can also work in community-based settings, hospices and even children’s own homes.
What is a Playworker?

Qualities and Skills of Playworkers

Playworkers must have a passion and keen interest in children, play and child development. They must also know and understand playwork theories/principles and how to implement them.

To be effective as a playworker, individuals will require the correct skills and personal qualities, such as:

  • A sense of humour, fun, energy and enthusiasm – to provide engaging play opportunities and to ensure the play environment is stimulating and fun for children. Playworkers will also need a positive attitude and energy to keep up with the role’s physical demands.
  • Empathy, sensitivity and understanding – to help and support children if they are nervous and unsure. Often, children will share their worries or concerns with playworkers, so they must be able to listen empathetically, reassure them and boost their confidence.
  • Communication and interpersonal skills – to socialise and communicate with children and build relationships with them, their parents, caregivers and other professionals.
  • Health and safety conscious – to maintain a safe play environment and to keep children free from injury and ill-health. It requires playworkers to balance risk with play. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has further information on promoting a balanced approach here.
  • Teamwork – to work with other playworkers and share ideas and observations for a more enriching play experience to enhance the benefits for children.
  • Patience – to work with children who may have challenging behaviour. There may also be conflicts between children, and play environments are usually noisy and disruptive.
  • Planning and organising skills – to plan, organise and deliver suitable play activities and provide an enriching environment.
  • Creativity, initiative and imagination – to design engaging play activities and environments. Children should have access to a range of play opportunities.
  • Adaptability and flexibility – to accommodate children’s diverse needs and interests.
  • Inclusive – to include all children in play regardless of their backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, identities, abilities, etc.

Anyone pursuing a career as a playworker must want to work with children and demonstrate their enthusiasm for the role. They can also:

  • Get some GCSEs – most employers will require some GCSEs, including English and Maths.
  • Do a college course – having a childcare qualification will help, and there are also many play-related college courses available, e.g.:
  • Level 2 Award in Outdoor Play and Learning.
  • Level 2 Certificate for the Children and Young People’s Workforce.
  • Level 3 Diploma in Children’s Play, Learning and Development.
  • T Level in Education and Early Years.
  • Level 2 course entry – two or more GCSEs between grades 9 and 3.
  • Level 3 course and T Level entry – 4 or 5 GCSEs between grades 9 and 4 (including English and Maths).
  • Apply for an apprenticeship – a Playworker Level 2 Intermediate Apprenticeship is available, which can be an alternative to college.
  • Gain work experience – any experience in childcare will be beneficial, e.g. volunteering with an after-school club or playgroup. Even babysitting experience can help.
  • Do a paediatric first aid course – as little ones can get injured or fall ill, a paediatric first aid certificate is useful when applying for jobs.
  • Don’t get a criminal record – anyone working with children must have enhanced DBS background checks, which employers will request before an offer of employment. Those with a criminal record may find it hard to get a job (depending on the offence).

The demand for playworkers is high; the role has a 0.64% projected job growth over the next eight years (UCAS). Therefore, the job prospects are promising for those looking to enter this profession and have the right qualities and skills.

What is a Playworker?

Benefits of Playwork

The positive impacts of play on child development are so profound that the United Nations recognises it as a right of every child. The reason for this is that a lack of play (play deprivation) in children can be damaging to their development and have long-term impacts, such as:

  • Mental health issues, e.g. depression and anxiety.
  • Difficulties in interacting with others.
  • Poor resilience.
  • Reduced self-control.
  • Isolation.

According to Play Wales, “an inability to engage in play can only result in behavioural instability, neurological dysfunction, unhappiness, and a lack of mental well-being in affected children”.

As play deprivation can have serious consequences for children, they must have plenty of unrestricted, regular, engaging and diverse play opportunities, as it has many benefits, such as (this list is not exhaustive):

  • It is vital for the enjoyment of their childhood. According to Play England’s Charter for Play, playing and friends were at the top of the list when children told them what is important in their lives.
  • It is fundamental to their learning and development.
  • It releases beneficial feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine (the LEGO Foundation) and endorphins (UNICEF Parenting), linked to happiness and well-being.
  • It contributes to their cognitive, social, physical and emotional well-being (Ginsburg, K.R. (2007))
  • It gives them the freedom and space to choose what they want to do instead of being told by adults.
  • It helps them be more empathetic and look at other perspectives.
  • It helps them to be more resilient and cope with disappointments.
  • It can make for a happier, healthier and less stressed family. According to a report by the LEGO Foundation, 95% of parents believed play is essential for their child’s well-being, and 91% of children agreed.
  • It allows children from all backgrounds and abilities to play together, fostering respect for diversity, equality and inclusion.
  • It protects them from the negative impacts of prolonged stress, which can affect their physical and mental health (UNICEF).

There is a wealth of research and evidence on the positive impacts of play and the negative impacts of play deprivation on child development. There is no doubt that the benefits of playwork are wide-ranging, which emphasises the need for effective playworkers.

There are further benefits detailed on the:

What is a Playworker?

Challenges and Rewards

As with any role that involves working with children, playworkers will face various challenges, including:

  • Safety concerns – the last thing anyone wants is for a child to be injured during play, but that does not mean they must be wrapped in cotton wool and cannot get involved with risky activities, such as climbing. In fact, researchers have found that risky play was positively associated with well-being, involvement and physical activity (Sando, et al. 2021). Playworkers must balance risk with the children’s developmental benefits and well-being, which can be challenging.
  • Planning and organising activities – some may find it challenging to provide engaging and fun play opportunities and ensure the play environment is stimulating for all the children. A creative flair, fantastic imagination, and problem-solving skills are a must.
  • Managing conflicts – conflict between children is inevitable, e.g. over toys and friends. It can be challenging for playworkers, as they must find ways to support children to resolve conflicts in a positive way. They will also need to learn when to step in and when not to.
  • Limited involvement – some individuals may find it challenging to step back and observe rather than direct or lead children during play. Some may also find it hard not to intervene immediately in certain situations. It is about observing children and knowing when and how to intervene.

Working with children can be challenging, but it is a rewarding role for playworkers for the following reasons:

  • They observe children driving their own agendas and making choices through play, which can be entertaining.
  • They see children having fun and thriving through play in a safe and secure environment.
  • They play a significant role in the learning and development of children and can observe this as they grow.
  • They positively contribute to the well-being of children, and it is great to see happy and fulfilled children playing.
  • They help children find individual solutions to problems, and it can be fulfilling to see children work things out for themselves.
  • They empower children to take control of their space as much as possible and see their self-esteem and confidence building.
What is a Playworker?

Supporting Play at Home

Play should not just be something children do outside the home. It is also important for parents and caregivers to support and encourage their children to engage in indoor and outdoor play at home and in the community.

Some ways parents and caregivers can encourage and support play is as follows:

  • Ensuring children have safe environments – provide children with suitable and safe play environments, free from potential hazards, so they can be independent and have an opportunity to explore.
  • Give children freedom, time and choice to play – children will not enjoy play if they cannot make their own choices or do not have the time or freedom. Adults should not make all the decisions about how, what and when children play.
  • Listen to children – ask children about their interests, listen to what activities they would like to do and create appropriate play opportunities based on their responses.
  • Help children to find solutions to problems – if a child has a problem with anything regarding their play, help them to find a solution by giving tips and clues and not solving it for them.
  • Join in – play should be independent and with limited direction and leading from adults, but that does not mean parents and caregivers cannot talk to them about their interests and activities and join in. Play is ideal for providing opportunities to bond and engage with children.

There are many resources available that can help parents and caregivers promote playful learning, such as (this list is not exhaustive):

It is also worth looking at local authority web pages and social media for ideas.

What is a Playworker?

Conclusion

Playwork is a growing profession in the UK, and you can appreciate why when you look at the many benefits to children’s learning, growth and developmentPlayworkers are a fundamental part of this, and their contribution is invaluable. However, they must have the correct qualities and skills to be effective and reap the rewards.

Children must have autonomy when making their own play choices and have space to play freely to develop their own identities and interests. It is also vital for their play not to be constrained and directed/led by parents, caregivers, playworkers and educators. Always respect children’s wishes and support their decisions so they can see the world through their own eyes, not adults.

Those interested in becoming a playworker will be entering an exciting and fulfilling career. Although there are challenges, there are many rewards. It can be fun, exciting, and busy, and boredom is unlikely to be a problem in this role.

Please feel free to use the comments section to share your experiences with play and playwork or ask questions for further discussion.

What is a Playworker?
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