Marc Armitage: a Longer Profile - page in development
Marc Armitage has been a playworker for nearly thirty years, the last twenty-odd as an independent and freelance playworking consultant. The following is intended to be a long and suitably embarassing summary of the last [burble incomprehensible] years in pictures and words.
The Early Years
Marc Armitage was born in the East Yorkshire city of Hull in 1963. He spent most of his younger years in the Spring Bank area of the city and attended Thomas Stratton Infant school, Wilberforce and Maybury Primary schools, and Greatfield High school.
His first playwork job, in the very early 1980s, was with Hull Community Playschemes Association (HCPA). The association had a team of field playworkers (what might be called play rangers today) organised into teams of three and working in different parts of the city. These teams worked with local community organisations in setting up neighbourhood play-centres and holiday playschemes, training local people as volunteer playworkers and management committee members and supporting them to the point where they could operate on their own. These were not childcare settings but were ‘open access’ play settings – open access meaning (to use the more recent ‘Three-free’s’ description coined by Perry Else) a place that is free at the point of entry, where children are free to choice what they want to do, and are free to leave when they wish without waiting for an adult to collect them. As a model of community development it was very successful.
Keen to experience different types of playwork Marc also worked as an adventure playground worker (on the permanent playground that replaced the temporary one mentioned above), as a playbus worker on the double-decker Humberbus, and managing a drop-in crèche and playgroup before becoming the Training Officer for HCPA and eventually the Play Development Officer for a local authority.
Although no longer working for HCPA by the 1990s he continued his links with the association first by acting as Secretary and later as Vice-Chair. He also served on a number of other committee and representative groups including the Hull Play Council, the National Voluntary Council for Children’s Play (later the Children’s Play Council), and was as Chair of Humberside Playing Fields Association, and the regional body Yorkshire and Humberside Play Association.
Playwork is difficult to describe ... it is not child-care or early years work (but it does engage younger children) and it is not youth-work (although it does engage older teenagers too) and it is certainly not education or teaching (even though there are things ‘learnt’ on play settings). Put simply, playwork is about enabling children and young people to play by providing sympathetic and adaptable environments in which they can do so without the need for direct adult involvement ... it is not 'adult-led' or ‘child-led’ but ‘play-led’.
Playwork defines play as “what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests in their own way and for their own reasons”. There is no external goal or outcome expected in playwork and certainly nothing that is easily measureable. This is what makes it difficult to describe ... to truly get playwork you need to see it in action. It also explains why as way of working it sometimes conflicts with other forms of work.
For those not familiar with playwork consider reading the professions practical and ethical framework The Playwork Principles and visiting the websites of the four United Kingdom national play organisations Play Wales, Play Scotland, Play England and PlayBoard Northern Ireland. Playwork also has an International networking body the International Play Association.
The PLAYPEOPLE years
By 1989 Marc had gone free-lance and was working as a New Games/co-operative games player using the name PLAYPEOPLE – taking play seriously. He travelled around the country on his push-bike with a parachute, a duck-caller and a bag of tricks. His first official freelancing job was running a mass games session for participants at that year’s National Playbus Association rally in Bristol. There then followed a period of around eight years during which Marc played New Games literally almost every day – at schools, in play settings, at training events, gatherings and conferences, in pubs, clubs and festivals, and (during a number of long, hot summers) along the holiday beaches in Spain.
One of the regular PLAYPEOPLE gatherings during this period was the 'Invent-a-Game' session. The idea was simple: to bring playworkers, child-care workers, youth workers and teachers (among others) together at an evening or weekend session to discuss the practice and philosophy of game playing, share experiences and invent some brand new co-operative games from scratch. They were ridiculously popular and the 22nd and last invention session was held in Hull in 1996. Engaging with this broad group of workers sparked an interest in multi-disciplinary working, something which has continued to a strong theme of most of the projects Marc has been involved in.
After playing co-operative games so intensively Marc (exhaustedly) began to concentrate more on training. By the end of the 1990s PLAYPEOPLE was providing regular pre-summer playscheme training across the whole of East Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, parts of West Yorkshire, and also North Lincolnshire (see photo of training in York on left - his dress sense had not improved). At this point PLAYPEOPLE also had a structured playwork training scheme, 'Stepping Stones to Good Playwork Practice' accredited with the Open College Network with 20, 30 and 60 hour courses (and a 4 day Training the Trainers course) running at levels 2 to 4 in a number of colleges, play networks and community organisations around Yorkshire.
The various courses heavily promoted the importance of observation and the idea that to understand 'play' you need to understand 'playing' (play being the thing that adults theorise and talk about, playing being the thing that children actually do when not in the company of adults). This approach was heavily influenced by Marc becoming interested in the work of people such as Nino Tinbergen (1907-1988) who re-defined ethology as a model of behaviour research, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) who promoted the importance of the older child's influence on the younger, and Colin Ward (1924-2010) the educationalist and anarchist writer who promoted the idea that play is simply what children 'do').
The School Years
Since the early days working with HCPA Marc has had a particular interest in working with schools. The field playwork teams had noticed that some children were hesitant at coming to the newly set up holiday playschemes but would come in at almost the last minute. We thought this was because of a lack of confidence on their part and so the idea of the playworkers visiting local schools and spending time on the playground at lunchtime was tried out. Simply by being around, saying hello to people and occasionally playing some games children got to know the playworkers before the school holidays began and so tended to come to the next playscheme as soon as it opened. It was a simple idea and it worked well.
But there was a problem - teachers in these schools began to ask the playwork teams to engage more often saying that their children did not seem to know how to play anymore, did not know many ‘traditional games’, and that they needed to be taught. This was fascinating because it was clear to the playworkers on the school playground that this was not the case. An active interest in this subject led Marc to become more research focussed, first searching for and digesting previously available material but eventually filling in the gaps by carrying out specific research projects himself (much of which has been published in book form and in conference papers which are available on this website).
It led to a life-long interest in what children actually 'do' when away from the eyes of adults, attempting to understand the context in which it takes palce (such as with 'Upsidedown Girl' above) and reconciling this knowledge with the preceptions of adults. It seemed clear that any problems a school was experiencing at playtimes and lunchtimes was down to the quality of the physical environment and the access (or lack) of playable materials in it - not the people using it (more below in The Writing Years).
In 1996 Sproatley Endowed Primary School in East Yorkshire allowed him to experiment with some ideas for play development and school grounds improvement (see left, Marc in white jumper noticeably not holding a spade). This involved trying out various radical changes to the shape of the playground, including fixed play equipment in the grounds (things for climbing and swinging for example) and planting schemes in varying different ways and contexts. The important bit though was building into these developments a process of observation to see what effect these changes were having on what was being played, how and where. The result was the development of a model school play development process that continues to help schools in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries make their playtimes and lunchtimes a more enjoyable and effective period of the school day.
Marc continues to be heavily involved in the schools sector and the links between playing and learning. For example, in 2008 he delivered a tour of more than fourty full-day seminars in support of the then newly introduced Foundation Phase school curriculum for 3-7 year olds in Wales.
To date Marc has written more than thirty academic and conference papers, many of which are available on this website, and has been published in book form around a dozen times in Swedish and Dutch as well as English. Recent writing project include:
- Lessons of History: The Power of Taking Control, a 3,000 word article highlighting key events in the development of playwork in the UK since 1961 which will be printed in the forthcoming 50th Anniversary Special Edition of Play Rights, the journal of the International Play Association (IPA). New
- All about Mary: children’s use of the toilet ghost as a mechanism for dealing with fear. But fear of what? a paper in Contemporary Legend, the journal of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research detailing the common existence of ghostly characters in school toilet blocks. [see Publications page]
- Play Pods in Schools, an independent research report into a three year project by Bristol Scrapstore introducing loose parts to school playgrounds during the lunchtime period. [available to download on the Papers page]
The Next Twenty-One Years
Becoming free-lance twenty-one years ago was more accidental than deliberate but the benefits of independence have proved themselves over time. As for the next twenty-one years ... who knows?
At the time of writing (March 2011) the whole future of playwork in the United Kingdom is question following massive government cuts and distinterest (bit of politics). But one thing we can say for certain is ...
... he now looks nothing like he did in 1989 and no doubt he won’t be looking anything like he does now in 2031. Anybody taking bets?
Projects and Services Marc delivers include:
- Consultancy, Advice & Support
- Training and Education
- Independent Reviews & Evaluations
- Play Service & Playground Audits
- Speaking engagements
- Research & Development work
- Services 0-19 years