Dear Campference 2019 attendees,

Why do we attend conferences?

To paraphrase the 20th Century poet, T.S. Eliot: ‘information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.’ In other words, it is possible to have lots of information in your memory about a particular subject, but if you don’t know what it means then it’s worthless; and if you don’t know what to do with that information and knowledge then it’s largely useless. One of the great things about most playwork conferences is that they have the potential to provide all those things – information, knowledge and wisdom. There will be presentations offering hard facts about the world of playwork; and workshops run by experienced practitioners who can share their knowledge. To make the best use of the wisdom on offer we need to develop the art of judging the difference between those who offer wisdom and those who offer nonsense dressed up in the ‘emperor’s new clothes.’

Of course, the other great thing we get from playwork conferences is the opportunity to network, to make new friends, to meet like-minded people, to debate with those holding different views. In 2017 I attended the first Campference, where all those things were possible, and much more besides. It was organised by the Pop-Up Adventure Play people, and it involved not only the usual conference fare, but also the opportunity to camp out with the other Playworkers (and in some cases their children) at the Eureka Villa Adventure Playground in Val Verde, near Los Angeles.

That must have seemed like a good idea when the organisers thought of it – after all, who wouldn’t want to camp out in sunny California? Unfortunately, on the second day, the heavens opened and we had a month’s rainfall in one day. The site was awash, but the playwork spirit came to the fore, and in the end, it felt as though the event had actually been enhanced by the incredible weather.

However, the thing that particularly struck me about the Campference was the thirst for knowledge of the attendees. People came from all over America, and in some cases far beyond. I met playwork people from Japan, Australia, Kenya, and Guatemala. They came with enthusiasm and positivity, and above all an intense desire to learn more about playwork. At the end of one of the evening sessions, I was one of the Panelists who were given the task of summing up the playwork approach in a few words. I think the questioner probably expected me to fall back on my usual ‘fun, freedom and flexibility,’ but I had just been talking about the therapeutic aspects of playwork, and so I said “unconditional positive regard.”

Fraser on stage with Erin, Luke and Michele, the panelists at Campference 2017.

Fraser on stage with Erin, Luke and Michele, the panellists at Campference 2017.

In this response, I was drawing on the work of the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers and the play therapist, Virginia Axline. Humanistic theory would see the playwork environment as characterised by respect, understanding and openness on the part of the playworker – an environment where the child is free to express their feelings completely. In such an environment the role of the playworker is that of a selfless helper, whose task is to satisfy the child’s fundamental need to play, while at the same time developing warm human relationships.

All this may eventually enable the child to come closer to self-actualisation than might otherwise be possible. ‘Unconditional positive regard’ is the term that applies to the fundamental attitude of the playworker towards the children. The playworker who adopts that approach deeply values the humanity of the children with whom they work, and most importantly, cannot be deflected from that attitude by any particular child behaviours. The attitude is constantly reconfirmed by the playworker’s “acceptance of and enduring warmth towards the children” (Mearns and Thorne,  1988, p.59 – slightly paraphrased).

I hope this year’s Campference lives up to expectations, and that all those attending maintain ‘acceptance of and enduring warmth towards each other’ – in the spirit of playwork.

Prof. Fraser Brown
Leeds Beckett University
January 2019