In the months leading up to Campference, we often found ourselves in deep email correspondence with folks who want desperately to attend but aren’t sure how. We want to help however we can, whether that’s talking through dietary restrictions or childcare, providing travel info or discussing work-trade options. By the time they arrive, nervous and excited to make their name tag (with a strip of sparkly duct tape and a Sharpie) to easy to feel like we’re already friends.
That feeling deepens through spending several days together, as we observe their experiences of making friends, meeting new ideas, and challenging themselves to grow in all sorts of ways. This reflection shows what an incredible honour this work can be. A big thank you to Katelyn Horn of Play-MO for writing this beautiful piece.

I was asked to write about my experience of the 2019 Playwork Campference, held this past February in Houston Texas. As with many things that involve strong emotional experiences, it is difficult for me put my little adventure last month into words. I wish I could weave a narrative that conveys the complexity of my thoughts and feelings but I don’t know how to do this in the space given. So instead, I will describe select scenes from our weekend and leave you to imagine the story of emotion that runs through.

4am Friday February 15th: At a rest-stop just outside of Little Rock Arkansas, halfway between St.Louis Missouri and Houston Texas:
I lie on the floor of my minivan, curled up in a tangle of blankets, feeling the heavy warmth of my five-year-old as he sleeps pressed up against me. It’s time to get back on the road. Caleb shutters awake and wordlessly climbs back into his car seat.

2pm Friday on the grounds of the Parish School in Houston: 
I pick a spot on the farthest edge of the campsite, next to the garbage bins and closest to the outdoor electrical plug. Caleb investigates the inside of a tent that is in the process of being erected. Alan, the tent’s owner, exudes a patient amusement. The tightness in my chest releases just a little.

3pm Friday on the Adventure Playground: 
One of the playworkers approaches me, gently suggesting I give Caleb some space. I acquiesce, heading off toward the keynote session. As I approach the edges of the playground, Caleb comes running after me with a cry of anxiety.

3am Saturday in a rain-soaked tent: 
Illuminated by the soft glow of my phone, I research nearby hotels to the soundtrack of Caleb’s persistent coughing, the rhythmic whir of the breast pump, and a gentle patter of raindrops on tent covers.

10am Saturday in the Parish School Library: 
Warm, salty tears slip down my face as I listen to Jill Wood’s keynote on playwork and neurodiversity. She describes the manner in which neurodiverse children can struggle to keep up with the ever changing play of their peers and the carefully considered, minimally invasive, maximally respectful interventions playworkers can implement to level the playing field. A swell of old fears and new hopes flood through my body.

3pm Saturday on the Adventure Playground:
Ali Wood and I stand together, silently watching as Caleb climbs into the clabbered-together train engine, voluntarily joining the small crowd of children that currently occupy it. Ali’s presence is warm and curious and the air around her is easy to breathe.

9am Sunday morning in the library:
Caleb evades my grasp, prowling the maze of tables, eyeing the many breakfast pastries sitting vulnerably on their plates. He snatches a giant muffin and runs out through the double doors. My embarrassment is mollified by the victim’s response of exuberant laughter — a laughter that still rings in my ears as the epitome of what playwork strives for: unconditional positive regard.

I justified the expense and hassle of the Campference as professional development for my aspiring role as president of a non-profit organisation bringing the Pop-Up Adventure Playground model and playwork discipline to St. Louis Missouri. Really though, I went as a mother searching for a people, a profession, that might help show her how to provide a truly respectful and supportive environment for her autistic son. I was not disappointed.

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Photo of AP by Maggie Fuller.
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By Katelyn Horn