The very first major training day I attended as a new playworker in my home city of Hull in Yorkshire was a New Games training day with Howard, the face of New Games UK. This was the British arm of a world-wide organisation, the New Games Foundation. It’s fair to say that it came as a bit of a culture shock.
Howard was a bouncy, loud, colourful mass of hair, beard and enthusiasm for his craft. New Games, sometimes called cooperative games, are about a very particular way of playing that is centred on the relationship between the game and the people playing it. His two-day New Games training session included not just playing lots and lots of games but also explained the philosophies and practice of New Games, the way they were put together, the flexible nature of change that was inherently built into the games, the idea of the ‘play community’, and more. These and other ideas, to be quite honest, were mind-blowing.
It had been only a few weeks before that I had found myself in a noisy portakabin surrounded by polyester shirt wearing engineers in their forties contemplating whether or not I wanted to turn into one of them in twenty years’ time. I decided not. So I walked out of what was meant to be the start of a long-term career into the uncertainty of Thatcher’s unemployment queues.
This first playwork job of mine was part of a one-year government funded training scheme with a local organisation I had never heard of before called the Hull Community Playschemes Association. It was completely by accident. I simply had no idea what the job was except that it was ‘something about kids’ but I took it and after a short time I began to seriously question if I had made the right choice. The New Games training day was the first time I actually started to open up to the possibilities in this job.
Photo: My two battered, well-thumbed copies of the New Games 'bibles', original duck-caller (essential equipment for the player/referee) and my also original hand-typed games aide memoire dated 1992 (always in the back pocket, just in case of the imptomptu games session)
What surprised me more than anything else during the day was the apparently unseen effect it was having on the people taking part. Howard had explained that part of the aims of the day was to show some of the techniques of New Games as well as the actual playing: concepts such as creating the play community, game flow, game energy, game change – these were concepts and practices that went on to be the taxonomy of my every working day. Everyone there was completely enveloped in what was happening to them, totally engrossed and involved in the group and what they were doing … except me that is.
When listening to music I’ve always had a habit of listening through the rhythm to get to the pulse and the beat, concentrating on the back-end of the music. With theatre and film, I’m often looking at the wings and backstage instead of the action. I like how things work and even more I like how things are made to work, subtly, in the background, invisibly. So, I found myself being fascinated in what Howard was doing when no one was really looking. It was like watching a magician made all the more fascinating because the rest of the room was apparently oblivious to the subtle hand that was shaping the day. I was hooked.
The fascination of that day led to a long period of devouring everything I could learn about games and playfulness from the origin and history of New Games, the key originating names in the movement, the developers, the shapers. That led further to an interest in studying other forms of games ancient and modern adding a historical element to gaming and playfulness through the ages and in multiple cultures. I explored how people had used games, in what circumstances, what their effect had been and eventually this led to a period of about eight years of freelance, bicycle travelling games work around the UK and further afield providing a mixture of New Games sessions with children and adults, workshops on traditional games and toys, and training people in the techniques and practice of running their own games sessions. In effect, I became a Howard and in that eight-year period there was hardly a day went by without playing.
Photo: Me as a travelling New Games player around 1988 - and leave it! Those shorts were the fashion of the day.
For me, game playing became as much of an intellectual exercise as a practical one. For example, there has been, and still is, a long running debate on what constitutes ‘play’ and ‘game’: are they the same thing, do both perform the same function, is one a natural element of life and the other more contrived, is it a child only thing or does it involve adults too? These are questions that have been a deep topic for philosophers, folklorists, anthropologists and sociologists from Plato to Roger Callois via Johan Huizinga, Alice Gomme, Iona and Peter Opie, and others. To this list of notable names, we should add Bernie DeKoven.
Bernie DeKoven was one of those at the heart of creating what became The New Games Foundation, established first in the United States in the early 1970s and then spreading around the world. He was an instigator in what ultimately led me to that hot day in a school hall with Howard years after. What Bernie and others such as Stewart Brand, George Leonard and Andrew Flugleman managed to do was take that potentially dry, academic discussion about games and playfulness and make it playful!
These people became my heroes and, although they might not realise it, their philosophy behind playfulness influenced many playworkers of my generation and ultimately became one of the building bricks in creating the attitude behind playwork as the professional movement it was at that point in time.
I became a playworker by accident but I have remained a playworker by deliberate choice. It did not take long for me to realise that what I signed up to was not actually ‘a job’ – it was more of a lifestyle taking place within a very playful community of like-minded people. In part that might be just the nature of the job (providing opportunities for other people to play) but I suspect there is more to it than that. It is noticeable that those who seem to take playing seriously are themselves playful people; and that those of us who have been able to remain in this type of work for so long could credit being surrounded by this sense of playfulness as being an important part of our own personal journey. A journey that has made us the people we are today, personally and professionally.
I distinctly remember that work meetings and training days amongst our playwork staff were a joy rather than another day on the time sheet – they were fun, they were chilled, they were playful. Even after work hours the playing didn’t stop, and at conferences and gatherings and the pub after work this playful spirit thread its way through continuous game playing and silliness fitted seamlessly in between serious discussion and study.
Photo: sharing a coffee with Bernie in his local cafe in 2016 - I rank him as one the greatest influences on my working practice and a true hero-figure, which is something I don't say lightly!
If this is something you find difficult to appreciate through the written word, try this and you will get it: just go and watch any group of children and young people in their own company and watch the sense of playfulness breakout – constantly – including during times when it may not be totally appropriate. That easy community amongst friends and strangers that just seems to appear out of nowhere, that’s playfulness. Children seem to have it naturally and they find it difficult to switch it off. It creates laughter and smiles, true, but that’s just on the surface – below that, deep down below it is producing a timeless sense that everything is well with the world, that anything is possible and that friendships last forever.
It is we adults that seem to struggle with this concept possibly because as we grow older we become more conscious of ourselves, those around us and how others perceive our actions. We become more self-aware, easily embarrassed. In this context, to be playful seems to be about being able to recognise the innate, often unconscious desire to play, and consciously, actively giving in to it. Some people find this easier than others; many require a skilful individual to draw it out of us and relax the chains of self-awareness.
Yet can you imagine what the world might be like if we could maintain the natural curiosity and playfulness of our child-self through into our adult life and on to the end of our days? As a society of adults when we lose this sense of playfulness in everyday life, seriousness takes over. This is not a good thing and if we look closely we can see the effect of this lack of playfulness in our lives and it is not a positive effect. But it can be done. Bernie DeKoven has done it.
He was and still is the most playful person I know and his life has been full of being that skilled individual that allows playfulness in others to take-off. What made him a hero to a young playworker more years ago than he cares to remember and what keeps him being a hero to this day has been his ability to maintain this playful-self in everyday life. Can you imagine what the world might be like if our world leaders and the decision makers, the lawmakers and the doers succeeded in doing what Bernie has done? To maintain that inner playfulness, to work on it, build on it and more importantly encourage it in others to contribute to a broader playful society.
Imagine what that might be like - a world of genuine playfulness.
Bernie will be presenting a keynote address at the Second National Play and Playwork Conference in Melbourne, Australia on 24/25th March 2017. For more information about Bernie see his website www.deepfun.com
Since writing this piece, Bernie has left our world and gone on to take his playfulness elsewhere. He didnt make it to keynote our playwork conference in Australia as he was too ill to travel, and personally I didn't realise that that day sharing coffee with him would be the last time I would see him in person.
Vale Bernie DeKoven (15 October 1941-24 March 2018)