International Playwork Census

International Playwork Census

Are you now, or have you ever been, a playworker?

Shelly describes the complexities of asking what should be a very simple question…

On the face of it, putting out a survey seems like a lazy form of research. Throw a few questions together and get other people to do the work, right? At least, that’s what I had hoped when I started to work with Pete on The Play Cycle project. I’d not been involved in survey research before, and to be honest it seemed like a bit of an easy option. Little did I know… (and don’t even get me started on data analysis, which we might get to in a later blog – if I’m very unlucky!).

The first stage in any research project is to confirm the research question. And that, frankly, is where the trouble starts with a project like the International Playwork Census. There is a basic research tenet that if you want to get the right answers (‘right’ as in ‘the sort of answers which answer the research question’, not as in ‘correct’), then you have to ask the right question. And asking the right question involves being very clear on the rationale for the study – in other words, why are you doing this piece of research? Exactly what are you trying to find out? Again, this sounds pretty simple – but put this question in non-research terms, and things start to get a bit trickier….

For example, if we take this statement – ‘I go to the shop to buy a bar of chocolate’ – the rationale for what I am doing seems pretty clear. I am going to the shop because I want to buy a bar of chocolate. Or is it? Actually, there are many other reasons why I might go to the shop to buy a bar of chocolate: maybe I am giving myself a reward for going on a long walk, maybe I fancy the girl behind the counter, maybe I need change for the parking meter…..The outcome might be that I buy a bar of chocolate, but my aim could be one of dozens of reasons for ending up with one. And my aim will affect not only what sort of chocolate I end up with (if I want change for parking, it will be a small bar of chocolate to give me maximum change), but also how I go about doing it (if I am buying chocolate because I fancy the girl behind the counter, I might limit my choices to the bars of chocolate right next to the counter so that I can spend more time chatting to her).

Or, to put it back into research terms – the rationale for the study and the research question affects the design of the study (how you do it/what you put in it) and the findings. Which brings us back full circle to this – that if you want the right answers, you have to ask the right question. And the first question for the International Playwork Census was – ‘why are we doing it’? From my original ‘mad idea’ in April 2019, it took Pete and I until the start of August to get the rationale and research question clear in our own minds. The emails from this period show a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, several misunderstandings, a healthy amount of disagreement, a fair bit of confusion and a large amount of relief when we finally settled on a very broad question: ‘What is playwork? Exploring the international playwork field from demographic data.’

(And yes, in case you’re wondering, I’ve kept all those emails – mainly on the grounds that all data is good data, but also because I’m a hoarder….!)

Armed with our research question, we then set about designing the survey – ie, deciding on the questions we wanted to ask and how we want to ask them (open questions, multiple choice, yes/no etc). Again, should be relatively simple – except that, as well as making sure that we asked the questions in a way which would give us the types of answers which would answer the research question, at this stage we also had to think about; ethics (there are some questions that are not directly relevant to our research question but have to be included to meet ethical requirements); how we will analyse the data (Pete is particularly good at thinking ahead on this, especially when it comes to what we can and can’t do from a statistical perspective); length of the survey (when is a survey too long to be achievable by busy practitioners and when is it too short to be useless?); as it’s an international survey can we make it available in other languages (the short answer is ‘no’, for reasons we might come back to in another blog), and so on. Finally Pete set up the survey on the Swansea University system (Qualitrics), which brought a whole new world of pain, but Pete can do his own therapy on a blog later on if he feels the need…

And then we did the pilot. Which was no small feat in itself – an international survey means that we had to find people in diverse countries who, out of the goodness of their hearts, would spend their ‘spare’ time having a go at what turned out to be a pretty rubbish pilot survey. Thankfully, the playwork field is blessed with nice people who are always willing to give something new a go (and forgive us afterwards) – and we were extremely grateful that they did. Because what the pilot told us was that we had originally designed the survey in a way which would never tell us the answer to our research question, ‘What is playwork?’ And the reason for this was basically that this very simple question has never been asked or answered in any satisfactory or comprehensive way before. This of course is why we wanted to ask it, but because there was no solid ground on which to plant the foundations of the study, we couldn’t define what playwork was, because that’s what we were trying to find out, and we couldn’t build on previous studies, because there were none. Or to put it another way, we couldn’t work out how to ask the question because nobody had ever answered the question, but we needed to ask the question because nobody had ever come up with a coherent answer.  Hmmm….

And so round and round and round again we went. Several more weeks of emails between Pete and I, during which I frequently had the ‘Superman’ motto running like a sound track in my head – ‘What is playwork – is it a bird, is it a plane?’ Is playwork a field, a profession, a practice…? Is it a methodology, an ideology, a philosophy? Maybe it’s all of those things – but when it comes to designing a survey, the point is that it can’t be, because finding out about each of those different things leads to asking slightly (or in some case, radically) different questions. Here’s just a very small snippet of some of the debates that Pete and I had, trying to bottom out this ridiculously complex question….  

Okay,  but if you are a play policy officer who recruits and trains playworkers, you could consider yourself to be a playworker, but it is not in the job description.  This just offers the chance for those who have trained and are playworkers to fill out the section for playwork as we ask for playwork related qualifications, and if they do section 1, we may miss this.  By putting in playworker and/or playwork in your job title, this offers the option to which way the participant want to go with the survey.

I’ve just read the third section (Q20 onwards) in the light of putting the lecturers, trainers etc in there as well. Having done that, I’ve still got two concerns about doing that: firstly, that some of the questions are very practitioner focussed (it is after all possible that some lecturers, trainers etc have never done a days playwork practice in their lives!), and secondly that we won’t be able to distinguish the answers from hands-on practitioners from the answers from lecturers, trainers etc (or is this covered in their job title at the start of the survey?). Can you look at this section again please from a lecturer, trainer etc perspective and just double check the logic of putting them together with hands-on practitioners? I could see that it might work but am now not 100% convinced…..

After much floundering about in the mire of playwork ambiguity and the constraints of working with pre-designed software, we eventually returned to our research question and reviewed our original rationale for doing the study. ‘What is playwork? Exploring the international playwork field from demographic data’ meant that what we were interested in was the people who were ‘doing playwork’ – who they were, where they were, and what they thought they were doing in the name of playwork. As it turned out, it didn’t matter what we as researchers thought playwork was – our study would (should, if we got the questions right) find out what playwork is by asking the people who are doing it. We also realised that we needed more than demographic data to fully answer the ‘what is playwork’ part of the question. Whilst demographic data might provide insights into who is working in ‘the playwork field’ on a global scale, it would not tell us what they were doing in the name of playwork. This would need a more qualitative approach to enable participants to describe their experiences and understandings of ‘playwork’ in their own words. Back to the drawing board with the survey questions then…..

One of the issues with collecting demographic data is that it’s fairly black and white by nature. ‘Where do you live’, ‘how old are you’, ‘where do you work’, ‘how long do you work for’ type of questions can usually only have one (or in some cases, one or two more) fairly definitive answers. The challenge with the International Playwork Census was that, in order to make sure that the right people were answering the survey – ie, those use playwork in their work – we had to start the survey with the right sort of question. My original offering, which I characterised as ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a playworker?’ turned out to be precisely the wrong sort of question. In discussion, Pete and I predicted that there would be endless variations on this theme – ‘I work in a women’s refuge and am not called a playworker, but I’ve read a couple of playwork books and try to apply what I read at work’; ‘I am a playworker and my role is to educate children in our nature club’; ‘Well I suppose you could say that, but I teach playwork in my local college and don’t actually work with children anymore’, ‘I work in Papua New Guinea and there’s no such thing as a ‘playworker’ here, but I trained as one in the UK and that’s what I’m using now in my nursery class’, and so on.  ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a playworker’ was likely to produce a lot of very confused data, which would mean that we would be unable to produce clear-cut findings about what sort of playwork is being done where and by whom.

Eventually Pete came up with the idea of using job titles to demarcate those who were using a  playwork approach in other job roles and those who were practicing playwork as the main part of their job. After much more discussion about how to ask that question, we chose this as a way of finding out the spread (from the demographic data) and influence (from the qualitative data) of playwork ideas and practices beyond those who were formally called ‘playworkers’. It would also allow non-playwork practitioners (eg, lecturers, owners of out of school programmes, assessors) to take part in the survey even though their face-to-face work with children may be limited. We hoped that this would produce much clearer data to allow us to compare different types of answers, rather than trying to guess or read meanings into data that weren’t actually  there.  A major redesign of the survey and its contents (which involved dividing the survey structure into two parts), plus another pilot, and finally, after over six months of dealing with complex philosophical questions, the intracies of survey design and software glitches, we launched the International Playwork Census.

The International Playwork Census has now closed. Thanks to everybody who took part – we will share further information from the survey once we have analysed the data.