Youthwork; Learning to play again

Maybe its true after all. After all these years, after all the jibes and comments ” oh you’re a youthworker, do you do anything more than play table tennis with kids?”  in reality ive not played that many games of table tennis with young people – in fact the last time I did I needed knee surgery. But what is it about play – that youthwork might be about?

My reading this week has taken me to Hans Georg Gadamers Truth and Method,  in which he expounds upon the concept of ‘play’ in the context of ontology and art. In it ive been reminded of the variety of definitions or uses of the word ‘play’. As well as the ‘play’ in dramatics, theres the games to play, and also the metaphorical ‘play’ of two substances – ie play of gears/machinery, light or play on words.

Play is described by Gadamer to be a process by which a movement occurs between two objects or people (as in a game) which takes primacy over conciousness, indeed when its becomes intentional play is lost, it becomes a show. In that play there is movement, and counter movement, back and forth, the game itself masters the players. Will the occasion of the 2nd leg of the Middlesborugh vs Brentford play-off game get to the players  tomorrow , for example? If the game is played with too much risk – the play of the game is inhibited, the play of the game is also a deliberate choosing to play – by ‘wanting’ to play. The play of the game is a designated space, a space of regulation and boundary yet a space to play within nonetheless.

A person playing, according to Gadamer, comports him (or her) self from the purposes of the choosing and objectives of the game to the actions of participation of the game, the odering and shaping required in the movement of the game itself. Gadamer goes on to say that in playing the game, the Human self-presents as they perform within the constructed rules of the game, and as a natural correlation, “all presentation is potentially a representation for someone, that this possibility is intended is the characteristic of art as play” (2004:113), and in the closed world of play lets down one of the walls. For an audience, be it the theatre, or a sports ground, to play here is not limited to the self presentation, but also to point beyond themselves to the audience, who participate by watching – it is “representing for someone”

This aspect of Play – as self presentation and presentation for others (heightened because of an audience) is an important point in regarding play as a space ‘in between’ – going back to the original definition of play ( between gears, and so on). A play realises its ideal once its meaning is being absorbed by the audience. As, the audience ignores the individual self presentations, but loses themselves in the enjoyment of the whole play. “Artistic presentation, by its nature, exists for someone, even if there is no one there who merely listens or watches” (Gadamer 2004:114) – we the audience, becomes transformed within the structure of the play. If there is one youthworker in a forest and no one around – is there youthwork?

Over the weekend, there’s been a community production of Joseph, by groups of young people, adults and community groups in Durham, its been a play of Joseph, a collection of self and heightened representations and an audience that engrossed itself in the meaning, visuals, the essence of the overall play.

In the space between people – in the exchange between people – is that the magic of youthwork, or dare i say the educational play of youthwork?   we know youthwork by its definition can only exist with people- not unlike true play, it may also exist with an audience -in a club, with friends on the street – but not unlike play is it something that is less deliberate and informal – as when its tried to be created, it ceases to be ‘play’ or ‘informal’ any more.  To play table tennis with young people, is a safe space to disassociate with the world, to be reabsorbed in play – and within play to receive a new representation of the young person, in a chosen playful space.

The correlation between the art and play – according to Gadamer, should not be lost on those of us who consider youthwork to be an art, a philosophy, and it is largely this that the ‘In defence of youthwork’ campaign seeks to maintain.  Youthwork may have lost its opportunities to play table tennis when it brought in video games – but its educational, liberating relational play continues. Lets play at playing youthwork.




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