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  • Writer's pictureJill Wood

Playwork and Libraries

Next weekend, I get to make a presentation about playwork and child-directed play to a room full of librarians and early childhood educators. For a number of reasons, I’m really excited about this.

First, this room of people will bridge my two professional worlds, which is not something I commonly get to experience. I run a site-based adventure playground at a school in Houston, Texas. I identify as a playworker, someone who is trained in the UK-based professional model that supports child-directed play, often on adventure playgrounds, but also in hospitals, after school clubs, at recess, and in the forest.

I am also a school librarian, at the same school, and have the privilege of working with children, ages 5-12 for 45 minutes weekly, as they explore the shelves, build a relationship to literature, and seek answers to their bazillions of amazing and excellent questions.

A lot of people think these two worlds can’t be bridged because of the way the two spaces look.

Libraries with rows of neatly shelved books, categorized by fiction and nonfiction, by author’s last name, by Dewey Decimals. And adventure playgrounds, where children make their own decisions about how to spend their time and where to put things.

In a library you can get on a computer and often find out exactly where a book is located using an OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog). On an adventure playground you have to find the kid who last used a hammer and hope they’re willing to give you directions to where they dropped it.

But libraries are only designed the way they are because the categories and order make books accessible. And adventure playgrounds are designed and organized by children because that is what makes them accessible.  The two spaces are connected by something deeper than their appearance or system of organization. They are both environments that support freedom and exploration as defined by the individual, in the moment. They both meet people where they need to be met.


Second, many of my favorite childhood play memories happened in the library, so I have a lot to say about the topic. Starting around Kindergarten, my mom would take my brother and I to our neighborhood public library, set up shop at a table, give us a kiss on the forehead and expect to see us a couple of hours later.

I remember starting in the picture books, usually with Bill Peet, Bread and Jam for Francis, stuff I could find in my classroom at school, then wandering into the nonfiction section.

I would pull a book about stars and planets off the shelf, look at the pictures, want to learn more, and right next to the space book there were other space books! Oh, but nearby was the animal section and that area was the biggest in the nonfiction area. Marsupials aren’t just kangaroos, there are wombats and koalas, and there’s even one that flies with a baby in its pouch called a sugar glider. Why are there so many animals with baby pockets in Australia? Better go find a book about Australia.

Sometimes I would pretend to read books my older brother read, The Great Brain series or A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I could just hold them up to my face and people thought I was reading them. And then there was the adult section. So much naughty stuff, right there without supervision. The Robert Mapplethorpe book in the art section was a thing of legend, its location passed from child to child.

I would collect up piles of books and curl up on the cushion at the base of the bubble window in the children’s area. Sometimes I saw friends from school, and often I had conversations with adults – a college student wanting a break, a homeless person needing to tell a story, a welcoming librarian named Judy, who had very straight hair she wore in a bob. Just like a playworker, when Judy saw me in the adult section looking at anatomy texts, she kept walking past without a glance or a judgment. And when I told her the things I discovered about Australia or space, she always listened as if I were telling her the most interesting thing she’d heard all day.


Finally, there should be more child-directed play opportunities in libraries, because libraries are community centers and communities need play. Playworkers and librarians have quite a lot in common:

Both are service professions

  • Both provide tools for accessibility

  • Both trust individuals to self-determine and self-direct their activities and because of this, both provide environments for identity to be explored and found

  • Both protect individuals from censorship, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable

  • Both are ethically bound to protect human rights (right to play, right to intellectual freedom and privacy)

  • Both have to balance all of the above against the same rights of others, within a shared space

  • Both respond to challenges by providing more options and changing the environment, rather than restricting access

  • Both are guided by a series of principles, but catered to the needs of a particular community, making every library or play space unique.

And both librarians and playworkers are adept at defending all of the above, because pleasure reading and play are suspect in a culture that values activities with predetermined purpose and measurable goals. The internal journeys we take on the playground and through the pages of books define who we are, and who we would like to become, but they are the first to go when cuts are made to funding or time is short in a day. So we librarians do studies to show that intrinsic motivation is an essential component of literacy, and we playworkers lean on compound flexibility to justify the child-made nature of our adventure playgrounds, but we both know that our goal is to create spaces where people can experience what they are driven to experience, when they are driven to experience it.

“It’s funny that we think of libraries as quiet demure places where we are shushed by dusty, bun-balancing, bespectacled women. The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy and community. Librarians have stood up to the Patriot Act, sat down with noisy toddlers and reached out to illiterate adults. Libraries can never be shushed.”

– Paula Poundstone, “United for Libraries Forms National Partnership with Paula Poundstone”, American Library Association, July 2, 2009. (Accessed November 3, 2019)

[originally published by Pop-Up Adventure Play November 7, 2019]

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Jun 17, 2020

Hi Laura, How wonderful! I haven't seen anything else written, but I'll do some poking around. I'd love to talk with you, just to meet another librarian playworker, though!


Laura Dinosaur
Laura Dinosaur
Jun 16, 2020

I am also a playworker and an assistant librarian. Over the next year I will be asked to put on a regular event of my own design as part of my professional development. I would be interested to read more about this convergence and it's possibilities if you have any recommendations...

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