The Power of Stories: Using Narrative Methods in Playwork Research


Play workers beware! We, who write this chapter, are visitors from the sister discipline of early childhood education who have been invited to contribute to the debate about playwork research methodology from our parallel perspectives and joint experiences: as early years workers (a teacher and a pre-school practitioner, before the name was coined); as trainers in colleges; and as academics who both research and teach. We do have some experience of play work through our mature students: our Foundation Degree courses have been open to both disciplines (but are, we admit, more heavily populated with actual and potential early years staff). This makes us aware of our different freedoms - for example, in terms of adult roles, children’s choices to attend and participate (or not) and scope of possible activities - and we will try to keep our didactic voices under control. But we do see similarities in the ways our professions have developed - through volunteering and self-taught mastery; the sharing of‘what works’ within communities of practice; the commitment to the future well-being of our children and young people; and shared frustration at the lack of recognition, status, pay and even job security in times of austerity when services deemed ‘play’ are low on governmental lists of priorities. It is this parallel history, together with our belief that play really matters, that underpins our claim to sorority.

So, what do we have to offer to the debate? We aim to make a meaningful contribution by sharing some of our experiences and ideas from our work within narrative and collaborative research traditions. Our views converge within these frameworks, although we arrived on separate paths and approach our research from different angles. For years, we have come together for mutual support and to learn from each other’s experience, to offer an insider-but-outsider viewpoint or become a willing mouthpiece or pair of hands when time pressures make practical support more useful. However, we are not relying purely on our own views of what is similar, what is different. Seeking a more knowledgeable perspective, we also carried out a small-scale research project using narrative interview methods to talk with members of a team of playworkers, and we will draw upon some of the information and views they offered, as relevant, throughout this chapter. As well, we will refer to examples within our earlier work when seeking to demonstrate particular issues.

About us: recognising the ‘I’ in qualitative research

Hazel is an interdisciplinary researcher (her studies and practices span the social sciences) who realised that her core interest has always been people and their lives. So for her, it was involvement in life history (or biographical) research methods that stimulated a later encroachment into broader narrative frameworks. She encountered the pluralities of visual and creative narratives (art, dance, film, theatre, music, etc.) and grasped how the observational skills embedded through a long involvement in early years practice could play a significant role when collecting verbal data. So often what we say or don’t say, how we say it and our general demeanour add clarity to the overall beliefs of the person(s) ‘in the frame’. For Hazel, the ‘story told’ is analysed holistically and in detail for its deeper meanings, in an active process that requires the interviewer to think on her feet and probe or gently challenge the hesitations, deviations and juxtapositions of ideas that jar the listening ear, an approach for which she later found justification in Hollway and Jefferson’s (2000) work Doing Qualitative Research Differently. To evidence on paper those understandings that arose beyond the actual words said, she learned to use the tools of conversational (Ten Have, 1999) and discourse analysis (Fairclough, 2013), and this will be further explained through a discussion of interviews with a team of experienced play workers that serve both as a direct contribution to the debate and examples for us to draw upon to demonstrate the points we would like to make.

For Paulette, the approach was somewhat different. She was an early years teacher whose research was embedded in pedagogic practice: one who quickly realised the benefits of reflective practice and since has found ways of seeing and knowing the work of practitioners and of using the stories that teachers tell within a broader narrative and action research framework (McNiff, 2017). Paulette’s early work was through case studies (Luff, 2009), based upon close observations and discussions of life and work in early years settings. This moved on to cooperative and collaborative action research, based upon a belief that careful enquiry is an important means to make positive changes, gain insights and knowledge and to express a viewpoint (McNiff, 2017). This is inspired by the arguments of Dewey (1929), who identified that educational research is intricately bound within educational action and must operate through teachers’ own planning, observation and reflective judgements. Paulette has used and supported action research in a variety of contexts - with childminders and other childcare professionals and, most recently, in an engagement between teachers in Essex and the Royal Opera House. In this project, teachers reported their experiences of experimenting with creative arts in their classrooms in the form of reflective

The power of stories 81 diaries. The quality and qualities of some of these descriptions of classroom practices and processes took her even further into an appreciation of the strengths of narrative as a means of creating and communicating a way of learning and, consequently, ensuring further and embedded change.

Together we find the narratives that we and our participants create are powerful tools for recognition and internalisation as well as for dissemination of the ideas each individual professes to hold. Reflection and action are also powerful learning tools so Paulette seeks to add a discussion about the purposes served by action research with a narrative slant to our overall debate. We carried out our small-scale research and initial analysis and drafting of this chapter with open minds and without prior knowledge of the four aspects of playwork research established in volume one of this series (King & Newstead, 2018) and were pleased to find them further validated within our data. It will be clear that ‘our’ playleaders (and we, the authors) work within a rights-based ethos, that we all value and use playful approaches and focus on processes rather than outcomes or products. We also concur that critical reflection is important and for us, it was a continual process throughout and after (supposed) completion of a project.

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